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Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part Two: ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’

“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating”: Alan Paton as South African prophet.

This is the second post in the series Five Books to Understand the Modern World. For the first installment on ‘Lord of the Flies’ go here.

It’s probably not fashionable any more to be a fan of ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. It does not call for revolution. It is primarily spiritual, rather than political. It is written by a white man.

Yet – no other book I have ever read captures so accurately the agony of South Africa and the stubborn sense of hope symbolised by our land’s beauty, and thus remains almost prophetically relevant to every passing year of our country’s fairly morbid story.

I would go so far as to say this book should be compulsory reading for every school-going child in the country. And therefore it heartily deserves its spot in my top five list of books you need to read to get a grip on what is going on all around us. Continue reading

Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part One: ‘Lord of the Flies’

‘Lord of the Flies’ is a book so many of us read in high school, and completely misunderstood. But if we spend a little more time with it, it tells us something powerful about our society, and ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to look at my recommended list of books to read to help you understand what is going on in South Africa and the world. All of them are fiction – not because I don’t love non-fiction too, but because I think the most powerful way to understand culture is to know its stories…

‘Lord of the Flies’ was written in the aftermath of World War II and at the beginning of nuclear tension between Russia and America, and the slow fading of Britain as a world and colonial power.

We all think we know what it means: a bunch of schoolboys are stranded on an island and, without civilization, they quickly descend into savagery.

Having crashed on a deserted island full of fruit and wild pig, they begin with sensible ideas to build shelter, elect a leader, hold a parliament with the power of speaking only given to whomever holds ‘the conch’, and set a signal fire.

By the end they are a tribe of painted savages, performing human sacrifice, murder, and acts of terrorism, demonstrating that little boys without adults are evil little critters and thus need supervision to keep them in line.

That’s somewhat true, as far as it goes, but the author, William Golding, was definitely not praising the glories of adult civilization, nor is he trying to communicate some kind of idea about ‘boys being boys’. Continue reading

How to Change The World

It may just be a gut feeling, but hashtags, online petitions, and student marches don’t seem to do any good. Professor Jordan Peterson knows why.

I spend a lot of time hearing the strong opinions of young people. I enjoy doing this, and having a conversation about where those opinions come from and where they lead to.

But, at the same time, I get really nervous about this strong push toward using the right words, being politically correct, or ‘woke’, and this general militant feel to politics.

On top of this, I am really suspicious about this political adulation of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’. Surely in the complicated field of politics, experience, and a measured approach to social problems, are to be valued above passion and loud voices?

So what’s the alternative? Continue reading

Beauty Will Save The World

“Man can live without science; he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here; the whole of history is here.”

(This article is a cross-post between chriswaldburger.com and larawaldburger.com)

There is so much ugliness in the world. The box-shaped buildings of the modern city; the pollution that trails in the wake of both industry and poverty; the sordidness of so much of our advertising and politics. In the face of such an onslaught, art can get reduced to the purely functional, a mere commodity.

Russian writer and genius, Fyodor Dostoevsky, saw something different.

For him, it is beauty which saves the world.

What kind of beauty could possibly have such power? Continue reading

How to be a (useless) intellectual

Intellectuals perform for us the valuable task of demonstrating the sacred pointlessness of human existence. As Thomas Aquinas once wrote: ‘It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.’

I did pretty well at school. I got good marks. My teachers told me to be a lawyer, an engineer, or a film director (!). Instead, here I find myself a chronically underpaid (considering I studied successfully at varsity for seven years) teacher and writer.

This can make for some awkward conversation at school reunions. If you did well at a private school, you are meant to study Business Science and/or take over your dad’s business. Otherwise, aren’t you wasting all those school fees?

It’s interesting to trace this logic a bit further.

Basically, such logic says you need to make money, so your progeny can make more money, in order for the cycle to continue. Clear?

Now, by no means am I suggesting making money or doing well at business is bad. It is obviously good. And we need lots and lots of people doing just that.

But making money for the sake of making money is bad (especially when you consider that social scientists tell us once your needs are met, more money does not add to happiness) and it comes with a whole lot of stress, worry, and temptation. Continue reading

Did Cinema’s Most Acclaimed Film Predict Trump?

The two most critically acclaimed films of all time are both about the same thing – love, and how to destroy it in the modern world.

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A few months ago I wrote about the film Vertigo, which is considered by many film critics to be, always in competition with Citizen Kane, the greatest film of all time. Read the post here.

Today, I want to look at Citizen Kane – the supposed ‘Everest’ of filmmaking.

For decades, critics and academics have all agreed that when it comes to the art of cinema, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), in its storytelling and filmic innovation, as well as its sympathetic and withering critique of a semi-fictional American tycoon, is the pinnacle and benchmark of the entire art form.

It also happens to be Donald Trump’s favourite film, something which is either highly ironic, or betrays a well-hidden self-awareness on the part of the controversial US President. We’ll return to Trump later – suffice to say the Trump connection demonstrates how all truly great art is always topical. Continue reading

The Two Greatest Films of All Time?

The two most critically acclaimed films of all time are both about the same thing – love, and how to destroy it in the modern world…

background film wallpaper vertigo movie

For decades, critics and academics have all agreed that when it comes to the art of cinema, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), in its storytelling and filmic innovation, its sympathetic and withering critique of a semi-fictional American tycoon, is the pinnacle and benchmark of the entire art form.

Yet as the critics, notably the British and American Film Institutes, released their annual lists of the ‘greatest films of all time’, one film kept rising in their esteem, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Continue reading

Finding Love in a Romantic Age

Never in the history of humanity has romantic love been so celebrated. But what if all the romance on sale this week clouds a basic and vital truth – in a tragic world, love is meant to be something deeper than happiness and the fulfillment of desire.

When I teach poetry, I’m often struck by how unromantic the Romantic poets were. Most of the time their poems are really just about wandering off to nature and forgetting about everybody else. There is very little mentioned about the actual nitty gritty of love, marriage or raising a family.

Yet they still cast a long shadow over the way we view love in the modern age.

The idea that human beings are constantly filled with majestic desire that must be fulfilled – that a perfect world awaits if we just have the courage to begin it again according to the wonders of our imagination – these are all ideas given to us by the age of Romanticism in the early 19th century.

Suffice to say, I can’t think of one of the Romantic poets who had a happy marriage. Most of them treated women pretty badly – even while they were adored by women.

Rather, if you trace their ideas all the way to the 20th century you can find their ideas lurking behind the social devastation given to us by the concepts of Free Love and no-contest divorce. If our desires are always noble, then nothing should stand in their way.

This is all obviously fairly ironic when you consider how so many people today thirst for more romance in their lives. Continue reading