A journey towards self-knowledge
When I asked Ben Okri what was more important to him, intellect or intuition, he told me he was against that sort of dichotomising: ‘Without one, the other really cannot exist. We need to reach a new level of synthesis, which is what I am trying to achieve with The Age of Magic.’
This is Okri’s latest work, his first novel in seven years, and it tells the story of a film crew making a documentary about the idea of Arcadia, while travelling to the real Arcadia in Greece. It’s a slim, cool book filled with familiar Okri ingredients: aphoristic pronouncements, high cultural concepts, visions, philosophy and fairytale. When I say fairytale, I mean that The Age of Magic, in its Swiss setting, its references to elemental beings such as trolls, gnomes and sprites, Virgil’s Arcadia and Goethe’s Faust, is as conversant with European lore as The Famished Road is soaked in the stories of Nigeria.
While the famous earlier work is wild, at times lurid, dealing with the extremes of poverty, and popping with ghosts and monsters—looking through the eyes of the spirit child Azaro is trippy—the Age of Magic is, by contrast, spare, restrained and full of spaces. The first chapter is a good example. It consists of a single line: ‘Some things only become clear much later.’
A friend suggested I read Okri early last year, before either of us knew he was visiting Australia. She’d listened to my fear that, after publishing a few books, I was stuck. A respected editor had rejected two novel manuscripts. Despite my determination to ‘take it on the chin’— rejections can shape a writer—I was knocked more deeply into self-doubt than ever before. The fabric of the cosmos still flowed around me, carrying ideas like beautiful flotsam always just beyond my reach; and I was reminded of the famous dream of Jung’s patient, where the gold is encased in rocks.
‘Read Starbook,’ my friend advised.
So I began Starbook, and read about a tribe of artists, ‘dealers in mysteries’, who seem to live in some mythical, pre-literate epoch. A work of art, a sculpture that ‘wreaks havoc on the mind’, appears among them, and they read this as a sign that ‘the gods had somehow abandoned the people’. This strange new sculpture heralds the end of an age.
A sage ties himself to the ‘infamous and sinister work’ and refuses to eat until he understands it, by which he means to understand himself. The sage dies, after declaring he must not be buried until someone has ‘pierced its mystery’. This desire to pierce the mystery is the shift from innocence to experience, or from a wild mind to a cultivated mind that is aware of itself, and informed. It’s Luther shaking his fist at the Church and declaring there’s no priest between us and God; it’s Schiller’s youth tearing the veil from the statue of truth at Sais; it’s Stephen Hawking saying that his simple goal is a ‘complete understanding of the universe’.
I later discovered a similar phrase in Okri’s collection of essays A Time for New Dreams: ‘To know the impossible knowledge. To conquer unconquerable realms. To pierce the veil of the forbidden, the obscure … This is the ideological DNA of the myth of Europe.’
A powerful aspect of this ideology is the notion of the individual. There comes a time in every story when the individual must remove the social mask and find what Yeats calls ‘the antithetical mask’—that which belongs to one’s own possibilities and stands against conventional social scripts. Joseph Campbell says in An Open Life that it’s the unique, individuated path that is the core difference between Eastern and Western mythologies. In the East, the student submits absolutely to the teacher in the law of their tradition, unlike the Grail quest, where King Arthur’s knights thought it would be a disgrace to seek the Grail unveiled in a group. Instead, each knight ‘entered the forest he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest’.
In The Age of Magic, the film’s producer, Jim, tells the poet Lao how he summoned the Devil by following an ancient ritual. The Devil, who is seductive beyond belief, appeared in Jim’s house in Kent:
He was the image of the most successful, the most famous, and the most youthful person you can imagine … his conversation was exquisite. I had never known before that conversation could be one of the ecstasies of life … I would have done anything for him.
Jim, however, is too ordinary to be of interest to this fascinating Devil. He doesn’t have enough potential for either good or evil. His soul is too mild, his will too ordinary. Jim acknowledges this, but adds that he would dearly love to surprise him.
Implicit in this description is the inverse of Jim’s experience. What if you weren’t too ordinary? What if you were enough like the Devil—youthful, famous, successful, charming, brilliant, exquisite, with capacity for extreme good or evil—to earn his interest? Who could resist?
This seems to me to point to another Western phenomenon, what it is in us that craves approval, even adulation: the inflated, and yet undeveloped, ego. Sometimes in our quest for admiration we fill ourselves endlessly, and cultivate habits of thinking that obscure what is wild and original in us.
Starbook is elusive. Perhaps it’s the lists, the repetitions, the quality of a guided meditation into visions that are of a different nature to those of The Famished Road. The more deeply I read into Okri’s body of work, this is what I’m discovering; that while there are shared hallmarks, each book that I’ve read is remarkably ‘all of a piece’. When I asked him about this, he said:
It’s not that ‘anything goes’ in my writing, but I have a logic in each of my books which I follow, and I let it lift to its natural place. I follow the logic of each work rigorously, and I follow it in every sentence of that work. So there’s great rigour, but there’s great freedom at the same time. It’s a very strange combination.
Each book has its own spirit, each book has its own tone, each book has its own voice, each book has its own internal structure, you know, I have to find the structure of each book. Even if the book is there but somehow the structure is not right, then the book doesn’t work.
So there must be a corresponding reading of each book to match those tones. One evening, about a third of the way through Starbook, I grew impatient. I craved something more lively, a narrative with more forward propulsion, a puzzle to unravel. The story, with its feeling of a founding myth, was so quiet, so ruminative, that it had slowed to a stillness that my sanguine mind found disquieting. I laid the book on my chest, stared at the ceiling. The book irritated me. Even the lush stream of images that I’d so enjoyed was feeling too smooth, too easy. What was I in dialogue with here? And then, with a ping on the skull, I recalled a radio interview I’d heard a few years ago, with psychologist Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Divided Brain. He’d been saying that the left hemisphere of the brain—the academic and logical side—always seeks to dominate. I seemed to remember something about the left side of the brain being cocky and wanting to take over the world. I checked what he had said:
The problem is, the right hemisphere seems aware of its limitations and more tentative while the left hemisphere doesn’t seem aware of its limitations. It’s a bit like the sorcerer’s apprentice, it thinks it’s got it all and it hasn’t actually quite got it all.
Here, I felt, was a clue. My attempt to pierce the mystery of Starbook was drawing attention to the tangled judgements in my own thinking. There was no puzzle set out in the text to distract me; the puzzle was in myself. I’d been forgetting what I had learned as a teenager from the poet John Keats, who posited the world and the human as being of infinite depth, and defined ‘negative capability’ in a letter to his brothers as the capacity of being in ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.
There were at least three strands to my inner knot. First, I was thinking too hard about everything. Second, my own ego was dragging on my creativity; I’d allowed in some desire for approval, always fatal to the imaginative impulse. Finally, I was judging my thinking: it was never brilliant enough. On my bedside table was Bruno Bettelheim’s seventies classic The Uses of Enchantment. Another psychologist, he argues that children need fairytales to resolve conflict and evolve consciousness. Flicking through the pages, I came to ‘… in traditional Hindu medicine a fairy tale … was offered to a psychically disoriented person … through contemplating the story he would be led to visualise both the nature of the impasse … and the possibility of its resolution’.
We arrive at our destination before we arrive at our revelation, according to Mistletoe, a character in The Age of Magic. The film-makers, en route from Paris, pause in Basel. In this hiatus, faced with the still, cool beauty of lake and mountain, they find their own inner demons stirring. Lao wonders whether madness is an essential aspect of reaching Arcadia:
In Virgil’s Eclogues, one of the primary texts that shaped the idea of Arcadia, there is a sinister intuition. Something in the landscape of Arcadia creates inner disorder. Some of the dwellers in Arcadia are haunted by madness and extreme passions. This had always bothered Lao. He was never sure why madness lurked among Virgil’s shepherds.
At dinner, Jim discourses on the nature of the will, and how nothing gets done without this ‘force that turns dreams into realities’. Lao tells Jim that will-force can never be more than the engine, and what matters is the driver. Jim goes on, citing example after example of how will makes the difference, saying that great art is only produced through a kind of Faustian pact, life force in exchange for life work. Will is life force. At this, Lao smiles. ‘His intuition had been right. Jim looked at him expectantly, but Lao remained silent …’
Okri never spells out Lao’s intuition, and when Jim eventually finishes, Lao says that his speech has ‘echoes of the Nuremberg rally’ and ‘leads to some pretty unpalatable places’. He then says: ‘There is something higher and more powerful than will. It is more fundamental as a civilising force. It contains will, but is greater. And it is indestructible.’
Although everyone waits for Lao to announce what this is, he never does. When I ask Ben Okri about this, he says:
The will is a stater of things, a stater of intentions. What Lao is hinting at cannot be stated. It can only be intuited or deduced. So the rest of the book from that point is a working out of Lao’s own alternative to will. And I work on that principle in the book a lot, where the key things are suggested but not said. But they are there in the book.
Okri had to work hard to find the right structure for the novel, which he describes as a sort of ‘constantly broken structure, of short paragraphs’. Yet the feel is not broken. The short chapters are like stanzas of free verse, as smooth and clean as stones in a river. While it’s an easier reading experience, at least for me, this novel is as elliptical in its own way as The Famished Road, Starbook and another of Okri’s mysterious novels, Astonishing the Gods. There is joy in reading these riddles that speak to cultural ideas we have grappled with for centuries, made fresh by Okri’s touch. In his essay ‘When Colours Return Home to Light’ from A Time for New Dreams, he refers to the warning shaped by Euripides, that if we deny the immeasurable mysteries we will ‘dwell without wonder’. And he again refers to Faust, who has
exhausted all knowledge, secular and arcane, and explored the nebulous extremes of magic. The desire to know, the desire to master, seduces him into an immortal pact with Mephistopheles, a pact with his own soul, written in blood. Faust is European, but so also is Mephistopheles.
In our profoundly secular era it is something of a shock to have a writer talk about the living, breathing reality of fairytales. Okri has said that in Europe the presence of these things is gentler than in Africa, which is why the tone of The Age of Magic is less exuberant than The Famished Road. When asked in a radio interview whether we block off a supernatural element in the West, he replied:
I think reality is much wider, much vaster, much more ambiguous than we think it is … There is a lot more that is possible in reality that we haven’t given a name to … I think it’s time in fiction that we affirmed that we are a mixture of the real and the invisible. We are more mysterious than we allow ourselves to think we are. I just want to restore a little of that dimension.
This has made it difficult for critics to categorise Okri. His mysticism is not to every-one’s taste, and some find his writing verges on indulgent. In a piece for the Observer, Ben Brown comments on the lack of cynicism and knowingness in Starbook: ‘the ironic, the distanced, are remarkable by their absence’.
Similar criticism was levelled at The Famished Road. The book lacked postmodernism’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and did not problematise an evident belief in something ‘ahistorical and transcendent’, according to an article by Douglas McCabe. A Telegraph review of Starbook asked if Okri had ‘lost touch with reality’, or perhaps more accurately, the conventions of realist literary fiction.
There is a fascinating cultural dogma at work here. If an artist’s work is at odds with, or outside, our age, another category must be invented for it. This makes our left brains more comfortable; we’ve wrapped it up, we’ve got it placed. Enchantment belongs to some other genre: fantasy or magic realism, while spiritual homilies belong to New Age literature—though you might get away with it if you are postcolonial and Nigerian. I’m tempted to label Okri’s work ‘post-materialist’, but who wants to be post anything any more? When can we turn the corner and make our way towards something new, perhaps towards Goethe’s prophecy that when times change, science and poetry may meet again ‘on a higher level as friends’?
In any case, Okri himself has rejected all these monikers. As critic Robert Fraser points out, the prefix ‘post-’ can never account for an author who stresses the immemorial roots of his work. When Fraser asked Okri what he thought of the magic realist school, Okri said it was all right, but then ‘… you know what it amounts to in the end?’ With weary tolerance he droned down the telephone line the quaint but repetitious melody of Ravel’s interminable Bolero. When I ask Okri how he’d like to be read, he says, ‘Slowly. Slowly, with great attentiveness and openness, with a free mind, and a brave heart, and a sense of unlimitation.’
Reading Starbook was, weirdly, like reading images that related to my stuck condition. The nameless prince and his world of ash with a ‘light that was no light spread evenly over everything’ seemed to describe what it is to be uncreative. Okri begins The Age of Magic with a conversation between Lao and a nature spirit called a Quylph. We don’t meet the Quylph again until the book’s final pages, when Lao catches a glimpse of it:
Seeing it was not something he could will … And that in trying to see he only failed to see. Then he had an even stranger notion, that there is a whole world he was not seeing because he was looking; and that whole world … came into being when he was not looking.
When the Quylph vanishes, Lao misses it, and ‘he misses the way he had to be in order to see it’. Okri is describing here a spiritual state, and a way of seeing. It’s also a pretty accurate description of the ungraspable place creativity streams from; the place that analytic thinking can chase away. Okri believes that we suffer from ‘a kind of pathology of a belief in evidence. That’s where the trouble is. Whereas the poetic mind sees the secret links between language and the world. The poetic is mysterious. The poetic is liminal. It’s seen in the margins.’
How we are affects what we see, or as Blake has it, ‘the eye altering alters all’. The eye sees what we teach it to see. When a monk in the fifteenth century takes a walk and says ‘the air was thick with devils’ he is not using a metaphor but describing the world as he finds it. According to McGilchrist, ‘We don’t see things if we don’t expect them. We cannot see them if they don’t form part of our world picture.’
Okri’s work has made me reconsider how my own personal impasses are affected by the way our culture is always teaching me to see, and with habits of mind so deep it’s difficult to stand outside them.
A friend recently told me the famous story of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who ‘discovered’ quaternions while walking across Brougham Bridge with his wife in 1843. Like most inspired ‘Eureka’ moments, it hadn’t happened without a context. He’d been searching for years for the solution to his problem, and then the whole solution arrived unbidden, not through the left brain, which had been working hard the whole time, but through the right. The mathematician was forced to scrawl the solution into the bridge with a rock so he would not forget it: the left brain desperately trying to make sense of the gift before it vanished. Hamilton would later say it had taken years to build the rational capacity to discover the concept, then it would take years to unpack and refine; a striking example of how intellect and intuition must pass through one another.
In his essay ‘A Time for New Dreams’ from the collection of the same title, Okri says we must reconnect to the values that were ‘so important to the birth of our civilization, but were lost in the intoxication of its triumphs’. In Okri’s vision, the glitter of knowledge without wisdom is little more than a seduction that leads to death, and material success ‘has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy’.
So now that we have taken a blowtorch to the idea of sages, bards, holy fools, seers, what is left in our cultural landscape? … What is missing most is the sustaining power of myths that we can live by.
In The Age of Magic a character called Jute is gazing out at the beauty of the Swiss lake at night, recalling a moment in her childhood when an angel flew out of a book she was reading and she told her mother about it. She’s met with such scorn that the angel vanished, and that was ‘the end of her belief in the magical’. She hears a voice urging her to jump over the railing:
For a moment she glimpsed the tranquillity of oblivion … She would leap like a dancer. She would die in the dark loveliness of lake and sky. She would seize the best opportunity in her life for the rarest of blessings, a happy death. She felt the coldness of the railings as she began to climb, but a sudden wind with the fragrance of roses blew in her face. With an effort of will she stumbled back from the edge.
The evening that I put Starbook aside, after reflecting on the uses of enchantment, I lay back on the pillow and switched off the lamp. What I wished for was someone to continue reading it to me as I went to sleep, letting the flow of images unlock the playful, untrammelled part of the self that can dream its way towards freedom.