We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation on our planet right now.

As much as we need the expertise of scientists and environmentalists to guide us toward a sustainable future, we also need the insight and imagination of artists and writers who utilize their sensitivity and skill to break through our collective denial and illuminate the deeper truths of our current predicament.

The award-winning novelist and playwright Ben Okri issued a call last winter for “existential creativity,” a new mode of writing that responds to the extreme truths of our times. As Okri wrote in the Guardian, “We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and to the fact that we can still do something about it.”

On Earth Day 2022,  for the final event of Tricycle’s weeklong Buddhism and Ecology Summit, I had the pleasure of sitting down in conversation with Okri and the Zen priest and author Ruth Ozeki to discuss existential creativity and the role of the artist in a time of crisis. In an electric exchange, Ozeki and Okri discuss the truth-telling function of writing, the relationship between art and meditation, and how we need myth, symbol, and spirit in order to address the collective crises of our time.

—Carolyn Gregoire

Something I love about your work is the way both of you integrate the spiritual, the symbolic, and the mythological with the everyday and the material. You’ve said, Ben, that the problem with realism is that it doesn’t capture the full richness of reality. And Ruth, in your work the everyday is permeated with a spiritual awareness and Zen parables. What do you think about the power of myth and symbol in communicating these deeper truths about reality?

Illustrations by Yann Legendre

Ben Okri: I’ve always felt that realism is much less than reality. We need to demote the term “realism.” It actually refers to a kind of sub-realism. What we call realism is a heavy investment in the surface of things, the visible aspects of things, the structures that we’ve accepted. But if you look at the traditions that exist around the world, you will see that the great realist texts do not even begin to hint at the possibility of a world vaster than that which can be described by realism.

Realism is not only a diminishment but in some ways an outrage against the possibility of the human spirit. When I grew up as a writer, one of my key challenges was to mount a sustained attack on what realism is doing to our perception of the world and our perception of one another. It reduces us. It really does. If it weren’t for the special incursion of great modernists like Joyce and Woolf, the dimension of the inner world would not have been admitted into the surface of texts. Homer and Virgil, the epic of Gilgamesh, Hamlet, Faust, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Norse sagas, and the Upanishads all bore witness to the fact that a human being is a continent; a human being is a universe. We have dimensions to us. And if those dimensions are taken out of play, it makes it easy for us to be manipulated. It makes it easier for us to be taken down this road to “deserts of the heart,” to borrow a phrase from Camus.

I think one of the ways we’re going to be able to deal with what’s happening to us—the environmental crisis and various forms of injustice in this world—is by redefining what it means to be human.

As long as people are seen in a narrow context, it is very easy to dehumanize them. The minute you put the vastness of what it is to be human back into the picture, it’s a bit harder, because you’re dealing with a human being who is just as rich and complex and wonderful as you are. So the dimension of myth is crucial in dealing with the climate issue. Our ancestors understood this; it is the reason why they had forests as gods. They gave rivers names. It was a way of getting us to appreciate the fact that these are forces to be respected in the highest sense. It didn’t occur to them to pollute. Why would you pollute a river that you’ve raised to the level of myth? You wouldn’t do that. So you kill off the myth first. Then you can pollute the rivers. It’s easy after that.

Illustrations by Yann Legendre

Ruth Ozeki: It’s so true. It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. Thank you for that. I was raised very much in a realist tradition, and that was my conception of what literature should be. At the same time, what I found myself yearning for was the literature of Gabriel García Márquez, the literature of the fabulous. I thought it was impossible for me to write myself, but in my more recent work, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do. And I never really quite understood why I was trying to do it.

But I think you’ve just explained something to me about my own development as a writer that I hadn’t quite understood. At the end of my first book there was a line that said something like “Maybe sometimes you have to make things up to tell truths that alter outcomes.” In other words, we need to make things up first before we can make change happen, and we can’t do this alone. I think this is the vital function of the imagination—that we can create worlds and inhabit them and invite people into them, and that inviting in is such an important part. That’s what we’re trying to do as artists, as writers: to initiate a conversation between ourselves and the people who are reading our work. That kind of collaboration, that reaching out and making connection, is also part of the magic. That’s part of the enchantment, to be able to share that.

BO: Ruth, you’ve talked about living with ignorance and denial, which is something that I’ve been struggling with as well. How do you write into that space, into that mindset? What does that do to your art?

I think this is the same problem that the great spiritual teachers faced, whether it’s Jesus or Buddha: How do you awaken? How do you remind people about what they already know, but about which they go on living in willful blindness?

“What we need is a richer, more complex worldview in order to be able to do the kinds of things that need doing.”

RO: Ignorance and denial are self-protective mechanisms. They’re something that we slip into when the world is overwhelming and we need to simplify. We need to not see. So ignorance, the choice to ignore, becomes a coping strategy, and it’s a very easy choice to make because it’s marketed to us constantly. We’re quite literally buying into it all the time.

What you’re describing is a kind of cognitive dissonance, I think, between my very comfortable life here and what’s happening in the rest of the world: I’m in my room, and I have a very nice computer, and I’m talking to you, yet I know what’s happening outside. I know. How can I reconcile what I know with the reality that I am sitting in right now? It’s the opposition between those two states, the duality in Buddhism, that causes a kind of cognitive dissonance that ignorance and denial can help soften.

There’s enormous tension and discomfort in holding those two opposing notions in the mind, which is why most people turn away. I know I do, too. It’s just too much.

To look at this through a Buddhist lens, what strikes me is the bodhisattva vow, and particularly the second line: “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.”

This is an interesting vow, because what it’s doing is recognizing the paradox. It articulates the paradoxical tension between the two opposing states in Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” from his Prison Notebooks. We understand that delusions are inexhaustible, and while that might normally lead us to a kind of pessimism, we instead vow to act optimistically to end them. We vow to do that even if—and perhaps because—delusions are inexhaustible. Somehow, thinking of the world in that way—having a model to engage with the world in that radical, nondualistic way—resolves the tension a little bit. That’s been a guide to me in writing recently: to be able to create a fictional world that can clearly see and hold those dualisms in a nondualistic way and invite readers into a space where they can do the same. In a way, this is selfish, because for me it’s also about creating a space where I can sit and hold this paradox myself.

What we need is a richer, more complex worldview in order to be able to do the kinds of things that need doing at this point. This is just a way of describing an “either-or” mindset—which is a kind of flattening mindset—or a “both-and” mindset, which is a larger, more all-encompassing and all-inclusive mindset. That’s what I’m trying for in my writing.

BO: Here’s a fascinating problem: We don’t want to know. Yet that which we don’t want to know is going to fall upon us if we don’t know about it. So not wanting to know is hastening the very thing that we don’t want to know about. Except that we will then know about it in a way that is much worse than being told about it. It’s a terrible paradox. Every year, all the various institutions tell us about the escalating environmental conditions. We know these facts too well. Every year, these facts become more frightening. We have heard of islands that have been submerged. We are aware that water levels are rising. We know there’s desertification spreading in Africa. We know the temperatures. The other day, I read in the newspaper that it was raining fish somewhere in America. There were photographs of it. We know all kinds of strange and bizarre things that are happening. We don’t want to know, and yet they’re coming. It’s like being in a house and the water level is rising, and you don’t want to know. Every time you don’t want to know, it’s risen two inches more, and then a foot more.

existential creativity climate
Photograph © Richard Misrach; courtesy Pace Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles

You’re speaking to the capacity of art to break through with the truth of what is. Another incredible writer, Terry Tempest Williams, joined us earlier this week and said that the arts also have to lead the way in holding a vision of where we’re going—that we’re dreaming reality into being. Do you agree with that? Should artists play a role in finding solutions? Does a writer have a responsibility to show us the way? Is there some moral obligation to hold an optimistic vision of the future that we can all move toward?

BO: I don’t know about that. I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that the artist ought to give solutions or provide an optimistic vision. Again, let’s take the analogy of the room. You’re in this room and the water level rises two inches. Here I am, here Ruth is—we’re artists, and we’re telling you who are in this room about what’s going on. Now, if I say to you with an optimistic vision: In the future, it’s going to be great. We’ll get through this, we’re human beings, we’re amazing. We’ll get through this—meanwhile, I’m seeing the water rise another two inches. And you’re saying that the artist must say I’ve got to come up with a vision of how to deal with it. Well, that is asking that the artist not only be the one who tells the stories and creates the conditions by which we can be aware of what’s going on but also be the scientist or the environmentalist who has all those specialist skills—someone who actually has the answers. I think it is unrealistic to ask for all those things in a single person. I think the solution ought to come from all of us. It cannot be solved by one person. It can only be solved by all of us, working together.

I’m not even sure that having the answers is actually art, when posing the questions is what art does best. I think answers are dangerous things for artists and for writers. We frame the conundrum so that it is clearest. We draw attention to the scale and nature of the problem. We pose the questions so that human beings—all of us, because we’re all in this together—can bring our combined intelligence, will, presence of mind, creativity, intuition, and sense of community to solve this problem together.

Our job as artists is most powerful when we bring you to the most intense realization of the unavoidable truths of the situation. That’s what the Greek tragic tradition did. The ancient Greek tragedians didn’t come up with a good message for us. That’s not what Sophocles did. They told us, Your world is about to fall apart, it’s about to collapse. It’s extraordinarily fast, this process of awakening through gnosis. I think that’s the most powerful thing we do: not coming up with a specific message, but with a sharp point of awareness, bringing us to a profound crisis, which parallels the very crisis that we are living in and avoiding.

RO: Beautifully said. I think it’s exactly that. Creating a work of art in which we can enter and see and face the things that terrify us leads to that cathartic awareness and understanding. I also think art needs to be anarchic.

I would never say that artists should or shouldn’t do this or that. I subscribe to Kurt Vonnegut’s “canary in the coal mine” theory of art, which is that artists are useful to society because they’re so sensitive. We’re super sensitive, and we keel over like canaries in the coal mines filled with poison gas long before more robust types realize that there’s anything wrong. So that’s our job. To be an indicator species. To squawk and flap around and keel over.

“Our job as artists is most powerful when we bring you to the most intense realization of the unavoidable truths.”

BO: We have to provoke a kind of crisis. The thing is, we cannot really gently get our fellow human beings to see what needs to be seen. Sometimes there’s not a gentle way of saying that you’ve got two more inches left in the room before you are completely submerged in water. At the same time, if it’s not said in a way that is gentle, it frightens people. It panics them. This is a paradox that I keep going back to. If what we say is too harsh, then we are like the crisis itself, which prevents people from facing it. If it’s too gentle, people are tranquilized and do not hear what is being said. Subtlety might be inappropriate for an imminent disaster. It’s difficult.

RO: This is what frightens me about dystopian literature. Is it normalizing dystopia? Is it normalizing climate change?

BO: Sometimes we need to imagine the unimaginable to keep from going in a disastrous direction. There are many uses for the imagination. One is to show us a future that we can embrace. Another is to show us a future that we must avoid. It’s like a road sign that reads: DANGER AHEAD.

Has dystopian fiction helped us, or has it added to the problem? It’s very hard to say. All I can say is that if you remove dystopian fiction completely, I think we’ll be the poorer for it. What do you feel, Ruth?

RO: I agree, it’s complicated. And it’s not an “either-or,” it’s not good or bad. I love dystopian fiction, and in fact that’s my problem: My mind goes there so easily. So again, I don’t struggle with the “pessimism of the intellect” part of that dialectic. I fall naturally under the pessimism of the intellect. It’s more the “optimism of the will.” How am I going to sit with the discomfort of knowing all these things? How am I going to enact the bodhisattva vow? Delusions are numberless, I vow to end them. Fine. But how do I continue to get up every day and read the newspaper?

BO: How do you, Ruth?

RO: I meditate a lot. Meditation allows you to sit with your discomfort. The sheer amount of information coming at us all the time has created a level of cognitive dissonance that has probably never been higher in human history. How do we sit with that information in our bodies, our very human bodies?

BO: There’s another thing that meditation does. It calms the part of us that panics about the truth of our condition. It’s not the truths that frighten us but our own panic. We feel there’s nothing we can do. We feel overwhelmed. The situation seems bigger than us. But meditation restores us to that calm, without which we cannot face the truth of our condition and think clearly about how we can get out of our predicament. Meditation also restores us to our essential magnificence. As a result, we don’t feel quite so powerless.

It is not enough to know the facts, or know that there are resources out there to deal with our condition. Our inner response to our predicament has to change. I think artists also need to function deliberately on a spiritual plane. That’s how bad things are. Realism is no longer enough. We need to have a spiritual dimension. It’s the only dimension that makes us aware that we have something in us that is greater than our crisis. It can solve our great problems and transcend our predicament.

You’re both really engaging with young people right now through your teaching and writing. What role can writing play for future generations—the ones who are going to inherit the problem?

BO: The act of writing—learning to write, writing well, and the infinite questions that writing brings forth—is the closest thing to spiritual practice for people who have no spirituality. The most profound thing about writing is that at its best, it brings us closer to truth. At least it brings us closer to the questions we can’t avoid. Writing is not really just about the craft; the craft also leads to these great questions. It’s very strange—the better you get, the further you are from perfection. In itself, writing is a quest.

How do you write a sentence that can catch the complexity of a single moment? Sitting in a hotel room, with this mustard-yellow sofa in front of you, and the sea outside the window—how do you do that with one sentence? You could spend the next fifty years just acquiring the craft that can do that.

At its best, writing is an act of truth. You are dealing not only with the world of things but also with the world of spirit, of being. You are dealing with the philosophical reality. Every single story, in one way or another, is dealing with the problem of existence.

The more serious you are about writing, the more serious you have to become about life. That’s why writing is a path of truth. Writing helps us clarify our thinking. It helps us observe the world. It’s a great tool of perception.

People think they can write without looking, without engaging with the world. Your writing really is only as good as your engagement with the world. You may have great craft, but if you’re not looking, if you can’t see clearly what’s in front of you or hear what you’re hearing, if you can’t pay the requisite attention to the mysterious drama of human existence, your craft counts for nothing, even if you’re a genius.

Writing is at the heart of what it is to be human, what it is to be in our time, what it means to be part of a civilization. The art of writing will be part of the future, and it will help to shape whatever future that will be.

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