By Adebayo Akomolafe
Jun 19, 2014
The reader should be aware that this is not your typical review. As a world-weary academic, disillusioned by the failed promises of the ivory tower and its pretensions to inevitability, I think I know full well how reviews ought to proceed. Little wonder Steve Wasserman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers.” Cast in the wild winds of my subjective climate, without the pillars of convention to anchor me to the ‘proper,’ I attempt a thematic, deeply personal and experiential survey of Charles’ story. It is almost impossible to speak about a book that leaves you baffled, shocked and deeply undone—and yet, in the elegant ways Charles writes—he also grants you a most exhilarating sense of hope… or even better, wonder.
In a very fleshly sense, you get a feeling of incompleteness from reading the book or—I hasten to add—from meeting the man behind the book. There is nothing ‘final’ about Charles or his new book, nothing repulsively doctrinaire. I have known the author and we have spent a few exhilarating moments dashing through crowded streets in Istanbul, contemplating the sinewy politics of madness across a crusty breakfast table in Byron Bay, and discussing Terrence McKenna and the I Ching across Skyped distances. I have known, albeit briefly, his pain, his troubled silences, his furrowed moments of ambiguity and confusion as he dawdled between convenient expertise and bewildering dilettantism. It is probably more professional to try to distinguish between the book and its author—but I’d rather follow my gut and acknowledge their reciprocity, the simultaneity that binds the two. His uncertainties and inner turbulences, a little bit of which I have been part of, grant his writings an urgent humility, a deep humanity, an endearing verisimilitude. Charles’ life is the enchanted loom upon which this master script plays out. In simpler words, Charles is his book. His life maps unto it like a key in its keyhole. Amazingly, so do ours.
Charles writes about a more beautiful world—a world we suspect is possible. He is not the first. Across cultures and throughout time, the disillusionments with the present and feasible have made men dream about a better state of things. Here in Africa, whence I write these words, we have many stories that urge us to remember the good old days—when things were simple, intimate and magical. Days when the skies hung low, allowing us to move freely between realms and have conversations with gods. Those days are no more, our town criers warn us. And now we must find our way back to those lands filled with yam tubers and ears of corn. Charles taps into this ancient archetype of the collective quest for lost conditions, and invites us to undertake a vulnerable expedition into the heart of things, into the very chambers of the beating heart powering a distant possibility.
What differentiates this book from other attempts to define a finer world lies in the path that he adopts—through the soft spots of our collective feeling. Instead of academic posturing or intellectual bravado, Charles brings us a book that unashamedly ‘feels’—a well-rounded voyage that satisfies at levels often ignored by today’s prophets of change. Don’t be fooled though: I do not at all mean to suggest that this book is puff and smoke. Charles’ intellectual perspicacity will bend your mind like dried crayfish. Through our shared grief about the failed promises of modern civilization, his words seep through the gridlocks of expertise and the trapdoors of cynicism with a strange potency that is difficult to mimic. His noble intent? To guide us into what a different world might look like, to ‘trick’ our senses into believing it is not as distant as we conveniently let it be. Charles proceeds to describe, with a refreshing sense of vulnerability and self-awareness, what living in a new mythos might look like—even while confessing his relative non-readiness and disinclination to fully occupy it.
To do this effectively, Charles asks us to think about our present circumstances. To help us wrap our heads around a task so daunting, he offers a narrative device, ‘the Story of the People:’ the program of life we are ‘engineered’ to perpetuate, the ‘narrative of the normal,’ the contours of modern consciousness, the bubble we live in. He suggests that this ‘Story,’ this monoculture of mind, this dominant mythos, is built on the assumptions that we are fundamentally separate from each other; that we are anomalously sentient in an otherwise mute universe; that we must make our way up a cultural ladder of increased independence from the crowded slums of scarcity to the utopian heavens of honey-tipped luxury; and that the future will only be won through the might of linear rationality, psychological homogeneity and technological apotheosis. By the time Charles reminds us that this myth is breaking down, he has already assumed the role of a midwife—taking halting steps through the birth canal to the womb, through the deconstructive fluids of its tubes, and into the amniotic depths where new stories await birth. Charles leads us on an expedition into the magnificence of things, through the apertures of grace.
We are led not so much by the vividness of a series of intellectual arguments, or by the carping insistence of a cocksure parishioner but by something profoundly alive. I can only think of it as ‘silence.’ And I think this silence is gripping and convincing because this book compels us to hold a mirror to our a priori arguments and unwritten ideas about the ways the world works. It is our silence—as well as his—that allows us to really feel the pulse of emergence. To his credit, as he strips away our confidence, Charles maintains an admirable levelheadedness, even while betraying a joyful lilt in his reflections on what could be. His voice does not rise and dip like the august performance of a master speechmaker. For a man so brilliant, so sensuously alive to new worlds, there is a venerable hesitation to make love to his own voice—an almost saintly resistance to exalt his intuitions. Instead of adopting a demagogic tone, Charles speaks at heart level—deliberately leaving room for gaping silences, sometimes challenging his own assumptions, and yet still managing to leave his readers asunder.
There in the incubating darkness of the womb, at some distance from the debris of a falling myth—but not far enough that we lose sight of the urgency of the moment—Charles’ words inspire us to address our own fixations with the apparent.
What if the Self is just as much a story as any other, and we are more connected than we think? What if we are not merely ‘connected’ but actually emerge from the matrixes of interbeing? What if science shows that the universe is alive and that we have unfortunately limited ourselves to the practical, the feasible or the possible? What if evidence is anecdotal—which would suggest that we are co-creators of the ‘real?’ What if rank cynicism and doubt that a new world is possible owes its existence to the failure of previous promises, to wounds that have not healed? What if we are not as righteous, coherent or secure as our claims to an exclusivity of grace seem to suggest—but spread out, beyond the dualisms of commoditized salvation? What if another world is not very far away but as close as merely acting from a new story? As Charles weaves the ‘poetics of the impossible,’ a state of affairs so outrageous they have to be true, the wombs of our imagination take on a bioluminescence that is both exhilarating and raw. There is an endearing self-awareness in his language, a derisive alliance with hardnosed debunkers of anything not ‘normal’—an alliance that highlights the narrative espionage of his words. With the benevolent guile of a trickster, Charles penetrates the glibness of our divides, exposes the festering wounds beneath the band-aids of common experience, and then leads us on an expedition into what a more profound world might look like. To follow Charles, however, you must be willing to lose your coordinates; you must be willing to get lost. But in getting lost (as we say in Africa), you learn the way.
There were moments when I discerned in Charles’ writing some traces of ‘solar thinking,’ a teleological fostering of human experience and thought—the idea that we are moving into a golden age of some sort. A New Story. As a clinical psychologist, I have learned to be suspicious of claims to psychological utopianism or visions of a glassy heaven where there is no grief or sadness, no hue or gradation of colours. I cannot be sure that I want a world where there is no pain, no grief or no darkness at all—not only because all of these seem tethered to their more desirable counterparts, but because the dark has a particular redeeming logic we cannot do without. Charles’ vision is thankfully not as bland or as distasteful as an Episcopalian heaven, and so, even though he often writes with the pointedness of a man who is intent on reifying a golden age, Charles is careful as he traverses the fickle binary of light and dark, weaving the tapestries of a symphony that compels one to ask for more.
When Charles gifted me with an advance copy of his new book, I waited to find a quiet place to open it and start what was to be a journey of awakening. When I eventually did, I was at first put off by the magazine-like discontinuity of the chapters. The one-word chapter titles seemed pretentious (‘Separation,’ ‘Science,’ ‘Hope’), as if he were attempting an encyclopedic exposition. I was thrilled to find I was wrong. Each chapter flows into each other and yet manages to herald and initiate a fresh conversation point. Charles manages to conduct his liquid juju through the 271-page physicality and apparent structural discontinuity of the book, through the fences of our imagination, through the reinforced windows of cynicism, to the place where our more believing hearts sing.
Should you read this book? Fortunately, I do not have to answer that question—seeing that this is not a ‘proper’ review. Oddly enough, the greatest gift of this new offering of thoughts is its dispensability. The book is not a compendium of things-you-don’t-know; it is not an alien intrusion of the ordinary or an act of ‘adding to knowledge’ as we in academia like to pretend we do. In fact, this book is a celebration of the ordinary—ennobling what seems to be the commonplace—while pointing out how unfathomable it really is. In the marketplace of glossy ideas, I think the most profound thing that can be said about a book is that it hardly begs the question of its necessity. Paradoxically, it is that very characteristic that makes it a powerful paean to your very present breathing moment and a rapturous adventure into the next.
This is not a book about words. This is a book about silence. And before I was halfway through, I lost sight of my surroundings—in the sense that I became more keenly aware of them and could almost hear the distinctive cadence of my inner landscapes, the sonorous humming of silence within.
I had doubts about writing a review—dark dancing devils disturbing my performances to authority. I questioned if I was the right person to tell you about Charles’ new book. I have no expertise, or at least no expertise that is left standing to the deconstructive gaze of my own mind. And yet I write—because, in a sense, Charles’ book gives me permission to. It reminds me that the ordinary is what the extraordinary strives to accomplish. I write because Charles has no right talking about the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible—and yet he does, not because he rudely appropriates to himself the right to do so but because he realizes that a new story will not be borne on the prudent exercise or repudiation of rights. It will not be borne on the backs of a correct diagnosis of all that is wrong with us, but in the pure potency of preference, in the realization that we are alive and magnificent beyond our wildest dreams, and in the recognition that our world is not inevitable.
Right now, I am writing my own book about the alchemical force of darkness, about the politics of the outrageous, about the grace that inhabits the ordinary, and about the interrupted people of Africa who still seek better days—albeit in the promises of neoliberal capitalism and growth economics. Thanks to Charles’ book, thanks to his vicarious steps of hesitation and his pioneering sense of inner justice, I too can stand at the precipice of a dying moment, overlooking the valleys of a profoundly new world and fall headlong into her embrace—knowing I can fly.