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On writing: conflict and goals in fiction

7 October 2019

For the last few weeks we’ve been going to a writer’s support group that discusses writing fiction, We read each other’s writing and comment on it. The most recent discussion was on writing about conflict.

In most fiction, there is some kind of conflict, and this is what keeps the plot moving.

I’m not writing this as a report on our discussions, but rather some thoughts prompted by the discussion, and to ask others, whether writers or readers, what they think about these things.

One person said that conflict ensued when a character, usually the protagonist, was frustrated in their goals.

But I think that in a lot of fiction the protagonist doesn’t have a goal to start with. Things happen to the character, and those events create a conflict which gives the character a goal — to somehow resolve the conflict.

Someone else disagreed, and said that if the protagonist does not have a goal at the start of the story, that is a weak character and of no interest to the reader.

I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps that’s because I’m trying to write a sequel to my children’s story Of Wheels and Witches. You could say that it’s in the “children go on holiday and have an adventure” genre. There are hundreds of examples of that genre, from Enid Blyton to Alan Garner, from Arthur Ransome to E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis.

In almost all examples of that genre there is no clear protagonist, because a group of children are involved, who are usually friends or siblings or a mixture of both,. And at the beginning of the story they usually have no clear goal other than to enjoy a holiday. Conflict and goals emerge later when something happens to them.

I kept thinking about what G.K. Chesterton had said:

… oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

There are, of course, novels and comics about superheroes, who have extraordinary powers. They are obviously strong characters and probably have all kinds of goals right from the start. But not all books have to be about such characters. And even Superman has to have kryptonite to make the conflict believable.

Do you need conflict on the first page to make the reader interested?

I once tried to analyse a couple of books (of the “children’s holiday adventure” genre) that I loved as a child, The Secret of Kilimooin (the first Enid Blyton book I read) and The Mountain of Adventure (the first one I owned). One thing I can add to what I wrote there is that in both those cases the actual adventure only started about halfway through the book. There was none of the currently fashionable in medias res “action (or conflict) on the first page”. Yet children still enjoyed them.

Though Enid Blyton’s dialogue was atrocious, children still read her books and liked them. And that brings to mind a couple of other things. I seem to recall that as a child my thought about the dialogue was that the children in the books spoke like that because they were English children, and perhaps that one ought to talk like that if one wanted to have adventures. My mother did once come down on me like a ton of bricks when I used the phrase “ever so”. And the food porn in Enid Blyton’s books was perhaps there because they were written when Britain was still subject to wartime food rationing.

Another book I mentioned at the meeting was Gulliver’s Travels. If Gulliver had any goals at the beginning of the story, they were swept away by the events that took place. It’s a classic example of what Chesterton was talking about — extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Someone at the meeting said that that was satire, and people didn’t read it for the story, but rather read it for the satire. But no, I read it several times as a teenager, and the satire, like that in Northanger Abbey, went right over my head. I read and re-read Gulliver’s Travels because the more I saw of some people the more I liked my horse.

The software I (sometimes) use in my attempts to write fiction is called yWriter, and I find it quite useful because it breaks up writing into chapters and scenes which can then be moved around easily. But it also makes provision for attributing goals to each character, and in every chapter and scene in which that character appears. And I’m never sure of what to do with that.

I had to resort to Wikipedia to find examples of novels that began in medias res with action on the first page.

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.”

But I don’t think I’ve read any of those.

Firestarter by Stephen King starts in medias res and has a character with extraordinary powers, though the protagonist is really her father, who is not a strong character, but does have a goal — to protect his daughter.

One of my favourite novels by Charles Williams begins in dramatic fashion, with what is perhaps one of the most attention-grabbing first lines in fiction, “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” But the corpse has no goals, and in the end turns out to be only a minor character. The true goals and conflict only become apparent later in the story.

Another of Charles Williams’s novels, The Place of the Lion, begins in medias res with a lioness roaring in the Hertfordshire countryside, but her goals only become apparent later. The scene shifts to two friends waiting for a bus that doesn’t arrive. One suggests that they give up waiting and walk in the direction they want to go and let the bus catch them up, to which the other replies, “The chief use of the material world is that one can just occasionally say that in truth. Yes, let’s.” One is the protgonist, and a strong character, and the other is weak, but nothing of that is revealed until several pages further on, and the goal is vague — walk in the direction the bus is travelling, or walk to meet it. It is the events they encounter in their casually chosen direction that produce the conflict, give rise to the goals, and drive the plot.

C.S. Lewis’s Out of the silent planet does, admittedly begin with the frustration of one of the protagonist’s goals. As with many of the children’s nove’s he is on holiday, a walking tour to be precise, and his goal is to reach a village to stay the night before it gets dark. His goal is frustrated by his being whisked off in a spaceship to an unknown planet instead. But his main goal in the story arises out of that, and is not apparent in the first chapter.

So I’m still not convinced that it is essential in writing fiction to have a strong protagonist with goals on the first page, and that conflict is generated by those goals being frustrated. I think that Chesterton’s scenario is equally valid — that conflict is generated when extraordinary and unexpected things happen to ordinary people, and that goals can just as easily be generated by conflict as the other way round.


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

Black rain over Hiroshima

21 September 2019

Black RainBlack Rain by Masuji Ibuse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel that tells how one family coped with the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

Shigematsu Sizuma, as guardian of his niece Yasuko, is concerned that rumours that she suffered from radiation sickness might harm her prospects of marriage. He decides to transcribe both Yasuko’s and his own diaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, with a connecting narrative, to show potential suitors that she was out of town at the time the bomb fell. The result is an account of the nine days between the dropping of the bomb and the end of the war,

Shigematsu describes what he and his family saw and did in those nine days, supplemented with accounts from other people’s diaries. It is a sober and sobering account of the effects of a nuclear bomb on a city. Though it is published as a novel, it reads like a historical documentary. Perhaps it was based on actual diaries, with a few names and places changed.

Shigematsu was at a station waiting for a train to take him to work when the bomb fell, and was slightly injured by the blast. He walked home to find what had happened to his family, and encountered many injured refugees fleeing from the city, where fires were spreading rapidly.

Novels about disasters often have a kind of survivalist theme. The disaster causes a total breakdown of societal cohesion and law and order, and the protagonist is usually trying to save a small group from the general disorder. The overwhelming impression in this book, however, is the spirit of “Keep calm and carry on“. The spirit of self-discipline, fortitude, and remaining calm in adversity that the British were urged to display at the beginning of the war was displayed by the Japanese at its end.

Mr Shizuma and his family go to stay at a house near the factory where he works, after their own house burns down, and he then carries on trying to procure coal to keep production in the factory going. There a strong sense of discipline in the face of disaster. An example of this is when it was discovered that the Mayor had been killed in the bombing:

Deputy Mayor Shihata had taken charge of municipal affairs since Kuriya’s death, Tashiro said. The twenty-odd employees at their posts in the city office were dealing with business of every kind with the aid of a dozen or so chairs miraculously spared in the fire, one mimeographing machine, and files made by clipping together other documents and using the backs. None of them had anything but the clothes he stood up in, since they had all been burned out of their homes. and along with several dozen of the injured they were living a communal life, doing their own cooking, in the ruins of their office. They had cleared the litter of broken glass, charred wood, scrap[ metal and the like into a corner of the room, and had rigged up a tent that they had borrowed from the army barracks in place of a window. For offices, they had the defense, health, and relief sections on the south-east of the first floor, which had survived the flames.

The events are not overdramatised, but are told in an almost scientific way, trying to describe as exactly as possible the impressions what had taken place.

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Witchcraft, witches and wizards FAQ

14 September 2019

On Question-and-Answer web sites like Quora I see so many questions about witches, wizards and witchcraft that I think one could classify them as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), and to save a lot of typing I thought I’d write a kind of generic answer here, and simply provide a link to it.

For example, when I opened Quora just now, the first question that popped up was:

What do you call a male witch?

others that I have recently answered are:

Does witch only refer to a woman or can it be used for a man?

“Witch“ can be used for a person of either sex in modern English, though historically there was a distinction, as Jeffery Burton Russell explains in his book A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans:

What really is a witch? One answer lies in the roots and development of words. ‘Witch’ derives from the Old English wicca (pronounced ‘witcha’ and meaning male witch) and wicce (‘female witch’, pronounced ‘witcheh’) and from the word wiccian, meaning ‘to cast a spell’. Contrary to common belief among modern witches, it is not Celtic in derivation, and it has nothing to do with the Old English witan, ‘to know’, or any other word relating to wisdom. The explanation that witchcraft means ‘craft of the wise’ is false…

‘Wizard’, unlike ‘witch’, really does derive from Middle English wis, ‘wise’. The word first appears about 1440, meaning a ‘wise man or woman’; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it designated a high magician, and only after 1825 was it used as the equivalent of ‘witch’.

Are wizards more powerful than witches? How can you compare them?

And my response to that one is:

What do you mean by “powerful”?

In a given computer game that features witches and wizards, it is up to the programmer to decide which is more powerful, and in what way.

In fiction, it’s up to the author to decide how powerful the characters are, and what their characteristics are.

And in real life there are so many different conceptions of “witches” and “wizards” floating around in different cultures that it is impossible to say.

Some would say that they have no power at all, other than the power that people’s imagination gives to them.

Perhaps those answers between them cover most of the Frequently Asked Questions on the topic of witches and wizards that I have seen on Quora, but there are other things that seem to be missed, either in the questions, or in the answers that have been given.

The thing that is often missed is cultural context.

For many Western people, a significant part of the cultural context is fiction.

In the Harry Potter stories, for example, “wizards” are male and “witches” are female. and in that context they have certain characteristics,. When people familiar with that context encounter the terms “witch” or “wizard” in a different context, they are likely to get confused, hence the kind of questions I’ve referred to above.

J.R.R. Tolkien had wizards in his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but their role was very different from that of wizards in the Harry Potter stories. Other fictional stories feature witches, and their characteristics, roles and powers are whatever the author chooses to give them.

The same applies to computer games. A programmer can have characters called “witches” and “wizards” and “mages” and “warlocks” and can give them powers and characteristics that apply to that game and no other.

Such powers and characteristics, which are constant in one game or novel, are “parameters”. Parameters are values that are constant in the case considered, but may vary in other cases. So in computer game A a witch may have a “power” of 10 and a wizard a “power” of 8, but in game B the “power” parameter could have different values, say 5 for witches and 10 for wizards, The parameters of a witch or wizard in the Harry Potter books differ from those of witches and wizards in Tolkien’s books, and so on.

The same applies in real life.

The parameters of a witch in one culture are different from those of a witch in another culture. When people ask or answer such questions on sites like Quora they are often thinking only of the parameters of witches, wizards, mages and warlocks in their own culture, but the Internet is global, and so the person reading an answer might be thinking of entirely different parameters from those of the person who wrote the answer..

My context is southern Africa, and most of the people I know who think about witches at all fear them as people of malicious intent who are trying to harm them. I know some people who seriously fear that they have been bewitched. In many African pagan cultures the witch is the quintessential symbol of evil, as the devil is in most Christian cultures.

This is sometimes extremely annoying to postmodern neopagans in Europe or North America who like to self-identify as witches, and tend to channel old-fashioned colonial cultural imperialism in insisting that their definition is the only one, which the rest of the world must accept willy-nilly. But perhaps a case can be made for some cultural relativism here, and trying to think beyond one particular culture. So perhaps people reading this could add some cultural variety in the comments.

For more on this topic see:


Hearts in Atlantis

31 August 2019

Hearts In AtlantisHearts In Atlantis by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I marked this one as “To Read” after reading a review by an online acquaintance, and when I found a copy in the library I wasn’t disappointed. I think it is one of his best books.

By coincidence, last Friday I heard someone speak on Adverse Childhood Experiences and their long-term effects, and in a way that is exactly what this book is about. The first half of the book is about childhood at the beginning of the 1960s.

Bobby Garfield wants a bike for his 11th birthday, but his mother nags him about how much it will cost. Only gradually does he become aware that much of her nagging behaviour is due to the pressure she is under at work. He and his close friends Carol Gerber and John Sullivan also live in fear of being bullied by older kids in the neighbourhood who go to another school. Then a mysterious lodger moves in upstairs, who introduces Bobby to the joys of reading, which helps him to interpret some of his experiences. The lodger, however, also seems to be a fugitive of some kind, and asks Bobby to warn him if he sees any signs of the people who are looking for him.

These pressures come to a head, with traumatic experiences all round, and Bobby and his mother move to another town.

The scene then moves to the mid-1960s, with Carol Gerber as a first-year university student. The Vietnam War is escalating and male students are faced with a dilemma — do well at your studies or be drafted to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Their response to the challenge is so play cards. Well, that resonated with me. In Hearts in Atlantis the game they played was Hearts, and in the exact same period, October 1966, I was learning to play Bridge, and used many of the same excuses. But in the book there is also a gradual growth in political awareness. And we see how Carol’s adverse childhood experiences shaped her response. I found her description of this to the narrator of that part the most moving part of the book.

There are some things, however, that Stephen King got wrong. He repeats as fact the urban legend that the “peace symbol” was designed by Bertrand Russell, though he does it to refute an even more inaccurate one that was being spread by the militarists at the time.See here for more about the origins of the peace symbol.

The last sections of the book are fairly short, but show how the Sixties of the last century shaped the lives of those who were young then.

I suppose one would have had to be young and American in the 1960s to fully appreciate this book. One object, perhaps a McGuffin of sorts, is a baseball mitt that keeps turning up. I played enough softball at school when I was 12 to be able to picture the object in question, but to us softball was just a game we played on summer afternoons. I think one would have to have grown up in the USA where baseball is more of a religion to fully appreciate the emotional significance of such an object.

There are interesting  things about language in the book too. I only fairly recently became aware of the American usage of Nimrod, and certainly wasn’t aware of it in the 1960s, though King also mentions the comic character Elmer Fudd, who was responsible for the change in meaning. In the 1960s I was very aware of another American cultural commentator. Tom Lehrer, whom King doesn’t mention, whose song about a Nimrod I greatly enjoyed at the time.

I knew about the Vietnam War and took part in several demonstrations and protest marches against it, so that some of the chants and slogans that King used brought back real memories to me: I remember marching to the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.” King did not, however, mention the other one we used outside the USA, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; the NLF is gonna win” — which they did, of course. But those of us who lived outside the USA were not faced with the very real possibility of having to actually fight in that war. A decade later, however, a lot of young South Africans (white) were drafted to fight on what the politically correct called “the border”, so some will have similar memories of those times.

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An Experiment in Criticism

22 August 2019

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Having recently heard Dr Gerhard Wolmarans of the University of Pretoria Political Science Department speak on this book, twice, I thought I’d better read it. It’s been sitting on my shelf for 40 years or more, and if I had read it before, I couldn’t remember doing so. I can’t even remember how it came into my possession. I must have bought it some time in the 1960s or 1970s, intending to read it some day, but somehow I never did.

Political Science? Not English literature?

Yes, Dr Wolmarans said that C.S. Lewis has a great deal to tell us about human diversity, and living in a multicultural society. He says there are two ways of reading a book: Using a book and Receiving a book. When we use a book, we simply, at best, bounce our own ideas off it, and don’t accept what it actually has to say. When we Receive a book, we receive it on its own terms, even if we disagree with it. And this applies to relationships with other people: we need to really hear what they have to say even if we disagree with it; receive, and only then evaluate. So if we transfer what Lewis said about reading books to our relationships with other people, we can learn a great deal.

According to Lewis, before evaluating books we should evaluate the ways of reading them. We should receive the book before we can evaluate it as a good or a bad book. A good book can be both used and received, depending on the reader. A bad book is one that can only ever be used.

Lewis wrote this book in 1961, at the time I was exploring English literature. It was the last major book he wrote and had published, so it is the result of his mature reflection at the end of his life. Reading it now, I wonder if it would have helped me then, when I was young and an undergraduate. Perhaps I was too immature then to have received it, and done anything more than use it. One point that he makes quite strongly is that literary criticism doesn’t tell us what books we should read, it tells us about the books we have already read, and is to be appreciated more as writing in its own right than for anything it can tell us about the books.

In 1959 I took English I at Wits University. Among the novels we had to read were
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Emma by Jane Austen.

I had to write an essay on whether Lord of the Flies was an optimistic or a pessimistic book. I read it, and then wrote that it was neither, but that it was about the Christian conception of original sin. The lecturer who marked it said that I should not approach books with preconceived ideas. I wanted to argue with that. I had come to that conclusion after reading the book. I thought  that the book had illuminated the concept or original sin for me, which had previously just been some kind of abstract theological terminology. In terms of Lewis’s thesis, the lecturer thought I was merely “using” the book, while I thought I had received it.

Unfortunately there was not really an opportunity to discuss this. Wits University had too many English I students, and the tutorials, though they had a smaller number of students than the lectures, were simply “teacher tell” affairs,

Wolseley 15/60

Wolseley 15/60

I had already read Brave New World while I was still at school. At that point i think its conceptions were entirely new to me. I could only receive it. But 1959, the year in which I read it for the second time as a university set work, was also the year in which I became aware of badge engineering in the motor industry, The British Motor Corporation had just introduced the Wolseley 15/60, “Within months, the similar Riley 4/68, Austin A55 Cambridge Mark II, MG Magnette Mark III, and Morris Oxford V appeared as well.”

To me that was an ominous sign that Aldous Huxley’s predictions in Brave New World were coming true. If it was already being done in motor engineering, could human engineering, with its Alpha, Beta, Gama, Delta and Epsilon models be far behind?

I also read and cited Huxley’s non-fiction sequel, Brave New World Revisited, in which he himself described how he thought his visionary science-fiction novel was coming true, The lecturer was not impressed with that essay either. I probably really was using the book on the second reading. Inspired partly by me first reading of the book I had become a rather fanatical individualist, and was inclined to see threats to individuality everywhere.

Emma I didn’t appreciate at all. My irony meter had not been calibrated. The satire went right over my head. I was incapable of receiving the book. I took the opening statement at face value, and rejected it, and Jane Austen, with contempt. I have said more about that in another post, Pride, prejudice, and youth | Khanya, and I suggest that, if you are still reading this at this point, you go there and read that before reading any more here, because that is, in effect, an integral part of this post, and I refer you to it rather than repeating it here.

Now the English Department at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP), described in the linked post above, belonged to what C.S. Lewis called the “Vigilant” School. They were vigilant in trying to restrict students’ reading to books that they thought were good. lest their critical faculties be impaired. It might have been good if I had read An Experiment in Criticism at that point in my life, but I had been inoculated against the wiles of the Vigilant school by Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, who had encouraged me to read widely, including authors like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Iris Murdoch, Jack Kerouac and Charles Williams, all of whom would have been anathema to the Vigilants of the English Department at UNP.

Dr Gerhard Wolmarans, who spoke as part of a series of events at the University of Pretoria arranged by a group called Ratio Christi, and again at TGIF, applied what Lewis had said of the Vigilant School to the Post-Structuralists who maintain that there is nothing beyond the text. Their approach, said Dr Wolmarans, is simply Using the text in the sense that Lewis speaks of, rather than Receiving it. I believe the Post-Structuralists refer to their approach as a Readerly approach — there is no dialogue with the author, but only between the reader and the text itself.

Lewis laments that the young people, Honours students of his day, knew more about critics than about the works they criticise, and I reflect that those young students he wrote about in 1960 are probably now all retired or dead, but that it was they who poularised the post-structuralist approach.

And I am reminded of another book, not about literature at all, Up to our Steeples in Politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway. in which they say, of using Holy Scripture to throw light on race relations in the USA,

In taking Paul’s letters as an authoritative point of departure, we mean no more than Karl Barth meant forty years ago when he explained that his “biblicism” consisted in nothing more than being “prejudiced in supposing the Bible to be a good book,” and “profitable for men to take its conceptions at least as seriously as they take their own.” But if our use of Paul’s understanding of Christian communities means no more than that, it means at least that.

And that, I think, is what Lewis means by “receiving” a book, whether the Bible or any other: that we take its conceptions at least as seriously as we take our own. We don’t necessarily have to agree with those conceptions, but we must at least take them seriously.

At the risk of taking a “readerl;y” approach to C.S. Lewis’s own fiction, and “using” , I would say that his fiction also has a great deal to say about diversity and multicultural societies. Out of the Silent Planet is an obvious example, and Prince Caspian is another.For more on that, see Inside Prince Caspian | Khanya

One can also learn a great deal about writing from this book. Lewis says a bad book is one that can only be used and cannot be received, He probably didn’t intend the book as advice to writers, but I think writers can also learn a great deal from it.

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In Siberia

16 August 2019

In SiberiaIn Siberia by Colin Thubron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Lost Heart of Asia by the same author, I was looking forward to some new insights into Siberia, the eastern part of the Russian Federation, which is bigger than any country in the world apart from Russia itself. Thubron travelled across it from west to east, mainly by the Trans-Siberian Railway, and its northern branch, the Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM), with side trips to various other places by plane, bus and river boat.

In his travels he met and conversed with many different people, most of whom he had met by chance, and it is his reports of conversations with these people that helps to give one a sense of the place and what it is like, and what the people are like. In some places he invited himself to stay with such people, as he made no travel arrangements in advance. so the people he met and the places he stayed at were unpredictable. He visited Ykaterinburg, where the last Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. The house where they were held immediately before their death, which he describes in some detail, had been demolished, lest it become a place of pilgrimage.

Colin Thubron wandered off the site into a nearby garden and down a track which led to a rubbish tip, where he shared supper and a sleeping place with a tramp who had camped there for the night. It is the comments and insights of such chance-met people that give the book its unique flavour. At another town not far away he searched for the home of Rasputin who had such an influence on the royal family. He met a man who looked like Rasputin and made the most of the resemblance. Was he related? Well, not certainly, but his great-grandmother was once a housemaid in the Rasputin household, and Rasputin was a notorious womaniser, so…

Thubron flies off to visit a remote mine inside the Arctic Circle, where most of the work was done by prisoners, political and criminal, and visits the ruins of the prison barracks where so many overworked and underfed prisoners died.

Further down the line he visited Novosibirsk, and the nearby town of Akademgorodok, which was built as the ultimate academic scientific research centre, with no expense spared, until the money ran out. It was literally fantastic. It was a bit like the home of the academics in Herman Hesse‘s The Glass Bead Game, But what it has become since the fall of Bolshevism is something that goes beyond the wildest fantasy dreamed up in Jonathan Swift‘s Laputa. Thubron interviews people who work there and somehow manages to keep a straight face as they tell him of their fanciful and crackpot theories.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the book is his description of a four-day boat trip down the polluted Yensei River. On the way back he persuades the captain of the boat to drop him off at a village where the only person in employment is the village doctor, and he, like many other civil servants, hasn’t been paid for months. In the economic collapse after the fall of Bolshevism the only thing left for the villagers to do was get drunk on their pensions, if they arrived.

One thing that I didn’t so much like about the book was the way that the author’s bias against Orthodox Christianity hardened into prejudice as the book went on. One of my reasons for reading the book was to get an idea of how the Orthodox Church was recovering from Bolshevik persecution, but though Thubron is is sympathetic towards Buddhists, and pagans, and even to some extent towards Old Believers and neopagans, he rarely has a good word to say about the Orthodox. In the Buddhist monastery they sang and prostrated themselves, but in the Orthodox one the singers were “crazed-looking youths” and the nuns were sobbing as though “something must be expurgated for ever”.

This bias nearly made me give it three stars on GoodReads rather than four, but this morning I heard Dr Gerhard Wolmarans of the University of Pretoria speaking about C.S. Lewis’s book on literary theory, An Experiment in Criticism, in which he writes about the difference between using a book and receiving a book. According to Wolmarans, Lewis maintained that when reading a book we need to take the author’s conceptions at least as seriously as we take out own, even if we disagree with them. So I thought about this a bit too. Yes, Colin Thubron seemed to have a pretty shallow conception of Orthodoxy, and to approach it with a lot of prejudice, but perhaps the Orthodox he encountered in his travels also had a fairly shallow conception, and did not communicate it to him very well.

I wondered if he had perhaps read the biography of St Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, who was a missionary among the Aleuts of Alaska and the Evenk people of Eastern Siberia, which might have given him a different picture of the relations between Orthodox and pagans in Alaska and Siberia — see St Innocent:Apostle to America, And to show the lasting effect of such things, a book like Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: the people of Nondalton, which shows how the influence of such Orthodox missions has lasted for two centuries or more.

In many ways In Siberia is a depressing book. The economic collapse, the pollution, the hopelessness of many, and the relics of Stalin’s Gulag and the mass murders that went with it don’t make for happy reading.

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