(for Ben Okri)
By Rajneesh Narula
(Another in my occasional essay series)
Most of my opinions are flexible, despite my somewhat arrogant and forthright way of expressing them. When I look back on my life, I realise that a large number of my strongly held beliefs have undergone drastic revision over the years. But one belief has survived largely intact: Reality is highly overrated. Furthermore (as I have said before) Reality is subjective, and the truth even more so.
That I have difficulties with accepting reality should be patently obvious to you, my beloved friends. The reason I have survived so long without loss of sanity is that I limit my exposure to the outside world. Not by choosing to engage in pharmaceutical recreation (although I did briefly experiment with this alternative), but by deliberately choosing the extent to which I interact with it.
Apart from the sheer chaos and hopelessness associated with the goings-on in the global milieu that drain any sense of optimism that I might have, I also discovered (very early on) that I have a unbridled talent to be cheap, petty, and materialistic. When I get absorbed in the rat race that is humanity, I lower myself to the lowest common denominator. I seek to ‘win’ at all costs. I refuse to be anywhere but at the ‘top’. I am an embodiment of Darwinian processes of natural selection. Once drawn in to compete, nothing is too low. I descend into a primordial creature that stops at nothing to keep up with the Jones’s. In other words, when I covet, I covet until its saps all my strength, either plotting means to get there, or worrying about why other people are in the race ahead of me. I now go to great lengths to avoid competing with anyone but myself.
Jealousy, be it known, is different from envy. To illustrate by example, I secretly envy Wole Soyinka, Vikram Seth, Grahame Greene, Chinua Achebe, Emilio Montale, Paul Durcan. I admire their talent. I desire to shake their hand, to fawn all over them. I am a fan. They are all-round role models. In my next life I should like to be like them. Shoot, in this life I’d like to be like them. But I do not actively seek to emulate them. I know that nobody will ever compare my penmanship to theirs, because we are differently talented. I would consider it flattery. In my youth I did try to write poems like Soyinka, but all that ever resulted in was what was obviously a knock-off, an imitation. I am not he (true confession: Soyinka began my love affair with poetry. One poem, and I was hooked at 12). Likewise, with Ben Okri. I have – until now – admired his talent. I have read his books with awe, and I have felt regret for never having explored this part of my pseudo-Nigerian heritage. But I have not sought to be like him. I do not wish to be like him. To paraphrase a wag, whenever I have come to the fork in the road, I have taken the other one.
My recent encounter with Ben Okri’s essay collection, A way of being free, however, changed everything. Instead of the passive, largely cute and un-clawed green-eyed monster that is envy, I was suddenly host to a livid yellow and completely un-cuddly creature with fangs. I read a paragraph and had to stop, speechless, experiencing a sense of abject failure interlaced with malice and hatred. My envy and admiration had mutated into jealousy. I tried again, picking another essay at random, with much the same result, although now complemented with shame and self-loathing. It has taken a whole 3 weeks to plough through this book, requiring superhuman will not to fling the book to the furthest corner of the room. It is an irrational feeling: I know I have descended to a lower form of life, and my rationality wishes me to go and hide myself in a dark hole and cower, but my irrationality demands that I lower myself even further. It demands that I say nothing, that I deny any knowledge of this slim (but brilliant) volume. The fewer of my friends that read this book, the less the possibility that they compare my work unfavourably with his. I must seek out and burn every copy of this book in existence. I know this will not make a better writer, nor will it make more people read my efforts, but this does not matter.
This is what happens when I am wracked by jealousy: it is an unattractive, ugly emotion. It reflects unfulfilled or frustrated or unrequited passion. Jealousy is underground lake of lava that froths and bubbles below the surface unbeknownst to anyone, waiting to vent itself, to burn to a crisp the object of the jealousy. Jealousy, dear friends, leads to coveting. That is, to desire something that belongs to another. In this state, I desire to possess Okri’s powers. If not that, I desire that he loses his, even if it does not do me an iota of good. See, folks, the power of my irrationality. Talent, after all, is not a limited resource. After all, even if Okri became miraculously ungifted, this would not result in me being any better of a writer. This is what happens when Jealousy is actualised, metamorphosing into coveting.
Do not, unsuspecting reader, feel for one moment superior. Do not exclude yourself. Jealousy has been around for aeons. Once simply has to flick through the bible to see how jealousy can really screw up a good thing. Poor Joseph and his Technicolor raincoat almost got the chop because of it. Lots wife suddenly became a condiment. But jealousy itself – as with money – is benign. The real culprit is the coveting thing. As again the bible well illustrates - Biblical figures were really into coveting their neighbour’s ass, thereby getting into all sorts of sticky situations with both Jehovah and the neighbour.
Reality does not make me covet my neighbour’s ass (yes, I am aware of the double entendre). Jealousy does not either. It is but a small step, however, to go from silent jealousy to full-scale desire and a suspension of one’s values. We descend to new levels of deceit, cunning and guile in the effort to convert another persons assets to ours, and if that effort were to fail, to deprive them of their use. If it cannot be mine, it should not be yours either. All it takes is a very small nudge to turn the lava lake into a disaster. This is the story of Othello and Iago, so authoritatively and exquisitely re-interpreted by Okri. This is also the story of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of all the pogroms and slaughters in man’s shameful history.
Stories, it is true, Mr Okri, can carry us forward. But it is a shuffle – two steps forward, one step backward (if Okri is right). Humanity is fundamentally flawed. I do not share Mr Okri’s optimism that words have the power to save us. I believe every word, every emotion, every appeal, no matter how eloquently told (and written) by us, for us, about us, can indeed touch a few, some, or even one, but in the face of our collective powers to forget and reinterpret things to our own advantage, the essence of this stock of wisdom rarely moves us forward.
Mr Okri, nature is beautiful, but human reality is ugly, because it reflects humanity, and our greed. We as part of nature are capable of beauty, because we are part of its evolutionary processes. Evolution means survival of the fitter. But Humanity within itself, amongst its own kind is driven by less-than-evolutionary principles which are actually Machiavellian. We seek instead– and this distinction is important - the survival of only the fittest, and we are willing (often) to do anything necessary in the pursuit of this goal. We claim to be civilised, but we operate – because of our powers of jealousy and coveting – in a fashion that can best be described as guaranteeing mutually assured destruction. We profess logic, reason and compassion, but our actions and our pettiness reveal our true nature. We act always as if to say, there is only one right way, and it is mine; only one of us can survive, and if it isn’t me, it sure as hell isn’t going to be you.
It is not, however, my intention to argue that words are futile: I would not be writing this if I were convinced of this. Words do live on, not always as signposts for our salvation, but as warnings and celebrations of our unwarranted optimism. We must dream, we must write, even if we do not heed as a species, even if only one person hears, because truth (however subjective) is our only protection against our self- destruction. As Mr Okri beautifully puts it, ‘it is not the size of the voice that is important: it is the power, the truth, and the beauty of the dream’.