Tuesday, 9 December 2008

This Momentous Year

The number one lesson I learned this year is that *life happens. It’s like Fanta, it will find you.

Rush headlong and hard at life
Or just sit at home and wait.
All things good and all the wrong
Will come right to you: it's fate.
- Dean Koontz, The Book of Counted Sorrows

You can’t hide from life; it finds you wherever you are. The one thing you can do is choose the quality of your life and the path you choose to follow or carve out for yourself. You can live a reactive life and have things happen to you according to the whims of other people or you can be and take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

2008 has been a wonderful year when it comes to books and I’ve read everything that I’ve wanted to read save for George Orwell’s 1984 (which I’m just too lazy to read), Terry Goodkind’s Confessor (the library is being mean to me) and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (amazingly enough I never seem to be able to find a copy of this classic! I settled for the movie which was fair enough). When it comes to reading books I’m the sort of person who enjoys the journey and when I get to the destination I wish I could start again and experience the thrills all over. My reading experience is always eucatastrophic, I’m always happy that the characters I got to travel with find their heart’s desire but parting with them is always hard because they are more real to me than strangers I meet in the street. When I was reading Stephen King’s The Stand I fell so in love with the characters that I dreamed about them and had imaginary conversations with them as I walked down the street. I lugged that book around with me everywhere I went and snuck in a few pages whenever I could. I read it on the bus, in the library, in lectures, all over the house at home, under trees and just about anywhere where I was. When I finished The Stand I wept for all the people in it who died and for the survivors who must start rebuilding their lives – I felt like I was part of the struggle. The last time I loved characters so much was in 2003 when I read Dean Koontz’s From the Corner of His Eye.

When I talk about books to anyone there are two names that never fail to pop up, those being C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. At the beginning of the year when I was shopping for varsity text books I stumbled upon Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin and after a moment’s thought I said to hell with some of the books I had to get for English and bought the book. Tolkien writes of high beauty forever beyond the reach of evil and I derive the utmost pleasure from reading his books because he is lover of life. Tolkien loves language, nature and beauty something fierce. The man loves names so much that all his characters have more than one name because one name simply does not suffice to tell of the person’s beauty, wisdom and strength or foul nature. In The Children of Húrin Túrin is also named Neithan, Gorthol, Agarwaen, Mormegil (The Black Sword), Wildman of the Woods and Turambar. Peter Kreeft points out that in Middle-Earth matter matters, things are always more real there than they are in our world. Mountains have personalities and walking trees are the shepherds of the forest. I live in Johannesburg, a very bland part of South Africa so reading about such beauty is like crack for me. When I visit my grandparents in Sterkspruit I’m amazed by the fact that they have rivers and real mountains. But because of traditional laws I don’t understand one can never actually go and do any real exploring without getting the nonsense beaten out of you. This, for me, is much worse than living in Jo’burg, having the beauty and not experiencing it. In an effort to stick it to the man (don’t even ask me why that thought occurred to me like that, it just seemed fitting at the time) I decided that one of my life goals is to go to the Galapagos Islands because they are “howling with holy wildness”. Another thing I want to do is explore some of the beautiful places SA has to offer. Because I love leading a strange life I have decided that when I graduate from varsity I’m going to live in Japan. Imagine it, an African anglophile who majored in English literature living in Japan, pretty weird right? Then there’s also the plan to go to Oxford University for a Master’s Degree or something. I don’t like living an ordinary life because it dulls my mind and makes me forget that the world has much more to offer than going to work every morning and trudging back home every evening. Being a weirdo reminds me that:

There are more things in heaven and earth
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Some people believe that there are less and those are the wet blankets I tend to avoid and throw stones at whenever I get a chance. Sometimes I run into the dullest people ever and I feel like punching them. I’m one of those social introverted types so I rarely pick up on the fact that people are dull because I create my own excitement with people. I’ll hang out with someone simply because he looks like an orc and get the biggest kick out of it. Thus if I think you’re dull you must know that you have problems.

Let me get back to what I was talking about before, our beloved Professor Tolkien. After The Children of Húrin I tackled The Hobbit (my third time reading it) and couldn’t get around to re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I have a sneaky suspicion that the Elder Days of Middle-Earth are more exciting to me than the Third Age, the only things exciting about the Third Age is Gandalf, Hobbits, Tom Bombadil and Ents. I reread Leaf by Niggle which is a beautiful story about the sort of man who is better at painting leaves than he is at painting trees. Niggle is as much a leafsmith as Tolkien is a wordsmith. As I was reading the story and Parish, Niggle’s neighbour, kept bothering him I wished he’d just throw rocks at him and get back to his painting. I was wrong it turns out because Christ says that no matter how demented your neighbour is and even if he does not appreciate your painting and it is suggested by the authorities that you use the canvas on which your masterpiece is painted to fix a leak in his roof you must always help him. Niggle should have lived in Japan, the neighbours there are much less demanding I’m sure. Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-Stories, proved to be very humorous. I can’t get over the cool factor of a distinguished professor writing about fairy-stories in such a serious manner, it’s totally insane. I tried reading some book on Tolkien’s work as philologist and it was simply beyond my present abilities so I left that alone. The best is yet to come I always say because, like Dean Koontz’s Lorrie Tock, I’m an indefatigable optimist. When I finally got my hands on The Silmarillion I knew that the best had finally arrived, clad in a stylish black jacket. The last time I read this book was when I was still a snotnose in High School and most of it flew right over my head. This time around I think I grasped it and it was a joyous read. The characters aren’t as personal as those from The Stand; it’s more like reading about the gods on Mount Olympus but the tales are epic in scope. My favourite, for the lack of a better word, scene in the book is when Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, mounted upon his great horse, Rochallor, and rode forth to challenge Morgoth to single combat. He even dared to call Morgoth craven! In our world this would be like Barak Obama challenging Lucifer to single combat. Fingolfin dies in the battle but manages to chop off some of Morgoth’s foot in the process and after that battle the Dark Lord never issued from his fortress for battle ever again. If ever a movie was made this would be the scene to see.

I love C.S. Lewis’ work very, very much and before I went to go watch Prince Caspian (which I watched three times in cinema) I reread all the Narnia books (save for The Silver Chair) and I was blown away all over again. I always preach this to anyone willing to listen, read children’s books because they always have the good stuff. Children’s books are dynamite in Technicolor packaging. After you’ve read a crate full of children’s books read Lewis’ Till We Have Faces because it is simply his most beautiful novel. The central question the novel asks haunted me for months. “Why must holy places be dark places?” Why must religion be so mysterious? Peter Kreeft says that part of the answer is that God hides himself so that only those who truly want to find Him do so. Salvation, thus, is not determined by intelligence, money or good looks but by faith. In the novel the Priest says of the gods, “[T]hey dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places”.

I even had a good time with the books I had to read for English and literary theory. I can’t say I care much for the ups and downs of modernist and postmodernist theories but postmodernist authors sure know how to write mind-boggling books. I read some of Jorge-Luis Borges’ short fiction for literary theory and the man is a genius at telling unconventional stories. For Borges the rabbit hole goes very deep. I acquired new names for my list of favourite authors, people like Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things is one of the best books I’ve read this year and there’s a chance that I might name my third son Velutha, I’m still thinking it over.

I went to the library a few weeks back and took out a massive George MacDonald book titled The Princess and the Goblin. It looked really cool and had pretty pictures. The librarian at the counter asked me if I was taking it out for a younger sibling and I was like, “No, dude. It’s for me.” I think I’ve lost any respect that dude had for me, especially after I went around the children’s section hunting for Pullman’s His Dark Materials books and for books by Anne Fine – whom I think is a damn fine novelist.

There’s still so much to read and so little time. At the beginning of the year I bought Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and I still have to finish those.

I’ve had a good year of books and that is always a good thing so I’m one happy dude. Life is good even when it’s not so good and everyday is of utmost importance (Read Lewis’ The Great Divorce to make sense of what I’m actually saying in this sentence).

Not one day in anyone’s life is an uneventful day, no day without profound meaning, no matter how dull and boring it might seem, no matter whether you are a seamstress or a queen, a shoeshine boy or a movie star, a renowned philosopher or a Down’s-syndrome child. Because in every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindnesses for others, both by conscious acts of will and unconscious example. Each smallest act of kindness–even just words of hope when they are needed, the remembrance of a birthday, a compliment that engenders a smile–reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away. Likewise, each small meanness, each thoughtless expression of hatred, each envious and bitter act, regardless of how petty, can inspire others, and is therefore the seed that ultimately produces evil fruit, poisoning people whom you have never met and never will. All human lives are so profoundly and intricately entwined–those dead, those living, those generations yet to come–that the fate of all is the fate of each, and the hope of humanity rests in every heart and in every pair of hands. Therefore, after every failure, we are obliged to strive again for success, and when faced with the end of one thing, we must build something new and better in the ashes, just as from pain and grief, we must weave hope, for each of us is a thread critical to the strength–to the very survival–of the human tapestry. Every hour in every life contains such often-unrecognized potential to affect the world that the great days for which we, in our dissatisfaction, so often yearn are already with us; all great days and thrilling possibilities are combined always in this momentous day.
- Dean Koontz, From the Corner of His Eye

*The experience of being alive; the course of human events and activities (the mundane stuff included)

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