Thursday, September 4, 2014

Astonishing the Gods

The great market at Tlatelolco - part of a mural by Diego Rivera
Ben Okri

He marvelled at the dreams, and at how clear they were. He marvelled at the people who had risen, as if from a millennial sleep, from the ocean bed that had been their home. And he was filled with wonder at the great and enduring beauty of the new civilisation they had built for themselves in their invisible spaces. They had built it as their sanctuary. It was the fruit of what they had learned during those long years of suffering and oblivion at the bottom of the ocean. They had built a fabulous civilisation of stone and marble, of diamond and gold. They had constructed palaces of wisdom, libraries of the infinite, cathedrals of joy, courts of divine laws, streets of bliss, cupolas of nobility, pyramids of light. They had fashioned a civic society in which the highest possibilities of the inhabitants could be realised. They had invented mystery schools and rituals of illumination. They had created an educational system in which the most ordinary goal was living the fullest life, in which creativity in all spheres of endeavour was the basic alphabet, and in which the most sublime lessons possible were always learned and relearned from the unforgettable suffering which was the bedrock of their great new civilisation.

He was stunned by the beauty of their eternal sculptings. Their paintings were glorious: they seemed to have reached such heights of development that the works imparted the psychic luminosity of their artistry in mysterious colours, concealed forms, and even more concealed subjects.

Awed by their majestic festivals, astonished by the infinite ways in which everything done in the civilisation was touched with wisdom, and inspiring of passionate delight, he found himself soaring in the dreams of this mysterious people.

He had never been so happy as he was in the great dreams. His joy was so intense that he became aware of himself in the air, invisible, a pure vibration of bliss, a bird of light. And he wondered how long he would exist in this beatification before he would find himself falling back towards the stones of a familiar reality.

He had hardly completed this thought, floating above the dreams of the cultivated hills of serenity, when he felt himself falling. He was falling through the air, with the beautiful visions drifting away from him. And his fall was so strange that when he found himself on solid ground, standing there as if he had never made a single motion all his life, he was completely surprised.

He did not have to look to know that the bridge had become solid again.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon - imagined by French architects in 2016
It was the closing phrase of that opening paragraph (Part One, Chapter 11) that made my choice for me, once having recognised that this book by Okri simply had to be included in this collection: "the unforgettable suffering which was the bedrock of their great new civilisation". The Zero Positive incarnate in the first half, the Immaculate Failure in the second.

Here, rarity of rarities in the age of the "bonkbuster" novel, here was an artist of language, a man sincerely trying to write what was genuinely worth the writing, and hence the reading; each phrase, each fragment, polished to the smoothness of a diamond, yet still lethally sharp. 

Reading it, I felt as never before, that here was a book I might have dreamed of writing myself, and quite probably did. He seemed to have created a realm not unlike my own Kingdom of Alphalia; and it was intensely familiar, right down to the gables and cupolas, as though he had read my book, finished but unpublished a decade earlier. His notion of "invisibility" mirrored the "non-existence" of Yakov Baritzchak, as his unnamed pilgrim was guided through the metaphysical realm, journeying towards substantiation, or apotheosis, or both. 

"Each man," Borges has written, "creates his own precursors". Was it possible that Okri and I could have created the same precursors, independent of each other's dreams? 

Or had we simply stirred the same common pot, and found that ambrosia has only one, infinitely variable but still unique taste? 

For the vision was Blake's, yet it was also no more Blake's than was the crossing of the bridge into the city Dante's, nor Gibran's in "The Prophet"; the sense of falling was and was not Alice's down the rabbit-hole; the sublime civilisation was as much Thomas More's or Erasmus' as it was the glories of the ancient Aztec cities of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tepanec so gorgeously recreated by Diego Rivera. The bridge in Chapter 6 was and was not Kafka's Door of the Law. The city was and was not Swift's floating island. The mysticism was neither Christian revelational-apocalyptic, nor Buddhist. The tone of voice was neither Marquez nor Calvino. Yet it was all of these, and none, and many more.

These paradoxes are and are not Borgesian. The resolution – in which the Magister Ludi ennoble the pilgrim, initiate the discoverer – owes nothing and everything to Hermann Hesse, just as the philosophy of eternal becoming which is the story's true guide derives entirely from sources of which Nietzsche was completely unaware. A book is merely a compendium of all its influences, and still original – and it is perfectly possible that Okri has read none of the works which appear so ghost-like in his text. 

In "Astonishing the Gods" Okri has achieved the ultimate possibility of literature: the creation of the structure for a dream which each of us, his readers, must enter and complete alone, both within the tale, and beyond it; a book which requires its reader's imagination (something that film and television deny us), just as much as it does its writer's, a book that inhabits Shangri-La, but also requires each of us to invent it in our own way through the act of reading.

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