Continued from last Sunday:
MG: So you’re saying that you didn’t simply use them as fictional characters. You took the real men and drew out of them ideas and aspirations they unconsciously already possessed. How does this relate to the landscape which also seems to have an influence on their unconscious selves?
WH: Well, the forest and the river and the mountains have such layers, such possibilities, such probabilities I should say, that to discover those is to go deep into the land itself. So I wasn’t imposing anything on the land. I was bringing out of the land what was available as I could sense it. Perhaps there is more available. These men who died (in the novel) are seen at the end of the novel on the balcony of El Dorado, the Palace of the Peacock. They die but also live as witnesses to the collective unconscious, to bring this paradoxical truth home to the reader. It is the collective unconscious that is at work: the quantum situation in which we find ourselves.
MG: Now that takes us into the question of quantum physics, the new physics, and the concept of parallel worlds. We’ve heard of the experiments where a particle was discovered to be itself and at the same time something else, a wave. Shot at phenomenally high speed at a screen the bullet makes not one hole but two. It’s a scientifically measureable, but inexplicable phenomenon. This is a concept that appears in your work, especially in the later novels. Tell us something about that.
WH: Yes. You find the quantum variation in Jonestown, in the pre-Colombian novels, in Tumatumari, in the Four Banks of the River of Space, in Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. On the way, as each novel develops, it takes different shapes.
MG: Earlier I mentioned Robert Nadeau’s Readings From the New Book on Nature. He’s a teacher of English at the George Mason University (Virginia, U.S.A). He said, in the early 1980s, that modern novelists needed to take into account the new quantum physics so as to fashion a new conception of metaphysical reality since the old, traditional concept of metaphysics was no longer valid in the light of the new physics.
WH: Well that is so, because when you fasten on one concept that seems to be so absolute and so precise you tend to link it with everything.
MG: But what Nadeau is recommending to writers is what you have been doing all along. Since you’re not a scientist, though you began as a surveyor, how did you come upon the idea of the quantum element of complementarity in the writing of fiction?
WH: I came to the idea of a quantum reality through the kind of landscape I was dealing with. You had trees, rivers, cliffs, human beings, waterfalls and you had various opposites in them. There were opposites in the land, in the rivers, in the waterfalls, and in order to write about this I had to find a method which I later discovered was a quantum reality. At the time when I wrote Palace I knew nothing of quantum physics. Later on I used the idea consciously, since I had already opened myself to it. It runs through all my novels.
MG: Well, you were there before the event. The New Physics has simply caught up with you. But then creative artists have always been at the frontier of human development. The critics follow, always several steps behind. In 1969 Denis Williams once remarked that it would take a very bold person indeed to write a critical exegesis of your work. It’s good to see that critics have indeed had the boldness to make the attempt. The late Hena Maes-Jelinek’s 30 years of outstanding critical work on your novels has produced a fine body of exegetical work. The number of excellent articles and reviews that have emerged from all over the world keeps growing. So the work goes forward.
Wilson can you tell us something about the way you work as a writer?
WH: Well I first write hundreds of pages, and then I revise and revise, cutting down the hundreds to 100 or perhaps 120 pages. Two hundred at the most.
MG: What’s the physical process of the writing? Do you use a computer?
WH: No. I don’t use a computer at all. I write with a pencil or a pen on paper. Then I have to work out what I’ve written because some of it is a bit tangled, you know, from writing swiftly.
MG: You must be one of a very few writers, or people in general, who actually use pencil and paper. You don’t do ‘automatic writing’, do you?
WH: What does that mean?
MG: That’s writing which comes unbidden to a psychic receiver from the spirits or the Muse. Apparently W.B. Yeats’s wife had the gift, so Yeats encouraged her to be a ‘medium’ for the Muses of poetry. Once, when she was in a séance with the spirits, he told her to ask the Muses why they had come. She did, and her pen wrote the words: ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’. (laughter ) It’s a good story, but I don’t suppose you’ve had such visitations, have you?
WH: I don’t know if that’s what happens in myself. I know that voices speak to me. But I wouldn’t call that ‘automatic writing’. When I write the voices speak and tell me certain things as I write.
MG: . . . and do those voices have any particular qualities or characteristics?
WH: Oh no. It’s a voice that comes up out of myself, but I’ve found that it brings me information about which I know nothing. So then I write it down and work on this again and revise again and look for clues. Some of the things I might normally discard are clues. So I have to look at those clues and work on them and extend them. That’s how I worked.
MG: You said that you have now finished writing. The energy you used to use for it has gone. Was that energy something like the voices you’ve just spoken about?
WH: Perhaps. I don’t know. I would say it’s the collective unconscious. But the collective unconscious attacks the conscious realm and both are working together, in a sense, because the personal unconscious may bring things to you too. I remember my Grandfather teaching me to read the face of the clock. This was years and years and years ago. I can still see that. That is the personal unconscious, but that will fade. When I die that will fade. No one else goes with it. If anyone else does, it will fade from that person as well. The collective unconscious is quite different. It is a concrete entity or matter that roams and picks up bones all the way back to Pre-Colombian times. That will continue in various ways through different people. That isn’t personal. That’s universal. It has a reality as concrete as consciousness itself and this is what we fail to understand. That’s why Anton Ehrenzweig in his book The Hidden Order of Art says that the psychology of the unconscious is still unwritten. We think all the time in terms of deliberate things, conscious things, of planning things, plotting things. Those are all conscious designs but they can be attacked by the unconscious. This is something we need to understand.
MG: Is this conflict between the conscious and unconscious what’s being played out in The Ghost of Memory? The ghost in the painting seems to take the role of the collective unconscious attacking the man who calls himself Christopher Columbus below the level of his conscious mind and his identification with his hero, the great explorer?
WH: Yes, but the Ghost also appears to be real. His phantom limbs are hidden. He is dressed exactly like the figure in the painting. He is introduced by George as an actor, playing a part. So there is actually a play on the idea of an exchange between personal consciousness and the collective unconscious. Chris Columbus is fooled by George and Andy into thinking the ghost is just an ordinary person addressing him. But the ghost represents the collective unconscious which emerges and has to be seen to be real in order to be accepted and listened to. What are we to make of people who emerge and play important parts in our civilization? Where do they come from? They emerge because they must when the time comes for them to emerge.
MG: Are they then perhaps part of the nameless collective unconscious?
WH: Take the stars in the sky. Which we name. Those are our names for them. They are not names that came with the stars.
MG: In one section of the novel there is a giant, bowl-shaped Olmec head in which a baby is nestling. The hope of the future? Is that why you introduced the child?
WH: The child may be the hope of the future, but this is what Tiresias, in the novel, says about it: (reads)
‘ I sense that Man may have leapt by evolution into his calculating,
psychological Brain but he is, as you put it, in a state of extended childhood.
…Until he can make another leap from Childhood into virtually impossible
maturity, he will continue to clothe his vulnerability with Childhood fantasies
of parochial rightness, parochial narrowness. He stands on the borderline
between the animal and the divine, the animal Child and the divine possibility
of a true maturity. This is hope in the city of mourning.’ (Ghost, p. 45)
MG: Well it’s a bleak picture, given present world events, but as The Ghost of Memory suggests, there is always the hope of change.
Wilson, It’s difficult to draw to a conclusion in our interview. There are so many trains of thought still to be followed, so many questions still to be raised. So it is a conclusion in which nothing is concluded, where every question is left open to further exploration. Perhaps that is as it should be, since it reflects the nature of your own work that continually raises questions that ‘the narrative’, as you put it, ‘attempts to answer in implications on the immensity of the journey of life’ (author’s note in Ghost, p. ix).
Congratulations again, Wilson on the award of a knighthood by the Queen.
WH: Thank you
MG: When does the investiture take place?
WH: In October. Of course, it is very unfortunate that my beloved wife, Margaret, to whom I owe so much, will not be there. As you know, she died in January this year.
MG: Yes, Margaret would have been very happy at the honour you have received. Wilson, thank you for sharing so much with me and with others who will read this interview. It has been a pleasure and a privilege.
2nd July 2010
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