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Strangers in a fourth mansion

4 October 2019

Our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch this morning was the first since the death of Tony McGregor, one of our regular members. I had first met Tony in the 1960s, when we were both students, at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF) at Modderpoort in the Free State.

Tony McGregor, 4 Oct 2018

Tony grew up in the Eastern Cape and was a student at Stellenbosch University. He and Gray Featherstone, another Anglican student, were the only members of the Liberal Party in that university. Our literary coffee klatsch was dominated by old Liberals, as Janneke Weidema had also been a party member.

After leaving Stellenbosch Tony worked in a number of jobs, and at one time distributed EcuNews, the newsletter of the South African Council of Churches. He was a great jazz fan, and his brother Chris was a well-known jazz musician. You can find out more about that on his blog, Tony’s Place.

It was sad that Tony was no longer with us, but we had a new member, Johnnie Aukamp. He kicked off the discussion by mentioning the books of R.A. Lafferty, whom I had never heard of. Johnnie said Lafferty was a Roman Catholic whose writing was twice as weird as G.K. Chesterton’s. He said it was best to begin with his short stories, though they were hard to get and often out of print.

One book that he mentioned was Fourth Mansions, Lafferty apparently also wrote a book about the forced removal of the Cherokee in the USA, but I have forgotten the title. I rather liked this quote from him:

“The opposite of liberal is stingy. The opposite of radical is superficial. The opposite of conservative is destructive. So I declare that I am a radical conservative liberal. Beware of men who use words to mean their opposites.”

Another book by R.A. Lafferty that Johnnie mentioned was Not to mention camels, and since he had mentioned camels, I suggested that he might like to read The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay — a delightful novel about a High Anglican attempt to reclaim “the abandoned places of empire”. The narrator Laurie and her (her sex is unclear until near the end of the story) aunt Dot, together with her aunt’s Anglo-Catholic chaplain, set out for Trebizond, the site of the last Roman empire, with a camel. They are joined by a Turkish feminist whom they hope to convert to High Anglicanism, which they believe will lead to the liberation of Turkish women.

David Levey said he had been reading a book about The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware, and he had been able to understand the book, but found the Wikipedia article on Orthodoxy utterly confusing, because there seemed to be so many different sects, especially in Ukraine. Val and I tried to clarify what was going on there, but it doesn’t make much sense even to the Orthodox.

The discussion got on to wars in the Balkans and Middle East, and I was reminded of Dr Tarek Mitri, who spoke at an Orthodox mission conference in Athens in May 2000. He said that Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West — there is talk of “ancestral hatred”, but it is not “ancestral hatred” that is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of “ancestral hatred”. If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. So in the absence of other differences “religion” becomes a mark of difference and identity, and therefore something to quarrel over — what is now known as “identity politics”.

As the President of the Balkan Orthodox Youth Federation said in 1998, a Serbian atheist may be an atheist, but he is an Orthodox atheist, because if he were not Orthodox he would be a Croat, and that’s the last thing he wants to be. Similarly a Croatian atheist is a Catholic atheist, because if he were not Catholic he would be a Serb, and that’s the last thing he wants to be. For more on this see Nationalism, violence and reconciliation.

The one who really put his finger on this was Samuel Huntington, who predicted that when the Cold War ended the First, Second and Third Worlds would be replaced by nine civilizations based on religious differences, and that most future conflicts would take place on the “fault lines” between these civilizations.

Much subsequent history, including the wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, have proved most of his predictions accurate. They were set out in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. One quote that is worth remembering is:

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

David Levey said he had recently read Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. I had also recently read it — my review here. David said he had found it very interesting, and I’d like to have discussed it more to find out why, as I found it excruciatingly boring, especially the second half, but we somehow got diverted into another topic and never got back to that before David had to leave. I thought the first half of the book was OK, but the second half was boring and preachy and nothing much happened, just Earthmen telling each other ad nauseam how happy they were now that they were learning to speak Martian and adopting Martian culture at second hand, and passing it on to others third hand in the guise of a new religion.

Janneke Weidema, who had recently returned from a trip to Europe, spoke about Antwerp, and how it had become a book publishing centre, and also the paintings in churches there, and how many works of art had been destroyed with the rise of Calvinism.

That reminded me of another book, Witch WoodWitch Wood by John Buchan.

I read it 60 years ago. I had been forced to drop the study of history at school, so was almost entirely ignorant of the historical and political background. What impressed me most about it was Calvinist theology of predestination (probably not a good source for learning such things) and it left we with a fascination with the four pastoral festivals – Candlemass, Beltane (St Philip & St James AA & MM), Lammas (St Peter’s Chains) and Hallowmass (All Saints). I was then at the height of my Anglo-Catholic phase and the feasts of the church year interested me anyway. It was probably not a good source for learning about that either.

I’d love to read it again, with a better knowledge of the historical background, but I’ve never seen another copy since I borrowed it from the Johannesburg public library in 1959. I’d also be interested in knowing what my Calvinist and Pagan friends think of it.

Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch, 3 October 2019.
Johnnie Aukamp, David Levey, Janneke Weidema, Val Hayes

That reminded me of other books that I had read when I was too young to understand them in their historical setting. At the same time that I was reading Witch Wood, I was also reading Jane Austen’s Emma for English I at Wits University, and her satire went right over my head.David confirmed that as part of his experience of trying to teach Austen to first-year students — it was necessary to explain the satire to them, and that somehow deflated it. He thought it was something to do with the British setting — one would have to get inside British culture to fully appreciate Austen. I’m not sure about that, but I do think one needs to know enough of the historical setting, and have enough experience of life  to appreciate them, and I don’t think Austen should be read by anyone under 30.

Discussion of Christianity and literature at Cafe 41: Janneke Weidema, Val Hayes, Steve Hayes, Johnnie Aukamp.

If I’ve left anything important out, please say something about it in the comments

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