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Holy Week and Pascha 2016

2 May 2016

Each year we seem to manage to get to fewer and fewer of the Holy Week and Pascha services. Since Val retired, and the introduction of toll roads, it has become too expensive to travel much, so we had reduced the number of services we go to, and went only on Good Friday and Pascha itself.

Holy Saturday Matins, St Nicholas, Brixton

Holy Saturday Matins, St Nicholas, Brixton

We went to the Paschal Vigil at St Nicholas in Brixton, where, sad to say, the Easter kiss was omitted, for the first time in my memory. It was the Easter kiss that first got me hooked on Orthodoxy, and until this year it had part of the unbroken tradition of the Church of St Nicholas of Japan for the last 28 years. Singing “Let us embrace each other joyously” without actually doing it seems to show that we have lost the plot, and are turning Christianity into a spectator sport.

Some of the children fell asleep during the Paschal Vigil, so when everyone went into the hall for breakfast, Vusimuzi Nkabinda stayed behind in the church to keep an eye on them

Some of the children fell asleep during the Paschal Vigil, so when everyone went into the hall for breakfast, Vusimuzi Nkabinda stayed behind in the church to keep an eye on them

On the way home from the Paschal Vigil, at about 3:45 am the cops stopped us, and demanded that Jethro, who was driving, get out of the car. He asked why, and they said they wanted to search him. So he asked if we could go to the police station, because the place where we had stopped was a lonely one, under a bridge, where people are often mugged, and it has not been unheard of for robbers to dress up in police uniforms and then rob people. So we drove to the Villeria police station where the police inspected Jethro’s driving licence and looked at the car, and then we went on home.

We got to bed at about 4:30 am, and had to be up again at 6:30, when we went to fetch Alinah Malahlela from Mamelodi, and took her with us to Atteridgeville for the Hours and Readers service there. Alinah’s family were away for the weekend, and it was the only service she, or any of the people at Atteridgeville, would have for Holy Week and Pascha, so we thought it fairly important that they should have something.

The African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville, Tshwane.

The African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville, Tshwane.

We met, as usual, in the African Orthodox Church (AOC), which we use for our Sunday services at 9:00 am, and the AOC people have their service at 10:30 am, so the timing works out rather well. The AOC had invited us to join them for Western Good Friday a month before, and we had done so, so we invited them to join us for our Easter, which the did. We had the Hours and Readers Service, as usual, except that the Hours of Pascha are different — shorter, with no reading of Psalms, and a lot of singing. And in spite of the fact that only three of us actually knew the music, it sounded as though everyone was singing, and the singing filled the little church. We took Alinah home, and got home ourselves at 12:00 noon. At lunch we had our Easter eggs scrambled, with bacon.

After the Hours and Readers Service in Atteridgeville, Easter Sunday morning, 1 May 2016

After the Hours and Readers Service in Atteridgeville, Easter Sunday morning, 1 May 2016

We left again just after 4:00 pm, and went to fetch Fr Frumentius at the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Gerhardville, and went back to St Nicholas in Brixton for the Vespers of Love.

The road to Atteridgerville, traversed 4 times on Easter Stunday

The road to Atteridgerville, traversed 4 times on Easter Stunday

We read the Gospel (about Doubting Thomas) in as many languages as we could find Bibles for and people who can read them. I’m not sure of all the languages that we read this year, but among them were English, Greek, Iralian, French, Herero, Pedi, Zulu and Afrikaans. One year we had 17 languages, including Masndarin Chinese. I don’t think we’ve ever had Japanese, even though the church is dedicated to St Nicholas of Japan.

The choir at St Nicholas, Brixton, leaqding the singing of the Agape Vespers 1 May 2016

The choir at St Nicholas, Brixton, leaqding the singing of the Agape Vespers 1 May 2016

About a third of the people in the congregation left at the beginning. so they didn’t get to hear that, but the rest of us had a good time.

Vespers of Love -- reading the gospel in different languages

Vespers of Love — reading the gospel in different languages

In the Orthodox Church Easter Week is called Bright Week, and unlike other occasions, at Vespers during Bright Week all the lights in the church are turned up to the maximum, making the church look much brighter4 than usual.

Agape Vespers at St Nicholas, Brixton. 1 May 2016

Agape Vespers at St Nicholas, Brixton. 1 May 2016. The Holy Doors are left open throughout Bright Week, and no kneeling is permitted in church between Pascha and Pentecost.

We took Fr Frumentius home, and got home ourselves at about 10:00 pm. I estimate that this Pascha we must have driven nearly 500 km, and spent about 10 hours of the previous 24 sitting in a car, travelling to and from services. In the course of that driving we saw at least four other vehicles driving through red robots at high speed. There are always news items at long weekends  about the number of people killed on the roads, usually attributed to speed. But this is misleading. It is not usually speed alone that is the problem, but recklessness. Driving at 80 km/h on an empty double carriageway late at night, when there is no other traffic, even when there is a 60 km/h speed limit, is not really dangerous. Driving though a red robot at 140 km/h, passing other vehicles waiting there, is a big problem. The driver of such a vehicle has no chance to see if a vehicle is coming the other way, much less to stop to avoid it.


A social misfit on social media

24 April 2016

This morning I gained a bunch of followers on Twitter, and got added to half a dozen lists.

I’m not going to follow them back or add them and sooner or later they, or their bots, will work that out, and drop me, or unfollow me, and when that happens it’ll look bad in the statistical trackers. That doesn’t bother me much, because I don’t work like that. I don’t solicit followers on Twitter, and I rarely follow back someone who follows unless I’m interested in what they have to say.

socialmisfitIt seems that my mind doesn’t work the way social media expect people’s minds to work.

The thing that got me so many new followers and got me added to so many new lists was that I posted something about “user experience” on my other blog. And my experience is that whenever software marketers go on about an “improved user experience” it is invariably coupled with degraded software performance. They add more bells and whistles by melting down the pistons and cylinders.

But because I posted some rather detrimental comments about “user experience” on web pages, I suddenly get people following me and lists adding me because I used the #ux hashtag. Well, perhaps it will do some good. Maybe if a few more web designers get the message and start using more legible fonts it might help.

Another example is the Patheos website, and this is a more serious theological point. I discovered that some of blogs that I used to read regularly had disappeared from their usual places, and reappeared on something called Patheos.

My initial reaction was not very favourable, and you can find more about that on my original post. But there’s something else, which I think is more important. You see, Patheos claims to be “hosting the conversation on faith”. Now that tells me right away that my blogs don’t fit there, because none of them are really part of a conversation on faith. A bunch of blogs having a conversation on faith seems to me to be horribly introspective, introverted and self-referential. Narcissistic, even.

Some of my friends have talked about “public theology” and “theology in the public square”, but Patheos seems to be doing the opposite — removing the “conversation on faith” from the public square and confining it to some sort of religious ghetto. And anyway, it shouldn’t, for the most part, be a conversation on faith, but rather should be faith conversing on life. Add the universe and everything as well — them too.

I suppose Patheos must seem like a very good thing to those militant atheists who demand “freedom from religion”. Get the “conversation on faith” neatly corralled into one little corner of the web and they know where to stay away from. Except that Patheos has them covered, and has an atheist section as well.

And then there are those web pages — usually articles recommended on one or other social medium — where you haven’t read the first sentence before something pops up, hiding what you were reading, and asking you to like it on Facebook or subscribe to some newsletter. Unless the first half of the first sentence is very, very interesting so that I really want to read it, that is the point at which I go back to the original page where I found the link.

But the point is, what are the web designers thinking?

What are their expectations of the people who will look at that page?

That they will like something before they’ve read it? That they will subscribe to every publication with a link to that they haven’t read?

A long time ago I was browsing through magazines in a newsagent, trying to see which ones had articles that interested me. I was definitely going to buy one, I was just trying to decide which one. The shop owner demanded that I put them down. I must buy them sight unseen, and read them at home. I walked out of the shop and never went back. Now web page designers seem to do the same thing. I see no problem with them asking such things at the end, when I’ve read the article, but popping them up at the beginning seems to expect a mentality that is very foreign to me.

All this makes me think I must be a social media misfit, and this article suggests that I am: Social Media & Personality: Are You a Misfit? – Louise Myers Visual Social Media.

That makes sense, except for one thing: if I find this stuff weird because I’m an introvert, why do I find the whole concept behind Patheos rebarbative because it is too introspective and introverted?

Now, if you’ve read this far, and find it interesting, you can post it on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the relevant button below. But if I was fit for social media, I should have asked you to do so at the beginning. You don’t have to read it, you just have to “like” it.

But, better still, write a comment below (not on Facebook) to tell me where and how you agree or disagree with what I’ve written. That’s a conversation, even if it isn’t strictly about faith.





15 April 2016

This morning we went to TGIF to hear Tom Price speak on Building civilisation without becoming uncivilised.

Next week I will be speaking at TGIF on African Independent Churches, which also, in a way, relate to the question of civilization, but more on that below.

Tom Price quoted G.K. Chesterton as saying “Civilisation, what a wonderful idea, someone should start one.” I’m not sure if Chesterton actually said that, and such quotations are a bit elusive, like the other famous one about America “going from barbarism to decadence without an intervening stage of civilization.” I thought that one was Ambrose Bierce, but I couldn’t be sure.

It doesn’t matter much, though, because Tom Price had some very good things to say, and I won’t try to reproduce them all here. He noted some threats to civilisation, and how to counter them, and commented on the relationship between Christianity and civilisation.

One of the questions he posed was how one defines civilization.

I had one of those “Aha!” moments when I was browsing in a university library and my eye lit on a book title Die stad in die mens. Perhaps I was dreaming, because when looking it up in the library catalogue, I cannot find it. But what struck me about it was that it expressed perfectly the difference between urbanization and civilization. If urbanization is about man in the city, civilization is about the city in man.

And that recalled another obscure book (though one that I do have on my shelves), Zulu transformations by Absolom Vilakazi. What Professor Vilakazi discovered in his research was that the main cultural difference among the people where he did his research, in the Valley of 1000 Hills, was between Christians and Pagans. Among Christians, on could find urban values even in the rural areas; among pagans, one found rural values, even among urban workers. In other words, pagans were urbanised but not civilised; Christians were civilized, even when not urbanized. That was over 50 years ago, but it does signify the contrast between man in the city, and the city in man.

It also reminded me of the book of Lamentations, where the refrain is “How doth the city sit solitary when it was full of people.” It seems to the lamenter that cities full of people are a good thing, and that expresses something of the notion of civilization. And if you Google for “abandoned places” you will find something of the same theme in popular culture today.

And I wondered how much that linked with the Victorian missionaries’ triad of Christianity, commerce and civilization?

Vilakazi didn’t attempt to answer that question — he was an anthropologist, not a missiologist, and such a question was beyond his brief, or remit, as people would say nowadays.

Nineteenth-century Western missionaries in Africa tended to think that Christianity, commerce and civilization went together. One of those who propounded this view was David Livingstone, who thought that the church could not develop in security in Africa while the slave trade continued, and so believed that the slave trade must be superseded by “legitimate commerce” before the Christian churches could take root. That wasn’t, however, a notion that seemed to occur to St Paul. This notion also led later historians of the historical materialist school to assume that Christian mission was simply a more oblique means of spreading the gospel of capitalism.

The explosion of Christian mission in Africa in the 19th century also instigated anthropological studies of the cultures the missionaries went to. But we had to wait till the late 20th century before anyone thought of doing an anthropological study of the missionaries themselves. It takes two to tango, and if Christian mission was an instance of cross-cultural communications, one needs to study both cultures doing the communication.

This task was undertaken most notably by Jean and John Comaroff (I’ve heard rumours that they will be visiting South Africa this year) in their book Of revelation and revolution:

Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South AfricaOf Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa by Jean Comaroff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthropological study of missionaries and their converts.

The thing that strikes me most strongly in this is that the Western missionaries were modern, and came from a culture shaped by modernity, but the Africans they tried to evangelise were essentially pre-modern. Some have taken these differences to represent an essential difference between European and African culture, but it is not difficult to see that if a missionary came to So0uthern Africa from 9th-century Europe they would be on the same page as Africans, and would be as little understood by their fellow missionaries of a millennium later as the Africans were.

The 19th century missionaries brought a gospel that had been contextualised into Western modernity, tailored to solve the problems of 19th-century Westerners. They discovered that 19th-century Africans faced an entirely different set of problems, which they did not understand at all, like witchcraft. Ninth-century missionaries would have had no difficulty in relating to those problems, but 19th-century missionaries could not. So they thought the solution was to civilise Africans, in order to give them problems that the missionaries thought their gospel could solve.

This is a huge over-simplification, of course, and one could write a whole series of books with qualifications and nuances and all that good academic stuff.

But one of the things the Western missionaries did was translate the Bible into local languages, and teach people to read it. And the Bible is a thoroughly pre-modern book. And one of the effects of reading the Bible was that many African Christians began to recontextualise the Westernised gospel back into pre-modernity, and one result of that was the appearance of African independent churches, or AICs.

That is what I will be speaking about at TGIF next Friday, 22 April 2016, 6:00 am for 6:30, at the OM Link building on Kitsch Corner. If you’re interested, come along.




Beat Generation blues

7 April 2016

We had another literary coffee klatsch today (for the first one, see here), once again at Cafe 41 in Arcadia, and this time, at David Levey’s suggestion, we discussed the Beat Generation. David was particularly interested in the correspondence between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and noted that they tended to be male supremacists and exclude females.

I found the discussion very interesting, as I have long been interested in the Beat Generation writers, and interest sparked off by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, who mentioned them in a paper he read at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation at Modderpoort in 1960 (and he was invited back for a second go in 1961). You can click the link for a combined version of both papers, with the title Pilgrims of the Absolute.

My favourite book by Jack Kerouac is The Dharma Bums, and my favourite work by Allen Ginsberg is his poem Howl. Jack Kerouac is probably best known for his first novel On the Road, which I didn’t much like. But in view of David’s comment about male exclusivity, I suggested that an interesting comparison could be made between On the Road and Off the Road: my years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, which is a feminine take on it. As the GoodReads summary puts it:

On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac’s years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, “a sideburned hero of the snowy West.” As “Sal Paradise” and “Dean Moriarty,” the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience.

Neal Cassady (alias Dean Moriaty) and Jack Kerouac (alias Sal Paradise). Photo taken by Carolyn Cassady.

Neal Cassady (alias Dean Moriaty) and Jack Kerouac (alias Sal Paradise). Photo taken by Carolyn Cassady.

The actual events that Kerouac writes about took place in the 1940s, and their carefree jaunting around wasn’t much fun for Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn, who was left home holding the baby. As she describes it, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were selfish, immature and irresponsible, and she was probably right. Except that she met Neal Cassady during his jaunting, and should have known what he was like.

The impression I got from her book (which none of the others had read) was that Carolyn was torn between the freedom and spontaneity of the Bohemian jaunting of Neal and Jack, and the current bourgeois ideal of the stable American nuclear family, which, however “square” it may have seemed, did have its attractions when you had to feed and clothe the kids and pay the rent.

The bourgeois American family ideal

The bourgeois American family ideal

Later the Beat movement (as opposed to the much smaller group of the Beat Generation writers) came to a more conscious and explicit rejection of what they saw as bourgeois American values, and by the late 1950s the movement was quite widespread, and ten years later, in the late 1960s had morphed into the hippie movement, which spawned a lively underground press and a much more widespread and vocal countercultural movement. But in its inchoate beginnings in the 1940s it was much less articulate.

At this point we began talking at cross-purposes. What were the characteristics of the generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and lived through the Second World War? Tanya Pretorius thought that the women were proto-feminists, and were the first generation who had learned to be independent of males (I hope I’m not misrepresenting her point there).

GraFlan1I tend it to see it more in economic terms. Contrary to what the picture asserts, the things in the picture are all things that can only be bought with money: the clothes, the houses, the quiet neighbourhood. People had to earn enough money to live like that, and it was usually the males who had to commute from the suburbs to the city centre in order to earn the money that enabled them to live in the suburbs. And for the Beat Generation this was the “rat race” that they opted out of.

One of the points made by Brother Roger in the Pilgrims of the Absolute paper was that the Beat Generation and others were engaged in a spiritual search, and the Christian churches of the time were so embedded in the rat race themselves that they had nothing to show to such seekers. But there were also bourgeois seekers of the time, and they followed spiritual teachers like Edgar Cayce and Starr Daily. Carolyn Cassady was interested in both and for a time managed to interest Neal and Jack in them, but never with much enthusiasm. I recalled that in the 1950s my mother was engaged in a spiritual search, and had some books by Starr Daily, and also received a publication called The Path of Truth from a local guru, Nichol Campbell, whose teaching was based on Theosophy. Tanya Pretorius thought I was being rather dismissive in comparing Edgar Cayce with Nichol Campbell, whom I described as a motivational speaker. She thought Edgar Cayce deserved to be taken more seriously than that.

It was about this time that Jack Kerouac encountered Gary Snyder (alias Japhy Rider in The Dharma Bums). I thought (and this thought really struck me most strongly in this discussion, so I have to thank Tanya, David and Val for prompting it), that Gary Snyder was a much healthier  role model for Jack Kerouac than Neal Cassady, and sparked off his “Zen Catholicism” thoughts, which he expressed in The Dharma Bums. When he came down from the mountain (literally and figuratively) as recounted in Desolation Angels he fell under the influence of Neal Cassady again, and his writing deteriorated, and never recovered. Neal Cassady was really more of a ducktail than a Beat.

And that sparked off a memory of when I was a student, and a youthful member of the Liberal Party, and a group of us Liberal Party youth were rounded up and taken to meet the Grand Dame of the Liberal Party, Margaret Ballinger, who had been the only Liberal MP in the South African parliament until her seat was abolished (she represented the black constituency of Cape Western). At the gathering she asked me to explain to her the difference between beatniks and ducktails, which I did by saying that the beatniks (well, actually the Beats) rejected the values and goods that bourgeois society offered, and sought to disaffiliate from it, whereas ducktails accepted the values, but just wanted to get the goods more quickly — as Queen later put it, “we want it all, and we want it now”. So it seems to me that Neal Cassady was more of a ducktail than a Beat.

Some of this rejection of bourgeois American values is told in a book written by someone from the outside looking in to the Beat counterculture of the late 1950s, The Holy Barbarians, by Lawrence Lipton. Perhaps this quote from Lipton’s book can show why Brother Roger compared the Beats to the early Franciscans:

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honorable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.



Liberation, ethics and eschatology

6 April 2016

Many of us in South Africa have been saddened by the degeneration of the government of the country, and its failure to realise what we hoped for when we voted in the first non-racial and democratic elections in 1994. This was confirmed when the Constitutional Court found that the president did not uphold the constitution.

The disappointment felt by many has been very well expressed in an article by Professor Raymond Suttner Liberation and Ethics. Is there a connection?:

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the legitimacy not only of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, but also the notion of the liberation struggle itself is in shreds. For some of us, it was unthinkable that such an alliance of forces could degenerate into a moneymaking, lawless and violent operation represented by people who were prepared to trample on the values that we understood the movement to embody. Certainly, this did not happen overnight. The process leading to the present state of affairs has been long in the making.

In this context, many people like myself are forced to reflect on the choices we made some decades back and what it is that we were seeking then, what we saw to be required of us. Did we have an adequate perspective, and if we find we were right in what we did and believed then, was this shared by others or were we naive?

In his article Professor Suttner reflects on comradeship in the liberation struggle. My memories are somewhat different, perhaps because we moved in different circles. Yes, there was comradeship, but there was also (in my circles, not necessarily in his) the suspicion that some of one’s “comrades” were police spies. Pimps were everywhere, and such was the atmosphere of the apartheid Zeitgeist of suspicion that one could suspect even one’s close friends of being spies. So for some of us it was not “unthinkable that such an alliance of forces could degenerate into a moneymaking, lawless and violent operation represented by people who were prepared to trample on the values that we understood the movement to embody”. It was quite thinkable, and we thought about it a lot. The police informers, izimpimpi. were already moneymaking and lawless. Perhaps they were not yet violent, but their paymasters were.

Maybe I see it somewhat differently because I was a liberal and Professor Suttner was a communist. I’m not trying to sound smug or superior here, just to point out that there are different glasses through which one interprets events. It was a liberal historian, Lord Acton, who said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Liberation movements that are fighting oppressors and are themselves oppressed and persecuted tend to be kept honest because they have nothing to gain when they are powerless. The moment they come to power, the temptation to corruption is there at once.

So in a way, we are disappointed that South Africa has become normal. We were a bit abnormal because our freedom struggle was still within living memory. We can remember people like Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, and think that they were not like this, because we remember them from a time when they were relatively powerless. In other countries with a long tradition of democracy, behaviour like that of many of our politicians has come to be accepted as normal and expected.

In 1995 I visited Kenya. It was just over a year after our first democratic elections and for me the euphoria of new-found freedom had not yet worn off. I was puzzled and a bit disappointed that no one in Kenya wanted to know about that. The only thing about South Africa that interested them was the Mandela divorce and who would get the money. I realised then that they were judging South Africa by the standards of their own politics; they expected politicians to be corrupt and assumed that ours must be as corrupt as theirs.

Fr Albert Nolan, OP

Fr Albert Nolan, OP

But even more surprising than the Kenyans was the response of Albert Nolan, a Dominican priest I once knew.

At around the time of the first democratic elections, I read somewhere that he had said that this would be different from every other revolution in history; others may descend into nepotism and corruption, but ours would not. I forget where I saw it, it may have been a newspaper article or an interview or a letter to the paper. I recall thinking at the time that it was a very strange thing to say, and I wonder what he would say today.

It struck me as strange because it goes against Christian eschatology, and Dominicans have a more thorough theological training than most.

One of the Christian objections to Marxist Communism is that it claims that the kingdom of God (or something like it, a condition of justice, peace and the absence of oppression) is attainable in this world. It is an entirely secular eschatology. And it goes against that secular eschatology to say that things are not perfect, or at least well on their way to becoming so. That is why Soviet dissenters often ended up in lunatic asylums: to deny the present perfection of Soviet society showed that one was out of touch with reality and was suffering from delusions.

Christian eschatology is not secular. It does not claim that perfection is attainable in this age, but only in the age to come. Even the best that we can achieve in this age is but a foretaste of the life of the age to come. Jesus healed many sick people, but eventually they died. Even Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, is not still walking around among us. He died and was buried. From this point of view, 1994 was a Lazarus moment for South Africa, and those of us who experienced it will never forget it. But only the very naive among us could think that it would last for ever.

Back in 1972, at the height of apartheid, when the power of the National Party had probably reached its zenith, there was a song that we used to sing, Let there be light in the land:

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.

Let there be light in the land!
Let there be light in the people!
Let there be God in our lives
from now on.

And that seemed to sum it up.

In our case, it wasn’t yesterday’s dream, but today’s and tomorrow’s dream. We didn’t actually expect to see it come true in our lifetime, not back in 1972. But if it did, we knew that it wouldn’t last. So Albert Nolan’s prediction that it would last forever seemed a bit daft.

We live in a fallen world. We may win temporary victories over evil, but we will never eliminate evil entirely, and thinking that we can eliminate it entirely is the most dangerous thought of all, because then we cannot acknowledge that evil has crept back into the world that we have created, and so we erect Gulags for those who deny the reality of our present perfection.

As G.K. Chesterton said:

Perhaps it might be put thus: that we need watchfulness even in Utopia, lest we fall from Utopia as we fell from Eden. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is — the Fall.

and again

A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.







Still in search of lost time

19 March 2016

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 of 4 (Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, Part 1) (Everyman's Library Classics)In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 of 4 (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, Part 1) by Marcel Proust

I saw this book in the library and thought I’d seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20th century, or one of the greatest novels of all time, or even the greatest novel of all time. With such overwhelming recommendations, I thought I ought at least to have a look at it, so I took out the first volumen. I was reading it concurrently with Night train to Lisbon, which seemed to deserve the title In search of lost time almost as much as this one did.

I finished Night train to Lisbon, but I’ve still got a long way to go with this one. But I’ve read enough to know that it is a strange book. It seems to break every rule of good writing and style. It has sentences that run over a full page, full of subordinate clauses, and when you get to the end of the sentence you have to go back to the beginning agaain to see what the beginning of the main clause was.

I’ve been told this is a cultural thing.

French and Spanish writers love long convoluted sentences, while English speakers don’t. At least so I’ve been told. From my time as an editor at Unisa I know that Afrikaans bureaucrats and academics love long and convoluted sentences too — though sometimes I think it is for the wrong reasons. They think it sounds more “scientific”. Too often, however, it’s just a cover-up for bullshit. People without academic pretensions seem to be able to write clear and lucid Afrikaans prose, even beautiful prose, without the need to use turgid and turbid circumlocutions. Beyers Naude, for example. It seems strange to me that a language that has such beautiful poetry seems to have so many speakers who feel the need to uglify it with bombastic prose.

I’ve been told that In search of lost time is written in a “stream of consciousness” style, and that might help to explain the long sentences and convoluted syntax. But I’ve read other “stream-of-consciousness” novels and I don’t recall the main clause being divided by half a page of subordinate clauses like an if-then computer program. Yes, one thought leads to another, but the syntax follows the thought, rather than the thought being divided by the syntax — at least that is what I recall in The Waves and Ulysses. And this one has more digressions than Tristram Shandy.

Another confusing thing is that one is never sure of the age of the narrator. One moment he is sent to bed because he’s too young to sit at the dinner table with the adults, and is scheming to get his mother to come upstairs and kiss him goodnight, the next he is holding adult literary discussions with a sophisticated friend who is excluded from the dinner table because he was rude about the narrator’s great aunt. Still, I suppose my stream of consciousness jumps about like that except I’m not asking anyone else to read it, and as the author says, we don’t know people, we only know out memories of them. But I think the author of Night train to Lisbon says it better, and in fewer words.

I’m sure I’ll have to take it back to the library before I’ve finished it, and even if I do finish it there are still three more volumes to go. Maybe I’ll renew it, maybe I won’t.


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In search of lost time

13 March 2016

Night Train To LisbonNight Train To Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book. In search of lost time is Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, and I’m not even halfway through the first of the four volumes, and I doubt that I’ll ever finish it. I’m not really much into blockbuster novels. In fact I’m not even sure what a “blockbuster” novel is except that I associate it with very fat books of 700 pages or more. OK, I liked The Lord of the Rings but that’s an exception. Night train to Lisbon, at 336 pages, is much shorter, but it still took me two weeks to read it. I’d read a couple of chapters, and then read a few pages of In search opf lost time. they seemed to go together.

In this book a high school teacher of classical languages has a chance encounter with a woman on a bridge in his native town of Bern, Switzerland. She tells him she speaks Portuguese, and the sound of the word, Português grips him, and he walks out of his class, goes to town and in a second-hand bookshop he picks up a Portuguese book called A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. He buys the book, and a Portuguese language course to enable him to read it, and the next morning he gets on a train to Lisbon.

He becomes fascinated by the life of the author of the book, who had died some 30 years before, and goes around meeting people who had known him, friends, relatives, teachers and others. He has Prado’s book, and others have more of his writings, and so he speaks from the past, and others have their memories, some of which they share, and so he builds up a picture, and also reflects on his own life, and what it means. So much seems to depend on chance encounters, and so he makes life-changing decisions of the basis of a single word he heard from a stranger on a bridge.

His life becomes a strange mixture of planning to meet people who knew Prado, and also acting on a sudden whim. And so he goes in search of lost time, the lost time of Prado’s past, but also the lost time of his own past, and comes to realise that all we have is memory. He takes photos of Lisbon and the people he met there, and also of his home town, Bern.

[He] went through the pictures once more. And then again. The past began to freeze beneath his look. Memory would select, arrange, retouch, lie. The pernicious thing was that the omissions, distortions and lies were later no longer recognized. There was no point of view beyond memory.

So as I read this book, I found myself going on a journey in search of lost time, a journey of memory. How much of what we are lives in the memory of those who have known us? And so much of it is partial, and, more often than not, false.

Prado was a member of the Portuguese resistance against the dictator Salazar, and that brought it home as well. Though that struggle ended twenty years before ours, for a long time they went together, and they were just over the border, in Mocambique and Angola. I did not have to have explained to me what PIDE meant, Salazar’s secret police.

The book is a work of fiction, so it is not dealing with real people, but with fictional characters. Someone asked on Twitter the other day what our favourite metabook was, a book that appeared in a work of fiction. I mentioned The Historian, but if I had finished reading this book at the time I might have mentioned it too. There are more famous examples. In a lot of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, there is mention of a book called The Necronomicon, and some people seemed to believe that it really existed. Ten years ago my son Simon was working in a bookshop (Exclus1ve Books in Menlyn). He told me of a customer who came in and asked for a book on symbology by Professor Robert Langdon. Simon told him that there was no such book, and the customer pointed to a page in The da Vinci code that mentioned it. Simon said that The da Vinci
code was fiction and was referring to a fictional book, but the guy was most insistent. Now I’d still mention The Historian as one of my favourite books mentioning a fictional book, but I’d probably mention Night train to Lisbon too. The characters are fictional, but then so are the people we have known in real life, because they are all products of our memories, and as we try to recall them, we are in search of lost time.

Graham Pechey, 1965.

Graham Pechey, 1965.

An old friend died a couple of weeks ago, Graham Pechey. I had known him at university, 50 years ago, when he was a junior lecturer in English. He was a Marxist atheist, and he introduced me to Bob Dylan. One of the last times I saw him was on 11 November 1965. I had gone to the magistrate’s office in the morning to receive an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act. Then Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent, and all the (white) Rhodesian students went to town to celebrate, and when we encountered any of them we sang “God save the Queen” and “Land of hope and glory” just to rile them. On the evening news we heard that Bram Fischer, who had been on the run from the police for months, had been captured.

We sat in Graham Pechey’s flat, listening to a speech by British prime minister Harold Wilson, saying that Rhodesian passports would not be recognised, and that Rhodesia would be placed under direct rule of the crown, and that Britain would not abdicate her responsibility for Rhodesia. At the end Graham broke out the booze, and we drank toasts, to Bram Fischer, the Queen, and Harold Wilson.

I reestablished contact with Graham Pechey a couple of years ago through Facebook, and he had gone from being a Marxist atheist to a royalist Anglican (though still a socialist, supporting Jeremy Corbyn and demanding the renationalisation of British Rail). I’d love to have been able to sit with him over a few ales and hear the story of his transformation. I wrote to another friend of those days, Saul Bastomsky, who had been my Latin lecturer, like the narrator in Night train to Lisbon. And he recalled Graham Pechey’s admiration for W.B. Yeats, and he had teased Graham by referring to Yeats as a “fascist magician”. What we know of friends is fragments of memory, our own and other people’s

So the book sent me on a memory tour, thinking of friends and friendship, and how we know people, or think we do. And even what we think we know changes as it passes into memory.

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