30 June 2020

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on Orthodox Christian worship

A few weeks I read Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection and in my review of it (see here: Notes from underground: Resurrection: prison and land reform) I mentioned that shortly after the book was published Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. I remarked that after reading the book I was not surprised by this, since it was clear from the book that he rejected and despised Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox worship.

Some people who read it asked me to say what Tolstoy had to say about Orthodoxy, and this post is a response to that request.

After I finished reading Tolstoy's novel I began re-reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which has more sympathetic descriptions of Orthodoxy and Orthodox worship. In this post I shall quote excerpts from both, and make comments on both.

In the first passage, from Dostoevsky, the monk Zossima, who is ill and near death, tells his fellow monks some of his recollections of his childhood.
But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass (I don't remember where my brother was at the time) on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember today, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God's word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it in the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God. In the land of Uz there lived a man, righteous and God-fearing...
And here is Tolstoy's description, from Resurrection:
The service began.

It consisted of the following. The priest, having dressed himself up in a strange and very inconvenient garb of gold cloth, cut and arranged little pieces of bread on a saucer and then put most of them into a cup with wine, repeating at the same time different names and prayers.

Meanwhile the deacon first read Slavonic prayers, difficult to understand in themselves and rendered still more incomprehensible by being read very fast, and then sang them in turn with the convicts. The prayers chiefly expressed desire for the welfare of the Emperor and his family. These petitions were repeated many times, separately and together with other prayers, the people kneeling. Besides this several verses from the Acts of the Apostles were read by the deacon in a peculiarly strained voice, which made it impossible to understand what he read, and then the priest himself read very distinctly a part of St. Marks Gospel, in which it is told how Christ, having risen from the dead, before flying up to heaven to sit down at His Father's right hand, first showed himself to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven devils...

The essence of the service consisted in the supposition that the bits of bread cut up by the priest and put into the wine, when manipulated and prayed over in a certain way, turned into the flesh and blood of God.

These manipulations consisted in the priest, hampered by the gold cloth sack he had on, regularly lifting and holding up his arms, and then sinking to his knees and kissing the table and all that was on it; but chiefly in his taking a cloth by two of its corners and waving it rhythmically and softly over the silver saucer and the golden cup. It was supposed at this point that the bread and the wine turned into the flesh and blood: therefore this part of the service was performed with the utmost solemnity.
There are several notable differences between these descriptions.

The service Dostoevsky describes, though the English translator has called it "mass", is actually Vespers, which on the Monday of Holy Week is followed by the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. In the Orthodox Church, though Vespers is normally an evening service, in Holy Week it is usually celebrated in the morning, by anticipation, hence the sunlight in the cupola.

St Mitrofan Church in Moscow

Doestoevsky describes the service through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy describes it as the author, rather in the manner of a lecturer from the League of Militant Atheists instructing novices in militant atheism on the correct understanding of Christian worship.

Nowadays, in writing courses, novice writers are urged "show, don't tell". This is what Dostoevsky does -- he shows the reader through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy is determined to tell the reader, and does this throughout his book. Tolstoy rarely lets his characters speak for themselves or think for themselves. He himself tells the readers what they think and what they are like. While "show, don't tell" may have become a bit of a literary cliché, or even a literary fetish, comparing Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy has shown me some of the wisdom in it.

The reason I started to re-read The Brothers Karamazov, however, is related to this point. Someone posted a link to an article about the dangers of Christian socialism, and quoted Dostoevsky as having pointed out the dangers:
Dostoevsky: Fear the Christian Socialist | The Voice Blog: by Chris Banescu –
“The socialist who is a Christian is more to be feared than the socialist who is an atheist.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

Now Tolstoy might have said such a thing, but in Dostoevsky, that is not what Dostoevsky himself said -- it was something he put into the mouth of one of his characters (one who is not at all sympathetic to Christianity -- he started a lawsut against a monastery to show how anticlerical he was). And this character, Peter Miusev, was quoting a head of the political  police in France. It's a bit like a Jewish author putting similar words into the mouth of an anti-Semitic character quoting a Gestapo chief as saying that Jewish socialists were more to be feared than atheist ones. Well he would, wouldn't he.

And so I started re-reading The Brothers Karamazov to remind myself what Dostoevsky's character Peter Miusev was like, because it is clear that in that linked article he is being quoted wildly out of context.

But I'll review that book in due course. For now the point is that Tolstoy shows himself as hostile to Orthodox worship, so he would really have no reason to worry about being excommunicated, since he made it very obvious that he did not value communion at all.

18 June 2020

In Memoriam: David Levey

Today we attended the funeral of an old friend, David Levey. It was the first funeral we had attended since the Covid-19 lockdown started, and was held at St Wilvrid's Anglican Church in Hillcrest, the Revd Grant Thistlewhite officiating. Everyone wore mask, and the pews were roped off and marked so that everyone kept the regulation 2 metres apart. A register was taken at the door, presumably to see that the number attending did not exceed 50 and to be able to track contacts in case anyone present turned out to be infected.

David Levey, Oct 1918
I say David Levey was an old friend, and we had known him for 37 years, since early 1983, when he and his wife Fran were parishioners at St Stephen's Church in Lyttelton. But soon afterwards they left to join St Alban's Cathedral parish, and over the years I only saw David on rare occasions. David thought they were too rare, and out of the blue invited us to have coffee and chat with him at Cafe 41 in Arcadia in 2012.

Another four years passed and then we heard that David was going to speak at TGIF, an early morning gathering on Friday mornings when someone speaks on some aspect of the Christian faith in the modern world. It was something we attended occasionally when they had speakers who looked interesting, and I thought David would be interesting when he spoke on the topic of "reading irreligiously", and so it turned out to be. After this talk we discussed the possibility of meeting regularly to discuss Christianity and literature, and met every month for the next four years at rhe same Cafe 41 that David had introduced us to. Our meetings came to an end at the beginning of 2020, ended by Covid-19 and David's own illness, which sadly turned out to be his last.

I blogged about most of these meetings, and so perhaps people who knew David might find these accounts interesting where they recorded some of the things that David contributed to the discussion. So here are links to some of those blog posts, some of which also include pictures of David.


We will miss David.

May his memory be eternal.





16 June 2020

Resurrection: prison and land reform

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A rather didactic and moralistic novel about fin de siècle prison conditions in imperial Russia. In many places it reads like a documentary. Tolstoy appears to be trying to do what Dickens did in a lot of his novels -- expose social evils -- but he has a heavier touch, and lacks Dickens's sense of humour.


Tolstoy's Resurrection has been sitting on our bookshelves for many years, along with a couple of other books of his, bought by my mother. I don't know if she read them, but I did not. The Covid-19 lockdown, however, with libraries and bookshops closed, drove me to look at the unread books on our shelves. I did try, once, about 30 years ago, to read War and Peace, but found it boring, as it opened with a conversation with a Freemason, and was all about the aristocracy. So much of what I knew of Tolstoy was other people's opinions. I had heard that he was a pacifist, which I liked, but other things that I had heard I liked less. So I began reading Resurrection without much hope that I would like it.

To begin with, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed a much more interesting book than War and Peace. It includes the aristocracy, but the protagonist is an aristocrat with a social conscience, who takes an interest in the welfare of the peasants, and sees that many of their problems are caused by the lack of land. The land question is big in South Africa, and the way Tolstoy handles it I think makes it worth reading for South Africans, whatever one's view of land. Tolstoy's views were influenced by Henry George, an American who proposed a system of land reform not unlike advocated by the EFF in South Africa today, and in his novel Tolstoy looks at some of the pros and cons of that.

In this Tolstoy resembles Dickens, using his fiction to make his readers aware of social problems, but he lacks the humour of Dickens, and his light touch. At some points he goes in for rather heavy-handed moralising, analysing the spiritual failings of his characters at length rather than letting the reader see them through the story.

At some points Tolstoy could be commenting on current events. Last month the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, USA sparked off worldwide protests against police brutality. There was talking of "defunding the police" and the Minneapolis city council was thinking of abpolishing its police force. Tolstoy would have applauded.

At one point in the story the protagonist, Nekhlyudov, witnesses prisoners marching to the station in summer heat to board the train for Siberia to serve out their sentences there. Several collapse because of heat exhaustion, and some die. Nekhlyudov, thinking about this, attributes it to the official mentality of the police:

"All this comes," thought Nekhlyudov, "from the fact that all these people -- governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen -- consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. All these men, Maslennikov, and the inspector, and the convoy officer, if they were not governor, inspector, officer, would have considered twenty times before sending such a mass of people out in such heat -- would have stopped twenty times on the way and seeing a man growing weak, gasping for breath, would have led him into the shade, would have given him water and let him rest, and if an accident had still occurred, they would have expressed pity. But not only did they not do this, but they hindered others from doing it, because they thought not of men and their duty towards them but only of the office they themselves filled, and considered the obligations of that office above human relations. That is the whole matter," Nekhlyudov continued. "If once we admit -- be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case -- that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds, free from feelings of guilt."

Tolstoy is sometimes described as a Christian pacifist and anarchist, the inspiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I am inclined to be a Christian anarchist and pacifist, but I don't feel much inspired by Tolstoy. His factual information is interesting, his moralistic rants less so. Among Rusan novelists, I prefer Dostoevsky, who raises some of the same issues, but not in quite such a didactic and preachy way.

Shortly after the publication of Resurrection Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and after reading the book I am not surprised. Two chapters are devoted to a hostile parody of Orthodox worship, which Tolstoy says is "All lies",

Tolstoy says, not without justification, that what the prison system achieves is that
Ordinary simple men holding the social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant, lost this conception, and formed a new prison-bred one, founded chiefly on the idea that any outrage to or violation of human beings is justifiable if it seems profitable.
Yet the "social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant" came from the very worship that Tolstoy denounces and mocks in terms that nowadays would be called "hate speech".


View all my reviews

13 June 2020

Fallen Idols

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk of statues, and some have been removed after people have protested about them. This has occasioned a flurry of articles about whether this is a good or a bad thing. One of the better ones is Statue wars | blog post by Mary Beard - The TLS.

I'm rather curious about what provokes such heart-searching, though. I didn't notice such articles when the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in 2003 was in the news. Nobody seemed to be complaining then about the loss or destruction of history.

Yet when people were demanding the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, quite a lot of people were bemoaning the "loss of history". What is the difference?

There are actually quite a lot of similarities between Saddam Hussein and Cecil Rhodes.

Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi army to invade a neighbouring country, Kuwait.

Cecil Rhodes sent his private mercenary army to invade two countries -- first in 1890 he invaded Mashonaland and later used that as a springboard for a botched invasion and attempted putsch in the South African Republic, which was stymied rather as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was stymied.

The major difference between the two was that Saddam Hussein used his country's army, whereas Rhodes's invasion was a matter of private enterprise.

Another difference is that Saddam Hussein's statue was erected while he was in power, and its fall was almost simultaneous with the fall of the prototype.

Rhodes's statue, on the other hand, was erected after his fall from power and more than 30 years after his death. I am not sure about Saddam Hussein, but the various statues of Cecil Rhodes were symbols of a cult that grew after his death.For more details on that, see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

It is not unusual for political leaders to become the centre of cults,  and Christians have a tradition of objecting to this -- see here, for example Russian Orthodox Church Outraged by Appearance of 'Stalin Icon'.And some lovers of "history" deplore the Christian tendency to destroy pagan cult statuary. As the historian Ronald Hutton puts it:

The pagan Roman empire executed hundreds of Christians for refusing to endorse the validity of its system and its religion, and it did so in appalling ways. By contrast, once in power the Christians tended to attack deities but spare humans. There is no recorded case of an execution of a pagan in the first two centuries of the Christian Roman Empire.

And in many cases, attacking deities is what the modern iconoclasts are doing. I don't generally feel strongly about statues that are not linked to active cults. Most of them are of people who were morally flawed like most of us. The equestrian statue of Louis Botha in the grounds of the Union Buildings is not, as far as I am aware, a pagan cult object. While he was alive and in power he had his supporters and detractors, and he, like most of us, did good things and bad things. Let him be.

But Rhodes was definitely the object of a cult, as was Edward Colston, whose statue was recently uprooted from Bristol and tossed into the harbour, like the sick slaves from his ships that through illness had lost their commercial value. That statue, like most of those of Rhodes, was erected long after his death, and it too was the centre of an idolatrous pagan cult.

So I tend to agree with the author of this article Expert: Why I Welcome the Decision to Throw Bristol’s Edward Colston Statue in the River | The National Interest.

I'll conclude with the same quote from G.K. Chesterton that I used my my review of the book on The cult of Rhodes | Khanya:
Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant but poisonous. That the fittest must survive and that only one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that anyone he could not understand must be the weakest.







01 June 2020

A tale of two tales

A few days ago I posted a couple of stories on Facebook. I thought one story was important, the other trivial. Facebook, and Facebook users, however, reversed the order. The trivial story got far more exposure, and elicited many more comments.

One story was prompted by an interesting cultural difference. I had gathered from several blog posts and comments that many American readers of C.S. Lewis's book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had never heard of Turkish Delight before they read their book, and some commented disparagingly on the sweet when they did encounter it, saying how disappointing they found it.

Clearly when Lewis wrote the story he expected his readers not only to know what "Turkish Delight" was, but also to think of it as a sweet that, once you had had one, you wanted more. It's perhaps a taste not shared by everybody, but it's one I share with Edmund in the story, and my family often give me Turkish Delight for Christmas and birthdays -- lemon and rose flavoured, all over icing sugar. And I have to restrain myself from consuming it all in one day.

Last Sunday my wife Val went to the shop after church (at home in the sitting room, just the family, under Covid-19 lockdown) and as a Sunday treat returned with a bar of Turkish Delight chocolate, and it reminded me of how it was apparently unknown in American culture, and so I posted a picture of the wrapper on Facebook, which elicited a large number of comments.

I note that in Greece what the English call Turkish delight is called loukoumi, and it is usually offered, with a glass of raki to visitors to monasteries, but that was not the point of this particular story, which was the ignorance of Turkish Delight in American culture, which perhaps caused a point made by the book to be missed.

The other story, which I believe was far more important and significant, was Chicago schoolgirl Katarina Ristić removes anti-Serb bias from history textbooks.
Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Katarina Ristić took on a Chicago school board about their anti-Serb history curriculum. And won.

How far would you go if you (or your child) had to write a school assignment on the genocide that Serbia conducted against Bosnia which killed 200,000 Muslims?
Go on, read it all.

Reading it took me back 45 years to Durban North, where 10-year-old Kerry Murdoch's mother was called to her daughter's school by the principal and asked to deal with her delinquent daughter. What had Kerry done? She had been cheeky to her teacher by objecting to her referring to black people as "kaffirs". Her mother told the head "I'm proud of her, and I hope she does it again if the teacher behaves like that."

Katarina Ristić went further, and took on the whole district school board, and had biased history corrected.

I remember the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. They are in living memory for many people. And I remember the Western media broadcasting Nato warmongering propaganda day after day, with not the slightest attempt to audi alterem partem (a legal principle, which means "hear the other side"). It all came straight from the mouth of one Jamie Shea, who became the face of Nato war propaganda.

And it seems that that propaganda was being reproduced, unadulterated, in the history syllabus of Chicago schools until Katarina Ristić stood up for truth and justice.

For those who may have forgotten, or who may be too young to remember, I've written more about the background to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession here: Nationalism, violence and reconciliation.

And it seems that this brings out something in Lewis's story. Facebook is the witch, who offers the users (Edmund), not perhaps Turkish Delight, but eye candy,. so they are attracted by which is bright and glittery and shallow, so that, like Edmund, we are distracted away from concern with truth and justice and courage and loyalty, and become statues in the Facebook castle. 












24 May 2020

Alice's Restaurant

Last night I watched Alice's Restaurant for the third time.

The film was made in 1969, and in a way was a kind of epilogue on the 1960s.

The plot is fairly simple. Two funerals and a wedding.

Ray buys an old deconsecrated church and Alice opens a restaurant in it. Arlo goes to see Alice for Thanksgivng and as a favour takes her trash to the dump. When the dump is closed, he drops it on top of another pile of garbage at the bottom of a ravine. When the local sheriff finds out a major manhunt begins. Arlo manages to survive the courtroom experience but when he is to be inducted into the army via the draft and is asked whether he has ever been arrested, he has to say yes. Has he been convicted of a crime? Yes. Even through the crime was littering, he is sent to the group with major criminals.

One reviewer at the IMDb site says
Alice's Restaurant is about life and loss, and the traps we allow ourselves to get caught up in. It's about addiction, youth, anarchy, death, and aimlessness. It's a celebration and a lament for all those things.

As we were watching it, there is a scene with a tent evangelist, and they are singing Amazing Grace. Val remarked that that must be one of the overplayed hymns ever, like Kum-ba-ya. And I recalled that when I first saw the film, in Windhoek on 15 December 1970, it was the first time I had ever heard Amazing Grace, so it came to me as fresh and new then. I heard it quite a lot thereafter, and I wondered it it was the film that was responsible for its subsequent popularity. Certainly in my mind that song was always associated with the film, and in 2006, when the family asked what I wanted as a birthday present, one of the things I mentioned was the DVD of Alice's Restaurant, so I could remind myself of where I first heard that song.

A couple of years later, when I was living in Durban, staying with Larry and Carol Gilley and their family, they had an old hymn book with Amazing Grace in it, and I used it a few times in church services, and at that time, too, I had never heard it anywhere else but in the film. And a couple of years later it was heard everywhere, though in a slightly different version, with different music for the third line.

When I first saw Alice's Restaurant I was living in a Christian commune in Windhoek and that was one of the dreams of the 1960s that didn't quite come true. And at the end of the film Ray and Alice get married, and they have a big celebration with lots of friends in their church-cum-restaurant. Then one by one the friends leave, and Ray and Alice urge them to stay. Ray says they will move to a farm in the country, where they can all live together and see each other whenever they want. They go to the door, and see of the last of their friends. and Ray talks some more about that, in the same way that we often talked about such things in those days. Then he goes inside, and Alice is left, alone and lonely, at the door. And that seems to sum up the 1960s.

In the same year that the film was released, a book was published, The Lonely Crowd, and the visions of communal living expressed by Ray in the film were intended to be a solution to that, but at the end Alice is left alone on the steps of a deconsecrated church, the symbol of a failed Christian community.

And so it calls to mind another song, not in the film, released a couple of years later, about dreams of freedom:
Yesterday's dream didn't quite come true
We fought for our freedom, and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.




14 May 2020

A Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien

A Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. by Nigel CawthorneA Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. by Nigel Cawthorne by Nigel Cawthorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I liked this book a lot better than I thought I would. I picked it up cheap in the first book shop I found open since the corona virus lockdown began, and having just re-read the first three Harry Potter books for third or fourth time I wanted to read something I hadn't read before, even if it was about books that I had read before.

It does what it says it does in the title.

If you have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and you want to know a bit more about the books and their author, and how they came to be written, then this is the book to read. It's not a book for Tolkien scholars, or for people who are studying the place of Tolkien's work in 20th century literature. It's an introduction, a brief guide, though its brevity runs to 278 pages. It has an index, a bibliography of books by and about Tolkien, but no journal articles.

Perhaps the best way to indicate what it contains is to list the Table of Contents.

Introduction: The man and the myth
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hobbit
Journey to Middle-earth.
The Inklings
Major Works
Posthumous Publications
Living in Middle-earth
The inhabitants of Middle-earth
The Characters of Middle-earth
The Languages of Middle-earth
Filming Tolkien
Bibliography
Index

The one thing it doesn't have is maps, for those you must go to the books themselves.

Flaws? Yes there are some.

One, which is not the fault of the author or publisher, is that an undergraduate student of English literature who had one of Tolkien's major books as prescribed reading could easily get away with reading the plot summaries in this book rather than the works themselves.

The second fault, for which I do blame the author and publisher, is that there are numerous typographical and spelling errors, especially in the names of the characters. The author himself makes the point that Tolkien was

...scrupulous about names. They needed to make sense and have some reasonable derivation no matter how obscure. He was always critical of earlier fantasy writers, such as Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, who seemed to pick names at random. For Tolkien names had to be fashioned by sound linguistic rules.

In view of that the publishers could at least have tried a bit harder to get the spelling of the names right.

Another thing I wasn't sure what to make of was the disclaimer on the front and back cover and the title page:

The Unauthorised Guide to the Author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I wasn't sure what message this is meant to send to the reader. Could it be saying that it gives the real information that the authorised editions all suppress, or that it doesn't, because only authorised writers are allowed access to that material? At any rate the information it give seemed generally pretty good to me.





View all my reviews

04 May 2020

Re-reading the Harry Potter books

One of the things we discovered we had during the Covid-19 lockdown was a set of DVDs with the first five Harry Potter films. We watched a couple, and since all bookshops and libraries are closed I thought I would re-read them as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


One of my criteria for a good book is that I must enjoy re-reading it, and I enjoyed reading this one for the third (or perhaps the fourth) time almost as much as I did the first time.

The Harry Potter series came out at a time when there was a dearth of good children's books. For years the children's shelves in book shops had been filled with dreck like the "Goosebumps" series, and so one of the reasons the Harry Potter books seemed so good was simply the contrast with the other reading material available at the time. But twenty years later this one still seems good, and that, to me, indicates that it has stood the test of time, and can be counted as a classic of children's literature.

I recall, from my first reading, that I liked this one best one the whole series, Each book in the series seemed to be longer than the previous one, and the quantity did not seem to correlate with quality, so I don't know how far I'll get with the series in this re-reading, since I recall that it was all downhill from here.

I enjoyed the first one in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, almost as much on re-reading, though there were a couple of rather disconcerting plot holes in that one.

By now the Harry Potter books have been translated into many other languages (they even needed to be translated into different dialects of English for American readers). I've referred to some of the difficulties of translating children's books, including the Harry Potter books, for readers of different cultures here The Owl Service: reading and culture | Khanya. Someone even wrote a doctoral thesis on the difficulty of translating the Harry Potter books into SePedi, not least the idea of travelling to school by train -- for rural South African children it might need to be translated to bus or taxi.

But perhaps the most difficult concepts to translate are those of witchcraft and wizardry. In British culture, since the Enlightenment, witches and wizards have generally been figures of fun, and are not seen as posing any real threat. They are not seen as "real", so fiction writers can portray them any way they like, and sometimes in vastly varying ways. An English reader can change the parameters for legendary and imaginary beings without much effort. When you read of Legolas the elf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you know the parameters are different from those of Dobby the house elf in the Harry Potter books. But in SePedi culture, at the very time the Harry Potter books were first bring published, some people were burning suspected witches (baloi). In SePedi culture the parameters of the concept "witch" are far narrower and more rigid than they are in English, and they are seen by many people as a very real threat. So I wonder how well the Harry Potter books translate into other cultures. 





View all my reviews

26 April 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


At the start of the restrictions on "social distance" intended to prevent or at least slow the spread of the corona virus, I recommended some books to read during quarantine and social isolation, and this was one of them. And since it's about 60 years since I read it, I thought I ought to take my own advice and read it again.

When I first read it as a teenager various people told me that though it was ostensibly a story about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Oran in Algeria, then a French colony, which led to the whole city being placed under quarantine, it was really a kind of allegory of the Nazi plague that had devastated Europe a few years before it was published. I didn't really see it at the time. Sometimes a story is just a story, and that is what I thought this one was.

But now I am older I have read many more books and many more literary genres and have greater knowledge of history and experience of life, so perhaps I would see the allegory that had escaped me before. But I have to confess that I didn't. I thought it no more an allegory than The Lord of the Rings is an allegory.

Yes, a lifetime of experience enabled me to see things that I did not see before, so I was looking through different eyes.

One of the things I saw for the first time was that at the beginning of the book a journalist, who is trapped in the city by the quarantine, had come to write about the conditions under which the Arab population of the city were living, and that was practically the last mention of the Arab population at all. We are told nothing, absolutely nothing, about how the plague affected them. But when the Nazi plague came to France, the Jews did not cease to exist. I am sure many of them would have wished to be as invisible during the Nazi occupation as the Arabs are in Camus's book.

Camus himself was trapped in Nazi-occupied France, and when he writes of the plague as "exile", he writes from real experience. It makes little difference whether the exile is caused by political conditions, war or disease, the effects are the same. And it is not just those whose homes are outside and who are trapped in the plague-ridden city who are exiles; those who have homes in the city experience exile too, and exile, in Camus's view, is essentially separation from people you love and who love you.

Between 1966 and 1972 I experienced something like such exile four times in my life, and twice in one year. The first was when I had to skip the country to study in England in 1966. Of course I was planning to go anyway, but the haste of my sudden departure (on the road to Bulawayo within five hours of a phone call from a Security Policeman) left loose ends and unfinished business in relationships that made it feel like exile to me. Then after  my return when Bishop Inman kicked me out of the Missions to Seamen in Durban when I had only been there for six months, and I went to Namibia. After a couple of years there I was beginning to feel at home and was then deported by the South West Africa administration. I went to stay with my cousin in Pietermaritzburg and four months later was banned to Durban. But out of each of those events good things eventually came, lessons were learned, and I met people I would not otherwise have met (including my wife Val), so I would have been poorer for not having met them.

After the last of these exiles, in 1972, I read The Anatomy of Exile to help me to interpret the experience, and coming to The Plague with some experience of exile enables me to see a bit more of what Camus is getting at.

The other major difference between my first reading and now is that we are now in the middle of a "lockdown" because of an infectious disease, and it is interesting to see how what Camus describes compares. Many things he described are very similar, but in The Plague there is little social distancing. People are still allowed to walk the streets, frequent cafes and attend church services. Even when the pneumonic variety of transmission of Yersinia Pestis appears, no one seems to be required to wear face masks. Only sports fixtures are cancelled, though not so much for fear of contagion as because in Camus's book they have been requisitioned as quarantine centres for those whose family members have been hospitalised with the plague. In Camus's book there is a vaccine, though supplies are inadequate because no one had envisaged an outbreak on such a scale. And of course the plague is bacterial, not viral, so antibiotics are more effective against it nowadays.

At some points I thought I might give it five stars on GoodReads instead of my original four, but a couple of things put me off. One is the invisibility of the Arab population mentioned earlier. The second is a small boy, the son of a rather strict magistrate, who is taken ill. His name is Philippe, but later his father refers to him as Jacques. Not remembering the names of the people you love doesn't seem to be a good thing in a book about love and exile.



View all my reviews

20 April 2020

The Questions people ask...

When I have a few minutes to spare I sometimes go to the Quora Question and Answer web site and see if there are any questions I can answer. One can learn quite a bit about popular culture and conventional wisdom from the kinds of questions people ask.

In this time of corona virus and stayhome injunctions there are quite a lot of questions on those topics, but one that rather surprised me was how many questions there were along the lines of Why did the South African government ban the sale of liquor?

The answer seems pretty obvious to me -- the government doesn't regard liquor as essential, like food and medicine, and so they banned the sale of liquor for the same reason that they banned the sale of books, toys, clothing and sporting goods. Why question the ban on the sale of liquor? Some people made comparisons with the era of Prohibition in the USA, and commented that it wouldn't stop people drinking. so the prohibition was ill-advised.

Do the people who ask such things think that the ban on liquor sales was bad? How does it differ from banning the sale of books? The aim is not to stop people reading, but to stop the congregating in book shops and bottle stores. It makes little difference whether you congregate in a book shop or a bottle store -- the physical proximity to other people is more likely to spread the corona virus, and that is what the government is trying to prevent, not drinking or reading. There is no ban on the sales of e-books over the internet, because that does not require physical contact.

But perhaps the liquor conspiracy theorists do have a point. The government wants us to stay at home to avoid spreading the corona virus. The last thing they want is people heeding the Hennessy brandy injunction to "never stop, never settle". Maybe that's it.

Just stop, settle down at home, and curb your wanderlust by pouring that Hennessy brandy down the drain.

Another question on Quora was Why are they rioting in South Africa?

I wondered who "they" were. It was news to me, so I watched one of the South African TV news stations instead of Al Jazeera, in the hope of learning who "they" were. News item about the police arresting people for buying and selling fake informal trading and travel permits as exceptions to the lockdown. Another on the Waterberg Welfare Society making its hospice available as a quarantine centre. Looks like those exciting events have driven boring stuff like riots right off the news pages.

Not to mention all the questions about all the things that got left out of the Bible.

14 April 2020

Into an Old Room: Edward FitzGerald

Into an Old Room: The Paradox of Edward FitzgeraldInto an Old Room: The Paradox of Edward Fitzgerald by Peter De Polnay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Peter de Polnay lived for a couple of years in a house that had once been occupied by Edward FitzGerald, a minor Victorian literary figure known mainly for his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which I haven't read. I'm not even sure how it got on our shelves, though I suspect that my mother may have bought it an auction about 65 years ago. But in this time of "social distancing", when bookshops and public libraries are closed for fear of the corona virus, I've been scanning our bookshelves at home for books I haven't read, or might want to read again.

FitzGerald was a country gentleman of independent means, and so had the leisure for literary pursuits, and some of his friends and contemporaries, like Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray, achieved more literary fame than he did.

Perhaps the best comment on FitzGerald comes from Tennyson's son Hallam, who wrote after a visit to FitzGerald in his old age,
The views that Fitz expressed to me on literature were original and interesting, but the old man never got off his own platform to look at the work of modern authors. He had always wanted men like Thackeray and my father to go along with his crochets, which were many. He had not been carried away by their genius out of himself and out of his own of Cambridge critical groove, and had not, like them, grown with the times...

Into an Old Room is not really a biography, however, but rather a criticism of biographers for portraying FitzGerald as a less interesting character than de Polnay thought he was.

I am learning some things from it, one of which is that I am gaining an inkling of the meaning of the word "snob". I had never really understood it properly. At school we used it of a person who held himself aloof from others and would not speak to them, because he thought them beneath his notice. My friend John Bolton used the word in that way, and so he taught it to me, and it meant someone who had withdrawn into a slightly offended silence. Then at the University of Natal we had English writing classes and Professor Christina van Heyningen asked our group to come up with definitions of a snob, a prude, a prig and a bourgeois. I was reasonably clear about the last three, but found it difficult to grasp the meaning of "snob". It clearly meant more than simply retreating into an offended silence. I got even more confused when Sir Garnet Wolseley (in his diary) referred to my great great grandfather, Richard Vause, as "an offensive snob", who like most of those he had met in Durban, was inclined to be "weak in his aitches". Rather than being offended, it seemed that snobs were the ones who gave offence. Now I read Into an Old Room and it describes Thackeray as a snob because he liked rubbing shoulders with those of high social status. When someone invited him to dinner, he couldn't go because he had promised to go home, and the person who invited him thought he had turned it down because there wasn't going to be a lord there. At last I begin to get the idea. But some years ago I bought a book on a sale, homing to gain enlightenment on the topic. It was called The Book of Snobs, but unfortunately it was by none other that William Makepeace Thackeray. No wonder I was confused.

Another word I leaned about from reading this book was "crotchets". I was rather surprised to learn that a "crochet" means "a whimsical fancy". I  know of the word as referring to musical notation, or a kind of knitting with one needle, and tended to think of it in this context as meaning something like a pet peeve, from association with the adjective "crotchety". But a whimsical fancy is something different.

A third thing I learned fits with my missiological interests. Peter de Polnay observed that in late Victorian times the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám seems to have been regarded as the agnostic's Bible. De Polnay noted:
It is, I believe, less read today than it was twenty years ago. Too many people have quoted it for their own purposes and too many ribbons of too many colours have been attached to it. It might at some not quite distant date find a temporary obscurity. The trend today is towards Christianity, the stand-by of troubled ages, and nowadays, having so proudly strayed from it, man finds himself an a pretty deep morass. The cross in a Scottish mist will become preferable to the sun on the Ganges.
De Polnay was writing immediately after the Second World War, when it had become rather more difficult to believe in the perfectibility of man by secular means.

Another contemporary book, long out of print, that dealt with that theme in more depth, was The Good Pagan's Failure by Rosalind Murray. I wonder whether, in this age of the corona virus, we might see such thinking come full circle again.

I'm not sure if the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám experienced an increase in popularity as World War 2 faded from living memory but if the decline of Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th century was fuelled by works like Rubáiyát giving expression to popular agnosticism, its decline in the late 20th century was fuelled by Christians themselves, who hi-jacked the charismatic renewal of the 1970s contextualised to fit the secular neo-liberal ideology of the 1980s, by producing the prosperity gospel, which has profoundly influenced the popular image of Christianity. So as we enter another troubled age, perhaps Christianity will make a comeback, if it can be found among the dross.


View all my reviews

13 April 2020

The Horsemen -- anti-ubuntu culture

The HorsemenThe Horsemen by Joseph Kessel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I pick up a 50-year-old book to read for the first time. It is set in Afghanistan, but it is Afghanistan before the US invasion, before the Soviet invasion, before the 1978 Communist coup, before the 1973 Republican coup. It was an almost unimaginably different world. And yet it is in my lifetime.

And when the book was first published, in 1970, who could have imagined the changes that would take place in Afghanistan over the next 50 years?

The plot centres on buzkashi, a game played on horseback, which was then popular in northern Afghanistan, when the king (who was to be overthrown in the 1973 coup) decides to hold a national tournament in Kabul, the capital. It gives interesting descriptions of the people, cultures and scenery of Afghanistan, and especially those of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range that divides the steppes of northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country.

It includes descriptions of the Buddha statues of the Bamyan Valley, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Could Joseph Kessel even have imagined their destruction when he wrote the book?

But the strongest impression the book made on me was of an utterly alien culture.

In South Africa one of the values people pay at least lip-service to is ubuntu, basic humanity, and compassion for other people. The Afghan culture depicted in the book is the exact opposite of ubuntu, shown in the lives and behaviour of the main characters. The northern Afghan culture, as depicted by Kessel at least, is based on honour, and honour as a zero-sum game, in which my honour can only be achieved by bringing someone else into dishonour. And perhaps that culture is epitomised by the Taliban's destruction of the statues. The Buddha taught something like ubuntu, compassion for all sentient beings, and those values are the exact opposite of the kind of values depicted in the book.





View all my reviews

28 March 2020

Lockdown Day 1: Water, Rats and Fire

27-Mar-2020, Friday

by Steve Hayes, Kilner Park in the Great City of Tshwane

Up at 1:01. The beginning of the strict "stay at home" disaster regulations. I can still hear traffic on the highway, though. I did more work on the Cowan family history and sent a descendant chart from Henry Cowan off to Peter Waddell who had written to ask about it a few days ago, At about 3:30 Pimen started barking. I looked out of the window but saw nothing. Later on our Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group someone reported seeing a hooded figure at their gate. They phoned Kilner Park Security, who in turn phoned the cops, who came and arrested the bloke. Presumably he'll be charged with breaking cufew. Later Val said that when Pimen's barking woke her she looked out and saw someone walking up Slater Street, but couldn't tell whether he was a hoodie or not.

Then went back to bed after feeding Pimen at 5:45, and slept again to 9:30. Now there is deep silence from the highway. Since Jethro is home from work I made us both Oats-so-Difficult for breakfast. I asked if we could use his drone to have a look at the traffic on the highway, but he'll have to charge the battery first. There seem to be fewer trains than usual. Eskom says there will be no load-shedding during the "lockdown" -- I'm still not very happy using that American prison term, but I suppose it's not much different from saying that we are all under house arrest.

Towards mid-morning the traffic on the highway picks up and there are lots of vehicles passing. It's the N1, so the main road to the north, three lanes each way, The trains seem to have stopped running altogether. The line across the road is the main line to the east, ending at Maputo. Normally there are 2-3 suburban trains an hour, going to Mamelodi, and several goods trains, going further. Today, nothing. How do essential workers get to work?

Val is watching cricket, matches from 11 years ago, which she recorded, when South Africa was touring Australia. Even if there were live cricket today we couldn't afford to watch it, because it's only on the most expensive channel. That's the trouble with retirement. Before you retire you have the money but no time, but once you are retired you have the time but no money.

Then the water pressure drops, and suddenly the Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group is filled with messages again. It's off in this street, it's off in that street. I recall that a couple of days ago someone reported a water leak up at the Casbah Roadhouse. perhaps the municipality has sent someone to fix it, the trouble is now no one can go up there to see if that is indeed the case. That gets someone else into a tizz -- surely that is an essential service? Why don't they fix it? But that's not what I said; I didn't say they couldn't go to fix it, I said we couldn't go to see if that's what they are doing. Simon brings in a whole lot of water containers so that we can fill them just in case there is a more serious problem with water. The containers are a relic of a few years ago when Jethro hired a trailer and drove down to Senekal in the Free State with 2000 litres of water when they were having a drought there.

I spent the afternoon reading The Horsemen, by Joseph Kessell, a novel set in northern Afghanistan before all the recent wars there. Come 4:30 and the rush hour, and the highway is quiet again, virtually no traffic passing. Another text message from a friend -- a warning from the dustmen -- wipe your dustbin handles with soap and disinfectant. We handle 2000 bins a day. Yet another vector for the virus.

We had supper, Gold Dish vegetable breyani from a tin. Thank God it's available again. For a long time one never saw it in the shops. Then at 7:00 we watched the "Pointless" TV quiz show, as is our custom, even though most of them are re-runs. When it ended at 8:00 Simon went out to see what Pimen was barking at, and it turned out to be a rat sitting on top of the fence. How it got there I can't imagine. Perhaps Pimen chased it there, and it has gecko feet. As we were going to see it, however, we noticed what seemed to be a fire to the north-east, over the railway line, where there is a scrapyard and the Koedoespoort railway workshops. I checked the WhatsApp neighbourhood watch group, and since no one else had mentioned it I did. Val phoned the fire brigade, and they said they already had a vehicle at the scene of the fire.

The rat on the fence was a brown one, and I took a photo of it. When Simon mentioned it I thought it might be an imbiba, but I couldn't see its back to make sure. It just perched there and looked through its beady little eyes and wiggled its rounded ears. I wonder -- isn't it brown rats that carry bubonic plague? Is its appearance a sign that if COVID-19 doesn't get us, bubonic plague will?

We went back inside and watched an episode of "Silent Witness" on DVD, and at about 9:00 pm went outside again to look at the fire. It was much bigger now, with smoke streaming away to the west, and occasional sirens heard. Will we ever know what it was? We can't go out tomorrow and buy the newspaper. Will they even be printing newspapers if no one is able to buy them, and the sellers can't appear on the streets? Perhaps the corona virus will be the end of print journalism.

We watched the second half of the "Silent Witness" episode, and at the end of it, about 10:15, the fire was still burning, the smoke was still streaming, and the smell was worse than it had been earlier. And so to bed, as Samuel Pepys would have said, and the evening and the morning were the first day of the lockdown.

Fire in Koedoespoort, Pretoria 27 March 2020
 ______
A group of us are sharing notes, observations and extracts from personal diaries relating to the COVID-19 epidemic. If you'd like to know more about this, and perhaps join in, or start something similar of your own, see here  Notes from underground: Physical Distance and Social Proximity in a time of plague


23 March 2020

Revising my blogroll

One problem with reviving an old blog is that the blogroll gets out of date. There are blogs on it that have been deleted, or some that haven't been posted on for 6, 7 or 8 years or more.

One great advantage of the Blogger Blogroll over the WordPress one, however, is that it lets you display the blogs in the order of most recent posts, so you don't go there, only to find that it's just stuff you've read already.

It's also possible to do some weeding out. Some people (like me!) have several blogs, and you find you have a link to one that is no longer being updated, so I've removed some of those and replaced them with the more active ones.

Having a blog on my blogroll doesn't mean that I endorse all the content, or any of it. I find it useful to read all kinds of things, even if I disagree with them. I find this a useful counter to the tendency of social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to reinforce confirmation bias. Twitter used to be better, when it showed you stuff posted by people you follow in chronological order. Now, however, it tends to give priority to people who have lots of followers who are liked by the people who like the things you like.Facebook has always done that, Those sites make choices for you about what you will see, but a blogroll lets me choose what I will see.

So I like to read blogs that express different views on various topics, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. But do have a look at them -- chances are that if you find stuff you read on my blog interesting you might find some of them interesting too. Of course if you find my blog boring, you'll probably find those boring too, but you won't know till you've had a look.

21 March 2020

Love in a time of dictatorship

Of Love and ShadowsOf Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A love story in the grim shadow of a military dictatorship. Though she names no names Isabel Allende makes no attempt to disguise the setting, Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in a military coup on 11 September 1973 and remained in power for 17 years.

It is also the story of three families. Irene Beltran, whose mother runs an upmarket old-age home, has had a privileged upbringing, and is a journalist on on a women's magazine. She goes to write a story with photographer Francisco Leal, whose family background is very different; his parents were exiles from the Spanish civil war, and their three sons are far more politically aware. One of Francisco's brothers is a priest who works in a poor slum parish, and he himself had been involved in a radical political group when he was younger, though at the time of the story his political activities are more discreet.

Francisco and Irene go to cover a story on a young girl whose fits are reputed to produce miracles, and that is the beginning of their growing attraction for each other. The girl, Evangeline, has a brother in the police, whose senior officer is humiliated when he tries to arrest her, and she soon joins the ranks of the "disappeared", those who were taken into police custody and were never seen again. Irene and Francisco get drawn into a search for Evangeline and the other disappeared, several of them from her family, a search that becomes increasingly dangerous.

Isabel Allende was in Chile in the time of the coup, and was related to the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in the coup, so writes of the dictatorship from first-hand knowledge and her descriptions of life under a military dictatorship are amazingly authentic, and bear a remarkable resemblance to life in South Africa and Namibia under .apartheid. So much sounded very familiar indeed.


View all my reviews

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails