Friday, October 26, 2007

Astonishing the Gods

"...very small and humble, and yet encompassing the world with divinity, was the quiet figure of the great mother." p.91

"the hall was suddenly abolished, its walls rendered invisible, and the new space was radiant with the appearance of a summoned being, the tender presence of the great mother, protectress of the island and its secret ways. The swirling energies of this being were everywhere, making the spaces alive with something akin to the electrification of the spirit, and a mighty collective hum of praise now seemed to have lifted off into the air, and the city seemed in flight. Such a splendid weightlessness pervaded everything, and all those in the great hall seemed to be afloat on a silver cloud, spiralling into the sublimity of the great mother. It wasn't long before he felt that something about him had changed forever in that celestial mood."
-Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods

Ben Okri won the Booker prize for The Famished Road.
Astonishing the Gods is a fable exploring deep metaphysical ideas.
Essentially Okri has written a new creation myth. The book relates the story of the soul's pilgrimage towards new levels of Self-realisation, the false conceptions which must be lost on the way and the guidance which is available to the seeker.
The protagonist is assisted on his path through the magical world by three guides who, though invisible, have distinct qualities: the first is a fatherly being who presents him with challenges to overcome and difficult concepts to grasp, the second guide is a child who instructs him through the medium of silence and imparts a sense of the wonderousness of the world when seen through the eyes of innocence, the gentle and compassionate third guide is feminine and leads him to a place where he can bathe and purify himself before entering - if he wishes - a palace in which exists a state of utter silence, a complete absence of sensory experience. A state akin to the non-experiential states reached in deep meditation
The three guides recall the Gnostic Trinity of Father, Son and Mother Holy Spirit; analogous to the Hindu Holy family: Shiva, Ganesha and Parvati. To the seeker these universal archetypes represent the qualities of Self-awareness, Innocence and Grace, without which he cannot reach the goal.
Invisibility and Egolessness
The hero becomes aware of an invisible spiritual world of which he is also a part. This invisibility is associated with an erosion of identity, not so much in the negative sense of self-abandonment, but in the positive sense of release from the limiting ego. He finds himself on an enchanted island - a symbol of the psyche in many mythologies and a favourite abode of Lord Shiva, who represents the Self. He discovers that there are gradations of invisibility or egolessness that 'shaded into the eternal, the infinite' and the more 'insubstantial' the sense of 'I'ness, the 'mightier; a being becomes. However, the ego resists the threat to its own existence posed by the unknown of apparent oblivion beyond itself. This is illustrated in the book by the ordeal of the bridge across the bottomless abyss which one must cross despite the fact that it appears to be made of thin air, and the faster one tries to cross the bridge the less distance is covered. In a similar manner, the ego resists our attempts to overcome it, becoming stronger the harder we try.
The perils of failing to become what one can become
The first of the guides warns the hero of the dangers of ignoring the Self, telling him: "You will become the statue of your worst and weakest self". The words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas convey a similar sense of the urgency of Self-realisation at the present stage of evolution; it is not something we can take or leave: "That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. That which you do not have within you will kill you if you do not have it within you".
The Self is blissful to those who surrender to it, but terrifying to those who cling to the ego. Shiva, the Supreme Self, is all-compassionate, but also takes the form known as Rudra, the destructive aspect of the Divine. His pleasant consort Parvati may take the terrific form of the goddess Kali.
The Eternal
The first guide introduces a new concept of time as something which appears to the human mind to move but remains still. We learn that the civilisation of the invisible inhabitants of the island is founded upon "a permanent sense of wonder at the stillness of time". The anthropologist Joseph Campbell once said that, according to Eastern philosophy, Eternity is not distant in time and space, in fact it has nothing to do with our notions of time and space. The one who achieves a state of Self-realisation is beyond time and space.


Anonymous said...

Hi there, loved this blog entry. I have always loved Ben Okri for bringing these fundamental questions about our existence into so-called "high culture" or literature. This is definitely my favourite book of his.

- Alexa L. from Australia

jeronimus said...

Thanks Alexa. My favourite too. It was one of the books that inspired me to try writing for myself.

Anonymous said...

One of the most profound and beautifully written books I have ever read...several times now, because there are new ideas and descriptions that impact me at different times.

jeronimus said...

Yes, I feel the same way about it.