Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Pet Sematary

Pet SemataryPet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The other night they showed the film of Pet Sematary on TV, and I thought it was quite good, and stuck quite closely to the book. Well it would, since Stephen King wrote the screenplay. So after seeing the film, I thought it was time to reread the book, which I had last read about 25 years ago.

On rereading it I decided to up its rating to 5 stars. I really think it’s the best of Stephen King‘s books, and that was confirmed for me in rereading it after seeing the film. The difference in the number of stars is because I’ve come to think differently about his monsters since I first read it. I used to think that evil monsters in fiction should tell use something about the nature of evil. I suppose I was thinking that the protagonist, who is good, fights the monster, who is evil;. That, at least, is what happens in Dracula.

It was only afterwards that I really understood that in this book, as in some of other books, the monster just just a prompt to the battle of good and evil that takes place in the protagonist’s heart. I’ve written more about that in another blog post, dealing with another of Stephen King’s books that I have recently reread, here Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya.

That post also contains a review (with spoilers] of Pet Sematary, which doesn’t leave much to say about it here, other than a plot summary that doesn’t give away too much of the story.

Louis Creed, a medical doctor, gets a new job at a university clinic in Ludlow, Maine, and moves there with his wife Rachel and children Eileen aged 5 and Gage aged 18 months. They are happy in their new house, and their neighbours across the road, a retired couple, Jud and Norma Cranston, make them welcome. Behind the house is a wood, part of which is included in the Creeds’ property, but it goes on for 50 miles, and beyond the Creed land is a wilderness whose ownership is disputed between the US Federal Government, the State of Maine and the Micmac Indians. A path leads up into the woods to a pet cemetery, where generations of the children of the town have buried their pets.

Jud Cranston takes the family on a walk to the pet cemetery, and tells how he had buried his own pet dog there when he was a child. The path seems to go on beyond the cemetery, but the way is blocked by a fallen tree, and Jud Colston warns that it would be too dangerous to try to climb over it.

On his first day in his new job Louis Creed is faced with a badly injured student, who was knocked down by a car while jogging. The dying student apparently knows his name, and warns him to stay away from the pet cemetery, and above all not to go beyond it.

See also:

View all my reviews

The Mandela effect

As a South African, I thought I knew what the Mandela Effect, also known as the Madiba factor, was.

It originated on the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president on 10 May 1994. Having stood in the crowd at the Union Buildings and waved our flags, we returned home and sat down in front of the TV and watched an international football match — South Africa versus Zambia. And we won.

Nel;son Mandela had gone from the Union Buildings to the FNB Stadium by helicopter, and was watching the match in person.

The next year, 1995, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, and Nelson Mandela’s role in that was documented and made known to world through the film Invictus.

In 1996 we made the trek to the FNB Stadium, and saw South Africa play Tunisia in the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Nelson Mandela was there, and South Africa won. The Mandela Effect was well established, especially when people noticed that when he wasn’t there, the South African team usually lost.

Nelson Mandela
By Arquivo/ABr – Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2440492

More recently I began frequenting the Quora web site, where people ask questions and others answer. I found I could answer a few questions, and answered a couple about Nelson Mandela. Then I began seeing lots of questions about the Mandela Effect, but they were quite incomprehensible, as were the answers.

I asked about it on Quora, and got largely incomprehensible answers. One said it had something to do with lots of people forgetting or remembering things, but with no explanation of how Mandela came in to it. I wondered if it had anything to do with the film Invictus, as it seemed to be something spoken about mainly by people outside South Africa.

So can anyone explain to me how there came to be two Mandela factors, with completely different meanings, one known to people within South Africa, and one, apparently, known mainly to people outside? And what does it have to do with Madiba?

Genius, shades, ancestors and more

Our literary coffee klatsch this morning was quite long, and in fact lasted well into the afternoon. I can’t remember everything that we talked about or all the books that were mentioned, and I’m writing this mainly to confirm a couple of half-remembered titles. And this will be a blog post in the original sense of the word — a web log, with lots of links to click on if you want to know more

David Levey said he had been reading a lot of short stories lately, mainly science-fiction. Among them was an anthology by Brian Aldiss, A Science Fiction Omnibus.

The story that particularly struck him was The Answer by Fredric Brown, and he mentioned that another in the anthology has a metaphysical significance: Sole Solution by Eric Frank Russell, in which a deity comes into being, experiencing excruciating loneliness. He/she/it creates infinite worlds and creatures to escape this condition.

About a dozen other short SF stories have religious resonances, collected in other anthologies, They are by luminaries such as Arthur C Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God, and Isaac Asimov, The Last Question and Hell-Fire. The finest, though, is by Ursula K le Guin, The Field of Vision. An astronaut sees God, and goes not only mad but blind.

Janneke Weidema had brought along a book of essays by John Woolman, and was particularly impressed with what he had written about Quakers and slaves. He had said that Quakers should not own slaves. Not only was slavery bad for the slaves, it was bad for the slave owners as well, and dehumanised both.

Literary Coffee Klatsch at Cafe 41 on Eastwood Road. Left to Right: Val Hayes, Tony McGregor, Janneke Weidema, David Levey

Val mentioned The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which we had both read, a story of a person’s life pieced together from diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings etc., some real, some fictional. The protagonist was an associate of a famous artist, Diego Rivera, who sheltered Trotsky when he was on the run from Stalin, and it gives one a feel for some aspects of the history of the period.

That reminded me of another similar story with a local flavour, Recessional for Grace, by Marguerite Poland — A student of African languages comes across an incomplete dictionary of African cattle terms, and decides to write on it for her doctoral thesis. As she does her research, however, she becomes more and more interested in the compiler, a Dr C.J. Godfrey, who died in 1963, and her research tends towards biography, which disconcerts her supervisor. She visits the place where he was born, and the school he attended, and the place where he did his research, and also becomes interested in his relationship with Mrs Grace Wilmot, a war widow and teacher at the local school, who assisted him in his research. The cattle and their names are gradually revealed as a metaphor for love. The descriptions in the book range from very accurate to sloppily researched. Rural shops are described in evocative detail, but with the Methodist Church it is all wrong.

Another one by the same author, also set in the Eastern Cape, was Shades, also a historical novel, and an “eternal triangle” love story.

Another one I had read recently was The Writer’s Voice: A Workshop for Writers in Africa, by Dorian Haarhoff, which stressed the need for people who did not think they could write to tell their stories.

I noted in my review that the author had several motivational anecdotes designed to inspire people to write, but which I found interesting in their own right, as things to write about. One of these was the ancient Roman concept of Genius,, which Haarhoff mentioned in passing was similar to African concepts of ancestor veneration. “If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living”.

I recalled learning about lares and penates in Latin lessons at school, but had not made the link between them and the genius. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth, and that seemed to me remarkably similar to the Zulu belief that one could meet one’s deceased grandfather, sometimes in the form of a snake, by the fireplace (isiko). And perhaps this is related to the biblical account of Rachel and her father’s gods (Genesis 31:17-55).

I was aware that one reason that early Christians were persecuted because they refused to worship the Genius of Caesar — they were not expected to worship the flesh and blood emperor. Only one emperor thought he was a god in his flesh and blood, Caligula, and even his contemporaries knew that he was nuts.

But the concept of genius is interesting, and I found more about it in another book I had just returned to the library, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins: an Encyclopedia of the Little People, by Carol Rose.

There was the Russian concept of domovoi, the household spirit that lived by the stove. In Russia, with its cold winters the stove is a much bigger affair than the Zulu isiko, but the principle is the same. And in the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson at least one of the books mentions “the ancestor behind the stove”.

All this puts me in mind of the “little gods” referred to in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the Christian concept of guardian angels.  And perhaps egregores, too (clicking that link will take you to a lot of stuff).

On the theme of ancestors, and also with links to the Eastern Cape, Janneke Weidema spoke of someone South African Quakers regarded as a spiritual ancestor, Richard Gush of Salem. Guy Butler had written a play about him. Another whom they regarded as a spiritual ancestor was King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho, That caused a few raised eyebrows among the rest of us — Richard Gush was a Quaker, King Moshoeshoe wasn’t, in his lifetime at least. Did the Quakers, like the Mormons, admit people to membership after death. Janneke hastened to assure us that that was not the case. But Moshoeshoe was a peaceable monarch, and so was regarded as an ancestor in the genealogy of ideas. David mentioned the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who had said that good pagans were “anonymous Christians” as a possibly similar idea. Tony mentioned a booklet he had been reading, Islam is…, which said, in effect that everyone is a Muslim only they don’t know it yet. It also said that Islam did not condone war.

Tony had also been reading books by Bishop John Robinson, most recently In the end, God. Tony thought I didn’t like John Robinson, but that’s not quite true. I think when he writes in his own field, the New Testament, his books are quite good. It’s when he strays into dogmatic theology that I disagree, because I think he represents Bourgeois theology | Khanya.

We strayed into lots of other topics not directly concerned with books. Among these topics was politics, and we thought that with a general election looming in 2019, we were all wishing that someone would start a party we could vote for. None of the existing main parties seem any good. Janneke summed them up with a simple phrase: Job Creation, Livlihood Destruction.

 

The Writer’s Voice

The Writer's Voice: A workbook for writers in AfricaThe Writer’s Voice: A workbook for writers in Africa by Dorian Haarhoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about writing and encouraging people to write. I’ve read or looked at quite a number of these over the last few years, and you can find lots of advice for aspiring writers on the Web as well. I glance at a few of them when they appear in my Twitter feed, but there is a remarkable sameness about them all. I suspect that the writers of advice for writers have read very little other than books of advice to writers, and rehash it in blog articles and the like. I think if any aspiring writers took that advice seriously, all novels would be boring and formulaic, and eventually no one would read fiction anymore.

This one is somewhat different. For a start it is written for people in Southern Africa, and it is urging people who wouldn’t normally think of writing to tell their stories. I think that is a laudable aim. The convoluted history of Southern Africa over the last 70 years is a story that needs to be told if we are to make sense of it and of our lives, and it needs to be told from many different viewpoints.

So it lacks the usual advice on how to start your novel in the middle of things, with startling and violent events, and let the explanation of them percolate through afterwards. It also is a bit thin on practical advice on how to prepare your manuscript for publication and send it to a publisher. Perhaps that is wise, because such information easily becomes dated.

So much of the book is motivational, where to find your inspiration. And there are many different ways and places to find inspiration, so most readers of the book will find at least a few that may inspire them. Many of them are designed for use in a group, and so they won’t appeal to the solitary reader of the book.

One of the motivational stories he gives is of the writer’s genius. The Romans believed in the idea of a genius. The genius, a personal spirit, arrived at birth. And it carried a person’s full potential. He offers this quote:

The genius was considered a birthright, but it had to be nourished in order to survive… the ancient Roman was expected to make a birthday sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living (Dove 1995:17).

The myth is not so far removed from some African belief systems. I believe we are born with a writer’s genius, a writer’s potential. For those of us who are literate, this belief contains a challenge which John Irving the novelist, calls ‘the necessary strict toiling with the language.’

I quite liked that, but I would be inclined to use it in a different way — to incororporate a genius into my story, rather than use it as an inspiration for a story.
View all my reviews

The Winnie phenomenon

When I heard the news that Winnie Mandela had died, I was sad. She made a significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid, but I didn’t intend to blog about it because I didn’t know her well enough, and thought I could leave that to people who knew he and could tell her story.

But what has struck me since then is not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the person, but rather the Winnie phenomenon. And the phenomenon indicates to me that something has changed in our society and our culture, and the change does not seem to be a good one.

The first thing that struck me was that after her death most of the people who had anything to say about he either had nothing good to say about her, or they had nothing bad to say about her. And the few public commentators who did mention both the good and the bad were attacked by the other two groups, heach of which lu8mped them with the other.

There was a kind of polarization there that, it seems to me, had not been there before. For one group, anything written about Winnie had to be hagiographical or it was worthless. And for the other, nothing good that she had ever done could outweigh the evil, whether real or imagined, or planted by the SB.

The second thing that struck me about it was the personality cult.

Nelson Mandela was sometimes praised for many things, but he always shrugged off personal responsibility for them. He would say that if he said anything good he was speaking on behalf of an organisation, the ANC, and that he was simply enunciating policy decisions of the ANC. It was not anything good on his part, but rather he was part of an organisation that was trying to make a better life for all.

And there was a time, in the 1990s, when that really did seem to be true.

I do think that the ANC made some bad decisions in that time, among the worst of them was the abandonment of the RDP, which Nelson Mandela himself had said, right after the 1994 election, was not negotiable. But that too was a collective decision. It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela arbitrarily changing his mind.

The media helped to develop a personality cult mentality.

Day after day, week after week, they presented politicians as celebs. They reported who was in and who was out, who was favoured and who was disfavoured, and the merits of the policies they espoused were not reported on. One didn’t even know what policies they espoused until much later.

So the Winnie phenomenon that has emerged after her death seems to be all about polarisation and personality cult; whether her persona is regarded as good or evil. Those who are not for Winnie are against her, and those who are not against her must be for her.

 

 

Times and Seasons: Happy Equinox!

Today marks the Spring Equinox (in South Africa, anyway). It is also, in the Gregorian Calendar, the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist. And, though it doesn’t coincide exactly this year, it is at about this time that Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the birthday of the universe (Orthodox Christians celebrate the new year and creation on 1 September).

The Conception of St John the Baptist, which roughly coincides with the birthday of the universe in Jewish tradition, also, for Christians marks the beginning of God’s new creation, which we are reminded of in the southern hemisphere because it’s the middle of spring. It’s also symbolic because henceforth the days are longer than the nights, reminding us of the words of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5).

Six months after the conception of St John the Baptist and Rosh Hashanah, on 25 March, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, and told her she would be the Theotokos, the birth giver of God (Luke 1:26). Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, until he was born, which the Church celebrates on 24 June (Luke 1:56f), and then we celebrate the birth of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ on 25 December.

There are all sorts of speculations about the date on which Jesus was born, and what I’ve written above is my speculation, which is probably no more valid than any of the others, but I don’t think it is any less valid. In this matter there is no proof, only vigorous assertion, which is not quite the same thing.

Troparion — Tone 4

Rejoice, O barren one, who formerly did not bear a child
for you have conceived the Lamp of the Sun
who is to illumine the whole universe darkened by blindness
Rejoice, O Zachariah
and cry out with boldness:
“The prophet of the Most High desires to be born!”

For more see the Conception of the Honorable Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John.

The Sword of Shannara

The Sword of ShannaraThe Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve seen books in the Shannara series around in bookshops and libraries for many years, but they never seemed to have the first book so I always gave it a miss. Then I found this one in the library, and I thought it might be worth a look to see what it was about, quite soon after reading Stephen King’s comment that if The Lord of the Rights had been written in “sword and sorcery” style, Sauron would have been the hero.

This one wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t very good either. I’ve read a couple of others in the genre — Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is one, but this one was a bit better than that.

I suppose the point of comparison with The Lord of the Rings is that this is a quest novel — a group of people are assembled by a mysterious figure (A Druid called Allanon in this case) to go on a long journey with many adventures on the way try to get hold of a mysterious talisman (the eponymous Sword of Shannara) before the bad guy does.

The world in which the story takes place is both over-described and under-described. Desolate places are described rather unconvincingly at great length — marshes and dry places in which nothing lives. But it is not until page 512 (of 664 in my edition) that there is any inkling that this world has horses, cavalry and wheeled vehicles. Until that point all travel seems to be on foot.

There are other odd inconsistencies — when those on the quest come to the Druid castle, which has just been captured by hostile gnomes, they find all the empty underground passages conveniently lighted by torches, and one wonders who lit them and replaced the torches when they burnt out. In the land there are four races, Men, Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarfs, but in various places they are all described as men or as human beings.

Not a very bad read, but not a very good one either. I don’t think I’ll be looking for the rest of the trilogy.

View all my reviews

Did Not Finish — books only half-read

It seems that lots of readers on GoodReads are using the Did Not Finish or DNF shelf. In my GoodReads shelving I’ve used Abandoned for such books. The 15 Most Common Books Never Finished, According To Goodreads:

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF (or “did not finish” a book) isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others.

What I would like to see is GoodReads making that shelf, or tag, official, like Read, Currently Reading and Want to Read. At the moment I’ve got a whole bunch of them sitting on my Currently Reading because I haven’t read them and I don’t want to read them, so I must be currently reading them, only I’m not.

When I read the article cited above two books that I hadn’t finished immediately sprang to mind: Jane Eyre and War and Peace. I could look at my Abandoned shelf to find more, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind. We actually have two copies of War and Peace — one, whose cover is illustrated here, and a much older single volume edition. Perhaps I should try the older translation, because one of the things I didn’t like about the translation by Rosemary Edmonds was the rendering of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy as “Mass”. I also found the notion of the spirituality of Freemasons rather alien, though perhaps they were different in Russia in 1812 from what they were in South Africa a hundred years later, when most of our grandfathers seemed to be involved in Freemasonry. My picture of Freemasons is solemn moustachioed stout gents in Edwardian suits with waistcoats and silver watch chains wearing fancy aprons, with all the spirituality of a bourgeois grocer.

Anyway I pulled out my copy to check the ISBN, and found my bookmark still in place on page 522 where I had stopped reading, two-thirds of the way through volume 1.

I checked some of the other books on my Abandoned shelf and found Underworld by Don DeLillo, The story of the last thought by Edgar Hilsenrath — I must admit that I was attracted to that one by its cover, a good example of why one should not judge a book by its cover.

Others were The Shack by William Paul Young, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke, and The Information by Martin Amis.

Also sundry books by Charlotte Bingham, which I had bought in error, perhaps because we had enjoyed a book called Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, and I’d later confused it with the name of the author of a number of mediocre novels. We released them into the wild on BookCrossing, and no one has responded saying they’d found and enjoyed them, so they must have ended up in the well of lost plots.

Racism as an Orthodox problem

Someone recently posted a link to an ostensibly Orthodox web site that seems to be pushing a racist and white nationalist agenda. 15,000 White South Africans Flee Racist Persecution, Plan Move to Russia – Russian Faith:

…the whole notion that Boers see Russia as a possible new homeland is telling and it is huge in its implications. It is happening, as I predicted a few years ago, that white Christian peoples (which is by definition–a European root) will increasingly see Russia as their salvation.

The racism in that article is bad enough, but the idolatry is worse. The Orthodox Church teaches salvation in Jesus Christ, not salvation through Russia.

I’ve followed links to the “Russian Faith” web site in the past; it often has pictures of pretty Orthodox Churches, and a veneer of Orthodoxy. But looking to Russia for salvation rather than to Christ really is idolatry. There’s even a Russian word for it, dvoeverie — dual faith, double mindedness. Believing in Christ and something else; putting your faith in Christ and… Christ and Russia; Christ and whiteness; because Christ alone is not enough. Which is perhaps why St James tells us that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

So I’ll no longer be following or sharing links to the Russian Faith website on social media, because it seems to be promoting the Russian faith, that is faith in Russia, rather than the Orthodox faith, which is faith in Christ.

In pointing out the errors, the phyletism, the heresy, of web sites like Russian Faith, however, one must be careful not to be sucked into the opposite error — the currently-fashionable Russophobia of the Western media, where anything linked in any way to Russia is seen as ipso facto evil. In the eyes of the Western media, to say that someone has “Russian connections” is enough to damn them. I believe that there is such a thing as Holy Russia, exemplified by countless Russian saints, but Holy Russia was the Russia that followed the Orthodox faith, faith in Christ, not faith in whiteness or in Russia itself.

This is Orthodoxy: the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, His Beatitude Theodoros II, visiting the Diocese of Kisimu in Western Kenya, whose bishop, His Grace Anthanasius (on the Pope’s left), served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria for 13 years, and was beloved by all his parishioners, black and white (Photo by Amadiva Athanasios).

Just because this article was sparked off by something posted on a Russian website does not mean that Orthodox Christians who are not Russian are exempt from the danger of falling into heresies like phyletism, I once heard someone say, at coffee after Divine Liturgy at a church in Johannesburg, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.” And there is that slogan I have heard from many people Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism. That too is phyletism, and dvoeverie.

 

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

View all my reviews

Post Navigation