Why as a responsibility to awe | Ogutu Muraya

The writer Ben Okri describes creativity as “a form of prayer, and the expression of a profound gratitude for being alive”. I used to have a hard time agreeing with and accepting Okri’s description. I was introduced to creative labour as a function of struggle – creativity as protest. Within this dynamic, it has always felt to me like there was no room for feelings of profound gratitude. In fact having such feelings felt like a betrayal to the struggle. With this model the only path out of dysfunction is through the expression of what is wrong with the world, what is negative, what is corrupt and what is broken. Under such a mindset, it is decadent to indulge what is beautiful, miraculous, enchanting, and wondrous with the world. Even the choice of words is telling, we ‘engage’ with struggle but we ‘indulge’ with beauty. There is in a sense a lack of seriousness when you honour your responsibility to awe.

I borrowed the phrase “a responsibility to awe” from a collection of poems by the astronomer Rebecca Elson. For Elson “facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination.” Now, it would be naive to ignore the fact of social, political, economic and ecological struggle, but can such facts interest us in the possibilities they open up to the imagination? Perhaps sociologist Ruha Benjamin has a more elegant way of addressing what I am attempting to articulate. She says “Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.” The balance within creativity as protest is often tilted towards dismantling the worlds we cannot live within. For a long time I was stuck with this model of creative labour, and I could not find compelling reasons for gratitude nor open up my imagination. I started to slide into cynicism and nihilism, especially because it seems difficult to find sufficient perceptible positive changes within the grand dysfunctions of the world. This slip-sliding-away produced in me a perpetual state of existential angst. Only recently did I start to question creative labour and in particular my artistic practice as a function of struggle. Theatre as struggle was no longer satisfying my desire to create.

With my angst, I initially regarded this question “why theatre?” with suspicion. I wondered cynically how strange that as theatre practitioners we often seem to be caught in situations where we have to validate our existence. I cannot imagine such a question ever being posed to musicians. No one second-guesses the existence of music. I also struggled because why questions are tricky questions to answer – especially when you are under a fog of existential angst. Why questions demand we delineate the cause, reason or purpose for which something occurs – why seeks out motive. For me, there are three areas in which why questions become indispensable, when a tragedy has occurred, when there are excesses, and when confronting an existential crisis. An explanation is sorted out in order to rule out the uncertainty of chaos; the randomness of life, by knowing why, we can rest that there is order, that there is a pattern to the madness. Nothing is more unsettling than the existence of something without a reason. We must know why, it is troubling to experience happenings that are in violation of causality. Answering why gives relief. To know why is to give closure. To know why is to motivate action. To lose why is to invite angst. To lose why is to oscillate with uncertainty. To lose why is to motivate inaction. However, answering why can also give a false sense of security – a false sense of understanding.

This falseness when looked at under the politics of memory reveals periods in history where grossly formulated and incorrectly answered why questions gave justification for mass occupation, massacres and genocides. History is full of perpetrators with sufficient means blinding their atrocities by answering why from a perspective of intolerance towards differences. These atrocities are not only relegated to history, contemporary societies are still full of countless cases where whys are based on damaged reasoning and incorrect causation. These flawed ways of thinking extend to the multiple ecological disasters facing the world. Other life forms and ecosystems are assessed based purely on human interests. What fails to align with human interests is seen as being unimportant, insufficient, non-essential, therefore disposable. Under such scenarios asking why can also be subversive. Why is despised by hegemonic systems however they manifest. This hypersensitivity to why arises because everyone knows there is no sufficient reason, cause or purpose to justify violence, oppression and suppression.

So now, why theatre – is the question asked to justify existence, to resist suppression, to seek truth, to alleviate uncertainty, to gain approval, to align with reality? For a long time, since my first encounter with thedramatic arts, I thought theatre was the space where you found ways to frame why questions, a space to doubt and question and seek the truth. The only failing in my thinking was that this space with its why questions, its doubts and its search for the truth was only oriented towards a limited understanding of political, struggle and protest theatre. It was about pointing at and towards what is dystopian and dysfunctional in society – what is negative, what is corrupt and what is broken. And so when I slipped, sliding away into nihilism, into nothingness, unable to answer why – I almost lost all interest in theatre. I am starting to accept there is more to struggle than just struggle; this acceptance came from reconnecting with my responsibility to awe.

To quote Ben Okri “it is precisely in a broken age…” and I would also add a broken personhood, “that we need mystery and a re-awakened sense of wonder: need them in order to be whole again.” A responsibility to awe is a duty, an expectation, an obligation, a commitment towards awe. When all arrows point to doom, despair and disaster, it can be easy to become indifferent to this sacred responsibility. But it is precisely in this orientation towards doom rapt in political disturbances, environmental tragedies, social instabilities and economic deadlocks; it is in these precise times that we must reclaim our responsibility to awe. Rather than abandon and neglect this duty – we must embrace this duty. The literary scholar Keguro Macharia, once said: “Freedom isn’t freedom if it has no room for pleasure” – no room for wonder, no room for awe, no room for beauty, no room for enchantment. The struggle is real but we must not in the process of struggle misplace, forget and neglect our responsibility to awe. Understanding this helped me to reclaim my interest in theatre and reframe my ‘why theatre’ as a responsibility to awe.

Ogutu Muraya is a Kenyan writer and theatre maker whose work is embedded in the practice of orature. in his work, he searches for new forms of storytelling where socio-political aspects merge with the belief that art is an important catalyst for questioning certainties. He has performed at several theatres and festivals within East Africa and internationally.