This autobiography/memoir of a Bahai over six decades of teaching and international travel is one of the few extensive personal accounts of the experience of a Western Bahai beginning in the second epoch (1944-1963) of the Formative Age.
This autobiographical study begins at the start of the three teaching Plans in: 1937, 1946, and 1953 respectively and integrates a lifespan, 1943 to 2013, a life-narrative, into the context of the history of the Bahai community back to 1753, the year of the birth of the Babi-Bahai Faith's chief precursor Shaykh Ahmad. The author includes over 2000 references from the humanities and social sciences within the western intellectual tradition. His account goes through to the early years of this new millennium, the first 60 years from the inception of the Kingdom of God on earth, 1953-2013.
This work draws on many disciplines, on studies of autobiography and biography as well as a broad range of experience, to analyse this author's society, his Faith, his community and himself in those critical first eight decades of organized and systematic teaching Plans, 1937 to 2017. Readers will find here at Bahai Library Online the introductory sections, Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this epic 2600 page five volume 7th edition. These three Parts are an abridged, truncated and necessarily provisional edition for BLO.
This section, this post, is Part 1.1 and, as the title suggests, the work is a study of autobiography as a genre, an analysis of its process and its content, as much as if not more than, a study of the author's life, his society and his religion. The Office of Review of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States has given him permission to post his work in this form on the internet. The 3rd edition of this document was originally posted at BLO in 2003 and it has been edited and revised many times since. This 7th edition was posted here in celebration of the 50th anniversary in April 2013 of the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. An 8th edition is envisaged to be published on the internet in 2021 at the end of the first century of the Formative Age if, as the author points out, he lasts that long.
Pioneering Over Four Epochs: Part 1.1:
An Autobiographical Study and a Study in Autobiography
PIONEERING OVER FOUR EPOCHS:
an autobiographical study and a study in autobiography
By Ron Price
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: Introduction 1
Chapter 2: Introduction 2
Chapter 3: Letters
Chapter 4: Diary/Journal/Notebooks
Chapter 5: Interviews
Chapter 6: A Life in Photographs
Chapter 1: Ten Year Crusade Years: 1953-1963
Chapter 2: Pre-Youth Days: 1956-1959
Chapter 3: Pre-Pioneering Days: 1959-1962
Chapter 1: Pioneering: Homefront 1: 1962-1964
Chapter 2: Pioneering: Homefront 2: 1965-1967
Chapter 3: 1967-1968
Chapter 4: 1968-1971
Chapter 1: International Pioneering 1: 1971-1973
Chapter 2: International Pioneering 2: 1973-1974
Chapter 3: International Pioneering 3: 1974-1978
Chapter 4: International Pioneering 4: 1978-1982
Chapter 5: International Pioneering 5: 1982-1988
Chapter 6: International Pioneering 6: 1988-1996
Chapter 7: International Pioneering 7: 1996-2014
Chapter 8: Epilogue
COMMENTARIES, ESSAYS AND POEMS
Chapter 1: Credo, Poems and Resumes
Chapter 2: Pioneering An Overview
Chapter 3: Anecdote and Autobiography
Chapter 4: Autobiography as Symbolic Representation
Chapter 5: Essays on Autobiography
Chapter 6: A Study of Community and Biography
Chapter 7: About Poetry
Chapter 8: Social Topics of Relevance
Chapter 9: Praise and Gratitude
SECTION I: Pre-Pioneering
SECTION II: Homefront Pioneering
SECTION III: International Pioneering
The material below, in the sections which follow, is found in other locations in cyberspace and, although not included in this autobiography, it could be useful for future autobiographical, biographical and historical work.
SECTION IV: Biographies : 24 short sketches
SECTION V: Published Work : Essays-300-Volumes 1 to 4—1982-2014
SECTION VI: Unpublished Work: (a) Essays-Volumes 1 & 2--170 essays
(b) Novels-Volumes 1 to 3--12 attempts
SECTION VII: Letters :Vols 1-25 : 3000 letters:1961-2014
:Vols 26-50: 20000 postings at 8000+ sites
SECTION VIII: Poetry :Booklets 1-72: 7000+ poems....1980-2014
SECTION IX: Notebooks :300.............1962-2014
SECTION X.1: Files :(a)hard-copy....1962-2014
SECTION X.2: Journals :Volumes 1 to 6..1984-2014
SECTION XI: Memorabilia and Photographs.......1908-2014
This book is dedicated to the Universal House of Justice in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary, in April 2013, of its inaugural election in April 1963. I also dedicate this work to Alfred J. Cornfield, my maternal grandfather, whose autobiography for the years 1872 to 1900, completed in 1921 and published in 1980 for some family members, was an inspiration to the one found here.
1. The document below is Part 1.1 of what is now a six part series of documents here at BLO. The series of six parts is a necessary abridgment of a narrative work of 2600 pages; it has been truncated here to fit into the space for this document at Bahai Library Online. This document is both an outline and a curtailment of an epic-opus, an abbreviated, a compressed, a boiled down, a potted, a shorn, a mown, a more compact version of my larger epic-work. This is an abridgment of the 7th edition of my autobiography. This particular document is, as I say, Part 1.1. It will include changes in the months ahead. When a significant number of changes are made an 8th edition will be brought out. It is my hope, although I cannot guarantee, that this brief exposure here will give readers a taste, a desire, for more, for Parts 1.2, 2, and 3, as well as other aspects of this memoir found at many internet sites and in my non-published work.
2. The inclusion of quotation marks, apostrophes and accents has often proved difficult as have the addition of footnotes. Hopefully this will be remedied at a later date. This is yet another hope which can not be guaranteed.
PREFACE TO THIS SEVENTH EDITION:
A 2600 page, five volume narrative, a 300 page study of the poetry of Roger White, the major Bahai; poet of that half-century; 7000 prose-poems, 120 pages of personal interviews, 400 essays; 5000 letters, emails and internet posts; 300 notebooks, six volumes of diaries/journals, 12 volumes of photographs and memorabilia, a dozen attempts at a novel, indeed, an epic-opus of material has been integrated into an analysis of my religion, my times and my life. This variety of genres aims at embellishing and deepening my own experience and that of readers. Only a very small portion of this epic work is found here in the three Parts of this autobiography, a portion that readers can dip into anywhere. This autobiography turned out to be a composition of parts encircling each other, like the galaxy accompanying memory. Toni Morrison(1931- ), an American novelist, editor, and professor, says this about her novels and what she says applies equally, if not a fortiori, to my autobiography.
This is the autobiography of an ordinary Bahai, perhaps the most extensive one to date. This epic-opus illustrates what hardly needs illustrating these days, namely, that you dont have to be a celebrity or a person of some fame or renown to have a biography or autobiography. This literary genre is now so popular that men and women of little interest and significance feel impelled to record their life-stories. In the wide-wide world my life is clearly is this category. The Bahá'í Faith provides, it seems to me, a nice balance between the importance of community and the necessity for that community not to stifle the voice of its members. This is not an easy balance to strike but in the decades ahead the world will find that this Faith is one of the organizations, perhaps the critical one, which provides the mix of freedom and authority, unity and diversity, without which planetary survival will be difficult if not impossible.
The autobiographies and the biographies in the Bahai community that have come into Bahai bookshops since the Kingdom of God had its inception in 1953 with the completion of the Bahai temple in Chicago are, for the most part, about individuals of some significance in the Bahai system of social status or stratification like Hands of the Cause Furutan, George Townshend and Martha Root. Extant autobiographies and biographies have been written about or by individuals with some special, publicly recognized, talent or experience like: Andre Brugiroux who hitch-hiked around the planet; Dizzy Gillespie or Marvin Holladay both of whom had a special musical talent and fame; Louis Bourgeois or Roger White, men of great artistic or literary talent; Angus Cowan or Marion Jack two of the 20th century's great teachers.
There are now hundreds of short & often moving biographical & autobiographical pieces by or about quite ordinary people with simple stories of their lives and their often significant contributions to the work of this Cause. Such accounts can be found in the many volumes of Bahai World and other books like Claire Vreelands And the Trees Clapped Their Hands. If, as Shakespeare suggests in his play Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit,” there is a potential for much wit in much Baha’i biography. Sadly there may be little here in this work if one follows the same reasoning. But if, as Walter Pater emphasizes in his essay on style, the greatness of a work lies in its content, perhaps there is hope for this work. Like the poet-writer Jorge Luis Borges, I like to think of myself as unusually liberal in my insistence that every reader must have his own autonomy: "I think the reader should enrich what he's reading. He should misunderstand the text: he should change it into something else." Somebody else's original gift and I like to think that whatever quality of writing is found here is a gift, can't be duplicated, but the study of it can always help to make us a more careful guardian of our own. Clive James makes this point at his new website. And even if a reader has no plans to be a writer himself, there is always an extra fascination in watching a craftsman at work. Writing in any form is never just the style, but it isn't just the subject matter either.
Any mentally idle, story-hungry novelist or scriptwriter might find this present ready-made narrative of value. Most real lives need a good deal of cutting and pasting to get them into story shape. I like to think, though, that no complicated restructuring is required here. If you so desire, you have only to start at the beginning and go on to the end, and you have as rich a tale of human relations and mental worlds as any reader or viewer might desire or stomach.
Here is one of the first extensive autobiographies about one of these quite ordinary Bahais, without fame, rank, celebrity status or an especially acknowledged talent, who undertook work he often felt unqualified or incompetent to achieve, with his sins of omission and commission, but with achievements which, he emphasizes, were all gifts from God in mysterious & only partly understandable ways, ways alluded to again and again in the Bahai writings. They were achievements that arose, such is his view, due to his association with this new Revelation and its light and were not about name, fame or renown, although some of these now tarnished terms play subtly and not-so-subtly on the edges of many a life in our media age. These achievements and their significance are sometimes termed: success, victory, service, enterprize, sacrifice, transformation, all words with many implications for both the individual and society.
This story, this narrative, is unquestionably one of transformation: of a community, a Cause and a life that has taken place in a time of auspicious beginnings for both humankind and the Bahai community, at one of histories great climacterics. The concept of this oeuvre, this prose and poetry, as epic, took shape from 1997 to 2007 after more than 50 years of association with what may well prove to be the greatest epic in human history, the gradual realization of the wondrous vision, the brightest emanations of the mind of the prophet-founder of the Bahai Faith and what Bahais believe will become, over time, the fairest fruit of the fairest civilization the world has yet seen. During these last ten years, my final years of full-time teaching in a technical college in Australia and the first years of early retirement, this concept of his work as epic has evolved.
By 2014 I will have been writing seriously, both poetry and prose, for more than 50 years(1963-2014). The serious writing I did in 1963 was done in the first term of the first year at university. My matriculation year, grade 13 in Ontario, was 1962-63. Although it was a serious and demanding year, I do not count it is the beginning of my serious writing. I had nine subjects that year, and it was the most demanding academic year of my 18 years of academic life. Of course, in many ways, the writing one does in primary and high school is serious in its own way and, so, I could argue that my serious writing goes back to at least that Holy Year of 1952/3 when I was in grades 2 and 3.
My four years of university, 1963 to 1967, were demanding but they were also demanding in psycho-social ways which I discuss in this memoir or autobiography. The concept of this written opus as epic gradually crystallized after nearly 50 years of my association with and involvement in the Bahai Cause. Those 50 years constituted:(i) the years between the two Holy Years 1952/3 and 1992/3 and (ii) the following decade(1992-2002)of the Formative Age. That latter decade took place at the time when the projects on Mt. Carmel, the Bahá'í gardens and terraces on that Hill of God were being completed. With the increasing elaboration, definition and development of the structure and concept, the notion and framework, of this entire collected work as epic has come a conceptual home of reflection, memory, imagination, action and vision which readers will find described, albeit briefly, in this abridged, this truncated, edition and document at Bahai Library Online.
No intelligent writer knows if he is any good, wrote T.S. Eliot; he must live with the possibility, the theoretical uncertainty, that his entire work has all been a waste of time. This provocative idea of this famous 20th century poet, I believe, has some truth. But whether for good or ill--write I must. One of the results of this epic work is another provocative idea which I like to think also has some truth; namely, that my work was a part of the new patterns of thought, action, integration and the gathering momentum of Bahai scholarly activity indeed, the change in culture evidenced in the Four Year Plan(1996-2000), that befitting crescendo to the achievements of the 20th century; that my epic work was a part, too, of that very beginning of the process of community building, a new culture of learning and growth and,finally, a part of those traces which Abdul-Baha said shall last forever.
To approach this epic or even the truncated edition of my 2600 page narrative in three Parts at Bahai Library Online and read it certainly requires an effort on the part of a hopeful internet user. I like to think that such an effort will be rewarded, that such an exercise on the part of the reader will be worthwhile. Of course, as a writer, I know that I can make no such guarantee. It is yet another hope and hope, as one popular aphorism of this age goes: hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Some writers are read most widely for their fiction; there is often a closeness for them of the two worlds, reality and invention. Fiction for these same writers often represents a mere short step from their essays or their poetry. A similar sensibility pervades all their work in whatever genre. I do not write fictional invention. Invention there is but it is the invention that comes with the writing process; my work does not partake of fiction. Fiction does not inhabit my several genres, although I like to think there is a common sensibility across all my writing—but I’m not so sure. I leave such an analysis, such a statement, to readers, at least those readers who spend more than a little time on this lengthy work before their enthusiasm for its content dries-up.
The American poet William Carlos William’s used the term locality or ground and expressed his agreement with Edgar Allen Poe that this locality or ground was to be acquired by the “whole insistence in the act of writing upon its method in opposition to some nameless rapture over nature. . . with a gross rural sap; he wanted a lean style, rapid as a hunter and with an aim as sure — Find the ground, on your feet or on your belly. . . . He counsels writers to borrow nothing from the scene but to put all the weight of the effort into the WRITING.” For me, for my written expression, this locality or ground in either my verse or my prose was not easily attained. The evolution of my oeuvre since the 1960s and its present style here in Pioneering Over Four Epochs reveals, in ways only the reader can assess, my long struggle to capture the complex interrelationships between self, society and the sacred.
The time is ripe, indeed, I think it has been ripe since at least 1919 when the League of Nations was first formed, to articulate questions about the complex interdependence of internationalism, nationalism and locality and the critical need for a basis for communitas communitatum. The time has long been ripe to infuse literature and social analysis with a relevant vocabulary. Relevance is a difficult sense and sensibility for a writer to achieve among a large reading public. I am inclined to think that the relevance of this work, at the popular level, the level of the mass, a mass society, will not come until after my passing, if it even, ever, comes at all.
After several thousand years in which the world has been the private preserve of a small leisured class, something that can truly be called humanity is being born and a world society fit for human beings to live in. The process is both slow and fast. I have observed this slowness and this fastness at least since the beginning of my pioneering days in the early 1960s, but my awareness and ability to articulate this complex dichotomy has been slow in coming.
Some writers, some people, have a premonition of their destiny. James Boswell, for example, who wrote The Life of Samuel Johnson, was like John Milton who knew that he would be a poet before he had written a single line. Boswell always felt he would be the biographer of a great man of his era. So he visited Voltaire; he tried to approach the great men of his time. He visited Voltaire in Berne, in Switzerland, and he made friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau—they were friends for only fifteen or twenty days, because Rousseau was a very ill-tempered man. He then became friends with an Italian general, Paoli, from Corsica. When he returned to England from Corsica, he wrote a book about Corsica. At a party given in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the birth of Shakespeare, he showed up dressed as a Corsican villager. So that people would recognize him as the author of the book about Corsica, he carried a sign on his hat, on which he had written “Corsica’s Boswell.” We know this because of his own testimony and that of his contemporaries. I say all this because I had no premonition of my destiny. I came to a life of letters, of writing and editing, poetizing and publishing, by degrees, sensibly and insensibly. It was not until my 60s that I was fully ensconced in a literary life.
I find that there is something very strange about my writing of autobiography, indeed, my entire corpus. I write on this subject many times throughout my now extensive published work in cyberspace. Some strangeness was also true of Boswell and his writing. This something in relation to Boswell has been interpreted in two different ways. One way was by the English essayist and historian Macaulay who wrote around the middle of the nineteenth century. The other way that this strangeness was interpreted was that of Bernard Shaw, written, I believe, around 1915, or something like that. Then there is a whole range of judgments between those two. Macaulay says that the preeminence of Homer as an epic poet, of Shakespeare as a dramatic poet, of Demosthenes as an orator, and of Cervantes as a novelist is no less indisputable than the preeminence of Boswell as a biographer. But then Macaulay says that all those eminent names owed their preeminence to their talent and brilliance. The odd thing about Boswell, though, was that he owed his preeminence as a biographer to his foolishness, his inconsistency, his vanity, and his imbecility.
I owe my passion and literary proclivities, my preeminence, if indeed I have or if I ever come to have any preeminence, to the process of aging in the lifespan, and a temperament that resulted from the pharmacological treatment of my bipolar disorder. I took an early retirement, a sea-change as it is sometimes called, at the age of 55 in 1999. I exited from the world of paid employment and its 50 to 70 hours a week of its demands on my time. I went on a disability pension in my late 50s due to my bipolar 1 disorder. I gradually came to enjoy a series, a cocktail, of medications that made me suited to little else than writing, writing in small chunks of time but adding-up to at least six hours every day. This has been true now for at least a decade: 2003 to 2013.
Like many writers and thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs, in these epochs of my life, I have found that there is a world towards which I can direct my loyalty and whatever skills, by some unmerited grace, with which I have been endowed. Many never find that world, never find some commitment into which they can throw their heart and soul. Of course, everyone finds their own world of self and society. They give themselves by some degree: to family, to some local set of issues, perhaps to a peculiar passion, a political party or a cause like the environment, whales, seals, a career, sex, indeed, the list is virtually endless. These commitments around which millions and billions sketch the meaning of their lives over the terra incognita of existence, around which the creative imagination with which each of these human beings is endowed, attempts to produce a reality that is consistent with that commitment, with the facts that each individual sees around it. And I do the same. I also write, not so much to claim my birthright, but to express as best I can the meaning of my birth and the life that followed. I am and have been what time and circumstance, history and socialization have made of me. But I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.
Cynthia Ozick, one of the greatest living American writers, described as "the Athena of America’s literary pantheon," the "Emily Dickinson of the Bronx," and "one of the most accomplished and graceful literary stylists of her time, writes about human heritability. She has written that no Jew is "untouched by the knowledge, the memory, the sorrowful heritage of victimization due to the Holocaust, however attenuated in our constitutionally wise and pleasant land." This is also true for the Bahá'í in relation to the plight of their beleaguered co-religionists in Iran. This has become part of the "so much more" that is my life. It is part of my epic.
This autobiography is a sketch of what life has made of me and of that commitment, that reality, that imagination and its set of facts. As one of the first environmentalists, Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “If one advances confidently in the direction of one's dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I have, indeed, done just that since my late teens when the direction and the substance of my dreams gained some specificity. The success that has resulted has certainly been unexpected. Thoreau also says not to "lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.” My dreams and aspirations form an important ground-swell for my life and Thoreau's words here are apt.
I am not concerned by the degree of exposure that is necessitated by autobiographical writing; I have worked-out over many years what one might call 'a moderate confessionalism.' I do not feel the need to provide a thin shield of anonymity over my life by using pseudonyms rather than real names, by using fictionalized autobiography or some form of story to hide behind as my grandfather did. His story was true but the names were changed to protect the innocent or the not so innocent. There is a shield here, but it is not the shield of anonymity; rather it is the shield that results from, as I say, a moderate confessionalism in my writing of these memoirs. I do not tell it all. It should be said, though, that even though this series of five volumes evolved over nearly 30 years(1984-2013), it is still only a preliminary work. It should also be said, as that Russian poet Boris Pasternak once said: "a life without secrets is simply unimaginable."
I like to think I am detectibly sparing, that is, I write softly in dealing with the main drama of my life. This drama has had to do with how I reacted to a new Faith gradually, by degrees, with my whole soul and how my soul became richer, such is my view, because of it. There is more than enough opinionated reflection and generous regret to make the narrative useful in its scope to the generations who are and will be new to this Faith as well as those who have imbibed its teachings for many a year. Still, I have only just sketched the story in 2600 pages and the associated genre accretions in: my poetry, my essays and my other writings. I’m gradually putting in the full story of my developing response to this Faith in these closing years of the first century of its Formative Age. But in whatever ways this work is written, and when all is said and done, I’m gathering rose-buds as I might, as I'd like to do, for the hereafter. This will not be a stand-alone masterpiece. It’s far too long for those who come upon it. Frankly, I don’t think many will even get past these several prefaces. But perhaps I am too modest. I really have no idea how this literary work will be received.
Of literary genres none has so diversely and so wonderfully flourished in recent decades as the memoir—not the more staid, stately, chronologically determined life-memoir or autobiography but the highly individualized, often short, sometimes long, lyric memoir of crises, of which William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) are exemplary; and among these none is more beautifully and succinctly composed than Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982), written after the unexpected death of his father in 1981. This memoir is one of the long, perhaps, probably, too long. But "such is life" as the famous Australian outlaw New Kelly is reported to have said on his way to the gallows in NSW in 1880.
The Bahá'í community has been colonizing the earth, arguably, since 1894, arguably again since 1919 and without doubt since 1937 when the first systematic teaching Plan was put into operation in North America. Many of the 200 odd countries and territories have long been sufficiently in flower to spread their spiritual pollen on the pioneering-wind. There were always the loyal and dutiful, the sacrificial and the escapists, the theatrical types and the artistic, and then, after World War II in 1946, 1953 and 1963, came a succession of Plans that spiritually conquered the planet, little did anyone know except for a small handful. Quite apart from the incredible letters of Shoghi Effendi, now ensconsed in a series, indeed a shelf, of books that it would take a long paragraph simply to enumerate; and quite apart from the architectural splendour that was popping up in rare sites all over the planet, the Bahá'í Faith had, by the time my pioneering life began in 1962, been experiencing “a most wonderful and thrilling motion,” that in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was “permeating all parts of the world.” This autobiography is but one part of that grand motion, one part of that immense permeation.
All autobiographies are at least partly inventive acts of dissimulation which sometimes has real, and sometimes unfortunate consequences. Dissimulation has many meanings, one of which is: "the concealment, hiding and/or veiling of one's thoughts, feelings, or character." Since my work involves only a moderate confessionalism, this concealment is a necessity. I know the public reaction to autobiography is generally one of overlooking whatever there is of the tendency to fabrication. That is why many authors write a novel instead. I do not seem endowed with that talent, although I tried in the first decade of my writing of the first edition of this work. More than 20 years ago, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I tried several times, but unsuccessfully. An 'autobiography', by the very nature of its definition, invokes a kind of dogma about what can or cannot be written. Often this says more about those making this kind of decree than about the writing. Nevertheless a responsibility exists for the writer which may not be as overbearing in the writing of a novel; it is a responsibility which may mean nothing to readers who are unaffected or removed from the issues. Why then did I persevere with the burden of that self-imposed angst in the first 15 or so years when I tried to make something literary out of my life? The question of whether or how language can accurately capture experience was one I faced for many years; indeed, I still face it. Doesn't every writer?
SUMMARY AND OVERVIEW
OF VOLUMES ONE TO FIVE OF THIS WORK
Anyone wanting to get a bird's-eye view of the 2600 pages in this book need only go to volume 1, which is essentially a life-overview; volume 2 is a discussion of my pre-pioneering days during the Ten Year Crusade: 1953-1963; volume 3 examines homefront pioneering: 1962-1971 and volume 4: international pioneering: 1971 to 2014; finally, volume 5 can be summarized by simply reading the chapter titles. The 30 headings at the outset of the chapters give anyone with little time a quick picture of the contents of this autobiographical work. Volume 1 contains essays on pioneering, some special poetry and a detailed resume and bio-data. Three hundred and fifty thousand words is a big-read. Those who come to this book can dip in at any place. There is no need to begin at the beginning. The author wishes those who do come upon this lengthy piece of writing much pleasure, much insight and a feeling that time spent reading this is time well-spent. This work can not be adequately understood as merely the story of my life. Were this just my story, I'm not sure I ever would have written it in the first place, however personally meaningful the exercise has been to me. A play in four acts, innumerable scenes and more lines than I care to count is found here, from childhood to old age.
This work is, like William Wordsworth's great poem “The Prelude,” the account of the growth of a poetic personality and an imagination. It is also an account of another prelude, a prelude within the context of the Baha’i Faith. And finally, after several thousand years of the recording of memory in the western intellectual tradition, a balance between personal memory and collective memory on the other is being achieved in modern history. These two major nodes of memorialization have taken place since the Homeric Period in the middle of another Formative Age. This is yet one more effort in the contribution to the achievement of such a balance.
This autobiography is many things. It is an individual's act of creativity, a narrative performance which ultimately reflects the much broader, indeed, the many, institutionalized discourses in which I as a storyteller and commentator am embedded. Storytellers and commentators compose their narratives through the cultural lenses, the social values, and the institutional rules that characterize the discourses and the power relations they specify and in which they live and write. The relationship between narratives and the institutions within which they write is of more than a little importance. Narratives are much more than just the stories that people tell---at least from my point of view.
LIST OF PLATES
At this stage with the completion of the sixth edition and a start made to the seventh, no plates, no photographs, are planned as inclusions.
PROVENANCE OF THE TEXT
Life expectancy has increased markedly in recent years and it may be that many more years are granted to me. One never knows when one's own end shall be. But changes, additions, deletions, and alterations of various kinds will inevitably take place in the years to come. The publishing life of this book on the internet, and in hard or soft cover is difficult to predict, to quantify given the various forms and parts that have already seen the light of day in the years, say, 2002 to 2012. If my literary executors, whoever they may be, wish to embellish this work in some form, alter its format to include material not in the fifth edition, I will have no objection. There is certainly plenty to draw on: letters, journals, notebooks, essays, books, interviews, photographs and a variety of memorabilia, inter alia.
Page breaks, italicization, diacritical marks, spelling and grammar, indeed, a host of editing routines and formalities, I leave to those same executors and whoever these future editors may be.
VOLUME 1: CHAPTER ONE
Some Introductions and Genres
"Not beginning at the Beginning...."
Dispositions are temperamental orientations of individuals that give rise to plausible responses to circumstances. Individual Bahais all around the planet have found, now find, and will find, often knowingly and often unknowingly, that they possess certain dispositions, certain temperaments, certain personality orientations. They are the basis, in part, for their responses, their contributions, the type of activities in which they take part and contribute to the Bahá'í community. Over the decades, and now over some two centuries, these responses have led, collectively, to the gradual emergence from obscurity of their religion. This has been the case especially in the six decades, 1953 to 2013, I have been associated with this Faith which claims to be the newest of the Abrahamic religions. The story readers will find, in my autobiographical meanderings here and elsewhere, is partly of this emergence; it is also partly the telling of my own life-story in the context of this emergence. I have gone on writing for decades in relative obscurity but, with the internet in the last decade, my fame is now measured in nanoseconds by a coterie spread across thousands of locations among the 300 million sites and over two billion users, at last count, in cyberspace. It is not a fame that will ever bring me celebrity status or wealth, entities that have only concerned me in subtle and complex ways, ways that would require some extended analysis---but not here, at least not at this point in my memoirs.
"Such is life," as the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is reported to have said on his way to the gallows in New South Wales in 1880. Fame is, as Leo Braudy informs us in his tour de force, his fine book, "A Frenzy of Renown" part of a social frenzy as is wealth. But both these phenomena are, as I say, complex and subtle factors, which I deal with from time to time in my not massive oeuvre.
I am intentionally not going to begin at the beginning of my lifespan, my life-story. Autobiographies which I’ve had a look at seem to be exercises that begin in as many different places as there are authors. Sometimes first memories are found on page one and the account proceeds chronologically if not logically until the last syllable of their recorded time, their allotment on earth, at least up to the time of the writing of their said autobiography. This is not my intention here. Anyway, when does one really begin a journey, a friendship, a love affair? Beginnings are fascinating, misunderstood, enigmatic. I’ve written much about beginnings and the more I write the more elusive, and the more specific they become--all at once. But there comes a moment, a point, when we realize that the journey has started and we had not realized it. As we travel along we mark historical moments which we weave into our narrative. They often change, our view of them that is, as we grow older: these rites de passage, these coming of age moments. Unlike the Roman historians of the republican days who wrote their histories annalistically, that is year by year in sequence, this work is much more varied and informal with a slight tendency to write by plans and epochs, stages and phases in the lifespan. It is important, too, that life, my life, not be seen as simply journey and not life. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The greatest confluence of all, from a personal perspective in dealing with one's autobiography, is that which makes up the human memory - the individual human memory. My own memory is the treasure most dearly regarded by me, in my life and in my work as a writer. Here time, also, is subject to confluence. My memory is a living thing; it is a thing in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives: the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead. I thank Eudora Welty(1909-2001), an American author of short stories and novels about the American South for these ideas about confluence and the treasure that is memory. I also want to thank the English writer who is regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf(1882-1941) who believed that all human beings were connected and that the whole world was a work of art. Virginia Woolf also believed that the above conceptions and beliefs affected her every day. That is why she spent so much time writing. She felt that by writing she was doing what was far more necessary than anything else. Such is also my belief. Writing is a way, for me, of putitng into action Thoreau's words:“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”
For a time I thought to give the title of my memoir from the following words of the poet William Wordsworth:
I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.
England's poet laureate, Andrew Motion,did so in his In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhood. Motion also used these words, these three lines, as his book's epigraph, thus saluting Wordsworth, his distinguished predecessor and his famous autobiographical poem The Prelude. There is little evidence, though, in my now lengthy work of childish wildness or wickedness, and no hint of Wordsworth’s animating discipline of fear as expressed in: – ‘more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved’ – and even less in the way of ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’. Nor does my work bear much resemblance to other classic accounts of childhood. My prose style offers nothing in the least like those huge combing sentences that break over the head of Marcel Proust’s boy, and none of those uncanny spots of time that in their various ways obsessed both Proust and Wordsworth. Nor are there glimpses of a shining angel infancy like Robert Vaughan’s.
There seems to be no limit, as I gaze back over seven decades of living, to the number of ways in which there might occur what Wordsworth called the growth of a poet’s mind. My childhood and adolescence was quite ordinary, not grand in any way. Nevertheless, as seen against a background of the commonplace, my school and sport life, the endless days of fun and indulgence, my relative freedom from pain and discomfort, the influence of family and a new religion, has proved in retrospect as formative as a childhood in a well-stocked library might be to other poets and writers. Wordsworth, though a reader and ‘a dedicated spirit’, also enjoyed rural sports, climbing, skating, rowing and flirting. He might well have acknowledged a family resemblance to both Motion and myself. Maybe.
The ideal doctor for such a journey in autobiography, wrote the American writer, literary critic and editor for The New York Times, Anatole Broyard(1920-1990), would be “Virgil, leading me through my purgatory or inferno, pointing out the sights as we go. He would enter into the world of sin or sickness and accompany this pilgrim, this patient through it.” Virgil was Dante's imagined guide in the Divine Comedy. My Virgil, my ideal doctor, if I may be allowed to make this comparison to Dante, in this autobiography is, without doubt, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. Both are institutions, both part of that routinization of that charismatic Force that entered the human condition in the 19th century. My Divine Comedy, my book, my literary analysis has become a vast collection of poetry and prose, autobiographical and memoiristic, diaristic and journalistic. The parallel, the comparison between myself and Dante is, of course, not exact, but it has its relevant points of comparison. I have developed this approach partly due to the inspiration of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and her own fascinating writing style, and especially her emphasis on "circling 'round the great' as we work.
In this context I should add that the three great shapers of my nature, shapers Whom both Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice built-on were: the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha. There were others who unquestionably did much shaping, namely my parents and my wife from each of my two marriages. From an intellectual and spiritual standpoint I would have to give the first several places and shapers, to these central figures of the Baha’i Faith, and these significant others as they say in psychology. Of course my society and the great range of socialization forces can not be left out and readers will find my account gives much analysis to these forces.
I strive for my account to possess narrative lines that move forward, like lines in music, lines that keep their listeners waiting for and wanting resolutions. At the same time I think it's vital for many lines to develop at once, as in a fugue, so that when one narrative line resolves itself, another is already developing. I frankly do not know how I am going to approach this story, though I have no trouble finding historical moments and various lines of development. There are always in the background to my life ever-present plans, new beginnings, fresh initiatives, systematic advances, "leaps and thrusts," triumphs and losses, vistas of new horizons and dark clouds. There is also, as I have moved around two continents over the second half of the twentieth century and into the 21st century, the tracing of an end of Empire, an end of an age, an order, a politico-social system and the arrival of a new kind of order, an international order.
This new order is rootless, without a centre and constantly shifting on the one hand; and rooted, centred and global on the other. This is an obvious contradiction. But life, has many contradictions and paradoxes, and it is our task as humans to resolve them as best we can if, indeed, we see them in the first place, and if we have a desire to resolve them. This new Order has provided a base, a basis, for my exploration, for my writing about places and people, societies and cultures. This exploration of domestic life and foreign societies, new ideas and old, is taking place at a crucial time in history--a time of beginnings. A time that has been and is my life. The Baha’i order and the people in it, which I have identified and participated with personally as far back as 1953, were caught between an old order which had to be slowly sloughed off and had to be gradually seen as the shibboleth that it was. The Bahá'ís were caught, indeed, I was caught between this old order and a new one that had yet to mature, but was developing more quickly than we all realized.
At the outset I want to emphasize the inadequacy of language to match and give sequence to life’s experience. This poem of Emily Dickinson’s expresses this idea well:
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls -- upon a Floor.
Thinking seriously about autobiography or, indeed, any intellectual discipline, requires us to acknowledge and utilize, not only our knowledge, but also our ignorance of the subject. This is a prerequisite. Our past, any past, is one country. It's a place that exists in our memories and our imaginations. It exists in both the certain and in the uncertain, the reliable and often unreliable, echoes of our lives. These echoes we trace in words and thoughts, in places, in people, and in things. There is, as I see it, a certain inscrutability which paradoxically lies at the heart of this work in spite of all the information, the analysis and the description. I say paradoxically because the more one trys to fathom and describe one’s life the more mysterious it gets. I return again and again, taking the reader with me, to absences, to spaces in my knowledge, to my memory and to my construction. I recognize that the act of making this my life, into a whole, from the pieces I have left, I have gathered, from my past is necessarily a creative one, an act of imagination, what one writer calls "the dialectic between discovery and invention." In the process I transform my history and the history of my times, from something static into something lived, from something only partially understood, to something understood in greater part.
I am not imprisoned in some imagined objectivity and subjectivity; rather, I reenter the moment, the hour, the days and the years and imagine it as something experienced from multiple perspectives, simultaneously acknowledging its erasures and silences. This book compels me to think again about my life and, I like to think, that it might compel some of my readers to think again about theirs. I know I cannot capture in words all the minute particulars of my place and time. I know that, however I chronicle the linear time of my life, and however I philosophize about its deep time, its longue duree as some historians and the philosopher Henri Bergson called it, when viewed sub specie aeternitatus, the whole scheme is evanescent, like a vapour in the desert. Still, I make more than a little effort here to explore my views about contemporary life and its value systems. In the process of this exploration, I define my thinking about the transient and the eternal, the contingent and the absolute.
I don’t see my life or make any claim to my life being necessarily representative of that of an ideal Baha’i or a Baha’i pioneer. My life and this book does not, should not, and will not be an exemplum. Claims to representativeness, it seems to me, are at best partial. I find there is something basically unstable or slippery about experience or, to put it in even stronger terms, in the words of Baha’u’llah, there is something about experience that bears only “the mere semblance of reality.” There is something about it that is elusive, even vain and empty, as I say above, like “a vapour in the desert.” There are so many exegetical and interpretive problems that accompany efforts to tie down the meaning of a life, of an experience, of a relationship. There is something divided, duplicitous, something that has happened but has yet to be defined and described or, as is usually the case, never described, at least not in writing, depending of course on the experience of the person and their literary skills. There are innumerable and indispensable points of reference in a life and yet so many of them take on the feeling of a mirage, as if they are not really there, like a dream, particularly as the years lengthen into later adulthood and old age.
In many ways this narrative belongs in the company of the thousands of individual and communal narratives of the Baha’i community. But there are several narrative frames that exist and operate in tandem in this autobiographical work. My family and friends, most of whom are not Baha’is, my students over the years and the literally thousands of people I have come to know will find the narrative frames in this autobiography exist in tandem. In life and in autobiography the same story must often be adapted for different audiences that value different things and will judge one’s story by different criteria. Narratives must necessarily be censored for specific audiences or for ourselves. The censoring that must be done here, must be done by readers. This narrative that I am endorsing by placing it in the public domain contains a multitude of stories, perspectives and narrative lines suited for some but not for others. Some will find this account stimulating and others will stop reading soon after they start for lack of interest. That is only natural. In our world of image and print glut, it is highly likely that only a few will ever read this work and, of these few, only a very small handful will read it in its entirety, with pleasure and meaning.
The individual, therefore, in accordance with the demands of each situation, each portion of this autobiography, must do the validating of opposing narratives about myself. Two opposing narratives, sets of actions, apparently contradictory behaviours, demonstrate the dynamic nature of identity. Identity is not static and we all do all sorts of things that to the people we meet are upsetting, wrong, confusing, and just the opposite. What I am trying to conceptualize here is the pastiche, the fluid nature, of my multiple self-identities that have emerged in my lifetime. Some are suppressed at different times, depending on the cultural demands or constraints of a particular context or audience; some are given expression at other times. These identities are context driven. Behavioural repertoires are not always easy to adjust as one moves from social setting to social setting. Culture shock or acculturative stress often arise and this narrative which follows is, in part at least, the story of some of these shocks and stresses.
I've always been impressed with Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and novelist Julia Kristeva's views on identity. She believes that it is harmful to posit collective identity above individual identity. Such an assertion of sexual, ethnic, and religious identity is "totalitarian." In the Bahá'í Faith to which I have derived a strong sense of identity, individual identity always takes precedence if one is not to be swamped in a world of oppressive conformity. But, in some ways, collective identity takes precedence if the species is to survive. This, like so many subjects I introduce, is far too complex to deal with in a few sentences or, with some expansion, with a few paragraphs or even pages.
Meaning is not something one can wrap up and walk away with. Often the mind's sensitivity to meaning is actually impaired by fixed notions or perspectives. It seems that often we must see things for ourselves, again and again, sometimes in community with its endless heterogeneity, sometimes in our solitude. For community is not always pastoral dream of innocence and togetherness and solitude is not always enriching. Here, as in music, there is an alternation between fast and slow and joyful and sorrowful; there's an ebb and flow to the emotional structure, although it often seemed, as Shakespeare once wrote, that “when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions".
At the same time, I agree with what is called the essentialist view of group identity in community; namely, that there is a common identity for the members of a social group. This view emphasizes commonness of identity and the possession of a certain stability that is more or less unchanging since it is based on the experiences the members share. But I can only go so far in this essentialist tradition. I am also inclined to see group identities as fabricated, constructed, misleading, ignoring internal differences and tending not to recognize the unreliability and the immense, indeed, the staggering variability of experience. Of course individuals can fabricate much of their own history. Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, for example, were notorious fabricators of their story. And to chose one final example, the man who was Mark Twain, Samuel Leghorne Clemens, lived behind a "layering of invented selves," and performing, of course, was simply another way of inventing or disguising himself. Or so it is that one of his biographers, Andrew Hoffman, has described Twain.
I take the view too that, however much I work out my life in solitude, my experience is what some theorists in sociology call ‘socially constructed.’ This social and emotional self is mediated by the environment in which it lives and works. In this context the self is not exalted to the centre of the universe. The nature of one's inner thoughts and feelings are not purely personal or individual. The community in which we interact, the system of thoughts that serve as our beliefs, is a crucial determinant of who we are, of how we see ourselves, of how we construct our identity. Our fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity. This mental activity usually begins in the outside world and is imposed, at least to some extent,on the mind. There are a myriad ways of expressing this idea; one of the most popular ways for Bahá'ís and others is as follows: "the reality of man is his thought."
Canadians, for example, and to generalize in obvious ways which are not altogether satisfactory, approach the survival of ordeals, not as the theoretical American. Americans, to generalize, approach ordeals by finding and revealing a reservoir of inner strength and wisdom in some heroic fashion, and by banding together. They do this by becoming "a company”. They literally, to draw on the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, use the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device to create community. Literary critic Northrop Frye suggests that Canadians possess a garrison mentality with an image of a fort in the wilderness as a symbol of their psychic centre or domain. Margaret Atwood, Canada's major writer as the millennium turned, sees the Canadian character as one with a gloomy-through-catastrophy strain. This interpretation of the character is reflected in Canada's literature and especially in the writing of Margaret Atwood.
Atwood also sees the Canadian character as one that is incurably paranoid. There are various strategies suggested by artists, writers and critics to cope with this paranoia. Art, religion, relationships, a strong sense of fate or destiny, an avoidance of the heroic and a taking refuge in the ordinary, in a reticence, in trepidation, in the soft escape and boxing experience into frames, into limits. These are some of the coping mechanisms as seen by these analysts. If one understands Canadian history, one can understand the sense of the overwhelming, the impenetrable, the claustrophobic, the sense of a world which denies entry to the human. It is these attitudes to self and life that are evinced by Canadians. After living more than 40 years in Australia I can see some of this attitude and orientation in Australian artists and writers towards their existential condition. But perhaps the central attitude is a radical, deep-seated ambivalence both in Canadians and Australians insofar as the heroic posture taken by the American is concerned. I mention the Canadian and the Australian because it is in these two countries where I have spent all my life. I also make these generalizations because they help me come to grips with the complexity I now face and have faced as far back as my first memories in the late 1940s.
I have realized, though, that the range of qualities and effects that characterized my writing were much more than the Australian or Canadian personality as described above. That description was simply too narrow. It would be like playing one instrument, say, the drums or a cello. As I looked back over my writing, say, in the last 20 years, from 1993 to 2013 in was obvious to me that my several literary perspectives included much that was far beyond those brief outlines. It seems to me that I have bitten-off much more than I can chew, and so it is that I need many years to do the chewing, the masticating, of the days of my life. I find that there's a certain synchronicity in writing autobiography and in living my day to day life which makes the big-chew not only relevant nor essential. The daily nibbles that constitute the routine, the trivial, the predictable and the wonder fill the interstices of life in bite-sized morsels. I like to see this autobiography somewhat like the poet George Herbert’s: as the "story of the self reflected and improved in the mirror of Scripture," a self who "makes no claims to uniqueness" but is in fact content "that the truths he finds there are not his alone.” I might add, just to get the context right and accurate, that the Scripture is a new one. Although I make a claim to uniqueness, it is a uniqueness each of us possesses. I might add, too, that a myriad details, a multitude of meaning-neutral objects, arise in the course of this text. They are details which appear and guarantee a certain plausibility of context, which generate a certain sense of reality, of real life, construct a persona, fashion a self, smooth over life’s accidents, and make it more understandable and coherent. I am aware, though, that whatever force and persuasiveness I might achieve today may well become mute due to fashion’s baffling cruelty and the changes and chances of existence.
None of us ever quite lives up to their idealized personae, but the more successful a person’s writing is and the more integral it is to the achievement of their life, the more closely they can be identified with their author-ideal, that is, with the self they fashion and present to the world as the voice behind their texts. I present my strengths and weaknesses in this lengthy work in a wide range of contexts, hopefully to the advantage, if not the amusement, of my readers. There is, for me, in this text, a strong sense of identification, a close match between text and reality. I often quote from the writings of others, as I do in the following paragraph:
"As a man," writes Lord Macaulay(1800-1859) the British historian and Whig politician who wrote extensively as an essayist and reviewer and whose books on British history were hailed as literary masterpieces, "the essayist Joseph Addison(1672-1719) may not have deserved the adoration which he received from those who, bewitched by his fascinating society, and indebted for all the comforts of life to his generous and delicate friendship, worshipped him nightly, in his favourite temple at Button’s."
These words could not possibly describe me, as much as I would have liked my friends and my students to "be bewitched by my fascinating society." Some may have found my personality a delight, but there were many who did not. Macaulay goes on: "after full inquiry and impartial reflection, we have long been convinced that he deserved as much love and esteem as can be justly claimed by any of our infirm and erring race. Some blemishes may undoubtedly be detected in his character; but the more carefully it is examined, the more it will appear, to use the phrase of the old anatomists, sound in the noble parts, free from all taint of perfidy, of cowardice, of cruelty, of ingratitude, of envy. Men may easily be named, in whom some particular good disposition has been more conspicuous than in Addison. But the just harmony of qualities, the exact temper between the stern and the humane virtues, the habitual observance of every law, not only of moral rectitude, but of moral grace and dignity, distinguish him from all men who have been tried by equally strong temptations, and about whose conduct we possess equally full information." That "harmony of qualities", again, I would like to see as applying to me but, dealing as I have done over several decades with the rigours of bipolar disorder and the impulsiveness as well as the highs and lows of mood, I have often given in to strong temptations and, it seems to me, that "moral grace and dignity" have not been part and parcel of my days. Perhaps they have occasionally or even for short periods, but not as a syndrome over the many decades of my life. The unexamined life is not worth living, so said Socrates some two-and-a-half millennia ago, and my examination yields many results of which the above is but one.
There are certainly few writers and theorists of autobiography who believe that it is possible to remove one's commitments and values from the exercise of writing one’s story. I do not believe that I can separate the facts of my life from the theories, assumptions and frameworks that underpin them. I do not see myself as an objective gatherer of facts. I believe that values, commitments, goals, inter alia, all play their part in the scholarly analysis and interpretation of a life. They are part of all investigation, all intellectual activity, and spelling them out is essential if one is to attempt to understand the great kaleidoscope that is one’s life. My commitment to the Baha’i Faith supersedes any other identification of genre, nationality, race, culture, age, inter alia and I approach this commitment, this identity, from a wide range of perspectives which will unfold in a quite unsystematic way in the next 2500 pages.
The practice of autobiography, of course, means different things to different people. I would not want to limit the discussion of autobiography to one approach, one theory, one model, even if that model is my own. There are so many ways to skin a cat, as they say colloquially in some places. One of the ways, among the many that are available to me, is to compare and contrast the lives of others with my own. I do this quite often in this work. In the paragraphs below I want to draw on the life of Irish writer W.B. Yeats for the very useful context his life provides for my own.
William Butler Yeats(1865-1939) was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre, where he served as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honoured for what the Nobel Committee described as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation." These paragraphs do not provide a comprehensive day-by-day, year-by-year comparison between the life of Yeats and myself. My intention is just to provide some notes, a few remarks. In the process both I and readers will gain; such is my hope.
In a review of the first chapter of "The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography" by Terence Brown in the New York Times, readers are given a detailed description of the homes of Yeats and the urban environment where he lived in his childhood and adolescent years. I could do the same, if I was so inclined. I could describe the five homes in lived in at the left end of Lake Ontario in: Hamilton, Burlington and Dundas---before leaving home at the age of 21 when my father died in May of 1965. I could provide readers with a description of the two small towns and the big city of Hamilton. The changes from the early 1940s when my parents met and married, and the mid-sixties when I left home and southern Ontario for the Canadian Arctic as a pioneer for the Canadian Bahá'í community, can easily be found at many places on the internet by readers with the interest. The Bahá'í community in Canada, when I was conceived in October 1943, the child of a 40 year old woman and a 55 year old man, was scarcely more than 100.
By 1967 when I married a 21 year old girl from Scarborough, and moved to Baffin Island in the then District of Franklin, there were some 3000 Bahá'ís across Canada. The Canadian sociologist, Will C. van den Hoonaard, describes some of this growth, at least until the late 1940s in his book "The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898 to 1948." In the city were I was born, Hamilton, a local spiritual assembly(LSA) had been formed in 1939. My mother's mother died that year, and my parents were just about to meet. An LSA was also formed in Scarborough in 1947; I was married in that suburb of Toronto 20 years later. If I was so inclined I would provide readers with more details regarding the Bahá'í community in southern Ontario in those early decades at mid-century in Canada. I will leave it to readers who can easily find out these details in cyberspace and in the now extensive Bahá'í literature, if they are so inclined.
This biography, in its opening chapter, we learn of Yeats's burgeoning interest in theosophy and the occult which dates from his late adolescent period. This was the period, late adolescence and early adulthood, during which Yeats experienced his intellectual awakening: "Many of the finer qualities of Willie Yeats' mind were formed.....in long talks with his father on art and life, on man and God; his sensitive, enthusiastic father...filled the whole with his spirit." My interest in the Bahá'í Faith was a slowly acquired taste beginning as far back as the age of 9 and finally bursting into flame, so to speak, in late 1965.
In the autumn of 1882, when Yeats was 17, we are informed in that same biography that he caught sight of a red-headed girl driving in a dog-cart. He was smitten. She was in fact a distant cousin, so a meeting came easily enough with the Laura Armstrong for whom Yeats wrote some of his earliest verses. In 1889 he remembered her `wild dash of half insane genius.' By the age of 17 I, too, had been smitten several times, but I always had to contain my enthusiasms for they were never reciprocated beyond a short dalliance: a dance, two or three meetings, a passionate exchange and, by the time I was living with my mother and father when my father died, a hot sexual relationship of perhaps four months. These were the months just before I turned 21. Like Yeats, I had to deal with the insecurities of late adolescence amid minor illnesses and frequent debilitating nervous crises. In my case these crises were part of a mild schizo-affective disorder.
Yeats's paper qualifications, when he left school in December 1883 at the age of 18, were too poor to allow matriculation. Instead, in May 1884, he enrolled in Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art, Kildare Street, in sight of his father's alma mater but different in tone and social composition for it was less conventional politically, with a touch of bohemian eccentricity among its students. There he met George Russell, just the kind of person Trinity would scarcely have produced for him as a possible soul-mate. They shared a dislike of the School's teaching methods, which Yeats later characterized as `destructive of enthusiasm.' Russell was one of those people along with William Blake, whose work Yeats was to edit in the 1890s, who had what can only be described as the capacity for waking dreams. He truly `saw' the mythological personages, the angelic or fairy folk, who appeared before him as in some mysterious tableau. For Yeats, who was beginning to revolt against his father's materialism and the realistic Rembrandt-inspired art he had turned to after his Pre-Raphaelite phase, Russell was like a messenger sent to set him on a true path. He was a godsend to a dreamy youth who was beginning to make poetry, not painting, his avocation. Such is some of the description we find in that New York Times review.
My results at the age of 18, allowed me to matriculate and enter university in September 1963. I had several inspirations during my last two years of high school and my years at university: Douglas Martin, a history teacher and arguably Canada's finest public speaker in the Bahá'í community; Loretta Francis and Nancy Campbell, Elizabeth and Michael Rochester, Lulu Barr and Jameson Bond, among at least a dozen others. They were all Bahá'ís and they provided a chrysalis community during my late teens and early 20s that nurtured by embryonic Bahá'í views.
The mature Yeats recalled the religious crisis he had experienced as a youth in the following terms: "I was unlike others of my generation in one thing only. I was very religious, but I was deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood. I had to make a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition. This tradition contained a collection of stories, of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression. They had been passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians. Yeats wished for a world where he could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and in poems only, but in tiles around the chimney-piece and in the hangings that kept out the draught." This passage, despite Yeats's claim of generational uniqueness, seems to recall a quintessentially Victorian crisis of faith — the dogmas of orthodox Christianity melting in contact with Darwinian evolutionism and scientific humanism.
As I look back from the age of 70 at the evolution of my religious beliefs from my teens to my early 20s, there are some similarities between Yeats and me. I was certainly unlike others of my generation in the late 50s and early 60s. I was the only youth and young adult in the small town I lived in to join this new religion. I did not have to create it out of poetry or as a way of dealing with some larger crisis in society, as was the case with Yeats. It had been created for me in this part of Ontario by a Faith that had been in Canada for more than half a century by the time I joined in 1959. It was a religion that had been passed-on by some six generations beginning as far back as 1863 in the Middle East.
Yeats had been baptised and confirmed, and had been taken to church by his mother. This was also the case with me in the C of E. in the mid-1950s. Until my mid-teens religion played little part in my upbringing, despite the Protestant tradition of my family. My developing imagination was little affected by religion as I had experienced it in church service and school teaching as a child and youth. My religious feelings in childhood were expressed in private prayer, and a conscience which was far from the overly scrupulous one that Yeats possessed. The loss of my orthodox Christian faith could scarcely have been described as traumatic. There was, at least as I look back more than half a century later, a relatively smooth transition from the C. of E. to the Bahá'í Faith. My slowly acquired religious enthusiasm and ambition came to be at odds with my mother. In Yeats's case his religious views were seriously at odds with his father.
In 1892, when Yeats was 27, he wrote that `the mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write. It holds to my work the same relation that the philosophy of Godwin held to the work of Shelley & I have always considered my self a voice of what I beleive to be a greater renaissance — the revolt of the soul against the intellect -- now beginning in the world'. Yeats was identifying what had been his principal preoccupation since he had left the High School: the occult. And the occult was to remain a controlling, energizing obsession throughout his life. I, too, had a controlling, energizing obsession after I left high school, and more so after I left university in 1966: the Bahá'í Faith.
Yeats found, gradually in his teens and twenties, a God seen only as the boundless, Absolute, impassible, unknowable, indescribable. He found a world consisting of emanations from this Absolute, and souls who were sparks or separated fragments of the same substance. Their object was to return to the One from which they came, but to accomplish this they have to make a long pilgrimage through many incarnations, live through many lives both in this world and beyond." I, too, found a similar God, but this God and this cosmology did not involve reincarnation but, rather, a long pilgrimage in both this life and the next to achieve this closeness, this nearness, this oneness, with God.
Yeats as a poet took `the house' as theme. He discovered in the metaphor of a country house in its landscape, dynastic and cultural lessons for a degraded present. His ideal was to become a complex blend of memories of the long avenues of the Big Houses in County Sligo, Lissadell pre-eminently, from which his essentially middle-class family had been excluded in his childhood years, of images drawn from the poetry of Jonson and Marvell, and his own social experience of country-house life as a guest, in Ireland and in England, when he was a mature man. Anything approaching an actual, secure personal hold on even an approximation of such a residential ideal was not to be his until after his marriage, in his fifty-second year.
In my several literary genres, "place" was a theme not "house." In the metaphor of place, in its history and its social settings, there were a myriad lessons and meanings that connected themselves by circuitous routes to the present and my daily life as I lived it. My ideal was to make a complex blend of memories and events in both my own life and the life of wider society, from the past and the present. In addition images drawn from the print and electronic media as well as the immense literary traditions increasingly became accessible in cyberspace, especially after my retirement from the world of jobs and endless meetings and their social interaction. Anything approaching an actual, secure personal hold on even an approximation of my many ideals of place did not become mine until after my retirement and my stabilizing medications early in the 21st century as I passed the age of 60 in 2004.
Yeats's parents, and mine, did not really enjoy a sense of being at ease with job and family, home and children, relationship and finances all in some happy equilibrium. Not all was test and tragedy. The mix of wins and losses, difficulties and ease, sadness and happy moments was theirs as long as I remember from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s when my father passed-away. That same mix was also mine for the decades after I left home and, as I write this in my 70th year, it appears that this mix is part of the heart of my life. The tests of life did not continue to rankle me, as they did Yeats. The conflicts of life and the many memories of difficult times continued to trouble the soul of Yeats as he looked back over his life. This was not the case with me. This may have been due to the cocktail of medications I took during my sixties.
In the opening lines of the spiritual autobiography of one of the most social of beings and arguably the greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali, writes: "During my boxing career, you did not see the real Muhammad Ali. You just saw a little boxing. You saw only a part of me. After I retired from boxing my true work began. I have embarked on a journey of love.” I feel very strongly that the same is true of me; namely, that those who knew me, saw a little of some social being, some part of me. I think this is largely true of most of us. we have a social self. this book tries to get at some of the other dimensions of the who that I am.
Pioneers in Canada for several hundred years before the word was first used by the Baha’i community in the 1930s, were swallowed up by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the great Canadian wilderness, the frozen Arctic tracts and the USA. In Australia there was a similar swallowing up process by means of: the hot desert centre, the vast interior spaces, the surrounding oceans and seas. The most ‘significant other’ in both these countries where my life has been swallowed up, in a different sense, is the landscape. Visual representations not language seems to be the most common window of understanding in the consciousness of these two national groups.
All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There are so many parallels I can make in relation to both countries. The white populations in both countries tend to congregate in a very few, relatively sizeable centres. Boundaries and frontiers in the USA serve as limitations to be transcended or denied. In Canada and Australia they are seen as dangerous places to be negotiated. The relationship between these general psycho-geographical characteristics and my pioneering life will be elaborated on, unfolded, in the nearly 2500 pages which follow. What will also unfold, at least it is my hope, is what American novelist Normal Mailer said is the purpose of art, an intensification, an exacerbation, of "the moral consciousness of people."
Some writers go so far as to say they are their country. The Irish writer Seán O'Faoláin made this declaration in commenting on his autobiography. Ireland was the central metaphor of his self. This may be even more true for those living on islands; the concept 'island' implies a particular and intense relationship of land and water. Allegorical and structural associations of island characters become used for the reconstruction of people’s personal history and identity. The Irish professor in Aidan Higgins's novel Lions of the Grunewald suggests, “the smaller the island the bigger the neurosis.” If this has some truth, I may be protected from such a fate since I have lived on only two islands, Baffin Island and Tasmania. Others emphasize the highly ambivalent relationships between people and their island homes. My island homes are large ones and my stay, thusfar, has been for short periods of my life, ten years in total, unless of course one counts Australia itself as an island. Structurally and thematically speaking, the motifs of 'leaving the island' and/or 'returning to the island' seem to make for key scenes in a wide range of autobiographies by islanders. There are the emotionally charged events. This was not true for me given the short periods of residence thusfar on the island of Tasmania. The emotional charge did take place for me when I returned to Canada and to Western Australia. But more of that another time.
I intend to take a line, an approach, from the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, who said, in an interview with Gary Kamiya, that when he writes he has no sense of what is going to happen next. Plot, story and theme unfold. Ondaatje says that writing is a discovery of a story when he writes a book, a case of inching ahead on each page and discovering what's beyond in the darkness, beyond where you're writing. This is the way it is for me even when I have some broad outlines, outlines that are my life. For Ondaatje writing novels doubles his perception, he says, because he is so often writing from the point of view of someone else. To write about oneself, he says, would be very limiting. To each his own, I suppose. If the unexamined life was not worth living, if teaching one’s own self was not so significant, if ultimately all the battles in life were not within, if it were not important to understand our imperfections and be patient with our own dear selves, if the source of most of our troubles are to be found in feelings of egotism and selfishness, if the God within was not “mighty, powerful and self-subsistent,” then this autobiographical pursuit might be in vain.
I also want to do what that popular English writer Kingsley Amis said he wanted to do when he wrote: give shape to the randomness of life, to make sense of things, to create and resolve some of life's enigmas, to give meaning to the endless repetition in life, to the things we experience again and again, a thousand and a thousand thousand times or in merely unusual combinations of what is around us. Personal habit is an expression of this repetition, laws of nature predict it, genes direct it, the edicts of organization and state encourage it and universals, as William Gass puts it so nicely, "sum it up." The exercise is somewhat like the work of Michelangelo with marble. Always there is an unfinished struggle to emerge 'whole' from life's block of matter.
While I am taking lines from other writers and considering the autobiographies of others I have come across in my reading travels, I feel I must mention Mr Clive James. An Australian expatriate of Germaine Greer’s generation, the generation which came of age in the 1960s, he first began to claim the world’s notice as a student comedy impresario in late 1960s Cambridge before setting up shop as a pen for hire in London. Working chiefly for Karl Miller, Terence Kilmartin and Ian Hamilton, on the Listener, the Observer and the New Review, he quickly made a name for himself as a versatile, witty literary journalist with a non-waffling mode of address that was thought to be distinctively, and refreshingly, Australian. He also turned out comic verse through the London Literary World and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’ – and wrote lyrics for Pete Atkin, a singer-songwriter friend. He has never completely kicked the Grub/Fleet Street habit and is probably best known to American audiences for his essays on literary and other topics in upmarket periodicals. He has written several volumes of memoirs. His work possesses two qualities mine do not: he is very funny and he is remarkably erudite. His erudition makes me feel as if I have just started out in the literary world, a world in which James has lived in and breathed for more than half a century. His memoirs only appeal to and are read by a coterie of the reading public and, if mine do not find a similar coterie, it will not surprise me since I not only lack James's writing skills and knowledge, but I also lack his publicity machine.
This autobiography is based, then, on what is often called the narrative construction of reality. There is in life, in adulthood, a rich domain for development and learning, a domain which recognizes the utility of narrative. This work, this story of a life, is an experiment with autobiographical form. It seems to me that in this work I forge a unique non-fiction work which is many things at once: memoir, prose-poetry, perhaps even song or rhapsody. I don't know, but I hope it both sings and informs. One of my aims in writing this extended piece of narrative and analysis is to find the most effective way to give this narrative theoretical and practical interest for readers. Autobiographies are not, it seems to me, inherently problematic, but they become so when tension results, as Graham Hassall notes, "from differences between a writer's intentions and readers' expectations." Over a 30 year period now I have written seven editions of this work. Each edition explores the field of human development and the uses of narrative. I would like this work to be as private, intimate and casual as my poetry, not structured, not having an agenda. That's why I have not planned this work.
The jigsaw puzzle that is my life is under constant construction and forms a never ending process. This is so because the process of bringing together the jigsaw puzzle is at the heart of my storytelling and analysis. My life intermingles with the historical and geographical framework that is being pieced together. There is and has been a story to tell, a narrative that connects 100s of stories together. The jigsaw of my life slots together the pieces as I look over my shoulder, so to speak, at the years which have gone by. My story can be told again and again in so many different ways. My story may be repeated, the jigsaw pieces may be reordered and rearranged,
depending on the context in which the story is being told. Hence, the narratives of piecing together the jigsaw puzzle are entangled with life as it is lived. There is no point at which the story ends and life begins’
Although my story is individually told, the many stories in question that make up my life, are still shaped by how they are narrated amongst a social network of others. These others are those who share the polyvalent landscape of the decades of my life and there are mulititudes who have followed in my footsteps and me in theirs, and we each continue to do so. The famous rock-singer Michael Jackson claimed that ‘stories, are a kind of a theatre where we collaborate in reinventing ourselves and authorising notions, both individual and collective, of who we are’. Thus, although my story is in some ways a miniture, a simplification, an arrangement, and a rearrangement, it is
also a re-invention and it establishs a notion of myself amongst other people with shared interests. Therefore, my story is also important to see how my individual story is told in context to other stories. This is because, as Walter Benjamin tells us, 'the storyteller takes
what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale’. Furthermore, as de Certeau points out, ‘narration is “established” on the basis of “primary” stories, stories that already have the function of spatial legislation since they determine rights and divide up lands by “acts” or discourses about action’.
My primary, my individual, story will be, in some ways, continued as some people will continue to connect their own narratives to my personal history. At least that is how I like to think my story will continue long after I am gone from this earth. However, and most importantly, my experience, my story, is not one one that will come to an end. As I continue to explore my life, I continue to play with my memories. As I play with these memories I create a miniature space where I decide the order of things and define the ground rules. How others define their rules has to do with how they direct their lives over the terra incognita of their existence. We each reflect through how we miniaturise, organise and frame our experiences. As I play with my memories and notes through the process of writing I am aware of the context in which I am changing reality through my play. I suggest that as I move the tip of my pen from point to point in
the process of writing I continue to follow the footsteps that originally created the narratives I am playing with. In this process I need to accept that how I reflect on the reality behind my writing is always done in a process of imagining, whilst continuing to share my experiences, with my readers.
I hope that my endless analysing of my life, my society and my religion is not too off-putting. I must admit, though, that analysis and interpretation, the rehearsing of views and ideas, is part and parcel of my very way of life and it is impossible for me to separate this tendency from this autobiography. Like so many pleasures and talents we enjoy in life, it is not an unalloyed blessing.
The famous American novelist William Faulkner once said in an interview that when he found his poetry wasn’t very good, he changed his medium. “At 21 I thought my poetry very good and so I continued to write it when 22, but at 23 I quit it,” Faulkner continued, “and found my best medium to be fiction. My prose is really poetry.” Readers have been puzzled because Faulkner makes the seemingly anachronistic comment of "My prose is really poetry." He made the comment after World War II when all the society was totally prosaic. Like Faulkner, I regard my prose and poetry somewhat interchangeably. The work I do is for me really all a form of poetry. It seems to me to be critically unclassifiable and resistant to being placed under the care of any specific Muse, any genre.
But if there were to be only one Muse left of all the weary Nine for these four epochs and the four before my time going back to 1844, I would have to choose the Muse of Tragedy. This is the Muse who deals with the most monstrous and appalling that life can offer, when it turns upon us its Medusa-like countenance of frenzy and despair. This frenzy and despair is that terror, that tragedy, which Nietzsche said allows us to gaze into its heart without our being turned to stone by the gaze, the vision, the dark catastrophes of our century that undermine creativity at its very roots. In an age when the spirit of affirmation has almost been burned out of us, more than ever we need what Nietzsche also called tragedy; namely, that ability which is the highest art and that is the inner strength to say “yes” to life.
The mother of the Muses, or of the one daughter still surviving, is Memory. We can not celebrate our existence simply by forgetting the terrors of the recent past, ignoring those of the present or by turning our eyes away from the possibilities of a frightening future. We must confront these terrors and yet celebrate the joys of life in these epochal times. We must search out causes, found our assumptions on the results of our serious search, energize our emotions behind these assumptions and act. This memoir is part of that acting—for me. For it is in these words, this language, that I have tried, during several of these epochs now, these many years of my life, to write poems. I do this in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I am, where I was and where I was going, to chart my reality.
Poetry helped rejuvenate my prose and now I see both as part of an integrated whole. The comment I have quoted from Faulkner I could very well apply to this narrative. Faulkner saw himself as a failed poet and kept on writing poetry. I never experienced any popular success with my poetry, but I found it useful as a form of literary expression and still do. Readers, then, will find a good deal of it in this autobiography. Before I leave these references to Faulkner, though, let me add some of his words about publishers because the experience I had was very similar—and different. "One day," Faulkner said, "it suddenly seemed as if a door had clapped shut silently and forever between me and all publishers' addresses and booklists and I said to myself, ‘Now I can write.’" In the 1990s I had this same experience and literally thousands of poems poured forth. Early in the new millennium the internet opened its doors and I sent forth more ‘published work’ than I could ever have imagined in the fifty years I had by then been writing.
I sew readers into the seam between two lives: on two continents, in two marriages, in two cosmological worlds, in two stages of development. They are lives which are tangled and in tension rather than in some form of tightrope-walking or some razor-thin-sharp dichotomy. Some of my life is untidy; some of my life results in dead ends; some follows paths to unimaginable or imaginable new worlds. Some of what I write captures, conveys, a clearly discernible script, some of which may have been predestined, the script of fate. The narrative is, inevitably, incomplete, a half-life. There is much that has yet to be written, like a half-finished portrait. It holds a promise and a potential which is always a mystery, at best only partly known. Indeed, it is impossible to say it all and revision is endless.
Hopefully this exercise will prompt readers to study autobiography and see how it contributes toward the realization of a multi-disciplinary form of learning in their own lives. It may be, though, that readers will see, as Adriana Cavarero writes, that "to tell one's story is to distance oneself from oneself, to make of oneself someone other." Some readers may also find the process of writing autobiography pretentious or a somewhat artificial, a little unreal, an externalization of inner and intimate, essentially private, reflection. They may see biography as the appropriate, natural, act but not autobiography. Seeing that denial, avoidance and selectivity are inevitable in autobiography, readers often approach autobiography with a skeptical eye and mind. Anticipating hagiography, the disembodiment of the authentic person, readers feel deceit at every turn or only the partial uncovering of truth. I write as I read, as deeply as I am capable, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to share in that one nature that is human, universal and, like me, writes and reads.
While I must confess to harbouring elevated notions that I am conveying, at least for the most part, the truth of my life, it seems to me that I am bringing me into the world, calling it to my attention, as much as I am bringing the world to me. Impressed by the depth and complexity of the writing of some authors and the superficiality of others, I increasingly took pleasure in exploring the richness of life and the mysteries of human character. Perhaps I have an overactive hypothalmus or limbic system. I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps it was pure desire, an intensity, that led to this work. In the end, the activity is its own reward.
An autobiography is not the story of a life. More accurately, it is the recreation, the discovery, of a life, in this case the life of a pioneer, a pioneer who believed he was promoting a belief-system that was bringing and would being a better order to society. It was also bringing, at least to him, if not to most of those who crossed his path and never came to accept this belief-system, a rich inner life, something private, something that moved him confidently “in the direction of his dreams.” I felt I was a type of pioneer that had a noble lineage in both Baha’i society and in the secular society he was a part of. In Baha’i society the lineage of the pioneer extends back nearly 80 years(1935-2013) with a 90 year historical foundation before that(1844-1934). The secular history of pioneering goes back at least to the renaissance and reformation, if not long before that.
What I do here in this work is arrange and rearrange things from this blooming and buzzing confusion called life to give point and meaning, direction, flow, ambience, simplicity and a certain coherence to complexity. What I do is what culture critic and educator Edward Said(1935-2003) said he was doing in his The World, The Text, and the Critic. "Texts have ways of existing,” wrote Said, “that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society; in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly.”
This idea of Said's is variously articulated as a motif in my work. "The writer's life, his career, and his text," Said remarks in his book Beginnings, "form a system of relationships whose configuration in real human time becomes progressively stronger.” These relationships become more distinct, more individualized and exacerbated with time. In fact, one could go so far as to say “these relationships gradually become the writer's all-encompassing subject.” Said's work as a critic emerges from his life as a dislocated Palestinian. Mine emerges from my life as an international pioneer whose convictions are centred on a new movement that claims to be the emerging world religion on this planet.
Some writers, some people, see pattern and meaning in history and some don’t. But whether one sees some plan, some system, in the great gallery of history or whether one doesn’t some events in life have greater impact than others. The death of 10 million people in some social tragedy, for example, does not have the impact of the death of a close family member. The newsworthiness of a handful of deaths in your hometown rates more highly than millions in the next continent. Personal tragedy beats impersonal holocaust every time. Propinquity is one of life’s core principles if one is measuring significance and is a principle determining what to include in an autobiography. This is the theme in Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. For this and for a host of other reasons this autobiography will deal more with the personal than the social, more with the immediate confines of my circle of activity and to a far lesser extent with the larger picture of world events. Amis’ book gives snatches of autobiography; my book gives snatches of social and historical analysis.
This analysis exists in a world of what I might call poetic knowing. The distinction between knowledge and poetic knowing resembles the distinction between history and memory. Knowledge and history are, in some ways, essentially amoral: events occurred and are behind us. Poetic knowing and memory is inextricably linked with morality. History’s source is event, but memory’s source is meaning. Often what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers. Memory, like love, gains strength through restatement, reaffirmation; in a culture, memory gains strength through ritual, tradition, stories and art. Memory courts our better selves; it helps us recognize the importance of deed; we learn from pleasure just as we learn from pain. And when memory evokes consideration of what might have been or been prevented, memory becomes redemptive. As Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai wrote: "to remember is a kind of hope." As Harry Levin wrote in his little book on James Joyce: ‘The best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation, but an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.’ I give to readers here my memories.
I don't have to create my story ex nihilo and I don't create for the pure pleasure I get in creating, in telling the story, although the pleasure I get in writing takes me, with the poet Paul Valery, a long way. Reading this autobiographical work is somewhat like the experience many people have when listening to a jazz performance. Whatever the musicians are playing, you hear the melody and then it goes away or seems to. The musicians play the overall work against the background of the melody or around the melody or they take the melody off into another zone. Then the melody comes back; listeners recognize it yet again amidst a world of other sounds. This, it seems to me, is one way to see this long--and for me at least--stimulating work. A central narrative thrust is reflected and recreated with ideas and emotional content that take readers away again and again. Like the aural idiosyncrasies of jazz and its spaces and places, my narrative has its own idiosyncratic dimension and I provide the spaces and places for readers to participate. There is a type of intimacy created, but not everyone appreciates that intimacy; not everyone likes jazz and not everyone will like my work. Melody is crucial to most music and it is crucial here if the reader is to find pleasure in reading this work.
Most jazz music is created in bands: trios, quartets, quintets, etc. This narrative work establishes some of this sense of a band or group by the frequent references to the ideas and works of others that readers will find in this text. As I write these words I see that there are about two references per page, over sixteen hundred in an 1110 page text(by the time I got to 2600 pages I ceased to count the number of references) The vehicle for this work is thus enhanced, enriched, by the solo work of others, rhythm sections that draw on several writers and thinkers and philosophers, etc. as accompaniment. They add complexity, tension, different pulses, staggered patterns, superimpositions, repetitions on a theme, similar statements with an ever changing expression.
To continue this jazz metaphor briefly, I’d like to draw on the words of Mark Isaac, a composer of jazz music. Isaac says that his extensive improvising seems, to some listeners, like a hotch-potch. I’m sure some readers here will find my work somewhat of a hotch-potch. Isaac says he plays the music differently each and every time he goes about writing his work. It keeps coming out differently. Some of the harmonies in jazz and in my autobiography are obtuse; some are sharp. The melody line leaves openings for just about anything to come in. There is great discipline and much ease in the process of writing for me, although that was not always true, not until I was nearly 30. In the process of creating jazz music discipline and ease combined for Isaac. It often takes weeks to get the music right he argues; this work took twenty years to get it right, to get it into a form I was pleased with, a form in which I could pour what has become several volumes.
I do not write from the margins of empire, from within a national culture or even from an individualist perspective. I depict the family, the individual and the state, the media and a host of leisure activities all as nexus points or places of transfer in the formation of an international polity that is rushing at us faster than we can comprehend. The notion of vocational calling, an orientation toward work and life, a desire to understand and to exercise my creative capacity, a desire to contribute in a different way, after I had taken an early retirement and begun to write full-time, to the Cause I had joined more than half a century before---all this lie at the basis of this autobiography. The Cause I had served for decades was, indeed, a mighty structure but in the many towns and cities in which I served this new community and its structural forms, the overwhelming force which infused its life, and which was elevated to the centre of my days, played itself by sensible and insensible degrees on my personality and my being in quiet and unobtrusive ways as well as overt and with its life-forming values.
I have felt, since my early adulthood, an obligation to search for and then live out a vocational calling, a calling anchored in this dynamic new Faith, this latest of the Abrahamic religions. This set, this scheme of values, was no iron cage, no prison, no place of bondage; it was rather a framework for living. It was an ultimate, a dominant, a single value system in reference to which a significant aspect of the organization of my affairs ought to be decided. The extraordinary authority and power of the charismatic leadership at the centre of this new System I had come to be identified with was not one that fully ruptured all ties with the past. History interacts with the present and any attempt to explain the uniqueness of the present remains a hopeless undertaking unless the influence of history is acknowledged. Hence my interest in history as far back as my adolescence.
Pleasure, I find, tends to help me take the ride of life and the ride of writing. But, of course, there is more, for pleasure itself is never enough, never the whole story. It occupies only part of life's experience. "Experiences," writes that articulate psychohistorian Peter Gay, "testify to the uninterrupted traffic between what the world imposes and the mind demands, receives and reshapes." We construct our experience, says Gay, and that construction is "an uneasy collaboration between misperceptions generated by anxiety and corrections provided by reasoning and experimentation." There is more to our ideas and actions than meets the eye. Our life, our experience, is at one level simply what it seems to be. It is rooted in external reality. And it is also, paradoxically, not what it seems to be. Much of our life is silent; it seems to take place underground or in some inner ground. "We live in the mind," as the poet Wallace Stevens put the human experience. This autobiography tries to deal with both the obvious and the paradoxical. In some ways, the word 'narrative' could be replaced or added to other words like: view, claim, position, interpretation, world-view or even life.
I’d like to quote briefly from a poem by Wallace Stevens, one of the finest poets of these four epochs and from one of his more famous poems. These words from Stevens will illustrate something about what I am trying to achieve in this memoir. Stevens writes:
. . . And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Without going into an extensive analysis here, I would like to see my memoir as one long song. It is the world for me; it is the one I sang through words and I leave it to readers to make a tune of their own that they can enjoy.
To give the word 'narrative' some kind of pristine prominence at the centre of my claim to autobiographical authenticity, is too strong a position, a direction, to suit my tastes. To do so may be impoverishing, pernicious, even damaging psychotherapeutically. Even if, or as, I do centre this autobiography on narrative I am conscious of changes I make to my past, alterations, smoothings, enhancements, shiftings from the raw propositional facts and contexts, all processes that may be neurophysiological inevitabilities. Some analysts of autobiography would advise writers "that the less you do the better." There is too in all this writing a strange assortment of the satisfied and unsatisfied, the appeased and unappeased, the reconciled and unreconciled. There is also intransigence, difficulty and contradiction. From time to time I try to tell what I’m on about, but it is difficult to write a life.
Most pioneers, in both the secular world and the Baha’i community, have exhausted themselves in external activity or filled their lives with events and comings and goings that seem to leave, so often, just about always, no record for future generations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for we can not all be good gardeners, cooks, car mechanics or, in this case, writers. Over the years I have known many talented pioneers. But as a writer, my task is different. I want to place my readers on a stage, swarming with detail, dense with meaning; I want to give readers some of that constant sense of things and ideas that exist outside themselves and outside myself in my time, in these epochs, as Walt Whitman did when the Baha’i revelation was first bursting on the world a century and a half ago.
But these words are not the reality of my experience. The text is not the true and only protagonist of this my finite existence. In the end, at the end of this story, silence speaks; narration is suspended. My role as poet, historian and storyteller comes to an end. In the book of history, a book of single and unique stories interwoven on the landscape of earth, I have made myself into a narrator of a story. I am a protagonist, a pioneer, who has narrated his own story and, in the process, rescued himself from oblivion. I have configured my story in community. I do not swallow or erase the scene I tell of, rather, I describe it, paint it, represent it. I make no claims to being an omniscient narrator who is also inside the minds of my characters, although I am certainly in the mind of one. I try to see the world as I see some of the main players in this story and, as I do, I reproduce their separate streams of consciousness.
My story does not take place on an imaginary landscape like Thomas Hardy's Wessex, but it does reflect a fifty year experience as Hardy's did in a different time and with a different pessimism and sense of tragedy than Hardy's. It is an experience moderated by a phenomenon that has captured my imagination for nearly fifty years and generated the spiritual nerves and sinews to work as I have all my life for the unification of the peoples of the world. Hardy and I share, too, a sense of human destiny or fate which can not be deflected once a human being has taken the step which decides it. To put it another way, if you are possessed by an idea, you find it expressed everywhere. Those were the words of Thomas Mann. You could even smell that idea he said.
In the westward expansion of Americans Richard Slotkin describes “the power of nature to destroy a people's capacity for civilized sentiment and social forms, in essence the power of the wilderness to kill man's better nature." It was Slotkin’s belief that the frontier contained perils that could entrap the would-be-hero and lay waste to the regenerative human qualities that led to frontier advancement. I think a similar pattern exists in the experience of Baha’i pioneers. I do not try to draw together all the significant strands of thought and belief about the pioneer in the history of Baha’i experience. Such an exercise is too large a task for this writer. The history of the Baha’i pioneer that has developed thusfar in the first 162 years of the history of this new Faith tends to concentrate those experiences in what might be called a syndrome, a paradigm, a model, a typification of a tale of a single hero. Such a syndrome presents that hero's life experience in such a way that his audience could believe in and identify with him. The paradigm, though, has been expressed in a wide variety of narratives during this time. This narrative is but another example within the paradigmatic story of Baha’i origins, origins rooted in pioneering.
Those who were the recipients of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, the North Americans, have, throughout their history, exemplified a continuing urge to chart new paths and explore the unknown. Of course, they are not unique in this characteristic, but by the nineteenth century they represented one of the most diverse cross-sections of humanity in the world. As I pointed out above, I think Canadians have a different orientation to the charting, the exploration, process than the Americans. The instinct that drove Lewis and Clark to press across an uncharted continent and sustained twelve Americans as they walked on the moon is reflected in the spirit that has moved Baha’i pioneers since the Plans were initiated nearly seven decades ago. To put the idea slightly differently: from the voyages of Columbus to the journeys on the Oregon Trail and to the journey to the Moon itself, history proves that humanity has never lost by pressing the limits of its frontiers. In 1958, the then Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson boldly positioned space as the primary concern of the Senate agenda. At the time I was just positioning myself to put the Baha’i Faith on my agenda, perhaps not the primary item at the time. My journey, my voyage, my path into this uncharted sea of belief--uncharted by me--was just a view from the coastline at this stage and a distant view at that.
The international Baha’i pioneer lives in a frontier society, rather than a society in which the script has been written and the parts are assigned. His is an improvisational theatre where people write their own parts within a framework of values and beliefs. Anyone who can play a useful part, whether conceived by someone else or by himself or anyone else, can play. And it is important for pioneers to work out just what kind of useful part they are to play. It can be a very liberating thing. Robert Zubin, astronautical engineer and author of two books promoting the Mars program, said that this liberating culture is “what we'll create on Mars.”
The Baha’i is involved in a very progressive, innovative, branch of human culture. It will produce conventions that will be useful on this planet just as the inventions of Yankee ingenuity in a previous age were useful in Europe. It is an example of a society that places a higher value on each and every person because each and every person is precious. Such is my view of the Baha’i program and Robert Zubin’s view of the Mars space program has some interesting parallels to my view.
But Mars is not, in fact, like the American frontier in any way. It's 150 million miles away and it has an atmosphere that is 7 millibars of CO2 so that once you arrive on the surface there you would die instantly. It doesn't have any of the qualities that the American frontier had, of individuals deciding, say, in the Old World. It’s not the Mars program that is like the American frontier-exploration paradigm. It’s the Baha’i program. Frontier-exploration in space is seen by people like Robert Zubin as the foundation of American exceptionalism in the 21st century. From a Baha’i perspective this exceptionalism could be seen as being founded on America’s being the cradle of the administrative order and the recipient of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, the very foundation of the teaching plans.
Those who have worked, pioneering in the teaching field, in these last several decades, and remained in-the-field for any length of time are certainly pushed to their limits in their efforts to spread the Baha’i teachings among their contemporaries. The process is more psychological, though, than physical, more subtle and mental than overtly dangerous and threatening. A deep-space mission to Mars is a focus in this new century. Like westward expansion in the USA this effort and journey in space will spark creativity and imagination. This is also true of the pioneering paradigm. Creativity and imagination are born in the process. Someday this great international pioneering story, this diaspore of many decades, will be told and it will illuminate what I am saying here in more detail. I sometimes think Captain James Kirk’s familiar and now famous words on Star Trek "Space: The Final Frontier” should read “The Baha’i Faith: The Final Frontier.” My experience over the last half century often gives me the feeling that pioneering this revolutionary Faith is like humanity’s venture into space. It is going to take a long time and, even as we make a dint on space’s horizon, there will always be so much more to explore. The world the Baha’i is concerned with is to a significant extent, an inner one, an infinite one. Not wanting to be too narrowly focused on the religion of my choice, though, let me say that it is obvious that there are a host of frontiers humankind entered just recently and they are going to keep the human race occupied for some time to come.
This diaspora does not carve itself out on some pioneer trek like the Oregon, the Santa Fe or the Cherokee Trail. It is not a clean-cut westward expansion or an "over-the-mountain-pass" journey. Mine, like so many others, is a heterogeneous mix of places from one end of the earth to another. Traces here and traces there, unobtrusive, obscure, mostly unknown.
The corrupting influence of civilization as it was going through the dark heart of an age of transition did not overcome the civility of culture in the same way it did on the frontier in American and Australian society in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the wild West the slide into the depths of inhumanity was one of its dominant patterns with violence, alcoholism and different forms of depravity. Some people were strengthened by a process that was slowly creating a new race of man diametrically opposed to and different from the people in the European civilization that gave it birth. That has also been the case in the Baha’i story. It is as difficult to describe that process in the wild West as it is in Baha’i history and that is not my intention here. I just wanted to intimate interesting parallels here; a detailed analysis of this theme is beyond my purpose.
Autobiographers bring specific words to their narratives, words with great explanatory power and emancipatory potential due to the traditions they live and write within. "The tradition of all the dead generations," wrote Marx, "weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." I'm not sure how accurate this view is but, should this be the case, then the emancipatory potential I speak of in relation to this autobiography may derive from this reality. The Christian, the Moslem, the Marxist, the Baha’i, the secular humanist, among a great many other traditions, reify special words that take on very important meaning for them. Christ, Muhammed, class, freedom, justice, Baha’u’llah, oneness: these are words which can not be divorced from the narrative voice of their respective autobiographers. And so it is that I have my special words, my special vocabulary which will unfold in the pages ahead. The ideas and writings have been whispered in my ear so many times that they have come to serve as maxims for my conduct and, indeed, my imaginative life.
Poets who take their readers on spiritual journeys each have their own special languages. Unlike the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri I do not paint the hell I have experienced in colourful and lively imagery but, like him, I do have my metaphorical dark wood with its sinful aspects. Dante has his virtuous non-Christians placed in Limbo. I have my virtuous non-Baha’is whom I am not confident of placing in any particular theological abode. Perhaps I should be confined to Dante’s second circle where “the lustful were punished by having their spirits blown about by an unceasing wind.” For I too have had my lust’s to battle with, lusts that one can find expressed as far back as in Genesis and in the Epic of Gilgamesh in the first and second millenniums BC. I always thought Dante was a little hard on flatterers who were “mired in a stew of human excrement.” Dante is so often ridiculed now and so might this work of mine be in the years ahead even if my vocabulary is so very different than Dante’s.
I have written several editions of this work in the midst of a "series of soul-stirring events" that celebrated the construction and completion of the Terraces on Mount Carmel and in the first two decades of the "auspicious beginning" of the occupation by the International Teaching Centre of its "permanent seat on the Mountain of the Lord." I see my work, too, as a spin-off, part of that generation of spiritual nerves and sinews that is the result of "the revolutionary vision, the creative drive and systematic effort" that has come to characterize more and more the work of all the senior institutions of the Cause." This lengthy narrative is also my own humble attempt to "comprehend the magnitude of what has been so amazingly accomplished" in my lifetime and in this century just past.
What I write is part of "a change of time," "a new state of mind," a "coherence of understanding," a "divinely driven enterprise." The story and the meaning I give it are crucial to my life for, without them--story and meaning--the days of my life would remain, would be, an intolerable sequence of events that make no sense. They would be, at best, a dabbling into things, a sort of entertainment, a search for fun in the midst of love and work with their inevitable pleasures and frustrations. They would express a kind of absurdity which many can and do live with; or like the writer Herman Hess the dominant taste of life would be of "nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams" which he said is the content of "the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves." I would find this a sad and inadequate philosophy, one I could scarcely bear and one I would find difficult to journey through to the end. Telling a story of my life is like a natural echo, an automatic repetition, a rhetorical sequence in the effort to define and link my identity to who I am, to unfold the meaning of it all. In some ways it is both more and less than telling a story. It is a conversation with a diverse public: family, friends, the past and the future--and inevitably the present. It is a conversation, an identity, shaped by the events of my time among other forces.
Even with an overarching meaning that is a source of joy, of enchantment, there is still sadness, chaos and absurdity in this conversation, this story. Self-interrogation joins the self and produces the story of its life by capturing what is basic about the whole thing, what is indispensable, what is marginal and even superficial. The story of Jon Krakauer's climb to the summit of Mt. Everest illustrates some of the irrationality, the absurdity, the puritanical aspects of anything that is the passion of a life. He writes about his "belief in the nobility of suffering and work.....It defies logic." I find this particular theme of profound significance which I may return to at another time. Krakauer also writes, "I can't think of a single good thing that came out of this climb." Even in my lowest moments, gazing retrospectively at my life, I don't feel I can make this tragic claim for the climb that is my life.
In the process of writing this autobiography I have come to see myself somewhat like a jazz musician, as I have intimated above. Toni Morrison, a modern novelist, said she saw herself like a jazz musician, as “someone who practices and practices and practices in order to be able to invent and make her art look effortless and graceful.” Another musical analogy to this autobiographical process which I like is the music critic who has an autobiographical orientation to his critical writing about music. Music, like my life, is something I play again and again in my head on my mental CD or LP in decades gone by. Music is particularly conducive to inspiring passion. The reason for this is simple. Music lends itself to repetitive consumption. It is unlikely that most people will read the same book, or watch the same episode of a TV show, or see the same film more than five times. But one's life especially different sections of it, is played virtually continuously, repetitively, just like music, only more so. Each time one plays one's life, like music, one finds similar points of attraction and differences. I like this analogy of music to life; it is capable of endless permutations and combinations of comparison and contrast. Only readers will tell of whatever effortlessness and grace I have achieved in producing my music, whether it charms and pleases them.
Before leaving this musical analogy, though, I would like to draw on the work of culture theorist Judith Butler who places a great emphasis on the role that repetition plays in the stabilizing of identity. The basic premise, Butler states amidst her complex language, is that identities are prone to disintegrate unless they are reinforced regularly. The autobiographical experience, like music, in its repetitive nature has this reinforcing nature, reinforcing one’s sense of self through language, through sound. Repetition is at the very centre of identity formation, at the centre of an endless construction project. Just as songs "call" listeners to a particular identity, to explorations of the singers’ identity and its surrounding themes, this autobiography "calls" me--or perhaps I call it! The therapeutic dimension of autobiography arises for the writer in the act of writing and for the reader when he or she feels the same or even a different "call."
I do not possess that encyclopedic interest that some seem to have in absolutely everything. This encyclopedic interest was described by Mark Van Doren in 1937 when the first Baha’i teaching Plan was being launched in North America. Given the pervasiveness, the multiplicity, the vast complexity, the multitude of academic and non-academic disciplines, the great ocean of humanity and its immensity, it is only too obvious that I must confine my wandering mind, and I do, in this autobiography. My interests are wide but don't extend to everything in the encyclopedia. I find I must focus my thinking on single points if I want my thought to “become an effective force,” as ‘Abdu’l-Baha emphasized. I mention this theme, this concept of focus, of limitation, several times throughout this work. The material I write about is broad enough.
I mention, too, the private disorder and the public bewilderment of our times, a subject which the generations I have lived and worked with tire of as this bewilderment knocks them around and around, bit by bit over the decades of their lives. I approach these concerns in a variety of ways and try not to dwell on them. For this narrative is not a piece of sociology, politics or economics. There is more of the personal, the literary, the humanly human, here. Readers, though, especially those with a peculiarly forensic mind, may still find this work far too rambling, with an under-belly that is just too complex and detailed for their liking, too much work and not enough payoff, not enough of the right kind of focused stimulation, the kind they get on TV for example, to suit their tastes. The forensic mind is useful in the who-dun-it detective stories and it is useful here, but it must persist in this long work if it is to come up with useful clues for its existential angst, if it is to derive the pleasure I know is there, the pleasure I find. For there is none of the five steps to success, the simple aphorisms, the humorous quips that attempt to plumb the realities of life by indirection, thus assuaging the angst of the multitude and satisfying and appeasing the existential hunger.
Narrative or story construction is an increasingly influential and integrating paradigm in psychology and the social sciences generally. The conceptual foundations of a narrative perspective can be traced thematically and contrasted with more traditional models of human psychological functioning. Autobiographical memory, self-narrative and identity development as well as narrative interpretations of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are all part of a relatively new field, arguably, since the 1950s when I was first associated with the Baha’i Faith. Contributions from the cultural and social constructionist traditions to narrative psychology are relevant to my writing and the full weight of their implications are dealt with in this narrative construction of the person that I am. Readers who find the academic jargon a bit much from time to time are advised to simply skip such parts and go on to areas more intellectually palatable. I often feel my life is much more than the sum of its parts and should readers miss some parts, I’m not so sure it will matter.
Recent advances in narrative research methodologies, particularly those qualitative approaches which focus upon interview and other autobiographical sources of data can be helpful. This autobiography does not deal with all of these aspects of narrative or autobiographical psychology. It draws to some extent on the academic, hopefully not too much, not too esoterically. I am only too conscious of the jargon of academic discourse and of how unfamiliar terminology switches readers off swifter than the twinkling of an eye. For I was a teacher for thirty years and, by the time I retired from full-time teaching in 1999 and casual teaching in 2004, I could feel the switch-off process in its first few seconds of mental down-turning with a class of students. The language of the last two paragraphs here, I am only too aware, is pretty 'heavy.' I shall endeavour to lighten up and keep the style and tone much less freighted with this specialized language from the social sciences.
Much that is part and parcel of academic discourse is seen by the great mass of humanity as unreality, just a lot of words. And I am sure that no matter how I write this book many readers will find what I write as unreal, over their head, too many words, too long, too heavy. To each his own. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, the world can not bear either too much reality or too little. But the pursuit of truth need not have the additional burden of the use of complex language. I avoid it as much as I can. I am aware, too, that the world finds much academic language quite incomprehensible. Millions of people have become weary of a certain stock-in-trade of ideas, myths, scenarios and problem/issue topics that have been discussed ad nauseam in academic and non-academic literature, in the media and in private conversation.
The process by which I work here, it seems, is much like what Gore Vidal did in his 1995 memoir called Palimpsest: A Memoir. Vidal said he started with his life, made a text, then wrote a revision--literally, a second seeing, an afterthought--erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text. Vidal added that he found discrete archeological layers of his life as he continued to excavate. The process of excavation was like the archaeologist’s finding the different levels of old Troy. At some point beneath those cities upon cities, it was his hope to find “Achilles and his beloved Patroclus and all that wrath with which the world began.” Such has been my hope and I have found a great deal in the cities, the rag-and-bone-shop of my life. A finely tempered sword was found in the darkness of its sheath; some foul dregs of impurity, too; some rust on the heart and some fruits containing a divine and consummate wisdom.
I assume that readers are more versatile, more limber, more educated and want something fresh, some fresh language, something simple but meaningful. But that is difficult to deliver. I think it can only be delivered to a point. For much of life in the end, no matter how much we want to simplify, is complex. "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make simple-simpler and simpler," as Charles Fair once wrote. The world abounds in Terrible Simplifiers. Fair called such simplicities “the new nonsense.” I will now venture into some basic topics and leave the above 17 Parts to serve as a type of introduction to this Part 1 of this 3 Part memoir.
SOME ACADEMIC VIEWS OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Though he claimed to have never read Freud, the famous American novelist William Faulkner’s work is acutely attuned to the role that memory plays in structuring individual and communal consciousness. Reading Faulkner’s renderings of the working of memory within and against what has come to be called “memory studies” forms a provocative and productive locus for exploring multiple and interrelated issues in his work: the role of time; the relationship between identity, memory, and embodiment; the relationship between historical circumstance and identity formation; and the interaction between public and private forms of memory. These issues are all relevant to the writing of my own autobiography.
Memory has long been a subject of scholarly study and philosophical speculation. Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes all dwelt on the subject; it has now become one of the keywords of contemporary literary theory and historiography. Since the 1980s, the very time I began to work on my own autobiography, there has been a marked rise of interest in oral histories, autobiography, and commemorative rituals and monuments, and a corresponding surge of publications on specific social, national, familial, and individual memories. Anthologies such as Theories of Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2007), as well as the emergence of journals such as Memory Studies and History and Memory, have highlighted scholarly interest in the subject of memory, but have also exposed it as a startlingly dispersed field that draws on disciplines as diverse as history, literature, sociology, art, media studies, philosophy, theology, psychology and the neurosciences. While the theoretical complexity of memory studies poses intricate problems for advanced scholarship, the range of discourses, topics, and interdisciplinary connections awakened by the subject of memory can be a provocative catalyst for writers, like myself, engaged in the excavation of their memories and writing them down in their autobiography.
What is the relationship between history and memory? Does memory constitute history? What is social or collective memory? How does literature and, more generally, language itself complicate the question of what it means to remember? What kinds of ideological or political work do different forms of memory perform? How can the literature of memory help narrate histories that otherwise resist representation? How do particular literary modes of representing history and memory serve to construct or deconstruct national and communal allegiances and identifications? How might literature function as unofficial or unauthorized history? In other words, how might literature address issues and events that are marginalized or ignored by the rules of history?
As these five volumes of my autobiography progressed, I found that there were certain keywords which resonated throughout the text. I began to build a sense of the specific ways in which language is mobilized in a psychoanalytic framework: trauma, transference, melancholia, mourning, nostalgia, working through, witnessing, testimony, repetition compulsion, fetish, fantasy, disavowal, hysteria, communal or cultural memory, and screen memory are some of the key terms I could list here. Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis’s The Language of Psychoanalysis (1974) is a useful text to refer to here. As this work progressed I drew on the individual etymology of words in order to think about how theories of the mind and memory were shaped by socio-historical and scientific changes: the word trauma, for example, comes from Greek and originally referred to a wound physically inflicted upon the body; since then, trauma has come to take on mental as well as physical meanings and refer to both individual and collective processes. We come to see that historicizing and contextualizing “memory” means recognizing the fissures within the concept itself.
Raymond Williams’ keywords in both of its incarnations were useful: the original 1976 edition and the revised edition of 2005 (published by Blackwell Press and edited by Tony Bennett). These books are cultural rather than etymological dictionaries, and they trace words that are familiar but which have surprisingly complex meanings; I emphasize the way in which texts like these form a repository of cultural values. Through examining the entries for “Memory” (not included in the 1976 edition) and “History” (significantly revised for the 2005 edition) we see how the critical relationship between the two terms has shifted and evolved, both in terms of the elevation and proliferation of memory as a critical concept and in terms of the growth of a widespread sense of skepticism about history’s infallibility: the 2005 edition identifies history as a set of “past events which are professedly true, based (reputedly) on what really happened” (156). We start to see here that the supposed ideological divide between memory (as personal, idiosyncratic, selective) and history (as official, hegemonic, correct, collective) starts to blur, and we begin to question this too easy binaryᾰas do Faulkner’s texts themselves.
In addition to analyzing the relationship between between personal memory and communal or collective memory, we also investigate the relationship between embodiment and memory, and the intimate relationship between grief and memory. Here we note how memory is intimately bound up with the concept of trauma, and how radical grief, such as that experienced in my bipolar disorder, functions to decenter subjectivity (and thus eradicate a coherent sense of personal history and memory). In examining trauma, we draw upon Mieke Bal’s distinction of three types of individual memory: habitual, narrative and traumatic. Habitual memory is unreflective body memory carried through gestures and routine movements, and present in muscles, bodily marks (such as scars) or pains, and expression. Henri Bergson, in Matter and Memory (1896), uses the term “habit memory.” Narrative memory comes from individual contemplation of the past, communicated through language and storytelling. Traumatic memory is marked by the failure to be able to contemplate the past in narrative form. Instead, traumatic experience painfully and repeatedly resurfaces and resists integration into coherent memory, as critics such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dominick La Capra have noted in their evocative work on the relationship between literature and trauma.
As we examine trauma, forgetting, repression, and denial in my text, we also focus on how I portray the ways the mind intercedes to deal with or deny grief. Sigmund Freud’s essays “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” are helpful here. We continue to explore how individual and group forms of traumatic memory interact, how psychological and material recovery are intertwined, and how mourning practices inflect these processes of memory and recovery. We think about the differing functions of temporal and spatial memorials (narrative, ritual, history, monuments); the political and cultural uses of mourning; the effects of absence and amnesia; and contemplate how Faulkner utilizes oral histories, family mythmaking and collective history in his narratives.
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu says any autobiography is an illusion, an artificial post-hoc, ad-hoc account. It is not a continuous path or a coherent whole, a meaningful, unidirectional trajectory. It is, as the psychologist Jerone Bruner says, a set of procedures for life-making, a set of arbitrary selections performed by memory. Paul Ricour says that one's interpretation of one's life is a fiction. I hope to add to this section at a later date since there is a developing literature on this subject.
So much of our understanding of periods of history is limited "by the body of texts which accidently survive." In the half century that this autobiography is concerned with, 1953 to 2005, these limitations have been largely lifted and humanity is now drowning in texts that are representative of the times. Throughout history the voice of only a select group, usually white adult males, can be found telling the story, the story of humankind. Social and editorial conventions within which most public speaking and published writing have taken place tended to mute everyone but this adult male. These conventions have been crumbling during the epochs that are the temporal frameworks of this work and this autobiography is, partly, a testimony to this crumbling process. For Baha’is, like women, the autobiographical voice is rarely singular, but instead exists in chorus within a cluster of voices of other Baha’is.
The whole idea of proper, responsible, academic autobiographies, operating within acceptable limits and armed with all the usual gate-keeping paraphernalia: academic standards, publication controls, peer reviews, benchmarks, responsible and efficient methods in the wings and some latent ostracizing power-what some call hidden mechanisms of ideological power and control--seems to have disappeared in this field of autobiographical writing if, indeed, it ever existed at all. In the massive quantities of autobiography, at least in the last two centuries, the sustaining power of some status quo has been fed through an umbilical cord that has intravenously fed the past, present and future in such a variety of ways that this status quo has a rich vein of expression. So it was that, by the time I come along as the millennium was shifting, I felt free to present my eccentric angles of vision, angles that have never been quite settled, never fully accepted by me or others, never resting entirely comfortably in my psyche, never quite at home and, as Rilke put it, angles that made me feel like “a perpetual beginner” in my own circumstances.
The so-called rites of passage which come into all our lives in very different ways are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe ordeals, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind. This process occurred in my life on several occasions each of which was followed by an interval of more or less extended retirement, during which were enacted rituals designed to introduce me to the forms and proper feelings of my new estate with its unalterable marks indicative of my new role, my new status, new patterns of socialization, folkways and mores. When, at last, the time was ripe for me to return to my normal world, my original home and landscape, I would have been as good as reborn. But I never returned. This autobiography will deal with these rites de passage as I unfold the stages in turn. I do not provide detailed pictures of all the shifts for there are too many to outline in detail without leading to prolixity.
Given the plethora of books, journals, magazines and programs in the electronic media, everyone turns to, turns on, finds and enjoys what they prefer. Although I do not see myself as an elitist, I am inclined to think that what I write here will probably appeal to no more than ten per cent of the population and, it is my considered view, that during my lifetime, it will be read by a coterie so small as to be statistically irrelevant. This would have been true a hundred years ago, in 1905, as well. This is not a book for mass consumption. I wish it were. I know of few people who read the Bible, Shakespeare or any of the great poets for that matter. So if few people read me, I know I am in good company. Everything written these days is for a coterie except the literary products of celebrities and print and non-print resources that have caught the eye of the electronic media. I am not complaining. That is simply a reality of life.
It seems to me that, as W.H. Auden once wrote, the pleasure of readers and any ensuing literary success gives but small satisfaction, a momentary pleasure or a series of moments, to an author and his vanity or his idealism. What is worth winning, Auden went on, was to be of use to future generations in the inner sanctum of their thoughts, to be a hallowed mentor. Although the society I describe here and my role in it will, in time, be gone forever, something may indeed be left from accounts like the one I provide. I like the emphasis Auden puts on the issues but, of course, it is unlikely that I will ever know if I have been successful in the sense he describes, certainly while I am alive. And not having tasted literary success significantly, publicly, in this life thusfar, I do not know what the level of satisfaction is that might accrue to my ego, my vanity and my idealism should public success come my way.
I like to think, indeed I believe, that it is possible to reach the whirling mind of the modern reader, to cut through the noise and reach that quiet zone. The fact that the great majority of humankind will never read this book does not concern me. If I can find a few in that quiet zone that will be a bonus. For my real reward has been the pleasure I have found in writing this book in the first place. I don't find any pleasure in gardening, in cooking, in fishing, indeed, in a long list of things. Each person must find their own pleasures in life. Sometimes pleasures can be shared and sometimes they can't. We all contribute, it must also be added, each in their own small way, to the big picture that is history. This book is part of my contribution. For my part, I fully admit to the vice of many a writer and autobiographer to pick the things I find most interesting and challenging and write about them.
I think, like the biographer of ancient history, Plutarch, I am engaged in writing lives--or a life--more than I am history. Sadly, too, like Plutarch, I am only too conscious that “the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men.” Often a matter of much less significance, an expression or a jest will tell more of a person’s character and inclinations than one’s great achievements, the major events or the principle failures in life. And so it is that in this autobiographical work I give my particular attention to the friction of anecdote, the arresting detail, the turn of phrase, the inner life and private character, to elicit a certain moral bearing, to bring a life and a time into a moral theatre and recapitulate some of the events for the edification of others. Like Plutarch, I do not eagerly or gratuitously display my defects or whatever misdeeds of wickedness I displayed in my life. In this regard I show restraint in both the display of virtuous character, which others may not want to emulate or imitate, and the display of what is not so virtuous.
For many the threat of death multiplies stories of life; for others it is the simple opportunity to tell an interesting story and tell it well, with or without a moral. For still others it is love for some other: friend, loved one, community. This is a difficult question for me to answer: why do I write this story? There are probably many answers I could give but the one that comes most readily to mind is: to play my part in contributing to an ever-advancing civilization. This sounds somewhat pretentious but, however over-the-top it sounds, it honestly expresses the big-picture, the motivational matrix of my narrative, my metanarrative. I've liked this somewhat elusive phrase since I first came upon it in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
I sense in what I write a destiny that proceeds through the events and occurrences of my days. It is a unique destiny; it is partly unmasterable; it is unrepeatable; it is the course my life traces. Some have called this their destiny, their daemon. There is clearly in all our lives something we cannot refuse. Perhaps it is the price we pay for our life. Of course, my story, like that of all authors is “conjugated within a geography of social relationships” and it possesses a fragile reality. This fragility is implicit in the words of historian Henri Lefebvre’s characterization of "The Home as nothing more than a historico-poetical reality.” Space, landscape, where we live our lives, Lefebvre emphasizes, is a product of “the perceived, the conceived, and the experienced.” That it is best expressed in historico-poetic terms is, in fact, one of the underpinnings of this work.
The myriad spaces and places where I have lived and had my being, heterogeneous relational spaces, have played an important role in producing the self that I am inasmuch as I have experienced them so differently. For the places and their spaces I have lived and worked in have been both haven and cage, source of solace and anxiety, peace and psychological warfare, my bedrock, my identity, ambiguity and anguish. I try in this book not to get too caught up in the many microcosms of my life, their interstices and accompanying relationships. Such analyses are a dime-a-dozen and can be read in many other places. I try to follow the advice of ‘Abdu’-Baha here: “laugh at our coursings through east and west...Let us not keep on forever.....with our analysing and interpreting and circulating of complex dubieties.....let us not make known of our sufferings nor complain of our wrongs.” In each location there is a more porous, floating exchange between the self that I was and am and the self that I became. The two bodies overlap and merge in some ways and they separate in others.
I can interpret my life and try to explain it; I can search out its unity in the events of my life or the hidden substance, the soul, that dwells with this body in some mysterious, indefineable way. I can look inside it and excavate its appearances, discover its interiority and, in the process, hopefully bring my readers closer so that they see me as more like them, more of a friend. But no matter how I examine it in all its complexity and simplicity, I only partly control it, plan it, decide it and make it. There is much that is simply uncontrollable, that has no author, that is solely in the hands of God or what might be called those mysterious dispensations of Providence. As Producer and Director Who defines the mise-en-scene, Who sets the stage and the choreography, He provides the context in which many lives intersect and mine is but one.
My life does not result from a story, although some students in this field believe that it does. This story results from my life. Unscripted, flawed and plausible, this life can not be lived like a novel or a movie. There is no "choiceless invulnerability" in our lives as there is in the edited and celluloid safety of lives on film in what Roger White calls that choiceless tedium of their impeccable heroes. But still there is, for the Bahá'í, some plan, some form, some idea, some centre, to focus the dazzling and frenetic blooming and buzzing confusion of existence. There is a panorama, a megavision, which for the Bahá'í adds an incomparable power of intellection. It provides a bird’s-eye view which Bahá'ís can assume in an instant, in a lifetime, for their own. It gives them the world to read and not just to perceive.
As Emerson once observed, even for the hero, for those animated by a passion and a plan, life has its boredom, its tedium, its banalities. Even with all the plans and programs, there are barricades in the way of the Baha’i who is also an autobiographer, barricades that prevent his understanding. His passionate convictions and the historical experience that forms these convictions, are, as Eric Hobsbawm puts it, part of these very barricades. The road to understanding is not always smooth and untroubled.
In my copy of God Passes By, the 1957 edition which I purchased in the first year of my pioneering experience, 1962, I have written many quotations from Gibbon and commentaries on Gibbon. I wrote the quotations on the blank pages at the beginning and the end of the hard-cover volume I own. There is one quotation, I think it is from J.W. Swain, which goes: "history is an endless succession of engagements with a past in which the dramatis personae were never able to fathom, control and command events." This could equally be said of autobiography. Roy Porter also writes that "diligence and accuracy are the only merits of an historian of importance." While these qualities are certainly of benefit to the autobiographer, the ability to write well and in an interesting way is paramount or no one will ever read his work. Gibbon became important to me because of his importance to the Guardian and his importance to an appreciation of the great beauty and complexity, subtlety and power, of English.
There are other quotations which I have written on the blank pages of this great book by Shoghi Effendi, quotations which apply as much to this narrative as to Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gibbon's work, writes Keith Windshuttle, is a demonstration that much of history is driven by the influence of unintended consequences, chance and a human passion which "usually presides over human reason." My own work, while finding no conflict with Gibbon's words, demonstrates in addition, I like to think, a Bahá'í philosophy of history "which has as its cornerstone a belief in progress through providential control of the historical process." But neither is man "a thrall to an impersonal historical process." He must deal with the forces of fate, perhaps battle with his fate, as Nietzsche once put it, with his socialization and the free will with which he has been endowed. Perhaps, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he will come to have a great influence on his age. Perhaps, like Solzhenitsyn or, perhaps, like Xavier Herbert, he could write for sixteen hours a day to tell his story.
He must battle, too, with a prophetic view of the modern age which can only be "proved" in part and which can be so variously interpreted that agreement is difficult and often impossible to forge among the children of men. The story of personal development, like that of artistic change, is not one of progress, like the development of tools, alphabets, or air conditioners; rather, this development embodies the unique expressions of individual souls situated in their own ages, responding to and emerging from the mesh of experiences and cultural habits unique to them. That unique emotional expression, which constitutes the expressive genius of the individual, speaking out from his own place in the world and in history, is what constitutes art--not a checklist of mimetic requirements--and is at the heart of the story of my personal experience. It is not so much my desire to change the world, an elusive exercise at best, it is rather my desire to make sense of it that is the aim of my expressive force and purpose.
With David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, and with Edward Gibbon, I have come to regard my life and, indeed, all of history, "as a drama of human passion." For human passion is many things, some associated with sexual love and others with strong emotion and belief. The former perpetuates the species, is a source of immense pleasure and, for me, for most of us, many problematics; the latter is the motivational matrix behind so much of action. Passions are timeless and the circumstances in which they occur are never the same. Beliefs, on the other hand, especially a belief, a commitment, to a new religion, are seen by most, most of those who were part of my life in some way, as a strange exoticism, at best a movement that impressed them and at worst one that was simply not for them. I have often been an outsider, but one learns as far as possible to make both yourself and others feel at home. My task became to win friends and influence people, to get on some inside, so to speak.
There have been two ruling passions in my life: the Bahá'í Faith and learning and the cultural achievements of the mind. I find Abraham Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs, which he elaborated during the Ten Year Crusade, goes a long way, at least for me, toward integrating into a helpful perspective my various human needs and passions, desires and wants, which we all have in varying degrees. I won't outline this theory here because any reader can learn about Maslow's theory with a little effort. The erotic, for example, which has been a strong need/passion in my life and requires a separate story all its own to go into the detail this need warrants, fits nicely into Maslow's first level of needs: what he calls physiological needs. I have a health problem, relating to the physiological needs of my neurological system. The several manifestations of manic-depression relate to the failure to satisfy this need. Maslow's theory is, I find, explanatory, and I leave it to readers to relate Maslow, his theory and his ideas to their own lives: their needs and passions, wants and desires. I could go into an elaborate explanation of my own experience drawing on Maslow. But that is not my purpose here. There are, in addition, other theorists of personality and of human development who are helpful for autobiographers and I mention them from time to time in the course of this text. With more than eight hundred pages left to read, only readers who persist with this narrative will be exposed to the various theorists I draw upon to give text and texture to this my life.
As self-representation, autobiography is perhaps uniquely suited to validate, to explain and analyse, the experience I have had with my bi-polar disability and to counter stereotypical representations which I find arise, in some ways quite naturally, in the course of my life. But this work is not so much an attempt to justify myself before the court of life, so to speak. If this work is ever read to any significant extent, I will be gone to the land of those who speak no more and self-defence will hardly matter then, at least not to me. This work is, rather, a representing of myself to myself and in doing this, others may find that the content and process I go through is useful for them as they go through the process of self-understanding.
Power, inner strength, identity, is in some ways re-achieved in this narrative of myself after it had been sucked out of me by the demands of life by the time I came to write it in my late fifties. Self-narrative, say some students of autobiography, is a tool used to gain self-determinacy. In this "illness narrative" which Pioneering Over Four Epochs is to some extent, there is an act, a story, of becoming and re-becoming. Through self-narration I re-make myself, re-fashion and re-invent a new understanding of myself. With my story, I try to resist the disabling definition of mental illness or manic-depression. I try to write, reexpress, these pejorative terms into a rhetorical normalcy which I hope will play a small part in society achieving a real understanding and acceptance of this illness in everyday social life. Narrative is used as a tool, a technology, that is intended to be a vehicle to freedom, self-definition, and self-expression. My character has been reshaped by the integration of modern medical technology(medications) with my body. Without these medications, this narrative would assume quite a different trajectory. Living my daily life, again and again, I establish, I create, through the simple act of repetition the medium of my becoming. The story is long--and some of it is here.
I build a narrative out of individual agency, the agency of my own actions, the surprises, the events, "the shadows on the high road of an inevitable destiny," and my own sometimes peaceful and secure world, but like Edward Gibbon, "the sheer accumulation and repetition of events" and the unprecedented tempest of my times, in the end, leaves the reader, I am inclined to believe, with patterns and processes, ideas and ideals, philosophy and analysis and a much bigger picture than an isolated, an individual life. And I, along the way, experience an element of surprise. I don't look for it or even anticipate it. It seems to come along like a bonus, the way flowers grow in a garden and one enthuses over them with friends. But the book, this book, as Proust argued, is "the product of a very different self" than the one I manifest in my daily habits, in my social life, in my vices and virtues. The self that writes is a mysterious entity that no amount of documentation can take the reader into. In the end this autobiography must remain incomplete, not because it does not tell all the facts--which is impossible anyway-- but because it deals with a mystery, a human being.
Those things we call interviews, conversations recorded for the public and found in the print and electronic media by the multitude, while not entirely superficial and valuable in their own right for information and entertainment, for the quirks and friendships laid out for us, do not deal with the innermost self which can only be recovered or uncovered by putting aside the world and the social self that inhabits that world. "The secretions of one's innermost self," says Naipaul quoting Proust, "written in solitude and for oneself alone" are the result of trusting to intuition and a process of waiting. In time, with the advance of years, I will come to understand what I have written, although even then I'm sure not fully. Writing in solitude is experienced as Thoreau once put it:“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” This became more and more true as the years of my retirement from 55 to my present age of 69 advanced incrementally.
If the autobiographer is sensitive to the processes of minute causality, he will slowly and inevitably come to see that behind each fact there is a "swarming mass of causes on which he could turn the historical microscope." The fragmentary, ambiguous and opaque material of our days makes it difficult to wield the pen with any kind of authority over our lives. What started off with a sense of my authorial imperium, as was the case at the start of writing this autobiography in the early 1980s, is often the case with writers and was also the case with Edward Gibbon. Such a feeling of literary authority often results, though, over the long stretch of writing in an increasing vulnerability. Egotism, energy and a will to power are all required to sustain a long piece of writing like this. Such qualities are not all a writer needs to create a literary presence, but they are essential. I would use the word power but not authority. As Richard Sennett wrote in his brilliant analysis of authority: "authority is an act of the imagination, it is a search for solidity and security in the strength of others.” Although this work is certainly an example of the former, it does not possess any of the capacity to bind, to bond, people together. Power is quite an ambiguous word as used in the social science literature. It’s use is so ambiguous I am happy to coopt it, to use it in association with my writing, as I proselytise for my vision using my life as a vehicle.
There is some degree of frustration in trying to put words behind the elusive complexities of life and the multitude of unfocussed and divergent aspects of one's days. Giving life a unity of form, a unity of literary expression, can beat the best of them. One toils with a performance that struggles endlessly with ideal. I may generate a powerful impression of sequence and it certainly does exist behind the pages of this narrative. But readers may also find that there is just too much to be contained by their intellect in a narrative that contains such frequently competing claims of evidence and experience and such a variety of standpoints. My imagination is always active to enlarge the narrow circle in which nature and circumstance confine it. And enlarge it I do, perhaps by "the revelation of the inner mysteries of God," mixed with that “obscuring dust” of acquired knowledge. It is often difficult to know what is revelation and what is dust, although intuition’s unreliable guide often gives us a feeling of certainty. And there is much, too, that eludes the net of language no matter how active the imagination. Thoreau once said that: “It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know" echoing in the process Bahau'llah's words about emptying the heart of the obscuring dust of acquired knowledge. This is not an easy idea to get one's head around.
Millions of human beings in the years at the background of this autobiography came to find in cinema insights into their personal life-stories by observing directors' insights into themselves or their society. Perhaps this is partly because in the last century the fusion of the arts, the sciences and technology has been so seamlessly institutionalised by the cinema. Competing world views are fused and inscribed on human consciousness by skilled film directors. Some film directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to choose one of many, offered film goers a cinematic persona that reflected their own personality. Fassbinder’s films are autobiographical in the sense that they attempt to confer shape and meaning on a chaotic life and a scandalous society, on a catastrophic social and political environment. As Fassbinder said in an interview his films "always place himself at the centre." This literary work Pioneering Over Four Epochs, like Fassbinder's work in cinema, tells of my experience. Other people, other Bahá'ís, inevitably have a different setting for their lives but, ultimately, there is a sameness, a strong similarity. Like Fassbinder, I tell my story very personally but I give it, as best I can, a universal context.
Film directors all have their signature; no matter how they like the work of other directors, they try to tell their own story in their own way. The generation of important American directors who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola, among others, just after I came of age in the mid-sixties, have told their story citing the influences on their work. So, too, have I told mine in a work that has burgeoned to over 850 pages. The autobiographical documentary film, in TV and on radio, with its themes of self and identity, like autobiography in print, has been a fascination to western film-makers, to journalists, producers and directors since those late sixties. Like Jim Lane's book, which shows the significant role of autobiography in the history and culture of our time, at least in the last three decades, I like to think that my book will play a useful role in understanding how autobiography can assist in illuminating the collective experience of a generation within the Bahá'í community, the history and culture of that community and the experience of one individual within it over the last four epochs. The generation that came of age in the sixties was the most affluent, well-fed, well clothed in history but they had, as writer Doris Lessing has frequently pointed out, their own particular and quite severe anxieties and maladjustments resulting from the two greatest wars in history.
There is one particular theory of film making called radical constructivism which I mention here because it, too, has some interesting similarities to the way I am going about writing my memoir. To the radical constructivist knowledge is actively built up by the knowing subject. It serves to organize experience, to construct knowledge. Such is the way I have constructed my autobiography building layer on layer, assimilating, accommodating, adapting. What I construct is less than the past and possesses an “epistemological fragility.” It is an explanation of the present in terms of the past. Facts about the past are elements of the observer’s experience.
This autobiography has my signature and no matter how much I borrow and blend, copy and plagiarize, I draw the lives and experiences, the ideas and concepts of others making them into my own unique recipe. In the details I can not and do not imitate even if I use some of the same ingredients and even if I sometimes borrow with appreciation. I adapt to fit my particular constellation, my interpretation, of reality. No matter how much I draw on the views of others and I do extensively, in the end, as Yale professor Harold Bloom argues, "there is no method except yourself." I react differently, from time to time, from year to year, sometimes with more spontaneity or more reserve, more adventurousness or more caution. I create my own personal world, tell of my own emotional and intellectual cells and their depths. I hope they resonate with readers; I hope they sensitize readers--at least a few. For what is involved here, in addition to the articulation of some of the core parameters of community, is that "introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself" or a seeing things with one's own eyes and hearing things with one's own ears which Bahá'u'lláh links with justice and which I refer to several times throughout this text.
Just a final note from one of the interviews with Fassbinder. I include it because I think film, philosophy and autobiography have, or at least can have, one thing in common and that is the world. Their mutual interrelations are complex and, as Andrew Murphie puts it, hectic and in need of mutual nurturing. He was asked if film making was "a sort of love substitute." His response was that his first take "was more fantastic that the most fantastic orgasm....a feeling indescribable." The finished product, the film we see, is indeed a collage. Sometimes, if not frequently, the visual immediacy of film prevents reflection. All the takes are the materials that have to be reduced and assembled to form the coherent whole of the film. It is this that eventually comes to be the final art-product ready to come to life in the perceptions of viewers. The other finished product, this autobiography, also involves reduction and an assembling of material to form a coherent whole, but there are no problems of visual immediacy. There are no problems either of the collaborative nature of film making. For the most part, autobiography is a solo event. Although, like film, the credits could go on for many minutes--even hours in the case of autobiography. Of course, who would stick around to read such a list of credits, a list, for the most part, totally meaningless to most readers.
The deciphering, the study, of history, a gratingly slow process of negotiation and disagreement, a process in which the content often becomes more complex the more one knows, is replaced in our time for most people by a media blitz on certain events. All we want to know about massive cultural memory haemorrhages like the Holocaust, D-Day, various assassinations, etc. can be squeezed into three-hour media bursts, convincing because of their technical brilliance, their ability to elicit emotions and to create in the viewer the conviction that the truth has been determined and can now be shelved—we are at last done with those crises. With so much now to reflect upon and so little time to reflect and reconsider, we leap instead from event to event, frantically memorializing--if not remembering--what the past means: a world war, the death of a celebrity, the death of a president or the child of a revered president all carry the same valence.
Around us is a texture of memories, real and prosthetic, produced for us and by us. We have turned the potentially enriching memory devices in our the industrialized world: television, radio, film, video, the internet--into answering machines that, on demand, spool out rote solutions, examinations of complex issues, a plethora of information for the ontological, epistemological and existential issues that produce both life’s dread and life's pleasure, that are anodynes of cultural forgetfulness and stimulus to investigation and understanding. Again and again we have sketched before our eyes and ears, in luminous outlines and close detail, the pressures that act to produce some element of history or contemporary society, some set of agreed-on perspectives. And all of this exists as part of a pattern of private withdrawal which is "as obscure in its psychology as it is apparently transparent in its external shape" and is more reported on than experienced.
One analyst put writing in the same context as making love. Orgasms are shortly lived experiences and peak experiences are common in writing, at least for some writers; love relationships are complex in different ways to writing, even if one forgets about orgasms and focuses on touching and hugging, gentleness and kindness. Writing and love, it seems to me, have many similarities. Writing goes on for years, for a lifetime like a permanent, long-term loving relationship in marriage. Writing often has a short duration, is episodic, like most of the relationships we have in life. The passion of writing obviously lasts far longer than any single erotic act or collection of them, at least for those writers who keep at it over their lifetime. Both writing and love-making chart the intersection of multiple and often contradictory points of view, different concepts of community and interpersonal understandings and levels of social integration. At one level it all seems so easy, so natural, so organic, love-making and writing that is. At another level both processes are complex, a source of both angst and pleasure and both can, in the end, come to nothing.
I should add, too, in this connection, that memory is filled with images of the nonself, with all sorts of things from the physical, human and religious worlds and a multitude of disciplines that attempt to assimilate this information and these images and these memories enrich and frustrate, deepen and accompany both love and writing. To put some of this another way: in The Ethics of Ambiguity Simone de Beauvoir argues that we are born in the midst of others without whom the world would never begin to take on meaning. For me, writing helps me make of the world much more. For writing helps me to fertilze the solitude that, as Beauvoir adds, is as essential as interrelationship.
Poets, writers and many others, often turn away from the world of objects in their jouissance and they rediscover the non-self within the self; or to put this idea more concretely, self and world are rediscovered in a richer symbiosis. "It is in themselves," as Leo Bersani writes, "that their insatiable appetite for otherness is satisfied." This idea is a complex one; perhaps it is just another way of saying the cultural attainments of the mind, that first attribute of perfection as 'Abdu'l-Bahá calls it, have more lasting power than anything associated with the physical.
Of all the great fictional heroines in literature Emma Bovary, in the famous novel of Flaubert Madame Bovary, is probably the one about whose appearance readers are most likely to disagree. We cannot, as with Dickens, refer to some foxed engraving in an early edition, since Flaubert hated and forbade illustrations of his works. In my case I say little about my physical appearance: in my childhood, my adolescence and in my early, middle and late adutlhood. Keen biographers, if any should arise, can examine the many photograph albums I have left behind should my literary executors find it within their power, interest and talent to preserve them from the memorabilia that is extant on my eventual demise.
I should say at the outset that this book will contain an autobiography, several essays about autobiography and generous helpings of poetry. I have come to see my individual poems as part of one long epic poem and it is my hope that this epic will come to have something more than just a localised and purely antiquarian appeal. Great poetry has been and will continue to be written about private life: such was the view of John Crowe Ransom, arguably the greatest twentieth century poetry critic. But I would add that poetry is at its grandest when that private domain is linked to some lofty purpose. For me there are several lofty purposes here. The general principles of the subject of autobiography are, as yet, hardly agreed on by either practitioners or theorists of this embryonic discipline. Perhaps these principles never will be. I'm not sure it matters.
I find the following definition of epic one which I have come to appreciate and one which applies to some of my work. An epic is "a poetic narrative of length and complexity that centres around deeds of significance to the community." I do not see epic as Aristotle did in absolute terms of fixity and rigidity; rather I see it in flexible inclusive terms, as multiform, an all-embracing container of a vast variety of other genres. Significant deeds, insofar as this work is concerned, involve the struggles of ordinary, sleeping, selves in their efforts to achieve security, to respond to the dull pain at the heart of our existence, to transcend the weight of the ordinary self and its protective chrysalis of the everyday, to deal with loneliness and isolation. Often, usually, the saints and the heroes are anonymous. My story makes no claims to either sainthood or heroism, but I wish to tell my story, some of my struggle, some of the ingredients in which I partake of the heroic. For there is an endless dialectic between the ordinary self and the heroic soul; some of that sweep, some of its significance and the tension involved in spiritual growth is found here.
Like other kinds of history, autobiography has its own styles and themes as they involve in their diverse ways, both settled life and movement, living and teaching, learning and consolidation, development and stasis, a broad range of dichotomies. Then there is the relation of these themes and topics to the social imagination. Imagination is involved with all these dichotomies. Imagination has its own rhythms of growth as well as its own modes of expression. I feel strongly that autobiography, whatever its inherent merits and demerits, is, for some people anyway, an indispensable aid to their knowledge of the history of Bahá'í experience. The hundreds, indeed thousands, of life's anecdotes have varying degrees of dramatic immediacy. This autobiography absorbs these anecdotes, all these deeds of commission and omission, into a ceremony of recitation, recreation and renewal. They are seen both as life and as material for art, as part of a material transformed into self-expressive speech, as the utterance of an individual voice and as an aesthetic performance, as the deployment of a perspective and as a form that reverberates with the interpretations of my own consciousness. Perhaps, too, what I write is also a "relational move" by which I try to complete myself "by connecting to the eternal" or some ideal within myself. And if, as James Thurber once wrote, you can fool too many of the people too much of the time, only the few who are very difficult to fool will even bother to read this work. Perhaps there is hope for my work.
Identity is unquestionably central to any autobiography. The theme of identity will appear again and again in this narrative. There are lived identities and identities that one talks about. I like to think there is a balance between these two types of identity in this autobiography. This subjective experience of identity could be said to be a type of unity, a unity produced by the realization of that identity. This unity is a constantly evolving product of my personal decisions and activities or what Nucci calls "the labile self." There is also in this work of my mind a relief of tensions created by my own needs. My mind is given its grammar by the world; my wishes give it a vocabulary and my anxieties its object or so one writer put it. The experience of each of us is different from that of others, sometimes just slightly, sometimes significantly, some might say--totally. To hazard generalizations on a whole group is a risky business, although these generalizations are often a highly instructive witness to one's several worlds.
My experience is only a part, a small part, of the vast intricate mosaic of Bahá'í community life, of Canadian life, of Australian life, of the life of teachers, parents, husbands, men of the middle class in the closing decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first. But it is experience which I have, at least in part, recovered, reconstructed and recounted. This experience is also written in the early evening of my life and does not convey that quality of excitement it might have conveyed had I written it forty years ago when my youthful enthusiasms influenced my thinking more significantly. I like to think, though, that my learning is lighter and my humour easier, that I am more the observer and the analyst and my seriousness less heady and intense than it would have been had I written this in early adulthood or the early years of middle adulthood. My historical sensibility has been sharpened by years in-the-field, a pioneering field going back to 1962. But whatever intensity, fierce inner tension and concentrated fighting with the problems of existence there had been in my early and middle adulthood, they moderated with the years, at least in their social expression. In my private world they continued on in residual form, some pithy core which possessed an intensity that was part of my motivational matrix and kept me going at my intellectual tasks for six to eight hours a day. After more than thirty years living in Australia whatever seriousness I brought to the Antipodes in 1971 has been moderated by good old Aussie skepticism, humour, indifference and cynicism all of which have down sides but all of which also have the function of taking some of the heat out of intensities of all kinds, moderating convictions and any incipient fanaticisms.
Paul Ricoeur's Spiral of Mimesis accounts for how people complete texts by asking, "Does this narrated world share a horizon with my world?" Only when the answer is "yes" does the text seem authentic. Even then, in a wide variety of ways, we have become uncomfortable with testimonies of the genuine, the integral, the interior, the original, the real, the self-sufficient, the transparent and the transcendent that are all coiled in different ways for different people inside the word "authentic." Perhaps it is the imbalance of our daily experience and the images and sensations we get exposed to that spawns some of our sense of inauthenticity.
"The opaque depths of living, acting and suffering," which is how Ricoeur describes our quotidian world, can be configured narratively to make our world livable, but only when the text is authentic. Authenticity results, says Ricoeur, when the world of the text shares a horizon with the world of readers. Time will tell just to what extent readers find this work of mine 'authentic.' I find this work helps me make sense of the big stew of life, the deck of cards and the hand I have been dealt with which changes every time I play.
Jerry Seinfeld was able to put the everyday events of life centre-stage with delightful humour: "life's minutiae, people's foibles, and mankind's quotidian moments of angst," but this autobiography needs more than the minutiae and I am not the comedian that Seinfeld was. My range of material must go far beyond foibles, angst and the acute observations of small moments in life in this very Jewish of sit-coms. The qualities of the main actors in Seinfeld: their shared immaturity, amorality, narcissism, unrelatedness, and general ill-will toward others, I trust are not found here, beyond the modicum of these negative qualities most of us share. In order to climb into the depths," Wittgenstein once said, "one does not need to travel very far; no, for that you do not need to abandon your immediate and accustomed environment." During the years of writing the recent editions of this work and in the years ahead my intention is not to travel. I have done enough of that in the first six decades of my life. I can climb into the depths of life here on the head of my pin, so to speak.
Ricoeur describes what I write, it seems to me, as follows: "a concordant discordance of ambiguities and perplexities" which I try to resolve hypothetically, narratively. The "followability" of the story is the test of its authenticity, says Egan. I go along with this, but not all the way. Many can't follow Shakespeare or the writers of the Old Testament or the Koran or a host of other authors and books, but that does not make what they write inauthentic. Authenticity has other features as well.
J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once wrote that “God gave us memory so we could have roses in winter.” Here, then, are some of my roses and, inevitably, some weeds from what is sometimes called episodic memory. I hope that, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, I do not rob this story of its reality by making "it too true." Also, if Wilde is correct when he says that "the interesting thing about people in good society....is the mask that each one of them wears," then I hope that I at least describe accurately that mask and, however partially, reveal the world that is underneath. For, as Wilde says again, "we are all of us made of the same stuff" and differ only in accidentals. But oh, what accidentals!
The wilderness of western society in which I have lived and had my being over more than forty years as a pioneer was much more demanding and wild, requiring a persistence and understanding that I had not anticipated at the dawn of my manhood in the early 1960s. This wilderness has been intricate and complex, subtle and, for the most part, seemingly impenetrable in any direct sense to the teachings of the Cause I espoused. This is not to say that many, a multitude, of seeds were not sown, “like the infinitude of immensity with the stars of the most great guidance,” as ‘Abdu’l-Baha puts it so beautifully in the opening paragraph of the Tablets of the Divine Plan. I did indeed find, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha went on to write in His opening tablet, that “heavenly outpourings” descended and “radiant effulgences” did appear in my life and in my society. This autobiography is, in many ways, a tribute to those effulgences and those outpourings. The evidences are all around the world in beautiful Bahá'í edifices and in thousands of communities that simply did not exist in 1953 when this story begins.
But there was also a dark heart to the age and to my life; there were millions of “gray, silent rocks,” a dreary and desolate scene, a vast, titanic, catastrophic tempest that “remorselessly gained in range and momentum” throughout all the years that this narrative is concerned with. During these years "the queen of consumer durables," the term Martin Pawley gives to the television, became the principle assassin of public life and community politics. Between catastrophe and the consumer, Pawley puts it in colourful language, stands the goalkeeper, the person who brings you the news. "He will tell you when a shot is coming your way." While that may have been true in the broad arena of global conflict or even community crime, this goalkeeper did not protect me from the shots in a battle that was essentially spiritual and only partly within my control.
The difficulty is that this public realm became less and less experienced and more and more reported on. The public realm became more and more complex in this half century. Or so it seemed. Affluence concealed the atomization and fragmentation of society. People's choices favoured privacy and anonymity over the very idea of community. Private goals triumphed over public ones. I liked Pawley's analysis when I came across it in 1975 while I lived in Melbourne and taught librarian technician trainees. His analysis still has relevance and so I refer to it here.
The origin of the vast upheaval which I have only briefly alluded to here has been the subject of unending academic and public discussion. It is a phenomenon that goes beyond demands for reform. Indeed, new vocabularies have been formulated to depict the crisis. The revolution is said to be "cultural." The challenge is said to be to the "quality" of life. The search is often said to be for "relevancy" or "authenticity." The picture is "postmodern" and requires "deconstruction." And on and on goes an endless analysis drowning the subject in a sea that few can swim in and even fewer want to swim in. However suggestive such terminology, such distinctions, may be they remain "tragically inadequate to grasp the reality of experience in these several epochs. The crises and tragedies I faced as a youth, in my marriages, in my jobs and my health were all part of the only real war in my life, the war within the individual and the news was like some kind of secondary reality with its tertiary battles and sound bites. These battles also had the effect, I am inclined to think, of limiting my accomplishments in life. The characteristics of Thomas Edison, to chose one man to contrast my own life with in this regard, characteristics mentioned on the last page of his autobiography and ones which enabled him to accomplish more than most men were “a strong body, a clear and active mind, a developed imagination, a capacity of great mental and physical concentration, an iron-clad nervous system that knew no ennui, intense optimism, and courageous self-confidence.” I had all of these things but they were not consistent and they were not always intense as they appeared to be with Edison, at least not from 9 to 60 and I do not anticipate that consistency will be an acquisition in my latter years. But, as Baha’u’llah states: some are endowed with a thimble-full and others with a gallon measure. Edison was without doubt a prodigy of work or industry; compared to him in the hard-work world I am a far lesser mortal, but so are most of us. I have lots of company.
How shall we excuse the supine inattention of the vast majority of humankind to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence in the personages of two prophets or God-men for the modern age? Is it due to humanity's lack of reason or the simple failure of its several senses? During the century of the Bab, Bahá'u'lláh and His eldest Son, and the many incredible personalities who could be designated as apostles or as Their first disciples, the doctrines which They preached were confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame did indeed walk, the blind did see, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were often suspended for the benefit of this embryonic community. But the sages and indeed the ordinary masses of West and East, North and South have, for the most part, turned aside from this awful spectacle, and, pursuing their ordinary occupations of life, of work and of study, have, for over a century and a half, appeared unconscious of the wondrous miracles associated with the lives and works of the Central Figures of this new Faith. There were and are innumerable reasons and this narrative deals with some of them in a serendipitous fashion.
The form and style of this work are not incidental features. A view of life is told. The telling itself, the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary, of the whole manner of addressing the reader's sense of life--all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life's relations and connections. "Life is never simply presented by a text," writes Martha C. Nussbaum, "it is always represented as something." In the case of this autobiography, the Bahá'í Faith is presented en passant in the context of my life and the society I experienced in more than half a century, 1953-2007. The Bahá'í Faith gives to my mind and imagination as they body forth, or so Theseus tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: "The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” The mystery of existence, its paradoxical and complex form, is given "a local habitation and a name."
This modern age has seen a host of miracles partly due to the inventions of technology, partly due to the explosion in knowledge, partly due to the sheer expansion in population from less than one billion when these two manifestations of God were born to the present six billion. Whatever the case, whatever the reasons, however slow may appear the growth of this Movement during the half-century I have been associated with its expansion and consolidation, this Cause seemed to me to develop to a degree that, in many ways, far exceeded my expectations. This seems like a contradiction, a strange irony, but it is true, at least for me.
From time to time in this five volume work I refer to The Prelude by William Wordsworth, the first and the major long autobiographical poem in the history of modern English literature. I refer to it because it contains a number of useful comparisons and contrasts with this work. The theme of Wordsworth's long poem is "the loss of the paradise of childhood" and the regaining of that paradise through the power of the developing imagination. I certainly deal with the loss of my childhood; I deal with the power, the experience, of a developing intellect and imagination. I also deal with the regaining of that paradise in the years of a different prelude, the years in which there was an entry-by-troops into the Bahai Cause. The fifty year period from 1953 to 2003 witnessed a growth of the Bahá'í community from two-hundred thousand to nearly six million. And it appeared as I wrote these several editions of this narrative work that this period of prelude before a mass conversion would continue in the years ahead, as far as I could prognosticate anyway, until at least the end of the first century of the Formative Age in 2021 and probably well beyond. To Wordsworth the transformation of the world was through the mind of the writer, the poet. This is unquestionably true and this autobiography is, in some ways, a testimony to the "new and wonderful configurations" that derive from the luminous lights of the mind. There is much in this work that is testimony, but it is a work that has a home in today’s world. If the Greeks and Hebrews invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle and Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.”
Reading, at least until my late teens, until the beginning of my pioneering venture, was virtually entirely based on school work, grades and achievement. As I look back on those halcyon years before 1962 the place in my imagination was mainly filled by: a life of activity and that activity did not involve reading books unless I had to. Sports like baseball, football and hockey; earning money from collecting pop-bottles, gardening jobs and selling newspapers were at the centre of these activities. The folklore of local Indian tribes was static as was most of the reading I had to do. It was like a game of how to memorize the most stuff to get the highest marks when exams came. I was first a small kid and then a growing teenager and I did not discover writers, as say Susan Sontag discovered George Eliot, Thackeray, Balzac or the great Russian novels. The intellectual and cultural tradition could not hold a candle to sport, earning money, and getting little packages of content in Ontario's primary and secondary school curriculum into my head. Retail therapy, a term not invented back in the 1940s to 1960s, was confined for me to: buying things with the little money I obtained, things like baseball gloves, hockey sticks, sports equipment, board games, food and drink, admission to hockey games and ice-skating, inter alia. Little Indian dolls with turquoise beads sure couldn't hold a candle to all of this. The local library held little excitement for me back then. The nineteenth century novel—as far as being an experience which could blast me out of my narrow framework---was just not part of my experience. What blasted me was sport and the things I have already listed. If I was looking for something to take me somewhere, to expand my consciousness it was not going to be a great world culture, a great world religion, or a great anything---except, as I say, sport, school and family. This trilogy was about as normal, as average, as plain and simple as a boy could be back in those days when rock-'n-roll was just emerging.
AN AVERAGE KID, A GOOD KID STARTS TO WIDEN HIS VISION
This autobiogrpahy is in many ways about a form of witnessing. My witnessing begins with my testifying to a new presence in my life, to an event that slowly came into my mental and emotional existence. The overwhelming and compelling nature of the reality of the occurrence of this new presence came about by degrees, sensibly and insensibly between 1953 and 1963, between the early 1950s and the early to mid-1960s. Readers here will enable my testimony to take place by listening empathetically, unobtrusively and with a snese of the direction of commitment to some lifelong idea and community. I hope readers will take the lead with me in order to begin to affirm, to understand, the reality of the event in question. The story, my story, emerged and a true witness was born. This witness is now able to address others. Memory, in this case my memory, is conjured here essentially in order to address another, to impress upon a listener, to appeal to a community. Witnessing is, on this account, always a witnessing with others, an appeal that would permit an experience to be translated into terms that are more general, more a part of community. And, finally, I like to think that this story, this memory shows that the senseless breaking of the human race in two: believer and non-believer, Christian and Jew, etcetera, the many dichotomies, is on the way out. But it did not go out of my life back in the 1950s and 1960s. This senseless dividing slowly left my life by the time I came to write this autobiography. In the last 30 years it has continued to leave my life---but not entirely.
I find that the attempt to write my story of pioneering is like or it has become an endless detour, a series of futile attempts to reach into the experience, to broach it in its uniqueness and its singularity. My aim is to write a writing like that of a textual celebration and memorial. This narrative is a way of letting an instant, a decade, half a century, resound not in order to restore it to life for future generations, but rather to bring its singularity to the attention of others now and in the future. I feel a certain imperative to “write, write” as a response to the demand to situate myself with respect to the enormity of the task at hand, the weight of its responsibility. I feel as if a new practice of writing is required, but it is a practice I am hardly faithful to its demands.
Unlike Winston Churchill's record of his youth and young manhood in the autobiography of his early life, an autobiography which a literary critic in The Times Literary Supplement regarded as Churchill’s “finest literary achievement,” this book pays little attention to my childhood and youth. Churchill’s style or styles, its variation and development, are the greatest of its charms continued this same critic. I’d like to be able to say this is true of my attempt at autobiography, but I hesitate to make such a claim. One fancies in Churchill’s book that one hears the small boy, the youth at Sandhurst, the young soldier, the slightly older politician each telling his story in his own way. Of course no gentleman cadet, still less a small boy, could write like that; that Mr. Churchill should contrive to bewitch his readers into the momentary impression that they can is proof that he has at his command the art of the autobiographer. Such was the view of this TLS critic. I’m confident that such a critic would not find such a range of voices here, as much as I might like to have them appear. Indeed, I do not attempt to sing in the umpteen voices that I once sang in or that I had to cultivate over the last nearly seventy years. I have owned many voices, many roles, many emotions, many moods which, it seems to me, get smoothed out in this rather analytical piece of writing, for this is not a novel, not a bit of entertainment. Rather, it is one man writing for ordinary men and women everywhere, at least that’s the way I see it.
There is little description of the pastoral, of place, of setting, of locale, in my poetry or my prose. I do not record in minute detail the landscapes, what I saw and heard, on Baffin Island in northern Canada, along the Tamar River in Tasmania or in any of the several dozen cities, towns and hamlets where I have lived, visited, moved and had my being. I do not measure these earthly days, as Wordsworth and the nature poets often have done, by the mountains, the stars and the river valleys I have gazed upon, however inspiring, lofty and pleasant the verdure and grandeur. The minutiae of nature, the myriad sense impressions, the sunshine and shadow where gaiety and pensiveness so often met, the solitude and silence, the noise and the tumult that occupied my hours and days, the industrial, the technological, the machine: there is so much that I have not described, that I have not even attempted to enter a word about. Natural history in its many spectacular forms, wildlife, geological and archeological history were presented in didactic, anthropomorphic and, more recently, computer-generated forms and, although I did not take a serious study of natural history and the relevant sciences involved, I certainly enjoyed decade after decade of inspiring, truly beautiful and informative productions on television and analytical material in print and on the radio.
Landscape, or place, always includes the human presence, of course, and, in fact, is centred around it. Place is where our embodied selves experience the world, receive its nurturance and energy. Place is where, as David Abram wrote, "the sensing body is....continually improvising its relation to things and to the world." Place is also an agent, a locus of action and significance. The purpose of nature, of landscape, of scenery, at least for me, is not visual so much as mental. It evokes memory, fuses present emotions to remembered occasions and is a simple rest for the eyes. But so, too, is television, for me. I like to think the significance of this poetic narrative lies in its art rather than its historical knowledge. If there is any long-range significance to what I write here I’m confident it will not be the history, the facts, the main happenings of my life and my age. The events of my age are written in far more detail and with far more insight than I will demonstrate here.
By the 1940s and 1950s both Australians and Canadians "accepted as conventional wisdom that the local territory in which they lived was a defining force in their lives and their nationality." In my lifetime such a view was expressed over and over again ad nauseam. But in the last forty years, during my pioneering journey, uncertainty has crept into any simplistic identity associated with land, with region. Other bases of identity have come to occupy the attention: the arts, the media, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, wealth, social and political issues, inter alia. Region was not as important as it had been two, four or six generations before, in the first centuries of the history of these enormous countries. But place could not be ignored even if the bases of identity were more diverse, more complex, more confused. "Identity is a conceptual structure," writes Berzonsky, "composed of postulates, assumptions, and constructs relevant to the self interacting in the world." Identity functions as an attempt to explain oneself, to enhance self-understanding, to provide an account of one’s core beliefs and purposes.
The early lives of some, of many, seem fragmented because of frequent moves, because of personal conflicts of various kinds. By the time I was 18 in 1962 I had lived in only three houses and attned only three schools. Life was far from fragmented. My family life gets only a small mention back then as does my schooling. Primary and secondary school is yet another of the many aspects of life I hardly mention. The curriculum in both Canadian and Australian schools was inherited from Great Britain, and consequently it was utterly untouched by progressive notions in education at least until the early 1960s when I graduated from high school. We, that is Canadians, took English grammar, complete with parsing and analysis; we were drilled in spelling and punctuation; we read English poetry and were tested in scansion; we read English fiction, novels, and short stories and analyzed the style. Each year we studied a Shakespearean play committing several passages to memory. If I had been a student in Australia, the story would have been the same.
I might have been living in Sussex or Wessex or Essex or Norwich for all the attention we paid to Canadian poetry and prose. It did not count. We, for our part, dutifully learned Shakespeare's imagery drawn from the English landscape and from English horticulture. We memorized Keats's "Ode to Autumn" or Shelley on the skylark without ever having seen the progression of seasons and the natural world they referred to. This gave us the impression that great poetry and fiction were written by and about people and places far distant from Canada. We got a tincture of Canadian prose and poetry, of course. We knew we had some place. We were so big; we had to have some psychological existence. The educational process gave us some appreciation for the Canadian landscape and its culture. It was not as tidy or green as England's. It deviated totally from the landscape of the Cotswolds and the Lake Country or the romantic hills and valleys of Constable. If I had been given an Australian education I would have had even less of an appreciation of my native land back in those years before and just after WW2.
In Canada in the 1950s textbooks were often written by Canadians. This was not true in Australia. In mathematics, for example, Australian kids studied arithmetic and simple geometry, five times a week. The textbooks were English and the problems to be solved assumed another natural environment. It was possible to do them all as a form of drill without realizing that the mathematical imagination helped one explore and analyze the continuities and discontinuities of the order which lay within and beneath natural phenomena. I could say so much more about those eighteen years of institutionalized education in Canada, as I could about so many other aspects of life, but I must of necessity limit the details, the story, to a confined space and quantity. And, whatever inadequacies these years in school may have had, I look back at them fondly, as a broad expanse of time that preceded and initiated my life as a Bahá'í pioneer.
Before I close this all-too-brief summary of some 18,000 hours of in-class, in-house learning, I’ll just summarize the three central threads of that learning. Various social sciences and humanities were kept from start to finish, from early primary through university; the sciences and maths were dropped when I entered university. The third major strand consisted of an assortment of studies: manual arts, physical education, music, foreign languages, art, inter alia. All of these subjects in this third strand never made it passed high school. As I said above, I could describe a much more detailed picture of those years in school, in six schools and, perhaps, on another day I will.
In 1967, like Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film The Graduate, I graduated from university, suffered through the party given for me by my mother, dealt with my fears of the plastic society I was entering and continued my search for an identity outside the bland, material, suburban existence of my parents and friends. Unlike Dustin Hoffman, Benjamin Braddock in the film, I was able to define myself outside that suburban environment. My Bahá'í pioneering identity was reinforced a hundred-fold by a move, three months after graduating, in August 1967, to Frobisher Bay in Canada's Northwest Territories, about as far removed from plastic North American suburbia as possible, without leaving the continent and its island tributaries.
The fluid and impermanent nature of relationships with the minimum of formality that Tocqueville said characterized democracies were certainly part of these years in both school and in all the other aspects of life. Tocqueville's analysis said much about my time. The individual, he wrote, shuts himself tightly within a narrow circle of domestic interests and excitements and from there "claims the right to judge the world." As social, community, ties loosened, they became more impersonal, Tocqueville said, and "domesticity was reinforced." I could expatiate at length on the insights this French scholar made in the decade before the Bab's declaration in 1844, but it is not my intention to offer a long, detailed, sociological analysis of my time. The search for the secret, the basis, for a just social order for human beings was part of Tocquville's search as it has been for political philosophers and theorists as far back as the pre-Socratics and the prophets of the Old Testament. The search for a just social order in the years of this prelude would continue though, it seemed, on some predestined path, a path in which a tempest was blowing with great force and a path in which a new social order was given an articulate expression in the writings of a new world Faith. My task was to help give this Order physical expression in the communities where I lived. And this I did in embryonic form in town after town across two continents for more than fifty years.
The tempest that was blowing through the global society that this narrative takes place in was so severe that the very origins of this tempest, its significance and its outcome were, for the most part, impenetrable. Most of the people I came to know, to have any association with, outside the Bahá'í community, in Canada and Australia, in these years of the prelude, were caught up, in a host of ways, by this great onrushing wind. Whatever was available at the banquet table of the Lord of Hosts would simply have to wait as the great masses of humanity continued to be swept along by this tempest, this onrushing gale-force-wind which was altering the very basis of society, its content and structure. The tempest was simply so immense; the upheavals so extreme, that the average person or the greatly endowed, the intelligent and the ignorant were swept along by its devastating and complex forces. Job, family and their general interests kept them fully occupied. The issues, the questions, here require an extensive analysis and it is an analysis I approach again and again in this lengthy narrative. The historian Peter Gay commented that “historical narration without analysis is trivial, historical analysis without narration is incomplete.” This equation is equally true of that sub-genre of history—autobiography. And I try to supply both in some balanced fashion.
I muse, with American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote 65 days after the Bab declared His message to Mulla Husayn: “When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man even takes up a pen a second time.” But I have tried as many have tried. And I have tired. I do not dwell on the various tensions in relationships: in classrooms where I taught, in homes where I lived and in offices, mines, mills and factories where I was employed. I mention the tensions and pass on. The element of dramatic tension, then, which is essential to any drama and which could be defined as "the gap between a character and the fulfilment of his purpose," is present but it is highly diffuse, diverse. It has been present in the constraints I have faced in life and in the pursuit of the resolution of my several purposes. As one analyst of drama put it: "drama is the art of constraint." But the drama here does not transport the reader into a fictional world, either metaphorically or literally.
The drama here is mostly the common, everyday stuff. I can not claim that my drama is particularly unique or is capable of holding the interest of the reader due to its unusual qualities or fascinations. This is no pretend world of fictional characters in which readers have to suspend disbelief, as Coleridge once put it. The reader's relationship with me and what I have written is infinitely negotiable and the meanings that emerge are dynamic and shifting. Perhaps I can contribute here, a little to some future prudence, a prudence which Plutarch once described as: "the memory of the past, the understanding of the present and the anticipation of the future."
There is a bewilderingly luxuriant and immensely complex aspect to the human condition. It offers many illegible, contradictory and paradoxical clues. There is often only a superficial unanimity in the attitudes and values, the behaviour and thoughts of the members of any of the groups I have been associated with in life. If what I write earns "the judgement of gratitude and sympathy," as Matthew Arnold described the reaction of readers to writers who help them and give them what they want, I will also have won the day. But I'm not sure if I will achieve this. There is a gentle and, perhaps, not-so-gentle advocacy here as I attempt to transform circumstances into consciousness. There is much digression, some disproportionate, which is one of the prime luxuries and blemishes of this work. It is difficult, if not impossible, to consider every particle and fragment of this work in relation to some overall design. There is metanarrative here, there is micronarrative, but not everything can be connected to its design. Vicarious experience, the stock-in-trade of television narrative, can be found here but its presentation is not as effective as the visual medium. The cultural fantasies that mediate reality for TV viewers in dramas, sit-coms, comedies, inter alia are not found here with the same effect. The cultural landscape upon which viewers map their desires and aspirations day after day in front of the lighted chirping box may be added to here in this Rocky Mountain of print.
In movies such as Oliver Stone's JFK, Edward Zwick's Glory and Spike Lee's Malcolm X the director has an audience far greater than any documentary or autobiographical work. An autobiographical work, this work, can, if desired, clearly present all of the facts from both sides of the spectrum. The content of films such as those mentioned above usually presents one version of the story, the only one that many will see, read or know about. The directors of such films, knowing that they have a captive audience, can therefore choose which facts that they place in their film to create the myth or message that they wish to create and leave out the facts and events that, although important and relevant, go against their beliefs and destroy the myth they wish to create. Those directors who somehow manage to entertain the masses and make an argument are very special. They can stimulate the study of history but, more often, they simply entertain. Oliver Stone, Edward Zwick and Spike Lee are three directors who possess the talent to entertain and present an argument successfully, making it difficult for others, concerned with the truth but with less money and no talent for directing or writing a film, to argue against their views.
Such "historical" film directors cleverly create myths to promote their own beliefs or sometimes mischievous speculation and the average movie goer, faced with no other opinion than the one on the screen, generally believe that myth as reality. As film director of my own life in this autobiography I try to avoid clever myth creation, mischievous speculation and manipulation of a captured audience. Given that readers will have no other opinions on my life than the ones presented here, although they will certainly have other opinions on the Bahá'í Faith and society, I am certainly aware how much I am in control of the story and of the truth, of my own history. I like the idea that the eighty year old Sabina Wolanski expressed in summarizing her autobiography when she said that “I have decided to be absolutely truthful.” But, as I point out in several other contexts in this work, truth is not the simple entity that it appears. I do try, though, to temper my obsessions, which this eighty year old survivor of the Jewish holocaust, suggested was a wise move for autobiographers. I, like Wolanski in the late evening of her life, share her concern, her fear, for being self-indulgent in making one’s memoir so centrally concerned about oneself. Angels may fear to tread in this personal and essentially, ostensibly, ego-centred domain, but I am certainly no angel so, perhaps, that is why my fear, my concern, in this respect is of a low order of intensity.
I am aware that, although history and my life can be studied scientifically, the field is immensely complex--both history and my life--and immensely subtle. It is supremely unlikely that this work will be studied either scientifically or serendipitously by anyone. I have also included in the text of this autobiography many opinions, opinions which I trust come together into some kind of coherent whole, but about which the Roman poet Terence might have added the phrase quot homines, tot sententiae, literally ‘so many people, so many opinions.’ Some readers may find themselves slightly overwhelmed with the more than 2000 references in this work. However vast, self-evident and urgent the field is, and surely one's life is all of these things, generating a certain anxiety as one proceeds in its examination; however esoteric and divisive it also seems, thus precluding any unified approach to its examination and perhaps even any general and organized, any systematic and intense, interest: if there is to be any concerted action towards the goal, a map for the journey must be found and applied. Vague sentiments of good will, however genuine, will not suffice. Some basic understanding of principles and processes, of ethics, philosophy, ontology and history, indeed a host of fields of knowledge are required if the seeker, the writer, is to even approach the first "attribute of perfection" and its "qualification of comprehensive knowledge" that 'Abdu'l-Bahá exhorts us to attain. If any coordinated progress is to be achieved there is much to be done. I make a start as we all must this side of the grave. This opening chapter is just that: a start.
The literary architecture here requires some foresight; if it is to be rich and expressive it must subsume the irregularities and afterthoughts of day to day life into some kind of harmonious whole. It must acknowledge the uncertainties and the ambiguities which I and others have lived with, at least since the appearance of the two-God men of our age. This task is as difficult to do in real life as it is in writing about real life. If my work is to be at all useful to people of our time it must define and describe the nature of our "frantic need for guides through the jungle of modernity." The experience of modern times is swathed in paradox, ambivalence, anxiety, shifting perspectives, and nostalgia. People everywhere are getting run over. Can this work offer a stimulating analysis, a framework of understanding? Can it be useful, paradoxically, to people who seem to have no need for guides at all. Sadly, in our time, there is so much said about everything that there is little assurance about anything, except perhaps the great material and technological apparatus of society which brings to those who can afford it comforts never known in all of history. And so I hold no high hope for the results, the affects, of what I write here for it is not part of that immense scientific apparatus.
Composing an autobiography is somewhat like constructing the interior architecture of the houses I’ve lived in, the landscapes of the towns and providing small character sketches of the people I’ve got to know well. Various people, my readers in this case, will pass through the houses, landscapes and sketches I construct and say, 'Oh, that’s a nice house, a pleasant room, but what a hideous window over the kitchen table, what a dull suburb.' Only writers really live in their autobiographies. So much of what works best about them are things that people who come to dinner, who pass through, never know about or see." The comments of readers have, at best, only a partial relevance. I think this is a fitting, an apt, analogy. At the same time I do not give to these interior architectures the same degree of meaning and intensity, anything like the same amount of dialogue that is often present in autobiographies involving a mother and daughter. The space within the house that `housed' a daughter's childhood often possesses poetic images and maternal features that never seem to come into the interior spaces of the houses of my life and the important relationships that took place there.
The distinctions of personal merit and influence are tempered but still conspicuous in any Bahá'í community. The oneness of humankind does not imply that the distinctions between people are feeble or obscure. Neither does the concept of oneness imply that the abilities and talents of everyone who cross our paths be ignored. The severe subordination of rank and office, which often pertains in societies that raise egalitarianism to unrealistic heights of value, which do not see equality as the chimera it is, was and is not characteristic of the Baha’i community. The Bahá'í community recognizes a wide range of statuses and roles; rank does not confer authority no matter how much it results from talent or appointment, election or pure ability, and it sees oneness as more of an integrated multiplicity than any conception of sameness.
I hope there is here little of that 'twotwaddle' that William Gass said Freud wrote and little of those strange illusions which seem to cloud the clear skies of literary relevance. Marx thought religion encouraged the illusions and the self-delusion of the working class. With Naipaul, I believe this role of providing illusions and stagnation has been passed to politics. Hopefully, then, this work will be free of this contamination. Relevance is essential in works like this to the creative and productive lives that read it. Inspite of the fact that I have the feeling that we all have from time to time; namely, that life possesses a hopelessly insignificant aspect, an impossible to comprehend reality, in the grand scheme of things, I want to venture on the sea of autobiography avoiding as far as I can the many familiar formulae used by autobiographers. Readers will respond to this work the way audiences do to film: in patterns of meaning and symbols, not as simple stimuli or messages. I trust, too, that in stepping back and reading this, readers will see themselves by distancing themselves from their own lives and by being implicated in what they read. For I think there is more here than “the clothes and buttons” of a man, as Mark Twain described biography. There is something of the biographer Lytton Strachey’s(1880-1932) approach. Strachey inaugurated a new era of intimacy and candour in biography writing in contrast to the reticence and hagiography of the nineteenth century. Strachey died in the year that saw the end, the last remnant, of the heroic age.
It was timely that writers about people’s lives in this new age, this Formative Age should say something a little more personal and below the surface. At the same time I like to think there is in much of the writing of this new age some of that “grand shine” that some see on the surface of life, a shine which Walter Bagehot delighted in and which Shakespeare seemed to bring to his writing and his life. I would like to think readers will find some of these qualities in my work and that it is not “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” or any other pale casts. I try, as far as I can, to bridge the gap between the practical and the intellectual.
I like to think that there is much more than some grey transit “between domestic spasm and oblivion.” I present the picture of a grand scheme, what the sociologists call a grand narrative, but I do not suggest in the process any easy answers, simplistic formulae for sorting out the problems of the world in all their staggering complexity. I found that after twenty years of an autobiographical warm-up the process of writing autobiography was one that mark Twain once described as an emptying of myself and then a waiting for a while until I was filled up again.
I feel a little like a tourist guide taking a bus-load of people through the historic places, the interest sights and the beautiful spots in some part of the country in order to fill a package-tour of several days. The aim is to both entertain and inform the travellers and send them on their way with their time having been pleasantly occupied. Like the guide and the tour, I do not take my readers everywhere. In fact most of the places in the urban-rural complex that this bus travels through and around are never seen by the tourists for fear of boring them to death with repetition and the tedium of endless streets in the city and field-after-field in the country. But in the midst of these repetitious scenes and the dullest of exteriors which are about as interesting as the eye of a dead ant, there is drama, comedy and tragedy. It’s just a matter of digging it out, ferreting it out, going down and in, behind the windows and doors of a dozing world which often is just watching TV, doing some house-cleaning, some gardening or, perhaps, having a meal at the time. But I’ve spent my life packaging stuff for students, for those who have been curious about the Baha’i Faith and, indeed, as we all do for those we love and with whom we interact. And we all try to make the best of it, put our best foot forward and occasionally tell more than the little which we know. Sometimes we say too much and even more we say too little because it does not seem possible to say any more without tension, without conflict, of some sort.
I also feel somewhat like a combination of tourist and traveller, a distinction Paul Theroux makes in his new book Fresh Air Fiend. Tourism---sightseeing---is expected to be fun. You do it in large groups or with friends; it's very companionable; it's comfortable and it's very pleasant or so it should be. Travel throughout history had to do with discovery, difficulty, and inconvenience. It didn’t always pay off. There was a strong element of risk in travel. This distinction is a useful one even into our own time, into this 21st century, but I won’t expand on it here; I will, rather, leave it to the reader to make his or her individual interpretation of the differences between my comments here and their experience. I have also discovered that in writing this autobiography, although I deal very much with the past, I am also describing the future. There's something prophetic about the process of dealing honestly with life. When you see your life, your society and your religious philosophy and you describe it as far as possible without stereotypes and preconceptions, but with subtlety, what you write can seem like prophecy.
One day in the not-too-distant future I hope I will be content to lie beneath a quiet mound of grass and a small monument of stone. But in the meantime, I am not content just to go into the hereafter, however joyful or regretful I may be on that journey into eternity; I do not seem content with the role of a thoroughly commonplace, nameless and traceless existence which, to some extent, is the lot of all of us or nearly all. I seem to be drawn to autobiography as a bee to a honey-pot. Perhaps I should regret, as some readers may be in the end, that I did not apply my abilities to more useful fields.
Why should anyone care what the merits of an obscure Bahá'í are, one who left North America to live at the ends of the earth, the last stop before Antarctica? Can it really matter that he lived in 25 towns and 40 houses, is now on a disability pension and all of this over a period of several epochs during the growth of a new world religion which has been emerging from obscurity during his lifetime? Does it contribute any benefit to humankind to have a printed version of his particular form and intensity of navel gazing?
We all walk through our lives partly blindfolded. This is partly due, as Oscar Wilde once noted, to a certain "extraordinary monotony," itself a product of an underactive imagination and inner life. There is simply too much to take in. You could call it a cultivated blindness, as Wilde does, or a cultivated inattention, as some media analysts refer to the way we watch television. The principle of selectivity was crucial, universal and inevitable. The news, extensively canvassed in the popular press, in specialist journals and at the turn of this century and millennium on the internet; meticulously documented in the electronic media, however unsatisfactorily to the proclivities and prejudices of many, was just one of the multitude of things that occupied people's minds in various degrees. Endless happenings, trivial and not-so-trivial events, a great sea of minutiae occupied people's minds in various degrees, with various degrees of meaning and significance. The events of family life, of jobs and the multitude of human interests, quite understandably, filled the space available, both for me and those who were in my company. The relationships were often intense and nurturing opportunities to grow and often, on reflection, fragile and tenuous.
As I pondered this reality of life, I mused about the impossibility of the thoughts and events of one life, in one autobiography, in my autobiography, ever finding a place in the minds of just about everyone or indeed anyone on the planet. These thoughts might reach a coterie, a small coterie as I have already said above, and that’s about all. Half the art of storytelling, of course, no matter who the story reaches, is to keep the story free from too much of that deluge of information and too great a quantity of the plethora of explanation one acquires as one walks down life’s path. If this art is practiced well, readers will be left free to interpret things the way they understand them. I'm not sure how well I do this. I try to please readers. Writing is somewhat like talking; hopefully someone is listening and wants to listen. But writing is not entirely like talking. As Thomas Mann said in his Nobel Prize speech in 1929, “the convinced writer is instinctively repelled, from a literary standpoint, by the improvised and noncomittal character of all talk, as well as by that principle of economy which leaves many and indeed decisive gaps which must be filled by the effects of the speaker's personality.”
I leave the reader free to interpret the way he or she wants but, along the way, I provide great dollops of explanation and plentiful helpings of information and analysis which fill in the gaps in a different way than speech and a speaker’s personality. I try to make this provision of information with the same art that good cinema possesses: "the art of the little detail that does not call attention to itself." In this I am only partially successful.
I provide an episodic structure, careful selectivity and analysis. The reader can enter, can gain access to the text by any one of many entrances, none of which is the main one. Readers could begin at the beginning or in the last chapter. there is no pre-ordained sequence to follow. I like readers to feel they have gained something on their own and to feel that all I have done is help them along the way. But, like George Bernard Shaw, I can no more write what people want than I can play the fiddle to a happy company of folk dancers." The balance between pleasing people and pleasing myself, between honesty and tact is as difficult in writing as it is in life. While I portray some of my own secrets and desires, understandings and analyses in this text, readers, it is my hope, will find themselves. I can but hope. I like to think that there is an honesty in my descriptions that is the backbone of judgment and that arises from a simple, frank determination to get to the bottom of places, people and experience and to understand them truly.
As a stenographer of reality, as a mirror of the world I lived in, this autobiography does less distorting than a novel, which often manipulates, modifies and exaggerates truths about the past in deference to cultural , literary and highly personal pressures. There is more caution required, at least it can be so argued, of a reader vis-a-vis a novel than an autobiography, at least this one, if the reader is trying to get a picture of the past. Often great novels are not realistic; they distort and, as Peter Gay argues, they have done history a disservice. I do not claim that my experience, my view, my vision, is necessarily shared with other Baha’is, except in the broadest of outlines and except insofar as all Baha’is share the Book and its Interpreter and the Universal House of Justice in a pattern of centres and relationships in their lives. But certainly my desire to share my experience is, in principle, part of what it means to be human. For human life, even in its most individualistic elements, is a common life. "Human behaviour always carries in its inherent structure," as John Macmurray wrote, a reference to the personal Other. And you, dear reader, are that 'Other.'
I trust the reader will not find here any gnashing of teeth, any strutting and stridence, any fretting and fulminating as, like Marzieh Gail, I summon up remembrance of things past, my early life, the Bahá'í communities and the general society I have lived in over the last half a century. In the process I hope to sketch something of what T.S. Eliot said was the great need of modern man: a larger polity. But my sketch is not an in-depth socio-historical study, a politico-economic treatise; it is autobiography by traces, history by traces, as F. Simiand defines history. I give the reader vestiges left behind by the passage of a human being through four epochs in a Bahá'í timetable, a Bahá'í framework of the passage of history. Details crystallize, images are isolated, moments are seen that fascinate, as I gaze back in time. There is a certain fetishizing of otherwise ordinary, fleeting, evanescent, subjective, variable moments. What is seen and discussed here is in some ways "in excess of what was lived." It is a little like what film critic Paul Willemen claims of the cinephiliac moment: "what is seen is in excess of what is being shown." It is not choreographed for you to see; it is a kind of addition, a synergetic-add-on that is the result of thought, the "new and wonderful configurations" of these epochs.
The starting point here is something like Carlyle’s analogy between the history of the world and the life of the individual. In my case a history of modern civilization and of my religion, a religion which has grown up in the light of modern history occupies the central place alongside my own life. The Victorians saw their age as an age of transition and so, too, is our time one of transition, we who have inherited the interpretations of our time by the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith and Their trustees, the international governing body of the Bahá'í community. I impose a pattern on this age of transition, a pattern which is partly unidirectional and partly cyclical. It possesses the halo of inevitability but not the patina of triumphalism. It has grown out of the Bahá'í conception of history and it gives direction and meaning to the immense dislocation of these times, at least for me. It possesses, too, a sense that history is coherent, rational and progressive. I am conscious that this view can be disputed but I am confident that my views flow logically from the texts and their authoritative interpreters who inspire what I write. I don't think my contribution to the study of history is important in any way but I think the mix of the humanities and the social sciences that I bring to the study of the individual in society is, if not unique, at least possessed of a certain originality, an original mix of Bahá'í ideology and large dollops of historical and social theory found among the wide range of theories and theorists. While not possessing the cognitive originality of any of the great writers and poets, I believe there is something here that is intrinsically useful in sensibility, perception and conception. I hope, too, that some Bahá'ís will find inspiration here as they seek to understand the Bahá'í model of social and political engagement rooted as it is in a distinctly Bahá'í socio-theological framework.
The rise of the DJ in the first half century of this Formative Age and my experience of him as early as the mid-1950s for half a century now(1955-2005) could be seen as a cultural symptom of, a cultural model for, the centrality of the art of selection that is at the core of this work. "The essence of the DJ's art is the ability to mix selected elements in rich and sophisticated ways.....The practice of live electronic music demonstrates that true art lies in the 'mix.' Autobiography is quintessentially an example of the art of the mix, what to mix. And just as we all proceed through life by selecting from numerous menus and catalogues of items, the autobiographer selects from the menus and catalogues that fill his life with a cornucopia of stuff from the sublime to the ridiculous. The autobiographer, like everyone else, can not resist--indeed it is a constitutive part of his life--the rhetoric and reality of endless choice through selection. The unavoidable obligation to choose is a vehicle which expresses our identity whether we describe that process in autobiography or whether we give it no thought at all.
For the New Historicist school of history, this work will be seen as an agent of ideology, conforming as it does to a particular vision of history. For this school sees ideology as prior to history, sees this autobiography as a representation of the culture, the Bahá'í culture, from which it emerged. The lives of the obscure, the ordinary and the unknown members of society at any given historical period some have argued can never be satisfactorily recovered. I possess a different take on this theme. It is my view that their inner world can be penetrated, can be recaptured. Michelle Johansen takes a similar view in her analysis of an obscure London librarian. This autobiography, like Johansen's, examines the life of an essentially obscure person, in my case someone who has held many jobs in and out of teaching, lived in many places and been involved for more than half a century with a religious group that claims to be the nucleus and pattern of an emerging world religion, a religion in the first century of its Formative Age.
The use of the first-person voice is always a conscious narrative choice. In the writing of history its official use is restricted. The "I" of the historian is usually absent. It is simply not invoked. Subjectivity is the great unmentionable in historical narratives. Historians are not encouraged to relate their personal reactions, motivations, emotions, dreams or other imaginative connections between their reading, research, and writing or envisioning. But this work is only partially a history. The use of the first-person seems natural here. I don’t go so far as to see subjectivity-as-truth. Indeed, individual initiative and creativity require the support and enrichment of collective experiences and the wisdom of the group to achieve the tremendous goals that are the aims of my individual striving.
Traces are left, a trace remains. Thus we can speak of remnants of the past in the same way or a different way, from the way we speak of relics or monuments. And so I hand over to the contingencies of preservation or of destruction this autobiography. Like all traces, it now stands for a past, mine and society's, mine and my religion's, an absent past. The past may be absent but this trace, this writing, is and will be(I hope) present, thus, in a certain way, preserving the past even though that past is gone, even though it no longer exists. I feel drawn to the mystery of both the past and the future. Somehow, the very mystery of being, of the present, is tied up there.
We all see different aspects of life as expressions of an ultimate journey, especially for those of us who see life in terms of eternity. But the whole question of ultimate journey has so many meanings to people. In some definable and indefinable way these expressions are symptomatic of what life is all about to each person. Some see the quintessence of life’s journey best through the medium, the mediating role, of film; some hear it in music or in one of the other creative and performing arts; some see in nature the supreme moving impulse in creation; some find it in love and relationships; some in learning and the cultural achievements of the mind. The list, were I to try and make a comprehensive one, could be continued on and on. For we are creatures of heterogeneity and, more than knowing ourselves directly, we seem to know about ourselves by knowing about other things. At the same time knowing who one is at a basic level is not a cause of trouble, unless one has psychological or neurophysiological illnesses.
I was one of those, like many others, for whom the ultimate journey was observed, defined, expressed through many forms. My experience of some of these forms is described in the following narrative now more than fifteen hundred and pages. This narrative has become larger than I had originally anticipated. However long it has become, it seems suited to my particular literary and psychological needs. Whether readers find this length suitable to their tastes is another matter. In the history of western literature there have been two dominant motifs or themes: the quest or journey and the stranger. This autobiography fits comfortably into this long tradition.
I sometimes think this autobiography is a little like the poetry of the metaphysical poets. T.S. Eliot says that in that poetry "a degree of heterogeneity of material is compelled into a unity by the operation of the poet's mind." Such poets are constantly amalgamating disparate experience, literally devouring that experience and in doing so they modify their sensibility and form new wholes. In the process an originality and a clarity results which you might call my autobiographical point of view or, in the case of the metaphysical poets, the poet's point of view. Eliot writes that "our standards vary with every poet" and this is also the case with every autobiographer. Refering to the poet John Dryden, Eliot writes that his "unique merit consists in his ability to make the small into the great, the prosaic into the poetic, the trivial into the magnificent." While I would like to be able to do this in this autobiography and, while I feel I do achieve it on occasion, I do not think I achieve this transformation on a regular basis. I create the objects I am contemplating, namely myself, my society and my religion, through the employment of memory, reason and will, thrusting each of them into whatever nourishes me and finding, as best I can, the aptest expression for my feelings and thoughts.
Perhaps I could say I am 'rendering' the past as a painter renders. I have rendered my life, given it a certain transparency, refigured my world, re-described it, appropriated it, re-enacted it, reeffectuated the past in the present. I have brought things out into the open, the way we all do when we tell stories about ourselves. I have transformed my life in the sense that an examined life is a changed life, a different life. So many Bahá'ís have achieved great things for their Faith. Many have achieved little. The portion of some and the portion of others varies as do their respective receptacles. Comparisons may be partly odious, but they are inevitable. I would like to compare my work with any one of the great epic poets. I would like to think my work and the spirit that inspires it is, in the words of Paris to Hector in the Iliad, “like a tireless axe plied in the hands of a skilled carpenter.” But my axe is often tired; my spirit is often worn and I often question just how skilled the craftsman is who wields the axe.
In the kingdom of fiction, novels, stories and science fiction, the constraints of historical knowledge have been suspended or considerably loosened and played with. There is a great freedom to explore imaginative variations of history, of the past in these literary forms. In autobiography I do not enjoy this luxury but, still, reconstructing the past needs the help of imagination. Just as fiction has a quasi-historical component, so too does autobiography have a quasi-fictional component. History and fiction intersect in autobiography in the refiguration of time, in that fragile mix where the facts of the past and human imagination join in an effort to produce the deepest observations and the liveliest images, to enlarge the narrow circle of experience and to penetrate the complexities of life. As Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once wrote "the mind is a place where a great deal happens." I hope readers find a lot happens for them as they read this reconstruction of a life.
The British sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote that a person's identity is "not to be found in behaviour, nor in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going." That person must continually integrate events and sort them into an ongoing story about the self. He must, and in this case the self is a 'he', "have a notion of how he has become who he is and where he is going." There is a process of selecting and of discarding memories, a partly robust and partly fragile set of feelings and self-identity. As I keep my story going, as I posit some degree of unity and continuity over time, some degree of autonomy and responsibility, I describe the somebody I have become, the doer-deciding, not being decided for, the person who thinks, wills and acts.
Perhaps Sir Francis Drake put it more strikingly and eloquently in his prayer:
O Lord God!
When Thou givest to Thy servants
to endeavour any great matter,
Grant us to know that it is
not the beginning
But the continuing of the same
to the end,
Until it be thoroughly finished,
Which yieldeth the true glory…..
Autobiography is interpretive self-history and an interpretive self-history that goes on until one’s last breaths. It is a dialogue with time and I have spent various periods of more than twenty-one years(1984-2005) trying to give my experience a cast, a shape, and make a coherent intervention into my past not just write a chronicle of elapsed events. As I do this I find I nourish the past, anticipate the future and face unavoidable existential realities like death, my own limitations and failures. While my account is ostensibly about myself, I like to think that it becomes, in the end, about the reader. For there is a complex symbiosis here between me and you and the many readers not yet born. "I'll live in this poor rime," as Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 107. Every writer worth his salt likes to think, hopes, as the Bard wrote in the last couplet of this sonnet, that
………thou in this shalt find thy monument
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.
It is difficult to present an orderly account of one's story, one's "monument." Frankly, though, I don’t think orderliness is crucial. As the American novelist Henry James once wrote, back in 1888, the crucial thing is to be saturated with life and in the case of this autobiography: my life, my times and my religion. Time has a corrosive quality and produces a certain vacancy of memory. Space and time are, as de Quincey once wrote, a mystery. They grow on man as man grows and they are “a function of the godlike which is in man.” What I tell here is some of this mystery. Conjoined to this vacancy of memory, paradoxically, is its function as a medium through which time passes, as part of the very basis of my creative energy and part of a "perpetual benediction."
So much of my life, the life of my society and the Baha’i community in particular, is about pioneering, exploration, wandering from place to place and failure amidst success, stasis and staying in one place. This autobiography is, in some ways, a celebration of this reality, this apparent contradiction, this inconsistency, the cracks and crevasses of our community and individual lives where a lot of interesting stuff is found.
I am conscious of what the writer and philosopher H.L. Mencken wrote about autobiography, namely, that no man can “bring himself to reveal his true character, and, above all, his true limitations as a citizen and as a believer, his true meannesses, his true imbecilities, to his friends or even to his wife.” She, like servants of old, though, are most likely to see the true colours of a man or a woman. Honest autobiography, Mencken wrote, is a contradiction in terms. All writers try to guild and fresco themselves. There may be some guilding here, but I think I make an improvement on most biographies which A.J. P. Taylor said were mostly guesswork. There is a tone of tentative enquiry in this work; there is inevitably some guesswork; there is a recognition that truth is often elusive and subtle. I have chosen the title and the theme 'pioneering over four epochs' advisedly. There is some fundamental connection with my life's journey, my soul, that is contained in these words which now roll off my tongue with deceptive but now familiar ease. "By words the mind is winged.”
I have taken, too, Taylor's advice on politics. Taylor wrote that "the only sane course is never, never, to have any opinions about the Middle East." If anything, I point toward a way; I urge and encourage, but I do not offer answers to complex political questions by taking sides, criticizing governments or taking positions on various crises and issues. If anything, my book is a timely, timely for me if not for many others, anecdotal and impressionistic examination of the historical origins of the Bahá'í alternative in my time, an alternative embedded in my life and my four epochs. Life's sense and nonsense have pierced me with a feeling, a view, that much of existence is strange and absurd; that there is much which is vain and empty in those impressions which pass through our sensory emporiums; and that there is much that is wonderfully awesome and staggeringly mysterious. History for millions is more nightmare and panorama of futility and anarchy. For millions of others, fundamentalist, liberal, inter alia, history takes on all sorts of colourations and meanings. So many millions of human beings seem ill-equipped to deal with the forces of modernity whatever their views of history. The resulting social commotion, the resulting disarray is evident all around us.
As my own days pass swifter than the twinkling of an eye, I offer here in this autobiography something of my experience with the relentless acceleration of forces in the dynamic span of epochs that have been the background of my life. I offer, too, layers of memories that have coalesced, that have condensed, into a single substance, a single rock, the rock of my life. But this rock of my life possesses streaks of colour which point to differences in origin, in age and in the formation of this rock. It helps to be a geologist to interpret their meaning and I, like most people, have no advanced training or study in geology. So it is that my memories have fused together and they are not fully understood. Perhaps by my latter, my later, years; perhaps in an afterlife, in that Undiscovered Country when I enter the land of lights, then, I will understand. In the interim, though, I give the reader my rendition of the creative, revolutionary, unprecedented character of a new spiritual and social vision, a complex one that transcends eastern, western, traditional and modern categories of social analysis, one that has inspired my life.
I could have begun this autobiography with my first memory back in 1948. I remember making a mud-pie in the spring; perhaps the snow was still on the ground or the April rains had come after a Canadian winter. Perhaps it was March or perhaps it was April of 1948 as the Canadian Bahá'í community was just completing the first fifty years of its history. Perhaps it was on that weekend of the 24th and 25th of April 1948 when the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada was elected by 112 Bahá'ís in Montreal. That's when I'd like to think my first memory occurred in real time. But, alas, I do not have a unified, factually accurate, version of that first event in my mind's eye. I am saddled, as we all are, with a host of variations of what happens to us, what is around us and what it all means.
We can only connect with a portion of our own lives and of the great mass of facts and details that makes up the history of our time. Even if one assumes that we can explain human personality totally in terms of culture, there is only so much culture one can analyse and synthesize, find personally meaningful, interesting enough to consider at all. The writer, the historian, the autobiographer, all analysts of the modern condition and of the human beings in it, must face limitation. They must face minutiae and avalanches of information. I could take refuge in a more distant past as many do these days and tell of my mother's and father's life going back to the turn of the century, or of my grandparents on my mother's side in England or on my father's side in Wales. If I go back to my great-grandparents on my mother’s side whose first years would have been in the 1840s to 1860s I pick up a branch, a piece of my family tree in France. Such was a story told to me by my mother more than forty years ago, but I have never followed it up for more detail. In many ways, the main reason my autobiography hardly deals with the people on my family tree is that I know so little about them. It is a complete blank before 1844 and a virtual blank up to 1872, the year my grandfather was born, the year the first English Baha’i was born-Thomas Breakwell-and the year the great travel teacher Martha Root was born.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Wales remained significantly rural with its people continuing to cling to old-fashioned ways of life, methods of agriculture, and legends and superstitions, much like the peasants in Hardy’s Wessex. The Welsh, especially those in rural areas, were a people deeply in touch with their past and this was true even among the lower classes and the formally uneducated. Visions of the past were often strongly imprinted both on the land and the consciousnesses of the people. It was often said that time stood still in Wales and the people tried to keep the embers of the past burning. My father, though, was born in 1895 in the largest town in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil, and in his teens and twenties the town went through a boom-and-bust cycle. Sometime, I know not when, my father left Wales for North America. Some of his socialist spirit, his militancy, his desire to be financially successful, his energy came from this early Welsh experience.
I could also write an account of my great-grandparents' lives taking readers back to the beginning of this New Era in the 1840s. Few people exhaust the surface, much less the contemplation, of their own experience, how much less that of their forefathers. The years before my birth I shall mention from time to time if and when I feel they illuminate the theme I am pursuing, but the stories of those on my family tree, whether living or dead are not the focus of this work. The dead in my family line going back to my great-great-grandparents and their history, for the most part, hardly get a look in. Those before the 1840s might as well have not existed. As I have already indicated, the principle of selectivity is at the core of this work as it must be in any autobiography. Within three generations of my death there will be noone on earth who even remembers me—or you dear reader, for that matter. Unless some autobiographical or biographical manuscript remains, unless you invent something for future generations or, indeed, contribute something memorable to the human community.
Of course, with the insights of history, other social sciences, literature and its critical analysis I could very well recreate the thoughts and lives of my nineteenth-century grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, taking my family tree back to the 1840s and 1830s, as I have pointed out elsewhere. But that is not my intention in this memoir. I am occupied with other matters.
The days of my life are gone, at least as far as the early years of late adulthood; middle age or middle adulthood and early adulthood as some human development theorists call the years from 40 to 60 and 20 to 40 respectively has slipped irretrievably from my grasp. Some of these days return as if from the dawn of my life and, as Wordsworth expressed it so beautifully, "the hiding places of man's power/Open: I would approach them, but they close." I scarcely see them at all, Wordsworth continues, but he says he tries to "give substance and life to what he feels," thus "enshrining…the spirit of the past/For future restoration." And so, writing this autobiography is, in some ways, a job of restoration, restoration over four epochs.
Like the forward-looking nature of Homer’s work this autobiography is imbued with the forward-looking spirit of the Baha’i community. Like Shakespeare, I see myself as a Renaissance man. But I don’t see myself as either a Homer or a Shakespeare. The conditions of my craft as a writer and a bard demand, or so I feel anyway, that I preserve and transmit something of the fame of a now vanished heroic age. I provide linking pins. For the most part, though, I leave the previous epochs of the Formative and Heroic Ages to the pens of others, the thousands of others whose lives were lived in the years after the beginning of this New Era in 1844. These earlier years will get only the occasional mention when they function to illuminate the present or the future. For this autobiography focuses on a history that has been part of my bones: the first several decades of the second Bahá'í century. In a wider sense my work is just part of the culminating phase in a long accumulation of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated literature of the first century of the Formative Age. There is no attempt, as Milton put it in his lordly way, to assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to man. With the writings of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith and Their successors providing ample words, I do not attempt to deal with such lofty aims. Theology does not play an oppressive part in this account, although it is impossible to avoid it from time to time. Human beings hold centre stage here as they do in Homer, I think more closely, more intimately. Dante and Milton put God and associated abstractions at the centre of their epics and, although God is not left out of this narrative, I prefer to deal with the human figures of Baha’i history occasionally.
In a recent edition of the journal Cultural Logic I came across the following quotation which expresses, in some ways, what I am attempting to accomplish here. The author wrote: “I am speaking my small piece of truth, as best as I can. We each have only a piece of the truth. So here it is: I'm putting it down for you to see if our fragments match anywhere, if our pieces, together, make another larger piece of the truth that can be part of the map we are making together to show us the way to get to the longed-for world.
So many changes have taken place both in public space and private thought that the world I stepped out into in 1962 as my pioneering life began has been transformed. One mundane and in some ways trivial example in public space is described by R. Shields: “Hyper-realities are found in malls, restaurants, hotels, theme parks; in self-contained fictional cities such as Disneyland, in California, Tokyo and Paris, and Disney World, in Florida; and in real cities such as Los Angeles and Miami. All are facades woven out of collective fantasy. The original for these, of course, is Disneyland, built in the mid-1960s. It is tempting to laugh-off all of this as an amusing curiosity, but shopping malls are the most frequented urban social spaces in North America now.” They play a pivotal position in the lives of billions of consumers and are a new focus of communities.” And as one writer put it: shopping is the most creative act western man performs. In my more than forty years of putting up posters, 1964-2007, I could always rely on the shopping mall to say no to my request to put up a poster. It was an out-of-bounds zone to any kind of political or religious activity. I have no intention or interest in describing my shopping activities in malls or, indeed, in any other commerical establishments over the years, although I must have put up several thousand posters in smaller shops: newsagents, florists, hardare stores, delis, restaurants, inter alia, and had light-hearted and easy-going relationships with many a shop-keeper. I’m sure I could write a small book on my experiences putting up all these posters. And in a society which is nothing if not a consumer society, much could be said about my shopping experiences, even if they were minimal and occupied an essentially peripheral part of my life.
In the macro-political domain there were a core of events which took place in the more than four decades of pioneering experience that affected the climate of western thought. One of the more recent was in 1989, two centuries after the French Revolution, which did more than merely terminate the bipolar balance of terror that had kept the peace for nearly half a century; the fall of the Berlin Wall brought to an end the older ideological equilibrium and the habit-encrusted formulation of issues which went with it. The concepts my generation used to describe the world after WW2 urgently needed to be reformulated after 1989. And they have been reformulated in the last fifteen years, 1990-2005, in a much more complex global community. This is not to say, of course, that everything changed in 1989. Many aspects of the world in the years 1945 to 1989 have remained the same, but the tendencies were exacerbated. “The wealthiest and poorest people,” according to a U.N. Human Development Report of 1996, “are living in increasingly separate worlds.” The three billion in 1945 has become six billion and the hostile camps of WW2 have changed their complexions, their names, their features. But it is not my aim to discuss the socio-political world in great detail in this work. The reasons for war now are different from those seventy or ninety years ago in the last two major world wars and I am confident they will change their spots yet again in this new millennia.
The generation born in and after WW2 have watched that war on television and at the cinema for half a century. It is not my aim here to document the kaleidoscope of opinions and attitudes to the great wars of the last half century, suffice it to say that there seem to be as many changes, shifts in view, as there have been decades since 1945. One notable cultural theme that emerged in American society as it entered the twenty-first century, for example, was the glorification of the generation that had endured the Great Depression and heroically sacrificed to win World War II. A virtual sanctification occurred in best-selling books, in TV programs and at the movies. As I have watched this latest vintage of 'war-movies,' I wondered at just how my generation would be analysed and discussed half a century from now both inside and outside the Bahá'í community. The generation that came of age and fought in WW2 has been called, by one recent author, “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” For me and my generation that came of age in the 1960s, the story remains to be written. Perhaps this autobiography is part of that writing. The social science literature, the novels, the media analysis on this period is burgeoning and I do not want to add appreciably to the mountain of material that already exists and so my focus is not on the history of my time. Some reference to that material is, though, essential to my story.
“Without a revolutionary theory, “wrote Lenin, “there can be no revolutionary movement.” I have been convinced the Baha’i teachings provides both; but the revolution is spiritual, evolutionary and, like Christianity 2000 years before, slow to work itself out in the context of society. There is a repetitive aspect to both life and history that gives rise to the cyclical aspect of religion and life. Comments like the following of British novelist E.M. Forster(1879-1970) reveal the repetitive aspect of life: “Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it, one is obliged to exaggerate in the hope of justifying one’s own existence.” While I find this statement a little over the top, to say the least, there is undoubtedly some truth to it, a truth based on the repetitious nature of life, the routine, the weariness, some of what the Romans called life's tedium vitae. It is one reason, among many, that most people would never think of writing an account of their lives and, if they did, they would find it difficult to get any readers or, more importantly, publishers to put their book on the marketplace. Of course, this may be equally true of my book. I'm sure some would have no trouble seeing my book among the more tedious reads.
Since there is a tendency to exaggeration in writing, as in life, I would like to comment briefly on this tendency in so far as it is found in this autobiography. This work involves a great deal about the Bahá'í community, my experience of it, and my life in society over this last half century of my pioneering. The words of George Orwell on the subject of exaggeration are pertinent to what I write. Orwell, arguably the twentieth century’s most influential prose writer, once wrote: “I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting.” What Orwell also wrote regarding order and sequence in a book also applies to this work. “I did not feel,” he wrote, “that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.”
While referring to Orwell in the above paragraph, I'll say one or two things about his wife, Sonia Orwell, who married him three months before his death. I thank Jenny Diski(1947-) for the following. Diski is an English writer who was educated at University College London, and worked as a teacher during the 1970s and early 1980s. She won the 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking around America With Interruptions. She is also a regular contributor to the London Review of Books; the collections Don't and A View from the Bed include articles and essays written for the publication.
Sonia Orwell was George's approved executor and she was a good editor, so argues Hilary Spurling in her biography of Sonia "The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell." Sonia had, says Spurling, a fine nose for talent, but she did not produce anything of her own. Instead, her life is an insight into the lives and times of others. I'd like to think that would be true of my now rambling autobiographical oeuvre.
According to a biographer of George Orwell, Michael Shelden, ‘Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, was fifteen years his junior and she had strong opinions, one of which was an opinion about George that: “he believed there is nothing about a writer’s life that is relevant to a judgment of his work.” It seems her opinion of Orwell in this regard was correct. Orwell himself wrote in an essay on the artist Salvador Dalí: ‘One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.’
In a review of this biography of Sonia which I came across in the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski writes that Sonia admired "the capacity for art in others". Diski continued: "this must surely make one wish to produce it oneself." In the last sentence of that review Diski concluded: "It may be that this failure to produce anything was the final source of Sonia's sadness when life was coming to a close and someone else’s work was all there was to fight for." I have certainly found my experience of writing since my retirement at the age of 55 in 1999 has enriched my life and removed any tendency to sadness. I can not be entirely sure of this, though, since my cocktail of meds has also has a great influence on stabilizing my emotional life and removing nearly all of my death wish, a wish which came into my life in about 1980 when I went on lithium for my bipolar disorder.
Diski opens that same review as follows: "There must be people who, during their lifetime, get their minds right enough not to feel bitterness as the end looms, and they realise that nothing much else is going to happen to them apart from death. I understand from reading and from anecdote that some people do die with a smile and the words: ‘It’s been a good life’ on their lips. But not many, surely?" says Diski. "It seems to me almost unreasonable," she continues, "indecent even, not to feel some degree of regret as life winds down towards the end. And life, of course, has generally only just got properly started before it begins to show signs of not going on forever. So when I read, in David Plante’s "Difficult Women"(1979), that Sonia Orwell in her final years complained to him, ‘I’ve fucked up my life. I’m angry because I’ve fucked up my life,’ it doesn’t seem to me necessarily to imply a particularly tragic or wasted life. At least not necessarily more tragic or wasted than most. Unless you take the Chinese view that: an interesting life is the best we can hope for in an existence which ends, for all of us, prematurely with illness or ageing and death.
Part of my instinct over the years has been to run from life, physically and imaginatively. This tendency to run simply reflects the difficulty of the experience of one Bahá'í in the years 1953-2013, the difficulty of his relation to people, to institutions and to events which taken together are so much greater than himself. The whole of life often seemed like some brontisaurismus, some shapeless, structureless colossus with its flood of detailed information and candy-floss entertainment which seemed to simultaneously instruct and stultify. There is something about the very pervasiveness of life’s array, wrote a sociologist whose name I have now forgotten, that is essentially alienating. He could have added, too, that life is also something essentially beautiful, fascinating, et cetera, in a long list of adjectives. Life insurance men talk about the whole of life in discussing a particular type of life insurance policy. During these four epochs that have been my life it has become a popular exercise to describe one’s whole of life, memoiristically, with the possible exception of the first eight months for which psychologists tell us virtually all of us have no memories.
My life as a moral being has its roots in a complex and very abstract world of seen and unseen connections, categories and ideas which, as I say, are greater than myself. The same imagination that perceives these categories and generalizations which describe my life also fashions ideas of local, regional, national, international and humanitarian obligation. My sympathies and moral obligations, my antipathies and withdrawals are born in this mix. They make up, along with other factors, my conscience, albeit intangible, my reality.
"Ultimately, we always tell our own story, not the story of our life, our so called biography, but the other one, which we find difficult to tell using our own names," so writes Jose Saramago, "not because it brings us excessive shame or excessive pride, but because what is great in human beings is too great to be told with words, even if there are thousands of them, as is the case of this work. What usually makes us petty and mediocre is so ordinary and commonplace that we would not be able to find anything new that would touch a chord in that noble or petty human being that the reader is." And, if indeed it did strike a chord, to string it out into a musical symphony to bring pleasure to others--now that would be a trick!
However one cuts the cake, so to speak, telling one’s story is not easy. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put his finger on part of the problem when he wrote that: “it is perfectly true that life must be understood backwards. But philosophers tend to forget that it must be lived forward, and if one thinks over that proposition it becomes clear that at no particular moment can one find the necessary resting place from which to understand it backwards.” Belief to Kierkegaard was based on the view that it was absurd. He was, of course, referring to the then typical view of Christianity: credo quia absurdum.
It is perhaps for these and other subtle, complex and difficult to define reasons that in their stories certain authors, among whom I believe I could include myself, favour a complex mix in the narrative they live and have lived, the story of their memory with its exactnesses, its weaknesses, its truths, its half-truths, even its fictions some of which they are blinded to and some they are quite conscious of, although they would not want to call them lies. Neuro-imaging is revealing much about how we remember and why we forget. One recent author ranks suggestibility as the sin with the greatest potential to wreak havoc on the accuracy of memory. Then, too, there are many ways I could tell this story and still tell it honestly; the one that has made it to the surface of the paper here is just one from among the many options, some of which I am conscious of and others beyond both my memory and my imagination. I try to touch a chord in what I write, the one in my own heart and mind and the many chords in those of readers in the best way I know how. In some cases, I’m sure, that chord is actually touched.
Mark Twain says to describe everything that happens each day would require a mountain of print. However much a life is enjoyed, to write about it in an engaging way is another question, another topic, another world. Although many enjoy their lives, few could write an account that would give any pleasure to readers. There are many skills in living and another set in writing about them. I'm not sure this book falls into the category of entertaining reading. It is written to satisfy my own sense and sensibility, my proclivity for analysis and my personal desire to give shape to my life, a shape that at least will exist on paper when I am finished. My tale is neither a bitter-sweet tale of a charmed and lamplit past; nor is it a narrative of loss and its lumps, its fragmentation and loneliness. It is closer to a poem, a hypothesis, a construct. I like to think of this work as part of my being and the being of readers which is a gift and part that is life’s acquisition, as something which appeals to the often latent feeling of fellowship with all of life and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together our separate solitudes, all of humanity, past, present and future.
A narrative, like the one I present here, provides a “unifying action to temporal sequences,” and it is “fundamental to the emergence and reality” of the subject, namely myself, however variable my behaviour across a myriad social contexts. Self-understanding and self-identity are dependent on this narrative. The process is not a simple mirroring but, rather, an updating, a refiguring, a process of being perched, as Proust says, on the pyramid of my past life as I launch into the future to create, to refine, to define, the self yet again. And while this exercise takes place one must be on one’s watch for self-aggrandizement, self-indulgence and self-dramatization. For self-love is kneaded into the very clay of man, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá, once wrote back in 1875. It is as natural as air.
While religious or political commitment, as expressed in terms of some religious or political affiliation, is not a rare or unique phenomenon among writers, most writers today do not incline to commitments in these areas. They incline to opinions, plenty of them, but not organizational affiliation, not an affiliation beyond the local writers’ association, the local drama group or perhaps a keen interest in tennis or lawn bowling. Most of the people I have known in my life outside the Bahá'í community are similarly inclined. They possess broad commitments to family, to job, to their gardening or any one of a range of personal interests, activities and artistic pursuits. Hobbies of different kinds, sports and the many pleasures and enjoyments of their leisure time seem to lead the way. In my lifetime there has been a great swing in popular culture toward sport and away from the elite intellectual like Toynbee, Spengler, Marx, Weber, inter alter, and, of course, toward television and away from radio. These issues are complex and I don’t want to pursue them in any detail here. There are many reasons this book is not likely to be popular even within the Baha’i community, some of these reasons have to do with the pull of popular culture in its many forms. Much that is popular, of course, is transient, so in the long term this five volume work may find a big niche market.
There is, it seems to me anyway, in the decades of my life's experience, an adversarial relationship between writers and thinkers of various ilks, with aspects of government policy, indeed, with all institutions of political and religious orthodoxy, be it old movements or new. This adversarial relationship gets expressed throughout their writings and their life. The lack of any affiliation, any commitment, to some organizational form with its attendant authority, has been virtually anathema to the generations I have been associated with in this half-century. Even among the affiliated, one sees this adversarial relationship time and time again between the institutions, the organizational movers and shifters, and the writers and intellectuals of that community.
So many get aroused over what they don't want. And millions don't get aroused at all, except in their private domains by the magical products of consumption and their micro worlds of job, family, health and those personal interests. The world of information and entertainment got increasingly mixed in these several decades and in the pluralistic society that imbibed it all, and in which I had my own life and being. The result seemed to be a mixed bag around which most people spun the web of their lives. Television tended to privatize rather than publicize; it was not so much a window as a periscope by means of which the submerged suburban viewer perceived and understood. At least that was the way Martin Pawley put it. I think TV did both, served as both window and periscope. Half unconscious after the evening news, the viewer sleeps, watches more TV, plays golf, washes the dishes but rarely engages with society in any 'political' way, a way that attempts to engage with society through some organizational form except perhaps: tennis, sport or any one of a host of leisure pursuits. As society goes through one of its most revolutionary, its most painful periods of change, the average person is, as one critic put it, amusing himself to death. "The Westerner is par excellence a man of leisure,” as David Denby writes in his The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. This is not to say that millions don’t work hard or experience pain. "Pain as God's Megaphone," C. S. Lewis wrote, "is a terrible instrument." Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis's comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with. This autobiography is, partly at least, a story of these moments. It is also a story of my own blurring of work and leisure.
This half century was filled with many of contemporary society’s savage dichotomies: the traditional demands of a sexual morality utterly at variance with the massive propaganda of eroticism; a glossy magazine and media world with its affluence and orientation to private pleasure and a world of barbarism, poverty, violence and death; the constant message to do your own thing and the immense need for people to work in groups on the vast array of social problems--and on and on. Needless to say, these polarities often pulled people completely apart. At the end of their journey in which a perpetually unstable reconciliation of forces had become the first law of their inner psychic life, in which the search for some Real Me had gone on for years, in which messages to feel rather than think, in which some rockbottom realism had become pretty much everyone's position, one wondered when and if society would lapse into some anarchic animalism. Perhaps I overstate the case, but the flavour of my case remains and the tensions of this half century were indeed enormous, if often subtle and unnoticed. I should emphasize, too, although it hardly needs saying, that my perspective in this work is one of a western Baha’i not a: Hottentot, Tutsi, Mongolian, Eskimo or any one of hundreds of peoples in the third world.
Proust once said that "in reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without the book, he would never, perhaps, have preconceived in himself." There is some truth in Harold Bloom's assertion that we read because we can not know enough people and friendships possess a vulnerability. And so, as I survey the interstices of my life, I hope I can make of the exercise that optical instrument for the reader that Proust refers to here. Language offers, as Janet Gunn put it so well, a peculiar fitness for the expression and creation of the self. It is a common tool, a tool we all possess, perhaps the best there is if we want to be the novelist, the psychologist, the psychiatrist, of ourselves. It is also a tool with which I would like to mildly disturb the rebellious and lively minds of readers but not to cut their throats; or, as some writer whom I have now forgotten, once said: I’d like to be seen as a surgeon who gives his patients a whole new set of internal organs but leave them thinking they did it all by themselves.
But while possessing this disturbing, this therapeutic, function, with J.B. Priestly, I like to think this autobiography has some of that sin-covering eye, that eye of kindness, where I take in the washing, especially the dirty washing, of others and they take in mine. We need to be kind to ourselves as well as others. For many this is a hard lesson to learn. While we are being kind, though, we must be careful that we are not being indolent and aimless, that we attend to that "first attribute of perfection:" learning and the cultural attainments of the mind and, in a series of fundamental exhortations of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, that we oppose our passions. Otherwise, like the great Russian writer Alexsandr Pushkin(1799-1837), we concern ourselves with the perfection of our art and not the perfection of our life and readers, in their turn, become enamoured of the confessional aspects of a life, its baseness and its loathsome aspects. My efforts to oppose my passions since at least the years of puberty, about the time when rock-‘n’-roll got its kick-start in the mid-1950s, some fifty years now, my successes and failures would fill a set of encyclopedia were I to get into a detailed micro-analysis.
I have already, in a first edition of this autobiography, written a version, a story, of my life. It was about 40,000 words. I completed it 20 years ago now, in May 1993. On reading it, though, I felt some of that tedium vitae mentioned above. I thought to myself "surely there is more to my life than this?" So, I collected the best literature I could find about the process of writing autobiography. It was a literature that began to accumulate in libraries to a significant extent starting in the 1960s. I read everything I could find about this literary activity which arguably goes back to St. Augustine in 426 AD when he wrote his Confessions. I also read many autobiographies but I found them, for the most part, uninspiring, predictable accounts along predictable lifelines. Some autobiographies seemed of excellent quality and I learned a great deal about a person's life that I did not feel I needed or necessarily wanted to know. So, I only read a few chapters and stopped in most cases. So often a student of autobiography, biography and history is faced with cliche, imitation, pietism, affectation, useless fact and much that is trivial and simply irrelevant to their lives. I try to overcome these problems here, probably only partly with any success. In some ways, as Jenny Turner points out in her review of Martin Amis’s writing, “all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen, but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart.”
The literary genre of autobiography has become so very popular in recent years that people of little interest and no distinction feel impelled to record their life-stories. I’m sure some would put me and this work in that category. Perhaps autobiography is, as Anthony Storr suggests, for those who are not “embedded in a family nexus.”
At best one seems to get entertained, mildly informed and occasionally stimulated with yet another story. As I near the age of sixty I feel as if I have read and seen, lived and heard, a million stories. I don't feel the need to imbibe yet another story of how someone made it from cradle to grave. Inevitably dozens and dozens of stories will come my way as life takes its course. People's inclination to tell stories seems endemic, pervasive, part of the very air they breath. In the end, anyway, it may be "style alone that makes a great memoir" or autobiography, with story taking a distant second place. There is, yes, story here but this is no psychoautobiography or psychobiography in the tradition begun by Freud in 1910 with his study of Leonardo da Vinci. There is no formal reliance on a case study. Rather the reader will find here a much looser, informal, construction. I find the process is much more like the process that Patricia Hampl describes in Memory and Imagination: "Personal history, logged in memory, is a sort of slide projector flashing images on the wall of the mind. And there's precious little order to the slides in a rotating carousel." Out of that confusion, the snapshots of memory and emotion, the memoirist attempts to "create a shape.”
No private citizen, Lippman and Schumpeter have reasoned, can be expected any more to have access to all the information and arguments required to make an informed decision about affairs of state. And so it is, following the reasoning of this social critic and this political scientist, that I make little attempt to discuss the cornucopia of complex social issues in this narrative. Given the insurmountable nature of the private citizen's public role the question in our day has become, what is the role of the private citizen in our pluralistic modern community? To have opinions on everything from staggeringly complex international issues to intimate personal questions involving babies, abuse and abortion, family and fertility, ecology and euthanasia? For the most part I do not tackle such issues, such questions. If I did my 2500 pages would take you all right out of the ball park.
Wanting and needing coral, pearls and rare salts the student of autobiography so often gets shells and sea-weed and cloudy water in the ocean where autobiographies are published. I hope this account furnishes more than sea-weed, more than shells. I hope those that walk along the beach of this autobiography find rare ocean delights of imperishable value. That is what I hope readers will find here. That is what I looked for in the autobiographies of the famous, the rich and the daring. But, they could not satisfy nor appease my hunger and, in the end, I got a small collection of beach detritus, smooth rocks, pieces of fish bone and coloured glass. Needing to be oceanographers, needing degrees in aquatic zoology or botany, needing a highly refined aesthetic sense, we so often have to settle for building sand castles in the sand and strolling casually along the beach with our brains addled by life’s minutiae, trying to find in the fresh salty air some new life for our souls. Needing more than the sun-warmed sand we seem to stand in our separate solitudes, strangers in so many ways to ourselves and to life itself. There is, it seems to me anyway, an irreconcilable gap between expectations and outcomes, at least in some areas of life. Sometimes, too, outcomes exceed the expectations; the ocean deeps contain specimens beyond our wildest imaginations. At the turn of the millennium this was actually the case. My hope is that this work will add to this special collection of specimens which oceanographers were truly finding in the dark depths of the ocean.
Let me make a general comment about aesthetics before going on. It seems to me that writers and poets, indeed all of us, need increasingly what might be called a "global aesthetic." While not wanting to go into the kind of detail that would lead to a separate book and while not wanting to provide even a cursory outline of advances in astronomical telescopes in particular and astronomy in general, perhaps as far back as the lives of the Central Figures of my Faith, I would like to make two or three general remarks here. At least since the beginning of the twentieth century it has been possible for the general public to be awed by the immensity and seeming lifelessness of the universe; one of the crucial implications of the technological developments that made this possible was a modernist human decentering and re-scaling of the place of man in the world of existence. It is as a result of this process that writers in recent times began to develop literary strategies, consciously and unconsciously, that responded to these developments. From a bounded universe to infinity on all sides has required an adjustment-to say the least.
General developments in astronomy and specific advances in telescopic technologies produced an intellectual and cultural environment that provided writers with possibilities for a radical rethinking of the social and political structures of their world. The aesthetic and intellectual implications are simply staggering and beyond the scope of this memoir to elaborate to any significant degree. The Bahá’í Order and its entire concept of administration had its embryonic development during this massive reordering of conceptual space and time in our universe.
Edwin Hubble's 1923 photograph of the spiral nebula Andromeda, which offered a conclusive answer to the question of whether or not the universe extended beyond the Milky Way, was made available in the first two years that Shoghi Effendi assumed the mantle of his Guardianship. Hubble's work extended the boundaries of the universe and lead to the conclusion that this already vast universe was expanding at an incredible rate. As Hubble's work reached the general public, it sparked a growing interest in astronomy and cosmology, evidenced by the growing popularity of the Mount Wilson Observatory as a bustling tourist attraction.
To return to the theme: sometimes both in life and in reading(surely that is a false dichotomy) I found that I had simply no expectations at all. When young, for example, I simply had no idea what to expect from the trip of life that was in store for me. I took what came my way. Often it is best not to have expectations. But much of the time they are unavoidable. I hope the tree of your expectations, your longing, dear reader, does not yield the fruit of disappointment. I hope, too, that the fire of your hope does not become ashes as you search this autobiographical account for some helpful perspectives on your life and times. I hope there is life here, perspectives of relevance.
May there be little of the kind of life that begins in romance and high hopes, like that of Deborah-Kerr’s and Burt Lancaster’s tryst on the sand in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, and ends, as so much of romance does end, in sadness and the dashing of hopes. 1953 was a big year for me, too, and for the narrative at the centre of this autobiography. But my romance, at least back then, had nothing to do with the erotic and everything to do with an idea. I hope readers are enticed after a short read of this autobiography. May they put the book down to cook their evening meal, work in the garden, watch that movie or attend to their many responsibilities and pick it up again with enthusiasm. That would indeed give me pleasure. I can but hope.
The wonder of this age is that it has become so varied, so rich, so full of change and movement and of novelty that it seems to stand in little need of what I have written here. The great books of history, too, for the most part stand unread by the hapless millions as they read another 'how-to' book, the latest 'therapy manual,' or some magazine of their choice before browsing through the local paper or, perhaps, some advertising leaflets placed in their mailbox. Ironically, at the same time, more history gets read than ever before. There is more print passing over the eyes of the human community than ever before in history. Whether that will include this work of mine, time will tell. Of course, with six billion on earth now and three billion when I just entered the influences of this new movement in 1953, there are more people doing just about everything.
Our age provides that cornucopia of stuff, intense, engrossing, distracting, mundane, secular and spiritual, material to refine and elaborate our pleasures. In many ways it is easier now to be happy. Pleasantness is scattered everywhere. But so, too, is there horror, anxieties and uncertainties. It is also easier to be sad, easier to have a tragic end, easier to starve to death. And there are more autobiographies than ever before. After ten more years of writing and note-gathering, building on the first edition of this autobiography, I felt I had a second edition. I had altered my basic narrative only slightly, but I had built up a supporting structure of material that analysed autobiography as a genre. I had a helpful resource of literally hundreds of thousands of words. I was ready for another assault on this enigmatic, subtle and, I find, elusive act of writing one’s story. The elusiveness lies in finding some quintessence of story, some essential meaning that one can give to one’s experience or, as T.S. Eliot puts the idea in his poem The Dry Savages:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern,
and ceases to be a mere sequence-
Or even development.(lines 85-87)
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.(lines 93-96)
Some of this elusiveness, this curious creature, that is a person's life is described by Emily Dickinson in the following poem:
The Past is such a curious Creature
To look her in the Face
A transport may receipt us
Or a Disgrace--
Unarmed if any meet her
I charge him fly
Her faded Ammunition
Might yet reply.
I look on this curious creature, the past, with much more humour and dispassionateness than once I did and I seek the ‘reply’ of that ‘Ammunition.’ The nostalgia I have often come across for 'the good old days' distorts the real harshness of the past. There is, too, a fascination for the incredible story of the evolution of man and his communities. Perhaps what I have written here in this fifth edition is the start of the release of that 'Ammunition' that Dickinson refers to. "The world is," as Horace Walpole wrote back in 1776 at the outset of the American Revolutionary War, "a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel." It can also be a rich tapestry to those without an historical sense and don't tend to think about history, but that tapestry must be composed of threads from other domains of human experience.
The words of George Orwell about one’s experience as a writer are pertinent here. “One difficulty I have never solved,” writes Orwell, “is that one has masses of experience which one passionately wants to write about and no way of using them up except by disguising them as a novel.” So Orwell gives me some of my rational for this autobiographical work.
As I passed the age of sixty and approached 70(in less than 12 months as I write this) I see much more of the comedy, the subtlety and the complexity of the human narrative than I once did; the serious tragedy that I once saw in life has been softened, ameliorated, but not entirely eliminated, with the years. Humanity's collective adolescence and the momentous transition of our time have brought and are bringing crises and turmoil on an unprecedented scale amidst a torrent of conflicting interests. I look, too, at this curious creature the past, and in particular the forty years of pioneering that is at the heart of this story, as Hosein Danesh put it in an essay he once wrote on the subject, as part of the outstanding contribution to the history of the unity of the world that is the Bahá'í pioneering activity. But it is an outstanding contribution that I have only just begun to understand and one the world, as yet, knows nothing of at all.
In some ways the truths associated with pioneering give substance to a concept of truth expressed in a history text, Making Sense of Modern Times: "Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its truth is an event or process. Truth is provisional and changing." I'm sure this is part of truth's relativity. And, of course, there is much more. Emerson wrote in his essay "The Poet" that half of what makes human beings is their expression. For me that expression is, significantly, the written word. Writing and artistic expression in general, Emerson concludes, is an ability confined to a few. I think that is true of writing, although people express their creative bents in a wide variety of ways.
Donald Horne, Australian social critic, suggests that we reserve autobiography "for books that are primarily concerned with the changes, surprises and shifting around of the self." Perhaps he will add my book to his list. For there has been much shifting and many changes and surprises insofar as the self, myself, is concerned and much else during these four epochs. I hope he would not consider my work an 'autoglorification.' There have been continuities in the midst of the ups-and-downs, the crises and the victories. Like A.B. Facey in his autobiographical work, A Fortunate Life, there has been a continuous core to my experience that has remained unchanged despite the changes and challenges from life. No matter how continuous and how shifting, I'm sure there will be some who will wish I had devoted this work to, say, an animal autobiography. Tess Cosslett, of Lancaster University, in his article Subjectivity and Ethics in Animal Autobiography: Black Beauty and Others, discusses the use made of the autobiographical genre by humans about their animals.
Given the enthusiasm in our culture for pets many, after they have sampled this narrative, may wish that my account was about one or several of the cats in my life, the many dogs or horses that crossed my path, or the birds, the fish or any one of the host of animals that became part of my life since I was a child and which David Attenborough and others have colourfully presented to my eyes and mind over the years. For many, especially those who seem to love animals more than humans, I’m sure would prefer my own story was left right out, although it is unlikely that such a person would ever pick up this narrative and try it on for size anyway.
There is little reference to animals at all in this story, although I did have a cat around the house off and on from about the age of ten until the age of fifty. And, interestingly, I became quite fond of cats, spent much time in their company, particularly because I was often up at night when everyone was in bed but the cat. Details about my experiences with cats and with dogs, other peoples' who provided an unpleasant musical background on many of my evening walks in many towns I lived in, the occasional bird, animal menageries, visits to zoos, aqua-marines, inter alia, I virtually ignore because, if nothing else, their significance in my life has been negligible. If, though, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, stories repeated about others are seldom good, a silent tongue is safest," perhaps it would have been better to write more about the animals in my life and less about myself, at least for those animal lovers. The same argument could be made about plants and minerals, insects and vegetation, although that is a more complex argument and I will leave that for later.
Indeed, as I try to place this Baha’i, this pioneering, experience, 1953-2007, into some context, I'd like to draw on the writings of Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History, Vol.2 which was first published in 1934 as Bahá'í Administration was taking its initial form in several countries around the world. Toynbee quotes the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who concluded his essay Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences with the observation that "the arts and sciences, like some plants, require a fresh soil; and, however rich the land may be, and however you may recruit it by art or care, it will never, when once exhausted, produce anything that is perfect or finished in the kind. Toynbee is the great historian of the inevitable global political unification process, of the world becoming, as novelist Lawrence Durrell put it: “one place.” For some reason, for many reasons, in August 1962, on the eve of my pioneering venture I felt quite exhausted or should I say I felt a sense of the tedious, the tedium of the environment, the environment in which I had lived for the previous dozen years in my childhood and adolescence. It was the environment where I was in the porch-swing of my first bones, where I had first settled into myself and my life and where I stared out at the world with a complex mix of awe, boredom, confusion and psychological hunger.
So much of the I who was then is now forgotten and dismembered. I escaped or became imprisoned by a natural and obscure process and entered another world. I am deaf to the sounds of that world. I listen for them now, but they are silent. I collect fragments from that world, so many bits and pieces, fly and swim in some place at the back of my brain or perhaps it is the front. They’ve mapped the brain since I was young. Even now I have lost yesterday and the day before. They slip away. It all becomes a series of isolated vignettes, vivid as hypnagogic visions. Great winds over decades have blown my past away in gusts, in little breezes, leaving patches and parts of my history and pre-history, like a patchwork quilt that has not yet been made. No wonder I want to remember, to follow a thread back into those years, to search for something I already know but have forgotten I know. I listen not “to” but “for.” Women's writing has been said to be fragmentary, put together out of pieces, as a quilt, for instance, is created out of scraps, placed in careful relation to one another. I feel this way about my work here.
By 1962, then, my bones hankered for a fresh soil. I needed to move on, to travel, to see the world, what young people have been doing extensively since the late eighteenth century. Each generation in the twentieth century seemed to travel more; the generation that came of age in the 1960s made a quantum leap out into the world. While we leaped, or at least after I leaped, after forty years of leaping, I tried to convey something of the nature of the leap and of the conventional life that occupied the ground-tone of my days. For no matter how much the music varies, there is always a ground-tone of conventionality, like some sort of glue that helps keep us from being unstuck. And having been unstuck several times, I am more than a little conscious of the importance of stuckness, of conventionality.
Toynbee draws on the mythology of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, among the many sources he draws on, to discuss the stimulus of new ground. I want to draw on this same mythology as I try to place this pioneering venture into a fitting context. Toynbee writes that in their removal out of the magic garden into the workaday world, Adam and Eve transcend the food-gathering, the hunting and gathering, economy of "Primitive Mankind and give birth to the fathers of an agricultural and a pastoral civilization. In their exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel….give birth to a generation which helps to lay the foundations of the Syriac Civilization in taking possession of the Promised Land." Such is part of the symbolic significance of, arguably, the first pioneers.
I argue here, and it has insensibly become my conviction with the years, that Bahá'í pioneers around the world are helping to erect, in ways they are quite unable to conceive or understand, the nucleus and pattern of a future world Order. It is not an agricultural and pastoral civilization they are building but, rather, a global civilization. The Promised Land they are taking possession of for the Lord of Hosts, the blessed Person of the Promised One, they do so as part of a heavenly army and the land is the entire planet. Just as the highest expression of the civilization that the Israelites represented was to be found on new ground--in the land of Israel--so, too, does the international pioneer in this embryonic global civilization find the highest, the finest expression, the fruit of his own life, in the place he has taken up root, the new soil.
This autobiography is not born out of the pain of exile, alienation or some metaphysical homelessness, as is so often the case with autobiographies. Rather, it is born out of what you might call the restorative power of narration, out of a writing process that transforms through a general autobiographical impulse, an impulse that creates a certain reportage, that documents a life, a self-story and a time, that serves as a symptomatic or transfigurative symbolization of an experience, an experience that looks like it is going to last the rest of my life. It is born, too, out of a series of certain kinds of symbolic markers and consummations that have defined where I have been in relation to others in my life, both living and dead, that have served as signposts helping me to make sense of my life in terms of place and time and to help give it a coherent narrative shape in spite of the many disorienting, fragmenting, effects of experience. For the project of one's survival and growth, the contribution to self and society and one's meaning and purpose all have a place in time and space. And place, unlike a consumer product, has an organic component, a history, an ecosystem, and a social body, that inevitably shapes the form and social character, the person in that place. This project must be understood in its temporal and spacial dimensions, in addition to whatever metaphysical and ideological abstractions underpin the whole exercise.
Some may find this context in which I attempt to place this international pioneering story a little too lofty or pretentious, a little too over-the-top as it is said these days. And that is an understandable reaction, especially for those who interpret life in terms of some local landscape, some local region with family, job and garden occupying centre stage. In the bewildering range of autobiographical writing now on show some tell their stories in terms of geography and the nation-state, their homeland, some in terms of their family and career, others in terms of their private interests and hobbies, and still others as an expression of their religious, political or social commitments.
I have always seen my life in terms of some big picture, some metanarrative, some global story. I feel this international pull and have felt it since my teens. It grew on me insensibly in the 1950s and early 1960s. I see what I write as part of a mosaic about a time when the world seemed to be shifting on its axis, when there was much impoverishment of life and much enrichment. What I write is shaped by narrative paradigms which I select, by a certain literary plotting, by ideological investments, by the caprices of memory and forgetfulness and by my own psychic needs. In the process of writing this autobiography I examine various forces at work in the pioneering process, the interplay of history and autobiography and the complex relationship between the autobiographer who lives in history and the narrative I construct regarding that history. There is, too, some of that nectar, that celestial life, that divine animal that allows the mind to flow, as Emerson said in one of his essays, "into and through things hardest and highest" and the intellect to be ravished "by coming nearer to the fact." By the time I was writing the fourth edition of this autobiography my "habit of living was," as Emerson called it, "set on a key so low that the common influences" delighted me. I hope the result for readers will be some evidence of a satisfying interplay of observation, wit, and insight. One can but hope.
As a child, like virtually everyone else I knew or did not know in the 1950s, local activity filled my daily life. My imagination played all over this world and at its fringes. There were then, as there are now, many whose life occupied some central pivot around things beside the private, the personal and the familial. Over these last five decades the vast majority of people whom I have come to know, outside the Bahá'í community that has been the great milieux, the great centrepiece of my own life, have had an individual ethos, a milieux, a reason d'etre, you might even call it a religion, that is a composite of: job, family, home and garden and a set of interests, hobbies and activities to occupy them as pleasantly as possible in life's space and give it meaning. I have mentioned this before and I will mention it again because it was such a pervasive part of what you might call the social and philosophical part of the environment of my life, of what was the quintessentially conventional core of existence at the mundane level. Some might call it the individualist ethos and it is all part of a fragmented, decentred world, a world of perceptual immediacy in an essentially complex, visual culture of interrelations and interconnections. One historian goes so far as to suggest that in our study of the past stories should not always be the raison d’etre or the modus operandi. Given the fact that the past is, in fact, a fragmented landscape of data, of perceptual immediacy, a landscape that pre-exists any stories, then the autobiographer does not have to centre his entire thesis on story; data can be equally important. In the long term, the longue duree, this narrative may achieve some importance simply in terms of the factual data, the facticity of the whole thing. But, no matter how much data and fact readers will find here there are ample quantities of the tentative, the hypothetical and reservations heaped high.
I often recreate images of those halcyon days in the 1950s but by 1962 a new set of continuities were forming around beliefs and a new community. My identity was reforming around a whole new set of relations between home, culture, intellectual tradition and nationality, marriage and landscape, career and the profound changes associated with movement to new places, what Bahá'ís had called 'pioneering' for some twenty-five years by 1962. In the wider society, a nomadic, voluntary and concentrated movement had developed in my late childhood and adolescence, the 1950s. It was expressed as a form of intellectual wandering—the Beat Generation—which widened to involve youth throughout the Western world. It is not by chance that the sacred text of this nomadism, a nomadism of refusal, was Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was a book that celebrated the epic of the hobos and the diversity of their roaming. And it filtered into my psyche insensibly so that by the mid-sixties, by the time I was an adult at 21 I too wanted to get out on the road.
"I walked along the tracks in the long sad October light of the valley, hoping for an SP freight to come along so I could join the grape-eating hobos and read the funnies with them," wrote Kerouac. His book is about the pleasure of movement, the aesthetics of hitch-hiking, hanging around as a style of life, in trains, buses, trucks, bus stations. Why we do things is , of course, a complex question but my decision to pioneer in the 1960s had its roots in a number of sources of which this Beat Generation, it seems logical to conclude, was one. I certainly did a great deal of hitch-hiking beginning in 1960 and ending in 1980. These experiences could fill a book in themselves. They were safe days for hitch-hiking and only people like Andre Brugiroux continued the habit all around the world.
Over the years I felt a Babel of my multiple selves being created and writing this autobiography is, in part, an attempt to harmonize these voices, to thread the maze of the past into some tapestry of colour and shape, some guiding ideal of a singularly construed self, some coherent autobiography. The self as a unified, stable, entity existing through time, is a traditional autobiographical perspective that, while I have been pioneering since the 1960s, has been unravelled, critiqued and debunked by many theorists of autobiography. Like the land I walk on, my self is an even more changing, a more unstable and indefineable entity, because it is ultimately associated with the soul. The self, of course, appears to the senses as a fixed form. Writing this autobiography is as much a cognitive self-reconstruction as it is a performative act. But it is not a fiction, not a giving face; it is, rather, a document of self-exploration and self-defence, a document of catharsis and elaboration. It is also what Emerson said was a characteristic of the poet: being inflamed and carried away by thought and heeding my dream which holds me "like an insanity."
The Bahá'í Faith, in the course of my pioneering venture, became what America was to Emerson, a poem. It gave me a departure from routine, from a life path with the normalities and predictabilities of a kid in southern Ontario from the lower middle class. It gave to me an emotion that touched my intellect and sapped my conventional enthusiasms. An upheaval occurred in my sensibility, an upheaval that resulted in a new, a fresh perspective, on life, on living. Its ample vision dazzled my imagination. My art, my writing, became the path by which I defined "the work." With Emerson, too, I doubt not "but persist." The impressions of the actual world do seem to fall, as Emerson put it in the final paragraph of his essay on "The Poet," like summer rain washing the lines of this narrative account. As they fall I invent my now from my gaze in transit, a gaze that not only sees, but critically reads the time, historical and personal, in which my life is inserted. I then extract from this experience a new horizon for my vision.
The wider society in which I live gives little recognition to the world view which I feel and think about, although the global nature of society, the ethic of one world that is part and parcel of the Bahá'í teachings is quickly and confusedly making its appearance as the decades spin by insensibly and sensibly. The wider society, for the most part, has virtually no conception of the contribution that I and my coreligionists are making. What I do, I do virtually entirely in an obscurity that is, thusfar, virtually impenetrable, although the rise from this obscurity has been taking place slowly over these epochs. I find it interesting, somewhat surprising, but partly predictable, given the pattern that has repeated itself in the story of western civilization going back to the Israelites, that religious pioneers have "transformed themselves" but "continued to live in obscurity." In the case of these same Israelites this obscurity lasted for, perhaps, seven or eight centuries. I see myself as one of a second generation, during the years 1962 to 1987, of international pioneers. The first generation of pioneers occupied the years from just before my parents met in the late 1930s and continued until I was in my matriculation year at high school.
If the work I do has taken place largely in obscurity it is hardly surprising, as I have just said, given that the Israelites lived in an equal if not greater obscurity for over 700 years in the land they moved to as pioneers. Actually and ironically, I see my life and its significance largely as one that has seen a gradual coming out of obscurity or, as the Universal House of Justice put it in 2002, a "continuing rise from obscurity." It is difficult to judge either my own life or that of the Bahá'í Faith in the long term "before the play is done," as Frances Quarles once wrote. Although I take account of my life every day, and have for years, it is impossible to judge one's ultimate achievement or lack thereof. The ultimate achievement of this Faith I have been associated with for fifty years, though, is rich with promise. There has certainly been, for these several decades, these epochs, a process of coming out of obscurity both for me and for the Bahá'í Faith, but so much of the inner experience one has as a Baha’i, at least in so many of the pioneer places I have lived since 1962, is one of the relative obscurity of the Movement I am associated with.
Perhaps the years I taught in high schools and post-secondary schools in Australia, 1972 to 1999, saw a personal rise from obscurity take place in my life. More than half my life now has been lived as an overseas pioneer, from the age of twenty-seven to sixty. More recently the rise out of obscurity is taking a different form through my writing; perhaps my late adulthood and old age will see in this creative field what the House of Justice called this "continuing rise from obscurity" The expression "continuing rise from obscurity" is an apt one for both my own life and the life of this Cause. In so many ways, I have come to see my life and the life of the Cause as obverse, like opposite sides of the same coin, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá once described the relationship between this life and the next.
The character of individuals rises and falls with the roles, activities, practices and customs that make them social animals. And so it is that this book, this story, will inevitably dwell on the web of relations that have cultivated and educated me. It will dwell on the circumstances of my time and my religion, my family and my profession, and how they bear on my social identity, on the psychological glue that holds me and especially my religious community together. It is not my purpose here to dwell on the many theories of identity, it is rather to provide a sense of myself as a person, a story I believe in and am committed to. But however important all of these ideas are, this autobiography is not essentially a work in psychology; nor is it a work in sociology, history or literature. It is a compendium and as such may not satisfy those who want a depth of perspective deriving from one or more of these social sciences.
The distinctions of personal merit and influence are tempered but still conspicuous in any Bahá'í community. We are not, of course, aware of all these distinctions. Many of them are feeble and obscure. Others are brighter than the noonday sun. Most of humanity is not conscious of the abilities and talents of others who cross their paths. Indeed, we all wear differently constituted blinders for various reasons of time and circumstance. So it was that there were many, if not most, whom I scarcely appreciated, to whose true virtues and talents I was insensible. The severe subordination of rank and office, which often pertains in societies that raise egalitarianism to unrealistic and undesirable heights of value, which do not see equality for what it is, a chimera, was not characteristic of this community which recognized a wide range of statuses and roles resulting from talent and appointment, election and loyalty, mature experience and selfless devotion.
So it was, therefore, that I came to be more than a little conscious of the very real abilities of people I came to know as a result of seeing them week after week in their homes, their lounge-rooms, seeing them serve tea and chat with the wide variety of humanity that were present in any community of even a few souls. So, too, did familiarity often dull or prevent my appreciation of the true worth of many of the friends and associations who were part of my life in this incredibly diverse community in the last half century. Wittgenstein put this experience of familiarity this way: "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity."
The psychological synchronicity required for relationships to achieve any harmony, I had mastered perhaps as early as my twenties and this attitude helped me all my life. But there was so much else required for the battles of life than the application of this somewhat simple concept to relationships. And there was always, to some extent, an inevitable degree of tension in inter-relationships.
Bahá'u'lláh says in a prayer for assistance, assistance for both the individual and the Cause: "Guide me then in all that pertaineth to the exaltation of Thy Cause and the magnification of the station of Thy loved ones." Life brings out in our experience, it would appear, events which 'magnify our stations' and events which 'draw away and hinder' us from 'approaching Thy court.' The battle, it also appears, does not end in this earthly life. For, ultimately, all the battles in life are within and so they have been all my life, no matter what the external war: WW2, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and the Middle East, the war on poverty, aids and starvation, an aggressive secularism and a multitude of others that have dotted the landscape of my life since 1944. Much of our inner battle, of course, we never see. That, it seems to me, is only natural. This autobiography tells as much the inner story of self as it does the documentation of actual experience, and little of those external wars I have just referred to above.
So many events, or appearances, or accidents, which seemed to deviate from the ordinary course of nature were often rashly ascribed to the immediate action of the Deity or the will of God, as I found it so often expressed by my coreligionists or other believers on other religious paths. The credulous fancy of the multitude often gives some theistic contour to the shape and colour, language and motion, to the fleeting, common and sometimes uncommon events of daily life. I found myself disinclined to attribute such events to the direct intervention to the Central Orb of the universe. Conscious as I was, very early in my Bahá'í experience, certainly by 1962 at the age of eighteen, of the several protocols of Bahá'í piety; stranded as I so often was on uncertainty both before and after trying to enter that rare Presence--as I attempted to do in prayer; giving expression to a skepticism which was part of the very spirit of my age, I was a humble petitioner, or so I tried to be, who was often joyless and empty-handed. A loss of that innocence and exaltation was also mine as was a sense of the knowingness of my knowledge. Prayer often provided what Shakespeare said it could, in words he put in the mouth of Prospero in the last lines of the Epilogue of his last play, The Tempest:
My ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As far as my life is concerned, I feel a little like Mark Twain who wrote: "I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to get on paper yet….I believe that if I should put in all or any of those incidents I have felt in my life I should be sure to strike them out when I revise the book." Twain's hyperbole is delightful here and, although I can only think of several incidents that caused me to feel a sense of intense and prolonged shame, incidents that one could argue are worthy of recording in an intimate autobiography, I, like Twain, would strike them out here, if indeed I had included them at all in my first edition 12 years ago. Most of the incidents that caused me to experience a sense of shame, were brief, short verbal exchanges, remembered for perhaps a few days, a few months or even a few years, but are now lost to my memory, and thankfully so, in the sands of time.
"The tongue," as Bahá'u'lláh said in a richly textured and profound passage, "is a smouldering flame." "Excess of speech," He went on, "is a deadly poison," and I have had more than my several drops over what is now six decades of life. Some of these shame-causing incidents involved the erotic inclination, or the concupiscible appetite as Baha’u’llah called it, and readers have these incidents to look forward to the chapters ahead. This autobiography is not intended as an unburdening or baring of my soul. There is some psychotherapy here; there is also some history which is awakened, as Toynbee notes in the opening sentence of his final volume of A Study of History, "by the mere experience of being alive." I engage in some confessionalism but, it seems to me, it is a moderate amount relative to the great quantity that could be given the light of day. Some readers, I anticipate, will regard the confessionalism they read in the pages ahead as far from moderate; others will say 'he has not gone far enough!' Of course, confession also means a statement of belief, and this aspect is reflected throughout this work in more ways than some readers might care to come across. In addition, confession means a statement of praise. In his Confessions Augustine constantly gives praise to the God who mercifully directed his path and brought him out of misery and error. In essence, the Confessions is one long prayer. While this is not true of my autobiography there are certainly many notes of praise.
But I write what I do about my personal battle, its failings and its successes, because, as Elizabeth Rochester once wrote in her personal letter to Canadian pioneers overseas in 1981, "I believe we Bahá'ís need to know that we all experience the effects of the world around us and we all are vulnerable to stress when things are different from what we are used to. Bahá'u'lláh knows it is hard work. We overlook what is there! We are not called upon to deny the existence of faults or to pretend that we don't know they are there." Elizabeth shares some of her thoughts about acknowledging our sinfulness. "How will we learn from one another," she goes on, "if we are not open enough to acknowledge the process between the discomfort and the joy?" If I do not let others know that I struggle and have struggled in the same way that they must struggle, Elizabeth concludes, will they have the courage to try, to endure, to be steadfast until the victories come? Such is the spirit within which much of what I have written in the struggle department is included. Failures, like successes, are part of the very clay of life. Guilt, shame, loss and feelings of incompetence and inadequacy are built into the fabric of my life, all our lives and readers will hear some of my cry, my admissions, my confessionalism, in the pages ahead.
If, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes, "stories repeated about others are seldom good, a silent tongue is safest," and "even good may be harmful if spoken at the wrong time and to the wrong person," then I am sure to cause offence to some in the course of this book. So......I will get the apologies out of the way right now. Autobiography is an art that can open the passage from feeling to meaning. It can be a detonator of intellect and will in its attempt to translate the intensity of the life of human beings through a play with the familiar, deal with both the ordinary and the deeply felt. I'd like to think I give to readers a great narrative achieving what great narratives are supposed to achieve: provide a background readers can understand, present a character readers can believe in and care about, provide an adventure and tell a story in which something surprising and yet partly inevitable occurs, which moves readers, makes them question things they believe in and fills their emotional selves. That's what I'd like to think. I don't think I achieve all these things. Few stories, narratives, novels, books, autobiographies, do. I please myself here and, in the process, I hope to please a few readers. I try to provide what Canadian poet Ken Norris says contemporary poets do not yet achieve: a unifying vision. I try to do, too, what T.S. Eliot confessed that writers should do. “Meaning,” he wrote, “is the bone you throw a reader while you do your real work upon him.” I suppose this raises the question ‘what is my real work?’ I will leave that to the reader to assess as he or she plows through the next seven hundred and fifty pages.
I'd like to return to a few more comments from Arnold Toynbee on the strength of the impression, the affect on the receptivity, the vividness, of historical circumstances. I have been reading Toynbee from time to time now for forty years and what he writes is so often pertinent to this autobiography. Toynbee says that the affects, the strength, of the impact of historical circumstances is "apt to be proportionate to their violence and their painfulness." When the process of civilization is "in full swing," he goes on, then "a thousand familiar experiences" constantly make us aware of our "goodly heritage." At the same time, one can not help feel, from time to time, that the customs and sanctions of civilization "constitute a thin veneer over our baser instincts." Whether our civility derives from guilt, shame or religious proclivity in this age, these early epochs of the Formative Age, it is a civility that slips to the edge and barbarism so often takes its place.
The Universal House of Justice put it a little differently, but in the same vein, by saying that we should "take deep satisfaction from the advances in society." As these epochs moved insensibly through the decades of my pioneering experience more and more people seemed to sink into a slough of despond and were "troubled by forecasts of doom." I, too, and the Bahá'í community were deeply aware of the dark heart we were travelling through, but there were always those deep satisfactions in the progress we had made as a society. The Bahá'í Faith also leads ultimately to an optimism regarding the future of humanity but the process of getting to that distant 'golden age' is fraught with problems with which we must struggle. And so the optimism is liberally coated with realism. With the years, then, I have become more than a little sensitive to those "professional optimists" whom Thomas Hardy spoke of with skepticism and who "wear too much the strained look of the smile on the skull." Perhaps it was the smile of shyness, embarrassment, of not knowing quite what to say in the heterogeneous social situations increasingly demanded of people in groups. Perhaps it was the smile that fills the gap between real love and interest and that which has to be generated in social contexts in order to survive. Perhaps it was more of a temperamentally asocial tendency, a preference for privacy over interaction with people. The passion for privacy which increased as middle adulthood became late adulthood was an important part of the society that nourished me. In fact, if you could hear the sound of that passion, it would be deafening.
By the time my first memories were taking form in this earthly life, in 1947 and 1948, radio was in the first years of its second quarter century and TV was just starting out on its journey for the masses after twenty years of technological development. My parents were in their teens and twenties when they listened to their first radio programs in the 1920s; my grandfather was in his fifties back in that roaring decade. These two mediums brought an immense quantity of historical impressions into my life and the lives of millions in the fifty-seven years that constitute my present memory-bank: 1948-2005. In fact, I was a member of that first generation that enjoyed television, radio, newspapers and magazines, computers and satellite communication all together, as the basis of a continual swill from a print and electronic media that was our lot. And we came to enjoy much more: jet travel, flights in space, a cornucopia of gadgets and devices, a host of technological conveniences that resulted from advances in the physical and biological sciences. They all seem to have come trundling into our lives at different points in the first century of this Formative Age, as Bahá'í administration was spreading out over the planet, especially after 1953 when this Kingdom of God, this "most wonderful and thrilling motion" appeared.
There is, as Toynbee noted in that same eleven volumes of history, "an automatic stimulus from the social milieux in which a human being grows up and in which he continues to live and work as an adult." But in 1952 for a full three quarters of the human race, on the eve of my first contact with that revolutionary force that was and is the Bahá'í Faith, history signified nothing. It was "full of sound and fury," but it had little to no meaning outside the family and the local community. This picture changed rapidly in the next half century. It is difficult to summarize the affect here but, suffice it to say, that the quantity of information that poured into the eyes, the ears and the minds of increasing numbers of human beings left the educated portion of the human race--and the uneducated--swimming in a sea of ideas, events and information. Of course, even as the new millennium came upon us, half the world was still illiterate and had a minimal access to electronic media. But the global scene was changing fast. As we strove to be more precise, even fastidious and scientific in our language, the world got more complex; people used language casually and so inexactly. We became much more conscious of ambiguity even as we tried to strip language of its poetic allusions, its vagueness. I say this because, however precise I try to be about my life and times, I can not avoid the consequences of the ambiguous, the complex and the inexactitude of language and life. If we want to be precise perhaps Arabic should be the lingua franca.
It required a creative stirring of curiosity, a voyage of intellectual exploration, a response to the challenge of the great complexity of history, society and life to make the writing of this autobiography an experience similar to that of the excavator of the treasures buried in the Second City of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann. "It is not from any feeling of vanity," Schliemann wrote in trying to explain the origins of his personal story, "but from a desire to show how the work of my later life has been the natural consequence of the impressions I received in my earliest childhood." This intellectual exploration into my early days is, like Schliemann's, part of my effort to show the interconnections of my life and its wholeness. Although I appreciate the importance of the contribution of these early childhood years to my life, I do not dwell on them unduly. They are but one of my chief exhibits or foci, as I try to lay a foundation of understanding for myself and, if all goes well, for some readers. I might add, though, that it is not only my early life but my early adult life and middle adult life that has laid and is now laying the foundation for what lies ahead. It is all, in the end, an integrated circuit of time and space. This is not to say that there were not forces which profoundly influenced my educational and professional pedigree, the constellation of my interests and abilities. Entrenched in discourses of difference, otherness, nature and nurture I could describe these forces in great detail. I would like to say a few things about the period of infancy, though, before I pass on to the later periods of my life. Given its importance for later life I feel the following few paragraphs are warranted.
In the study of our lives, our memoirs and autobiographies, we often ignore those small creatures who do not seem to hold out much scholarly promise in the ethnographic imagination. At a theoretical level babies constitute for most of those who do write about their lives in detail a non-subject, occupying negative space that is virtually impervious to the anthropological gaze. In some ways this is understandable given that hardly anyone remembers anything from the first two or three years of their lives, years that constitute infancy. Moreover, those studies that do privilege infants have been sidelined from mainstream conversations in the social and behavioural studies, like cultural anthropology, sociology and ethnography, indeed, most academic disciplines.
Infants still occupy, then, a marginal place in academic literature and in autobiographies. Early childhood usually gets only a passing nod while middle and late childhood get a more deserving place. The ethnography of infants, to put it bluntly, is still in its infancy. Discussion of the social matrix of children’s lives at their earliest stages, though, appears to be developing rapidly in several fields of the social and behavioural sciences. From the early work of Philip Ari`es in 1962, history and sociology are especially fertile grounds and signal encouraging paths for emerging discussions of children as culturally situated. The field of psychohistory also emerging in recent decades, coincidentally in the decades of my pioneering life, also offers much potential.
Developmental psychologists routinely define ‘‘infancy’’ rather strictly as the period encompassing birth to the onset of ‘‘toddlerhood,’’ which in their definitions normatively begins at the age of two years. The transition from the end of the second year to the beginning of the third is taken by psychologists as a benchmark of the latest date at which the young child begins to understand and respond to linguistic communication and can walk effectively without constantly falling. There is much I could add here about my infancy. Perhaps at a later date I will do so. It seems to me that this is a useful place to add a few remarks about the period of time in my family up to my birth in 1944.
The beginnings of my own history and my family history I can only trace back to the last twenty-eight years of the nineteenth century when my grandparents on my mother's side were born in England in the 1870s. My father was born in 1895, at the beginning of the last stage of the heroic age, the beginning of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry. I can hypothesize that my great-grandparents were born in the 1840s and 1850s at the beginning of the heroic age, but further investigation of the origins and development of my family would have to take place to decide on a date. Studies of modern history have various beginning points: 1517, 1789 and the 1840s/50s. It is not my purpose to provide a secular history here. Such a history is found in so many other sources and places.
When the Bab declared his mission, then, in 1844 my great-great-grandparents had been born and in the 1840s and 1850s they gave birth to my great-grandparents. It was these men and women who married and from these unions my grandparents were born. My grandfather on my mother’s side was born in 1872 and my grandmother on my mother’s side in 1877. On my father’s side, such dates await future genealogical investigation.
As far as I know, I was extracted out of a fine, kind, energetic, religious and wise--all in various measures depending on which grandparent one is examining and who is doing the examining—stock. When the name Price and its root, Rhys, first emerged before the Norman Conquest and follows a complex and circuitous route through the centuries. But it is not my intention to indulge in any historical study of my family and its name in the history of the Celts, of Wales or of Ireland and the several main strands of its genealogy.
It was in Wales where both my grandparents on my father’s side lived, as far as I know(and I know very little), in 1895 and operated a pub in Martyr-Tydville. In London in 1895 my grandparents on my mother's side were just about to meet, to marry and move to Canada in their twenties.
The heroic age, at least the part occupying the period 1844 when Babi history begins to 1877 when Baha’u’llah’s confinement within the prison walls of Akka was terminated, was clearly the period in which my grand-parents on both my mother’s and father’s side were born. My great-grandparents and great-great grandparents lived significant portions of their lives in these first several decades of the heroic age. They were born in these early years of the history of this New Faith or in the days of Siyyid Kazim(1826-1843); my great-grand-parents had their children and these children grew into middle-aged adults as the heroic age came to an end. Perhaps at some future time I can study my family origins in this period. For now this short sketch must serve as a 'something is better than nothing' starting position and provides the briefest of sketches of the century or so, the general background, to my pioneering life in this new Faith.
A new calendar began in 1844 with the Bab and a new age. In some ways it is fitting that this autobiography deals very briefly with the first traces of my family origins in the 1840’s and 1850s. For that is the beginning of the Bahá'í Era. The autobiography which follows takes place in: the heroic age(1844-1921), the formative age(1921-2007) and for the most part 1953 and after. 1844 was also the year when Karl Marx wrote his first pages and the first message over a telegraph wire was also sent that year. But, as I said above, this is not a secular history. It is just a start to my own autobiography, a brief outline to provide a background to take my family history to the beginning of the history of the Faith which is such an integral part of my life.
In 1921 the Formative Age of the Baha’i Era began. The first epoch of this age, the years 1921 to 1944, were years of significant expansion and consolidation. The account of this process can be found elsewhere and it is not the purpose of this autobiographical account to outline even briefly this epoch. My purpose is, rather, to outline the developments within my own family as far as I am able, as far as my own interest and enthusiasm allow and as far as my sources provide me with a basis for description.
In 1921 my mother was 17 and my father 31. In all likelihood my father would have been a returned serviceman. My guess, and it is only a guess, however calculated, he would have left for the USA at some time in the early 1920s when millions left Wales due to the then economic depression. My mother and father had yet to meet and, in all likelihood did not meet until the late 1930s or very early 1940s: my guess is 1942, in the last years of the first epoch. In 1921, too, My grandfather, A.J. Cornfield, was just starting his own four-hundred page autobiography. His oldest daughter, Florence, would be married at the end of the 1920s. By 1921 my grandfather had been married for two decades. He would live on well into the second epoch of the Formative Age before he died in 1957. His wife, my grandmother, died in 1939. Five years later I was born, in the opening months of the second epoch.
An account of the inter-war years is available in the history books and I will make no attempt to go into any detail on the economic, social and political developments as they took place in the little more than two decades that make up this period. Most of the three dozen photographs that I still possess from this period show my mother or her sister Florence with friends at Hamilton Beach. By the end of the period, the epoch, in April 1944, my mother’s sister had three children and my mother’s brother two with one soon to arrive. So much for a few broad brush strokes. The term, the lost generation, is used for the period from the end of World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression, though in the United States it is used for the generation of young people who came of age during and shortly after World War I, alternatively known as the World War I generation. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, well known for their generational theory, define the Lost Generation as the cohorts born from 1883 to 1900, who came of age during World War I and the roaring twenties. In Europe, they are mostly known as the "Generation of 1914," for the year World War I began. In France, the country in which many expatriates settled, they were sometimes called the Génération au Feu, the "generation in flames."
In 1944, in the months before I was born and as the first epoch was coming to an end, my mother turned forty years of age and my father fifty-five. My grandfather was seventy-two. The war was in its last year. My mother had been raised by an agnostic father and a strongly theistic Christian mother. My father’s upbringing is completely unknown to me. But by the end of that first epoch in 1944 my parents had collected a rich reservoire of life’s experiences. My father had already been married once, had three children, and divorced. My mother did not marry until the last year of the first epoch. It seems to me that the general atmosphere was one of wanting to settle down with the quiet life. This working class family into which I was born had pub-owners and coal-miners on my father’s side and a shirt-cutter, a farmer and a manual worker on my mother’s side. One’s class identification has been a fashionable way of gaining an understanding, a lable, for a person. It’s a start for me too.
I do not know much about these twenty-three years of the first epoch and what my mother and father actually did. If I worked hard with my memory bank I might come up with an anecdote or two, but nothing comes readily to mind as I write these words. Perhaps at a later date I will be able to fill in some details here. My grandfather’s account, his memoir, breaks off in 1900 and with both my parents long gone I have little to go on to build up a sketch of this period. My father died in 1965 and my mother in 1978; my mother’s brother and sister and their spouses have also passed away. My cousins, the children of my mother’s brother and sister, are alive, but I have little interest in excavating my parents’ lives through these cousins.
One child survived from my father’s first marriage, a girl, but I have no idea what happened to her, where she is living and what she is doing. His two sons were killed in WWII. I was the last fruit of the lives of these two dear souls who brought me into being and sent me on into existence. During these two decades and more life seethed, steamed and was forever on the boil for Lilian and Fred as they both approached middle age or middle adulthood as developmental psychologists call the period beginning at forty. The details of their days back then will remain unknown, fragmented at best, formless, obscure, ephemeral, trivial. There is little I can make of a few fragments of the loose-knit material I do possess. To obtain more would be an onerous chore rather than a pleasant exertion. Any analysis of the two people who were my parents, in the period between the wars in that first epoch, would be calculation based on too much improbability, too much uncertainty, a gesture toward publicity with too few facts to support the gesture. I might come up with vivid, momentary insights, but I would have to pour them into a poorly formed receptacle; I would have to spin the yarn on a thread that is far too thin.
Virginia Woolf says that “if we cannot analyse these invisible presences, we know very little of the subject of our memoirs.” In the first epoch I have very little to go on to make for useful and genuine analysis. Any writing is largely futile, filled with hints and glances. The realm is enchanted; it belongs to me alone to do with what I desire. It is a bowl I can fill again and again, but the contents are hypothetical, shifting, unknown, possess little vertical thrust, just some linear perspective that informs us of little and contributes a small amount to our understanding. My inability to analyse my parents here may be a serious flaw in my overall work. I take some comfort in the words of William Carlos Williams in the introduction to his autobiography:
“Nine-tenths of our lives is well forgotten in the living. Of the part that is remembered, the most had better not be told: it would interest no one, or at least would not contribute to the story of what we ourselves have been.”
In the end I write largely for myself. The strangers who read this one day are an afterthought, although I hope not insignificant, not unimportant. Those that came before me are, in all likelihood , indifferent, although perhaps not entirely so. Perhaps those who have gone on take more interest in the subject that we can possibly be aware of in this life. I hope to make up for this dearth of data in the autobiography that follows Pioneering Over Four Epochs. Perhaps by examining myself more deeply I can examine others with greater understanding. One day I may return to this exercise of examining my own roots in this first epoch: 1921 to 1944 and have more to say that is useful.
The nine years covering this first stage of the second epoch were the years before my mother had contact with the Baha’i Faith. In 1953 I was nine years old and in grade four. My autobiographical work Pioneering Over Three Epochs completed in May 1993, with epilogue II completed in September 1994, made no attempt to describe the period before 1953. The first epoch of the Formative Age and the early years of the second epoch were simply unaccounted for. This brief statement, together with the several hundred words I have written on the first epoch, will bring the autobiography up to the year 1953. Although I am still not happy with the detail, I find the words of William Carlos Williams quite apt in this regard. They are quoted at the end of that last statement, the statement on the first epoch, and there is no need to repeat them here.
In the twelve to eighteen month period during which my mother first had contact with the Baha’i community(1952-3) the Baha’i Faith was pioneered to over one hundred additional countries. The story is an interesting one and can be read in other sources. No one in my family, as far as I know, had any knowledge of this Faith until my mother saw an ad in the paper for a fireside some time in 1952/3. I was eight or nine at the time and my mother forty nine. We had lived in our home in Burlington for three years and my father worked for the Roseland Country Club as a custodian with a wide range of responsibilities. My mother did not work at the time. I can not recall with any precision, but I think that major differences between my parents had begun to surface with respect to buying mining stock. We owned one of the first TVs on the block. I went to church occasionally with my mother and father. I recall going to the: United, Baptist, Anglican and the Catholic Church on one occasion. My memories of this period are again few and one day I hope to add to what I have written here by purusing the photographs I possess of this period and the memories which are slipping away from me quickly and need to be preserved.
The Canadian Baha’i community completed its first fifty years of history in 1948. I was four years old then. The American Baha’i community was fifty years old the year I was born. The Australian Baha’i community was twenty-three years old in 1944. Baha’i history for these early years, the years 1944 to 1953, can be pieced together through the letters of the Guardian to the USA, Australia and Canada. It is not my intention to go down this track at this stage of this ‘retrospective journal.’ Perhaps at a future time.
The mix of three souls who had a direct bearing on my life in the early years of the second epoch had come together in the early 1940s. My grandfather and my mother lived alone starting in 1939 when my grandmother died and my father joined them when he married my mother in 1943. My mother’s brother and sister had a secondary influence on me in these years. Although I know little about my parents in the years before I was born, as I have already pointed out, and little about my grandfather, I know enough to get some general characterization. My father, although a man of fifty, was a highly energetic man; my grandfather a remarkably well-read man and my mother, a woman of poetic-religious proclivities. These three influences arguably standout today as the three basic components of my personality structure.
In the years of the first epoch my father held a range of positions after coming to North America from Wales. In 1921 my father was, as I said above, 26 years old. He was employed by the US government in WWII in some secret service occupation and with the Otis-Fencin Company. I always got the impression as I was growing up that he worked in coal mining companies in Iowa and other mid-western states, but I never did confirm these facts about his career, his working life. He got married in the 1920s and had three children, two of whom were killed in WWII. At some time in the 1930s he woke up and found Emma, his wife, gone. His roots in Wales, in Martyr-Tydville, where his parents ran a pub were always obscure to me, as much then as now. I’ve always had the image of Welsh coal-miners in my mind’s eye as the central picture of my family on my father’s side in the nineteenth century. In all likelihood, unless I get back to Wales before I die, I shall never know.
I know a great deal about my mother’s side of the family, at least in her father’s line, due to his account of his life until 1900; but little is known about his life from 1900 to 1944, or my mother’s from her birth in 1904 to my birth in 1944. I know my grandfather was working as a shirt-cutter in 1921 and that by the late 1930s he had retired from the working world. Just after retirement his wife died. He continued living in the family home until the early years after WWII when he moved in with his eldest daughter, Florence.
My mother had left school by 1921 when she was seventeen. She held down various jobs with various boy-friends in the next twenty-three years. She worked as a door-to-door saleswoman for some time in the depression years and she had a nervous breakdown as well, which she treated by resting at home during the 1930s. She grew close to both her parents and I remember her often speaking with endearment regarding both her mother and father. From the age of seventeen to age forty I know remarkably little about the central woman in my life thusfar, a woman followed closely by my present wife in terms of longterm influence. Like my father, she could play the piano well and she often sang in choirs. She had some interest in the Oxford Group or Moral Rearmament as it was also called. She nearly got married once or twice or more, but the details I cannot recall. Perhaps I will return to these subjects at relevant places in this text.
Like the poet Coleridge I see myself as a solitary and gregarious person in varying measures, in the presence of a fascinating, an enigmatic, a reticent stranger who is striving to be understood. That stranger is myself. Although I can write about other people and other things, I write here about myself, the cri de coeur of the modern author. I feel a strong existential need for solitary experience, at least that became true by my 60s. I took an early retirement at 55 after 40 years of a high social component to my life. Like the need of the famous travel writer Paul Theroux for what he calls “solitary exercise” and who, therefore, goes in for bicycles, sails, and canoes and spends weeks in remote places by himself, I find life now, during the years of putting the final bits of meat on the bones of this autobiography, gives me a relatively solitary existence compared to my wall-to-wall “people years” up to 1999 or even the “partial people years” up to 2004. As I walk now past the patches of garden and tidy flower-beds one after another, street after street or along a beach or in the bush, there is always the feeling of humility before the very pervasiveness of it all, of existence’s burgeoning reality. I will always remember, too, walking the streets of so many towns these last 50 years. Sometimes I seemed to float along on the wings of thought; sometimes I was troubled by the events in my life and was weighted down by the load of thoughts and emotion for those “people years” came to be occupied with a different agenda which I shall describe later in this narrative.
Like Thoreau who wrote: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion” I enjoy my particular pumpkin: my study, silence, music, a walk to pray out in th ebush near my home. Walking has been the only form of exercise that has stayed with me over many years. Although it may be the defining aspect of our humanness, this upright form of locomotion, as Rebecca Solnit tells us, I never found it the defining aspect of my life, just one of the many threads that made up the warp and weft of my days. I have always found it a contemplative experience, part of my unstructured time, perhaps part of my very peripatetic existence, perhaps a form of performance art. But I would not go as far as Walter Benjamin when he said that: “cities are a language and walking is the art of learning to speak that language.” Walking is, as Solnit says, a most obvious and yet most obscure act, simple yet little understood, routine and yet, for me, a fundamental, inextricable part of my life especially now as I near 70.
What made some of the first and significant impressions on my receptive mind, quite unbeknownst to me at the time and still difficult to explain and understand in a satisfying way, even after the passing of more than five decades since his death, was the daily exposure to a grandfather who was seventy-two when I was born. This grandfather, who had come to Canada from England at the age of twenty-eight, had raised three children and seen four grandchildren arrive in and around Hamilton in southern Ontario, before I was born. He read insatiably as he had since his own childhood to kill the various pains of life and to satisfy his own endless curiosity. The influence of a very attractive, a deeply introspective and religious woman, my mother until my early 30s; and a strong, an energetic and emotional Welshman, my father, until I was 21, provided with my grandfather a triumvirate of forces that combined to exercise an influence which, to this day, is mysterious, only partly explanatory and filled with endless hypotheses--and--until I was 4 years old absolutely no memories. For these were the years 1944 to, perhaps, 1948 when I was four years old and first living in RR#! Burlington Ontario. Crucial to my development were these years but containing nothing but some faint whispers, grey and subtle plays with space and time, which I can remember like some fantasy or castle in the air.
1944 was also the scene of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the religion that my mother enquired into in 1953, the Bahá'í Faith. Of course, I have no memory of that date 1944 nor of the earlier date in April 1937 when the first teaching Plan, 1937-1944, put 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets of the Divine Plan finally into action. At that earlier date, in 1937, my parents had yet to meet. They met during that first Plan and my grandfather enjoyed the first years of his retirement after going from job to job and place to place for so many years of his adult life as he had done during his childhood. His life, it would appear, was as gregarious as mine has been, partly from choice, partly out of necessity. My grandmother, this man's wife, died of cancer two years into the Plan, in 1939; my mother reached forty and my father fifty-four when the Plan ended in April 1944. Two months later I was born, in the two year period between Plans, 1944-1946. This pattern of relating my life to the several Plans for the extension and consolidation of the Bahá'í community I follow occasionally but not religiously in this autobiography.
"During the year 1944," says British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his own autobiography, "it became gradually clear that the war was ending." Hannah Arendt summarized that war as follows: “Sixty one countries representing three quarters of the world population contributed 110 million combatants in a struggle which over six years claimed 60 million lives, cost over $1 trillion dollars, and altered the geopolitical landscape of the globe as never before. The First War involved half as many combatants, claimed a third as many lives, and cost a fifth as much in economic terms.” These two wars were, in many ways, the beginning of the tempest that the Bahá'í teachings frequently allude to and which has continued all my adult life showing no signs of letting-up.
The perception that this Great War was coming to an end was certainly the major event of that year of my birth although, to my mother, the major event was giving birth to me and it nearly killed her. The following prose-poem places this event in a wider context. The famous American poet, Robert Penn Warren, says that a poem is “the deepest part of autobiography.” Here, then, is the first portion of this deepest part.
In the first weeks of my life, in August 1944, Shoghi Effendi was able to celebrate the completion of the first Seven Year Plan. He marked the moment with a gift to the Baha’is of the world. It was the publication of God Passes By. The book provided “a window on the spiritual process by which Baha’u’llah’s purpose for humankind is being realized.”1 At the time of this celebration in August 1944 my mother nearly died from the birth process that brought me into this world. She was a forty year old Canadian in Hamilton Ontario Canada who, in August 1944, prayed to be made well with a promise to her God to give her son to the Lord. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, January 17th 2004.
A perspective on the past,
a light on the future,
awakener of capacities,
maker of sense of the world,
and my experience of it,
enriches life, a gift, a shaper
of civilization’s long course,
a great work of the mind,
history taken to a new level,
vehicle for understanding
the Purpose of God,
converging as it did
with Revealed Texts,
summoning up the full
mystery and meaning
of one hundred years
of ceaseless sacrifice.1
And my mother’s prayers
in that same month, August,
must have been answered
as all prayers are
with a resounding “yes!”
“I will make you well,
if you give the boy to Me!”
And so He did and so you did.
It was a gift for a gift
in a season of gift-giving.
1 The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, pp.69-70.
17 January 2004
To the world Jewish community, the first year of my life was the last year of the holocaust, an event many regard as the nadir of history, an event after which there could be no more history--or so it seemed to some. For my father, I can only hypothesize that, since he had just lost two sons in that same war, sons who were from his first marriage, I was, perhaps, a last glow of light on his mountain-top as was the marriage relationship he had just entered. I shall never know, though, for I never asked him in all those years I spent under his roof before he died at the age of seventy when I was twenty-one. Although we talked briefly on occasion about his own personal myth or meaning system, as Carl Jung described the effort to explain one's life in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, my father was much more of a doer than a talker.
He worked hard at his job, gardened endlessly at home and gradually fell asleep reading the newspaper in the evenings in the evening of his own life, but he did not tend to analyse in much detail his life and its meaning, at least not verbally and not in conversation with me. Indeed, we had few conversations in all those years I spent in his company, 1944 to 1965. I was 'tin-ribs' who 'tinkered in the trees.' I was the light of his life but such a strong accolade was never uttered, as he battled on in his final years, glad to leave this mortal coil when he did in the mid-1960s as I was about to enter maturity.
I was born, then, during WW2 during what I have come to see as the second phase of that modern tempest that Shoghi Effendi had described in his book, The Promised Day Is Come, published in 1941. My mother and father had been in their teens in the first phase of that tempest, the first world war, 1914 to 1918. My grandparents both entered middle age in that first war. The remaining years of my life, the years after 1945, occupy the third phase of that tempest, a phase quite different from the first two phases, a phase which Henry Miller described as "far more terrible than the destruction" of the first two wars, the first two phases, with fires that "will rage until the very foundations of this present world crumble." It is not my intention to document any of these three phases of the destructive calamity that visited humankind in the century I have just left, for this documentation has been done in intimate detail elsewhere, both visually, orally and in print. I do not document but I frequently refer to these three phases. I have different purposes here than mere historical documentation.
This destruction of the third phase, it could be argued, began symbolically, if not literally, on August 6th 1945, when I was just one year and two weeks old, with the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in Japan. As I have just indicated, it is not my intention to document the fine details of this destruction, this destructive process, this third phase has been documented more than any period in history in volumes that fill libraries all over the planet, in books too voluminous for any human being to read, except for some infinitesimal portion for whom modern history is their special interest. Most people now get their history via television. It's not necessarily a bad thing for there is so much to know and understand in this new age we are just entering.
There are dozens of history books that describe the process in fine, in minute, detail. My intention is to draw together my own life, the history of my times and the religion I began my association with when my mother started to investigate the ideas of one of its small groups in Burlington Ontario. It was indeed a small group of a dozen or more people in a religion that was also a small community then of, perhaps, 200,000 strong globally. Back then in 1953 nine out of ten of the Bahá'ís lived in Iran. I had no idea of this at the time, more than fifty years ago. At the age of nine I had other things on my inarticulate but quite definite agenda with its eternal-seeming things in grade four and five, with baseball and hockey and beautiful Susan Gregory a few houses away at the corner of Seneca and New Streets. In the early 1950s, my family also had a television set and those years saw the launching of a "space opera" fad in pop culture. With programs such as Space Patrol (ABC, 1950-55), Buck Rogers (1950-51), Johnny Jupiter (DuMont and ABC, 1953-54), Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (syndicated, 1954-55), and Captain Video television had entered science fiction and fantasy, as well as a global and intergalactic space-time continuum. It was all very fitting, as I look back, since those years were the years that, from a Bahá'í point of view, the Kingdom of God on earth had also been launched.
For the next nine years, 1953 to 1962, a creative stirring of curiosity, the beginnings of an arduous journey of intellectual exploration, from about the age of nine until I was eighteen, served as the personal backdrop of my pioneering life. I lived with my mother and father in a two-bedroom house. It is one of the smallest houses I've ever been in. If art critic Kenneth Clark is right that "nothing significant has ever been created for civilization in a big room," then there was hope for me, for this house and my bedroom was the smallest of spaces. At the front of my life, unbeknownst to me at the time, was the Ten Year Crusade(1953-1963) which took the Baha’i Faith to the furthest reaches of the world and played a significant part in making this new Faith the second most widespread religion on earth by the 1990s. I was no more aware of this Crusade, then, than I was aware of the second world war which was waging fiercely when I was born. This lack of awareness is often the case with human beings who travel life's paths for, as I have just said above, there is so much to understand and to know, and so many different voices claiming the attention of the masses of citizens as they try to make their way. And when one is a child this is especially true. However peripheral the wide world of politics, the nearby cities like Hamilton and Toronto, indeed just about everything on planet earth, except the few blocks I played on near our home and where I went to school, the small Bahá'í community in Burlington insensibly penetrated into the interstices of my family's life from the age of nine to eighteen, the nine years before I went pioneering.
For the most part back in what many saw as the quiet fifties, my attention, my spiritual resources, my curiosity, was channelled into sport, school and an emerging interest in the opposite sex. The energies of this young child and adolescent who had just begun the long race of life were, indeed, stretched to the full during these halcyon days by activities having little to no connection with any organized religion. The following poem tells a little about one of the sports, baseball, its context in my life, in modern history and this new Faith whose connection with my life was a largely peripheral one during these years. I wrote this poem six weeks before leaving the classroom and retiring from employment as a teacher at the age of 55 in 1999. So often in life I felt strongly that I just could not stay any longer; I had to go. Sometimes the reason was obvious; sometimes it was inexplicable. In 1953/4 I felt strongly that I had to leave softball for hardball. In 1950 I had to leave our house in RR#1 Burlington. The former was my choice; the latter had nothing to do with me. Such is part of the nature of fate, determinism and free will.
A NEW CHAPTER:
This Part 1 of my autobiography needs to be edited and I hope to do this before the 8th edition comes out in 9 years. I draw on many of my poems in this work for I find the empirical distinction between prose and poetry is largely an illusory one. In some ways my poetry is just another pattern I introduce from time to time to illustrate my story. My poetry is as much about things as it is about ideas. Before including some dozen poems, of which two about baseball begin the series, I'd like to say a few things about poetry. Some readers will find the effect of my introducing poetry will be to create a multiple, interwoven, narrative thread, a sort of flexi-narrative, to draw on a term used by Robin Nelson in his study of television drama. Nelson also points out that television drama by the 1990s had come to emphasize short-term aesthetic pleasure over reflective intellectual stimulus. Perhaps my use of poetry will have some of this kind of short-term aesthetic effect as well. If nothing else my poetry and prose is a response to the Baha’i Faith in a critical half century of its growth and to the tempest that has been blowing through society as long as I and my parents have been alive. My poetry, like this narrative, is written at the very dawn of the Baha’i Era. Some may call this work primitive, overly complex, overly prolix, over-the-top as they say in the vernacular these days. It seems to be, though, that this work stands at a pivotal point in the evolution of Baha’i society from a society just emerging from obscurity after one hundred and sixty years of history to a society that will emerge into the glaring light of public recognition.
And so I commence and interpret a story which the reader alone must complete. I construct what readers must take in actively if they are to read much of this text. The details I provide make for a type of perfection but, in the end, perfection is no mere series of details, as Michelangelo once put it. I enter, as I do in the following poems about baseball, with a certain glow of enthusiasm. The melody of a life escapes; I catch up with it; I retrace my steps; my life flies again; it disappears; it plunges into a chaos of emotion and thought; I catch it again; I seize the moment; I embrace it with delight; I multiply the modulations, the repetitions and a whole series of symphonies are produced. There is much trial and error as I am driven relentlessly on day after day, year after year to write this music which I have played over so many years. Just as Beethoven’s first movement of his Quartet in F Major consists of “a long F, a turn around it, and a jump down to C” and “repetitions of it-well over a hundred of them,” so does this autobiography consist of a long life, many turns around some basic notes, occasionally a jump up or down from the basic pattern and endless repetition.
To continue this musical analogy I'd like to quote the words of several conductors because what they say about music and the process of conducting has many parallels with the writing of this autobiography and of poetry. Herbert Blomstedt, speaking of composers, says, "everyone has a different pace and develops in different ways." In some ways this seems as obvious for conductors as it does for autobiographers but, however obvious it may be, it is a crucial point. I was really not ready to write about my life in any meaningful way until I was nearly sixty. Blomstedt also said that some artists need to work out a way of having a break or they will work themselves into the grave. At fifty-five I gave up my paid employment as a teacher out of emotional exhaustion or, as I felt at the time, I would have worked myself into my own grave. I am also imbued with a forward-looking spirit, a spirit which gives vision and energy to my often flagging spirit.
Only after determining how I would fill in my own day, rather than having it filled in by the demands of job, of community, of family and the various human associations that had come to fill my life, was I able to continue writing with any real fertility. In the first four years of retirement I was able to develop my vision of how I wanted to work, what I wanted to say, in what way I was going to be able to contribute to the growth and consolidation of the Bahá'í community now that the major pattern of the last forty years had been broken or ended by the inevitabilities of the retirement process.
My writing is simply the realization of the vision, an evolving construct which is itself fertilized by my work, my life and the developments in the wider Bahá'í community, society and the micro-society in which I live, move and have my being. Like the conducting and the music Blomstedt talks about in his interview, my writing is "very personal." Like Blomstedt, I strive to be exactly myself. Catherine Comet, says the conductor must "be able to reconstruct from scratch what the composer originally did and then put it back together again." That is not a bad way of expressing what the autobiographer must do. In both cases it takes hundreds of hours. One per cent of the work of conducting is done at concerts. In writing, the same is the case. Time and experience function to expand the repertoire so that interesting programs can be put together. This is true in both music and in writing autobiography. The conductor Margaret Hillis says she has no more energy left after conducting. She says music bosses her around, tells her what to do, but it is so beautiful she is prepared to pay the price. Writing is like this for me.
So, here is one of the first of many poems which will appear in this autobiography. A critical observer might say the same things about my poetry as were said by Fannie Eckstorm about the poems of Henry David Thoreau. Nearly one hundred years ago now she said his poems were “not resolved into rhythm. It is poetry but not verse...Judged by ordinary standards he was a poet who failed. He had no grace at metres....his sense always overruled the sound of his stanzas. The fragments of verse.....remind one of chips of flint....the maker’s hand was unequal to the shaping of it.” I know, too, that poetry does not enjoy in my contemporary society the legendary significance it has in the former communist block countries or in South America. Some have even announced the end of poetry. I leave it to readers who must cope with my poetry, a poetry which may not be verse, these chips of flint which follow. These prose-poems may be part of a dieing genre or a burgeoning one but, whatever their degree of popularity, they are useful to my purposes throughout this autobiography and so I include them. Unlike that first poet in the western intellectual tradition, Homer, I do not transmit orally the fame of a long-vanished heroic age. But I do transmit in writing some of the experience, if not the fame, of the first century of its formative age.
Poems are, indeed, places to be in, places in their own right; they are habitable environments that place one in relation to the implied otherness which voice calls, or re-calls, into presence. Alternatively, they can be intermediary spaces that relate one to the world. There is an empowering magic of a poetic voice that projects worlds into being. The mystique of voice is as old and as various as the ancient myths of creation. Voice opens an image of various worlds: wondrously fresh, reassuringly or uncannily familiar. Mental spaces are projected by voice. This can be done by means of representing segments of the world or by virtue of the poem’s indeterminate resonance. This resonance can open the reader to the ineffable, to an infinity which the poem points to beyond itself. What may be said to motivate much of modern poetry since the Romantics, namely, the wish for self-generation in and through the poetic utterance itself, is without doubt part of my motivation as well. And so readers will find many poems here.
BASEBALL AND THE BAHA’I FAITH
When a series of programs about baseball, a series called The Big Picture, began to unfold on television, I quickly came to realize the remarkable similarity between the story of baseball and the story of the Baha’i Faith, both of which grew up in the modern age. The game of baseball was born in America in the 1840s as a new activity for sporting fraternities and a new way for communities to develop a more defined identity.1 Indeed, there are many organizations, activities, interests which were born and developed in this modern age, say, since the French and the American revolutions. The points of comparison and contrast between the great charismatic Force which gave birth to the Baha’i Faith and its progressive institutionalization on the one hand, and the origin and development of other movements and organizations on the other, is interesting to observe. -Ron Price with thanks to Ken Burns, “The Big Picture: Part Two,” ABC TV, 18 February 1999; and 1John Nagy, “The Survival of Professional Baseball in Lynchburg Virginia: 1950s-1990s,” Rethinking History, Vol.37.
They both grew slowly
through forces and processes,
events and realities
in the late eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries:
baseball and the Baha’i Faith
along their stony and tortuous paths,
the latter out of the Shaykhi School
of the Ithna’Ashariyyih Sect
of Shi’ah Islam.
And it would be many years
before the Baha’i Faith would climb
to the heights of popularity
that baseball had achieved
quite early in its history.
Baseball was a game
whose time had come,
a hybrid invention,
a growth out of diverse roots,
the fields and sandlots of America,
as American as apple pie.
And the Baha’i Faith was an idea
whose time had come, would come,
slowly, it would seem, quite slowly
in the fields, the lounge rooms,
the minds and hearts
of a burgeoning humanity
caught, as it was, as we all were,
in the tentacles of a tempest
that threatened to blow it--
17 February 1999
A second poem, written about a year after retiring, also conveys something of the flavour of those ‘warm-up days’ when my curiosity about this new religion was exceeded by curiosity about other things.
A BASEBALL-CRAZY KID
In October 1956 Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitched the only perfect game in post-season baseball. Yogi Berra was the catcher.1 That same month and year R. Rabbani advised Mariette Bolton of Orange Australia, in the extended PS of her letter, that it was “much better for the friends to give up saying “Amen.”2 The following year Shoghi Effendi died and Jackie Robinson, the first Negro to play professional baseball, retired. I was completing grades 7 and 8 when all of this took place and, even at this early age, was in love with at least three girls in my class: Carol Ingham, Judy Simpson, Karen Jackson and Susan Gregory. I found them all so very beautiful. Karen was the first girl I kissed.3 -Ron Price with appreciation to: 1"The Opening of the World Series: 2000," ABC TV; 2Messages to the Antipodes, Shoghi Effendi, editor, Graham Hassall, Baha’i Publications Australia, 1997, p.419; and 3Ron Price, Journal: Canada: To 1971: 1.1, Photograph Number 102.
I was just starting grade seven
and still saying amen
occasionally when I went
to that Anglican Church
on the Guelph Line
in Burlington Ontario
with my mother and father
and saying grace
just as occasionally.
I watched the World Series,
a highlight of autumn
for a twelve year old
baseball-crazy kid, back then.
And I passed the half-way point
of my pre-youth days1
when I was the only kid
with any connection
with this new world Faith
in these, the very early days
of the growth of the Cause
in the Dominion of Canada.2
1 1953 to 1959: my pre-youth days.
2 In 1956 there were only about 600 Baha’is in Canada. The 400 Baha’is that started the Ten Year Crusade in Canada became 800 by the time I became a Baha’i in 1959. In southern Ontario, from, say, Oakville to Niagara Falls and Windsor, to several points north of Lakes Ontario and Erie in 1956 I was the only pre-youth whom I then knew, or later came to know. There may have been other pre-youth but at this early stage of the growth of the Cause in Canada, year fifty-eight of its history, I was not aware of them.* *--Canada’s Six Year Plan: 1986-1992, NSA of the Baha’is of Canada, 1987, p.46.
23 October 2000
The interest of a poem arises, at least for some poetry critics, from its representation of what passed in the mind of the poet. The piling up of information about what the poem means is in the end, these same critics argue, an investigation of the mind that produced it. I'm not sure this is entirely the case but it is certainly a useful view in relation to the role of poetry in this autobiography. There seems to be a sense of estrangement or outsidedness of poets and poetry in the society I've been a part of. With my poetry here, I play a small part in overcoming this alienation. But I’m sure, in the end, many will find what they read here tediously repetitive, simply too much to entertain.
Before I continue on with my story, wandering as it does via a circuitous route, I shall include here a poem about my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died five years before I was born, just as the first Seven Year Plan was completing its first phase, in 1939. My grandfather was 67 at the time and he was left alone in life with his three grown-up children, one of whom was my mother. She married five years later at the age of forty, at the end of that Seven Year Plan. But first this poem about my grandmother:
YOU LOVED KISSING
My grandfather, Alfred Cornfield, to whom I dedicated this narrative, wrote a four hundred page autobiography covering the period from his birth in 1872 to 1901, his arrival in Canada. In it he briefly describes his wife, my grandmother, Sarah Cornfield. He said that before they were married she loved kissing more than anything else. My mother, my grandfather's daughter, spoke of her mother many times over the years. The following poem is about this woman, my grandmother, whom I never met.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 17 October 1998
She told me you were kind,
a woman who was all heart.
He told me you were no woman
of the world, but you loved kissing.
I never knew you at all,
taken as you were by cancer
in '39 after you had raised
your family and earned a love
that was a legend in its time,
at least in that small family circle.
Now that photograph
looks down from the shelf,
speaking volumes of articulate silence
and a loving-kindness
which joins our hearts in mystery
from your kingdom of immortality,
your glorious paradise,
your retreats of nearness.
17 October 1998
The craving to write this autobiography has been damned back, only allowed to trickle in the last two decades, but has accumulated a powerful pressure of urgency; I'm not sure exactly why, but a major difficulty has been to find a form, a process, a context, to say what I wanted to say. After a decade of a narrative effort, 1984-1993 and another of poetry (1992-2002) and resource-gathering, the third edition gushed out like a fountain in a period of four months. Now I pray to be carried on “by the divine wind of curiosity’s unflagging inspiration” in the years ahead in further editions. Perhaps it is a curiosity which, as Toynbee argues, has finally generated higher activities, a mind that has blossomed in a higher flight; a life-long communion with my Creator, a communion that goes back at least to 1953 at the age of nine, “like a light caught from a leaping flame,” which has resulted in this extended piece of prose I call my autobiography.
No matter how infinitesimal are the quanta that I examine, no matter the infinite magnitude and immensity, they all demonstrate infinitely complex forms. I’ll say a few things here about form, performance and the shape of this narrative I am creating here:
What excites some writers most in their work is themselves as performers. Performance is an exercise of power, a very curious one.1 Power, of course, is a complex, subtle and difficult term to define, unlike authority which is associated with a role or an institution. Authority can bind people together due to its association with miracle and mystery and its capacity to hold the consciences of human beings.2 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Richard Poirier, “The Performing Self”, Twentieth Century Literature in Retrospect, Reuben Brower, ed., Harvard UP, 1971, p.88; and 2Richard Sennett, Authority, A.A. Knopf, NY, 1980, pp. 193-195.
This writing of poetry is performance:
like dancing, singing, sport,
part of being fully alive,
like film-making or playing golf,
aspires to some popularity,
some shaping of my self,
is a type of work, discipline,
not easy, but enjoyable
or I would not do it.
Some would say this writing
is an exercise in power,
yes a type of power, a type of love,
of endurance, of pleasure,
way of spending one’s leisure-time,
of becoming immortal, now.
7 May 1996
MISTY FORMS AND A FROSTY GLAZE
A good third of one’s life is lost to the observer in sleep and dreams, "soft embalmer of the still midnight," as Keats wrote in 1820. Some, like the French writer, Marcel Proust, are very sickly and they spend more than an average number of hours in bed. Some lose many a waking hour from being sick or from unfortunate and varied habits. The same Proust once sneezed 83 times while composing a three-page letter and this was far from a record for him. Furthermore, he required that his underpants fit him snugly, held high above his waist by a special pin. These conditions exacerbated his sleeping problems and that mattered greatly as poor Proust was always in bed. I could describe at length the activities of my noctural existence; it tires me to even contemplate them let alone put the details on paper. But they deserve some attention. Wordsworth's poetry on the subject, his own problems with sleep and his sister's life and diaries stimulated my interest in devoting some time to a topic that occupies one-third of one's life.
Two-hundred years ago, in 1807, Wordsworth published his first poems-sonnets on sleep. In these poems and in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he explores the relationship between insomnia, wakefulness and poetry. Like Wordsworth I have often desired to "be deeply beguiled" by what he calls sleep's "twinklings of oblivion." As far back as my days at university(1963-1967) where I first tasted depression, stayed up most of the night reading and experienced various degrees of emotional turbulence from sources it would take too long to list and describe, sleep was like a listener who did not submit to my call, but "sat in meekness like the brooding Dove." Both the dove and I waited…and waited. I was condemned to remain awake until the wee hours of many a night and sleep for many a night in my life. That "dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health," was denied me often until late in the night.
Often, like Wordsworth, I would hear "the small birds' melodies" and "the first Cuckoo's melancholy cry." Often I would "wear the night away." Without sleep all the morning's wealth has little value, lost in the incessant tossing and turning, walking about and restlessness. For three decades after those university years, sleep was problematic due to job and family problems and successes. By the turn of the millennium I had become so used to going to bed late that it became a life style-only even later. Not going to bed until two or three a.m. became the norm.
By my sixties I was getting that sleep which "knits up the ravelled sleave of care…that balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course." But I got it from 3 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. so that I could read and write for eight of the 16 hours left. And I followed Dale Carnegie's advice, as far as I was able, to go to bed only when I was so tired I knew I would sleep. Fatigue, as Benjamin Franklin once said, is the best pillow. The night had always had a certain attraction for me; perhaps it was the release I felt of instincts and feelings that came to the fore; perhaps it was the desire to suck more out of life for there was so much more than could ever be done in the day. As the hours of night advanced, though, I found that despair advanced as well. Sleep was like a bridge between that despair of the night hours and the hope of morning.
The nearest one can get to the other two-thirds of one’s life is the autobiographical notes of a Montaigne, a Samuel Butler, an Emerson: conscious intellectual portrayals of introspection and reflection. In the end, only a fragment of the totality of our living is graspable, engraveable in words. Most of the pages of our days are lost or only barely graspable, only partly intuited, grasped intellectually or emotionally. A purely external selection of materials dominated by chance, by arbitrary choice and distortions of various kinds is counter-balanced by the value of personal witness, of small impressions, of a fine sense for the infinitesimal, of a perception of the significant in the insignificant, of the trivial incident and of vivid anecdotes, however fleeting and partial they may be. I can see no point in enumerating a vast array of details connected with either the one-third or the two-thirds of my life. Neither this autobiography nor my readers’ lives would benefit from such description.
If to these largely external and, for the most part, irrelevant realities the writer adds the dimension of the inner life and private character one can unmask a life, reach into its roles, the parts played on the stage of life, approach the life as closely as can be and give the reader a concentrated symbol, a genuine picture as well as an inner portrait of a life, an ordinary life, one that approximates the life of the reader more closely than the famous, the brilliant, the distinguished achiever and the genius whose auto/biography so often focuses on the externals. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, April 4th, 1999.
Anyone looking at these poems
sees an essential discontinuity,
a discontinuous story,
a narrative arrangement of reality,
purely fragmentary, purely incomplete,
partly verifiable, buried in cultural history,
lost in this writing, a symbol of endurance,
beyond misty forms, only partly concrete,
spiritual intimations, spiritual pretensions,
across a golden bridge to shoreless eternities,
to the inner life through windows
that are unclear and covered
with the frosty glaze of language.
On one of those cold
Canadian winter mornings
those windows reveal a world
that is half beauty, half mystery,
always cold and wet to the touch.
You can only see the real world,
partially and, then, only in special places.
Writers are getting closer
to our inner worlds
as science is unfolding
another set of inner worlds,
for that is where the action is
below the surface, unseen, invisible.
4 April 1999
INFORMING PRINCIPLE OF POETRY
When you write is it for a particular audience or just yourself? Initially, the thrust of the poem, any poem, seems to be for self, from self, about self. But as the poem develops the audience widens to include my contemporaries, those dead and those yet-to-be-born. Sometimes the focus of the poem is futuristic, utopian; sometimes I go back in time to an individual or a group. This is part of the wonder of poetry, the ability to write about, include, virtually anything in existence or in the imagination. Michael Palmer says the informing principle of poetry is that the poem intends as it comes into being; it moves toward a particular meaning. That is unquestionably the way I experience the writing of a poem. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 31 October 1998.
There are always people writing.
I call them my students;
one day they will be gone.
I have grown tired
of the endless talk, talk, talk
and their piles of writing
which has virtually no interest to me
anymore: is so excessively banal,
repetitious, try fifty million pages
over thirty years to dumb the brain.
My wife gives me her critical view now
and I think this is enough, enough to view
this cleaner and tighter form.
Read what I want now--no obligation.
Of course, I like people to read my poetry
but, in this world of confused alarms,
this is not the most important thing to me:
a world where anyone can write a poem
on anything they want and only a few
want to write anything at all.1
1 The irony, the paradox, is that there is now more being written by more people than ever before in history.
31 October 1998
THE ONENESS OF FORM AND CONTENT
We must write for our own time, as the great writers did. But this does not imply that we must shut ourselves up in our words. To write for our time does not mean to reflect it passively. It means that we must will to maintain it or change it; therefore, go beyond it toward the future; and it is this effort to change the world which establishes us most deeply in it, for our world can never be reduced to a dead mass of tools and customs. What the poet writes should not always correspond to anything outside the mind of the poet. His words should bring together apparently unrelated phenomena in a unique world that is the writer’s own, freed, as far as possible, from the rusty hegemony of angst. What results is a written expression which is both form and content. They are one and the same. The general context is an “independent search for knowledge” and a continual renewal of “one’s conception or one’s vision of the world.1 -William V. Spanos, “A Discussion of Eugene Ionesco,” A Casebook on Existentialism, Thomas Crowell Co., NY, 1966, pp.151-157.
I write for my time
and a future time.
This is no dead mass of letters,
but things from inside my head,
from all over the place,
a unique concatenation
of form and content,
as I renew my vision of the world
and help lay that foundation,
for that apotheosis which I saw
several weeks ago on a warm day
up on a hill in a city in Israel.
The inner essence thereof
I knew was for my time.
I knew this, partly,
from something He wrote,
something eternal, yes, Eugene:
and I was only eighteen, then.
And, now, I'm getting old
and closer, it seems, to the eternal.
24 July 2000
GIVING THE POEM FORM
Much of the writing in western civilization since I became a Baha’i in 1959 and went pioneering in 1962, is what one could call post-Canadian, post-Australian or post-American, post everything except the world itself. Much of the technology in America since 1959 has been NASA inspired. The wiring in my head has been inspired by a new religious technology--the Baha’i teachings. A global culture, which had been emerging slowly, perhaps as far back as the period 1475-1500,1 with a global technology which brought the various centres of culture around the world so much closer than they had ever been. The literary sensibility is no longer dependent on a national environment, although writers continue to be influenced, consciously or not, by their predecessors and the cultural climate in which they are socialized. To give a poet’s sensitivity and expression a form suited to his personal proclivities he could study the classical and contemporary literary monuments,2 indeed the entire intellectual tradition of the planet. After twenty-five years in the pioneering field(1962-1987) I did just that, at least as far as I was able.
The history of Western European literature and its autobiographical component until approximately the end of the eighteenth century and into the 19th could be described as a succession of phenomena which were generally linked to classical models. In other words, writers consciously or subconsciously, in a relative or absolute way, respected and followed the content and forms of a classical canon, a canon rooted in Greece and Rome or in Christianity, at least in European/Western civilization. In the last two centuries other models have emerged and this work draws on many aspects of these newer historical models from the last two centuries.
I have drawn on literary monuments that had impressed me during those pioneering years: Toynbee, Gibbon, John Hatcher, Roger White, Robert Nisbet, among so many others. But I think what gave my poetry, my writing, its vitality was the struggle of my mind over decades to come to terms with the cynicism and skepticism of modern society vis-a-vis religion and provide intellectually relevant responses to the questions of the seekers among my contemporaries.-Ron Price with thanks to: 1 Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 8, p.115; and 2Northrop Frye, The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society, Methuen and Co. Ltd., London, 1970, p.311.
A striking fact about that society
I grew up in back then
and for most of its history
was the domination of narrative form,
a narrative poetic and its impersonal,
bald, dry, statement to portray action.1
A deep moral silence also filled the land,
amidst massive indifference, solitude
and a social ideal that still inhabits our soul.
And now, as the imaginative centre
of Canadian life moved to the metropolis,
and faster in Australia
and for the international Baha’i pioneer
a feeling of nomadic movement
over great distances filled his consciousness,
standards for a world culture of the arts
were insensibly established.
They arose out of an almost continuous probing
into the distance and the fixing of one’s eyes
on an ever-changing skyline.
1 my own narrative poetic is, unlike this Canadian tradition of the impersonal in poetic narrative, highly personal.
22 July 2000
I like to think, as I begin this narrative with its poetic inclusions, that prophets, poets and scholars are chosen vessels “who have been called by their Creator to take human action of an ethereal kind.” But it is my considered view that, however much I feel I am being called, my spiritual armament resembles an archer’s who is aiming at a target which is too far distant to be visible and too close to get a just, a fitting, perspective. As the years go on, and especially now after forty years on a journey as a pioneer to the seekers among my contemporaries, I have come to feel the truth of the words of that Roman poet Horace who wrote at the time of the appearance of another manifestation of God: “Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.” And if this piece of literature, autobiographical literature, is ground-breaking in any way; if it has any particular kind of originality and is in any way equal to the challenge of the new internationalism and the new institutions that this Faith I am associated with, only those mysterious dispensations of time as it hurries by on its winged chariot will reveal.
I have also come to feel, as Toynbee expressed it so well writing when he was on the eve of the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth, little did he know, in 1952, that “It is Man’s task to execute, within the time that God alots to him on Earth, a human mission to do God’s will by working for the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth.” The Baha’i Faith provided, through its Founder, His Successors and now its administrative institutions a strong sense of divine appointment, of a specific, a guided, direction, in establishing that very Kingdom. Working now with some psychic chronometer, with intellect and spiritual creativity defining the working tempo of my days, I work, as the poet Andrew Marvell expressed it perhaps somewhat archaically, while “at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” At the same time, I was slowly learning over several decades one of writing’s secrets, namely, what to put in and what to leave out. I was learning, too, other things about writing prose and poetry, as I have expressed them in the following prose-poems. One thing seemed to come easily and that was prose-poetry which, as Mary O’Neil notes, goes back to the Renaissance.
THE BRILLIANCE AND THE WONDER
“In the fact that the subject is a process lies the possibility of transformation,” writes Catherine Belsey.1 And there is transformation, several over a lifetime, perhaps innumerable ones, before the final bodily separation, before the cage is burst asunder and soars into “the firmament of holiness.”2 The cage is often drawn back to the earth again and again, the transformation never complete, and then the cage is gone and the soul, that acme of mature contemplation, continues the journey. While on earth hounds, claws, ravens and envy stalk the "thrush of the eternal garden" that is your life.3 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Catherine Belsey in Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autobiography, Jeanne Perreault, University of Minnesota Press, London,1995, p.1; 2Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words; and 3 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven Valleys, p.41.
While thoughts press on
and feelings overflow
and quick words ‘round me
fall like flakes of snow,
the years go on,
each year adding one
and I grow old,
hardly known and quietly:
drifts of snow the wind has blown
against a wall or house
one day will melt
while new spring sun brings
green grass, flowers bloom
the final transformation of June,1
repeated so often, so regularly,
so predictably, that somehow
the transformation becomes
a part of the air we breath
and we only notice,
for such short times,
the brilliance and the wonder
amidst the dogs of the claws of earth.
1 The perspective here is that of the northern hemisphere.
7 September 2000
There is a definite relief in simply writing a poem, in completing it, in having one's imagination aroused to give life and significance to the world. In some ways that is enough. In other ways, the poet wants others, as many others as possible, to speak to other minds, to see and share his expressed feeling and, hopefully, have them enthuse over what he has written. I would have liked a wider audience. I may one day get such an audience. But I think it unlikely. Even the likelihood of obtaining an audience beyond the grave is, I think, small. I have said a great deal about poetry, about my poetry, in the more than five thousand poems I have sent to the Baha’i World Centre Library. Like a spider, I spin my poems out of my own vitals, out of some inner necessity, so as to catch life. Like a spider, too, I don’t mass-produce the same poem, at least not yet. I write another poem and another as circumstances and some combination of inner desire and necessity require.
There is seriousness present; there is lightness. What it means for me, I can not expect it will mean to others. Thus, I have a sense of my poetry’s worth, but I am not obsessed by its importance or my own. Life drove me, as it drove T.S. Eliot, into a wasteland of suffering when I was young, in the first ten years I was a Bahá'í(1959-1969) and, along with other precipitating influences, it formed, or better, transformed me slowly, insensibly and eventually, perhaps inevitably, into a person who felt compelled to write poems. -Ron Price with thanks to T.S. Matthews, Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1974, pp.95-96.
I think I felt old at fifty. Dieing, like being born,
I was tired with is a long process.
what you might call Who can say when it really
a bone-weariness. when it really begins?
But, as Eliot advised,
I still felt like an explorer.
I venture out to encounter
life’s last adversary:
the slow decline of old age,
a senescence which explores
the old man, me,
as my friends go through
alarming and not-so-alarming
changes and chances.1
My poetic opus,
my celebratory note,
has been struck to its full.2
And all that’s left one day
will be one final exploration,
one final note
on the keyboard of life.
1 T.S. Matthews, op.cit., p. 170.
2 Over 5000 poems sent to the BWCL
30 December 2000
The necessary and passive receptivity of so much of life becomes, as it must, an active curiosity if one is to know anything about one’s life, one’s times, one’s religion, indeed, if one is to know virtually anything at all. The mind’s mill must be set and kept in motion by a perpetual flow of curiosity and this curiosity must be “harnessed to the service of something more purposeful and creative” than pure curiosity itself. There is always opportunity for rest, for ease, for contemplation, unless one completely stuffs one's life with activity. But that is not my story now in these early years of the evening of my life, these golden years, free from so many of the responsibilities that kept my nose down and my emotions engaged: job, family, sex and love and people in community, for so long.
Toynbee says our search, our quest, is “for a vision of God at work in history.” Slowly, unobtrusively, by an endless and sometimes exhausting seriousness, the teachings of the Baha’i Faith filled in this vision. By the beginning of my pioneer venture on or about August 20th 1962, at the age of eighteen, this vision had taken root in the soil of my life. In the last forty years the painting, the sculpture, the poem that this vision has taken its form in, has added light and shadow, colours, tones, texture and literally millions of words. They could probably be reduced to several bottles of ink. As I listened and watched a thousand musicians, heard more comedians than I could count, attended talks, seminars, deepenings and meetings of many kinds, got my hair cut by old men and young, by beautiful women across two continents, watched more who-dun-its and documentaries than the mind can hold, that vision drifted through my mind, again and again and again, caught the accents of voices too many to remember and touched my heart like trapped starlight, like fleeting green tints from passing lights that struggled in the eyes of someone I loved, like the colour of rain. And the vision kept passing and returning.
This is no settler narrative, the kind that filled many an autobiography in British and other nations' colonies around the world and in nations as they expanded west and east, north and south in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I do refer to my work as a pioneering narrative, though, one of many which I am confident will be produced in these epochs and in the many epochs that will succeed them in the decades and, perhaps, centuries ahead. Like many of the settler narratives, this narrative should be seen as a volatile subject not as something fixed in black and white. The apparent marginalia that I place, insert into the framework of my story, should not be seen as a distraction but as part of the main game. I manoeuvre myself into many corners. The prescriptions and formulations of a pioneer narrative which authorize my text, so to speak, are many and ill-defined, making manoeuvring inevitable. This is no archetypal pioneering history for, thusfar, I have yet to read a thorough and systematic or anecdotal and serendipitous account of a pioneer. If any exist, they have yet to be published. But whatever is published by Bahá'í pioneers in the years to come, I am confident that the one common denominator, uniting all those who try to tell their story, will be their devotion to the possibilities and the inevitabilities, the certainties and the complexities, associated with the Faith they have taken to the corners of the earth and the thousands and thousands of places in between on the great tapestry of this planet. Their writing will be seen in many ways but, however it is seen, it will be a bi-product and a detailed, circumstantial, portrayal of their pioneering experience.
In the fifty years since I first came in contact with this new Faith, the years 1953/4 to 2003/4, it has spread around the world and multiplied its numbers thirty times. When I served on a Bahá'í assembly in 1965 there were, perhaps, 600 assemblies in the world and perhaps half a million Bahá'ís. In the 1950s and 1960s there was the first large-scale mass conversions, but the numbers of Bahá'ís remained small in North America, Europe and Australasia to the frustration of the Bahá'í communiries there. This picture changed in the late 1960s and 1970s just before I moved to Australia(1971) and while I was living on Baffin Island(1967). Peter Smith(Bahá'ís in the West: A Survey, 2004) suggests that in 1968 of the 1.2 million Bahá'ís worldwide there were only 40,000 in the West: a negligible figure. I mention these figures because at the back of my life the growth of the Faith I had come to be identified with in my youth had grown significantly---but slowly in the places where I lived.
I feel a little like the historian Polybius(206 BC to 128 BC) must have felt when he observed the unification of the Hellenic world within his own lifetime, between 219 BC and 168 BC, when “almost the whole world fell under the undisputed ascendancy of Rome.” I had observed the Westernization of the entire planet and the sense of that planet's global reality. I knew I was at the beginning of what would be a long process. The transformation of the entire world within the dominion of a single system was, without doubt, part of the long-term Plan of the Baha’i community. It would be an exercise that would take place without arms, swords and uniforms, at least not as far down the road as I could see. It would be an exercise that would take place for the most part quite unobtrusively with increasing speed. It may have begun as far back as the years of the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution and the American revolution in the years 1760 to 1780, approximately or even as far back as Columbus in 1492.
Alvin Tofler called it the second and third wave. From my perspective it has been one long wave since the 1750s, since Shaykh Ahmad was born or, to choose a personage of greater popularity and renown in the West, since J.S. Bach died in 1750. But history is a game anyone can play. The possibilities and the paradigms are just about infinite. For Tofler, though, this immense wave has swept over humanity in a context of such complexity and over so many decades and now nearly three centuries, that the average person came, in my time, to have little to no idea what the overall process was, no idea of the meaning of the events, except in some microcosmic sense. Indeed, this was hardly surprising. In some ways the decades and, indeed, the next several centuries were coming at humankind like the sound of a distant train: the vast majority just could not hear its faint, its light echo in the distance. The noise of civilization and the jumble of an endless subjectivity produced a cacophony that completely muffled the sound of distant trains.
So few heard the distant whistle or the quiet drum-beat of civilization's inherent pattern. It was the drum-beat of a new revelation, little did the multitudes of humankind know, at least as the years of new millennium began. One could scarcely be surprised, though, for there were so many drums beating, so many orchestras, so much sound on the air-waves. And so it is, it seems to me anyway, that autobiographical statements, books, like this one which encodes the concerns and perspectives of one Baha’i, encodes them with subjectivity and a sense of self-emancipation, constitutes an indispensable part of the Baha’i project. Autobiography has the potential of being a major literary form for groups like the Baha’i Faith which in international terms has a relatively small following. It has the potential for being a medium for confronting problems of self and of identity and, in the process, of fulfilling important social needs. Autobiography, this book among others, can be of use to Baha’is to help them understand what is often a marginalized position they hold in society and help them appreciate that, however few their numbers, the battle, the life, the experience, of one of their members can throw light on the others.
The waves crashing into and over humanity was an exercise, a phenomenon, that was taking place under my very eyes in the two dozen towns and cities in which I had lived. No one had any idea that this was the Plan; even I and the Baha’is who lived and had their being in the context of that Plan had a great deal of trouble keeping their eyes on this particular aspect of the Plan, so awesome and so obscure was it at the mundane level of their own lives. Seeing the unification of the planet, the planetization of the globe, the increasing oneness of the world of humanity, take place with more and more evidences in my lifetime: this is at the heart of my story. Ironically, it took place in the context of intense conflict and millions, hundreds of millions, of deaths. The context did not change, either, in the generation before me, the generation of my parents, in which two wars decimated the value and belief system of a whole civilization; or the generation of my grandparents before that, say, back to the 1870s. A great wind of change seemed to be blowing and blowing, generation after generation. Perhaps, as Robert Nisbet pointed out, that wind had been blowing at least since the fifth century BC; or, perhaps, since the Tree of Divine Revelation was planted in the soil of the Divine Will with the prophetic figure of Adam. This historical question is far too complex to pursue here in this short space, but the contemplation of the question and the possible answer can not be divorced from this narrative and my own life which is at its centre.
Indeed, my pioneering venture, it seems to me in retrospect, has been part and parcel of the very reconstruction of a civilization that, arguably, began to occur in the lifetimes of the twin-manifestations of our time and their precursors. That reconstruction, one could argue and I do so here, has taken place to a significant extent in the context of a Plan, a Plan that was put into action just seven years before I was born.
As the culture critic Lionel Trilling once wrote, speaking of the form, the existence, of a culture: "the form of its existence is struggle." That is certainly the case with the Bahá'í culture. Some artists, Trilling went on, contain in their personal life the very essence of this struggle and its contradictions and paradoxes. My life, my autobiography, contains this essence. Inconsistencies and contradictions are part of the very warp and weft of life both in my personal life and in what the Bahá'í Faith is and was in this half century under review. I do like to think that this autobiography does eviscerate that is draws out what is vital or essential in my life, elicits the pith, the essence of my days, my journey. Life, at least as I have experienced it, involves maintaining myself between contradictions that so often can't be solved by analysis. They can only be presented with due regard for their virtually insoluble complexity and I do so in this work.
What I write here is one of virtually millions of tangents to a set of concentric circles that are at the core of this new and emerging society. To scale the moral and aesthetic heights of what constitutes this new society I use the ladders of social observation and analysis. And so this autobiography should not be seen like a novel. Readers should not expect an interesting story with tension, plot, dialogue and a what's next atmosphere. Those that want to read a story of escape or adventure, of mystery or science fiction, of romance or one of innumerable forms of entertainment, are advised to watch TV, go to the movies or read one of a multitude of books in any book store or now on the Internet. There is both mystery and romance here, as there is in the history of the Bahá'í community of which this autobiography is a part, part of that greatest of mysteries going back to Abraham, but I'm not sure I convey it with the language it requires. The theme certainly requires more analysis than can be given in an autobiography like this which has already blown-out to over 850 pages.
I am in some ways like Ralph Waldo Emerson who hardly ever read novels and hardly ever liked those that came his way. In the last twenty-two years, 1983 to 2005, I even tried unsuccessfully some ten times to write a novel. Perhaps the future will find a place for the novel in my life. The story here is of a different ilk and for many I'm sure not their cup of tea. But then, I'm not writing this to give people what they want, create a reading public and in the process, perhaps, acquire some fame and glory along the way. If these elusive acquisitions come my way, fine. I've got nothing against these attributes of conventional success. But I think it highly unlikely that I will have the experience that led Lord Byron to say: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” I am also conscious of the words of Francis Bacon: “Fame is like a river that beareth up things light and swollen and drowns things weighty and solid.” As light as I’d like my work to be, it tends to the weighty and the solid.
I often draw on a myth which narrates a complex interaction between individual and community and a promise of a world at peace, in unity and imbued with an ongoing progress that is both inspiring and a source of long-range hope. The essential quality of the Bahá'í experience in the first century and a half of its history came to reside in its expansion and consolidation and the opportunities that such expansion and consolidation offered to individuals and communities as the medium in which they could and did inscribe their destiny. This struggle, for it was nothing if not a struggle, became central to the myth. It was a myth, though, that would never be transmuted into an avowedly hopeless quest, although from time to time a sense of crisis seemed to threaten "to arrest its unfoldment and blast all the hopes which its progress had engendered." It was a myth, too, that I use as my starting point in many basic ways, for my own story.
I am contributing in my own small way to the fathering and mothering of a tradition of becoming, a tradition which finds in my own experience the seeds and the sinews, the warp and woof, of what I am confident will one day be a compelling and instructive literature. And the myth at the centre of this account is what John Hatcher once called the metaphorical nature of both physical reality and Bahá'í history.
To become a reader of this work one enters a force-field of anxieties and delights where cultural ideologies intersect and dissect one another, in contradiction, in consonance and in adjacency. As Firuz Kazemzadeh, Baha’i historian at Harvard and long-time member of the American NSA, once said we are one per cent Bahá'í and ninety-nine per cent the culture we live in. In this work the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent blend and flow in a myriad eddies and tides. Then there are the readers and they will bring to this work their passions and unreliabilities, their talents and interests, their desires to escape from the pull of my argument or swim in its persuasiveness, their pleasure in the use of my language or their preference for slim books or fictional narrative. There are a tangle of problems which are fundamental to thinking about and writing autobiography. As this book proceeds there are shifting sands, moving constructions of agency, subjectivity and truth as I change with time, place and intent, untethered by everything except the memory and the imagination that is my life and how I put it into words. There are, too, highly volatile components and serious blind-spots to my life story that make the story capable of being played out in different and quite unpredictable ways to the ones I have chosen.
It is also difficult to invoke various verbal and conceptual totalities embodied in such words as: marriage, childhood, Bahá'í Administration, Bahá'í theology, Bahá'í history or even pioneering, oneness and 'the Writings'. These are all terms which proliferate in my account and make understandings sometimes more difficult, clumsy and non-specific due to their very complexity, a complexity that is difficult to negotiate and describe. Sometimes such terminology hides the ambiguities and the inconsistencies, the complexities and wealth of detail that exist in much of life's experiences and they raise in their stead certain obscurities, flatnesses and grey-coveralls. As Anton Zidjervelt once wrote in his stimulating book, The Abstract Society, which I read when I was teaching at a College of Advanced Education in the late 1970s, so much of our world and virtually all of the conceptual material is abstract making the majority of people whose minds work best with practical realities lost in a sea of quite excessive complexity. Still, these abstract terms come in the end to be second nature, part of the air they breath, even if not ever fully understood: democracy, Christianity, Islam, community, politics, inter alia.
There are several reasons why an autobiography like this is useful. One: it is itself a form of social action and an important one; two: it is a useful source of evidence for the future, evidence for grounding intellectual claims about social structures, relations and processes. Three: texts of this nature are sensitive barometers of social processes, movement and indicators of social change. And, four: texts of this nature are integral parts of a text-context, theory-practice nexus. I have drawn here on a paper by Urpo Kovala, a teacher at the university of Jyvaskyla in Finland. I think, though, that autobiographies, much like conversation and people's oral accounts of their lives, can feature difficult and sometimes ambiguous engagements with an accepted, orthodox or mainstream Bahá'í story and its history of persecution and idealism in various modes and mixes. Since there is, as yet, a distinctive but small literature of autobiography in the autobiographical tradition in the Bahá'í community, a tradition that creates, invents or imagines some international self for an international community; since there is no pioneering self that floats free of social, national, psychological, sociological, ethnic, and sexual differences; since that self is only constituted by and through difference and in history, I am forced to script that self in its relation to others, through adjacencies and through intimacies, through associations and disassociations. This makes for complexity and it has produced this ongoing narrative. Those who want a simple story of what I did and when and how--the normal parameters of an autobiography--will probably by now have stopped reading this work. I try to portray the vast invisible inscapes of my life, my society and my religion, but whether they make interesting reading, I can not tell.
I think it unlikely that there will ever be one compact, professional and efficient Price Industry, as such an Industry might come to be called some decades hence. It may loom into existence, if it ever does, with many points of origin, numerous individual starting points, evolving so unobtrusively, so obscurely, so slowly as to be unnoticed by the vast majority of readers bent on absorbing the burgeoning lines of thought that will be increasingly available to the public. If there is an escalating, a future, absorption in autobiographical and biographical studies in the Bahá'í community, due partly to a slowly engendered and multiform enthusiasm of readers, due to the privileging of print over performance and the apparent stability or consistency of the literary script over its theatrical realisation or completion and due also to an emerging world religion moving completely out of an obscurity it has been in for a century and a half and more, then this work may yet find a significant reading public.
“I can call it back,” writes Mark Twain in his autobiography, “and make it as real as it ever was and as blessed.” But what is real the philosopher Merle Ponte argues are “the interlocked perspectives” which we must “take apart step-by-step” and relive them in their temporal setting. And just as "the crossing, the process of departures and distancing from Europe are germinal in nineteenth century emigrant autobiographies," as Gillian Whitlock notes, so are these same features germinal in the stories of international pioneers. The crossing, like the journey of the pioneer, initiates a new consciousness of the self through emigration;" or, as Samuel Beckett wrote in 1931: "We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are also no longer even what we were before the calamity of yesterday." There is, too, some of what novelist Joseph Conrad calls the detritus of life. There is a detritus that surrounds the "minute wreckage that washes out of my life into its "continental receptacles" on both of the great landscapes where I have lived: Canada and Australia. The flotsam of a difficult first marriage, now partly forgotten but an important, a formative part, of my life and the recontained shipwreck of its bourgeois domesticity in a second marriage, may well be minute in my memory now nearly thirty years later, but that upheaval, like all upheavals, leaves its mark in quite complex and difficult to describe ways, as do other traumatic events and personal tests. The marks of life, major and minor, are difficult to paint with words on the emotional equipment of one's psyche.
I will say no more about this 'sea-change' which has been written about in great detail by many writers. The words of Roger White, though, are timely ones here:
A word is inundation, when it comes from the sea.-Emily Dickinson
The shore is safer than the sea,
It does not seethe nor call
Nor buffet and betray who’d quest
Nor heinously appal.
Astute’s the pilgrim on the land
Who never heeds the sea
And resolutely walks away-
It is not so with me.
I gaze upon the bitter wrecks
And gauge my craft and weigh my words
The scheming waves have spoken.
The confrontation of sharply diverse cultures caught the imagination of the historian Herodotus(485-425 BC) and the modern philosopher civil-servant Turgot(1727-1781). It was this diversity and this confrontation that helped to provide the motivational matrix for the writing of their histories. They both saw in this diversity “a key to the understanding of history.” The confrontation of sharply different cultures has been a phenomenon that goes back probably hundreds of thousands of years if one draws on the science of paleo-anthropology . More recently, at least since Columbus and the beginnings of modern history, if one defines ‘modern’ as that period going back to the end of the Middle Ages, that clash of cultures has been increasing in extent and intensity. And this clash affects modern writing. Walter Benjamin once said that the most modern of texts would be made entirely of other texts. While this is not true of this text, it is difficult to ignore the partial truth of Benjamin's remarks as they apply to this autobiography. For as I write these words there are more than sixteen hundred references that I draw on to elaborate my story.
The confrontation of elements within this immense social and psychological diversity seemed to be coming to another head, to a climacteric, in the half century that has been both the years of my life and the first five decades of this Kingdom of God on earth. Two of the greatest, the most bloodthirsty, wars in history had been fought in the thirty-one years, 1914 to 1945, ending just as I had come into the world. It was a period which coincided with the adulthood of my parents and grandparents. And in the eight years preceding the inception of that Kingdom, 1945 to 1953, the atomic bomb had lent a special element to the range and momentum of the catastrophic aspects of the twentieth century. In a strange and nearly unbelievable way, it was all part of what the Bahá'ís came to call the process of the Lesser Peace.
Toynbee points to the Peloponnesian War(431 to 404 BC) as the beginning of the decline of Hellenic and Roman civilization. Perhaps 1914 marks the beginning of the end of the civilization into which I was born, Western civilization and the beginning, three years later, of the Lesser Peace and the new civilization that would emerge from the destructive fires of this age. Certainly the organizational aspects of the Cause, teaching plans, the embryo of Baha’i Administration could be said to go back to these years in the last half of the second decade of the twentieth century. While the old world began its decline, a new one was taking form. In 1919, at the heart of these embryonic years, when this new world was taking form and the Lesser Peace could be said to have just begun, my father was 24, my mother 15 and that other major influence on my early life, my mother’s father, was 47. This question of decline is a complex one with a host of views surrounding it. One recent author has argued that the 1960s marked the beginning of “real” secularization, the “permanent decline” of religion in the form of the churches and “pervasive Christian culture." Certainly the dialogue about religion has been a very complex one since the 1960s, since I began this pioneering venture, that it is not surprising that "teaching the Faith" has become the complex phenomenon that it has, at least in Australia and Canada, the fields where I have worked. The literature on secularism, though, suggests that the shift from a religiously based to a secular society has been taking place for over 400 years.
The analysis of what went on in the 1960s is now burgeoning. There was what you might call an orthodox perspective that continued until the late 1980s before it was challenged by a revisionist school. This school had an entirely different method of studying the 1960s and came to entirely different conclusions about its significance. A third approach tried to adjudicate between these two historiographic positions. It is not my intention here to dwell on the various systems of meaning and interpretation. The various interpretations of historians and scholars, the several paradigms of meaning, are part and parcel of all the decades that this pioneering story is concerned with and a work like this can not deal with these interpretations in any detail. Although my autobiography is in some ways essentially a work of history it can not expect to deal with the many permutations and combinations of the professional schools of history that deal with the same period of time.
I’ll include two poems here to convey some perspective on these three souls. What I write here is a far cry, a distant cousin, apparently, to the wide vistas of history and social analysis I have been writing about above. Readers will have to bear with me as I dance and dart from the macrocosm to the microcosm. Apologies to those readers who find my 'darting-and-farting', as they say in the vernacular here in Australia, frustrating. I think those who are comfortable with my style thusfar should have little difficulty wading through the six hundred and fifty pages to come. For those who find my style, my approach, too weighty, too cumbersome and difficult to take in, I can only say that, hopefully, there will be a reward for effort. Perhaps, too, this text would be improved by following the advice of American poet laureate Louis Gluck who wrote in 1994 that: "Writing is not decanting of personality." At the start of a volume of essays called Proofs and Theories she wrote: "The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be envisioned." In my case, for the most part, these words are lived. Gluck's words which follow, written in 2001, could very well describe many of my desires at the outset of this autobiography, especially the solitude I need to work:
Immunity to time, to change. Sensation
Of perfect safety, the sense of being
Protected from what we loved
And our intense need was absorbed by the night
And returned as sustenance.
A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.
She was born just after they arrived
from the old country1on a cold winter day
while hope still filled the air of our spirit,
before two wars sucked us a little dry
to put it absolutely mildly.
We really had no idea how sucked
we had been and still don't, not really.
We were left to face a continuing tempest
even in these fin de siecle years.
She came into that northern land
by a lake, below an escarpment,2
and stayed for seventy-four years.
She had one child
in twenty-three years of marriage,
played the piano, was very beautiful
and chanced upon a new Faith
as the ninth stage of history
and the Kingdom of God on earth
were just breaking in
and a new beginning for humankind
was on the way: little did we know.
6 December 1996
1 my mother was born in 1904 after her parents arrived from England in 1900.
2 my mother lived in and around Hamilton Ontario all her life.
THINGS GOT AWFULLY COMPLEX
This poem tries to take an overview of my mother's life. She was 16 in 1920 and living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The Bahá'í Faith had just begun its story in Ontario, in Toronto, 40 miles away, seven years before. Gertrude Stein said my mother was part of a lost generation. Stein also felt and wrote about the ethic of the pioneer.1 My mother, it has always seemed to me in retrospect, was one of those pioneers Stein wrote about. Fitzgerald said that generation was bright and with infinite belief. Sometimes my mother lost the patina of brightness during life's inevitable struggle, as did many of that generation. Ernest Hemmingway dramatized the disappearance of that brightness and that belief in The Sun Also Rises in 1926. -Ron Price with thanks to Henry Idema III, Freud, Religion and the Roaring Twenties, Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1990, p.135; and 1William H. Gass, William H. Gass: Essays By William H. Gass, A.A. Knopf, NY, 1976, p.122.
You were part of what they called
the lost generation, after that first war,
when the spiritual dynamic
seemed to fall out of the bottom,
some spiritual debacle
where the roots of faith
were finally severed
and some kind of secular tree
grew out of depression and more war
and the necessity for something to fill
the all-pervasive spaces and holes of existence.
Things got awfully complex too, for you,
as the years went on and a hundred options
on a hundred trees tried to interpret
what was really happening
and the tempest blew and blew
across the face of the earth
through your towns and days.
But not many figured it out,
not many back in the fifties
Maybe the war,
and the one before
had shattered their world,
but they didn't really know it
while they watched 'I Love Lucy,'
Westerns and Dragnet
and ate hot dogs.
You had some of that
'what's it all about?' sense,
that search, that endless search,
that pioneer mentality,
otherwise you would not have
been there when the Kingdom of God
got its kick-start back in '53.
I wrote the following piece as an introductory statement to my grandfather’s autobiography. His autobiography, written in the early 1920s, covered the first twenty-nine years of his life, up to 1901. I place this statement here because it puts my grandfather’s life in a context that I think is useful and covers the years 1901 to 1958. It provides, too, a helpful backdrop, background, mise-en-scene, for my own life and, given the fact that it was my grandfather's autobiography, an autobiography of his years from 1872 to 1901, that inspired mine, some general statement on his life is pertinent at the outset of this life-story of mine.
ALFRED CORNFIELD: THE MIDDLE AND LATE YEARS
It has been some twenty years since my grandfather's autobiographical work The Adventures of Arthur Collins was finally typed and distributed to each living member of the family. Arthur Collins was, of course, Alfred J. Cornfield, and the adventures were his own from 1872 to 1901, from his birth to his marriage in early 1901. He writes his story in some four hundred pages, an impressive work for a man who had but two or three years of formal education in the newly established Board Schools in London in the first decade after primary education had become compulsory in England by the Education Act of 1870. It is my intention in this brief biographical piece to complete the account which my grandfather began, which he wrote in the years 1921-1923 during his forty-ninth to his fifty-first year when his daughter, my mother, was in her late teens. It is my intention to take his story from his early adulthood, his marriage at the age of twenty-nine, to his death in 1958 at the age of eighty-six when I was thirteen.
A common pattern with autobiographies and biographies is to divide a life into early, middle and late. Often, too, when an autobiography ends without completing a life or leaving a large part of a lifestory untold, some other literary genre is used to provide for those years unaccounted for in the original story. Applying this early, middle and late division to Alfred Cornfield's life it could look something like this:
1872 to 1901-early
1901 to 1931-middle
1931 to 1958-late
The early part of his life is covered by the account he himself wrote up to his marriage in 1901. The second and middle part covers the period up to the birth of his first grandchild and the third and final part covers the period from that child’s birth in 1931 to Alfred Cornfield's death in 1958. My intention here is to convey something of the life-story of my grandfather, a man whom I know so little about after he reached the age of 29 in 1901. Like so many of us, we come to know someone in our family or an acquaintance, but we never really know them in any meaningful, any detailed, sense. What follows here is a short statement, a brief description, of my grandfather’s life from 1901 to 1958, a man I hardly knew.
THE MIDDLE YEARS: 1901-1931
During these three decades, 1901 to 1931, western civilization went through the worst war, the most traumatic and horrific experience since, arguably, the Black Death in 1348 when one in every three people from Iceland to India perished. History books have documented this period and its Great War of 1914 to 1918 in great detail. It is not the purpose of this biography or my autobiography to dwell on the events of history, however briefly, except insofar as they impinge on the life of Alfred Cornfield and then my own life. It is my purpose, though, to outline in as much detail as possible my grandfather's life from the age of twenty-nine to fifty nine, the middle years of his life until the birth of his first grandchild, Murray, the first son of his eldest daughter, Florence, who was then thirty.
Six months after Alfred's marriage, in late August of 1901, a severe storm lashed the city of Hamilton. The green leaves of late summer's trees were blown from their branches and the Works Department were kept busy cleaning up the streets. It had been a hot August and now, after this storm, people sat outside in the evenings looking at the trees "gaunt and leafless as midwinter" as Alfred describes it in the closing pages of the autobiography of his early years, the first three decades of his life. Perhaps this storm was a sign of things to come. For the next fifty-seven years a tempest blew through the institutions and society of western civilization and it has continued blowing into the lives of Alfred's grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the closing decades of the century into the opening years of the new millennium.
In late 1901 Alfred and Sara had their first child, Florence. Florence was followed in 1904 by Lillian and in 1908 by Harold. Alfred was thirty-six when he had his last child and his first son. He was forty-two when the first WW began and fifty-seven when the depression hit in 1929. I know very little about his activities during these years except that he worked as a shirt-cutter while he was writing his autobiography and that he and Sara and their children moved frequently during the first three decades of the twentieth century living as they did in Hamilton. Searching for a cheaper and better accommodation, searching for a better job, another job, a more secure job seemed to be the general story of these years.
I remember my mother, Lillian, telling me about how her father used to stop off at a butcher on the way home and pick up a steak for the evening meal. But I do not remember any other anecdotes from these middle years of Alfred's life: 1901-1931. These brief notes will, for now, have to suffice until more information comes my way or some inspiration arrives to provide a base for more details for these Middle Years. The Great War and its aftermath, 1914 to 1931 decimated the value system of western man. Whatever beliefs my grandfather had in 1914 at age 42 got completely catapulted into oblivion by the age of 59 when this stage of his story ends. His wife’s story was one of belief which seemed to dominate over skepticism and the belief was in a Christian paradigm of some kind, the details of which I do not now know and have never known.
I was able to write more on my grandfather's 'later years’ before handing the story to my cousins Joan Cornfield and David Hunter in 2002 to add what they could.
THE LATER YEARS: 1931-1958
The years from 1931 to 1945 saw the end of the Depression and a second great war from 1939 to 1945. If belief were annihilated in WW1, optimism in the future had trouble surviving WW2. Alfred Cornfield was a struggling young immigrant from England at the turn of the century and by the early 1920s, when he wrote the autobiography of the first twenty-nine years of his life, his life's struggle had continued for another twenty years. It was becoming difficult for him to maintain a sense of a bright future, but he did acquire, insensibly over the decades a philosophical attitude that resulted in an apparently calm demeanour by the time he was in his seventies. The storm clouds of war and poverty that kept blowing through western society from 1929 to 1945 would temper any philosophy of progress and belief in God even more; at least that was the case for millions. Anything associated with theistic belief that might have stirred in Alfred's soul had difficulty breaking in by the late forties when I have my first memories of grandfather.
"There exists in human nature," wrote Gibbon with his long view of the times, "a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times." Alfred's skepticism was rooted in the historical experience of the first half of the twentieth century whose evils were justifiably magnified. Whatever optimism had existed in the West in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and it would appear from the writings of many analysts in these years that a good deal of optimism did prevail, it was bashed out of western man in the first half of the twentieth century. Still, it rises from the ashes and it was appearent in many forms by the time I came to write my autobiography. I saw it in many of the forms of popular psychology, the pleasures associated with materialism, leisure activities like sport, sex and TV and in a generation for the most part ill-equipped to interpret the social comotion at play throughout the planet. I and they listened to the pundits of error while society sank deeper into a slough of despond; troubled by forecasts of doom, it was unable to do battle with the phantoms of a wrongly informed imagination.
These cruel events of history did not seem to affect the beliefs of Alfred's wife Sara, as I indicated above and as my mother was to inform me in the late 1950s, some fifteen to twenty years after Sara's death in 1939. Even Alfred's two daughters, Florence and Lillian, at least as I remember them and as I now recall their philosophico-religious views in the 1950s, continued to enjoy the seeds of belief perhaps taking more after their mother than their father who remained until his death an agnostic. The last years of my grandfather's life, then, after 1945, from the age of seventy-two to eighty-six were years of his retirement. He had retired from the world of employment by the age of sixty-five in 1937, if not before. His employment history was a chequered one and the thirty-six years from the age of twenty-nine to sixty-five involved many positions, living in many houses, always trying to make ends meet, as it were. But my memory yields little of this period of Alfred's life and my sources of information have, as yet, provided little supplementary detail.
Alfred lived to see the beginning of the space age, the first man to encircle the earth in a space vehicle, Yuri Gagarin in the Sputnick in 1957. Alfred Cornfield died at age eighty-six in 1958. This period is easier to document since all of Alfred's grandchildren lived during this period and came into their teens and twenties. His oldest grandchild, Murray Hunter, was twenty-seven when Alfred died.
My first memories of Alfred Cornfield were in about 1948 when I was four. My memories are from the years 1948 to 1958, a brief time, when Alfred lived with my mother's sister's family, by then, in Burlington. The memories are few, but quite graphic: babysitting me on cold Canadian evenings when my parents went out to choir practice; sitting in his chair in his bedroom/study on Hurd Avenue in Burlington reading a book; walking over to our home on Seneca Street from his home on Hurd Avenue; speaking quietly and gently to my mother or father in our home on Seneca Street in Burlington. I was thirteen when Alfred died and had just entered secondary school.
My mother used to tell me things about her father whom she loved deeply and respected highly. She saw him as one of the best read people she knew in her life. She saw him as highly virtuous: kind, patient, self-controlled, thoughtful, wise, courteous, considerate. My memories, again, are sadly, few and far between. I shall leave this very brief account, having made an initial effort to put something down on paper. Perhaps when time and circumstance permit more can be added to this life of Alfred Cornfield.
I place these few words, this brief summary of parts of my grandfather's life, at this point because I have a strong appreciation for his own autobiography. Immediately after reading it in 1984 and 1985 I began to write my own. My mother's poetry, too, seemed to finally bear fruit in my own poetry within two years of her death, hence my inclusion here of this brief account of my mother's poetry and art. These lines from Shakespeare's sonnets seem particularly apt here in relation to any understanding I have of the significant people in my childhood:
Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shall see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
My view of these my earliest years, my "youth's proud livery, so gazed on now," as Shakespeare writes in his second sonnet, is nowhere near as bleak as he goes on to write in that same sonnet. I do not see those years as "a tottered weed of small worth held" but, rather, as part of a "pure and goodly issue on the shore of life." Often, though, I feel the truth of Shakespeare's words about life's stage that it "presenteth nought but shows." And, to conclude these quotations from Shakespeare's sonnets, I like to think that:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This, of course, is my poetry and my prose. I am not in the position so many old and not-so-old people often are who become obsessed with the episodic details of their childhood, adolescence or, indeed, of the various stages of their lives as they review their experiences in retrospect. It is as if, by recalling many discrete scenes, they will explain who they are to themselves. While I am conscious of enjoying some understanding by this episodic review, I am also conscious that understanding lies in so many other of life’s gardens.
From my first conscious moments, moments I can still remember in 1947/8 I was absorbed in the indulgences of childhood and then of youth. Insensibly, in the last years of my teens and early twenties, from 1960 to 1967, I became absorbed in a variety of life’s activities: getting a degree, sorting out my erotic-romantic life, the Baha’i Faith, choosing a career and dealing with the first stages of my bi-polar disorder. I was by temperament moulded in these critical years to the idea of a spiritual revolution, in the sense of making the world over and creating a new society. By the age of 23 when I got married, though, I still had illusions that this process would be easier and faster than it would be. The next forty years gave me lots of practice at deepening my understanding of these processes, these realities. The progressive loss of hope, so characteristic of so many, was not a disease I suffered form.
It is timely to include this brief digression into the life of my grandfather because his own autobiographical work was read during my third and forth years in Katherine, 1985-6, and it served as a crucial inspiration to the beginnings of my own work. Alfred Cornfield’s work was prototypical, provided a principle of coherence and generativity, a kind of helpful simplicity of aim and purpose to my own work. His work has served as an anchor point for what Todd Schultz, an instructor in methods of autobiography, calls “personalogical inquiry.” Having seen how my grandfather creatively crafted some clarifying coherence in his own uneven and complex life, I was encouraged to try to anchor my life in a similar fashion. Of course, there were other anchoring events and this autobiography describes a number of them. These anchoring events, some in one's micro, one's interpersonal world; some in the macro world of socio-politics, give one a focus from which to deal with life's labyrinth, its puzzle and from there to find the golden thread, however elusive it often seems to be.
At this stage of my life I have written little about my grandfather’s days after 1901 and little about my parents. I will close this opening chapter with an introduction I wrote to a collection of my mother’s art and poetry that I put together after her passing. This piece will also help to provide some autobiographical background, a setting, a context, for what follows in the chapters ahead. The notes here on my mother's life are few, entirely out of proportion to the significance of her role in my life.
LILIAN PRICE'S 'POETRY AND ART' IN CONTEXT
One of Canada's major writers in the last half of the 20th century, Mordecai Richler, left Canada in 1950 at the age of 20 for the UK. Among the reasons he left was his opinion that he could not publish his writings in Canada. Canadian literature was still in its infancy, then, as a literary genre. It was about this time that my mother started to write. Except for only occasionally published pieces, most of my mother's work was unpublished. After some twenty years of gathering quotations from varied sources(1930-1950) and more than thirty years of extensive reading, mostly in literature, philosophy and religion, she began writing poetry. She was about forty-six.
The view of Canadians then, and now, was that they were "nice but solemn." At least that was how Richler expressed it in an interview fifty years later on Books and Writing, ABC Radio National(1:00-2:00 pm,18 July 2001) By the last decade of the twentieth century Canada had found a rich vein of literature in the form of several major writers on the international stage. By that time my mother had passed away. But during those years when Canada was moving from its infancy in literature to the more mature work that was beginning to be found in bookshops around the world in the years 1950-1980, my mother produced this body of poetry. It was not the work of a major poet or even, perhaps, a minor one. But it was the poetry of someone who loved words and who tried to put life's meaning into words. It was the poetry of someone I loved very much and to whom I owe much more than I can measure for my own interest in writing poetry as well as a whole attitude to life.
In the same way that autobiography provided an event of super-saliency in the life of my grandfather, the writing of poetry served as a similarly salient event in the life of my mother. Both autobiography and poetry have been strong influences on my own experience. It is difficult to know just how this process works but I would accord these events a central status. They help to counter the looseness of method in autobiography and they help me deal with the puzzling multiplicity of interpretations that attempt to explain a life. Some interpretations seem better, more pronounced, even if not definitive. One strives for a degree of interpretability, continuity and cogent coherence, for self-defining memories and prototypical scenes. Perhaps, too, as Schultz argues, it is a manifestation of “the principle of parsimony in action.” It draws webs of meaning together in one concise package, providing a handy touch point to remind myself who I am.
Canada's history was arguably not as bloody and angst-ridden as that of the United States, England or even Australia. Canada's novelists and poets simply 'mapped the territory' as Richler put it. In 1950, until her death in 1978, my mother, Lillian Price, was mapping her territory through poetry and, I should add, through art and music.
Building on the work of her father, Alfred J. Cornfield, whose autobiography was written when she was only sixteen or seventeen but was not published until 1980, less than two years after my Mother's passing and twenty-two years after Alfred Cornfield had passed away, Lillian was, indeed, 'mapping her territory,' as her father had mapped his more than thirty years before. Whereas he did his mapping in the form of autobiography and a life of extensive reading, Lillian used poetry for her main artistic medium.
In 1980, by the time I began to write poetry, at least poetry I kept copies of for the future, my mother had been gone for two years. Interestingly, my grandfather's work had only been published perhaps three months before I started writing poetry. By the time I began to write poetry and autobiography my grandfather had been gone for nearly a quarter of a century. I write these words to give perspective and context to my mother's work, work that I keep in my study here in George Town Tasmania. I keep it in a file and in a small booklet I have entitled Poetry: Mother. Around it, on the walls, are three of her pastel drawings which, with two photographs of her, are part of her memory, its aliveness, its freshness, even twenty-five years after her passing. After I left home, first in 1964 and then, when my father died in May 1965, my mother began to take up art. I do not know the exact date of the pieces in the collection here, but my guess is that they come from the years 1965 to 1978. To her musical talents and her poetic inclinations were now added the artistic in her latter years, after the age of sixty.
Then, as the 1970s, neared their end, my mother passed away. The many battles between heart and head, which were the pleasure and pain of her life and which were at the root of much of her artistic work, were at last over.
18 July 2001
And so, in a rambling sort of fashion I introduce my life and something of my family in the twentieth century. I'm always by degrees and alternating: amazed, slightly surprised, impressed, perplexed, bemused, alienated and fascinated by the cross-section of skills, abilities, successes, failures, indeed, the life-stories of the many members who constitute my family of origin and family by two marriages. The group is now a burgeoning one of some fifty people, approximately. I can't even keep track of their names. The experiences of most of them will never see the light of day in this autobiography. For most of my life I have not tried to keep a detailed track of their comings and goings, too occupied have I been with my own and several, although not all, of the most intimate of my familial relationships. For the few members of my family of birth or of marriage who have entered this narrative, except for an even smaller handful, they occupy a relatively small space.
Now that I am retired I take a distant and dispassionate view of the trail of people who are part of my consanguineal and affinal sets of relationships. Australian cartoonist Bruce Petty, when asked to describe "the domestic trail" of his life, said it was "utterly incoherent" and "a huge mystery." I laughed when I read those words. I liked Petty's honesty here. I think these phrases apply, in part, to my domestic life. But I would also use other phrases to characterize the overall picture. For I found all three of these foundation stones very anchoring to my spirit and body over the last six decades. I would not want to dismiss them as facilely as Petty does, although in my lesser moments I have to agree with him and his characteristically delightful humour. Perhaps, though, I'll let these relationships unfold in more detail in the seven hundred pages ahead.
This chapter provides a start to what has become a long story and an equally long analysis. I hope readers will find the chapters which follow both entertaining and instructive. If at times they seem a little boring and mechanical, as so many autobiographies are, I hope that readers will also find that they are usefully informative from time to time and intellectually simulating on occasion. I may not lift ticks from the clock and freeze them as Proust once did and as Vermeer once did in his paintings, but I try to save some of this swiftly passing life and invest it with a verbal value that time never permitted me to give it when it was happening. The discipline of psychoautobiography confines itself to salient episodes, special fragments, illuminating gestalts, persistent modes of behaviour, formal symmetries and constellating metaphors in a life. I cover more ground than just the salient features. I solve enigmas but leave many unsolved and so can not apply psychoautobiography to what has become a seven hundred page narrative. But there is an informed use of the psychological in this narrative and I hope it makes for a more well-rounded, a more satisfying life history. There is also an informed use of the writings and ideas of some of the "greats" of the western intellectual tradition. The wealth of this tradition provides a burgeoning base of quotable material. Here is one, again from Shakespeare, one of the many precepts and axioms which seem to drop casually from his pen, which I found to be a crucial way of putting my own experience, my own feelings, especially about those I loved:
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.
Bahá'u'lláh's says much the same thing in different ways, especially when He refers to the sin-covering eye. Much in relationships depends on this one quality.
The information I have sought and the experience I have had has been used and lived over these many decades in the service of a commitment I grew into, insensibly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This information and this experience I now frame as I did while I travelled along the path within the context of goals I have had, goals which have determined what I needed to do on the journey. This information and this activity has been part of a life of committed action, what Kierkegaard called life in the ethical sphere. Now, in these early years of retirement, the information I am obtaining in abundance is supporting an engaged intellectual activity, furthering the coordination of my action in the Bahá'í’ world and the life I live in relation to that world. My everyday commitments have always had a context within an overall framework of what ultimately makes sense to me. And that is still the case providing, as this framework does, the terms of reference in which I obtain the information I do. There is a passion and energy in my work and now a harmony; this is no mere dabbling. Kierkegaard says that “will is the real core of man. It is tireless, spontaneous, automatic and reveals itself in many ways.” Seven or eight hours a day in the service of ideas and print is all my will can muster. There is spontaneity and the automatic in this exercise of writing and reading. For the remaining seven or eight hours a day during which I am awake I must turn my will to other things to refresh my spirit and survive in the world of the practical, the world of people and places. Like Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau more than a century before me, I travel widely within the confines of my small town with and in my mind. I confront life in and with my own spirit which is the most trying battleground life gives us. Only time will tell the extent of my mastery.
An insidious bi-polar illness, a long list of sicknesses beginning in early childhood, sadness and melancholy, fatigue resulting from fifty to seventy hours a week talking and listening, reading and writing, marking and planning as a teacher; guilt from crimes, follies and sins of a major and minor nature, baseness, impatience, lack of self-control, lust, indulgences of several kinds, the litany could go on and on; periodic failure in employment, in marriage, in relationships of various kinds, incapacities on a host of fronts--and still with this sense of burden, perhaps because of it, there arose this call to write. Perhaps this writing was simply--or not-so-simply--part of my "heart melting within me" as it says in the Long Obligatory Prayer. Of course, the heart did not melt all the time; the burden was not felt like some great weight over my head every minute of my existence.
Some of my sins I did not want the answer to "so keenly as to burn the bridges across which the sin continually" came. My entreaty to God to save me from my sin was mixed with a sense of repentance that was, often, "a very searching and disturbing affair." The effort to come to grips with many of my sins has often seemed too demanding. I have prayed long and hard over several decades but, it seems, that I so often simply(or not so simply) lack the constitutional fortitude. I can find the right "inward craving," but the promptings of my passions, their contagion, seems so much stronger than the control I need to deal with them. And so the battle rages.
I remember back in the mid-1990s, as I was beginning to plan my exit from the world of endless talk, people and listening as a teacher and Bahá'í in community; I remember that tastes, touches, sights and smells began to take on a new meaning. I seemed to recapture the past and live in the present with a greater intensity than I had been able to do in previous years. As the new millennium opened and I was at last free from meetings and people coming to me and at me at a mile a minute, the present and especially the past began to come at me noticeably free of those disappointments and anxieties that had for so many years accompanied my life. There was the sense of blossom, of freshness, of new colour, of bright intensity and there was also the sense of calm and a solemn consciousness.
This consciousness seemed productive of a quiet joy that had not been there before, perhaps this was partly due to fluvoximine and lithium's soothing presence in my brain and body chemistry, especially at the synaptic connections. They were certainly essential but, as I listened to Chopin's Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Opus 23 and gazed occasionally out of the window of my study at the lemon tree and the flowers my wife had recently planted in our front garden here in northern Tasmania, I felt a quiet joy. It was a joy which resembled that equable temperament that Wordsworth is said to have had and which allowed me to experience the emotions and events of earlier days, only this time they were recollected in tranquillity, in that "bliss of solitude."
Canadian poets have been found to express a melancholy, a feeling of resignation to misery, isolation and the feeling that man is encompassed by forces beyond his ability to control which strike out repeatedly and blindly to destroy him. Australian poets have a slightly different take on the melancholy in life. There is a great upwhelling of humour which plays with any high seriousness. Heroic action is seen to be futile in both Canada and Australia. Literary subject matter often becomes so removed from life that one finds only the residue of personal values, personal relationships and private worlds – worlds of gloom and despair at that in Canada. In Australia there is more of the celebration of the commonplace. I don’t want to go into an extended analysis of the literary in both cultures but, when one adds the dimension of a Baha’i overlay, a hybrid personality is created, a hybrid such as myself.
I do not so much want to recover the past; this work is not so much an autobiography of remembrance, although there is inevitably some of that. It is an autobiography of analysis and reflection. I want to write, also, about what I have not experienced and about what gives this life of mine meaning and worth. I am not living in this work the way some writers have done who failed to live in their life. I am certainly appraising my life, my times, my religion and the myriad relationships involved in such an appraisal, for appraisal has been for me somewhat of an obsession as these four epochs evolved and as the content of the appraisal shifted. For some writers, the great ones, it is style that endures. Lies, subterfuge and dissimulation become part and parcel of the text. This was true of Proust. For me, my aim is the essential truth of my life and times, however difficult it may be to find and describe it. Style is something of which I am hardly conscious.
I am conscious, though, of the epistemological upheaval taking place in the historical profession and in the field of autobiography. This upheaval has several major forms. One of these forms is based on the view that there are only possible narrative representations of the past and none can claim to know the past as it actually was. Of course, some historians maintain that conventional historical practice can be continued. Others say that the writing of history must be radically reconceived. The historian and literary analyst, Raymond Williams, says that the word “narrative” “is one of the most difficult words in the English language.”
My work may be out of step with the modern consciousness; my sexual revelations may be tame; my social preoccupations of interest to only a few; my politics irrelevant to the vast majority; but I like to think there is a rich and analytical base that is quiet and possessed of what many I’m sure will find to be a dull but hopefully pleasing silence, a silence which will, in time, attract some readers from among the loud impatient honks and belches that occupy so much of the public space these days. For there is, amidst the noise and tumult, a serious and sophisticated reading audience that has developed in the last several decades and now includes millions. This work may find a home among some of these millions. But whether it does or whether it doesn't for a citizen who acts or a writer who spends periods of time cloistered from society, the dilemma is the same. It is the dilemma of the witness. As witness, one asks: "Who am I to say?" Or: "Who am I, if I don’t say." The more deeply you examine your own life, the more deeply you enter your times, and from there, history.
Were we endowed with a longer measure of existence and lived perhaps two or three centuries, we might cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition. But given the narrow span in which we live, that we are given, we seem eager to grasp at the precarious and short-lived enjoyments with which we are blessed. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges or depresses and confuses, the horizon of our intellectual view. In this autobiographical composition that has taken me some months or years, in this perusal that has occupied me for some several dozen days of total time, perhaps hundreds of hours, two centuries have rolled through these pages, with more attention paid to recent decades and less as the years go back. These are the two centuries since Shaykh Ahmad began his years as the Bab's precursor in Iran, circa 1804-6.
The duration of a life or an epoch, my life, is contracted to a fleeting moment. At the same time, this physical world, which gradually burst with wonder as the years rolled by, rapidly grew smaller as a result of radio, TV, the computer and a cornucopia of technological inventions. The grave, I sensed by my thirties, was ever beside life's achievement, however unconscious I was of its presence or should I say its absence most of the time. The success of life's ambition was instantly, or virtually so, followed by the loss of the prize. Our immortal reason survived as it reflected on the complex series of calamities and victories which passed before my eyes in history's larger and multi-coloured garment. The entire panoply and pageantry of it all faintly dwelt in my remembrance as I went about my daily duties. So is this true in varying degrees of all of us. And it is this remembrance that I write about in this autobiography, these fleeting years in which the Bahá'í Faith and the world have been transformed; in which the processes of integration and disintegration were gathering momentum, accelerating unobtrusively and yet, ironically, quite conspicuously; in which the world's landscape daily grew more desolate, threatening and unpredictable and yet more comfortable physically due to a range of consumer durables that were not enjoyed by the world's peoples at any time in history and were still not enjoyed by half the population, perhaps three billion or more.
Liberal relativism and capitalism represent a single, a dominating and comprehensive world-view, as they have in "Western civilization" during all these epochs and especially since the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Against this background, during these several epochs of my life, great conceptual, political and social changes have taken place in the midst of terrible suffering. The Faith itself has undergone a succession of triumphs which are documented elsewhere. It would appear an even greater toll of grief and travail, unimaginably appalling, is in the offing in the remaining years of this epoch and the epoch to come which will take us to 2144, in all probability. But there is too, somewhere down the track, a vision of great glory and beauty for man and society--from a Bahá'í perspective.
I think that I have some advantages over the film-maker who tries to reduce a life to 24 frames per second. Something happens on the way to the screen that does not happen on the way to the page. Despite the evocations of the past through powerful images, colourful characters and moving words, film so often does not fulfil the basic demands for truth and verifiability used by writers of history. Film compresses the past into a closed world by telling a single, linear story with essentially a single interpretation at least such is the general pattern in the first century of film history. I try to avoid this trap. I do not deny historical, autobiographical alternatives. I do not do away with complexities of motivation and causation. I do not banish subtlety. I explore it in all its paradoxes and nuances. But in a world where most people get most of their information about history from visual media, I am conscious that history and one of its sub-disciplines, autobiography, have become somewhat esoteric pursuits, that a large part of the population not only does not know much history but does not care that they don’t know. It would seem that it is becoming difficult for many writers about the past to tell stories that engage people. At the same time there is a plethora of books that tell wonderful stories. Film tells stories so very well. We are certainly not short on stories.
To render the fullness of the complex, multi-dimensional world in which we live we need to juxtapose images and sounds; we need quick cuts to new sequences, dissolves, fades, speed-ups, slow motion, the whole panoply and pageantry of film to even approximate daily life and daily experience. Only film can recover all the past’s liveliness. So goes one view. On the other hand, some critics of film say that film images carry a poor information load. They say that history is not primarily about descriptive narrative. It is about debate over what happened, why it happened and what significance it had. It’s about personal knowledge. What I try to do in this book is get six each way. In the absence of film’s captivating charm I try to do what film can’t do or certainly won’t be doing with my life while I am alive. This book contains much that is the stuff of film, a surface realism, the truth of direct observation, but I try to reach out to people through the inner life, through character, through psychology and what is private and not visible or catchable on camera. In the process I am confident I will catch or contact some and with others no contact will be made. tis is inevitable.
I do with my life what history tries to do with people’s lives. I write and in the process feel less peculiar and less isolated, less alienated, less lonely. The wrap-around feeling one gets at the movies, the swamping of the senses, the feeling of being there, I get in the writing of this autobiography. I also get elements of reflection, evaluation, argument, weighing of evidence, dealing with inaccuracies and simplifications. Whether the reader can get both is another question. The intellectual density of the written word can be conveyed in film and the senses can be stimulated as much by print as by the cinema. One can try to do both but to really pull it off is no mean feat.
My work possesses, for me, an escape from the world and its complex of incidents, demands, compulsions and solicitations of every kind and a degree of urgency. These external and never-ending minutiae of life, these incidents, “overtake the mind," as Paul Valery once wrote, "without offering it any inner illumination." Now and in this work the world blows through me like the wind, as it has blown through my life and my times. Writing this account is a world of wait and watch, ponder and ponder. Its chief reward is a stimulating affect on my mind. Sometimes there is exhaustion. But there is and has been a daily renewal which was something I did not get in my last years of teaching.
By the time I was nearly 55 and ready to retire from teaching I had begun to taste a "pervasive spiritual strangulation," a disappointment, a fatigue of the heart, a tedium vitae, an "existential exhaustion." This was my experience in the 1990s beginning in my late forties and early fifties. It was part of Shakespeare's experience as conveyed in his sonnets. What every human being does in their inmost thoughts and responses, the play of feeling on things seen and felt, this is what we find in his sonnets. This is what I try to portray, too, in this narrative. It was not all gloom and doom, though. There was, as well, as John Updike observed, a new fun in life, "an over-50 flavour." This will become evident to readers as they progress through this book. Perhaps all I had was what Jed Diamond called, in his two books on the subject, the male menopause, which he regarded as the major male change of life in his whole life. There clearly was an angst, but there also was an inner peace, a dichotomy, a contradiction in terms, perhaps consistent with my bi-polar disorder. In 1998 I began a series of testosterone injections, not for my libido but for a fatigue which was making me go to sleep every afternoon. By late 1999, and my early retirement these injections were discontinued. The fatigue and angst gradually dissipated as the new millennium opened.
What I write here is closer to history than most dramatic film or documentary television. Things have to be invented to make stories, the content of dramatic film, a smooth documentary hour, coherent, intense and one that can be fitted into a two hour time-slot. The most difficult thing for many to accept about film is that this most literal of media is not at all literal. What we see on the screen is less a description than an invention of the past. But what is here in this autobiography deals with ‘just the facts, mam.’ It deals with them in a certain fashion to deal with coherence and incoherence, intensity and boredom, time’s regularities and irregularities. It deals with history in a way that is new in the history of literature. For literature until the last century or so has dealt with the upper classes, the well-to-do, and only since the coming of these two modern Revelations have ordinary, everyday, men and women, even begun to tell their stories or have them told by others.
The awful mysteries and the true nature of the institutions of this Faith I have come to believe in and give a context to in this narrative as well as the devotional side of my life's experience I have both concealed from the eyes of the multitudes of humankind. Indeed, it seemed necessary to exercise the utmost caution, even to affect a certain secrecy, in these early epochs of this Formative Age when the tenets of this Faith are, as yet, "improperly defined and imperfectly understood." It was a secrecy, a caution, that for me derived from the implications of the claim of Bahá'u'lláh, a claim which over time would involve both opposition and struggle, authority and victory. I often felt a little like a secret-agent man possessed of knowledge no one around me had. Sadly, it appeared that those around me, for the most part, did not want that knowledge. So it was that I possessed only some of the equation, the analogy, the picture of the secret-agent man. I often felt the romance and the excitement of the role, however subdued it was by reality.
I am more than a little conscious that I am, like Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College, "swallowed up in a corporate body" which will outlast me. I possess, then, a kind of derivative immortality. My own life is only an element in that body's more permanent life. My work, like that of all my fellow Bahá'ís, will be carried on by my successors, the generations yet to come. Our story and the story of our successors will be found in many places. This is only one small part of that story. For humanity will again become united around a transcending moral issue and this narrative is a speck in the long road that is that story. At the moment the transcending pathfinders among us can not be spotted; society does not appear ready to risk the acquisition a new path, a new, a common metanarrative. But these pathfinders will not be going away; they will be waiting to help a confused society find its way back to a clarity of purpose. Of course that society and the individuals which compose it, must want what the Baha’is have to offer. I often feel the way a criminal I once watched on his release from years in confinement. He said at the time that he felt like he was being treated as if he had been lagging in suspended animation all those years he had been in prison. His old inmate friends, he said, had similar experiences. They had all been treated as though they had just returned from a brief trip to the toilet or out of town for a few hours. Even though they had been in the nick for a decade, they were greeted casually and their friends had then gone about their business as if nothing had happened in the interim.
I feel as if I am in possession of a wondrous jewel but it remains undiscovered, unknown and, for the most part, unwanted. This autobiography is part of the longstanding effort of the Baha’i community to take this jewel and, by some mysterious process, breathe a new life in this "spiritual springtime" and "array those trees which are the lives of men with the fresh leaves, the blossoms and fruits of consecrated joy." At least the words I put on paper are not in suspended animation, however much I am and have been during these epochs.
In my dress, my food, my homes, my furnishings, my gardens, my transport, my employments and enjoyments, I was clearly one of those favourites of fortune among the global billions who united every refinement of convenience and of comfort, if not elegance and splendour. So many of these emoluments soothed my pride or gratified my sensuality, insensibly acquired, largely unappreciative of their comforts due to familiarity and their continuous presence like the very air I breathed. One could not give the name of luxury to these refinements of mine. Nor could I be severely arraigned by the moralists of the age for possessing these basics. But I often thought that it would be more conducive to the virtue, as well as the happiness of mankind, if all possessed the necessities and none of the superfluities of life. And one day, it was my view, that would be the case.
Many autobiographies purport to deal with one thing while, in reality, dealing with something else. Hillary Clinton's recent autobiography was intended to be about the many controversies and scandals in Bill Clinton's campaigns and presidency, presumably to get these issues behind her before she contemplated running for the White House herself. Yet her book skates over the problems the Clinton administration faced in its rocky debut and in the impeachment crisis and skims over details of matters like Whitewater and "travelgate." It expends a startling amount of space on Mrs. Clinton's trips abroad, on her personal appearance and on what is simply trivia. This is where her frankness is found; for example, her frank dislike of golf.
I hope this book of mine avoids this unfortunate trap of the populist autobiographer. I hope I achieve what I set out to do. There is certainly little frankness in this work about the trivia in life. Perhaps it would be better if there had been. Hilary Hammell, in her review of Hilary Clinton's book in the Yale Review of Books, concludes that Mrs. Clinton may just have convinced 600,000 people to vote for her in 2008. It may have been that she did not waste her words on trivia. And it may be that this work of mine should have taken a leaf out of Mrs. Clinton’s work and included much more of this everyday bone and chouder.
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times about a book by one Scott Berg, says that Katherine Hepburn was decidedly unaccustomed to the art of introspection. Revelations in Scott Berg's biography of Hepburn, published two weeks after her death, are few and scattered. "Hepburn, I learned," Mr. Berg writes, "always lived in the moment; and once an event had been completed, she was on to the next. There was no looking back." This work, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, is strongly, decidedly introspective. It is just about entirely a book that looks back, but with one eye firmly fixed on the future. My role as witness to, as a contemporary of, the developments in the Bahá'í community in the half-century 1953-2003 is a major feature of this narrative. It is a witness that has an eye on the future, that feels like it has the very future in its bones.
VOLUME 1: CHAPTER TWO
"Breaking New Ground"
When people collectively explore, in various ways, the real commitments that define their lives as human beings, they can create a vision of self-actualization in their social environment, a new way of expressing what their world is, who they are and what they ought to be. And when that vision is already defined in specific terms so that their analysis and discussion is about the elaboration of that vision, the results can be staggering. It is like a second coming into being of the self. -Ron Price with thanks to James Herrick, "Empowerment Practice and Social Change: The Place for New Social Movement Theory," 1995, Internet, 12 January 2003.
The Bahá'í experience has generated a massive quantity of print in the first two centuries of its experience, if we go back as far as the arrival of Shaykh Ahmad in Najaf and Karbila in about 1793 and his becoming a mujtahid in the following years as the beginning point for that history. This generation, the generation that came of age in the 1960s, has seen a burgeoning quantity of print become available, more than any generation in history. The Writings of the Central Figures of this Faith and its two chief precursors produced a mountain of print. What is now a monumental quantity of official documents, primary source materials like letters and reports from both within and without the Baha’i community and its efflorescing institutions around the world, and detailed analyses in book form and on the internet is bringing to the generations born after WW2 more print than they can deal with and absorb. -Ron Price, "A Contemporary Bahá'í Autobiography to the Beginnings of Bahá'í History: 1993-1793," Pioneering Over Four Epochs, Internet Document.
But there have been many aspects of the Bahá'í experience, its history, the individual stories of what are now millions of adherents, which have been resistant to literary and historical representation whether as narrative, novel, play, poem, letter, diary, biography or autobiography, among the many genres in which humans convey their experience. Moojan Momen points out that "Bahá'ís have been lamentably neglectful in gathering materials for the history of their religion."1 But as the new millennium approached this has begun to change.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Moojan Momen, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions 1844-1944, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981, p.xvii.
In volume two of Toynbee’s A Study of History, he discusses the concept or doctrine that “the ordeal of breaking new ground has an intrinsic stimulating effect,” and “the stimulating effect of breaking new ground is greatest of all when the new ground can only be reached by crossing the sea.” Toynbee cites many examples and focuses especially on the Etruscans who “stayed at home and never did anything worth re- cording"”and the “astonishing contrast between the nonentity of the Etruscans at home and their eminence overseas.” This eminence, he argues, was due to the “stimulus which they must have received in the process of transmarine colonization.”
My pioneering experience took me across the sea, first in 1967 across the Davis and Hudson Straits, extensions of the North Atlantic Ocean; second in 1971 across the Pacific Ocean and third, in 1974, 1978 and 1999 across the Bass Strait, an extension of the Great Southern Ocean, to live on Baffin Island, the continental island of Australia and Tasmania, respectively. These pioneer moves could have had the soporific effect that the migration of the Philistines had on them about the same time as the Israelites were transforming themselves from nomadic stock-breeders into sedentary tillers on stony, barren and landlocked highlands and pasture-lands east of Jordan and south of Hebron.
But I found these moves, like the Volkerwanderungs, that is the wanderings, of the past, those of the Ionians, the Angles, the Scots and the Scandinavians, possessed an intrinsic stimulus. For these moves were part of a modern Volkerwanderung, a national and international pioneering exodus. My own role in this story was as a part of that national exodus, the opening chapters of the push of the Baha’i Faith to “the Northernmost Territories of the Western Hemisphere” and Canada’s “glorious mission overseas.” And to put this venture in its largest, its longest perspective and time frame: my work is at the outset of the second 'period' of a 'cycle' of hundreds of thousands of years, in a second 'age', over four 'epochs'; or to use yet another paradigm, my life is at the beginning of the federated state, after successive units of political and social organization on the planet: tribe, chiefdom, clan, city state and nation after homo sapiens sapiens emerged some 35,000 years ago from a homo sapiens line beginning 3mya.(ca)
If such are the most general perspectives on time in relation to where I am in history, the spiritual axis, mentioned by Shoghi Effendi in his 1957 letter, and a series of concentric circles define the spacial parameters of my life, in several interlocked and not unimportant ways. The southern pole of this axis is "endowed with exceptional spiritual potency." Many years of my life have been lived at several points along the southern extremity of this pole: in Perth, in Gawler and Whyalla, in Ballarat and Melbourne and in several towns of Tasmania. All of these points lie at the outer perimeter of the ninth concentric circle whose centre is the "Bab's holy dust."
In anatomy the second cervical vertebra is the axis on which the head turns. Axis also refers to any of the central structure of the body’s anatomy, the spinal column. The term is also used as a positional referent in both anatomy and in botany. Such is a brief exposition of the analogical importance of where I have spent my life as an overseas pioneer. Living, as I have at the end of the planet’s axis, endowed with an exceptional spiritual potency, an axis on which the Baha’i world, it could be argued, turns and serves, the line between Japan and Australia, as the central structure or positional referent, of the global community, gives me a crucial spacial orientation the significance of which only the future will reveal.
My several moves, part of the laying of the foundation for this federated, this future super-state, resulted in a periodic change of outlook and this change of outlook gave birth to new conceptions. The process was an insensible one at first but, over more than four decades, the process resulted in a change which one could analyse at many levels. It took place in such small incremental steps, especially in the first ten years of the adventure, 1962-1972. But in the second decade, 1973 to 1983 “new and wonderful configurations” developed, again, not overnight, but measurably and accompanied by difficulties as well as victories. Indeed, the temple of my existence was “embellished with a fresh grace, and distinguished with an ever-varying splendour, deriving from wisdom and the power of thought.” Perhaps this puts it too strongly, makes too extensive a claim. It may not have been wisdom, nor “the dazzling rays” of “a strange and heavenly power” but, rather, a progressive healing of my bi-polar disorder. To express this fresh grace in practical terms I could use the following concrete experience: I spent half of 1968 in four mental hospitals receiving eight shock treatments and all of 1972 as one of South Australia’s most successful high school teachers.
After six months in several mental hospitals in 1968 and an emotionally unstable first decade(1962-1972) on the pioneer front, a decade that included five years of study to prepare for the job, the career, that would give me access to employment opportunities over a lifetime, opportunities undreamt of at the time and a decade that included moving from the Canadian Arctic to far-off Australia, a new world opened. What was clearly discernible in 1971 was “a new horizon, bright with intimations of thrilling developments in the unfolding life of the Cause of God.” Such was the general hope for my own life, 'intimations of thrilling developments,' as I flew, with my first wife, Judy, across the North American continent and the Pacific Ocean: Toronto to Sydney, in early July of 1971. Within two years of these bright intimations Judy and I were divorced. The first evidences of any kind of writing ability surfaced in these years. Such are the paradoxes and contradictions of life which I have lived with, as we all live with as we try to apply the teachings of this Cause to our daily lives.
In 1967 I had developed an infatuation, a passion, for Judy Gower, the daughter of the chief executive officer of the Motor Vehicle License Branch of the Department of Transport in Ontario. She lived in Scarborough, one of Toronto’s outer suburbs, and it was there we married. My mother gave me permission to marry, although she saw Judy as a most ordinary person. In her eyes and mind my Mother thought I could have done better. But I did not see it this way at all. I found both before my marriage and after as the years went on, that Judy became more attractive in my eyes, but domestic trouble intervened. As the seven year marriage went from year to year tensions arose for both of us, tensions we were both happy to dissolve. Eventually a new relationship developed for each of us in those troublesome, chaotic heyday years of the 1970s in Australia. Judy had many fine qualities and, given the extent of our relationship, the first intimate one in my life of any duration beyond a day, she deserves more of a place in this work. But it is a place that will be found in a future time.
Many theories of self have become useful, as I examine the past retrospectively, if I am to possess “an adequate definition of self-conception.” The capacity to evaluate the qualitative worth of my desires and my actions, to express whatever is contradictory, paradoxical, ironic, complex and difficult if not impossible to understand, are part of creating accounts, reconciliations and explanations of my life or just small parts of it. The process is facilitated by the narrative self-conception of autobiography, a self-conception that surfaces from the interplay between events and the perception of them re-constructed in narrative form.
There is a multiplicity of narrative frames in this autobiography: gender, religion, family, nation, history, politics, sociology, psychology, that exist, all of which govern the narrative I endorse and the associated actions that take place in these pages. There are, too, the narratives of hope and accomplishment, those of disillusionment and failure, as well as those of faith and belief as opposed to skepticism and doubt. In each of these, or some mix of all of them(which it seems is the case with mine), individuals act to create or fulfil their identities. The narrative serves to frame or orient action and action transforms the narrative by enriching and validating it. If the public narrative is consistent with our actions, we can say that self and identity are authentic. If there are opposing narratives, contradictions or even falsities, you might say that this is simply part of the dynamic nature of identity, an identity which operates in the context and texture of daily life with the same contradictions and falsities. For identity is not static, pure and unadulterated: context and audience are critical variables in what is inevitably, and certainly for me, a hybrid reality. The writing of this autobiography is a process of gathering information and testing hypotheses about myself, my roles and my relationships.
Judy and I flew to Australia to work for the South Australian government as primary school teachers in Whyalla. By April 1971 when the international Baha’i body sent its Ridvan message we had been hired and began planning for our overseas move. The Formative Age of this new Faith was rapidly approaching the mid-point of its first century. Those "bright intimations" certainly filled our world as we got ready to move to Australia in the southern hemisphere. We were hardly conscious of just how far from home this move entailed. Just how far it was I came to discover in the next several decades. I only saw my mother once again and my cousins not for more than thirty years.
However unstable that first decade of pioneering was, the memories I have of that period constitute what social scientist Peter Braustein calls “possessive memory.” These memories now exist with me “in a lover’s embrace.” I feel as if no one else can touch these memories, even if I share them with others in this autobiography. These memories, in a way, possess me. I do not possess that "sense memory" that, say, British actor Michael Caine enjoys in which he can go back to a point in time in his life and relive the emotional event in the same way. A tearful event will bring tears to Caine again by the simple but intense contemplation of the memory. The memory, for me, is very real but the experience is more like Wordsworth's: "emotions recollected in tranquillity."
Braustein says of the activists of the sixties that they “experienced a sense of self-generation so powerful that it became a constituent part of their identity.” My activism was not based on rejection or opposition but, rather, on the part I played in the development of Bahá'í communities in the ten towns I lived in during the sixties. I was fifteen when the sixties started and twenty-five when they ended. My pioneering life began during those years and that “sense of self-generation” is still part of my identity. Identity is, of course, a complex question and one's identity, my identity, has many sources. Indeed, the success of identity formation depends on various personality factors like flexibility, self-esteem, tendency to monitor one's behaviour, an openness to experience, cognitive competence, social context, family communication patterns, among other things. It is difficult to write autobiography based on the view that writing is not an expression of personality. Some writing is a continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand, especially autobiography.
I felt in the sixties, as I do now, that sense of urgency, as if I was an agent in history. Hippies and student activists made the counter-culture between 1964 and 1968, “by their explicit attack on technology, work, pollution, boundaries, authority, the unauthentic, rationality and the family,” wrote Ortega y Gasset as he attempted to define the essence of that generation and its particular type of sensibility.
As I look back over what is now half a century, I perceive the panorama, the chaos, the picture of discrete events as they roll by my mental window indiscriminately. Humans and perhaps the primates in their ancestral heritage, the several progenitors of human beings, of homo sapiens sapiens, have had this ability for, perhaps, several million years. With the arrival of the train, though, early in the nineteenth century human beings were able to triple the distance that had been covered in one’s mental window in a given period of time throughout all of recorded history by horse and cart. They could "perceive the discrete as it rolled past the window indiscriminately" three times faster than in a horse-drawn coach. Wolfgang Schivelbusch says this is the defining characteristic of the panoramic. In fact he says the really crucial feature of the panoramic is "the inclination to fix on irrelevant details in the landscape or in the images that pass before the viewer's eye."
As I scan, in my mind's eye, the multitude of events in the panorama of my life, I fix first on this event and then on that, as Schivelbusch describes. Of course, there is some pattern in this autobiography, but there is also much that is serendipitous, spontaneous, highly discontinuous. Readers may find this latter quality somewhat disconcerting, especially those readers who are more comfortable with a sequential, a simple and somewhat predictable and absorbing narrative sequence. The electronic media in the same half century that this autobiography is concerned with(1953-2003) have also brought to the individuals--at least this individual--a profusion, a diaspora, of public spheres and so very much more of those discrete events rolling past my window indiscriminately. The imaginative resources of lived and local experiences have become globalized.
Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1936 that the process of nation-building had come to an end and, in my early years as a Bahá'í, I often wondered at his meaning. The issue is, of course, complex, too complex to pursue here, but the window on my world, the imagined community, in the half century of this narrative, has become the entire planet. "The creation of selves and identities," as Imre Szeman wrote recently, takes place in a volatile and unstable mixture. The imagination now can play everywhere and instability, volatility, is part of the result. The autobiography of anyone living in this period must take cognizance of this colonization of the imagination by the media and what many call commodity capitalism.
However serendipitous this account may be, however much I improvise as I tell my story, as I move the events around in what seems like a loose, easy-going and fortuitous fashion, my aim is not that of those two famous American novelists of this period: Kurt Vonnegut Jr and John Updike. The former's novel Timequake is written with irony, humor and sarcasm to wake people from their stupor and apathy and to warn them of what awaits if they do not try to radically transform their society. Likewise, John Updike's Toward the End of Time presents readers with a future that is so grim and characters that are so repulsive that the very hideous images force them to either embrace his work masochistically or reject it outright and work towards preventing the dystopia he describes. Both writers try to jolt their readers, shock them.
There is little irony in this narrative, little jolting, little shock tactics, not anywhere near as much humour as I would like and only a moderate amount of sarcasm. If there is anything grim, it is my portrayal of aspects of the society I have lived in since the mid-twentieth century and some aspects of my life for which the word ‘grim’ is a suitable adjective. This narrative work is, rather, an attempt to hint at the utopia that I see at the heart of the Bahá'í System, my experience of it at this embryonic stage of its development and the effort I see that is required to achieve its reality. I am aware as I write that for the Bahá'í the future has never looked so bright and the Bahá'í community has itself been gathering strength all my life. And so my aim is far removed from that of these two famous novelists. I would, though, very much like to write like James Herriot who, his son observes in his heartfelt, affectionate memoir, wrote with "such warmth, humour, and sincerity that he was regarded as a friend by all who read him." Sadly, I do not have that talent or a topic that, for me, lends itself to such an endearing style and approach. We all have our limitations and the qualities that make others great and their writing endearing do not define my writing or make me who I am. The style is the man and what makes that style is a quite idiosyncratic mix. Herriot sold 60 million copies of his books in 21 languages. I’m not sure I will even enter the book selling league. People will not be rolling with laughter in the aisles from an hour spent with me in this book. Alas and alack!!
I used to work at a College of Advanced Education in the late 1970s where one of my fellow lecturers in the social sciences aimed to dismantle the world views of his students, to shake them up, so to speak. I, too, want to do this, but my method is to be much gentler, to go around to the back door and, like a surgeon, give said students a new set of lungs without them feeling the experience, without too much of a jolt. Various fiction writers, famous and otherwise, assume the roles of performers in their books. At the centre of brilliantly imagined worlds these writers become actors who put on dazzling performances. The narrative personae in these works assume roles which often lead readers to question the reliability of their authors. If drama is the sister-art to life-writing, as some claim it is, then we must consider that the life-writer can use dramatic technique to shape what and how the reader imagines. By using stagecraft life-writers have the power to distort or to enhance the truth about what they are illustrating in their lives.
As an autobiographer I am conscious of creating a certain narrative persona and of establishing a context for this dramatic art but, the critical variable for me, is style. Style is a distinctive selection of words and phrases to express thought or feeling; it is a certain mental attitude peculiar to myself; it is the opposite of affectation which is an assumed habit or manner of expression; it is part and parcel of my very character. "The most perfect development of style," writes Archibald Lampman, "must be sought in those whose experience of the world has been full and at the same time in the main joyous and exhilarating." There has been, he goes on, a certain exquisite indulgence and graciousness of disposition, a capacity to delight others, to put others at ease, a happy attitude of mind, impulsive yet controlled.
It would be a rare soul who could do all these things all the time. And I am only too conscious of my many inabilities in these several domains especially the absence of joy from time to time due to a life-time of manic-depressive illness and the inability to feel joyous when life provides me with an abundance of problems. If the mark of nobility is to be happy in the midst of life’s tests, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha once wrote, then I think, at best, I occupy one of the lower ranks of this new, this spiritual nobility. But I am also conscious of the exhilarating aspects of my life and of the pleasure, the stimulus, that I brought to many, especially in my role as a teacher and lecturer. Lampman continues in many directions one of which is to associate "true style" with genius, to emphasize the unconsciousness of its acquisition and the writer being "haunted persistently by certain peculiar ideas." There is much in Lampman's analysis which resonates with my experience. In the end only the reader, at least some readers, will discover this style. And only the reader can impute genius; it would be more than pretentious to claim it for oneself! But, whatever the case, it is here in this elusive world of style that my dramatic art lies. Whatever excitement there is in the creation of this narrative persona it lies not in some conscious dramatic invention for the stage of life, however brilliantly devised and dazzlingly performed. For years I have been reaching out for a subject to give coherent form to my "voice." Poetic and non-poetic narrative has helped me find this "voice" in the last decade and lifted, refined and lifted it again. Form and voice has brought content into being, as Joyce Carol Oates describes the process. And now this autobiography spins in orbit about that kernel of myself, my society and my religion. In a very general--and yet quite specific sense--the Kingdom of God is both within and without. To put this idea a little differently: there is no dichotomy. Every atom in existence is testimony to the names of God. And every atom of this autobiography springs from my fascination with the movement of thought, of inner experience. There is here a braiding together of disparate fragments jotted down and refined and refined again.
Sometimes the experience of writing this account, like the experience of life, is euphoric; sometimes it is homely and domestic; sometimes there is the sense of the ceaseless surge of the sea, of a fierceness of energy; sometimes I feel as if I am in possession of the heart's foul rag and bone shop, as the elder Yeats poignantly described his inner life. Sometimes I feel as if I am obsessively preoccupied with refining perceptions, with analysing. I feel no need to continue the external journey, occupied as it was with living in some two dozen towns over the last forty years, but I do not want my life to end. This tinkering in the world of thanatos, of the death wish, does occur for short periods late at night, a residue of this bi-polar disorder. But life’s journey does not show any signs of ending in this my 66th year, so continue it I will, as we all must to the end of our days. As Emily Dickinson puts it:
The Brain--is wider than the Sky--
For--put them side by side--
The one the other will contain
With ease--and You--beside--
The Brain is deeper than the sea--
For--hold them--Blue to Blue--
the one the other will absorb--
The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound--
Many autobiographers and analysts of autobiography examine their lives and the field of autobiography in the context of postmodern theory. Postmodernism is a movement, a theory, an approach, to life which encapsulates the arts, the sciences, society and culture, indeed every aspect of day to day life, but outside the context of a metanarrative. I find this theory useful because it exists as a polarity, one of the ubiquitous, multitudinous, polarities that define who we are and what we do. Postmodernism suggests, sees the world, the external world as one of ceaseless flux, of fleeting, fragmentary and contradictory moments that become incorporated into our inner life. The modern hero is the ordinary person and the world is filled with abstract terms. This postmodern society could indeed be called 'the abstract society.' It is a society filled with a commercial, private, pleasure-oriented, superficial, fun-loving individual. This type of society and this type of individual began to appear, or at least the beginnings of post-modernism, can be traced back to the 1950s.
The post-modern in autobiography tends to doubt everything about both self and society. After examining more than fifty biographies of Marilyn Monroe the postmodernist is left with plausibilities and inscrutabilities but not unreserved truth. This school of thought sees, deals with, multiplicity rather than authenticity as the object of search for the analyst, student of human behaviour and autobiography. If we ultimately can’t be sure of why we did what we did in life, can’t be sure of some authenticity, some basic sincerity and simplicity of explanation in our lives we can not exercise great control of the process of explaining it retrospectively because of the very complexity of it all. The post-modernists raise many questions about the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of doing genuine, real, authentic biography and autobiography. I find their approach mildly chastening, certainly provocative and stimulating, if at times discouraging. But such an approach provides a general context for the words of John Hatcher to be applied: “we cannot possibly evaluate what befalls us or anyone else in terms of whether it ultimately results in justice or injustice or whether it is harmful or beneficial.”
There is so much information in this information-loaded society and so many interpretations that shift and slide that an atmosphere of meaninglessness or unreality often prevails, of absurdity or the comic, of an essentially problematic and unresolvable set of human dilemmas. Novelty, indifference to political concerns, no ideological commitments or beliefs in any metanarratives, but rather a commitment to hobbies, to entertainment and a host of pleasurable pursuits and pastimes fill the private space. Commitment and continuity become less important, except of course a commitment to a world of the private, the personal and the relationships contained therein, in their many forms. The analysis of postmodernism in the social science and humanities literature is extensive and too vast to deal with here. As a philosophy, a sociology, a psychology, an approach to literature and life, postmodernism helps furnish an understanding of society and the individual in the years since the mid-twentieth century, the years of this autobiography. Postmodernism is a state that inclines people to self-reflection, self-apprehension, self-definition. Autobiography is a natural bi-product of postmodernism and deals with a definition of both self and world that is outside the traditional metanarratives. This work, this autobiography, is a mirror of self-reflection and it encodes my life, my struggles and my joys, my engagements with the many issues which have played on the edges of my life.
Given both the complexity and the lack of consensus, though, about what constitutes postmodernism, I am hesitant to deal with the term in any depth here. I am not hesitant, though, to use Philippe Lejeune's definition of autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality."
Although there are other centres of interest in this work, the focus on my individual life is certainly paramont. This autobiography also needs to be seen in the context of a wider and emerging autobiographical experience of many groups and peoples. Autobiography has undergone great changes during the years with which this particular story is concerned, the last fifty years of the twentieth century. It is seen now, much more among women writers, ethnic writers, gay and lesbian writers, indeed the writings of a host of indigenous and minority groups on the planet. Since the autobiographical tradition prior to this time belonged mostly to men and men in the upper classes, women's voices, particularly "ordinary" women's voices, and men's, ordinary men's voices, were relatively unheard. In addition, earlier autobiography was typically motivated by the desire of famous or "special" individuals to record and preserve significant thoughts and historically important experiences.
Recent autobiographies of the 'ordinary' person, however, appear to grow most often from the need of people to make sense of their lives, to define themselves by intellectually mastering their experiences, and to locate their place in a broader concept of history. There is an attempt in autobiography to heighten the ordinary events of life, to translate them into a series of extraordinary visitations. To do this a certain ardor, energy, is needed. But autobiography, for all its potential depth and insight into life, its witness and contribution to history, is far from commanding a canon. Like journalism, for different reasons, a canon is difficult to locate in such a burgeoning and complex field. Any attempt to do so must inevitably be challenged and reevaluated. This is not my task here, although I refer frequently to the autobiographies of the famous and not-so-famous in history for their relevance to this work. In the years since I moved to Australia in the early seventies, though, autobiography as a genre has moved from the periphery to the centre of the literary canon. Autobiography has an affinity to advocacy and apology and enables various oppressed or marginal groups, like the Baha’i community, to claim, to obtain, visibility in the contemporary historical record.
I write of this theme in other contexts in this work, for this broad theme of the 'coming out' of ordinary people who otherwise would have been nameless and traceless, is a part of what is involved in this narrative. Autobiography, according to Nellie McKay, has been "the preeminent form of writing in the U.S.A." since the seventeenth century. And it has had an important place in the literary history of other nations, too many to describe in even the briefest of outlines here. What I do, and one of the things that distinguishes this autobiographical work, is "borrow", "adapt", and "modify" different theories, sources and ideas and use them to organize my own observations and experiences.
José Saramago, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, argues that for all of us the words we utter between the moment we get out of bed in the morning and the moment we go back there at night, as well as the words of dreams and thought, memory and imagination, all constitute a story that is concurrently rational and crazy, coherent or fragmentary. A story, an autobiographical narrative, can at any moment be structured and articulated in a written or an oral form or simply thought out or thought through. And the story is always only partial; it can never be complete. Even when we do not write, he continues, we live as characters. We live as characters in the story that is our life. For we are all on the stage now. And if great literature is, as Ezra Pound once defined it, "language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree," this work is, for me at least, great literature. For it is a work super-charged with meaning. For the reader, of course, whether this constitutes great literature is another question. Pound thought the two qualities a writer, a poet, needed were curiosity and a persistent energy. I certainly bring these two qualities to this work, to my writing. Time will tell if what I write is deemed great. In some ways this is not my concern at all.
The life-long project that living has been in the past, in history's endless caves, due to a career in business, the military, the bureaucracy, a profession, et cetera, or a belief system or an embeddedness in a family structure in a place of local habitation is, so often, at least in recent decades-in this tenth stage of history---not as possible, as likely, now. These careers, these systems, were often 'for keeps' in what Weber called 'an iron cage,' an institutional context. This is still common, but not so much the case as it has been. Career, family and a collection of interests still has centre-stage in the autobiographical accounts that make it into the public eye. The artistic products that result contain designs that vibrate in resonance with people's lives, their interests and the collective centres around which they orient their lives. But the world within which this autobiographical story is placed is much more complex than it has been in previous centuries and ages. Such is my view of history, such is my conceptual borrowing from postmodernism.
Of the half a dozen major theories of learning to develop in the last century constructivism has, arguably, the most application to this autobiography. Constructivism is based on the view that we construct our world from our experience and science is, then, for the autobiographer, “the enterprise of coordinating and arranging this experience.” Knowledge, here, is the reconstruction of our experience and is relative to each person. Science is simply the systematic use of our rational faculty in its application to whatever we aim it towards. We make, we define, we construct, our worlds and that is what I have done here in this autobiography. Family, career and interests is what makes up the core of the experience of most of us. Autobiographies, then, inevitably deal with these three foci in some shape or form--and mine as well. To some extent, as the philosopher Bradley notes, "no experience can lie open to inspection from outside." Sharing is possible to only a limited extent. We are all alone, imprisoned in our sphere. What we construct, however much it takes place in a social context, has an important component of seeing things with one's own eyes and one's own ears. That is why, as I entered the middle years(65-75) of late adulthood, the years from 60 to 80 in one of the major models of human development, I was able to say with William Hazlitt, "I was never less alone than when alone." I came to like solitude when I gave myself up to it for the sake of solitude. The fantastic, the deeply appreciated, was often just the prosaic viewed in a fresh light. The everyday world I lived in, the world of strip malls and highways and back yards, sidewalks and walls: the world of the quotidian, I occasionally saw anew.
In my own life, my profession had not been tied to a locality. I was a cosmopolitan rather than a local. Coherence and security came from the exercise of my skill more than from doing the job in a place which, as Sennett writes, was often an "empty arena," a place of intermittence, of lesser loyalty. The career-long project was associated with a location, a place only in part. A new economic map emerged in the half century I was involved in the workforce and many older workers felt obsolete as their working lives came to a close. I wanted out of the workforce by my fifties and experienced a sense of relief rather than failure when I retired at 55. My consanguineal family(birth) became, by stages from the age of 21 to 33 when my parents passed away, my affinal family(marriage) as the sociology of the family demarcates the two major types of family. My interests changed and developed as well and this autobiography provides more detail in each of these three areas of autobiographical investigation in the more than eight hundred pages remaining.
As the century was ending, I wanted to attend to the inwardness of my mental life. This inwardness, this inner world of thought, feeling and wish had undergone a transformation in the forty years I had been a Bahá'í, 1959-1999. This inner world was not some permanent, inescapable, lifelong and unchanging reality. By my fifty-fifth year this inner world had gone through a host of changes; something new had been gradually acquired; it had accumulated, widened, grown, developed. It was, too, a product of cultural history, of my religious experience, my reading and study. My poetry, my writing and especially earlier drafts of this autobiography made me aware that I could give myself over and up to this inner world and put it into words. But I was also aware that much of this inner world could not be articulated by language. I simply had to admit defeat in the face of the inability of my ear, as Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "to hear" or for my "heart to understand." Perhaps, Geoffrey Hartman put the idea aptly when he wrote that "Art represents a self which is either insufficiently present or feels itself as not presentable." Looked at from a certain angle, there are simply few words for what happens inside us. Looked at from another angle the inner life is an endless spinning tumbler of verbiage. And so in the midst of this autobiographical memoir intersecting the discourses of my identity, my social and historical analysis and my religion, I try to give form to both the verbiage and to what can not be contained in words.
Locality was important to me especially as a node in a global network. Place had power through this exercise of talent, but it was not isolated power. Self had power, but was not a burdensome possession, rather, it was tangentially connected and yet an integral part of a durable institution with an important role to play as an emerging organization on the planet. Yes there was the fleeting, the disjointed and the fragmented; one could not avoid or ignore these realities of contemporary life. But some of these fortuitous fragments of reality lodged and embedded themselves in a place, my human spirit, where they could grow and endure. An attitude of blase indifference was a necessary defence against emotional overload, but spontaneous enthusiasm could and was cultivated and expressed in an individual way. As a pioneer, I was often a stranger and, as such, I possessed, it seemed, an inherent mobility, freedom and a type of objectivity. People often felt they could confide in me. At the same time, I was sometimes a little like the European Jew, the "internal other." At other times I was one of the gang. Strangeness, of course, can enter even the most intimate of relationships and it has certainly entered mine, all my life. I have grown to think it is part of life.
'Abdul-Baha seems to be an example of how to overcome this strangeness and I learned much from His example. I could write more on this process for strangeness is "one of the most powerful sociological tools for analysing social processes of individuals and groups." For I have been for so many years, at least forty, a potential wanderer who comes today and is gone tomorrow, with the possibility of remaining permanently. During all those years I was a sojourner in other cultures. By the late sixties intercultural communication was part of university curriculums. I was getting my learning in real and different cultures: Baha’i, Eskimo, Aboriginal, Australian, Canadian and the micro-cultures of schools, offices, factories, assembly lines, mines, taxis, trucks, et cetera, et cetera. People who had personal intercultural experience often landed jobs in academia. Here their experience was confirmed, given respectability and legitimated. My knowledge and experience was usually put down, or so I recall anyway, to merely the personal or subjective. It was this setting, this intellectual milieux, that led me getting a post in August 1973 as a Senior Tutor in Human Relations in Tasmania at a College of Advanced Education. My sojourn in the world of intercultural experience was, by then, well on the road.
Australian psychologist and social analyst Ronald Conway once wrote, "The soul of the Australian is a starving captive in a dungeon created by generations of either not caring, or dreading to show care". Conway is harsh and I'm sure many would disagree with his comment. Yet it is the view of many of our writers, poets and film makers. D.H. Lawrence, a rather famous visitor to Australia right at the start of the Formative Age, observed "the disintegration of social mankind back to the elements". He saw, too, in Australia "a generous but shallow personality" groping vainly for integration in a society that was "chronically skeptical." There are now volumes of analyses of the Australian psyche which as a pioneer I have had to learn to deal with. This brief analysis goes some way to explaining the difficulty in teaching the Faith here. And there is much more to say.
In Canada one could find equally damning quotations like the following: Canadians “are a nation of contradictions floating helplessly in a sea of confusion with no framework for living, with no proper definition of justice and without a single philosophical clue as to how a nation of civilized men interacts and sustains itself." In the Guardian's letters to Canada and Australia one can find more honorific quotations to balance these pejorative characterizations. Between the two poles of opinion and some complex reality, this pioneer worked his way, plied his trade.
As an international pioneer, I have had to learn how to overcome strangeness, to make a home of whatever place I inhabited, dwelled in, occupied, however temporarily and however skeptical and shallow it may have been. My life-long project was associated with a value system that was part of my religion and, in retrospect, it appears that has been the case for at least those forty years. I have been "no owner of soil," not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the places I have lived in but, rather, possessing a particular structure of nearness and distance, indifference and involvement. I have been close but yet far from the locals. This year, in 2004, I will have been in this town in northern Tasmania for five years; I will be sixty and strangeness still exists on this suburban street, in this small town even as I own my home; even as I exhibit a friendly demeanour; even married as I am to a local. I think strangeness is part and parcel of the very pervasiveness of existence.
All the world is unquestionably a stage and as I write about my experience on this stage I have a double intention in mind. Some of this intention is clear and transparent. Indeed, it is highly desirable that the story the person tells is recognised as clear and transparent at every stage by the reader. The intention of the storyteller is also in some ways that of a conjurer, an unapologetic and unrepentant conjurer, who has no other excuse but his or her genius. And this genius is only, is simply, some extraordinary luck, some gift of unmerited grace if you prefer, a gift at some exact moment that cosmic grace was distributed among the several billion human inhabitants of the globe or a gift diffused insensibly over a whole lifetime.
In retrospect, to return to my own story and its thread of events, I now see my move to the Canadian Artic in 1967 at the age of 23 as, among other things, part of my rejection of the middle class culture I had grown up in during the 1950s and which I became more critical of during my further education in the early to mid-1960s. Of course, this move was part of the Bahá'í community's pioneering thrust as well. It was a thrust I first became conscious of in the late fifties. The fifties may have given the world silly putty, Mr. Potato Head, barbie dolls, rock 'n' roll, paint by number and the first TV shows, but the affluent fifties were alienated years which worried about communism, the atomic bomb and possessed "a convulsive craving to be busy." This desire to be busy was an important quality because it was one which contributed to the massive extension of the Bahá'í community to the uttermost corners of the earth. The craving to be busy, in a meaningful way, has been with me all my life.
But for the most part my identity did not derive from rejection, from alienation. I was not trying to forget the first or the second Great War, for they were history to me in the fifties, a history I knew little of as I played on the street, in the woods, in parks and in my backyard. When in 1960 that coat of Faith and belief was drawn aside again, as it was in the 1920s after the first war, "to reveal a changing face, regretful, doubting, yet also looking for a road to a rebirth," I had begun searching for my own form of authenticity. By my mid-teens the Bahá'í Faith seemed to represent that form. In 1980 when I read Roger White's poem, New Song I realised quickly that he had said much about the identity I acquired in those critical years of the late 1950s and sixties. So, I will quote some of that poem here:
And he hath put a new song in my mouth......
It was comfortable in the small town smugness
of your childhood.
You were born securely into salvation's complacent trinity:
A Catholic, Protestant or Jew.
So begins this delightful poem by Roger White. He seems to describe the tone and texture of my childhood and adolescence. He continues:
The world was small and safe and familiar.
And very white.
No red or black offended
our prim steepled vaults of self-congratulation.
Indians were the bad guys who got licked in movies,
Dying copiously amid candy wrappers
And the popcorn smell of matinees.
Yes, it was comfortable then.
When you heard that God had died, you wondered
Whether it was from sheer boredom--
The tempest came in your twelfth or fifteenth year,
a clean cold wind
and you were left like a stripped young tree in autumn
with a cynical winter setting in
and nothing large enough to house your impulse to believe.
The need lay as quiet, unhurried and insidious as a seed
Snowlocked in a bleak and lonely landscape.
So White describes my personal condition from about the age of ten or twelve to fifteen, the years 1954 to 1959. "The need' was there to believe. It "lay as quiet" as a seed and grew, germinated. The tempest blew into my life at eighteen, a little later than it did in White's poem, his life. But, in the years 1959 to 1962, fifteen to eighteen, I caught a glimpse of the Bab “in the clearing smoke of the rifles in the barrack-square of Tabriz." I heard His "new song./Up from the Siyah-Chal it rose." I could draw many parallels between my own life and the one described by White here. Perhaps at a future juncture, in a future edition of this work I will do so.
Manic-depression, or what is now called a bi-polar disorder, afflicts 1.5 to 2 per cent of the population. It also afflicts its sufferers in quite different ways. During the years 1962 to 1980 I had half a dozen major episodes as they are called. Only two of them required hospitalization and the worst were in the 1960s. Robert Lowell, the famous American poet, was hospitalized for most of his episodes which occurred each year from 1949 to 1974. In a book about his life, Lowell describes a bi-polar disorder as follows: “that terrible condition in which the mind is bombarded by more sensation than it can accommodate, when associations succeed one another so quickly that the mind feels stretched to the breaking point, painfully drawn out as though forced through the tiny aperture of a needle’s eye.” But, thanks to lithium treatment in 1980, I was finally sorted out, well just about. Fluvoxamine, twenty-two years later, put the finishing touches on this treatment by medication leaving only a manageable residue of emotional/mental difficulties by the time I came to write this fourth edition.
Due to the most extreme of my episodes in 1968, I had to leave the Canadian Arctic and return to Ontario in June of 1968. Here is a poem, a reflection on the process of pioneering, written over thirty years later. It is a poem that puts this Arctic part of my venture, August 1967 to June 1968, in perspective. I wrote about:
THE PULL OF PIONEERING
I would not want anyone to be under any illusions regarding the pioneering experience, at least the experience that was mine and many others in the last half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I would not want to see future men and women looking anxiously back in history’s landscape, in its towns, villages and cities, farms and rural aspects, and large and small organizations for non-existent excitements and the thrill of adventure due to some mythic pioneering identity, some imaginary creation, some literary and artistic representation of pioneering that had a particular potency in the collective imagination but was false. Some internal and external view of pioneering created by pioneers and travel teachers whose poetry and fiction, whose prose and story creates an idealised and Romantic myth, I want to counter and clarify. I would want the pull of pioneering, the quest for the heart of its potential experience to be a realization that, although one detaches oneself completely from one's normal social environment, much of life can and often does remain the same. -Ron Price with thanks to C. Aitchison, N. MacLeod and S. Shaw, Leisure and Tourism Landscapes: Social and Cultural Geographies, Routledge, London, 2000, p.89.
It's been an adventure, mate;
you could even make it
into one of those movies
for the evening escape.
This story is unscripted,
flawed and plausible,
only the predictable wonder
of an ordinary life,
none of the tedium of
the choiceless invulnerability
of the movie-evening-hero,
none of the glitter and gloss.
You can't edit your life
to emerge in celluloid safety
with that toothpaste-ad-smile finish,
sliding smoothly from scene to scene
with that sense of story-writ-large
across the two hour coloured show.
This one you have to make
which, like nature, is slow
and seemingly uneventful,
the hero quietly enduring.
The big story is on the inside;
the technicolour manipulation
is largely unbeknownst to all,
silent, rich, self-created
or not there at all.
2 November 2000
The next poem focuses more sharply on that Arctic adventure twenty-eight years after it ended. The word 'transformation' has much meaning for me when I view life over many decades. A different person emerges, perhaps several times in life but, in the short term, in the day-to-day grind, I would use the term epiphany to describe some intense experience but not transformation. We each describe our life in different ways for we are, as that 18th century autobiographer Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime."
Genuine self-revelation is a rare gift, almost a creative gift. How alien, how remote, seem most people's memoirs, autobiographies and confessions from the real current of their actual days. Some autobiographies use self-revelation as a form of social protest, a form of victim narrative. Sylvia Plath's poem The Bell Jar(1950's) is one of the earliest examples. More recent victim narratives are about self-promotion, sensationalism and self-disclosure: here oppressors and victims all tend to blurr. Perhaps many who read my work will find it alien and remote, just not enough juices, not enough heat, not enough to turn you on, a little too analytical thank you very much. While my memoirs are focussed, my experience tells me, they are also in a context with too much analysis for many people’s liking. For this and many other reasons their popularity will elude me.
If my memoirs were more like those who wrote of their travels on the Oregon, the Santa Fe or the Cherokee Trail, among many others; the adventures of many of the explorers in Australia or in any one of the many parts of western civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries; indeed, the lives, actions and adventure stories of which there are thousands extant, I'm sure success would have been mine--or at least mine more easily. Perhaps, too, I should have followed American humorist Will Rogers' advice. He said, partly in jest and partly seriously, "When you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad things you did do, that's memoirs." Perhaps I’ve left out too many bad things. Perhaps, as well, my memoirs could have been liberally laced with photos, sketches, emoticons, a wide range of visual enrichments that have become available to writers in recent decades. For this more audio-visual age I'm sure these embellishments would have been an asset to the acceptance and success of this work.
I have tried to connect my work as far as possible to the real current of my times, my days and my religion. Such efforts are sometimes called vintage memoirs. Such memoirs celebrate a period of time with music, the arts, books, furniture, architecture and a wide selection of cultural adornments like: clothing, foods, technology, inter alia. These vintage memoirs place the person in the context of material culture and for those more interested in the culture and less in the person, this is an excellent technique. My efforts in this direction are meagre.
I don't go anywhere near, say, the in/famous Howard Stern, the radio 'shock-jock' who introduced a new radar of naughtiness into media society. Most of his public revelations are, for me, private things. I'm not into exploiting myself to make a buck, to introduce self-tabloidization, pseudo-victimization or anti-victimization. There is no resemblance whatsoever between my memoirs and, say, those of bystanders, war heroes, prostitutes, criminals and celebrities. There are literally thousands of memoirs becoming available now from ordinary people inhabiting history's troubled waters to the ordinary among my contemporaries. I'm just one of a million, the ordinarily ordinary, the humanly human.
Autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving content in an intricate process of self-discovery and self-creation.1 The self at the centre of all autobiographical narrative is in some basic, subtle and quite mysterious ways a fictive structure. But whether fictive or non-fictive, there has been at the centre of this narrative an explicit avowal, an acceptance, of the embodiment of moral authority in the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith and Their elected successors, the trustees of a global undertaking, the Universal House of Justice. There was, too, a facticity at the centre of this work. This is not a work of self-creation as readers come across so frequently in the entertainment business.2 -Ron Price with thanks to: 1Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, Author Unknown, Princeton UP, 1985, p.3; and Joe Lockard, "Britney Spears, Victorian Chastity and Brand-name Virginity," Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, October 2001.
I have often written poems about his past. This one, written some twenty-eight years after the event that it is concerned with, attempts to summarize my year among the Eskimo and some of its meaning in retrospect. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 27 April 1996.
Like some shot out of the night,
a blast from the past,
from a frozen land
where big pioneering began,
where I was worn to a frazzle,
burnt to a crisp and at forty below!
Taken away on a jet and put in a net,
like a bird in a cage,
frightened on every page,
my brain burning with rage;
slowly it soothed
and the cold Artic air
became a thing of the past,
some moment in time,
like a memory sublime
with adventure writ high
and many a long sigh,
long before I was to die.
Some passing few months,
over in the blink of an eye,
there, for a time, I nearly died.
27 April 1996
This poem, one of the few rhymng poems that I have written, for I don't seem to enjoy rhyming poetry. It always feels contrived. But it does say something about that experience I had at the age of 23 on Baffin Island. However intimate my autobiography, I see my life as part of a universal history, a history that Lord Acton, one of the great modern Western historians described in a letter he wrote to the contributors to The Cambridge Modern History, dated March 12th 1898. His vision of universal history contains some of the perspective within which I write about my own mundane and ordinary life. Acton wrote: "By universal history I understand that which is distinct from the combined history of all countries….a continuous development…not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul. It moves in a succession to which the nations are subsidiary.” In the twentieth century a succession of universal histories followed: Spengler's in 1918, H.G. Wells' in 1919; Toynbee, who began his monumental work, in 1921; and Eric Hobsbawn’s four volume work completed in 1996, among others.
In a strange and certain way pioneering, and especially international pioneering which was three years into the future from this experience among the Eskimo, lifts one into this universal history. Perhaps that is why I have found reading Toynbee so stimulating over more than four decades of pioneering. There is another historical paradigm that I have found useful for interpreting my times, my life, my religion, all that I have seen in history and anticipated in the future. It is what could be called “the decline and fall” paradigm. Saint Jerome, while writing his 'Commentary on Ezekiel', in 410 AD said that he was “so confounded by the havoc wrought in the West and above all by the sack of Rome" that long did he remain silent, "knowing it was a time to weep.” So, too, is our time a time to weep. With Rumi, the Persian poet, we are justified in saying: "do not mock the wine, it is bitter only because it is my life." The generations of the twentieth century have seen, heard or read about billions dieing. Is this a taste of things to come? Whatever wine of pleasure and comfort we in the West have enjoyed in these decades, and there have been many pleasures and comforts, there is a tincture of bitterness, of sadness, of sorrow, of melancholy, in the cup from the immense and tragic sufferings which have afflicted the human condition in our time, the generations born in the twentieth century.
Toynbee sees the period of what historians call the ‘fall of the Roman Empire in the West’ as “vultures feeding on the carrion or the maggots crawling in the carcass” of that society. Roman society, argues Toynbee, especially in the days of the Empire(that is after 31 BC), was moribund. So, too, I would argue is our own society. The society we live in in terms of its traditional political and religious institutions is moribund. There are vultures feeding on the carcass of all its traditional institutions all over the planet. In such a climate autobiographers like myself must be on guard that, as William Maxwell says, "in talking about the past" it is possible that we may "lie with every breath we draw." The story, the history, is complex and one can easily get one's interpretations of the reality of our circumstances wrong. Our views are, so often, not so much lies as Maxwell saw it, but simply or not-so-simply errors.
We also need to develop, as Dr. Johnson did centuries ago, an acute sensitivity to artificiality in our writing and to the very nature of our analysis. In a resonant phrase by language theorist and social philosopher Roland Barthes, ours is a ‘Civilization of the Image.’ To get behind the image, away from the pervasive penetration of the image, requires the penetration of imagination, creativity, understanding and insight. I hope I provide some of these items in the recipe, the mixture, here.
Doomsdaying, present to a greater or lesser extent in all ages, has become a chief mode or form of social activity in modern culture. The ancient Romans are often compared to the Americans in what Patrick Brantlinger calls a “negative classicism.” We have developed, many argue, some of the negative features of classical civilization. The serious literature of most Western countries, at least since 1914 writes W. Warren Wager, has been “drenched with apocalyptic imagery.” It is not my purpose here to outline the optimistic and utopian or the pessimistic and dystopian scenarios that have filled the print and electronic media in my time, though Brantlinger does one of the best jobs of doing so. The analyses of our social, economic, political and psychological cultures now available are burgeoning and often enlightening. Indeed, I could devote a special chapter to what I see as relevant commentary and from time to time I will refer to some theory, some theorist, some commentary, some analysis. But I do not want to burden readers or myself with analysis. Readers will probably find I have provided more than enough analysis in my own individual way.
But, like Leon Edel, the chief biographer of American writer Henry James, I feel as if "my life has been the quintessence of what I have written......The way I am and the way I write are a unity." So, analysis is, for me, just part of the story, part of me, my thought, who I am. For the self is not a thing, but the meaning embodied in a man, in a life.
Just as our Western world emerged out of the chaos of the break-up of the Roman Empire and “the deep sleep" of the interregnum(circa AD 375-675)” which followed, so is a global civilization emerging out of the break-up of the traditional societies all around the world including our own western society. We, too, have a deep sleep in our own time in the midst of the break-up of the old world. The roots of faith, without which no society can long endure, have been severed. Perhaps they were severed in that blood bath of WW1; perhaps the severing was completed in WW2 just as I was born, but certainly in the half century that it has been my privilege to serve in this embryonic chrysalis church, the institutional matrix, the embryo, of a new world Order, the chord of Faith has been cut. In many ways, this chord has been recreated, rebuilt, reshaped around a thousand alternative faiths, sects, cults, isms and wasms creating a sense of confusion and noise that is part of the new set of problems of these epochs.
The policy of the many governing bodies, as far as they concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious part of the citizenry. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in this emerging global society, like the Roman world two thousand years before, were all considered by most of the people, at least the people who inhabited the landscapes where I lived during these epochs, with equal indifference or on some basis or principle of exclusivity or preference. Most philosophers, intellectuals and academics saw the multitude of religions as equally false. There were many, though, among the great masses of humanity, who saw these religions, or at least one, as true, useful, pernicious, absurd or simply the leftovers of a previous age. The blight of an aggressive secularism often replaced inherited orthodoxies and a unsatisfying religious heritage. Such was part of the climate that was the backdrop for these epochs.
But, however one analyses the process of social disintegration, the death of an old Order and the birth of a new one that is characterizing this age, for me the great historian and sociologist, Reinhardt Bendix puts my life and this pioneering experience in its primary and, what you might call, its existential setting. He quotes Jacob Burkhardt's emphasis on "man suffering, striving, doing, as he is and was and ever shall be" at the centre of the process. In autobiography this centre is inevitable whether one acknowledges a transcendental Centre or no centre at all.
"The revolution of our time," as historian Douglas Martin put it in a simple but pointed turn of phrase, “is in essence spiritual. It is also universal and out of our control." He went on in what I always found a style of writing that has had a significant impact on my thought. Martin was one of the many influences on my life that led, by the 1990s, to produce the following poems, poems that played with concepts of civilization, society and the future. Readers are advised to continue this account at Part 1.2 here at BLO.