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Postfiction/Truth? Literary Coffee Klatsch

8 March 2018

At our literary coffee klatch today all the books we mentioned were non-fiction.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s the first time since we started two years ago that I can remember not a single fiction title being mentioned.

But that’s OK. “Truth,” as G.K. Chesterton said in one of his fiction works, “is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the the human mind and therefore congenial to it.”

Duncan Reyburn mentioned that he had been reading books by Jordan Peterson, but I didn’t manage to note the titles he mentioned, but perhaps the main one was Maps of Meaning.

Peterson was a psychologist, and had an interesting theory of memory — that the purpose of memory was to enable us to avoid our mistakes of the past and behave differently in future, instead of, as Freudians tended to encourage us to do, blaming our father or mother or childhood trauma.

That reminds me (which I didn’t mention at the meeting) that I’ve been reading quite a lot about psychoanalysis and literary criticism recently, and especially the role and influence of Jacques Lacan. David Levey wasn’t able to be with us today, but perhaps another time he can tell us about the Lacanian factor.

Duncan said he had also been reading Nietzsche and was interested in his idea of ethics as revenge. Nietzsche regarded Christianity as a religion of slaves because it took away from slaves the desire for revenge against their masters.

But psychologists like Jordan Peterson said memory was to enable us to compare our present with our past, to compare ourselves not with other people, but rather with our past selves. This reminded Val and me of the Prayer of St Ephraim, which we say frequently during Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

From there we drifted into discussing the judgmentalism one encounters on social media. Post a link to a news item about an outrage in Yemen or an atrocity in Syria, or a terrorist attack somewhere else and people rush to condemn or exonerate those who committed it. I thought of the election of Donald Trump as US president — after his election, but before his inauguration, people were calling for protest marches, not against anything he had done, but against things that they thought he was about to do. And even if he later did the things they feared, it was the man and not the deeds that they condemned. We have got judging our brother down to a fine art. The maxim Love the sinner, hate the sin is conveniently forgotten or even, by some, denounced as evil in itself.

And from there we went on to labels — we love “one size fits all” labels. Duncan mentioned a student of his who wanted to write a thesis on something or other “and religion”. Duncan asked “Which religion?” but the student hadn’t thought of that, but eventually said “Christianity”, and Duncan asked “Which Christianity?”

I noted how the label “Evangelical” is plastered on anything and everything, and the snide criticisms of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when be was appointed because he was an “Evangelical”, but when, unlike Trump, he didn’t do all the things he was accused, like Trump, of being going to do, no more was heard of his Evangelicalism. His Evangelicalism was responsible for the bad things he was going to do, but didn’t, but not for the good things he actually did.

One aspect of labelling people is seen in IQ tests, and Janneke Weidema mentioned The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. Janneke said that IQ tests had originally been developed to find weaknesses in children’s problem-solving skills so that they could be remedied, but had eventually ossified into a kind of permanent classification system for children. Val mentioned having done an IQ test in Grade 6, and years later finding out that it was in her UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) file at the Department of Labour.

I mentioned having had IQ tests done by the Scientologists (for a fuller account of that see here) and how they conned people by promising that their Personal Efficiency Course would improve IQ. We returned a couple of weeks later and asked to do the tests again, but without doing the Personal Efficiency Course. Sure enough, our IQ scores had improved by about 5 points each, as we expected they would, because IQ tests measure one’s ability to do IQ tests, and practice improves performance.

We discussed other kinds of personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs and Enneagrams. Perhaps there is more that could be said about that, but it didn’t relate much to books and reading.

At this point Duncan had to leave and Tony McGregor arrived a bit late to join us.

We moved on to discussing a topical hot issue — land expropriation without compensation.

It had produced a lot of emotional rhetoric on all sides in South Africa, and, rather surprisingly, some very sensationalised and twisted reports in several overseas publications.

Janneke said one needed to appreciate the history, which was much more complex than many people thought, and for this she recommended Die Derde Oorlog Teen Mapoch by Hans Pienaar, where the “Boers” were not settled farmers at all, but nomadic marauding hunter-gatherers and cattle rustlers, making war on settled agricultural communities.

Going from the north to the south, Tony McGregor recommended Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noel Mostert.This describes the nine Frontier Wars in the Eastern Cape, and again gives the history of some of struggles over land in that part of the country.

Another book that I suggested was The rise and fall of the South African peasantry by Colin Bundy. That sparked off some reminiscing, because Tony McGregor had grown up with Colin Bundy at Blythedale, and they had played together as children. And I had been at university with him and we had attended History and Philosophy classes together, and he went on to become a professor of history.

Bundy’s book also belongs to the “truth is stranger than fiction” variety, because one of the fictions believed by many white South Africans (the result of careful indoctrination by the National Party’s “Christian National Education” system) is that black farmers were primitive and backward and that white farmers were progressive and efficient.

During the 19th century several attempts were made to settle white farmers on the land in South Africa. Immigrants were brought from Britain, given land to cultivate, and made a hash of it. Many were from towns and knew little or nothing about farming, and were unfamiliar with the conditions. As a result many migrated to the towns and got work there, or sought their fortunes in various diamond and gold rushes. And it was black peasant farmers who settled around the white towns and provided their inhabitants with fresh vegetables, eggs and dairy produce. And it was black farmers who were later forced off the land by the white farmers’ influence in political circles.

One other book mentioned, which ties up with the history, but is not so relevant to the land issue, is Sir Harry Smith, bungling hero by Anthony Harington. You can find my review here.




7 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 March 2018 9:57 am

    But then today I came across this: Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism | by Pankaj Mishra | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books:

    12 Rules for Life is only Peterson’s second book in twenty years. Packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles, Peterson’s brand of intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity; and it is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media. It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual. For his apotheosis speaks of a crisis that is at least as deep as the one signified by Donald Trump’s unexpected leadership of the free world.

    Comments, anyone? Duncan?

    I do wish, however, that someone would define the “free world” and explaihn what makes Donald Trump the leader of it.

  2. 26 March 2018 5:12 am

    Here’s another Book Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson | Mere Orthodoxy:

    Before they get carried away, the Christians now tuning into Jordan Peterson need to realize that this man is not the next C.S. Lewis. On the contrary, Jordan Peterson is the man C.S. Lewis warned them about. It’s not that I don’t understand why Christians are attracted to Peterson’s message of personal responsibility, especially as it is addressed to young men. For one thing, everything Alastair Roberts wrote in his recent essay is basically true. Peterson really is an effective communicator (though a better speaker than a writer), who could teach most pastors a thing or two about sermonizing. And Peterson has many admirable personal qualities, especially intellectual virtues but also compassion and a strong sense of justice.


  1. Philosophy, science fiction, capitalism & rural development | Khanya
  2. Everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson | Notes from underground
  3. Christian psychotherapy | Khanya
  4. Theology, science, alternative history, literature | Notes from underground
  5. Missiological musings inspired by Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch | Khanya

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