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Forward to the past: South Africa is back in 1985

17 July 2018

When I hear the rhetoric of South Africa political leaders and the commentariat on the media, I sometimes think I’m stuck in a time warp. There was that film Back to the future. set in 1985, and going forward to 2015, but now we seem to be going back to 1985.

Suddenly racism is back in fashion. Whites, we are told, are being genocided. or are all living on land that they themselves have stolen, depending on who you listen to. The Zulus hate the Indians and the Indians disrespect the coloureds. There are narratives of white privilege and white victimhood, both of which stress the importance of whiteness. The Rainbow Nation, we are told, is a white lie built on black pain.

Is this revival of racism real, or is it just me and my own idiosyncratic perception?

No, it isn’t just me. My erstwhile colleague Tinyiko Maluleke seems to be having similar thoughts when he writes Time to put Nelson Mandela where he belongs | IOL News:

Our leaders seem to have forgotten how to speak of and to us as a nation. It is one thing for our leaders to speak truthfully and honestly about economic and political disparities.

It is quite another thing, when leaders conceal their lack of a unifying vision of South Africans as a people, by pandering to sectional, provincial and tribal interests.

Every time a South African leader invokes the phrase “our people”, we look at one another with bewilderment, wondering which particular people he or she is talking about.

We have come to know instinctively and to take for granted, that today few leaders if any use the phrase “our people” to refer to all South Africans.

I recall the early 1990s when in the negotiations leading to our first free democratic elections the ANC adamantly rejected the “group rights” concept that the National Party wanted. Now the ANC appear to have swallowed the poisoned racist bait put out by the NP. Truly did Paolo Freire say that the oppressed internalise the image of the oppressor, and in the end become just like the oppressor.

As a dog returns to its vomit, so South Africans are returning to racism and are reviving the “group rights” and groupthink rhetoric of apartheid. And it is the current leaders of the ANC who are leading the lemming charge. Not that the leaders of other parties are any better, but it is the ANC leaders who ought to know better, because it was their predecessors who strongly resisted the “group rights” concept and insisted on a democratic non-racial South Africa.

My mind goes back to 1983, when there was a white referendum for the tricameral parliament. A National Party canvasser called on me to persuade me to vote for it, and spent the whole afternoon arguing for it. After about 2-3 hours it finally sank in that I did not accept the concept of “group rights”. and that I thought that we should forget the groups and that whites, coloureds, Indians — Assembians, Representatives and Delegates — should vote together for a single parliament, and that the blacks, who had been left out of his splendid tricameral vision, should also vote for the same parliament.

“But that hasn’t worked anywhere,” he protested.

“Yes, it has,” I said, “just look west.”

He did not understand what I was talking about, but having given him all the clues he needed to work it out, after another half hour of arguing I had to spell out the answer for him. If you look west from Pretoria you will see B-O-T-S-W-A-N-A, where it had been working for 20 years. Botswana did not have a house of Assembly for the Bamangwato, a House or Representatives for the Bakwena, and a House of Dellegates for the Basarwa, as far as I knew,. But my canvasser’s mind was unable to think out of the apartheid “group rights” box that his Christian National Education had locked it into.

And now I wonder why everyone seems to be trying to crawl back into that box.

The people who resisted that, who got us out of that box at Codesa, were people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.

And now the neo-racists are calling Nelson Mandela a sell-out!

Those who call Nelson Mandela a sell-out are the real sell-outs, because they are trying to sell us the long-discarded old puke of Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha.

And while a couple of years ago I thought the #colourblind slogan a bit naive and simplistic, I’m beginning to have a change of heart about that, and to think we probably need another dose of colour-blindness to cure us of the neoracist twaddle being peddled on the media (yes, eNCA is beginning to channel the SABC of the 1970s) and by politicians.

So please read Tinyiko Maluleke’s full the link above. And let’s try to watch that we don’t get sucked into using racist rhetoric, which is rapidly being normalised again.

I keep thinking of what an English friend once said at the height of apartheid — when South Africa has solved the problem of the black and the white it will only be beginning to face the real problem — the haves and the have-nots.

I suspect that the neoracist rhetoric is a smokescreen to hide the real problem of the haves and the have nots.

Viva the Rainbow Nation! Viva!


Literary mysteries and ancient treasure

4 July 2018

I’ve just read a couple of books in the literary mysteries genre. Neither of them was a particularly good example of the genre, but there were some things about them that piqued my curiosity. I picked them out more or less at random from the library, and yet found that they were surprisingly similar in plot.

The Library of ShadowsThe Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Over the years I’ve read several books that feature second-hand bookshops, or antiquarian or rare books. Most of them seem to have “shadow” in the title — The shadow of the wind, The Book of Air and Shadows and now The Library of Shadows. An exception is The Never-Ending Story. but in that the book shop does not play quite such an important role. Another was The mysterious flame of Queen Loana, which I discussed in another post, here, but that was about the bookseller rather than about the books he sold. So when I picked this one up in the library, I thought it might be a book in the same genre, but it wasn’t.

In this one a young lawyer Copenhagen inherits his father’s bookshop when he dies, and one of his clients urges him to sell it. He has lost touch with his father after the death of his mother some years before, and discovers that the bookshop in frequented by people who belong to a Bibliophile Society, which around the time of his mother’s death split into two factions — those whose reading aloud could influence people in a special way, who were called “transmitters”, and those who could influence the readers in a special way, called “receivers”. Each blamed the other for bad things that had happened to members of the society.

When I started reading it, something about the style bothered me. I wondered at first whether it might be the quality of the translation (it is translated from Danish). Could it be the translation that made the style seem somewhat pedestrian, and the descriptions seem trite? There were physical descriptions of the characters, but not much more. One of the things that put me off was the description of female characters by their hair colour (“the redhead”), which struck me as rather sexist, but then I thought it might be different in Danish culture.

I’ve just been reading another book that warns against what I’m doing here — comparing books with other books, and not treating them on their own merits, but this one seemed to invite such comparisons, as it kept reminding me of other books I had read. And the one it reminded me of most was The da Vinci code. I think it is better written, but definitely the same genre. so if you enjoyed reading The Da Vinci code, you might enjoy this book too.

The Chaos CodeThe Chaos Code by Justin Richards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Matt Sribling goes to stay with his father for the school holidays, but his father is not home. Since his father is a rather eccentric archaeologist he is not surprised when he finds cryptic clues to his father’s whereabouts, and instructions to go to stay with his aunt Jane. but the house shows signs of having been broken into, so he is rather worried. His aunt is personal assistant to a wealthy researcher, Julius Venture, and his mysterious daughter Robin, who appears to be about Matt’s age and therefore likely to make the holiday more interesting, but his aunt warns him not to get too close to her.

Matt discovers that his father was on the track of some ancient manuscripts and artefacts that had been rescued, or pillaged from a library, and some historical research is needed to find where they are. They enlist the help of a billionaire, and travel from continent to continent in search of the missing treasure, one item of which, it is reputed, will unlock the wisdom of the ancients. At that point the story turns to pure fantasy, and becomes rather unconvincing.

One of the other reviewers of The Library of Shadows on Good Reads, Mark Zieg, makes some interesting remarks about the readers for whom it is intended. The author, he says, clearly intended it to be “the latest submission in the subgenre of supernatural literary thriller”, along with books like Elizabeth Kostovo’s The historian, and some of the others I have mentioned. He goes on to say:

The “whodunnit” aspect of the mystery, the morality play of motivations, as well as the supernatural element which sets the plot in motion, are all presented with such clumsy cliches that I found myself wondering if this was a book written for children. Indeed, with one or two snips of the editor’s scissors, this could make excellent juvenile fiction, an easy on-ramp to spark interest in better books featuring similar themes: dark and dank libraries filled with forgotten folios, musty old tomes of legend and lore whose cryptic secrets spell ecstasy or horror for the unwary reader..

And with that conclusion I must concur, and that is partly why I compare it with the second book, The Chaos Code, which, however, is classified as juvenile literature, and is likewise also perhaps to be classified as being in the same genre as The Da Vinci Code (my review here)., in that all three are about ancient conspiracies.

The main reason for blogging about The library of shadows and The Chaos Code together, however, is that in spite of the similarity of content, there is a great difference in style. Though both are probably more suitable for juvenile than adult readers, the one that was written with juvenile readers in mind is by far the better written of the two, And I’m trying to put my finger on the difference. Could it be that The Library of Shadows has just been badly translated from the Danish? Or are the stylistic weaknesses in the Danish original as well.

It’s hard to define the differences, but if any of my litcrit fundi friends are reading this, perhaps they could comment. In the first, from, The Library of Shadows, Jon Campelli, a lawyer, has just been to his father’s funeral, and been told that his father had left no will, so he was the sole heir of his antiquarian book shop.

They shook hands, then Jon crossed the street and went inside the Clean Glass pub.

It was no more than two in the afternoon but the air was thick with smoke and the regular customers had already taken their places. They gave him a brief glance but clearly decided he was of no interest and went back to their beers.

Jon ordered a draught beer and sat down at a heavy wooden table, marred by beer rings and lit by a hanging copper lamp attached somewhere above the hanging clouds of smoke. At a table opposite him sat a scrawny old man with pale skin, a crooked nose and wispy hair. The jacket he was wearing had patches on the sleeves, and the shirt underneath was wrinkled and far from clean. On the table in front of him stood a bottle of stout.

Jon offered the man a curt nod in greeting, but then he pulled out the Remer file from his briefcase so as not to invite further conversation. He sipped his beer as he studied the anonymous ring-binder.

In The Chaos Code Matt Stribling, 15, has just got off the train from boarding school and been met by his mother.

‘Thanks for meeting me.’ Usually she was working and he got a taxi.
‘Let’s just grab a cup of coffee while we’re here, Matthew,’ Mrs Stribling said.
From the fact that she said it, and the way she called him ‘Matthew’, Matt knew he wasn’t going home.
There was a Starbucks in the station and Matt had orange juice. His mouth was dry after the long journey from his school in Havenham. He was quiet, sulking — he’d been looking forward to spending the holidays at Mum’s flat in London. It didn’t look like that was going to happen now, and he could guess what the alternative was. He wanted to tell her that it was knowing he’d come home for the summer that made boarding school bearable.
Mum had a latte, and and Matt thought she’d probably only got that because she thought it wouldn’t be so hot and she could drink it quicker. Sure enough, as soon as they were seated: ‘I have to go in thirteen minutes,’ Mum told him.
That was typical of her. So precise. Matt liked to be precise too. He preferred his digital watch that told the exact right time to the second rather than one with a face and hands you had to look at and work out where everything was to tell the time.

So what is it that makes me think the second passage is much better than the first?

Why did I give the second one three stars on Good Reads, but the first one only two? Neither is a brilliant work of literature, and there are much better books in the sub-genre that I might recommend. Any ideas?

The Orthodox dilemma (book review)

23 June 2018

The Orthodox DilemmaThe Orthodox Dilemma by George Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

George Alexander’s vision, reiterated throughout this book, is for Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity. He has also founded an “Orthodox Cognate PAGE” devoted to promoting that vision. What what “Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity” means, however, is not altogether clear, despite the constant repetition.

Alexander makes some good points about how divided those Christian bodies that call themselves Orthodox are. Not only are “Eastern Orthodox” (Chalcedonian) Churches divided from “Oriental Orthodox” (non-Chalcedonian, but the Oriental Orthodox Churches are divided among themselves. The only time they ever meet each other in anything remotely approaching a council is as a premilinary to a meeting they have with the Roman pope. When the Coptic Pope of Alexandria Tawadros II ascended his throne his first visit was to the Vatican, and not to his fellow Oriental Orthodox, not even to the Ethiopian Church, with which the Coptic Church has had long-standing historical ties, The Oriental Orthodox Churches seem to be more interested in building relations with the Vatican than with each other.

Similarly, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are more likely to meet each other at gatherings arranged by Protestant bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, or the Lausanne Movement, or by the Vatican, than they are to meet each other.

I think that in this Alexander makes a very good point about the need for more communication among Eastern Christians, but I don’t think this book puts it very well.

His vision for regular meetings and for greater cooperation between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian groups sounds good to me. We share a lot in the way of common tradition and a common outlook, even though there is a serious disagreement about Christology. What we have in common is more than we have in common with most Western Christians, and so his appeal that we should give priority to ecumenical relations with our fellow-Eastern Christians rather than with Western Christians makes sense, and might enable the Eastern groups to resist the temptation and pressure to become too Westernised, as sometimes happens in such bodies as the World Council of Churches, where the prevailing Western cultural imperialism caused some Orthodox Churches to withdraw.

But it took me a long time to read this book, because it has several flaws. One of them is that it is very repetitive. This is understandable, because many of the chapters were originally articles published separately in other publications. The one I read was the second edition — perhaps if there is a third edition it could be edited to eliminate some of the inconsistencies. For example, in several chapters there are references to a schism between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Malankara Church, but it is only several chapters further on that we learn what that schism was. Editing should remove such inconsuistencies, and place the explanation with the first reference to the schism, and not with one of the last.

I also think that George Alexander is a bit too dismissive of the Christological problem that has kept Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonians apart for 1500 years. According to Alexander this probem can be solved by “love and forgiveness”, but what is there to forgive? The protagonists in the drama and disagreement have been dead for 15 centuries. We cannot blame each other or forgive each other now for something that happened so long ago. What is needed now is to ask what the declaration of Chalcedon means to us today. And any unity, even Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity, that evades that, will simply not be real.

And there are also consequences that are bypassed in the book. One side castigates and deposed Pope Dioscurus of Alexandria for rejecting the definition of Chalcedon, the other side praises him for heroically resisting it. So was he a saint or a heretic? We can disagree about that, and still meet in love to discuss matters of common concern but whether we can have the kind of Pan-Orthodox Conciliar Unity that George Alexander proposes, I’m not so sure.

And there is also an ecclesiological problem that is not really dealt with in the book. If we were all to agree on Christology, and prepare to unite, who would be the Pope of Alexandria? Theodore II or Theodore II?

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Tales from Dystopia XXII: Apartheid and me

17 June 2018

What was apartheid?

This is a question that has been asked on Quora, a site where people ask questions, and people who know the answers to those questions, or think they do, try to answer them.

Several questions were asked about apartheid, and some of them were quite personal, and I tried to answer some of them. I’ve now copied some of the answers here, somewhat edited. Though the questions were asked by different people, the result is a bit like an interview.

If you click on the questions themselves, they will take you to the original question and answer on Quora, but here I’ve tried to link them, and add some linking material.

Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes, former Senior editor and junior lecturer at University of South Africa (1986-1999)

I lived through the entire period of apartheid. I was 7 years old when it started and I was 53 when it stopped.

It was evil, stupid, wasteful and unjust in both its conception and in its implementation.

It was based on the premise (which I believe to be wrong) that “race” is the most important and significant thing about a person, and that every person should be arbitrarily be assigned to a “race” by the government, and that (among other things) your “race” should determine where you could live, where you could work, what work you could do (and how much you should be paid for it), where you could go to school, where you could worship, and who you could associate with.

Anyone who disagreed with this fundamental premiss, and who spoke against it, was liable to be harassed by the police (and sometimes by their neighbours who believed in the apartheid ideology), and in some cases banned, detained without trial or imprisoned.

It denied people fundamental human rights, and was enormously wasteful of human and other resources.


As a policy it was devised by the Purified National Party whose aim was to secure white Afrikaner supremacy in South Africa, and apartheid was one of the policies with which they fought (and won) the 1948 election, in which most of the voters were white and very few non-whites were allowed to vote (and under the apartheid policy the right to vote was taken away even from those few).

It could perhaps have been avoided if, at the time of Union in 1910, the right of black people to vote had been extended to the whole of South Africa, and if black people had taken part in the National Convention that had led to the formation of the Union but at that time (from about 1870–1915, the time of the New Imperialism) racism and the idea of white supremacy was very strong among those who made decisions on such things, So in part the roots of apartheid go back a long way.

Initially by repression and suppression of those who criticised apartheid, and by developing a police state.

A series of laws were passed, such as the Suppression of Communism Act (Act 44 of 1950), which gave the government power to ban organisations and their leaders to prevent them from speaking in public or even in private.

In 1961 B.J. Vorster became Minister of Justice, and he passed a series of laws that give more and more powers to the police, so that when he became Prime Minister in 1966 South Africa was a fully-fledged police state.

When P.W. Botha (who had been Minister of Defence) became Prime Minister, the focus shifted from the police to the military, and the strategy became a Total Strategy to meet what the government described as a Total Onslaught.

But after P.W. Botha became an executive president more and more members of his own party began to see that ultimately the military strategy could not work, and began to see the need for dialogue. When illness removed P.W. Botha from power, therefore the strategy changed.

Neoinklings: alienation and otherness

9 June 2018

At our June Neoinklings literary coffee klatch, most of the books we discussed had to do with people or groups of people being alienated from each other.

David Levey had borrowed my copy of 1968 in retrospect (my review here), and returned it, saying that he had found most of it too theoretical, as I had, but was interested in one chapter, on transgender people, which was more immediate. I would have liked to have discussed the theoretical aspect a bit more, but then others arrived and the subject shifted.

Val had been reading Between Mountains, a kind of love story set in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession (1991-2000), A war correspondent and an interpreter at the war crimes trials at The Hague develop a relationship, but interpreters’ work is confidential, and so they are not allowed to talk to journalists, and this hampers their relationship.

The book also has lots of descriptions of things that happened in the wars, and how people responded to them. Some of them brought back memories from 20 years ago, when it described the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo:

In Visoki Decani the monks lit beeswax candles and chanted. They watched the Serbian offensive, the looting and burning of the town. They took in people who came to their door, Serbs afraid of the KLA, Albanians afraid of the Serbs. They heard the gun battles as the Serbian forces advanced. Every Thursday they opened the coffin of their founder and released into the air the scent of roses. They remembered the days when tourists came to look at their ancient frescoes, which were once reported on television to paintings of UFOs bringing life to earth, our DNA seeded from outer space, and they thought they had enjoyed these tourists despite it all. They chopped wood, cleaned the stables, and did HTML coding for their web page, where they implored other Serbs to talk to the Albanians, just sit down and talk. They prayed that, when the day came, and it might be soon, they would make a good death.

Twenty years ago one of the monks, Fr Sava Janjic, would write a kind of daily diary of the monastery on internet mailing lists, in which such events were described. So we were given a monk’s eye view of the conflict and the news from Kosovo in a kind of blow by blow account, and the summary above seems fairly accurate, except that it tends to imply that the violence was mainly from the Serb side. The monks urged all sides to seek a peaceful resolution, but there were too many conflicting vested interests.

Apparently this is what got some of the tourists excited about UFOs:

What got tourists at Decani Monastery excited about UFOs

That led on to some discussion of the role of the media and public relations firms in stoking ethic hatred. The British firm Bell Pottingert doing such things for their clients in South Africa was still recent enough to be at the forefront of everyone’s memory, It led on to mention of another book, The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington. Huntington describes how the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession got started:

The breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia moved toward independence and pleaded with Western European powers for support. The response of the West was defined by Germany, and the response of Germany was in large part defined by the Catholic connection. The Bonn government came under pressure to act from the German Catholic hierarchy, its coalition partner the Christian Social Union Party in Bavaria, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other media. The Bavarian media, in particular, played a crucial role in developing German public sentiment for recognition. ‘Bavarian TV’, Flora Lewis noted, ‘much weighed upon by the very conservative Bavarian government and the strong, assertive Bavarian Catholic Church which had close connections with the church in Croatia, provided the television reports for all of Germany when the war <with the Serbs> began in earnest. The coverage was very one-sided’… Germany pressured the European Union to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and then, having secured that, pushed forward on its own to recognize them before the Union did in December 1991.

For more on the role of PR firms in igniting ethnic hatred, see here.

This led on to ethnic and religious conflict and the kidnapping of people, especially children, in Nigeria, and Tony McGregor mentioned a book his daughter had been reading, What Sunny saw in the flames, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Someone also mentioned Pale Native by Max du Preez — memoirs of a journalist, but one who was trying to extinguish the fires of ethnic hatred rather than igniting them,

That got us on to how racial conflict started in South Africa, and the relations between Dutch and Khoi in the Western Cape in the mid-17th century. Janneke Weidema said that went back to the history of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain and told us something about that.

I mentioned another book I had read recently, The mysterious flame of Queen Loana. by Umberto Eco. I had thought the title referred to a monarch of a place liker Hawai’i, but it turned out to be the title of a comic book. It’s about a man who suffers from partial memory loss — he can remember abstract things he learnt, but not personal relationships. Hr goes back to his grandfather’s home where he grew up, and looks through the books and comics he read as a child and his school essays, and finds that it is like researching the biography of a stranger.

He grew up during the Second World War, and so he wondered how he had reacted to Fascism and the Fascist indoctrination in schools.  He saw some of the school essays he wrote as a child, and saw his text books about the noble Italians as opposed to the degenerate Ethiopians and Jews. He was a member of the Balilla Boys, the Italian equivalent of the Voortrekkers, and wondered if he had been a proud or reluctant member.

Janneke told us some stories about the German occupation of the Netherlands, and how their friends and neighbours tried to hide Jews from the Nazis, and how some Jews never dared go out of doors until the war was over

And, back in the Cape Colony, Tony McGregor asked me about a book that debunked the Nationalist mythmaking about Slagtersnek. The Nationalist myth was that a heroic Afrikaner, Bezuidenhout, stood on his white dignity and resisted arrest by Hottentot soldiers. But the author, J.A. Heese, did some genealogical research, and discovered that Bezuidenthout was resisting arrest shooting at the soldiers from a cave with his half-caste son. It had nothing to do with “white dignity” and everything to do with not wanting to pay tax. The book is Slagtersnek en sy mense, by J.A. Heese (Kaapstad, Tafelberg, 1973).


Colin Morris: the Methodist who led me to Orthodoxy

8 June 2018

This morning I read an obituary for Colin Morris, a Methodist minister who had a profound influence on my life.

It’s almost exactly 50 years ago that someone else lent me a book by Colin Morris. I was writing my final exams for a postgrad Diploma in Theology at Durham University. I’d just finished an Old Testament exam, and had a Doctrine exam the following morning. I should have been studying for it, but found Morris’s book too absorbing to put down. His book called into question the whole activity of academic theology.

Include Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical CowardInclude Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward by Colin M. Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colin Morris was a Methodist minister in Zambia in the 1950s and 1960s. This book starts with a description of how a young Zambian dropped dead of starvation outside his front door on the same morning as he received a copy of the Methodist Recorder, dealing with a report on Anglican-Methodist unity talks. and the theological issues that still separated them.

He was struck by the contrast between armchair theologians in Europe engaging in theoretical theological debates and their failure to take seriously the plight of people like the man who dropped dead at his door. “Your theology, fancy or plain, is what you are when the talking stops and the action starts.”

The book is filled with similar instances.

He castigates the academic theologians for tinkering with theological propositions in order to make them more “relevant”, and urges them rather to put into practice the theology that they already have.

(Karl Barth writes) “‘Jesus is immanent in the Church only because He transcends it’. In everyday speech this is like saying that something is wet only because it is dry, near only because it is far away, and relevant only because it is irrelevant…

… Ah, breathes the theologian. That is paradox and, therefore, profound.

… Ah, says the man in the pew, it’s beyond me but I’ll take the parson’s word that it means something.

… So what? says the man in the street, it has nothing to do with the price of fish! — a remark calculated to touch a theologian on the raw; say that he’s unintelligible and he will take it as a compliment, but suggest that he is also irrelevant and he will sue you!

And fifty years after Colin Morris wrote these words, little has changed.

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A couple of months earlier, in April 1968, I had attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students — 10 days of lectures at a World Council of Churches Study Center in Bossey, Switzerland, followed by Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. A couple of months later I spent a term at St Paul’s college, Grahamstown, where, all exams behind me, I could browse the library and read what I liked, and read The world as sacrament by Fr Alexander Schmemann.

I’ve described how all these led me to Orthodoxy  in another blog post here, so I won’t repeat all that now. But what struck me most about what Colin Morris had written was how it echoed what G.K. Chesterton had written sixty years previously in his book Orthodoxy — that as long as we keep changing our theology, we will never change the world.

Theological liberalism — taking liberties with theology — usually leads to political conservatism. If we are always adapting our theology to fit the status quo of the world, then, as Chesterton put it, as long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will always remain exactly the same.

As Morris puts it, “The judgement upon us is not that we have failed to bring our theology into line with the best modern thought, though that may be true, but that we do not act to the limit of the theology we already have.”

I never met Colin Morris, but I did read a book he wrote at a critical point in my life, which changed my approach to theology. And fifty years after reading that book, I read his obituary here. .

Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life

24 May 2018

Danse MacabreDanse Macabre by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book more than 20 years ago, and wasn’t very impressed with it. It was old even back then, so why read it again now?

I was moved to read it again because several months ago I blogged on Stephen King‘s 70th birthday, and said that some of his monsters were convincing and others not (Stephen King is 70 | Khanya)). Brenton Dickieson commented that I had misunderstood some of the monsters. and so I re-read It to remind myself about the monster in it.

I wasn’t altogether convinced. and so began reading a series of books about horror literature to see what they had to say abut monsters in particular, and we also discussed this a bit at our monthly literary coffee klatsch. And so I came back to this book.

What does Stephen King have to say about monsters, his own and other people’s?

In this book he deals mainly with the period 1950-1980, and nearly 40 years have passed. King himself has written many more stories featuring monsters since then, and so have a lot of other people. His own views may also have changed.

According to King there are three main types of monster in “horror” literature:

  • the Vampire
  • the Werewolf
  • the Thing without a Name

He uses three 19th century horror novels to typify these. The Vampire, of course, is Dracula. The Werewolf is Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Thing without a Name is Frankenstein.

But then there is the mother of them all, the Ghost Story, which was so common in the 19th century. If anything typifies the 19th-century ghost story it is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

King (1982:79) makes a further division:

All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will — a conscious decision to do evil — and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.

I’m not sure that these systems of classification work all the time, or even most of the time. King himself went on to write stories that cut across both systems.

What is the nature of a monster anyway?

As King and others have noted, one kind of monster is a physically misshapen creature. In the period King writes of, such “monsters” often appeared in circus side-shows — dwarfs, bearded ladies, people who were unusually short or tall, fat or thin. People paid to go and see them, and King sees this as one of the functions of the horror story. When we see people with unusual shapes, we can be thankful that we are “normal” and it gives us a measure of “normality”.

But in fantasy literature generally monstrosity is a symbol of evil, of twisting the good out of shape. So Tolkien’s orcs are misshapen, deliberately twisted by their master. Shelob is a monstrous spider, monstrous because of her size.

But while Frankenstein’s monster indeed has no name, it is also, like the Vampire, a revenant, something returned from the dead. It is created by the free will of Victor Frankenstein, but develops a will of its own and so becomes, from a human point of view, an external evil.

And this happens in one of King’s own later stories, Pet Sematary.

Warning, possible spoilers

In this book there is a mixture of external evil in the form of the Wendigo, the wild spirit of the untamed woods, and the grieving father who tries to get his son back from the dead, and does that of his own free will. So at one level there is the classic zombie story.

Zombies, like vampires, are revenants, corpses returned from the dead. The difference is that vampires return of their own free will, but zombies are reanimated by the will of the living. And that applies to the composite monster created by Frankenstein too. The “thing” in Pet Sematary has a name, the name of the son who dies, so it doesn’t fit neatly into King’s classification system.

Several chapters in the middle of Danse Macabre suffered from its being so out of date. King described horror films and TV shows. I never saw most of the films, and during most of the period King deals with we didn’t have TV in South Africa, so I had no chance of seeing them, but even in countries that did have TV, no one under 50 is likely to remember them.

The book has two appendixes, one with what King regards as the better films of the period 1950-1980, and one with a list of  the better books.

Some of the books and films he mentions, or fails to mention, are quite surprising, however.

The film Horror Express, made in 1972, was well within the period that King writes about, and yet I could find no mention of it in King’s book. It even starred such classic horror actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Among the books he mentions is Watership Down by Richard Adams. I never thought of that as a horror tale. But Adams did write at least one horror story — Girl in a Swing. But perhaps it was too late for King’s period, though only just.

What follows appears in my blog post but not in my Good Reads review because it strays from a straightforward review of a book into what it is about monsters that interests me.

I suppose my take on monsters is shaped by a Christian outlook and worldview.

There are monsters in the Bible. Some, like Rahab, are only hinted at (Isaiah 51:9-12); others, like the monster from the sea and the monster from the land in Revelation 13, are described in some detail.

The Anglican catechism used to describe a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Monsters, whatever else they may be, are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

Stephen King at his best seems to get this. As I noted in blogging about his birthday Stephen King is 70 | Khanya:

Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s zombie story, though he doesn’t use the word zombie in it, perhaps because zombies belong to another culture. But it is not the Wendigo or the zombies that are at the centre of the story, but the temptations of the human heart. In that sense it is like some of the writings of the Desert Fathers about demonic assaults and temptations, transferred from the desert to American suburbia.

In his Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine G.B. Caird says that the monster from the sea (in Rev. chapter 13) represents the power of the State, while the monster from the land represents religion supporting the state (specifically at that time, the Roman religion of emperor worship). He qualifies this, however, by saying:

But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv).

The monsters are both external and internal. They roam the world, but they also enter our hearts. In this case, the temptation is to try to solve all problems by politics, but what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.

And if one characteristic of monsters is their deformity, then that is how we saw the monster of Apartheid. Evil does not exist independently of good (as H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters seem to suggest). Apartheid was monstrous because it was a deformation, a twisting of the good. As the Oyarsa of Malacandra said to Weston in Out of the silent planet:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa in your brain.

That is the most succinct description of apartheid that I know, of its monstrosity and deformity. That is what it did, and that is how it was set up by the Bent One.

And now we have groups like AfriForum trying to summon Apartheid from the grave, like a zombie, to blight our lives.