You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Ben Okri’ tag.

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

1.

I want to be there when it comes.

2.

To be precise, I want to be there in the moments before it comes. I want to be a witness, but also a willing participant, engaged and alive. Breathless.

3.

It’s about darkness, the house a subterranean cave. My eyes are open, but there’s very little to see. It’s about the near-perfect quiet. It’s no good when, for whatever reason (an exhausting social event, a rough night’s sleep), I wake too late and the house is already filled with light and noise. No, that’s not right. I want to be walking around my home, going from room to room, opening curtains and blinds to the black and the stillness and the quiet.

4.

Toni Morrison knows about this. In her Paris Review interview, the novelist recounts how a colleague told her about her writing routine. ‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual.’

5.

How morning – the break of dawn – does that: it enables us. Allows, facilitates, permits, makes possible. We enter the day, and the day enters us. We don’t know how the day will unravel, not really. We can hope, we can have expectations; there will be things we want and need – food, companionship, success, acknowledgment, reward. Or we might let the day simply (or not so simply at all) unravel. We’ll see what happens.

6.

Artists – all kinds of artists – are good at seeing what happens. In fact, they are the best at it. They see what happens, understand what happens; more importantly, they know what happens. And what happened – past tense. And what might happen – the vital future. What might happen to our lives? What might happen to our relationships? What might happen to our places, to our environment? Our environment: the natural and the ‘man’ made: are we screwing it over, are we losing our way, are we not listening, are we not seeing the signs? These are good questions. These are the questions good artists ask.

7.

Ben Okri writes, ‘The artist should never lose the spirit of play. It is curious how sometimes the biggest tasks are best approached tangentially, with a smile in the soul. Much has been written about the seriousness with which important work has to be undertaken. I believe that seriousness and rigour are invaluable, and hard work indispensable – but I want to speak a little for the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit. Playfulness lightens all terrifying endeavours. It humanises them, and brings them within the realm of childhood. The playfulness becomes absorbing, engrossing, all-consuming, serious even. The spirit warms. Memory burns brightly. The fires of intelligence blaze away, and self-consciousness evaporates. Then – wonderfully – the soul finds the sea; and the usually divided selves function, luminously, as one.’

'The secret content of our lives is terrifying' - Ben Okri

‘The secret content of our lives is terrifying’ – Ben Okri

8.

Oh isn’t that astonishing: ‘the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit’. I can see that here, I can feel it, I can hear it. Laughing, warbling magpies, singing for the morning, or for each other, or just because they can. Ripe soft fruit in the grass: red and green and orange and yellow. Fresh lawn like blades or spikes. ‘The importance of precious ground.’ A fat black chook, comb upright and ready – very generously, she’s keeping our tea warm. ‘Wake up! Who’s for tennis?’ Seashells like spoons – cutlery for a picnic? Begging bowls for everyone, or they could be new ways to hold better ideas. Broken maps for buried treasure, except the map might be the treasure itself. Shadows casting both inwards and outwards – the miracle of this and that and more. A confluence of roadways: ‘Mirrors and memories, all tied together.’ A dead parrot; or it’s sheltering from the storm. ‘Barking up the wrong tree: LOVE AND PEACE, NO WAR.’ A rolling, patterned meadow; microscopic skin. Eggs like eyes; eyes like eggs (‘a world within’). A dark gift. Rejuvenation. ‘These plates have no instructions.’

9.

Toni Morrison has more to say. ‘I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular … Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’

I suspect you know what Morrison means.

10.

Ben Okri has more to say about this as well. ‘The reality of what we are doing to one another is explosive. The secret content of our lives is terrifying. There is so much to scream about. There are great polluting lies and monsters running around in the seabed of our century. The river within us has become more frozen than ever before. We need much more than Kafka’s proverbial axe to crack the ice and make the frozen blood of humanity flow again. Something is needed to wake us from the frightening depths of our moral sleep.’

I suspect you know what Okri means too.

11.

My eyes are now open; they have been opened for me. I can see differently. I feel new, renewed. I feel deeper, bigger, better, brighter. My breathing is strong, powerful, potent. There are images – ideals, realities, opportunities – that I will carry with me for days, years, decades, until the end. The light is magnificent. It’s almost blinding.

12.

I want to take this art work with both hands. I want to hold it, embrace it, kiss it. I want it like I’ve never known before.

13.

I am awake.

*

Acknowledgment
This creative essay was commissioned by Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre as a response to the 2014 Accredited Professional Members show, called ‘Awaken’.

References
Philip Gourevitch (ed.), The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 358 Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997) 22, 52

Note
Section 8 of this essay includes quotes from artist statements by Judi Elliott, Morgan James, Nikki Main, Luna Ryan and Nancy Tingey.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of 'The Famished Road' and 'Astonishing the Gods' is onto something, he really is.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of ‘The Famished Road’ and ‘Astonishing the Gods’, is onto something, he really is.  His collection of essays, ‘A Way of Being Free’ (1997), is a book I turn to time and time again.

‘True artists are wiser than we think.’

‘Creativity, it would appear, should be approached in the spirit of play, of foreplay, of dalliance, doodling, messing around – and then, bit by bit, you somehow get deeper into the matter.’

‘There is a touch of blessedness in the art of writing.  It is sometimes interesting, while writing, to be occupied by the mood you want to render and to let the mood find the words.  This assumes oneness between you and your material, a quality of grace.’

‘The best kinds of books have a delightful mystery about them.’

‘Creativity should always be a form of prayer.’

‘The mystery of storytelling is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds.’

‘It should be clear by now that it is you, great readers of the world, who are at the root of the storyteller’s complex joy.’

‘Storytellers ought not to be too tame.  They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.’

‘When we die in life, it’s much easier to watch others dying too; it’s much easier to murder the dreams of others, to poison the stream of their lives, to poison their innocence, their love.  When we are dead in life we don’t notice when little miracles die around us before our deadened gaze.’

‘The enemies of poets are those who have no genuine religious thinking.  To be truly religious does not require an institution, it requires terror, faith, compassion, imagination, and a belief in more than three dimensions.  It also requires love.  Religion touches us at the place where imagination blends into the divine.  Poetry touches us where religion is inseparable from the wholly human.  In heaven there could be no poetry.  The same is true of hell.  It is only on a sphere where heaven and hell are mixed into the fabric of the mortal frame that poetry is possible.’

‘There are many ways to die, and not all of them have to do with extinction.’

‘Writers are dangerous when they tell the truth.’

‘Writers are also dangerous when they tell lies.’

The Sydney Opera House - an example of great simplicity in action (as well as great complexity)

The Sydney Opera House – an example of great simplicity in action (as well as great complexity)

New year resolutions aren’t really my thing, beyond preparing a list of what I’d like to achieve in writing – read better, write better, submit more, do more creative journalism, make sure to enjoy it all, that kind of thing, which I say to myself every year.  However, on a recent drive south, good music on the car-stereo, a hot hot hot sky and landscape and potentially catastrophic summer conditions all around, it came to me quickly, a list, three words: simple, good, imaginative – that’s the kind of life I want to live.

Simple

Life, given half the chance, will always complicate itself, because it is random, chaotic, and formless.  Being someone who likes a bit of routine and order, I find that keeping things simple helps to keep me on the straight and narrow.  So, simple finances, simple goals and expectations, even simple house-furnishings.  Of course, this is often easier said than done, because to reach a point of great simplicity takes a brain that can traverse great complexity.  Consider the Sydney Opera House: a simple idea, a simple structure; but what extraordinary technical skill to make it all a reality.  Still, a simple life is the one for me.  If I can manage it.

Good

What is good?  Something that enhances life?  Or perhaps simply (huh!) doesn’t diminish life?  Is good nice?  Not necessarily, and probably not.  Is it generous, honourable, thoughtful, loving?  Yes, it may well be all these things.  Is living a good life the same as writing a good story?  I’m not so sure – is it good that Brett Easton Ellis gave us American Psycho (1991), a novel that’s about how not to be good?  Yes, it’s good that we have that work in our world, but not in the way we think.  Perhaps a good life is one in which that person and the people are around that person feel more able?  I’ll run with that.

Imaginative

At first, the word on my list was ‘creative’, but a creative life can be nothing more than making handmade birthday cards, which is inherently a good thing, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for.  Imagination seems to me to be more all-encompassing.  It is an imaginative act to write a story – in every possible way.  But it also requires imagination to solve a particularly complex household maintenance issue.  Or to resolve a financial matter.  Or to mend a broken friendship.  Imagination may also be required to approach the design of one’s life in new and exciting ways.  In an interview I did this week with literary blog Whispering Gums, I referred to something Ben Okri wrote in his magnificent collection of essays A Way of Being Free (1997): ‘The imagination is one of the highest gifts we have’.  He really is right.

What are the key words for you this year?

Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

Oscar Wilde said it was useless.  DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze.  Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky.  What are they talking about?  Art and writing, of course.  But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper?  Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary?  Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.

The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia.  Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common.  You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror.  And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world.  But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us.  Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb.  But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.

So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day?  Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers?  Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child?  Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’  Possibly.  There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.

The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art.  They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean.  Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common?  Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes.  If you take drugs, you take risks.  There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins.  Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).

Why can’t artists stop?  What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?

Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict.  In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense.  Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.

Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert.  But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert?  Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film?  We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts.  Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times.  Record and communicate, make and tell.

So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures.  Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive.  And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing.  That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life.  Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.

It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.

*

This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003.  Not much has changed huh?

Directly behind me is a 100,000-person city. Really.

Courtesy of the Launceston City Council, the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, pictured above, is my home for the next four weeks.  For those not familiar with this neck of the woods, Launceston is a small city in the northern part of Tasmania.  Between Tasmania and Antarctica is…well, nothing except a shitload of ocean.

The 120-year-old Kings Bridge Cottage is perched on the side of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff overlooking the South Esk River.  From where I’m sitting, if I look to the right I may as well be in wilderness because all there is to see is dark brown deep water and bush-covered valley walls (with the sound of rapids not far behind); but if I look to the left, there’s traffic scurrying across two bridges and further back the red-roof clutter of the Launceston CBD.  So this humble cottage (though it’s not really that humble: four times a day cruise boats glide up and down the river, the passengers snapping away at this architectural miracle, so I stand a distance back from the windows in case I look like a caged animal) is a gatekeeper in more ways than one.

Why I am here?  Because the good folk of the Launceston City Council have the generosity and foresight to offer their gatekeeper’s cottage to artists who not only want to progress a particular project but are also willing to engage with the local community.  Which means I have a responsibility to write and to connect.  (I have decided that while I’m here I will write everything – even blog posts – by hand, meaning handwriting.  For those who’ve had the great misfortune of experiencing my illegible scrawl, this will be quite an achievement, if I can pull it off.)

But that responsibility of writing.  It has me thinking of a quote by Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road.  ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take use out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt while they were alive (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead), and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (A Way of Being Free, 1997)

So here I am, in a 120-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage perched on the edge of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff, hoping, by heart and hand, to bear witness in my own way to the beauties, ordinariness and horrors of my time.

It sounds so bloody grand.  And hard.

Oh Christ, what have I done.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 175 other followers