I have added some photographs going as far back as 1908 and a brief literary-historical sketch of my family history going back my great-great grandparents' lives in the 1830s and 1840s, the beginning of Babi-Baha'i history.
I now possess a dozen albums of photographs. Photographs can represent a significant aspect of an autobiography or memoir. The essays and prose-poems in this document here try to put all these photographs in perspective. The photographs themselves are kept in my study, in hard-copy and in my computer for future reference if required. The photographs serve as a pictorial backdrop which both reveals and conceals.
This visual backdrop also heightens the expression of my life, my family's and that of the Baha'i community I have been a part of for nearly sixty years. These photographs paralyze (1) by their facticity and the absense of fact or (2) by what might be called the physicality of reality. In my writing I try to get behind and beneath this surface physicality. The memorabilia, of course, which will survive me and be of any relevance to the ongoing history of the Baha'i Faith I would tend to think are not relevant, although only time will tell down the future's mysterious track. No photographs or memorabilia are included here.
Given the importance to us on earth of these two physical forms, I have tried to place them in a long term perspective, a longue duree, as one school of historians calls the long haul.
Pioneering Over Four Epochs:
Sections X.I Photographs and XI Memorabilia
published in Pioneering Over Four Epochs: An Autobiographical Study and a Study in Autobiography
, Sections X.1 and XI
I will place many prose-poems in this document at BLO. Here is the first.
7 REECE MEWS/6 REECE STREET
I think what caught my fancy about the story of Francis Bacon(1), in addition to his works of art and some of the quite stimulating and provocative things he said about art and the creative process, was the transfer in tact to Ireland of Bacon’s entire art studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington. Bacon worked in this studio from 1961 to 1992. It is unlikely that this will ever happen to my study. The reasons for this are complex but obvious after a brief reflection which I see out below.
My study holds less interest for the eye than Bacon’s studio. There is less colour, little clutter, far less heterogeneity and diversity of materials here. What I have here in my study is an orderly arrangement of photos, files, furniture, stationary resources, and an assorted memorabilia.
In a general culture that takes more interest in the visual than in print a place like this study has virtually nothing to offer the art gallery, the library, the museum. The archivist or the librarian might find some print materials here that they could integrate into their wider collections. But I can not think of any reason to keep this study at “6 Reece Street” in tact for some future generation, as the studio of Francis Bacon has been kept.-Ron Price with thanks to (1)“7 Reece Mews,” ABC TV, 11:20-12:20 p.m., 14/15 August, 2005.
I watched “7 Reece Mews,”
on ABC TV last night
14th/15th August 2005
and wondered to myself
if there was any point in
tranfering my study to some
home for tourists to come,
a place to serve as model
location for serious reflection.
But after brief consideration
I concluded that this could
never happen to my world,
this extension of who I am,
this identity framework
that tells much about this
self, this person, this man
from Canada transplanted
to the Antipodes near the
end of the Nine Year Plan
to spend the rest of his life
and lay his bones in the soil
at the southern end of the axis.
August 15th 2005
I have added some photographs going as far back as 1908 and a brief sketch of my family history going back to the 1830s and 1840s. But there is little flesh on the bones of this long era and its several epochs and stages stretching as those epochs and stages could through these time frames: 1753-1826, 1826-1843, 1844-1921, 1921-1944, 1944-1962 and 1962-1987. It is my hope that in the years of my late adulthood and old age, over 80 if I last that long, I may take advantage of this diary-form and add some detail, some comments perhaps on the many moments in "le monument psycho-analytique" of my life. But, as anyone following my poetry, my autobiography, will realize, much of what I want to say is being said in these other genres. And it may remain so. I am immersed in the naturally spontaneous auto-narration of memory as it falls upon the page; self makes its home in this familiar place. I become, through my story, what I already was. And I seem to go through this process much more comprehensively, effectively and efficiently, through genres other than the diary or journal. I both discover and create myself more clearly, more usefully, in my poetry and narrative, even in my letters and essays.If though, as M. Brodie writes, “autobiography is likely to mirror less what a man was than what he has become,” then perhaps the diary has its place. There is much becoming in my diary.
A LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS
The following essay has 15 parts.
1908-1953 and 1953-2014
I always think photographs abominable and I don't like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I know and love.-Vincent van Gogh, "Letter of September 19th, 1889," The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
Due to the physical action of light and the chemical action of development there is a tangible link between what was photographed, through the developing process to the gaze of the viewer. It is a process involving something that has been, due to the photograph as an object, due to the action of light, due to radiations that ultimately touch me and due to the photograph being something for the gaze, the visual memory, of the viewer. The photograph of a missing being, Susan Sontag says, touches me like the delayed rays of a star.-Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977.
In 5 months I will be seventy and I now possess a dozen albums of photographs and many digitized photos in my computer, to say nothing of those of my wife and son. They represent a significant aspect of any autobiography I might want to write. This essay tries to put all these photographs in perspective. I have been working on this essay for perhaps 15 years, since the late 1990s, and it finally has a form that is useful. Although not entirely satisfactory, it is appropriate to include in this autobiography. Much more work on the contents of this essay is required, but its relevance to my autobiography is clear, and so I include it in this fourth edition of my autobiography Pioneering Over Four Epochs. I have found the content of this essay one of the most intricate and complex of all the sections of this autobiographical narrative but, because the ideas are important to me--and I hope to readers--I want to include them.
In a collection, the first album, of some forty photographs for the years 1908 to 1953, fifteen of which are friends of my mother and people I do not know, there are some twenty-five photographs of my mother and various members of her family. The photographs provide something of a pictorial backdrop for the transition period from my grandfather’s autobiographical story. That story ended in 1901 and is kept in a green two-ring binder in my study. My own pioneering story I take back to 1962, to 1953, to 1944, the year of my birth and to 1844, in Volume 1 of my journals, to give a perspective that goes back to the start of this Bahá'í Era. In my prose-poetry I go back to the beginning of the lives of the two chief precursors of this latest, this newest, of the Abrahamic religions.
"The effort of thinking which is at work in every narrative configuration," wrote Paul Ricoeur, "is completed in a refiguration of temporal experience." These photographs provide help in the narrative configuration of the years before I was born and the early years of my childhood. Although I am unable to refigure the early years of my own experience and the years before I was born with even the briefest, the flimsiest, sense of totality, these photos provide some knowledge in terms of traces. They take me back to the last dozen years of the Heroic Age of my Faith in an indirect sort of way.
These photographs provide a means of capturing the past, fragmenting it and removing it from any fixed context, at least that is how Scott McQuire puts it. Photographs, he says, suspend images “between the silken promise of liberation and nostalgia at loss of anchorage.” In this promise of liberation, the world is called upon to live up to its images, but there is no single way to capture, to encapsulate, the world in all its complexity even if that world is the lives and times of my family in the first half of the twentieth century. There is always a process of selection. There is always, at least for this selection of photos, a touch of pathos and pensiveness mixed with my inability or difficulty to negotiate my displacement from these years before I was born and my early childhood. But still: they pierce my vision.
These forty photographs serve as a pictorial backdrop which both reveals and conceals, which both heightens the expression of my family's life and paralyzes by fact and the absence of fact. These photos both pass and fail in their mnemonic function. They are both mobilization of memory in the service of my life and framers, fixers and freezers of the objects as the objects float free of their context. The paradox inherent in the presence of photography within autobiography is that the photographs have a tendency to simultaneously document and yet undercut the narrative. The photographs, as I say, both reveal and conceal. Adams suggests that photography "may stimulate, inspire, or seem to document autobiography," but that "seem" is crucial.
The intellect, in order to act upon reality, must thus reduce it to a series of frozen moments. Unlike intuition which deals with an undifferentiated flow of reality, of images, the intellect extracts objects from motion in order to evaluate the action which it might perform upon them, restoring an abstract idea of motion upon them after the fact, like lines drawn between points on a graph. This is at least one way to put quite a complex process.
I tend to make confident determinations about the content, the incidents, in these photos and am hardly aware that these determinations are, for the most part, conjectural, approximate imports scanned quickly by my gaze over the many scenes. There is, as John Berger notes, "an innate ambiguity of the photograph," a pseudo-intimacy, an inferential status which is, sometimes at least, softened by the warmth of spectator usefulness. However intimate, however soft the gaze, though, we are not ourselves made contemporaries of events by a vibrant construction and reconstruction of their intertwining. If history is "a reenactment of the past," to use an expression of R.G. Collingwood, then photographs certainly help. They certainly help in the reenactment of past thought in my own mind which, arguably, it is as close as one gets to the reality of history. If, as the philosopher Heidegger once wrote, "The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture,” then these photographs of mine are of more than little significance.
There are a dozen or so more recent albums with literally hundreds of photos and perhaps, as the years go on, I will make a more complete analysis of them. But that is not my intent at this early stage of the discussion. I want, rather, to find a context in which relevant questions about photography can be discussed and understood by myself and, hopefully, others who come across this essay into the subject. It seems to me there are many misconceptions about photography and photographs and, while not claiming to sort them all out, I would at least like to allude to them as part of placing the photographs in my life into some useful perspective. When I try to reconcile the image in my memory with the photographic image, I come to understand that photography, even the most documentary type of photography, communicates through the confluence of objective and subjective factors, through the connection of photographic images to memory images. Thus, they are never purely objective or transparent. Once I know and accept this fact, no photograph can be accepted, categorically, as hard and factual evidence.
If Time magazine's nine New York-based photo editors can sift through some 15,000 pictures a week, selecting about 125 for each issue, surely I can sift through a lifetime of several hundred photos and select a few for autobiographical use? The task is not difficult, but I question the relevance of the process and that is what I discuss here in this brief essay. My task is partly to distance myself from my own love of photographs in order to reflect accurately on the images. This business of reflection is critical. "Photography is a way for me to preserve the part of me that is only me," wrote Tipper Gore in her new book Picture This: A Visual Diary(Broadway Books, 2004). Yes, Tipper, "a way, but only a small part of me."
I place these photographic images from 1908 onward in various visual categories and frameworks and, as I do, I place myself with the images in a sort of photographic archive. And the photographs which flooded my world after 1953 and which I now can view with ease and convenience in a series of a dozen albums provide me with a reality that, for the most part, I can no longer touch. There is a certain magic I experience as I look at these pictures from my life. They are, not so much a place of images as they are a place of thoughts or, perhaps better, a place of mnemonic devices. Indeed, their highest merit is their suggestiveness, the suggestion of a beauty, a character, a place, which the photo itself does not reveal. It is as if a camera was nervously clicking over the surface of my life and my job now is to piece together, to paint, to translate from feeling to meaning and find some overall pattern in the kalaedoscope of images. It is as if, while the camera caught fresh moments of my life, my task now is to keep a freshness of vision as I write amidst a vast, a pervasive and immense incoherence, with impressions always outstripping my capacity to analyse the data. I need to possess a similar degree of sensitivity as the plates, the developing equipment that photography requires to record my own impressions of life.
Due to the physical action of light and the chemical action of development there is a tangible link from what was photographed, something "that has been", from the photograph as object, through the action of light, "radiations that ultimately touch me," to the gaze: "the photograph of the missing being which,” as Sontag says, “will touch me like the delayed rays of a star." There may be a pseudo-intimacy and an ambiguity to the photograph, but there is also something wondrous and mysterious. In 1839, at its invention, it was considered a 'pencil of nature' transcribing reality directly. But this belief in the objective state of the photograph did not last long. The photograph did continue to meet modern man's need to express his individuality and shape his visions. It did so with immediacy. It did not evoke the world; it represented it and it did so with tremendous power. Photographs circulated in unprecedented numbers in the epochs associated with this autobiography and satisfied the desire for the authentic.
"There is no visual analogue in time," as Max Kozloff notes, "between what we call character or even mood and outward demeanor." Moments of serenity are often nominal and discomfort is often not far-off, if not actually present behind the photographic facade. Photographs can and do illuminate the microhistory of our sociability and offer insights into our social and psychological reality. The narrative and the photographs I add create as much as reflect reality. It is understandable, it seems to me, why so many people in this audio-visual world of modern technology try to define their lives visually with photographs, videos, films and a variety of memorabilia. James Agee, in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men writes, expressing his disillusionment with the ability of words to express, to define, his life, any life:
If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art? And I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlour game.....A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
Agee gives the body an important place in his attempt to define his life. Often, for other autobiographers, though, the body is nearly effaced in a tradition, the Platonic, that opposes the corporeal to the spiritual and defines the self as essentially spiritual. But I would not want to ignore the body, where my soul has come to dwell and will dwell for as long as I live on this mortal coil. Surgeons, cosmeticians, hairdressers, fashion designers and an army of sales people with something for every conceiveable part of my anatomy and the microworld within which I dwell inscribe an idealized body and a spiritual, cultural body. Indeed, there is a vast multitude in the world who have a great deal to say about this body of mine and its environs and they have photographed this world, put it on video and in film and it is difficult for an autobiography to ignore this vast panoply and pageantry of data. This is especially true of an autobiography from a member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. Stanley Kauffmann, the great film critic, says that generation was the most film hungry and film informed in the first century of film.
In the approximately ten thousand autobiographies written during my life, just in North America, the human body tends to play second fiddle to thought, action and the events of the time. My autobiography is no different in this respect. If I was to examine the body, though, and place it on the stage more than I have, this would be a fitting section in the examination of the photograph, the photographs in my life. But the assumption that looking at a body is seeing a body and seeing is understanding is based on a model of the mind which sees human consciousness as a mirror of the world, as a tabula rasa at birth and learning as taking place in a predictable and developmental path from birth onwards. The reality is far different. In reality the mind is a representational process which is defined and measured through reflection. And any discussion of the photographs in my life must be centred on reflection, my reflection, not bodies, objects, things
But I say little about my body here and in the rest of this autobiography. I mention my body in passing in connection with my health and some of my interests. But my body and its activity in sport, at a series of health studios where I tried to keep fit, in its scenarios with yoga and meditation, in walking, in jogging, in taking vitamins and minerals, in maintaining my house and garden, in what I ate and drank and in the many things I did with my body from brushing my teeth, to cutting my hair and nails, inter alia---this long list of items simply plays no part in this autobiography. The struggle of life is the struggle of the human condition and the body; there can be no end to the stories it generates. Perhaps in a future autobiography I will tell moe of these stories.
Their importance in popular culture can not be denied. The attention played to this list of activities associated with the body in the media and in conversation seems endless and I would be the last one to deny their value, their relevance, to our lives. But, insofar as I might want to write about this relevance in my autobiography, they amount to a stream of bubbles that float away in the air in a child's play. But readers will learn little to nothing here about these normal human interests in the late twentieth century. There is no need to provide more information on these topics; the burgeoning print and media culture can take care of this for me and for any readers who come this way.
The photographer Lucien Clergue would probably agree about the importance of the place of the body in photography for Clergue is an author of photographic essays, stories told by the use of images. Clergue and his camera are there to tell of the march of time, to bear witness, to be awed, to define a theme, to document, probe, question, intuit, to record transitory signatures and signs. He is a poet with a camera and this is what I would like to do with the collection of the photos I have gathered about me after sixty years of living and in more than a dozen binders, folios and booklets. Like Clergue, I understand some of the inter-relatedness and interdependence, the unity of man and what I want here is my own photographic essay. I want to combine the views of those observers who are captivated by, and those who are critical of, the photograph's capacity to present the realities of life.
There is no question that words often fail us, in life and in writing autobiography. But pictures often fail us, too. They can't quite do it either, if one is talking about comprehensiveness and totality. Roland Barthes' third book in his autobiographical trilogy, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, I found to be a useful comment on the visual, the photographic, context in relation to my family and my life and the limitations of the photograph.
His book is a meditation on an absence inherent in photography. Barthes wrote before radical manipulation of the image had become a standard practice in photography as the twentieth century came to an end. Barthes is only interested in photographs insofar as they depict something that was there at a particular and past time and is now entirely gone or has changed out of sight. He is particularly eloquent on one special photograph which he deliberately does not reproduce in his book. It is a photograph of his beloved mother who died shortly before he began to write his book in the late 1970s. Barthes does not try to elaborate any grand theory of photography, but he does write quite unashamedly about himself in Camera Lucida. He writes about his loss and suffering in life and he writes about how this loss is echoed and prefigured in the photographs that he holds dear. In the explosion of autobiographies in the last two decades, photographs have played an important part, had a special place, especially among the marginalized groups and sub-cultures that thousands of recent autobiographies are identified with. As they evoke minority literatures, cultures and subjectivities, they place before the readers an array of photographs. Perhaps I should do the same. We shall see.
Barthes is able to write as movingly and beautifully about people he does not know and has never met as he does about those in cherished photographs, those of his mother and others he loves. He doesn't reproduce any photographs in his book because, as he says, these photographs exist only for him. Barthes wouldn't feel much at home in the digital age. For all his academic reputation as a whip-cracking avant-gardist, his most powerful and convincing writing always involves a yearning for the past. He almost manages to make nostalgia seem not only respectable but a sine qua non of life. His generosity prevents him from imposing this point of view on everyone else. That's what makes him a great writer. If I can achieve in part what Barthes achieves in dispassionateness, my work in this far from neatly typified genre will be a success.
Barthes recognized the linkage between haiku and photography. He undertook to define the essence of photography. He found the photographs that “animated” him and that he in turn “animated” consisted of two co-present elements: Studium and Punctum. According to Barthes, Studium is an extent, an extension of a field, which we perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of our knowledge, our culture (Barthes, 1981, p.25). It is by Studium that one takes a kind of human interest in many photos that refer to a classical body of cultural information, photos that educate, signify, represent, inform, and reveal the photographer’s intentions. The second element, Punctum, will break or punctuate the Studium(Barthes,1981, p. 26). Punctum rises out of the scene, seeks out the viewer, disturbs the Studium, wounds, pricks and stings the viewer. It is very often a detail.
According to Barthes, Punctum has the power to expand, to provoke a satori, a measure of spiritual enlightenment. A detail overwhelms the entirety of my reading; it is an intense mutation of my interest. By the mark of something, the photograph is no longer ‘anything whatever.’ This something has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void. This brings the photograph, certain photographs, close to the Haiku." (Barthes, 1981, p.49). “The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: ‘Technique,’ ‘Reality,’ ‘Reportage,’ ‘Art,’ etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” (Barthes,1981, p.55).
Jewish and Catholic religious practices raise questions about the difference between the function of memory and the use of images as a memento mori to retrieve the past. For Bahá'ís photographs pertaining to their religion have come to possess an important significance. Are photographs able to recuperate or recapture the "essence" of the person or the idea we love? Clearly to some extent, but it is the qualities that are recaptured not the essence. Do photographs invigorate our memories and 'prove' that a person existed? They do a bit of both. I shall try to address these questions by discussing more of Roland Barthes' writings on photography. I also want to examine Seigfried Kracauer's analysis of the photograph and the function mental images have in mediating between the past and the present. I shall rely on three of Kracauer's publications in which photography is discussed. An essay called "Photography" was written in his early Weimar period, in 1927, his book Film Theory(1960) which starts with a short summary of the history of photography and, almost forty years after that initial essay on photography, History: The Last Things Before the Last (1969).
I will discuss the difference between Kracauer's early and late writings in relation to Barthes' writings on photography, which can also be divided roughly into two periods. In Barthes' early writings on photography his semiotic and structuralist approaches to language and culture influenced his reading of photographs in articles such as "The Photographic Message" (1961), "The Third Meaning" (1970) and "Rhetoric of the Image"(1964). But in Camera Lucida (1980) Barthes' writing became more personal and this impacted upon his reading of photographs as being capable of transparency. And, of course, the question of the reading of photographs is what this essay is all about.
I shall illustrate this theoretical discussion(a discussion I do not want to become too complex, too theoretical and too abstract) with a sample of photographs from a family album given to me by my mother, Lillian Price. She took most of the photographs or received copies of them from others during the years 1908 to 1953. My mother labelled some of the photos with dates and names and in other cases she did not. The first photograph was of her sister in 1908 when my mother was four and the last photo was in 1953 just before my mother's fiftieth birthday. Thus, during her childhood and adolescent years into the first years of middle age taking photographs occupied her leisure time, among a host of other activities. Perhaps collecting this small group of photos was her own way of immortalizing herself and rekindling the first several decades of her life, up to the time she began to be involved with the Bahá'í Faith. But I think this is unlikely. The photos seem to be a haphazard, random, somewhat serendipitous, collection of odds and ends. In this my deeply singular attempt to inscribe my times, my religion and my individuality, I also paint a vast mosaic which I trust resonates with a world that is far, far, from my own self. I trust, too, that it provides a multiple perspectival set of positionings and understandings within a genre and genres. My mother's photographs are just a part of that paint, part of that mosaic.
This set of photographs serves as the pictorial base for nearly half a century, the half century before my family began its association with the Baha’i Faith. If I draw on the philosophy of Lucien Clergue to explain people's use of photos, though, then these photographs become much more than a historical package of photos. They approach what Joseph Campbell described in his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. There is a vitality to symbols, to photographs, as metaphors, not simply ideas or things, but "a sense of actual participation, a realization of transcendence, infinity and abundance." Campbell says, as he continues discussing these symbols, they open "the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being." It is a spectacle "known to the mind and beheld by the eye" and, he concludes, you exclaim "ah...as a recognition of divinity." Perhaps this is much like that "reverence for life" that Albert Schweitzer experienced.
I want to balance these other-worldly notions, these transcendental feelings, with the ideas of Seigfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes. In the process I hope to achieve a more balanced view of the nature and function of this collecton of photographs and, at the same time, provide a relevant comment for my own autobiography. To begin somewhat at random with one of the photographs I have selected my grandfather sitting on the porch of the first house I lived in in Hamilton Ontario. The click of the camera has frozen him and removed him from the flow of time or fixed him in the flow of time. The year is about 1940. The pose, on the other hand, belonged to a more predictable rhetoric of gestures; it enabled sitters to assume a social pose, which they thought was expected of them by their peers, or to adopt an attitude they imagined other respectable people had performed in the past. The pose is not as stiff as those of the previous century. There is the beginning of a more relaxed demeanor, perhaps the result of WW1 which took some of civilization's stiffness out of those stiff upper lips.
Given the fact that my grandfather had just retired, this relaxed pose is somewhat logical. But given the fact that his wife, my grandmother, had just died, perhaps, on second thought, it is not. It is utterly impossible, really, to know how he felt at the time or indeed what was going on in his outer life let alone his inner life, for that matter. And I think that is true for virtually all the photos from these years 1908 to 1953.
"Is this what grandfather looked like?" I might ask, as Kracauer asks of the grandmother at the start of the "Photography" essay, as though he was actually scrutinizing a photograph. The question instills doubts about the capability of photography to represent the essence of a person and cajoles us into remembering people. Several issues are at stake. Kracauer argues that "were it not for the oral tradition, the image alone would not have sufficed to reconstruct his grandmother's identity." Only subjective memory and knowledge of the grandmother, transmitted by generations of her family, could lead to a true understanding of her personality. Once her contemporaries are gone, who can attest that this is truly a photograph of a particular grandmother? Maybe it is simply someone who resembles her? In fact, in the course of time, the grandmother turns into just "any young girl of 1864." One's love, as Shakespeare writes, "shall in my verse ever live young," but in a photograph? Ah, there's the rub! No one in my life on this side of a great ocean has ever met my grandfather, indeed, has never met anyone in my famly except my mother and that for a period of several weeks nearly thirty years ago.
Moreover, once the person dies the mimetic function of the photograph changes its role and function, for there is no longer a need to compare the image to its referent. Most of the people in this collection of forty photos are now dead. My grandfather's calm demeanor may have been arrested and attested to by the camera but "no longer refers to the life from which it has been taken. Likeness has ceased to be of any help. The smiles of mannequins in beauty parlors are just as rigid and perpetual," writes Kracauer. Grandfather's old-style garments become a metaphor for the disparity between fashion and history. Kracauer claims that "photography is bound to time in precisely the same way as fashion. Since the latter has no significance other than as current garb, it is translucent when modern and abandoned when old."
In making an analogy between photography and fashion, Kracauer was targeting the proliferation of current-event photography in the Weimar Republic. He perceived the surge of photographs in the illustrated press as a sign of a culture afraid of death. Mechanical reproduction replicated a culture that was attuned to fashion and technical innovation, enabling the snapshot to create a world that had taken on a "photographic face." In this self-satisfied narcissistic mood of self-replication the flood of photographs "sweeps away the dams of memory and the sheer accumulation of photographs aims at banishing the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image." In this sort of mood, photography is unable to resurrect the dead because even the recent past appears totally outdated. I wonder what Kracauer would say in our media-saturated world?
Kracauer finds memory images, pictures we put in our head as a result of thought, far more useful than photographs. History can only be brought back through the medium of subjectivity. He sees Proust's mémoire involontaire as the perfect model. A person is able to condense or embellish memory, unlike the photograph that in the passage of time only appears to darken, decay and shrink in proportions. The camera is capable only of capturing a brief moment that accentuates space rather than temporality. The medium of subjective memory, however, can shatter the space-time configuration in order to piece the salvaged fragments together into a new meaningful order. When my grandfather sat in front of the camera, sometime perhaps during WW2, he "was present for one second in the spatial continuum that presented itself to the lens." And it was this aspect and not my grandfather "that was eternalized."
In contrast, the memory image is capable of giving the impression of the whole person because it condenses the subject into a single unforgettable image: "the last image of a person is that person's actual history," writes Kracauer. It is presented by the monogram "that condenses the name into a single graphic figure which is as meaningful as an ornament." Another form of condensation takes place in the making of a painting. The history painter does not paint his subject in order to present him in a naturalistic setting, but instead, through many sittings, aims to achieve an idea-image that captures the spirit of the sitter. Photography, on the other hand, is limited to showing us the appearance of the subject. It does not enable us to penetrate through the outer veneer to find the essence of the subject. This superficiality extends to the inability of photography to divulge the process of cognition of history. Kracauer regards photographs as a heap of garbage, as merely able to stockpile the elements of nature without a selective, a reflective, a subjective, process. Perhaps, though, the photo can stimulate the reflective side of the observer. For now, I leave this interesting question open and unresolved in its fascinating complexity.
In the closing pages of his essay "Photography" Kracauer makes an unexpected turn in his argument. Photography is given a role in the study of history. Suddenly, there is an advantage in the mute surface appearance of the photograph whose essence was impenetrable to probing. The photograph becomes an object that can signify meaning in hindsight, especially after people have died. Moreover, in Kracauer's dialectical fashion, the fault he found in photography's capacity to simply stockpile the elements of nature becomes an asset once the photographs are piled and viewed en masse "in unusual combinations, which distance them from human proximity." Photography can yield information that had hitherto gone unnoticed. In writing that "it is the task of photography to disclose this previously unexamined foundation of nature," Kracauer anticipates Benjamin's definition of photography's optical unconscious; namely, that it enables an image to store and release meanings that were neither perceived by the photographer nor recognized by his peers. Kracauer notes that "for the first time in history, photography brings to light the entire natural cocoon; for the first time, the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings." Perhaps this is why, among the commonly expressed attractions of the extremely hazardous careers of war photographers, was the feeling of being part of history and the sense of their importance beyond just supplying illustration for magazines or newspapers.
The natural cocoon of my mother's and father's lives, the lives of my grandparents, my uncle's life, two of my aunts' lives, some of my cousins' lives is, in Kracauer's perspective, brought to life. Their inert world does indeed present itself "in its independence from human beings." These images store and release meanings, fresh meanings to my eyes, meanings not present long ago when the photos were taken. Information never noticed before or forgotten is revealed to the observer. Photography is able to change perspective through showing us aerial views and bringing "crockets and figures down from Gothic cathedrals," and people out of the past down from their remote locations beyond our lives. In this collection of photos between 1908 and 1953 perspectives on: seasonality, on the texture of life in Canada between the wars, on the beauty of my mother and her sister in her teens and twenties, on a grandfather twenty-five years younger than I ever knew him, perspectives on cars, my mother's boyfriends, my mother's sociability and much more, come into focus. I could provide a much more specific analysis here but I think it would depart more than I already have from the confines of my autobiography, confines as I have defined them.
Without a healthy market for the photographs, without some clear direction for their future value, even the most personally useful work, there is a risk of descending into a spiral of irrelevance. And the great catcher and coach of the New York Yankees was right when he said that everything is difficult to predict, especially the future and, for me, the future of these photographs. Although, if I had to put my money down, I would say that the spiral of irrelevance might be the winning horse inspite of all their present source of pleasure and delight and their mnemonic relevance.
There is a tension between photography's capacity to negate history by dwelling on the moment and its capacity to open up new ways of interpreting reality. Once the interest in redeeming the singular subject disappears, leaving no need for the photographs to perform the task of resurrecting the dead as a memento mori, then the function of the archive becomes important. The collection of photographs, lying and waiting to be sorted, evokes a context of homeless images. In reality, though, my life has not been that of the classic homeless mind: the emigre' in search of roots, the secular skeptic yearning for a faith and a Messiah. The roots of faith, without which no society can endure, found a home in my mind as early as the 1950s and there they have been growing for some 50 years. This is not to say that this home has never been troubled. This autobiography documents this trouble.
One can suddenly find a new order in the images, an order that enables reality to be examined critically through the use of film montage, the photographic collage, and through adopting a surrealistic approach that estranges reality or an approach that brings them close. The photographic collage can possess a certain estrangement from reality, a certain homelessness or, as in my case, I give them all a home in my mind's eye, as best I can, a home touched by the warmth of nostalgia and memory. I could also, should it be desired, add creative, eye-catching drawings and paintings, both my mother's and my second-wife's. They would not appear as often as photographs to illustrate this narrative, but they could enrich the total package for some readers. Or I could add some poetry, as I do in one small collecton of photos from a trip my second wife and I took from Pertth WA to Tasmania.
In Camera Lucida which Barthes described as his "last investigation," as though he envisaged his own unexpected death shortly afterwards, his writing became more personal. He searches for the quintessential image of his mother which he criticizes photography for not being able to provide him. The photograph of his mother which he eventually finds becomes his guide, like Ariadne's thread, for his entire desire to understand the meaning of photography. This "last investigation" into photography leads him to characterize photographs as wounds that are capable of resurrecting very strong personal traumas. His search for his mother's photograph starts on a November evening, shortly after her death. He sits in her apartment looking through some photographs with very little hope of "finding" her. Barthes believed that one of the agonizing features of mourning was that no matter how many times one might study old photos they would not be able to summon up the people concerned "as a totality."
Barthes only finds fragments of his mother that he is also able to recall from his memory. They are unable to produce "a living resurrection" of her beloved face. Photographs from her distant past make him realize that history separates him from her. He sees her now in ways he had never witnessed during his lifetime. I, too, am separated from my mother and the photos, in some ways, do not bring her near, do not produce that "living resurrection."
"Is History not simply that time when we were not born?" asks Barthes, and adds, "I could read my nonexistence in the clothes my mother had worn before I can remember her." "Grandmother's garments" as seen in Kracauer's essay, take on a different meaning for Barthes. Seeing a photograph of his mother from 1913 leads him to remark that "there is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently." Like the peculiar effect the old clothes were shown to have on contemporary spectators, in Kracauer's essay, Barthes too realizes that his mother is "caught in a History" of taste that distracts him from his personal view of her. However, unlike Kracauer, he does not perceive the photograph as a timeless testimony of the way people looked, as some intact remanant on a body that has turned into a mannequin.
The clothes, for Barthes, only reinforce the materiality of the subject's body as he notes that clothing too is "perishable," making "a second grave for the loved being" who is visible in the photograph. This leads him to conclude that a photograph of a person whose existence preceded our own constitutes the "very tension of history" because its existence relies on our ability to consider, observe and contemplate it. In order to look at it, though, we must be excluded from it." History, as the time that existed "before me," is what interests Barthes because it cannot entail any anamnesis, any of his personal recollection.
Barthes paradoxically searches in photographs for the monogrammatic, the definitive image of his mother. Kracauer argued, of course, that only subjective memory would give Barthes his mother. "The last image of a person is that person's actual history." Nonetheless, Barthes reverses Kracauer's axiom when he finally finds the essential photograph of his mother, not in the last images from her life but in the earliest photograph of her as a child, which serves more as a premonition of what she will become than as an indication for him of what she had been. Barthes is in fact caught in a division between pre-self history, the photograph of his mother before he was born, and anamnesis, his recollections of his mother. The photograph shows her at the age of five with her brother at the age of seven standing by a wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, known in those days as a Winter Garden.
I find these comments by Barthes and Kracauer illumine the understanding of my own experience of photographs especially those between 1908 and 1953 but also, increasingly, those after 1953, after my family's first contact with the Bahá'í Faith. One day I may outline a greater range of personal reflections on these photos; but that time is not now. At this stage of this essay I simply want to outline some general perspectives on photographs since there are so many that provide a useful resource for this autobiography and because they have played such an important source of pleasure in my life.
Some photographs move away from the ordinary and instead present some unique, utopian, being. Where does this utopian being exist? Possibly somewhere beyond the camera's mechanical ability to record a presence. While Kracauer relied on a metaphysical and materialist reading of images in his early writings, Barthes made use of phenomenology to combine a concrete reading of photographic objects with the need to emphasize the role that mental intentions like reception, retention and projection perform on them. In L'Imaginaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom Barthes dedicated Camera Lucida, makes a distinction between the photograph, the caricature, the sign and the mental image, in a section aptly titled "The Image of the Family." A photograph can show us people's features but still fail to show character because it lacks life and does not reflect the varied expression that is their real physical reality. A mental image may be equally imperfect because it lacks clarity. The person we see in the photograph may invoke a completely different image to that of the person we know in our minds. Hence, we become aware of our ability to animate the photograph, "of lending it life in order to make an image of it." This is precisely the process I have gone through in my own reading of the old photographs whose corners have been blunted from having been cut and pasted into an album.
"Photography," writes Barthes, "began historically as an art of the person, of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body's formality." The nature of photography was founded in and by the pose. What makes the photograph different from any other type of art is that it is a certification of a presence. The simple paradigm of life/death is reduced to a click of the camera that separates the pose from the final print. In early societies, Barthes notes, memory, the substitute for life, became associated with the eternal. Memory and immortality were part of the same package. But by making the photograph, a mortal thing, into the general and somehow natural witness of what has been, modern society has renounced the monumental, the immortal aspect of the photograph; or, to put it another way, the photo has for many become a symbol of immortality for their own belief in immmortality is either non-existent or very weak, simply a vague hope.
The same century, the nineteenth, invented history in the modern sense and photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic time and reduces it to a set of facts and meanings. The photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony. Everything today prepares us for this impotence, this absence of duration, this absense of a sense of history. The age of the photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of everything which denies ripening. And so it is that historical perspective is often absent for millions. Of course, this is not the case for everyone and what I say here is not universal. For others, the photograph embellishes, enhances, history, gives it texture, illumination.
Photography and death represent a complex relationship. Looking at the persons in the photograph can bring them to life in the mind of the viewer. "Photography has something to do with resurrection," writes Barthes; yet photographers determined to capture actuality are also described as "the agents of death," despite the fact that they may stage photographs to give the impression of life to ward off death. Kracauer similarly described the purpose of the proliferation of photography magazines in Germany after WW1. They distracted people from the fear of dying because they emphasized current events and not historical ones. The most crucial analysis of photographs that Barthes undertakes involves providing photography with a grammatical tense. I don't think most people today see photos in terms of their being a distraction from death or in terms of grammar. Death, it seems to me, for most people, hardly if ever comes into it. Perhaps, though, Barthes is right in theory at least. I leave this issue up in the air for now.
The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, what has been. In front of a photograph our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory. The experience of the photos is often like inscriptions we find on gravestones. The photograph is never in essence a memory. It is indefinite and often blocks memory, is a counter-memory. Photographs often shock us precisely because they are incapable of retrieving the past. All they can do is to attest that a "now" in the past existed. If this autobiography ever comes to "matter," insofar as it inhabits, or stands for, one of the commonly acknowledged vectors in the field of cultural production: literary artistry, bio-history, autobiography, socio-history, psycho-history, it will not be due to embellishments from the world of photography.
When one realizes that in a photograph one is looking at a person who looked at, say, Napoleon or Bahá'u'lláh, there is a triangulation, a triangular time-formula. Sometimes there is a dizzying of consciousness in this triangulation. Present, historical time and the time of the photographer, all this under the instance of `reality' produces this dizzying effect. It is a sort of hall of mirrors. Bahá'ís have this sort of experience with the myriad photographs that have been taken of historical figures in the history of their Faith going back to the 1840s, in the first decade after the invention of photography.
Barthes refers to the ability of the historical photograph to contain a "defeat of time" that alludes to a double absence. Forty years after writing his "Photography" essay, Kracauer returned to the subject in his books Theory of Film and History: The Last Things before the Last. The Proustian subjective process of mémoire involontaire that Kracauer relied on in his early writings is replaced by an image of photographic self-alienation to describe the condition of detachment that is necessary for the sense of knowing history. Photographs of the past bring about a return of the people in the photographs.
From a Proustian point of view, Barthes sees some scenes in our life experience as lending themselves to becoming a photograph because the passivity of the observer is likened to the notion of the camera as an objective mirror. Kracauer disagrees with this and claims that these experiences are more complex. He sees photography as combining a "realistic" and a "formative" approach. The nineteenth-century definition of the subjectless camera that merely records the world is replaced with the belief that the camera is able to convey the subjective creative will of the photographer through his choice of filters, camera angles and printing styles.
The new and old identities, which we all have, reside together in a state of flux and uncertainty that ensures we will never belong to the community to which we now belong in the same way we once did. The condition of being somewhere and nowhere and of carrying one's past identity into new surroundings produces a sensibility where the old is replaced by the new. This is the realm of the stranger that Kracauer claims gives us the felling of having ceased to belong. It is the mode of existence of that of the stranger. And so we look at our previous existence with the eyes of one "who does not belong to the house" of someone who is not the person they once were. The experience is universal and somewhat enigmatic to say the least.
The next turn in Kracauer's argument is to compare the stranger with the historian and his methodological approach to the study of the past. The photographic relationship between the "realistic" and the "formative" approaches are compared to the "passive activity" of the historian's journey during the research and interpretation of historical material. When the historian sifts through the primary material he resembles the stranger as his thoughts ambulate between the past and the present with no fixed abode. The historian must be detached and self-effaced at the first stages in order to prevent his theoretical ideas from obstructing the "unexpected facts" that turn out to be "incompatible with his original assumptions."
The historian's subjectivity enters at the stage of interpreting the material. A gray area exists between the ability of the material to do its own talking and the historian's subjective skills as a story teller. For Kracauer, self-effacement does not imply a quest to reach an objective state of knowledge. Instead, objectivity is replaced by "unmitigated subjectivity." The historian's journey does not imply an ability to divide history into universal abstractions and neat epochs. He is free to move from the present to the past as he pleases and, to use a reference to mythology, "he must return to the upper world and put his booty to good use." Elsewhere in History Kracauer cites another example of the historian's journey from darkness to light to describe this freedom of mobility:
"Like Orpheus the historian must descend into the nether world to bring the dead back to life. How far will they follow his allurements and evocations? They are lost to him when, re-emerging into the sunlight of the present, he turns for fear of losing them. But does he not for the first time take possession of them at this very moment, the moment when they forever depart, vanishing in a history of his own making?"
History is thus perceived as the moment in which the past is petrified into an image. Orpheus's journey from darkness to light evokes, one could argue, the process of printing a photograph. The image is developed in the dark room. A precise amount of time marks the journey in which it emerges from the paper, making its way to visibility like Euridyce's ascent to reality, the return of the dead. We have here an impatient photographer who prematurely turned on the light to see the photograph before it has been transferred from the developer to the fixative bath that protects it from fogging. The image simply vanishes. Both Orpheus and the photographer are tested for their patience; their faith relies on a prerequisite to wait. Both take hold of reality precisely at the moment when they lose sight of it.
In his article on the photographic paradox Thierry de Duve discusses the distinction between photographs that act as "pictures" and those that act as "events." The photograph as "picture" is an autonomous representation of reality that curiously ceases to refer to anything outside itself, especially when it is framed and hung on a wall; here it represents the real as a frozen gestalt. The photograph as "event," in contrast, makes us aware that it is only a fragment from reality, which calls attention to the fact that something has been frozen precisely because life is continuing outside the frame. The photo-portrait is an example of a "picture": "whether of a live or a dead person, the portrait is funerary in nature, like a monument. Acting as a reminder of times that have died away, it sets up landmarks of the past." But the real landmarks, the forming crucibles, were not photographs but, rather, complex socio-historical processes and traumatic inter and intrapersonal events whose intensity clarified and crystallized my values and attitudes to life.
Many photographs give the impression that something has been witnessed that no longer exists; such photographs produce a paradoxical effect of capturing life but not being able to convey it. Hence, "whereas the snapshot refers to the fluency of time without conveying it, the time exposure petrifies the time of the referent and denotes it as departed." De Duve claims that the portrait "picture" is conducive to the family album because "time exposure is congenial with the ebb and flow of memory" as it "does not limit its reference to the particular time when the photograph was taken, but allows the imaginary reconstruction of any moment of the life of the portrayed person to be imagined." Hence, the charm of a photo album relies on the fact that while each photograph is a landmark in a person's lifetime, memory is able to shuffle "in between landmarks, and can erect on any of them the totality of this life."
Knowledge of the people in the photographs and the ability to recount anecdotes about their lives affects our way of looking at them and causes the inevitable question to be raised: is the oral testimony of equal or more importance than the photographs themselves? Aided by memory, especially by autobiography, and visiting the residences of people we knew who are no longer alive appears to give us a special access to the past. Three tenses jockey for position in some portraits. These three tenses of the photograph could be described as: an event in the present, an event that people want to document for posterity and a celebration that actually takes place now. The connection between photography and fashion, a photograph from the recent past that "claims to be alive" can appear more outdated than the representation of a past that existed long ago.
It is not the passage of time that creates the comical tension between the present and the past. The effect of prolonged sitting often gives the impression that photographs were set up to last for a long time. A photo enters almost unnoticed into immortality; the forms which it assumes befit the qualities of the photo. According to Benjamin, the stiff pose betrayed the condition of impotence of an entire generation in the face of technical progress in the mid-nineteenth century. The direct look of the sitters encapsulated them in their cocoon while the stillness that was required of them by the long exposure was felt in the general impression of silence they exuded. "The procedure itself," wrote Benjamin, "caused the models to live, not out of the instant, but into it." During the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image. Benjamin evokes an image of becoming that recalls the actual way the figures emerge on the photographic paper during the developing stage.
De Duve's definition of time exposure recalls how nineteenth-century caricaturists depicted the photographer standing by his camera with little to do but to look at his watch until the exposure was over. Could the duration of time exposure be visible in the enforced stillness of the sitters? The mystery of making a photograph, according to Stanley Cavell, "lies not in the machinery which produces it, but in the unfathomable abyss between what subjects it captures and what is captured for us." There is what might be called a metaphysical wait between exposure, exhibition and the absolute authority or finality of the fixed image. The image of the photographer waiting passively for the long exposure to be completed is, of course, gone now with modern photographic technology. It is replaced with the click of an instant in time. And that, of course, is what we get now: an instant in time, preserved.
Even in candid photographs there is a process of selection. This led Kracauer to describe the street photographer as an "explorer" with a melancholic disposition, strolling aimlessly in the streets intent on finding his elegiac objects. Their sudden abduction from reality recalls the way Proust described photography's "affinity for the indeterminate. Proust saw photography as unable to be entirely selective and its role, he saw, was mainly to record "unshaped nature" as it appeared in all its disorderly details.
Of all the photographs I have I chose particular ones for my desk for several reasons. One snapshot is, for me, a remarkable feat because the photographer had succeeded in providing a pose, a photograph of my mother's family when she was, perhaps, twelve years old. It is the only photograph from that period in which my mother's family members are all present. This was a type of photograph I could never have had of myself because I was an only child, although I suppose there is an equivalent one of my mother and father and I taken in about 1956 in colour when I was twelve. By looking at either of these photos I am able to project my deep affection for a person who had introduced me to life. They enable me to identify with the person my mother was and the person she was nearly thirty years before I was born.
In my own childhood there was a joy in life. I make up my mother's life when I see her there on my desk. In the photograph of my father who occupies another place on my desk, the city, Hamilton, was a text of signs that enabled his mind and body to engage in activity that I know little of to recount his past. He was a walking ball of energy who comes to life when I see him in this photo. Childhood memories connect people, including my former self, with particular places. These people were so much of my world. I can see him on the small green couch in the evening. I see his head, in the photograph of my mind's eye, nodding over the newspaper. He expended his energy, as he always did, during the daylight hours. Then his head goes goes up and the residues of energy bring him back to life for an hour or two. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas puts this same idea quite simply in his poem Reminiscences of Childhood: "This sea-town was my world." So,too, was my small town by the lake.
These photographs produce for me my own Proustian moment. When I first saw them my entire attention was captivated by the erectness of my father's posture and my mother's beauty. These features exist here only because the camera was able to fix then and remove them from time. They both transported me to different periods of my life. The feeling of comfort and security I had received from my father as a child was recalled as a remembered sensation of getting my hair rubbed.
Transitional objects, animate and inanimate, such as the snow or books on a shelf confer security and comfort. I recognize the objects as "not-me" during a period when I started to realize that I was separate from my mother, perhaps, 1947. The association of my life with books, certainly the first visual association, provides me me with a symbolic representation of my mother and my life, which enables her to exist in my mind even when she is not present, when she has been dead for more than a quarter of a century. This is the beginning of my capacity to distinguish between reality and phantasy and it opens up an intermediate area of experience, which enables me to keep inner and outer experience, subjectivity and objectivity, illusion and reality both separate and yet interrelated. Thus I can speculate that these two photos can serve to keep memories alive and, particularly, help give me a sense of my mother's and father's immortality. I could say more about the photos of my mother and father but I will leave that to a later date. In this essay I want to get a context for analysis.
At first we detect a slight animosity regarding the limitations of the photographic surface in Kracauer's "Photography" essay. Unlike the ability of the monogram to condense a person's past into a single image, "in a photograph, a person's history is buried as if under a layer of snow." Barthes expressed similar frustration when looking at his mother's Winter Garden photograph. He noted that if we scrutinize a photograph long enough we wish to turn it over as if to learn more by looking behind it; and if we blow it up and enlarge its details we expect it to provide more meaning. Such was the case with the photograph of my mother's family blown up by my mother's brother's daughter and sent to me in 2002. In fact, however hard we look we discover nothing more because the knowledge of the photograph is already construed at first glance. Kracauer's criticism was odd considering that only a year earlier, in his influential essay "The Mass Ornament," he had celebrated the importance of surface manifestations in reality as being capable of revealing unnoticed aspects of popular culture that were neglected by historians. The significance of surface details became pertinent in Kracauer's writings. Once he shifted from the subjective-memory process as being the sole model for recuperating the past to realizing that reality and history were fragmented and random experiences that did not rely on chronological time, surface details became more important.
For this reason photography, especially the snapshot, came in handy because it emphasized the discontinuous aspects of reality; it enhanced the need to delve into the particular and overcome any tendencies for abstraction and generalization that Kracauer abhorred in the study of history and philosophy. It took Kracauer a few more decades to readdress these issues in Theory of Film. Here he proposes a "material aesthetics" approach to the study of film based on the premise that the medium has no connection with the realm of art. By placing it as a direct continuation of photography's affinity to the "visible world around us," he claims that cinema's aim is to record "physical reality" because it pays special attention to capturing the transient atmosphere of "street crowds, involuntary gestures, and other fleeting impressions." Such chapter subheadings as "The Unstaged," "The Fortuitous," "Once Again the Street," and "Concept of Life as Such" reveal Kracauer's preoccupation with the elusiveness of physical reality, which he wishes to redeem by rescuing forgotten and despised elements of mass culture from oblivion.
Barthes preferred photography to films precisely because of the inherent limitations he found in the surface of photographs. "Such is the photograph," writes Barthes, "that it cannot describe in words what it lets us see in images." The inability of photography to redeem reality is already visible in the photographic surface that Barthes describes as a "flat death." What made Kracauer so ardent about the ability of film to bring things to life was precisely the limitation Barthes found in it: "Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs: the having-been-there gives way before a being-there of the thing; which omission would explain how there can be a history of the cinema, without any real break with the previous arts of fiction, whereas the photograph can in some sense elude history." Barthes refuses to consider photography as a progressive continuation of perspectival experiments in art that have taken place ever since the fifteenth century. He wishes to break away from history and start to consider photography from the vantage point of the nineteenth century, by conferring on it a special status, made possible by the modern invention of a chemical solution that is able to fix images forever.
The affinities and differences between Kracauer and Barthes are even more fascinating in wake of the criticism they received for being "realists" in their dealings with photography. How could a historian and film critic, who professes to want to analyze cultural codes, rely on the optical impressions of unmediated realistic details as a means of redeeming reality? What exactly did the avid semiotician imply when he claimed that, although the reading of images takes into consideration cultural codes, the photograph is inherently an image without a code?
It is perplexing that both Kracauer and Barthes take pleasure in seeking details that give the impression they exist for themselves, as though their transparency is due to the impression they give of not being an outcome of a formative approach or a contemplative gaze. I press this point because, ironically, the discovery of these realistic details relies on the most subjective process of detection that emphasizes the receptive process of a unique and individualized subject far more than the quality of the object under scrutiny or its meaning in reality. Kracauer offered a solution to this paradox by giving the example of Marcel and discussing the way that formative and realist approaches in photography can coexist. Barthes does the same thing by comparing the mechanical and personal aspects of photography. The scene in a photo is captured mechanically, not humanly. The mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity. Man's interventions in the photograph: framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed, all effectively belong to the plane of connotation; it is as though in the beginning (even if utopian) there were a brute photograph (frontal and clear) on which man would then lay out, with the aid of various techniques, the signs drawn from a cultural code.
Barthes adopted this subjective/objective model to the methodology of reading images. In "The Photographic Message" he makes a distinction between "denotation" and "connotation." The former represents the brute facts we see in photographs, and the latter the coded messages that the photograph implies. In his essay "The Third Meaning," these sets of terms were then exchanged for the difference between the "obvious" and the "obtuse." The obvious meaning governs the semantic relations between denotation and connotation while the obtuse meaning represents the ability of details to grab hold of his attention without his being able to place them in any fixed interpretation.
Kracauer recalls being fascinated by the representation of the surfaces of reality already as a child. In his youth he had scribbled a title for a future paper on cinema: "Film as the Discoverer of the Marvels of Everyday Life." The use of the word "marvel" to denote the moments of the everyday that are usually not noticed reminds us that the everyday relies on repetition, giving the impression, as Maurice Blanchot pointed out, that it was not invented but has always existed. Kracauer responded in particular to Lumière's first films and mentioned such scenes as the arrival of the train in the station, the workers leaving the factory, and especially the shot of leaves rippling in the wind. These scenes were described by him as "detached records" that "resembled the imaginary shot of the grandmother which Proust contrasts with the memory image of her." Here, again, Kracauer uses the impassive detached observer to define the qualities of images in nature that suddenly reveal themselves after having persistently been veiled by ideologies.
Barthes too was enticed by this sort of optical allure. Writers on Barthes appear to have overlooked the obvious analogy between how he described his relationship with his mother and the fascination he had for the uncoded aspects of photography. He intricately defines portraits according to how the pose is construed in social terms but never reveals the real person. In order to impress upon us the experience of unmediated reality that exists as such, and unlike Kracauer's emphasis on the optical experience, which leaves the spectator always alienated from the object of his vision, Barthes emphasizes the concrete relationship between the photographic object and its referent.
Kracauer did not compare history and photography to prove a mimetic relationship between them but only one of affinity and correspondence. Barthes was not at all interested in the analogical relations between photography and reality that other forms of art, like drawing, were capable of having. Both writers stressed the problematic connection between the photograph and the referent by opening up a new territory for investigation that examines the space between reality and representation, the present and the past, the act of observation and the process of imagination; a space whose intermediary appeal recalls the character of Kracauer's evocative definition of the anteroom area. In the last chapter of History Kracauer examines the relationship between philosophy and history. He concerns himself with the difference they pose between the need to define absolute truths and relative truths, between generalized concepts and concrete particular details. Kracauer disregards the "either/or" distinctions between philosophy and history and suggests a "side by side" approach that enables polarities to coexist. Anteroom thinking designates this sort of approach of attentive openness and waiting that recalls the stranger's "extraterritorial" sensibility. The relationship between history and photography is defined by Kracauer in terms of the anteroom area. Both realities are of a kind which does not lend itself to being dealt with in a definite way," because both elude "the grasp of systematic thought." The anteroom area defines the way history and photography "share their provisional character with the material they record and explore," and this especially concerns the levels of reality that Kracauer analyzes in the study of the daily.
I believe that the image of this intermediary area, typified by the dialectical possibility of the side-by-side approach, can serve as representative of all the issues discussed in this article. Kracauer's subjective/ objective stance toward the analysis of reality; the formative/realist approach to photography; the active passivity of Marcel the lover and the detached observer are examples.
I have tried to find a concrete image for this space in photography and films. In Camera Lucida it exists in the simple example Barthes gives to explain that reality and photography are intertwined by a special relationship, another sort of skin, which makes photography belong to "that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the window pane and the landscape." But an even more pertinent example exists in the realm of film. The cinematic dissolve that is used to signal the passage of time superimposes two images. The transition between these images is often imperceptible on the screen unless its motion is arrested on the editing table: there in the blurred space that reveals the relationship between cinematic movement and stilled images. This space between the image that has not fully departed and the new one that has not yet been fully formed, this combination image is formed whose beauty and particularity cannot be foretold is an optical no-man's land that cannot be grasped and belongs to no one. It is a space of freedom and distraction that presents a pure optical experience that makes the real unreal.
This collage of forty photos which I have referred to replaces narrative as mechanism for understanding or, perhaps more accurately, these images serve as memory's only or at least useful tool for a period of time lost now to history. These photos enable me "to negotiate" my "displacement from the past. They are nostalgic items coloured with pensiveness, each with a point that pierces our vision." As I gaze on these photos I indulge myself in a "sentimental yearning for an irrecoverable past." These photographs are traces of moments in life, traces captured by cameras. The photograph mechanically repeats what could never have been repeated in day-to-day existence. Is what is real defined by what is empirical, what is observed? If so, this 650 plus page autobiography is quite deficient. For I record little of "everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of travelling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward particular groups of people, the looks, the poses, the glances, styles of walking, watching TV and other symbolic details that exist in the day to day lives of either myself or the many others I have known. As Niall Lucy notes, they are the least understood.
When the first photograph in my collection was taken, the Bahá'í Faith had been in Canada for ten years. 'Abdu'l-Bahá would arrive just a few miles away four years later when His train stopped in Hamilton in 1912. These photographs preserve my family life as far back as 1908 through their simple representation of life. They allow me to relate, perhaps as simple mnemonic devices, to people who are now dead and environments which have been completely transformed in my time. My words can not embody these people but they can describe them. Readers do not have to suspend disbelief in what is the effect of my own meditation, mediation, my own individual anti-authoritative human consciousness.
This autobiography, thusfar, provides no photographs and this chapter says a few things about why. The first photo in my collection was taken in 1907/8 when my mother was three or four, when her brother, Harold, was perhaps one and her sister, Florence, six or seven. My father at this same time was twelve or thirteen and most likely living in Wales, but no pictures of him from this period are available; in fact no pictures of my father exist before 1944. I've often wondered if this was because he belonged to a secret service organization and would never talk about it in the years I was growing up. My mother is in fifteen of the photos and all of the others in this sub-set of twenty-five photographs, are of her family. I have tried to put together something of the story of my family in the years 1844 to 1944. We all engage with the world in different ways. For some this engagement involves lengthy introspection; for others there seems to be little reflection. Perceiving the reality of self and world is no simple matter. The photograph, transferring awareness to memory, imperceptibly shifting our gaze and our attention to material previous stored, we tend to reconstruct our present in a manner more fitting to our gaze, to what we are recalling in the photograph. Again the process is complex and I do not want to dwell on the matter to too great an extent here. Perhaps at a future date some of these photos will embellish this autobiography.
Readers will find my attempts at a brief overview of my family in the century 1844-1944 in sections 3.A.1 and 3.A.2 of my unpublished Journal: Volume 1.1. This overview will remain in perpetuity in the archives of my family until and if they are required elsewhere. Perhaps in a future edition of this autobiography some of my Journal will see the light of day. But, except for the occasional foray into my Journal, this book will not deal with this enriching source of possible autobiographical material and its accompanying photographs.
The photographs in section 2 of my Journal: Volume 1.1 will serve, one day, perhaps, to help provide more detail than I have been able to gather in the last few years. A start has been made, though, to a process, to a period of history, of family history, which I hope I will be able to outline in much more detail in the early decades of the twenty-first century, decades which will see my own life draw to a close. I will have, I trust, more time to write relevant and embellishing autobiographical detail. Future members of my family or other interested parties may be able to ferret out information I am unable to obtain. I wish such seekers well in their efforts to extend my family's autobiographical efforts well into the third and possibly fourth century.
I often feel the way literary critic and contemporary philosopher Susan Sontag does about photographs. The main effects of photographs, she writes, are to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. The camera becomes a huge repository of secrets and the result of its fervent, eloquent and learned exploration is to discover for us that everyday reality is possessed of a chill. The language accompanying the photograph is, so often, banal, obtrusive and strips everyday life of reality, giving us, in its place, a cold and distant surface, a spacial configuration at a moment in time with pretentions of a reality that no one can touch.
Perhaps this view of Sontag's is a little too strong for the average taste. I find her ideas provocative. They make me think about photographs and their functions. That some people find the photograph possessed of reality, possessed of a close, warm, personal creation, a taste of immortality, of a transcendent dimension, one can not deny. But there is so much more to a person. It is like saying that I am this body you see before you and nothing else. What of mind, what of spirit, what of soul, what of all that is not capturable on camera! One of the functions of my poetry, my writing, is to try to capture this soul that the photograph only hints at from some camera obscura, some darkened chamber. This Journal contains many photographs which I trust receive some illumination in this way and some exposition of the inky recesses of my soul, hopefully not overly internalized, hopefully not in the form of slate-slabs which grate on readers' nerves and fail to find any internal rhythm.
To part with photographs is to forget. Photographs are a mnemonic archive that enables us to negotiate our displacement from the past and our placement in the future. They are nostalgic items coloured with pensiveness, each with a point that pierces our vision. Viewers' memory traces are developed through photographs; their sentimental yearning for an irrecoverable past is indulged. There is recuperative power in this process of temporal and spacial transference. The vicissitudes of life seem to be reduced if not eliminated as we gaze at the photographs. Life's brevity seems to be partly an illusion. We achieve an immortality here, an at-oneness with all time, an annihilation of the years. Walter Benjamin says that the person who views a photograph "feels an irresistible urge to search the picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and Now, with which reality has seared the subject." And so I do. But readers of this autobiography will be spared that exercise. Even though many of these photos are outside my experience, I still may be seized by these images of the past or some details within them, the ephemeral cultural detritus that photography illuminates so effortlessly. Even though they are beyond the reach of my intellect in some ways they open-up new spaces, quasi-memories.
"It is not the person who steps out," writes David Frisby, "but what can be stripped away from him." Instead of being an aid to memory and knowledge photos often function to encourage the opposite tendency. Photos, writes Frisby, gobble up our world. They snatch our world from death; total presentness is established and history is absent inspite of the sense of reality conveyed by the photograph. It is a reality we can no longer touch. We experience nostalgia, the inevitability of separation, mystery and, sometimes, bitterness. We experience a feeling of magic. Sometimes narcissism is fostered, Baudelaire once wrote.
But just as a photographer cannot take the subject as it is, the viewer should not assume that what he or she sees is what it seems. In art there is something more than the appearance. There is the power of symbol. As Turner said, "Photography can use fact as a metaphor to create new fact." Another well-known photographer, Jonathan Bayer, said, "Good photographic images intrigue, present a mystery, or demand to be read. They are constructs of frustrations and ambiguities which force the viewer to actively interact with the photograph." Prominent art critic Berger holds a similar view that photography is a "quotation from appearance rather than a translation," because extraction from context produces a discontinuity, which is reflected in the ambiguity of a photograph's meaning.
However critical one is of photographs, the family portrait and the photo album assume a significant place in people's homes. Although the photo may give an undue emphasis to the outer world, they can also become part of a balanced inner and outer experience. "The best part of beauty," wrote Francis Bacon, "is that which no picture can express." Photos are suggestive and, if they do not suggest much more than is in the photos, they have little use or power. Diane Arbus puts the idea in a clever way: "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
Psychologist Rudolf Arnheim considers photography an improper medium to express a person's personality. In one of his many books on aesthetics and psychology he has said that the "presence of a portrait photographer's camera tends to paralyze a person's expression, so that he becomes self-conscious, inhibited, and strikes an unnatural pose. Candid shots are momentary phases isolated in time and space from the action and setting of which they are a part. Sometimes they are highly expressive and representative of the whole from which they are taken. Frequently, they are not. Furthermore, the angle from which a shot is made, the effect of lighting on shape, the rendering of brightness and color values, as well as modifications through retouching, are factors that make it impossible to accept a random photograph as a valid likeness."
Arnheim also criticizes photography for lacking visual dynamic and carrying disorganized natural accident because it is from "outside in." Photography can not truly express a person's essence because the photographer intervenes and manipulates the media. Actually, artificial procedures in photography such as switching angles and retouching might contribute to a valid likeness. Furthermore, psychologists generally agree that one's personality is situational rather than stable. It is doubtful that we can find one "right" representation of anyone's personality. On one occasion perhaps a snapshot of a natural accident shows an expressive gesture of a person vividly, but at another time a picture taken in a studio setup may manifest his/her essence clearly. Sometimes a painter can reveal the very nature of a person in a particular situation, but a photographer might handle this job better under another circumstances.
Photos are enticements to reverie, wrote Susan Sontag. They are like a woodfire in a room. They have a surface heat but there is something beyond them, something we intuit, some inexhaustible invitation to deduction, speculation and fantasy. "The very muteness of what is, hypothetically, comprehensible in photographs," writes Sontag, "is what constitutes their attraction and provocativeness." Reality is interminably rich, its vertiginous treasure can not be exhausted by photographs, by language, by a life.
Writing is, of course, also problematic. As James Agee pointed out in an interview published in the Partisan Review in 1939, writing "draws in to the point of a pin and it spreads out flat like a qoit. some of the time you are writing for all men wo are your equals and your superiors, and some of the time for all the deceived and captured, and some of the time for nobody. Some of the time you are trying to communicate(not necessarily to please)."
Several years ago, just after retiring from my professional work as a teacher, I organized some of my photos into the context of my Journal. I wrote the introduction which follows to my collection of photographs:
INTRODUCTION TO THIS PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM
In July 1971 my first wife, Judy, and I moved to Australia from Canada. The photographs from the period before this move belong in other places, mainly in my Journal Volume 1.1, although some can be found in my first volume of poetry, entitled, Warm-Up: The Tomb’s Chambers. The photographs in these two volumes come from the period 1908 to 1971, before the international pioneer experience that my book Pioneering Over Four Epochs attempts to describe.
The photographs found here, part of Section VIII of this larger work Pioneering Over Four Epochs, in what is in some ways the second chapter of my life, were arranged by my second wife, Chris. They are a rearrangement of an initial organization of photos I put together in the early 1990s. They are also a companion piece to: (i) an additional collection of photographs in my study, under volume numbers: 5, 7.1, 8, 8.1, 9.1, 10 and Mother(1/2); and (ii) the four volumes of my Journal, Volumes 1.2, 2, 3 and 4.
The work, the writing, on the volumes of my journal is incomplete. I hope to continue the work on them, in what might be called ‘a retrospective autobiography’, gradually during the years of my retirement. This ‘retrospective journal', is an extension, in some ways, of an initial narrative I wrote in the late 1980s and redrafted to completion in 1993, entitled, Pioneering Over Three Epochs. This journal is also an extension, a companion piece, to my poetry, now in forty volumes, which I began writing in 1980.
I hope, during the years of my retirement ahead, to provide some comment and analysis of these photographs but, for now, I simply want to write this introduction, this ‘general perspective’ on just where these photographs fit into the overall collection of my autobiographical material. Inevitably, were my wife to write this introduction, she would place these photos in a different context. For we are all different; we lead different lives, even--and perhaps especially--within any one family.
This introduction is a ‘first start’ to what may become a fuller and more comprehensive statement, as the years go on and as I see my life differently, as we all do from our earliest years to our final hours. As I gather together my thoughts for an autobiography, I continue to ponder just exactly what, if any, photos I will include. If the reader finds in the final text of this work no pictures to embellish the narrative, the the ideas of Susan Sontag, especially her ideas on photography, will tell why.
Reality is the given-the donnee-of photography. The pictures set the limit on what and how much the photographer can transform into a personal creation. Baudelaire once said of photography that its "major negative psychic effect was its encouragement of narcissism, the most regressive and involuted of psychic tendencies." That is probably true, too, of autobiography. Hopefully, though, these tendencies can be dealt with by this practitioner to his own satisfaction and the satisfaction of his readers.
I am aware how much pleasure most people get from photographs. People often seem drawn to the photos in a book before they read the book and, often, instead of reading the book. Perhaps this is because, as Harold Bloom remarked, "reading is a solitary transport which we desperately try to communicate to others. But we can't do it." If this book ever gets published, then, some photos may be included. And, if they are not included, then readers will have some understanding of my attitude to these pictures of life.
My narrative is `built' around my life as a house surrounds and contains memories of experiences. But no matter how many photos I might have used to embellish this autobiography giving my house a colourful and attractive exterior, no matter how many letters, interviews, items of memorabilia or even if I used a video or a DVD as part of my back-up material, all narratives in relation to my self are necessarily acts of negotiation between my individuality, my personal life and the various collectivities that have made up my world. The strategies I employ in this negotiation represent some of the central features of this text. Autobiographers must identity and analyse these strategies for in many ways they form a critical base for the structure of the text. They are much more complex than inserting some photographs, labelling them appropriately and having readers enthuse over them.
Some autobiographers focus their critical energies on the ideological program underlying their assertion of collectivity. This exercise, within the context of a Bahá'í ideological framework and the framework of a western nation state and its vast array of institutional appurtenances, certainly occupies my attention again and again in my narrative. I construct myself, see myself, not only as part of various collectivities but as separate from them. I like to think I achieve a balance between these two general emphases with, perhaps, a slight leaning toward the extent to which there is a social construction to my reality. I do not see these collectivities as entities that are homogeneous or univocal in form and content as some make them out to be. My life as I describe it is part of these various collective identities and my narrative strategy sets my life in these contexts. This is an intentional strategy I take like other strategies, neither more nor less natural than those employed by individualist authors who play-down collectivities and play-up some individualist ethos that has governed their lives.
For a sense of process in my work and my life alike--exhibitions of my manuscripts, books and related memorabilia might be extremely successful at getting the statue that is my life to come down off its perch and take a breath or two. Such exhibitions, if they were ever arranged, reverse time. They take a visitor back into the moment, some moment of my life. Because of the inconsistency of materials available to some curator, they are not always comprehensive or in perfectly calibrated balance, but their subject if extensive enough could be made palpable, paradoxical and animated. Certainly this would be very much the case in a rich survey of my work and life were it to be placed on view.
The memorabilia would be, though, a challenge to any curator, as I would be to the biographer and in a different way to the reader of my verse, prose, and memoirs. I hope to live a long life, and in many ways it is a complex, regularly self-reinventing life. In my obsessions and enthusiasms it would appear that I am a little all over the place, but nowhere near as all over the place as Yeats. My trajectory, of writing as of living, could be seen as one long attempt to build up, and then to a degree break down again, a series of identities or preoccupations until I got closer and closer still to my true, authentic self and voice. Michael Frank said this of W. B. Yeats in his article in the New York Times: "A Poet Who Kept Trying On Different Identities" 6 August 1999. I do this too, but not as deliberately as Yeats.
In the final room of the exhibition of the memorabilia of W.B. Yeats, one can find the first continuous draft of ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.'' This was Yeats's great retrospective poem of 1937; it was laid out for all to see in its literary evolution. It famously ends: "Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
These words, some of the most beautifully conjoined in the English language, did not come easily to Yeats. He wrote and rewrote, he erased and he spliced and he sharpened. In looking back over his life, as in anticipation of it, he worked hard, and he reworked hard. He was not a statue, a piece of memorabilia. He was a man.
I, too, am a man, but I am not, nor will ever be in the same league as the famous W.B. Yeats. I am more of an ordinarily ordinary man.
"Ready to begin at the beginning....."
Art and a certain literariness are built into the very fabric of life; narrative cognition has a basic poetic quality and is part of the creation of meaning. By writing autobiography we open the way toward a more expansive and serviceable conception of truth as well as a more humane conception of human lives, our own lives and how to approach and understand them.-Ron Price with thanks to Mark Freeman, Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative, Routledge, London, 1993.
Having set a bit of a stage, provided some perspectives, wandered about in a philosophical and literary way and suggested a backdrop for this autobiographical study in the first six chapters, I am now ready to begin at the beginning. It is not a beginning that tells of my family background going back to 1844. I have set that out in my Journal: Volume 1.1 and I do not want to repeat that exercise here. It is not a beginning that goes back to my birth in July of 1944, two months after the centenary of the inception of the Babi Faith and just as WW2 was beginning to end its gruesome story. The beginning that is the genuine beginning for this story I have selected somewhat arbitrarily and somewhat pointedly in 1953 when my family had its first contact with what was then more aptly described as a Movement and now is more aptly described as a world Faith, the Bahá'í Faith.
One of autobiography's trade secrets is that writers can find meaning in anything if they look hard enough. Contemplate the work of art which is your life and patterns inevitably emerge, echoes, resonances, allusions which can be brought out and amplified through exegesis. Through an interpretive conceit the autobiographer simultaneously deconstructs and rebuilds, unveils and augments another writer’s metaphors, another writer’s vision and thoughts. Part attention to detail, part science, part a merging of mind and heart, the autobiographical exegesis allows a writer to enter and extend the context of his work of art. I find I can draw on useful reductions of book reviews, a half a millennium of minutiae that have accumulated in the social sciences and humanities and revelatory appraisals and analyses of the autobiographical process that have emerged especially since the completion of the mother temple of the west in 1953.
The literary and art critic, sociologist and philosopher, Walter Benjamin describes two kinds of experience. One kind can be integrated into our lives and the other is "merely lived through." This latter category is characterized by ahistoricity, repetition, sameness, reactiveness, a liquidation of what could be called the cultural achievements of the mind. This autobiography deals with both these kinds of experience. As I go back to the beginnings of this story, this narrative of my pioneering life, both kinds of experience come onto the stage and are dealt with. It is also my intention as I survey these days "to cauterize the exposed tissue of too-easy hope" and too high and unrealistic short-term expectations that are so often offered by the dogmatic ameliorists in our midst. Although I feel a sense of responsibility in what I write, I do not feel that burden of messianic responsibility which artists have often felt. Writing has become, as I near the age of sixty, simply a part of that dominating passion of my life which is to "teach the Cause" in whatever way seems most fitting, most suitable to my talents and capacities. I think I felt the weight of that messianic responsibility much earlier in my life. The years have softened the edges of my sensory emporium and I feel a kindness to myself I did not feel in my more rigorous, more emotionally intense and more enthusiastic days. My work, however imbued with and centred in autobiographical narrative, is a plea for largeness and difficulty, modulation and complexity, variousness and possibility. I plea, too, for the many-sidedness of man. As I point out elsewhere, were my wife, my son, my mother-in-law, my step-dauthers or, indeed, one of many who have known me and found me wanting in one or many ways to write my biography there would be much revealed that is not revealed here. This is the second sustained piece of writing in my life and I hope it has provided a grounding for sustained works in the years to come. It is so easy to get caught up in the endless details of the quotidian, the burgeoning material coming out of just about every aspect of intellectual thought and the responsibilities of home, family and community.
"There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions," Gibbon wrote over two centuries ago, "the love of pleasure and the love of action." To the love of pleasure we may ascribe most of the agreeable, to the love of action we may attribute most of the useful and respectable, qualifications. The insensible and inactive disposition we must reject, by the common consent of mankind, as utterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual, or any public benefit to the world, although this disposition is indispensable from time to time, ending as it usually does, at least for me, in sleep. Gibbon notes, with some of his typical wit and skepticism, that for the early Christians it was not in this world that they were "desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful." Bahá'ís on the other hand, although believing strongly in an afterlife, see the betterment of this world as one of their primary duties. A strong 'this-worldly attitude' has certainly played an important part in the evolution of my life and the writing of this autobiography.
I really did not take my family's, my mother's, involvement in this new Faith very seriously at first, back in the 1950s. The people were friendly and the ideas basically reasonable even to my middle to late childhood and early adolescent brain. More importantly, though, I liked the food you got when you went to the meetings in other people's homes; even when the meetings were in our family's home the food, the tucker as they call it in Australia, was better than you'd ever get in a normal evening. But my heart had just begun its long scenario with baseball. School, girls, TV, family life, the everyday stuff that occupies most nine year olds filled my head. It would be another nine years before I began to take this Movement at all seriously. Perhaps in those nine years I was learning baseball’s metaphor of life as I would one day learn Aussi Rules’ and cricket's metaphor in an Australian context.
"A beginning," the orientalist Edward Said wrote, "methodologically unites a practical need with a theory, an intention with a method." A beginning, Said went on to say in much more simple words, is chosen. And this is for me the beginning of my autobiography. We are a people, we Bahá'ís, of messages and signals, of allusions and of direct and indirect expression. We seek each other out but, because our interior is nearly always to some extent occupied and interrupted by others and by life's continuing demands, we have developed a technique of speaking through the given, expressing things obliquely and, to my mind, often so mysteriously as to puzzle even ourselves. But still, we strive for directness, and this narrative is part of my striving.
I have written many poems about these earliest days of my family's coming into contact with the Bahá'í Faith at a time when over ninety per cent of all the Bahá'ís in the world lived in Iran. Here are three poems written in the years just before retiring from full-time teaching, over thirty years after my pioneering life began and more than forty years after the Bahá'í Faith first came into my life.
I share with you these innocent and somewhat intimate aspects of my life; I convey briefly some of my faults and frailties, as easily as I might show you some family photographs, because they are what distinguishes me as a separate, private and unique individual. Partly, too, the ambiguous legacy of confessional poetry, a notable confessional strain, has persisted in its influence into this new century. Some, after reading this lengthy work, might add: exhaustively and exhaustedly.
I was the apple of my parents' eye and was their lovingly indulged only son. Although my father would fly into a rage during a chat with my mother about some issue, usually a financial one, it was all in the context of his love and interest in our welfare and, perhaps, a temper that had been in his Welsh ancestry for centuries. Perhaps my father's anger was a combination of an emotion built up in the coal mines in Wales since the industrial revolution. I don't know, but this Welsh sturm und drung and centuries of patriarchy that would not endure with such pervasiveness into the new millennium on the horizon. I think my parents stayed together because that's what parents did in those days. But their difficult years in the 1950s became a more mature and quiet, a more loving relationship by the 1960s. My home was always open to my friends and, after 1953, to the Burlington Bahá'í community. Books, music, gardens and writing were things treated with respect in these now seemingly remote but halcyon days.
These years up to 1962 and the beginning of my pioneering life were marked by several episodes of particular importance. The first was my mother's contact with this new Faith; the second was the passing of Shoghi Effend; the third was my joining the Bahá'í Faith in 1959; the fourth was my father's conversion in 1960; the fifth was the initial collision of irreconcilable forces: those of this new Faith and those of an aggressive secularism and a cancerous materialism, a collision I would face again and again thoughout my life and would require me to face a pervasive conviction that life is not essentially spiritual and that religion is, for the most part, irrelevant.
In August 1962 I left Burlington, its paradisiacal simplicity and its familiarity. Those golden years were replaced by the academic demands of matriculation, by the absence of the old friends I had cultivated for a dozen years, by the confusions and depressions of my university years in a new town and by a cold wind which set in. These were the years, too, of my first serious entanglements with those beautiful girls. However one describes the contrast, those simple days of youth had gone. I had indeed pioneered. The process, though, was as insidious as a seed. I was not conscious, in any way, that these were my years of preparation for the road ahead, for the lifetime of pioneering. I had begun to sing a new song and it had become more intense, more important, in this new town. But it was so clouded in difficulties that I found it difficult to sing.
Although devotion had raised, and a newfound, newborn eloquence inflamed, a fever in my mind and a belief in my soul, I gave way insensibly, occasionally, to other more natural hopes and fears of the human heart, to the love or simple sensuality of life, the apprehension of pain and its dislocating affects, and the horror of what came to be called manic-depression. Revelations that I include here, however personal, however inner and private, embrace a larger social vision; revelation exceeds, excells over narcissism. There is a universal resonace over self-referential anecdote. At least that is how I see it, how I intend it. The impersonal and the personal are intricately braided and difficult if not useful to separate. Perhaps, too, the motions of the mind in all writing are autobiographical.
As I try to sketch these days, these years, I feel somewhat like Rembrandt must have felt as he tried to find a fit, a persona, that best aligned with his propensities at the time. Beginning in 1621 Rembrandt embarked on a new trajectory and to fashion different independent self-portraits. Beginning in the mid-1980s, at the start of the forth epoch, I, too, began to write about my life, my life as student, as teacher, as Bahá'í, as poet and writer, as husband, as father, as friend, as curiosity. Rembrandt revealed in his poses both artifice and honest disclosure, both professional ambition and personal thoughts. Do I provide the same range for my readers? There is richness and ambiguity in writing as there is in any profound conversation. It is not simplicity that readers will have difficulty penetrating in this work, it will be complexity. I wish my readers well. I wish them the persistence that I sense they will need.
Every discipline is made up of a set of restrictions on thought and imagination. This is no less true of autobiography. This narrative, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, acts as an enormous container for the exploration of the pitfalls and inadequacies, the techniques and strategies, entailed in my effort to construct a writing subject or self. This self I have created stands out in relief against a background of conventions, traditions and roles. My identity could be seen as a site of several contesting selves: past self, present self, public self, private self, and I have to choose, create, some composite that I feel is as accurate as possible. The self is not carved from a tabula rasa, but from a bag of buried and not-so-buried language and experience.
Autobiographical creativity can scarcely exist without a substantial sense of self and a conviction, at least for the moment one is writing, that what one is producing is worthwhile. The "self" in a text is, I find, a tenuous and ambiguous device, overshadowed by the power of narrative. Wherever I go, my story marches ahead of me, announces me, declares and expresses, hopefully, some aspect of my self. Whether that self is the embodiment of myself as a true seeker is another question. For "when a true seeker taketh the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart......from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge."
"There is no value-neutral mode of emplotment, explanation or even description of any field of events, whether imaginary or real. The very use of language itself implies or entails a specific posture before the world, a posture which is ethical, ideological, or more generally political. Not only interpretation but also all language is politically contaminated, writes Hayden White. So is this true of my autobiography, but the political contamination is non-partisan. In this work there is some orderliness, but there is much irregularity, cross-pollinating and boundary blurring between genres. In a world which erases so much, the life of the ordinary and unsung individual is inevitably obliterated, if not in the short term certainly as the generations succeed one another in this contingent world. And so I bring to this work an assault of unsorted reflections which will, I assume, become frozen in time, caught, pinned in a particular version of my life. The process is also and inevitably problematic. This process of writing, like most major things of significance in our life, will never be completed. "If one says 'unfinished,'" writes the potter Bernard Leach, "life continues, movement goes on." The real issue here in this autobiographical work was like the real issue for Leach in making potttery: how to release my inner life into the outward work, not seeking rarity or understatement but just my own true self in an atmosphere of easy playfulness of mind and positive assurance. Do I creatively evoke the stumblings of a writer's inner life?
When Roland Barthes, philosopher and specialist in language analysis, writes that "the author is never more than the instance writing, just as the 'I' is nothing other than the instance saying 'I'" I can see his logic. Barthes also writes: "the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture." As I write these words about a time more than forty years ago, the connection between that person back in Canada so long ago and the one sitting here in Australia, nearly sixty years old, seems tangential, obscure, subtle and mysterious. Barthes goes on to say that "language knows a 'subject' not a 'person' and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language 'hold together', suffices to exhaust it. And yet, the person I write about is, for me, also a subject. However elusive the idea of uniqueness of voice may be; however overpopulated my words are with the intentions of others, there is still some self, some soul perhaps, which the acme of mature contemplation forces me to admit exists. However tangential my connection with that elusive and mysterious self of yesteryear, the connection is there in memory, in language, in imagination, in that "blissful abode of the Divine Presence," in that "wine of reunion" which in these years--beginning in 1953--I was just starting to quaff, in "the chalice of the beauty" of my Lord.
Perhaps Barthes is partly right: I know a subject. The person who was back then entering that blissful abode has long since demonstrated his poverty, his powerlessness. He has been emboldened by the forgiveness, the redemptive power, of this new Faith. His evanescent soul has been, these many years, "seeking the river of everlasting life."
And so, over these many years, He has heard "my groaning and my wailing, and the lamentation of my heart." He has heard that cry "Here am I. Here am I." My life is full of things to ponder as I look back over those days. The person and the subject seem inextricably intertwined. The roles I have played in life, their meaning and significance, must be understood in the context of institutions, the interpretive framework I adopt, consciously and unconsciously, the hermeneutic that is mine, the big picture, the metanarrative, the orientation to life of which they are a part. That I have done this thusfar and will continue to do so throughout this book should be obvious. There is what you might call "a natural subjectivity to any autobiography." Its truth, the truth of the genre, resides in this subjectivity and, for the most part, this subjectivity is formed by the interpretive framework I have referred to above.
To put this idea yet another way, the making of the self is called its narrative. The reenactment of the past in the present is the reanactment in a context which gives it a new quality. That is why telling stories of our lives brings new significances to them and a new texture of meaning which is constantly reaffirmed and transformed in the flux of life. What the autobiographer has is a sequence of mutually interrelated themes that form a dense network of interconnected cross-references. These define an overall construct or framework within which cumulative and relevant experiences are narrated. As Franz Fanon once put it: "In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself." If this cannot be done, the autobiography is faced with a tedious collection of material that he can neither make into any coherent story nor endow with any life and significance, at least on paper.
As "the propelling forces mysteriously guiding the operations" of the Ten Year Crusade continued throughout these earliest years of my involvement with a small group of people called Bahá'ís in a small town in southern Ontario on the edge of Lake Ontario, my own life insensibly grew into late adolescence and my pioneering life began. I had absolutely no idea at the time the significance of that Ten Year Crusade immersed as I was in the typical agenda of a white, lower middle class male who lived in a small town and was about to move to another small town about ten miles away. Some cultural and social historians say that, psychologically at least, the fifties did not end until the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. By then the Ten Year Crusade had ended, my pioneer life had begun and what, for the Bahá'í community, the tenth and final stage of history had begun.
"The new generation," wrote sociologist Daniel Bell describing the age-group I belonged to at the time, "with no meaningful memory of the old debates, and no secure tradition to build upon, found itself seeking new purposes within a framework of political society that had rejected, intellectually speaking, the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions." Writing at the very time I joined the Bahá'í Faith, Bell wrote about the yearning, the searching for a cause, the difficulty in defining the content of the cause they sought, the stultifying aspects of contemporary culture that could not be redressed in political terms.
Many of the young sought passion in some form that was not ideology. The 'new Left' had passion and energy, but it had little definition of the future. I certainly became conscious of that in my short dalliance with it in 1965 when my days of protesting, carrying banners and placards and sleeping on the steps of the American Consulate in Toronto got my picture on the front of Hamilton's major daily paper, The Spectator. The Bahá'í Faith certainly offered vision and protesting was not a part of its style, its thrust into society, the focus of its energies. It had nothing to do with the left or the right. It certainly felt real enough when I watched the members of the Burlington Bahá'í community in my parents' lounge-room, when I read some of its literature, when I felt the hunger-pains on fasting as was required for all Bahá'ís over fifteen, when I'd given up baseball and sport and the familiarity of a home town and found myself alone in the back streets of another small town in the autumn of 1962 praying as I never had before.
The theatre I had entered had nothing to do with party politics, with partisan policies and protesting. Bahá'í theatre took place mostly in lounge-rooms back then, at least for me, and, as my pioneering life evolved, I found it became part of the very life I breathed, wherever I went. Bahá'í theatre was my life, speaking metaphorically of course. But in 1962, on the eve of that venture in bringing illumination "with the lights of the Kingdom," I had no sense of theatre. I was, in some ways, just a kid trying to finish high school. And I find now, as I write about this period over forty years ago, that I locate, mysteriously, the soul of those moments, those months and years. Indeed, my identity depends on what I identify in these moments and "that which identifies" with me. As Bryne describes the process in his article that I refer to here, the exercise is difficult to put into words.
I had little sense, then, in my late teens of any significant interest in or talent for writing; indeed, until perhaps the 1970s, when I was nearly thirty, writing proved a difficult exercise. There was certainly no early blossoming of talent in that area. I have in the intervening years, the last thirty years, become as W.H. Auden put it: "so convinced of the permanent value of (this) work that I am certain the world sooner or later will recognize it." This conviction is tied to my belief in the future of the Cause I have spent my life a part of. In fact, divorced from this Cause, these writings would, I am of the conviction, slip into a state of oblivion and irrelevance. What is written here I see as a gift form God and it is written "for the glory of (His) Cause and the loftiness of the state of (His) servants." But, strangely, necessarily, predictably in some ways given the nature of Bahá'í philosophy, I do not seek fame; indeed, I would be happy to see these writings "published anonymously."
The French philosopher Henri Bergson claimed that experience of the world was a flowing continuum of inseparable moments that could not be divided into a sequence of events or moments of apprehension. If he is right then my efforts above to begin the story of my life and outline the sequence of events that make up this narrative autobiography will not reveal what Bergson called the duration or duree of life. This duree can only be grasped by intuition not rational intellect. Perhaps, then, my poetry really is closer to the pith, the reality, of the tale. Perhaps, too, memory is not entirely a retrieval process into an archive of memorial traces. Perhaps it is not so much a search within the confines of one's own mental enclosure as a recollection, a search for bird-like, material figures, impressions, in the external world. Whatever memory is, and whatever the best way to retrieve experience and write about it, readers here will get both a life-sequence and an impressionistic tour, perhaps even, would that be possible, a tour de force.
In the opening lines of the autobiography of that Quaker George Fox, where he writes describing the period of his boyhood, 1624-1648, are the words: "That all may know the dealings of the Lord with me, and the various exercises, trials, and troubles through which He led me, in order to prepare and fit me for the work unto which He had appointed me, and may thereby be drawn to admire and glorify His infinite wisdom and goodness, I think fit (before I proceed to set forth my public travels in the service of Truth) briefly to mention how it was with me in my youth, and how the work of the Lord was begun, and gradually carried on in me, even from my childhood." Although this is not the religious idion of our time, I am comfortable with the tone here and could very well include the same sentiments regarding my life in its early stages.
Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination. The poet must see things clearly and old things freshly.-Shelley in Poet's Quest, E.A. Southwell, Longmans, 1968, p.xvii.
I knew them not in those days
by the beach, by the leafy poplars,
frozen bay and hot summer swims.
I knew them not: their loves, their
books, their battles, their scars. I
remember none of it: the bicycles,
snow forts, the love, the cuddles,
the tenderness, the coming together
of two lives and a grandfather who was
wise. It all drifts to me from these
photographs, as if from a darkroom,
like some eternal emulsion; bathed in
light and shade they appear in love's
lens, cherished beyond duty; the focus
grows so precise though the destination's
shrouded. I see them through the eye of time,
soul held a place for beauty. It really cannot
be defined this sweetness, mystery, light,
like angels walking upon this earth tonight.
27 April 1996
F. Scott Fitzgerald "began assembling his Notebooks"1 some time after May 1932. He was thirty-six and had eight years to live before his death in 1940. He used his Notebooks to record ideas and observations. Bruccoli, in his review of these Notebooks, says they are not that interesting as literary documents but, since they were from Fitzgerald, they are important.2 Two novels and a collection of short stories appeared from the eight years that Fitzgerald utilized Notebooks.
R. Frederick Price "began assembling his Notebooks" in the 1960s and 1970s, but little remains from these collections. In the 1980s and 1990s Price began to assemble an extensive collection of notes from the humanities and the social sciences, not so much observations as quotations from his reading, photocopies from books, magazines and journals and, by the late nineties, material from the Internet. A vast amount of this, too, has been lost, given away or left behind where he lectured and taught. His poetry, of course, contained the sorts of notes that came from observations and ideas. By 2003, as this statement was being recorded, over one hundred two-ring binders and arch-lever files as well as over fifty booklets of poetry filled with notes represented Price's collection of Notebooks. -Ron Price with thanks to 1&2Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor, The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, NY, 1945, p.viii & p.ix.
It had become a massive embrace,
filled the spaces all around him
like a sprawling glove
that noone could wear,
like a collection of old shirts
nicely hung and arranged
to wear on cold or warm days.
He'd been warming to them for,
what, forty years now?1
It had been a lifetime
since that early start
with lots of practice
even in those earlier years,
perhaps as far back as '53--
surely not that soon,
not in grade four2
when he loved Susan Gregory,
listened to his father’s anger
and began his baseball career
while his mother was toying
with a new religion
that had just come into town.
2 I have vague recollections of 'notebooks' from school from about 1953 through 1958, grades four to eight in Ontario Canada. Nothing, of course, remains from this period except a few old photographs. The oldest item from a 'notebook' that I possess comes from 1962.
During the years 1954 to 1963 nine million people attended what was called ‘the greatest photographic exhibition of all times.’ It opened in January 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and was based on the concept of “the family of man” and “mankind is one.” Created by Edward J. Steichen from a collection he began to prepare in 1951, the collection drew on 2 million photographs sent to him from all over the world. Indeed, while Steichen was making the final selection of 273 photographs from 68 countries whittled down from 10,000 photographs in the years 1952 to 1954, DNA was discovered and much else happened in that fertile period two year period in history.
The collection began a second life in the early 1990s in Luxembourg. The photographs were restored and the memories of the hopes and aspirations of millions of men and women, focused as they had been in the early 1950s on peace, on their concerns for the emerging Cold War and the new atomic bomb, were preserved by means of this restorative photographic process. This courageous and provocative photographic undertaking, the vision of one man, with its universal appeal to human dignity, was recreated forty years after its first opening in New York. The serious preparations for this recreation were made in a second Holy Year, 1992-3, as the final sifting of the original collection took place in the first Holy Year of the international Bahá'í community, 1952-3.–Ron Price with appreciation to “The Genius of Photography,” ABC1 TV, 28 February 2010, 11:40-12:40 a.m.
There was no real photography
family back then in those early
‘50s-just a humanistic message-
an abstract tone-poem-which in
its various ways avoided all the
historical, political, ideological1
realities which make for a true
and genuinely graphic family of
man. No photographer had in
those years commitments: not
Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert
Capa, nor David Seymour or Wm
Vandivert or any of the members
of Magnum, an organization with
no relationship with Clint Eastwood.
Cultured and not-so-cultured, modest
and not-so-modest, avoiders as well as
seekers of ostentation, these men had a
quiet and not-so-quiet sensitivity, sharp
awareness of the pain of suffering and an
understated appreciation of others' humanity,
almost as if he were attempting to restore a
more distinguished order to a senseless world.3
1 This point was given great emphasis in the doco “The Genius of Photography: Part 1,” ABC1 TV, 28 February 2010, 11:40-12:40 a.m.
2 This prose-poem does not avoid ideology and commitment, history and endless modesty and ostentation. The history of photography and the history of the Bahá'í Faith can, arguably, be taken back to 1826 when the first photograph was made. That year the US President John Adams, whose life is associated in a series of remarkable ways with the emergence of the American democracy, died and the leader of the Shaykhi school of the Ithna-Ashariyyih sect of Shi’ah Islam, Shaykh Ahmad, passed away leaving the Shaykhi School in the hands of Siyyid Kazim until 31 December 1843 at which time a negligible offshoot of that school began to emerge and, in the years ahead, was transformed into a new world religion.
3 See the internet site “1947 Founders: Magnum In Motion.” After watching the forth and final Part on 21 March, as the autumnal and vernal equinox turned their corner, I wrote the following addition to the above prose-poem.-Ron
170 years is not such a long time
for a history to take place in the
span of a 13.6 billion year span
since the big bang. Still, a great
deal has happened on this very
mortal coil and photography has
delighted, served, moved and, yes,
outraged us all—well—not all of us.
The rigid divisions in this new art
have collapsed and, now, this art is
anything you want it to be, anything!
3 March 2010
Updated on 22 March 2010
Often, for reasons of vanity or because they know they are not particularly attractive, some people often dislike the way they look in photographs. Their best sides, most attractive selves, are not fixed in the photo and some undesirable image is presented to the world. Inga Clendinnen, Australian historian, thinks that photographs challenge and corrupt memory. Most of us, she goes on, remember individuals through time as a sort of moving collection of lights, vague images or an indistinct melody. If you think of how you might describe people who've mattered to you it's never in terms of a static photograph. I find this to be very true of my own experience. People, of course, will be in your memory bank, but it is as an action or actions not an image or images. It might be as a glance, a particular movement; it might be a sensation you get when you see them or think of them. It might be a feeling of happiness or sadness, nostalgia or warmth.
For some people the memory is associated with a distinctive melody and this melody surrounds the person in question. Clendinnen thinks that photographs cannibalize and oversimplify this complicated moving memory, this sequence of indistinct memories that we all have. Photographs tend to fix our memories into a form and it is a form at a time and place. For Clendennin photographs are a violation of the actuality she wants to cherish in her memory. -Ron Price with thanks to Inga Clendinnen, “Interview,” Internet Site, November 10th, 2001.
Yes, Inga, a lot of what you say
is true, but there is so much more
to this business of the photograph.
They quietly pierce my vision.
They also help maintain, integrate
and enhance my cultural identity
through their role in society’s
main symbol systems.
They seem to be part of me.
This pictorial backdrop
both reveals and conceals.
They mobilize my memory.
They simultaneously document
and yet undercut the narrative.
They reduce and enhance reality
in frozen moments, a pseudo-intimacy.
They help us in a reenactment,
the conquest of the world as picture,
but I say: is this really me….or you?
The first photograph in my collection
is from 1908--the year He was set free.
Then a flood came in and after ’53:
photos for me and a new and vibrant
wind for all humanity, or so He said.
Can I keep the freshness of those instants
in the world around me amidst vast and
pervasive incoherence and complexity?
Can those radiations still touch me?
April 9th 2006
A LOSS FOR WORDS
After our second visit to Bahji and a special visit to the room ‘Abdu’l-Baha rented when he came to Bahji during His ministry, I wrote the following poem while seated in a cool, air-conditioned bus which was travelling from Bahji to the house of ‘Abdu’llah Pasha. At the time I was sitting beside an attractive, single, blond, Russian lady in her late twenties who lived in Malta as a pioneer. I sensed that she did not want to chat and so, during the approximately twenty minutes we had on the bus, I wrote part of a poem reflecting on the Bahji experience, where the Qiblih of the Baha’i World is located. We had just completed five days of our nine day pilgrimage.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, 10 June 2000.
His shoes! One can never fill those shoes!
Little brown shoes in a box beside His bed.
My son and I said the Tablet of Visitation
four times together facing that bed
in that little room of the Pilgrim House,
after walking around the mansion of Bahji:
simple, full of memories, memorabilia,
beautifully designed gardens and paintings
of Lua Getsinger and John E. Esslemont.
.....the above poem was discontinued. We then visited the House of Abdu’llah Pasha and the Ridvan Gardens. The poem was completed on the bus returning to Mt. Carmel and the House where ‘Abdu’l-Baha lived in Haifa......
More shoes of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,
Shoghi Effendi’s room,
the dust of the Bab in that room,
the two windows of the prison cell
from Ali Pasha’s house,
and the Ridvan Garden,
the centre of the Verdant Isle.
What can one say about all this?
10 June 2000
AND SOME MORE PROSE-POEMS
A FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER
Some Personal Reflections
On a Saturday afternoon with one month remaining in an Australian summer, and while waiting for two friends to arrive for a social visit, my wife and I had the pleasure of watching the doco "The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women." It was a BBC Four film released some nine months before on 19 May 2013.1 The photographer in question was Erwin Blumenfeld. His first double page spread as a professional photographer was in Vogue magazine on 15 May 1944, ten weeks before I was born. The photographs in the spread were shot in 1938 of his daughter Lisette.
By 1950, the year I entered primary school in Canada, Blumenfeld was reported to be the highest-paid photographer in the world. Of course, in 1950 when I was six, I knew nothing of this man or his photography. Erwin Blumenfeld became famous for the elegantly original images he created for the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in the 1940s and 1950s, and for advertising clients like Helena Rubinstein, Ford Motor Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels.
Until this afternoon he was completely unknown to me. His autobiography, Eye to I: The Autobiography of a Photographer was not available in English until 1999, the year I retired after a student-and-employment life of 50 years. His autobiography is very different from the one I have written. His book is laced with anger, irony, sex and puns.3 His other book, My One Hundred Best Photos, was published posthumously in 1979.
It was Blumenfeld's interest in autobiography, in what was below the surface of his life, and below the surface beauty of lovely women that especially interested me since I have been writing autobiographically, memoiristically, since the early 1980s.
Some of his most famous and early photographs were in the late 1930s before he and his family were interned in a series of French concentration camps. One of the most extraordinary pieces is the 1937 image of a woman whose facial features have all been removed except her eyelashes and closed eyelids. In 1937, the religion I have been associated with now for more than 60 years, began a series of Plans for its extension and consolidation. These Plans were based on a book entitled Tablets of the Divine Plan written during the Great War and published in 1919.
In the last year of that 'war to end all wars', and in 1919, Blumenfeld was in his early 20s; he lived in Amsterdam and toiled in the ladies' lingerie departments of department stores. His interest in photography had begun, but not his famous career. 2 -Ron Price with thanks to 1SBSONE TV, 22/2/'14 2:50 to 3:55 p.m., 2Wikipedia, 22/2/'14, and 3 Vicki Goldberg, "Photography Review: Finding a Camera and a New Career," 19/11/'99 in The New York Times.
He saw people as complex
social beings and wanted to
get to the heart of a person
by means of photography.
He had a fear of growing old.
Seems that he took his own life
at 72, and took a young girl to
help him feel young when he
grew into his 60s. His work
was at the cutting edge of the
field until the 1960s. If ever
a photographer could produce
a visual haiku, it was this genius
of the camera. He was able to
distill the essence of a women:
the sum of her parts, for him,
were much more alluring than
1 "Blumenfeld was a polymath. He could paint, write and draw; and, in the spirit of his age, he excelled at collage, later photomontage, cutting and pasting as a way to make sense of the world." In a text fragment entitled “Who I Am,” Blumenfeld wrote: “I play the following roles with the art of deceit: human being, Jew, infant whose testicles have been stolen, painter-poet-prince, thinker, stinker. …” (See Andy Port, "Extra Credit | Erwin Blumenfeld’s Dada," Women's Fashion, 16 April 2009).
SWEET NEW LIFE
Beginning in 1937 in the U.K. a project known as Mass Observation has continued to provide a data base, an archive, information about the opinions and experiences of the average Briton. Hundreds of people, mostly women, kept diaries of their observations on subjects initially required by the government for the war effort. The project was discontinued in the early 1950s and started again in 1981 at the University of Sussex. There now exists at this university an archive of hundreds, thousands, of pages of detailed observations by alert, intelligent, but ordinary, average people, without any special expertise in social analysis, telling some of the story of the daily experiences of ordinary people in Britain in the twentieth century.-Ron Price with thanks to LNL Radio, 10:40-11:00 pm, 21 September 2000.
Beginning in 1937 in the Baha’i community a project known as the Seven Year Plan, based on the initial outline in the Tablets of the Divine Plan, has continued down the decades of the twentieth century under many different names. Hundreds of people, many thousands now, moved to different parts of the world to establish, to extend, to teach, the Baha’i Faith. Many hundreds of these people kept diaries and collections of letters, wrote reports and recorded minutes of meetings, wrote down their autobiographies and their poetry to convey the stories, the experiences of their lives. An archive now exists, spread out over dozens of places around the globe, which will one day provide a useful base, resource, for future historians wanting to write a history of the first four epochs of the Formative Age.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, 21 September 2000.
There’s an eruption of meaning
here among these fragile lives.1
More than just a lot of paper
kept in old boxes in a back room;
more than meaningless circularized
correspondence that came on the table
to be dismissed, even then, to a file
or the waste paper basket.
There are connections with reality
here among these people’s stories,
rare gems for future historians,
among the rich, the tragic,
the often lackluster ordinariness,
the seemingly absurd, the dry bones
of papered lives amidst a mass of
seemingly useless, valueless memorabilia.
There’s a great weight of irrelevance
here, like the archive of ancient Rome
in the midst of our anarchic confusion
in the attitude to history that has grown
up around us in these tempestuous days.
But there is an overwhelming beauty
here which, like the Parthenon of old,
stifles damaging criticism at its source,2
enriches the realm of aesthetics and
emotion and gives to this paper, now
mounting to the skies, a sweet new life
and arrays those lives, those stories,
with the fresh leaves of consecrated joy.3
1 Arlette Farge, Fragile Lives: Violence, Power and Solidarity in Eighteenth Century Paris, Marvard UP, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, Introduction.
2 Peter Green, The Shadow of the Parthenon, Maurice Temple Smith, London, 1972.
3 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, Wilmette, 1970, p.116.
21 September 2000
AM I WORTH SAVING?
"A biographer can be a most uncomfortable visitor for a living author and his family. Skeletons clatter in all our closets; everyone's life has black patches, shames and sorrows: no one, you would think, would willingly submit to Judgement Day come early." So writes Peter F. Alexander at the start of his book Les Murray: A Life in Progress(Oxford UP, 2000). But when such an author, like myself for example, is a virtual unknown; when he has never published a book; when no one in the literary world has ever heard of him, then such a discomfort would not be experienced by that author. Indeed, such an unknown author would probably think to himself that no one in his lifetime would venture to seriously consider writing a biography about him at all. Skeletons in his closet and the darker side of his life would, therefore, concern him not a twit, for he would know that no writer would ever be likely to probe into his private life while he was alive. Such is the way I feel as I approach the age of sixty.
When I eventually pass from this mortal coil, though, I would be more than happy to grant any aspiring biographer complete access to everything: manuscripts, letters, diaries, various documents private and public, even accounts and memorabilia of all sorts. I would be equally happy for such a biographer--should he or she ever exist--to interview whomever they want and as frequently as they want, ever mindful of the courtesies required of such potential intrusions into people's lives. I would like to think that such biographers should feel free to prod, probe and uncover whatever they could find, for we are seen by others in such varied ways. Such is the attitude I shall possess after my demise. -Ron Price with thanks to Peter Alexander, Les Murray: A Life in Progress, Oxford UP, 2000, p.9.
Should I give full and exclusive
access to my voluminous papers?
How easy should I make
the detective work
for the possibly impertinent,
not especially skilled,
wanting to save a life
for future generations?
Am I the sort of man
you might want to see
live again and dance
in the pages of a book?
If you know of my battle
on the road, will it help
you with yours?
Whatever will help future generations
Do you need all my sordid
and exploration of my hind parts
and mountains of trivia?
and only if it helps.
16 March 2002
In my approximately 30 volumes of letters and emails, readers will find yet more visual material which I have not mentioned elsewhere. If readers dig enough, if such be their desire for whatever reason, due to some particular family interest that develops, for example, after my death; due to some group’s interest in an aspect of arts and letters or history and biography; or due to some altered circumstances associated with the rapid evolution of the Faith I have been associated with for over half a century, they will find more of the visual. I conclude the introductory section of this binder Volume 1.3.1 with the following ideas which, when I first came upon them in the world of Susan Sontag's writings, I found intellectually stimulating. And so, I pass them on to readers who may, perchance, find them equally so.
Our contemporary culture of digitization and image-glut may actually shrivel the ethical force of photographs of atrocity, violence and trauma, so argues this leading commentator on American culture in my time. Sontag argues that there is “a suspicion of Anything that seems literary.” Whether in an age in which spectacle has usurped the place of reality, photographic images still have the power to evoke shock and sentiment is a complex question, too complex to deal with here. Nor is it my intention to provide even a short summary of Sontag’s ideas here. Photographs are the fragmentary emanations of reality, the punctual and discrete renderings of truth, rather than the uniform grammar of a consistently unfolding tale. I'm not sure that this matters much; indeed, it is difficult to know exactly what does matter in life. We each must choose our agenda of what matters.
The photographic frame is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly. Sontag most famously writes that where "narratives make us understand: photographs do something else. They haunt us." In an age in which she herself says "to remember is more and more not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture." Given the sheer sweep of the visual image in contemporary culture and politics, I struggle to come to terms with the nature of memorialization in all its forms, that is the memorialization effected by photographs. I ponder as to what is the kind of affect relayed by photographic images as discrete and punctual fragments of reality. Beauty can reside, says Sontag, in any photo, however banal, however random; photography conflates the notion of the beautiful and the interesting. Photography aestheticizes the whole world; perhaps this is true, a fortiori, of other print and electronic media.
The culture of 'image-glut' is a harried and, in fact, beleaguered document that swims across the surface of our world and is often little more than a frustrated rant against the inhuman multiplication not just of images, but of the sacrilegious settings in which we see them. The place of the image in an era of information-overload and the capacity of the image in such a landscape to infinitely and perhaps irrationally multiply its significations is indeed a complex one. These words, these ideas I have put on paper here in the introduction to this photo album, are simply suggestive of a world of analysis of photographs, a world I explore to some extent in other places.
To photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude. So wrote Manisha Basu in his Review of Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others, Picador, NY, 2003 in Postmodern Culture, 2006. Much is excluded here in this album; indeed most of my life. But some of it has been captured for readers who might enjoy some of the delights herein; some of my life has been captured for others who would normally not have experienced what I experienced. For each of us has a unique experience even if we share much in common. Fragments of reality are elevated to privileged positions, Sontag says. I like that idea. It seems at least partly true. And there is poignancy here and a kind of pathos—and I trust not a little joy.
27 May 2007
(draft # 3)
A TURNING POINT IN HISTORY
I was born three months after the end of the first Seven Year Plan(1937-1944), the beginning of the last two years(1944-1946) of the first epoch of the Formative Age(1921-1946). This first epoch could be said to have been a turning point in history. For the most part Western civilization was not yet aware, in 1944, of the horrifying detail of the war crimes committed by both Stalin and Hitler during that epoch. The birth and the primary stages of the erection of the framework of the Administrative Order took place in that first epoch. As I matured from adolescence to late adulthood I came to witness in the second(1946-1963), third(1963-1986) and forth(1986-2001) epochs the emergence of increasing details, statistics and photographs, of that turning point in history. The massive killing-fields of both Stalin and Hitler on the one hand and the laying of the foundation of the Administrative Order on the other. The first was a noisey and very public outcry. The second was a quiet and unobtrusive exercise.-Ron Price with thanks to Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, WW Norton, NY, 1984, p. 106.
It was a turning point in history
little did we know it, then, or now.
We have no satisfactory explanation
of the totalitarian shift,
the epochal moral break
that became the burden of our time,
to affect a total social revolution.1
Mass society can and does and did
extinguish the individual identity.
When the world goes to pieces
you can't go on with business as usual.
And this was no business as usual,
the effort to unite mankind
in a fellowship
based on the teachings
of a Prisoner in Akka.
Emotional death results
when there is no ultimate goal in life,
when the grotesque and outlandish,
stupefying media outdo anything
human beings can imagine.
These electronic wizards doing their best
to define who and what we are.
in the sheer complexity of our world,
difficult to formulate a response to it,
given the continuous global extremities
we have endured since at least the 1930s
if not since the years after He left us.2
1 The aim of these totalitarian systems was 'total social revolution'.
2 'Abdu'l-Bahá left the West in 1913 and He died in 1921. Since 1914 there has been an almost unbroken history of crisis in the West with the arguable exception of the 1920s and the 1950s in some places.
13 May 2001
A LOSS FOR WORDS
After our second visit to Bahji and a special visit to the room ‘Abdu’l-Baha rented when he came to Bahji during His ministry, I wrote the following poem while seated in a cool, air-conditioned bus which was travelling from Bahji to the house of ‘Abdu’llah Pasha. At the time I was sitting beside an attractive, single, blond, Russian lady in her late twenties who lived in Malta as a pioneer. I sensed that she did not want to chat and so, during the approximately twenty minutes we had on the bus, I wrote part of a poem reflecting on the Bahji experience, where the Qiblih of the Baha’i World is located. We had just completed five days of our nine day pilgrimage.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, 10 June 2000.
His shoes! One can never fill those shoes!
Little brown shoes in a box beside His bed.
My son and I said the Tablet of Visitation
four times together facing that bed
in that little room of the Pilgrim House,
after walking around the mansion of Bahji:
simple, full of memories, memorabilia,
beautifully designed gardens and paintings
of Lua Getsinger and John E. Esslemont.
.....the above poem was discontinued. We then visited the House of Abdu’llah Pasha and the Ridvan Gardens. The poem was completed on the bus returning to Mt. Carmel and the House where ‘Abdu’l-Baha lived in Haifa......
More shoes of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,
Shoghi Effendi’s room,
the dust of the Bab in that room,
the two windows of the prison cell
from Ali Pasha’s house,
and the Ridvan Garden,
the centre of the Verdant Isle.
What can one say about all this?
10 June 2000
MY MOTHER AND A CONTEMPORARY
During my mother’s lifetime(1904-1978) in Canada there lived a poet A.M. Klein(1909-1972). There is no evidence that my mother, also a poet, read Klein. My guess is that she never even heard of him. By 1955 Klein had ceased writing. He had been publishing poetry for a quarter of a century--since the late 1920s. My mother read poetry from these same late 1920s to the early 1950s when Klein stopped publishing his work. And she continued to read poetry until her death in 1978 as Klein did until his death in 1972. I think my mother would have found Klein a little obscure, if she had come across him at all, although I’m sure she would have been quite interested in his poetic quest--what he called his quest for self-redefinition. I’ll ask my mother, if I remember and if it seems relevant when I arrive in that Land of Lights, when I meet her in what the poet Shelley called that Undiscovered Country. For I am at the start of what is often called the evening of my life.. As the crow flies, so it is said, it won't be long. Such is my belief anyway.
About the time Klein stopped writing poetry in 1951 my mother began to write poetry seriously, more seriously than the occasional poetic fling which I now have evidence of in the collection of her posthumous works here in my study. She was 47. Her only son had started school; she had been married for six or seven years. Perhaps the time was ripe for her to write poetry. I’ll have to ask her about the origins of this poetic influx, this inspiration in the world of words. After my mother died in Canada in 1978 I received from her sister a collection of my mother’s writings, items she had saved from various magazines, newspapers and literary sources among other memorabilia. I assume I have all her work, but I do not know for sure. All the main actors, personalities, in my mother’s life back then are gone. It is indeed possible that my mother, Lilian Price, wrote poetry as early as Klein did in the late 1920s when she was herself in her mid-twenties. It is indeed possible that she wrote poetry for more than fifty years.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, April 28th 2005.
I will never forget your sitting
in the garden reading poetry,
your showing me your poetry
and all those books around
the house with a poetic,
a literary, a philosophical,
a religious idiom: the seed,
yes, the seed was sown.
Where is it all now: the books,
the people, the gardens, trees?
Where are your potato salads
and where oh where is your
beautiful fresh young body,
the one I saw in that album
in a boat out on the lagoon?
Is this all there is in this archive
of your work, a few shiny pages
and others not-so-shiny, set off
in as tidy, as organized, a way
as I can in your loving memory,
dear mother of mine--long gone?
There would hardly be a point
to it if that was all there was:
a bit of ink in a world which
he1 thought had banished poetry
and many would agree but, really,
it’s quite a complex question.
Perhaps we can have a look at Klein
together, perhaps with Klein, and we
can talk about mental illness back then--
yours, and his and mine--
perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
1 A.M. Klein expressed this view: that the world had ceased to find regeneration through poetry. It was obvious, fifty years later, that the world had found a new visual poetry to add to the auditory one that had come with radio in the 1920s. See: R.F. Brenner, “A.M. Klein’s The Rocking Chair: Toward the Redefinition of the Poet’s Function,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 2005.
2 Klein, my mother and I all suffered from varying forms and degrees of mental illness or mental disability as it is now termed: Klein for his last 20 years(from 1952 age 43 to 63), my mother off-and-on for over forty years(from 1934 age 30 to 74) and myself about 20 years (from 1962 age 18 to 36) when modern chemotherapy came to my rescue.
April 29th 2005
SWEET AND SOUR WORDS
The homes or the graves of great writers; descriptions, portraits, or death masks that indicate their physical appearance; the places in which they lived: these kinds of remains, and more, long ago achieved an odd sort of iconic status. They show no signs of losing that status with the passage of time. Indeed, their attractions for literary pilgrims are often as great as, sometimes even greater than, those of Canterbury, Nazereth or Khurasan for pilgrims of a more traditional sort. Visitors to Mantua or Naples, Virgil’s birthplace and tomb; Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s country; Salem, Massachusetts, the setting for the house of seven gables; or Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman's house, all participate in rites of literary veneration.
There exists a certain "lust of the eye," as 1 John 2:16 calls it, for all sorts of things in life. It is characteristic of readers who wonder about the places in which writers lived and what the writer himself might have looked like. Often that wonder ceases when it comes to the words of the writer. This same lust of the eye is also part of the basis for pornography. The writer's "true" milieu is, of course, the books in which his works continue to be printed and read. But there exists for readers that ordinary human appetite for ways in which to contextualize, perhaps even to "humanize," those writers whom they continue to read or often not read as the case may be. This notion of evocations of these literary figures and their world is where the following prose-poem starts. This piece also had its birth with a writer born just 700 years ago in 2004. In many respects this writer is very far away from us and no matter how close to him our familiarity with his words may make us feel, he will remain beyond us. His name was Francesco Petrarch(1304-1374).-Ron Price with thanks to “Internet Sites on Petrarch,” August 1st 2004.
When a writer lives in 22 towns
and 37 houses veneration of place
comes hard…a photograph, too,
is like the delayed rays of a star
coming to your eye long after
the light has gone out making
a permanent now, a continuous
present, a momentary intensity
of feeling thanks to this pictorial,
visual backdrop, lust for the eye.
However much that eye is delighted,
satiated, with this sensory life,
the true milieux for my days
and my times, is contextualized,
humanized in the words I write.
My homes, my grave, portraits,
photos, memorabilia of all kinds,
whatever attraction to pilgrims
of literary paths and veneration,
all this is really nothing beside
the words and my sweet words
turn sour by my deeds
and as that Bard once wrote:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.1
1 William Shakespeare, Sonnet #94, Sonnets.
August 1st 2005.
That's all folks(for now)
A SCANTY TREASURE?
F.W. Dupee writes in his introduction to Henry James's Autobiography that a literary vocation was for James a kind of second birth. This has certainly been true of my life by stages: first at school and university in the 1950s and 1960s, then as a teacher and lecturer in the 1970s and 1980s and finally as someone who wrote a great deal of his time in the 1990s, indeed, until the present. Dupee describes James's literary life as narrow, precarious and ever-anxious. He says James was 'tenderly or humorously at home with his materials.' He says James' Autobiography was 'a delicate enterprise' and 'an important contribution' to 'America's scanty treasure of true autobiography.'-Ron Price with thanks to Henry James, Autobiography, editor, F.W. Dupee, Princeton UP, 1983(1956), pp.xii-xiv.
The treasure of Bahá'í autobiography
is a scanty lot
as we head down the back stretch
of this second century.
Perhaps, though, in the many-millioned
archives in pearl-treasured Haifa,
or dusty back rooms of a thousand towns,
where sense and nonsense
fill old cardboard boxes, pile on pile,
extra bonuses are found
for those who look in earnest.
Be careful not to falsify or distort
the eruptions of meaning,
products of obsessive tendencies,
seductress and deceptive mirrors
of reality among the impoverished
and circularized correspondence,
the piles of dry bones in the yard.
Be warned: there is weariness
in what seems irrelevant detail,
sheet upon sheet of print and ink,
great weight of paper, memorabilia
our lamentably neglectful history,
story-telling and its anarchic confusion.
Be advised: there is emotion
in this apparently aesthetic non-entity,
in this expression of whim, caprice
and human tragedy. It came to me
after I had worn my fingers
to the uttermost bones
turning the pages,
turning the pages
and I found consecrated joy.
Ron Price 6 October 2002
MY 'BIG BOOK'
A symbol of poet Les Murray's vastly eclectic interests "the Great Book' was a large, hard-covered ledger-book which he had adapted as a scrapbook.1 Into it went postcards, newsclippings, poems he liked, cartoons, inter alia. My mother kept a similar book which was sent to me from Canada when she died in 1978. Not as large as Murray's, it contained the literary memorabilia she had collected from about 1930 to 1955.
The symbol of my own eclectic interests can be found today in my study here in Tasmania. Postcards, cartoons and assorted newsclippings are virtually absent from my own "Big Book." But quotations abound in some 125 arch lever files and two-ring binders on a host of subjects: history, philosophy, religion, literature, poetry, fiction, drama, psychology, media studies, anthropology, Greek and Roman history, various religious themes, graduate study programs, journals, novel writing attempts, biography, autobiography and much else. -Ron Price with thanks to Peter Alexander, Les Murray: A Life in Progress, Oxford UP, London, 2000, p.255.
So this is my 'great book.'
I've divided it into a library
of files over the years,
Part of my soul is there
on the shelves of my study,
extremely agreeable friends
from everywhere in the world,
past and present,
always at my service;
they come and go
as I am pleased.
Sometimes they are difficult
to understand and require
special effort on my part.
My cares are often driven away
by their vivacity. They teach me
a certain fortitude. I keep each of them
in a small chamber in a humble corner
of my room where they and I
are delighted by the happy symbiosis
of my retirement and their presence.1
1 Plutarch, On Books.
16 March 2002
It is one of the defects of revolutionary thought, in this age, so far as poetry is concerned, that it is not assimilable to any great body of sensuous forms.-Allen Tate, The Poetry Reviews of Allen Tate: 1924-1944, Louisiana State UP, London, 1983, p.160.
Here is a movement with no dearth of sensuous forms around the planet: classical architecture and modern forms of breathtaking beauty set high in hills at the confluence of continents, in the middle of an ocean and great land-masses. Here are beautifully bound, sensuous words with metaphyiscal clarity and elegance. Here, too, is a history of blood, sweat and tears, involving the senses intensely, radically. Here is the centre of the ultimate revolutionary thought of modernity. -Ron Price, Comment on the above quotation from Tate, 11 February 1996, 9:30 pm.
Long, black hair falls to his waist;
such a handsome young man;
he should be in the movies;
they make them beautiful, too,
good lookers; we’ve got them
ugly, earthy, plain: all kinds
are found here in a sensuous mix
that quite takes your breath away,
right back to the 1840s and that veil:
we deal with the erotic here, hot life.
And cool marble in tall pillars as old
as the Parthenon, like the Parthenon;
nine-sided temples, all-curves, modest,
impressive; I’ve touched them for years
in photographs, even cried at such sensual
beauty, such grace, charm, form, educative.
Always neutral print, black and white,
increasingly set in colour and photograph:
thousands of pages. You can almost touch
the martyrs, the century-and-a-half of tears,
of joy, of heart rending sorrow. You can almost
hear the laughter, the groans, the utter exhaustion.
You can taste the cup of the bitter-sweet milk
of the blues, the honey and the poison. The senses
here are turned right on to a body of sensual forms.
Here is poetry, God, danger, goodness,
sin and the most ordinary of the ordinary,
the most human of the human.
11 February 1996
Autobiographical poetry is about our past and a hell of a lot of it is true. Perhaps factual errors, false imaginative alternations, even dishonesty slip in. Each of us visits our past, our childhood for example, in different ways, with varying frequency. We each experience a sense of loss, sadness, pleasure, or even relief, in contemplating the past. Writing redeems these feelings. These feelings are exploited in poetry. We visit our past; we revisit it again and again.-ABC Radio, Books and Writing, "The Ways That Writers Use Their Childhood", 19 December 1997, 7:00-8:00 pm.
My past is not a massive ball of string
that I unwind with some inevitability.
It's more like photographs, pictures in
my memory, islands of clarity. Occasionally
I take them off some shelf, out of a scrapbook.
They jump out, from behind my eyes, visuals in
black and white. I trace my steps through their
little worlds, the little frames: baseball, juicey-fruit
gum, potato salad, Susan Gregory, hundreds of
shots in the bank. Then, there are silences, place,
with no pictures, that I visit, touched by the music
of memory but not by the graphic artist's pen, by
imagination's softening colours, by the fragrances
of thought, by tastes and sweet savours breathing.
19 December 1997
The popularity of a product, an item of culture, is not related to its quality or its truth, its beauty or its spirituality. The sense of reality, realness, quality, for many individuals, especially artists, is related to creativity, to generativity, a voice that is uniquely one’s own, that has the stamp of one’s inner voice or self and that is part of a community. This is particularly true for the Baha’i who is also an artist.-Ron Price with thanks to Robert McDowell, editor, Poetry After Modernism, Story Line Press, 1991.
Feminist views of “history” support “anecdote as authority” since history has so largely ignored and disorted women’s lives and work. Women must learn to speak again starting with “I”, with “we”. -ibid., pp.175-76.
We know she went to Kamloops,
had a spell in far off Alice Springs
and, of all places, the Tuamotu
Archipelago where her French
came in handy. We know, too,
from all reports she was a frank
spirit, loyal and persistent(insert
one or two illustrative stories here).
A careful study of the minutes
from Harper’s Ferry(1964-66)
will give the chapter and verse
of a series of activities Mary was
involved with. We have all the
marking posts of her life; with
a few photographs we’ll cover
the story. Somehow there’s a
volcano in there that never erupted,
a great mass of magma that never
got near the surface, the story of
her life, a history by personal
8 January 1998
NOT JUST MEDITERRANEAN LIGHT
Those who return from Haifa so often seem strangely silent. They talk about their pilgrimage of course and usually show photographs. There seem to be silences that speak of some inner integration, inner harmony, not known before. It appears to be what some call a peak experience, an epiphany, a new kind of life. And it is. Life is changed. Inevitably, though, the battle resumes; the old-born war continues. -Ron Price, “A Summary of a Hundred Such Conversations and Observations,” Pioneering Over Four Epochs, February 2, 1998.
I see with my own eyes the genesis
of paradise, inhabitable by anyone.
It’s poised on the peak, luminous
images crystallising its most extended
statement and few still see—for seeing
is done with the soul. Here, even now,
I have a desire to bathe in the sky, to
take a running leap and vault into the
blue, float in the air like an angel or
lie in the grass overwhelmed in some
cataleptic trance, just off the terraced
gardens where stone and sky marry, as
if I am in some perpetual dawn of man’s
awakening, grateful for having eyes.
This is not just Mediterranean light;
it is something more, unfathomable,
holy, isolated in a metaphysical bliss.
The rocks which have been lieing for
millennia, exposed to divine illumination,
are quiet and still, nestling now amid
dancing shrubs in a blood-dust-stained
soil, shrugging Dawn from their sleek height,
drinking in clumsy wonder the rising light,
marvelling that they should grow luminous
and warm with day. They do not speak,
ever. They never chorus, as well they might,
The Sun! The Sun! And we, carried too soon
from innocence and exaltation, with all the
protocols of piety seem empty-handed and joyless
even here, with all our knowledge’s knowingness.
2 February 1998
AN ARTISTIC ARRANGEMENT
My autobiographical poetry and its accompanying 15 volumes of photographs is an artistic arrangement of some of my life’s phenomena. It is, too, an imaginative organization of experience for aesthetic, intellectual and moral purposes, for education and reality testing. It oscillates between the presence and absence of the self. I have found autobiographic life--and the photographs which accompany it--to be a little like a daydream, a daydream which at first I thought recordable,part of a prelude to some final symphony, or the symphony itself.
In the end, at least after eight years of quite intense poetic writing and twelve additional years of what could be called preliminary poetic writing, my autobiography and all those colourful and not-so-colourful pictures which embellish it--seems like a somewhat arbitrary document: partly historically and culturally determined, partly something beyond the actual events of everyday life, partly a hermeneutical exercise correlating my life and my religion, partly a discovery of the principles that govern the interpretation of narrative, partly a sketch of effort and incident, partly a record of what is sweet to my taste and possibly, hopefully, useful to others. -Ron Price with thanks to Robert Elbaz, The Changing Nature of The Self: A Critical Study of the Autobiographic Discipline University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1987, p.9.
My words shape the reality of life
and my life shapes the words I use.
Life, moments, gleam and glow,
flush and flare, kindle bonfires
of thoughts and in writing
I find the conquest of meaning,
the power to name the real,
an ensemble of religious,
social and individual relations
over these three epochs1
of the second century
of this new era
when this Movement
multiplied thirty times
and I grew into middle age
as a pioneer at the earth’s end
where beauty and truth
filled my being from:
the fragrances of mercy
wafting over all creation.2
11944-1963, 1963-1986, 1986-2000: the three epochs of this ‘Formative Age.’
2 See Baha’u’llah, Tablet of Carmel.
8 September 2000
NO MANNA FELL FROM HEAVEN
I am at the top of the terraces and listening to a middle-aged man play an electric piano. Soon we will have dinner. Day Nine of the pilgrimage has come to an end, except for a closing ceremony in the next two hours. I am looking out over the Bay of Haifa in the early evening. This afternoon I listened to the Project Manager, Mr. Sabah, discuss the overall program of the Arc, its conception and announcement back in 1986 and its final realization at the end of this year, December 2000, before the offical opening in May 2001.-R Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs,13 June, 2000.
These clean cool notes
inspire my very soul,
an unplanned interlude
in the nine-day-pilgrimage
where no manna fell from heaven
as I walked amidst the marble columns,
edifaces, their inaccessible mysteries
and their ordinary dust. What is here?
Only what I lavishly invest with meaning.1
Yet I stand uncomprehending before all
this beauty and what is truely awesome.
I have gazed at old photographs
and a thousand ancient stones
to get some idea of what defines us
up here on the hill and down there
on the plain across the bay by the sea.
Nothing is the same here as what there
is back home in my town on my street.
This is no Disneyland of religious sites
soon encompassed in my camera’s sights.
As they herd us onto buses, to lunch hours,
to our various appointed assignations,
the tour guides become our friends,
for an instant, for an hour, for nine days.
As we drink our cold lemonade,
we take a deep breath,
waiting for the next installment.
I suppose the birds won’t be dieing over Akka, today.
A light repartee is part of the language of the pilgrim.
For he must live in this new world
and satire need not be wasted on trivia.
Another pilgrim remarks how the time has flown:
The moon is full tonight, the weather’s clear.
Did you see my souvenir? They idly chatter here.
By tomorrow night they’ll all be gone.
1 Roger White, Pebbles, pp.68-9.
Ron Price 13 June 2000.
POEMS TO PLAY WITH
Price’s method of story-telling is by episode and by means of a strong inter-disciplinary mix of ideas to throw light on detail, on event, on the episodic experience. His justification for this method is that it creates, he argues, the Baha’i community in depth, as arguably no other writer has created it from the perspective of the late twentieth century, with the exception, perhaps, of Roger White. There are, of course: reports, records, an increasing body of essays and chronicles, stories, photographs, analyses of various kinds, study programs, et cetera. The mass of material available to the individual trying to understand the Baha’i Faith is burgeoning. Price provides not just topicality but timelessness, not just facts and information but emotional drama, not just a forum for ideas but life itself, not just a form of journalism but art’s delight, not just education but drama, not just logic but poetic sentiment, not just interesting stories but the transforming power of the aroused imagination.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, Unpublished Manuscript, 2000.
He’d like to burn the scene
into your senses forever and
send his years hurtling into
the future with the speed of light
to be tapped, at leisure, in some
hologram, for a restful and stimulating
trip back to that special time when
they built the arc in that radiant century.
This passionate poet of journeys
tells a great deal about the inner life;
he grasps fragments
and turns them around and around
giving you a live coal to burn your hands
if you let it, if you hold it long enough,
but he knows you won’t, so he gives you
thousands of poems of varying temperatures
to play with after you’ve tired of videos,
gardening and that frenetic passivity
which seems to creep into the corners
of human lives unobtrusively down
life’s road again and again and again.
SEMBLANCE OF REALITY
According to Dr. Peter Tooey, professor of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary, the Greeks and the Romans "wanted to reenact the past so that through memory or memorialization they could make the present part of the past." The Greeks and the Romans were frightened of being forgotten; they wanted to be remembered; whereas we are frightened of forgetting and are little interested in being remembered. Achilles in Homer's Iliad wanted to be remembered for a short and glorious life, not forgotten in a long and obscure one. Historians like Livy and Thucydides wanted people to remember the collective, the group, the society. That is, in part, why they wrote their histories. With the historian Tacitus in the first century AD and later in St. Augustine in the fifth century, there is clearly a movement toward the individual story over the group ethos. -Ron Price with thanks to ABC Radio National, "Distant Mirrors Dimly Lit," 11:05-11:35 am, 2/1/04.
The individual is not lost here,
subsumed in The Great Cause.
The mirrors, distant and near,
are lit with heavenly rays-----
His teachings and that love
of God shining forth in the hearts
like unto stars in that infinitude
of immensity, that canopy above.
This is not written due to
a fear of forgetting
or being forgotten
or a hankering after
immortality in some
form of memorialization.
It's about spinning experience
into art even as life unwinds,
spinning will, sensibility,
intellect into a complex
inner dialogue, a gallery
of photographs and transmitted
molecules of memory,
arbitrary and not-so-arbitrary
signifiers: a single, indivisible,
with prodigious multiplicity,
ghostly residues in the labyrinth,
the semblance of reality?
January 2 2004
10 March 2000.
THE END OF ONE’S DAYS
THE VISUAL LANGUAGE OF HERBERT MATTER(1) is a revealing look at the fascinating life story of the highly influential mid-century modern design master. Known as a quintessential designer's designer, Swiss born Herbert Matter(1907-1984) is largely credited with expanding the use of photography as a design tool and bringing the semantics of fine art into the realm of applied arts. I won’t tell you about what inspired his work, what designs he made over his career with his special use of photography; the organizations, the magazines and the artists for whom he worked as well; as the films he made and the academic positions he held.
What interested me about his life and work was what happened to him after he stopped working. Matter’s old age does not fit the famous developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson’s model. So much was his work the centre of his life that, when he was unable to continue working in his later years, he slowly died with an emptiness in his heart and in his daily activity because he could find no meaning outside his work.
His images are just too wonderful for words; they force language to surrender, to give up, to drop everything. All you can do is look at them in a defenceless silence. As a writer, I am forced to recognize that writing is only one of the arts. Each art has its place and its appeal to human beings. You can read more about Matter’s life and his work at these two links:
http://www.herbertmatter.net/ and http://readperiodicals.com/201112/2563874621.html#ixzz1nZzRWVWb –Ron Price with thanks to SBSONE TV, 2:15-3:15 p.m. 25 February 2012, originally 2009.
Paul Rand, known to many as somewhat of a curmudgeon, wrote the following poem about Herbert in 1977 and, rather than write one myself, I will quote this poem, a poem found at this link: http://www.robertlpeters.com/news/allnews/a-salute-herbert-matter/
Herbert Matter is a magician.
To satisfy the needs of industry,
that’s what you have to be.
Industry is a tough taskmaster.
Art is tougher.
Industry plus Art, almost impossible.
Some artists have done the impossible.
Herbert Matter, for example.
His work of ’32 could have been done
in ’72 or even ’82.
It has that timeless, unerring quality one recognizes instinctively.
It speaks to all tongues, with one tongue.
It is uncomplicated, to the point, familiar, and yet unexpected.
Something brought to light, an image, a surprise, an analogy.
It is believable, as it is unbelievable.
It always has an idea, the one you almost thought of.
It may be formal or anecdotal, full of sentiment, but not sentimental.
It is commercial; it is contemplative.
It enhances the quality of life.
It is Art.
I would add that Matter’s end, his last years, were tragic. Old people have limited regenerative abilities and are more prone to disease, syndromes, and sickness than younger adults. For the biology of ageing readers should take a look at the subject of senescence. The medical study of the aging process is kin own as gerontology, and the study of diseases that afflict the elderly is geriatrics.
Erik Erikson, one of the 20th century’s major developmental psychologist theorists, characterised old age as a period of "Integrity vs. Despair", during which a person focuses on reflecting back on their life. Those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair. Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom even when confronting death. Matter’s old age does not fit Erikson’s model.
In 1999, in the months before and after I retired after 30 years as a teacher and lecturer, the film American Beauty was released around the world. Kevin Spacey stared as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged office worker who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend. The film has been described by academics as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; analysis has focused on the film's explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, self-liberation and redemption. In this prose-poem I want to make some comments on the film drawing on my own life experiences, my own values and beliefs as well as James S. Spiegel’s article “The Theological Aesthetic of American Beauty,” in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 4, Summer 2003.
Most of the photography for the film took place between December 1998 and February 1999 in the weeks I was preparing to make my exit from the teaching profession, from working with more than 100 students a week and putting-in an average of 60 hours weekly to keep up with the preparation, presentation and marking. By the age of 55 I had had enough of the workaday world as well as enough of what seemed like an endless stream of family, community and social responsibilities filling up the remaining hours of the 168 hour that existed in each week. If I was lucky I got my 56 hours of sleep. The concept of free time, duty-free time, was something I tucked into the few hours that remained. I could hear myself saying: “Stop the world! I want to get off!” And so I did stop the world; I got off and retired; I took a sea-change to a small old town where the world could not get at me and where I could write, take part in a very small Bahá'í community and get my bipolar head together.
I could comment on this film’s, this director’s deliberate and composed style, his extensive use of static shots, slow pans and zooms to generate tension. I could comment as well on the cinematography, the peaceful shot compositions to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events. In film, the story is only one part of the final mix. The film was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $350 million worldwide. Reviewers praised most aspects of the production; criticism tended to focus on the familiarity of the characters and setting. The film had much Academy Award success. At the 2000 ceremony the film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The film was nominated for and won many other awards and honours, mainly for the direction, writing and acting.—Ron Price with thanks to Wikipedia, 4 April 2010.
You can’t tell me this film does not raise
the question of the meaning of life, eh??
The hollow existence of the suburbs in &
around the 200 countries of the world???
Is it a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic trip,
a journey through American suburbia or
a series of love stories or was it about an
imprisonment, loneliness-type of beauty?
It was funny; it was angry, sad. It resisted
any one interpretation: portrait of a beauty
that underlies American miseries and its....
misdeeds; perhaps the film's true controller
was the creative energy that 100s of people
put into production, agreeing & disagreeing,
inserting and cutting and endless analysing.
For me: Lester's journey is the story's centre.
His sexual reawakening is the first of several
turning points as he begins to throw off the
responsibilities of the comfortable life he has
come to despise. He questions his numbingly
banal materialist daily existence & as he does
the audience is asked to lead more meaningful
lives as the film argues against conformity, but
does not deny that people need and want their
bourgeois preoccupations. American Beauty
satirizes American middle class notions of meaning,
satisfaction and beauty. Lester's transformation only
comes about because of the possibility of sex and he
therefore remains a willing devotee of popular media
exultation of pubescent male sexuality as a route to a
personal wholeness.....Carolyn, his wife, is driven by
conventional views of happiness; from her belief in a
house beautiful, domestic bliss and gardening outfit...
her domain is a fetching American millennial vision of
Pleasantville and the Garden of Eden.
The Burnhams are unaware that they are materialists
philosophically and devout consumers ethically who
expect the rudiments of American beauty to give them
happiness. They are helpless in the face of prettified
economic and sexual stereotypes that their culture has
designated for their salvation. Ricky is the visionary, a
spiritual and mystical centre. He sees beauty the minutiae
of everyday life, videoing as much as he can for fear of
missing it. He considers that the most beautiful thing he
has filmed is a plastic bag, tossing in the wind in front of
a wall. He says that in capturing the moment he realized
that there was an entire life behind things; there's so much
beauty in the world he can't take it and his heart will cave in.
Lester looks at a picture of his family in happier times and he
dies having had an epiphany that infuses him with wonder,
joy, and soul-shaking gratitude: he has finally seen the world
as it is. The audience is unprepared when Lester is shot and
his blood spatters on the wall and all those watching the film.
American Beauty defines its characters through their sexuality.
Lester's attempts to relive his youth are a direct result of his lust
for Angela and the state of his relationship with Carolyn is shown
through their lack of sexual contact. Sexually frustrated, Carolyn
has an affair that takes her from--cold perfectionist--to a carefree
soul who sings happily along with the music in her car. Yes, sex
is one of life’s big definers and it kept me busy for years but I am
no Lester Burnham. I did get caught in the jungle but I was able
to work my way out of the trees and down onto dry land—safely!
If I did not have my value, belief and attitude system I would have
got tangled in those trees and been eaten alive by insects & snakes.
4 April 2010