As a writer, Okri is something of a paradox. Both his novels and poetry are concerned with vision, yet neither conform to expectations. In the novel, which lends itself to vision and abstraction, Okri is personal and intimate. In the poems, which a reader might expect, consequently, to be lyrical, intimate and concrete, Okri is often visionary and abstract. I remember many years ago asking Okri a question about where he would go after Astonishing the Gods, and he replied: “…back to my first love which is poetry.” Then, that seemed like a departure, but not really, more a turning inside out of the writer’s medium, for the poetic novel would become a novel poetry—one based on ideas, vision, and the mind thinking, not in lyric, but in a sustained sequence. Mental Fight (1999) positions itself quite consciously as a work for two cultures. By avoiding the self and the confessional, Okri places his long poem in relation to African tradition: politics and culture take precedence over the personal. And through the title, from Blake’s "Jerusalem", Okri also locates himself with Englishness and its visionary tradition.
How Okri returns to Blake is revealing. The epigram to the poem quotes the well-known lines from the preface to Blake’s Milton and reads:
I shall not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem…
And it implies a double-edged sword, for Blake was an eccentric visionary in a concentric world and his vision invariably accepted the heretic and denied the conformist. Okri’s Jerusalem, like Blake’s, is a spiritual and cultural homeland built upon mental rather than materialistic intentions. It is a place where the poet is prophet and legislator—outsider and insider— and a person who directs the people from the stale lessons of received wisdom. . (Unlike Blake, Okri’s poem does not have a specific root in English soil. Blake’s world vision rotates around Felpham’s vale. Okri’s vision is universal and without any national bias or geographical base). Almost reflecting on Mental Fight, in 2003, Okri stated
writers represent the unconscious vigour and fighting spirit of a land.
(The Guardian, January 30th, 2003).
Mental Fight has some echoes of Blake. There is the question of voice in Okri’s poem. What kind of person speaks this poem? Poet? Seer? Prophet? Philosopher? In part, the voice is Blakeian: the voice that speaks convincingly against death echoes Milton speaking to Satan in Blake’s prophetic poem:
Is to impress on men the fear of death…
Mine is to teach men to despise death, and to go
In fearless majesty annihilating self…
(Milton, II: 371-5)
To explore our potential to the fullest
And to lose our fear of death
But the poetic method, if it counterpoints any other work seems to balance Eliot’s Four Quartets. And in a way this is appropriate. If any work sums up the conclusion of the twentieth century it has to be Four Quartets. As a work, it is exploratory, yet its exploration is ringed by Christian possibilities. Time circles all. And the centre of life is the “The point of intersection of the timeless /With time” (FQ IIIv ll 201-20), the Incarnation. Eliot, in the Four Quartets, re-works the Vaughan whom he loathed such that Vaughan’s regressive theology (beautiful to many, but not the prejudiced Eliot) is re-formed as a massive abstract and concrete philosophy of regression and progression:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And now the place for the first time.
(FQ, IVv, ll 239-242).
Okri’s Mental Fight looks beyond Eliot. The central moment for the poem is not the intersection desired by saints, but the Millennial Moment that the human mind creates as:
An illusion by which we can become
(MF, Ii, ll 1-2).
And this, for Okri, is a point from which the human spirit must look forward and only forward, envisage what might be, create a future transcending the past:
This mighty moment.
(MF, Iii, ll 22-23).
Mental Fight, it seems, has become something of a favourite with the Christian brotherhood. This is probably inevitable given the fact that the closing of the second millennium of Christ gives the poem its focus. The poem, however, is not exactly encouraging towards Christianity, not framed by Christian possibilities. For Okri, Christianity has not given a dying humanity “Its best fruits” (MF, IIIii, l 9).
Poetically, the poetry of Okri in Mental Fight resembles Eliot inasmuch as any free verse is going to take something from an originator. (There are moments when Okri bears comparison with the spoken line of Whitman). Yet, Okri’s poetic lines have a different quality to Eliot’s for they grow out of poems such as “An African Elegy” or “Political Abiku”, behind which dances a long tradition of African oratory. If Okigbo distilled the Euro-American Eliot into an African idiom to create a cryptic poetry, Okri rather takes the essence of Eliot and mixes it with robustness such that an earthier, more energetic and accessible voice emerges. The voice of Mental Fight is one that serves, like a seer, an intermediary function, attesting to what Okri terms the “psychic health of a people” (The Guardian, January 30th, 2003).
Structurally, Mental Fight falls into 8 sections. The sections themselves contain an irregular number of parts: 6,7,2,2,1,2,3,6. Parts 1 and 2, “Time to be real” and “Signs from the old times” first appeared as a sequence in The Times. Yet, they do not stand on their own as a duet, are clearly part of the longer sequence. Thematically, Okri sees the millennium as a chance for humanity to grow. As a therapeutic poet, one whose job it is to stretch down into darkness and draw up the new for birth, Okri’s Mental Fight adopts a language of extension and extremes…a language that urges the reader to break with the immediate and break through the margins that edge what is. Such is a constant theme throughout the sequence. The human spirit should “live magnificently” and “to the fullest”. Existentially, people need to escape their “smallness” and their “humiliated consciousness”, to become “Magnificent and mysterious beings.” The moment is “monumental” and the break from the past into the future requires a Herculean clearing “out of the [Augean] stables”, the excrement of time and the evils of the past. The way forward is with “love’s might” and seeing “The greater perspective” and “universal justice”, pushing through the veil of perception, as the hermeticist did in previous centuries, to hear the harmony of the spheres, “the distant music of the future.” The millennium, traditionally, has been a dark time: a point where apocalyptic forces gather and destruction is feared and man is crushed by the weight of uncertainty. For Okri, the new millennium must be more than this: a time to cast aside darkness, to embrace light; to replace nightmares of despair with visionary hope; to allow the smallness felt within mankind to escape anomie, to allow the mind to expand such that the spirit measures and mankind’s stature is not inhibited by society and characterised by deviance.
Mental fight, for Okri, is necessary and this aggression depends upon a central, liberating idea that has to be put into action. Firstly, people “are like athletes who have not really extended themselves” (MF, V, ll 41-42). Extension begins when people accept “the power of solar systems” in the “minds” (MF, VIIii, l 25-26) and this rests upon an appreciation of Beauty:
“A beautiful dream, shaped
And realised by a beautiful mind
Is one of the greatest gifts
We can make to our fellow beings.”
(MF, VIIii, ll 37-38).
Segun Oguntola once stated that Okri was one of the modern bards Africa sent to the world to hauntingly wail her story. He has more recently reviewed this position to show that Okri’s concerns are worldwide and not confined to any one continent or nation. At a recent talk at the Royal Society, London, Okri was asked quite pointedly if Beauty in Nigeria/Africa was the same concept as Beauty in UK/Europe. More specifically, did the Keatsian “Truth”=”Beauty” hold universally. Okri’s response was the Beauty was not the same. He granted the questioner his moment of glory, having established that Nigerian and England has different viewpoints, then happily pulled the magical carpet from under his feet by claiming that Beauty was not cultural, but biological, and based upon an individual’s sense of wonder. Beauty is inseparable from wonderment. This view emerges in Mental Fight. The Millennial Moment is a “legendary moment/In its own wonderful right” and out of this wonder, the beautiful vision might emerge. During the lecture, Okri took up a position that was reminiscent of the philosopher, Susanne K Langer in her massive opus, Mind. Beauty is what makes “a work continue to grow”; what Langer termed “ambient form”. Beauty is that quality that allows an art work to endure and evolve from time period to time period. And most interestingly, according to Okri, Beauty is a shared quality, half in the text and “half in the encountering mind.” In effect, Beauty is a “dream” shaped by “a “mind” for another “mind” and the extreme involvement in that process is life. In light of this formulation, Mental Fight becomes a very different kind of Beatific Vision. The poem upholds a vision of human potential, as yet unrealised, which demands that humanity looks beyond worn our civilisations and faces the energy within the human, the individual, anyone who sees wonder and revelation. At the close of Mental Fight, Okri lists his sources of Beauty: The Gospels, Dante, 1001 Nights (a collection that crosses the millennium number!), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Austen, Faulkner, Heidegger, Sartre, Shakepseare, Kafka, Eliot, Achebe, Marquez, Proust, Carpentier…and himself. Through time, argued Okri at The Royal Society lecture, even the work that is regarded as “ugly” by a culture can reveal itself as “beautiful”…The stony ground might harbour the beauty of the future. Mental Fight is an extraordinary work of vision, one that comes more into focus, as we realise that the world did not seize the Millennial Moment, but continued as before to prize war more than peace and narrow-minded politics to aesthetic vision. Our world cultures still prefer The Wasteland to Mental Fight.