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Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005) 1-21

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"Higher Realities":

New Age Spirituality in Ben Okri's The Famished Road

School of Oriental and African Studies, London

The vast majority of critical commentary on Ben Okri's The Famished Road views the text as both postmodern and postcolonial.1 For instance, it is common to read that "[i]n Okri, the Western [postmodern] dilemma of the dissolution of the subject is celebrated" (Hawley 36), and that the abiku boy Azaro's puzzling ontological status signifies "the postcolonial nation state in its chaotic passage from colonialism to independence" (Wright 16). One critic, however, suggests a different point of view. In an early review of the book, Kwame Anthony Appiah emphasizes The Famished Road's "spiritual" terms of reference, and he distinguishes Okri's "spiritual realism" from the more postmodern and postcolonial "magical realism" of Latin American authors:

My own sense is that there is a difference between the ways in which Latin American writers draw on the supernatural and the way that Okri does: For Okri, in a curious way, the world of spirits is not metaphorical or imaginary; rather, it is more real than the world of the everyday.

Appiah goes on to note that Okri's own spiritual views are often too transparently communicated, modulating the novel's exuberant "spiritual realism [. . .] into an irritatingly pseudomystical New Age mode" of discourse (148).

Appiah's brief commentary challenges the widespread critical consensus on Okri's text. First, Appiah's sense that the world of spirits is more real to Okri than the everyday world runs athwart of the widely held idea that Okri's novel is postmodern. For the kernel of postmodernity is an "incredulity towards metanarratives" (Lyotard 6), a belief that "there is no order beyond time and change establishing a hierarchy of responsibilities or helping us choose between truth-statements" (Rorty 8).2 If, as Appiah thinks, Okri believes that there is such an order beyond time and change—a spiritual world "more real" than the one we normally perceive—then it follows that Okri's allegiances are not postmodern: he still believes that there is something ahistorical or transcendental conferring legitimacy on some, and not other, truth-claims and courses of action. Those pondering the apparently postmodernist features of Okri's fiction surely must take account of this decidedly non-postmodernist aspect of the book. [End Page 1]

Second, Appiah's passing suggestion that the novel's "spiritual realism" often resonates with "New Age" spiritual discourse runs against the widely held view that Okri's text is an example of either "magical" or "animist" realism.3 By magical or animist realism, critics mean a narrative form that draws either upon the generically fantastic ("magical") or upon indigenous traditional religious beliefs ("animist") in a way that contests Western protocols of realist representation and the neocolonialist economic, political, and cultural apparatuses they carry with them. Though animist and magical realisms are (according to the critics) formally different, they both appear to be "postcolonial" in the normative sense of resisting Western global dominance and aiding the causes of decolonization and tradition-affirming nationalism. By contrast, Appiah notes that there is "tension" between Okri's "spiritual realism" and "his exile's passion for the project of Nigerian national politics" (147). This is because the former is delighted in and offered up to us as its own justification, but then is awkwardly press-ganged to serve as an allegory for the nationalist agenda enunciated at the novel's end ("ours [. . .] is an abiku nation" [Famished 494]). But this press-ganging, as Appiah indicates, is never quite successful: Okri's "irritatingly pseudomystical New Age" side has a life of its own, a life not entirely compatible with the postcolonial politics to which Okri is also committed.

In what follows, I would like to develop Appiah's insights about the novel's "New Age" dimension by arguing that New Age spirituality—not postmodernism or postcolonialism—is the most important cultural vector shaping The...


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