Ben Okri on Manipulating Reality

“Reality is all we have to work with, but we don’t really know what it is.”

A black-and-white image of Ben Okri set on a lavender purple background, with illustrated hot pink, dark yellow, and black squiggles surrounding his portrait.
Matt Bray / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Ben Okri’s new short story “The Third Law of Magic.”

The Third Law of Magic” is a new story by Ben Okri. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Okri and Katherine Hu, an assistant editor for the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Katherine Hu: In your short story “The Third Law of Magic,” an artist sells snowballs at a market. We get a clear view into his motivations for the show, which take on a philosophical weight as they accrue. When do you choose to focus on your character’s thoughts instead of their actions?

Ben Okri: Part of the story’s tension is precisely in the contrast between the character’s exteriority and interiority. You think you see one kind of person, but when his inner world is expressed, that limited perception explodes.

Interiority is most powerful when it moves with the dynamics of the story. This is another way of saying that perhaps, in a story like this, there are three levels of stories going on. One is the overt story, the quest for a new art form to express that which is almost impossible to express. The second is the story of the journey through the city and the way the city reveals the potential of the quest. The third level of narration is internal.

There is a story going on inside all the time that’s different from the story going on outside. I am fascinated by that. The inner story drives the outer, and the outer story fuels the inner. But all the stories are part of the overarching one in a symphonic way.

Hu: The story evokes a piece of performance art by David Hammons known as Bliz-aard Ball Sale, an event that has since faded but lives on in stories. How does your reimagining play into Hammons’s original mythmaking?

Okri: One aspect of David Hammons’s genius is the generation of mythic fractals. His art encompasses aesthetics, race, politics, magic, dislocation, and identity, among others, but even more so it creates rumors, gossip, tales, and exaggerations in the minds of his audience.

An artist’s work does not always tend towards myth; a work can be great and yet not generate much mythology. But Hammons specializes in the secret art of mythmaking. Isn’t generating myth a higher kind of aesthetics? Bliz-aard Ball Sale is the audacious act of making art out of ephemerality, disappearance, rumor, and the posthumous existence of that which was not widely experienced when it existed. It is the gift of Houdini.

I am fascinated by the way life distills into myth. For me, writing is an act of resurrection and magic. It too brings back to life that which few people noticed. It too raises from the dead. Its greatest realm is not the world but the vast kingdom of the human mind. But this story is not a reenactment of Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale, but a dream woven around it, the way Charlie Parker might take a theme and wander off into his own world, giving us two gifts in one: the fragrance of the original, and a spare, enchanted reverie.

Hu: The pure, unadulterated wonder of the young boy when he sees the snowballs is one of my favorite parts of the story. You describe it in such vivid detail. Do we tend to complicate innocence, or is it inherently complex?

Okri: I am glad that moment moves you. It was important to the story that it was the boy who grasped, without thought, without undue complexity or critical analysis, the wonder of the work. That is exactly what art at its purest is meant to do, to stop our breathing and our thinking. It ought to cut through all the emotional baggage, all the neurosis, all the overthinking and reach right into the spirit to awaken us to something that transcends what can be expressed in words.

Innocence is much more complex than it seems. It is why brilliant people can do things which are the fruits of tremendous thought but which, when experienced, appear to have the incomparable genius of childhood itself. It was once said that all great things are, at heart, simple. There are two kinds of innocence: innocence of spirit and the innocence of wisdom. I am not sure which of the two is more complex.

Hu: In putting a price on snow and scouring the city’s waste, the artist exposes contradictions in capitalism and consumer culture. These contradictions hint at larger questions about how value is ascribed in society. Is there an alternative means for us to derive and create value?

Okri: There has to be an alternative way for us to derive and create value. If not, we as a species are irredeemably doomed. If value can only come from the ever-escalating arms race of competing demands, if it can only come from money, then this exposes its fundamental contradictions. Value ought to be related to being and consciousness. In real terms, the sight of one’s child in a moment of unique happiness ought to be greater in value than a fur coat. The joy one feels in the presence of the one we love ought to be greater in value than a new car.

This is not to say that the car and the coat are without value. But then what value can one place on that which we pay so little attention to, which we forget to celebrate—the sheer invisibility of one’s good health or one’s sanity or the safety and well-being of one’s family? Civilization has to move towards the higher value of consciousness, of being. Otherwise we are in grave danger of commodifying the priceless while conferring unnatural value on the worthless.

The time will come when we will value peace more than gold, when we will value the happiness of the many over the ecstasy of the few. Our society will only ever be as great as what we value. We have to reevaluate before it is too late, before we start unknowingly worshipping death.

Hu: How does “The Third Law of Magic” fit into your work more broadly?

Okri: It continues my interest in what constitutes reality. This has always characterized my work. I have always felt that if we have a proper grasp of what reality is, we will better know what to do with this tremendous gift of life, this infinite energy compressed into a mortal frame. I think all literature at its best tries to do that.

Reality is all we have to work with, but we don’t really know what it is. The truth about reality is that its subdividable aspects can yield results which can be faithfully replicated while we remain completely in the dark about its other aspects or the whole itself. This is odd, for it gives us the illusion of control, when in fact what we have is merely the control of contingent conditions. Therefore, much of our confidence is provisional. One can be wrong and yet some things we do seem to work. One can be right and yet some things that we do appear not to work. Often it is a matter of perspective, of time, of truths concealed from us.

This paradox of reality is at the core of a novel of mine called Astonishing the Gods. In The Freedom Artist, reality can be manufactured for a people to such a degree that it invades their own realities. In The Last Gift of the Master Artists, the realities of a whole people are about to be altered by the white wind, but the dreams of the master artists continue to endure. This short story places the law of magic within the realm of the real, and hints that the ultimate magic is reality itself, the most unknowable magic of them all.

Hu: What distortion of reality have you been most intrigued by recently?

Okri: The most outrageous distortion of reality that I have witnessed recently is where an event that took place before the world’s gaze has, slowly—with suggestions, with counter-theories, with insinuations of secret forces at work—been made to look as if it wasn’t the very thing the world actually witnessed. It took the dogged collation of recorded facts, eyewitness statements under oath, and visual evidence to slowly reestablish to the world what it originally witnessed.

This is a very strange thing to experience in one’s lifetime—where powerful forces can make you doubt what you experienced. It makes one feel that if they can do that, they can do anything. It all comes down to manipulating reality and how reality is then perceived. We need to advance the art of decoding reality and interpreting what power does to reality, if we are to protect our freedoms and our future.

Hu: You work in a range of media, and your writing takes many shapes. What projects are you working on?

Okri: My next book is a suite of stories, essays, and poems around the theme of climate change called Tiger Work. It gathers all my writings on the subject. Both strength and beauty of spirit are required to draw attention to the specter hanging over us, one that we live with as if it weren’t there. We carry on each day as we did the day before, but each day we bring nearer the conditions we fear. A radical act of mass consciousness is needed to awaken us to the tremendous responsibilities of the moment.

My novel, Dangerous Love, was published yesterday. In September, Other Press will also be publishing a play of mine set in ancient Egypt called Changing Destiny. I am additionally working on a book of essays, a new play, and a short novel about resisting tyranny, texts that I hope to thread with the wonder of being here on Earth.