In the ten year period September 1997 to September 2007 the concept, the organizing principle, the basis for my magnum opus Pioneering Over Four Epochs, as epic, found its first shaping.
My epic-opus includes: 6600 prose-poems, a 2600 page five volume autobiographical-narrative; a collection of 5000 letters, emails and internet posts; 400 essays, a 300 page study of the poetry of Roger White; an internet site of 3000 pages. This skeletal framework, these literary media and genres of writing could be seen as a single work in parts, a unity in multiplicity, a total oeuvre which came to be defined as epic by sensible and insensible degrees during the decade 1997 to 2007.
This literary endeavour deals with aspects of the history and development, the ideas and ideals, the philosophy and sociology of a new polity. This polity is viewed through the lens of the life experience of a pioneer over the four epochs 1944 to 2021 & his opitcal and analytical integration, his take, on some of the insights of several thousand thinkers in the history of civilization.
This concept of his prose and poetry, as epic, took shape from 1997 to 2007 after more than 50 years of association with what may well prove to be the greatest epic in human history, the gradual realization of the wondrous vision, the brightest emanations of the mind of the prophet-founder of the Bahai Faith and what Bahais believe will become, over time, the fairest fruit of the fairest civilization the world has yet seen. During these ten years, the author's final years of full-time teaching in a technical and further education college in Australia and the first years of his early retirement, this concept of my work as epic sensibly and insensibly evolved. By 2007 he had been writing seriously for at least 50 years and writing poetry for 45. The concept of his written opus as epic crystallized in some detail in that decade as the projects on Mt. Carmel and the garden terraces on that Hill of God were completed. With the increasing elaboration, definition and development of the structure and concept, the notion and framework, of his entire collected works as epic has come a conceptual home of memory, action and vision which readers will find described in the following Bahai Library Online document.
No intelligent writer knows if he is any good, wrote T.S. Eliot; he must live with the possibility, the theoretical uncertainty,that his entire work has all been a waste of time. Ron Price finds this provocative idea of Eliot's has some truth. But write he must, whether for public utility or just for private pleasure, and the result is this epic work for good or ill. To approach this epic and read it certainly requires an effort on the part of readers. Ron Price likes to think that such an effort will be rewarded, that such an exercise will be worthwhile; of course, a writer can make no such guarantee.
Pioneering Over Four Epochs: Literary Work As Epic:
Epic Poetry, Epic Narrative and the Epic of Bahá'í History
published in Pioneering Over Four Epochs: An Autobiographical Study and a Study in Autobiography
Pioneering Over Four Epochs
Literary Work As Epic
The Epic of American and Baha’i History
This essay is dedicated to the Universal House of Justice in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary in April 2008 of its first election in April 1963. This essay is also written in commemoration of the memory of my maternal grandfather, Alfred J. Cornfield(1872-1958), whose epic autobiography(written circa 1921-23 and published in 1980) was an inspiration to the epic work that this essay is intended to outline. This essay also aims to provide a general commentary upon my epic work, to assist readers and serve as a context for the personal efforts of readers and their hopeful enjoyment of this lengthy work.
Usually narrative poem of heroic type or scale, but sometimes narrative prose; poem of any form or a special type of prose narrative embodying a conception of past history of a nation, a group of people or an individual; events and stories often termed epic for some especial characteristic they possess; the word, the term, "epic" has more recently come to be associated with a very wide range of human and non-human activities.
"These, and other similar incidents connected with the epic story of the Zanjan upheaval, characterized by Lord Curzon as a terrific siege and slaughter, combine to invest it with a sombre glory unsurpassed by any episode of a like nature in the records of the Heroic Age of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh." -Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 46.
On 19 January 1984 in the middle of the oppressive heat of a summer in Australia’s Northern Territory, a few weeks after receiving a copy of what my cousin in Canada called a diary, I made the first entry in my own diary. What my cousin sent me was more autobiography than diary and my own work became more autobiography than diary. What my cousin, my mother's sister's oldest son, then a retired mathematics teacher in Ontario, sent me was the story of my maternal grandfather's life, perhaps memoirs is a more accurate term than autobiography. The term memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on memories, feelings and emotions. Those memoirs were from the part of my grandfather’s life from his birth in England in 1872 to his marriage in 1901 in Hamilton Canada.
By 19 January 1984 I had browsed through but not read this one-hundred thousand word 400 page double-spaced narrative written between 1921-1923 by an autodidact, a self-educated man, when he was fifty years of age. As this man, my grandfather, indicated in 1953 when he wrote a brief preface to that work while living in Burlington Ontario five years before his death, it was his hope that his story would arouse interest. As I alter yet again this second draft of the preface to the sixth edition of my own autobiography on 21 January 2008, exactly 24 years later, my hope is that my work will also arouse interest.
I am now living in a cooler part of this dry dog-biscuit of a continent--Australia--with a beauty all its own, a continent part of which goes up in flame most years lately between December and March, but hopefully the heat here in this part of the southern hemisphere at the southern end of what Baha’is call the spiritual axis between Japan and Australia will help produce what J.D. Salinger called a double-lensed burning glass. May this essay also help readers recognize relationships between dissimilarities and serve as an auspicious beginning for future readers to my own lengthy work of autobiography.
I had no idea when I made that first diary entry in January 1984 twenty-four years ago that this literary beginning would become by insensible and sensible degrees an epic literary work containing: a five volume journal, a body of 6500 prose-poems; a collection of 5000 letters, emails and posts on the internet; a second collection of over 300 notebooks; a body of over 500 published and unpublished essays; a dozen unsuccessful attempts at a novel and; finally, with this narrative of 2600 pages, a total oeuvre that seems appropriate to refer to as an epic.
I remember reading how both Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon, two of my favorite historians, acquired their initial conceptualization for what became their life’s magnum opus, their epic: A Study of History in the case of Toynbee and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the case of Gibbon. Ten years ago in 1997-1998 I began to think of writing an epic poem and so fashioned some ten pages as a beginning; this particular poem with this ten page beginning is still a work in progress. By September 2000 I began to envisage my total prose-poetic output in terms of an epic since I had written two to three million words of prose-poetry.
The sheer size of my epic work makes a comparison and contrast with a number of other writers and poets a useful one in order to throw light on the nature, the context and purpose of my own work. I will start with some comparisons and contrasts between my opus and that of the poetic opus of Ezra Pound. Unlike the poet Ezra Pound’s epic poem Cantos which had its embryo as a prospective work as early as 1904, but did not find any concrete and published form until 1917, my poetry by 2000 had come to be defined as epic, firstly in retrospect as I gradually came to see my individual prose-poetic pieces as parts of one immense epic opus; and secondly in prospect by the inclusion, as the years went by, of all future prose-poetic efforts.
Such was the way I came increasingly to see my epic opus, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in quite specific and overt degrees of understanding and clarity from 1997 to 2000. This concept of my work as epic began, then, in 1997, after seventeen years(1980-1997) of writing and recording my poetic output and five years(19092-1997) of an intense poetic production of over 500 pieces per annum coming out of my poem factory. At that point, in 1997, this epic covered a pioneering life of thirty-five years, a Baha’i life of thirty-eight years and an additional six years when my association with the Baha’i Faith was due to my mother’s interest, when I was still a child and junior youth and at the same time as this new Faith was seen more as a Movement in the public eye than a world religion.
In December 1999 I forwarded my 38th booklet of poetry to the Baha’i World Centre Library: one for each year of my pioneering venture, 1962-1999. I entitled that booklet Epic. I continued to send my poetry to the Baha’i World Centre Library(BWCL) until 30 December 2000. By the time of the official opening of the Terraces on 21 May 2001 I had sent over 5000 poems to the BWCL. Perhaps this exercise of sending out my poetry to the BWCL, among other libraries in the world, was part of a desire for some connective tissue to be threaded into the warp and welf of the literary work of this international pioneer. Perhaps I felt my poetry, which had had a transforming affect on the animate and inanimate features of my distant and changing pioneer life, needed to have a home, a kindred space, whose affective kernel or centre was Mt. Carmel, the Hill of God, the Terraces and the Arc which were just being completed.
This lengthening work of my poetry and prose evinces a pride, indeed, a veneration for the historical and cultural past of this new Faith. A significant part of my confidence and hope for the future derives from this past. There is also a practical use to local, quite personal and private associations I give expression to in this work of poetic-prose. This work may turn out to be yet another of the many means that currently exist, I sometimes mused as I wrote, of putting youth and adults in this new Cause in touch with the great citizens, the models and the noble deeds of the past, inspiring them with more personal, more succinct, blends of the historical, psychological and sociological aspects of their religious heritage.
Along my writing journey it was my hope that I was helping to create memorials and monuments with an international ethos, with a resolution that is indispensable in performing the duties of a type of global citizen of the future. Perhaps this work would also serve, so my musings continued, as a dedication, as a form of natural piety, not so much my own, but a dedication and a piety by which the present would become spiritually linked with the past. I liked to see my work as an extension into the sphere of nationhood and even internationalism. Wordsworth saw his autobiographical poetry this way. His poetry was part and parcel of his desire for continuity in life and the lives of others— "The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety"
As this new Cause has grown and matured in the more than a century and a half since 1844, there has been an integrated, organic and humanistic outreach as it went about affirming in many ways, in its social and spiritual teachings, the continuity, the progression of past, present and future. In the many countries and the multitude of groups where Baha’is have played their part as individuals, they eschewed militarism, imperialism and aggressiveness in the world around them. They went about celebrating and commemorating the cultural, national, international and individual achievements of members of their Faith or of the groups and individuals of whatever background and description they became a part of. In order to maintain and foster their identity and independence as well as their international spirit of solidarity, they tried to sink deep into the recesses of the hearts and minds of others—for this aspect of their daily life, this intention in their interpersonal relationships, was part of their ethic and ethos.
This process took many forms. One can not have deep and meaningful relationships with everyone or our spirits would burn up in a short time. A large portion of anonymity is essential in our modern society. For me, one of these forms of both intimacy and anonymity was the literary and since 1997 I have defined my literary form, my work, as epic.
As I say above I had begun to see all of my poetry and prose somewhat like Pound’s Cantos which draws on a massive body of print or analects, a word which means literary gleanings: a sequence of chapters, poems, pieces of prose-poetry, essays, interviews and books often completely at random but not always so, with themes of adjacent items completely unrelated to each other, again, but not always so. Some central themes recur repeatedly in different parts of my total work, sometimes in exactly the same wording and sometimes with small variations.
The Cantos, the longest poem in modern history, over eight hundred pages and, in its current and published form, written from 1922 to 1962, is, as I say, a great mass of literary gleanings. So is this true of the great mass of my poetry, prose and prose-poetry. The conceptualization of my poetry as epic, though, came long after its beginnings, beginnings as far back as the winter of 1980 when I kept my first poem in a file, possibly 1962 at the very start of my pioneering life, possibly 1959 when I joined the Baha’i Faith or even 1953 when my mother, also a poet, became a Baha’i. The view, the concept of my work as epic began, as I say above, as a partly retrospective exercise and partly a prospective one. The epic journey that was and is at the base of my poetic opus is not only a personal one of more than fifty years in the realms of developing semi-quasi-belief, belief, commitment and reflection. It is also the journey of this new System, the World Order of Baha’u’llah which had its origins as far back as the 1840s and, if one includes the two precursors to this System, as far back as the middle of the eighteenth century when many of the revolutions and forces that are at the beginning of modern history find their origin: the American and French revolutions, the industrial and agricultural revolutions and the revolution in the arts and sciences.
Generally, the goal or aim of this work and the way my narrative imagination is engaged in this epic is to attempt to connect this long and complex history to my own life and the lives of my contemporaries, as far as possible. I have sought and found a narrative voice that contains uncertainty, ambiguity and incompleteness among shifting fields of reference mixed with certainties of heart and spirit. Since this poetry is inspired by so much that is, and has been, part of the human condition, this epic it could be said has at its centre Life Itself and the most natural and universal of human activities, the act of creating narratives. When we die all that remains is our story or so it is often argued.
I now call this prose-poetic work an epic because it deals with events, as all epics do, that are or will be significant to the entire society. It contains what Charles Handy, philosopher, business man and writer, calls the golden seed: a belief that what I am doing is important, probably unique, to the history and development of this System, this new Order. This poetry, this epic, has to do with heroism and deeds in battle of contemporary and historical significance and manifestation. My work and my life, the belief System I have been associated with for over half a century, involves a great journey, not only my own across two continents, but that of this Cause I have been identified with as it has expanded across the planet in my lifetime, in the second century of Baha’i history.
The epic convention of the active intervention of God and holy souls from another world; and the convention of an epic tale, told in verse, a verse that is not a frill or an ornament, but is essential to the story, is found here. I think there is an amplitude in this poetry that simple information lacks; there is also an engine of action that is found in my inner life as much, if not more, than in my external story. In some ways, this is the most significant aspect of my work, at least from my point of view. Indeed, if I am to make my mark at this crucial point of history, it will be largely in the form of this epic literary work which tells of forty-six years of pioneering:1962-2008 and a pre-pioneering decade that constituted the Ten Year Crusade: 1953-1963. But more importantly, the part I play, the mark I leave, is as an individual thread in the fabric and texture of the Baha’i community in its role as a society-building power.
The World Order lying enshrined in the teachings of Baha’u’llah that is “slowly and imperceptibly rising amid the welter and chaos of present-day civilization,” is becoming an increasingly familiar participant in the life of society and this epic is but one of the multitude of manifestations of that participation. My own life, my own epic, within this larger Baha’i epic, had its embryonic phase in the first stage of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Divine Plan, 1937-1944, the first of three phases leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963 as the last year of my teen age life was about to begin and as, most importantly, the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel regarding “that blissful consummation” when Divine Light shall flood the world from the East to the West.
In the Greek tradition, to chose one of the many traditions of epic poetry, a tradition that has played an important part in the history of Western culture, the Goddess of Epic Poetry was Calliope, one of the nine sisters of the Muses. Calliope and her sister Muses, not a part of popular culture and slipping into some degree of obscurity among many of the multitude of cultural elites in our global world, were seen traditionally, at least in the west and among its cultural literati, as a source of artistic and creative inspiration. Calliope was the mother of Orpheus who was known to have a keen understanding of both music and poetry. We know little about Calliope, as we know little about the inspiration of the Muses, at least in the Greek tradition.
In the young and developing artistic tradition and its many sources of creative expression among adherents of the Baha’i Faith, on the other hand, although gods and goddesses play no role, holy souls “who have remained faithful unto the covenant of God” can be a leaven that leavens “the world of being” and can furnish “the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest.” In addition, among a host of other inspirational sources, the simple expression Ya’Baha’ul’Abha, Ya Ali ‘ul-Ala or any one of many other verbal and literary expressions from the Baha’i writings in Farsi, English or any other language into which the Baha’i writings are translated is capable of evoking the world of the spirit, of drawing on its power and potency, of bringing it to the door of life, opening the heavens of mysteries, enriching its colours and solving the riddles of life. Much more could be said about inspirational sources of a spiritual, other-worldly, divine nature from a Baha’i perspective, but this is sufficient for now in this brief description of the origins and purpose of this my prose-poetic oeuvre and what evocations can be drawn on in the multitude of sources in this new Faith.
Mary Gibson emphasizes in her Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians, a study of Ezra Pound’s poetic epic, that one question was at the centre of The Cantos. It was the question of how beauty and power, passion and order could cohere. This question was one of many that concerned Pound during the early decades of his developing opus, decades that, coincidentally, coincided with the same years that Bahai Administration, the precursor of a future World Order, was coming to assume its earliest form. In the last century, particularly the last years of the second decade of the 20th century and the early years of the third, a form, a nucleus and a pattern, a model slowly crystallized and came to manifest those qualities Pound strove in vain to find in a modern politico-philosophy. As Pound was completing his epic, his Cantos, in the early 1960s, the apex, the central organ, of that social model conceived in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh in the nineteenth century stood complete.
The wider world did not yet see these qualities in the as yet early phases of the development and manifestation of this new System. But in my epic, my prose-poetic pulse, in my own mind and heart, in my fundamental intellectual orientation, if rarely in my actual experience, I found these qualities and gave them expression. For my epic is a form of social criticism that makes reference not to a model drawn from the past, a historical model, a nostalgic model, reactionary, if you like. It is a model based on the future, on a utopian model, revolutionary, because it measures the distance between where we are and where we want to be. As a social critic, I see my epic work as a formulation, an explication , an analysis of a new social model, on how to make the wrong right.
My model, to put my case briefly at this point, consists of a worldwide organization which:
works quietly, unbeknownst to the majority of people, but tirelessly and continuously for the achievement on a planetary scale and yet operating locally in dealing with local problems, united by intellectual and emotional bonds and yet diverse in its cultural manifestations.
I do not address an unusually cultivated class, as Pound did, leaving most readers feeling they were faced with a terminus of incoherence; nor is my work a game as Pound’s Cantos appeared to be to many readers with its absence of direction, but like Pound my work is that of a voyageur who is not sure where his work will end up. The terminus for many readers, may not be Pound’s incoherence, but a poetic vagueness, although that is far from my intent. My work has been, like Pound’s, thrown up on a shore that I certainly had not planned to visit. Unlike Pound I do not yet have many enthusiasts or detractors of my work. And I may never have. Unlike Pound, my work, my epic, does not possess a disordered, indeed, chaotic structure and is not filled with unfathomable historical allusions; nor do I see my work as dull and verbose, although others may see my work as all of these. If Pound’s poetic-epic was “plotless....with flux” mine has both plot and flux, but the accretion of detail and the piling up of memory on memory may, in the end, lose most readers. For now, I must live with this possibility.
There is no Christian myth to guide the reader through Pound’s epic, as there was through, say, Dante’s Commedia six centuries before or Virgil’s Aeneid two-thousand years ago. Pound’s Cantos tell the story of the education of Ezra Pound as my epic tells the story of my education. In my case there is a guide, the Baha’i metaphorical interpretation of physical reality or, to put it simply, the Baha’i myth or metaphor. Of course, myth here has to do with core, essential and personal meaning systems and not some false view--that other meaning to the word myth.
At the heart, the centre, of my own epic, then, is a sense of visionary certitude, derived from my belief in this embryonic World Order of Bahá’u’lláh and my belief that a cultural and political coherence will increase in the coming decades and centuries around the sinews of this efflorescing Order. My work is serious but not solemn, at least not for me, although others may find it so. Like T.S. Eliot, I am not sure of the permanent value of what I have written. As Eliot put it: “I may have wasted my time and messed up my life for nothing.” No man knoweth what his own end shall be, nor what the end of his writing shall be, I hasten to add.
The poet Wallace Stevens’ expressed his sense of modern poetry “as a poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” What Stevens says here certainly gives expression to what is involved in this process, this sense of epic, for me and for many another writer of epic works. I am involved in the act of creating a prose-poem of the mind and trying to find out as I go along “what will suffice” to express what is in my mind and my heart, what is part and parcel of my beliefs and what occupies the knowledge base of the Baha’i Faith. This process is, without doubt, at the centre of this conceptual, this epistemological, this ontological, experiment of mine.
This epic is an experimental vehicle containing open-ended autobiographical sequences. It is a sometimes softly, indirectly didactic, sometimes not-so-softly and quite directly didactic, intellectual exploration with lines developing with apparent spontaneity and going in many directions. The overall shape of this work was in no way predetermined. I did not start out with some epic ambition. In many respects, my many long poems, the thousands of my shorter poems and, indeed, all my writing is purely amateur and speculative philosophy, literary playfulness and autobiographical description that I try to integrate into Baha’i and secular history in a great many ways. The accumulation of unrecorded life, unrecorded life that is in so many ways of an epic nature, is staggering. Perhaps this work will redress the balance, at least a minute atom of that balance between recorded and unrecorded life. The challenge to write an account of one's life, however minutely obscure, possesses literary proportions and challenges to the psyche and imagination that are heroic in their implications.
I attempt as I go along to affirm a wholeness within this epic design, a design which I like to see and refer to as a noetic integrator: a conceptual construction which serves to interpret large fields of reality and to transform experience and knowledge into attitude and belief. I have slowly developed this construction, this design, this tool and it is a product of decades of extensive and intensive effort to articulate a conceptual construction to deal with the long, complex and fragmented world in which I have lived my life, a life with its own fragmentations and complexities. A tempest seems to have been blowing across the world's several continents and its billions of inhabitants with an incredible force for decades, for over a century. I would hope that this construction, this epic design, will be of use to others as this tempest continues to blow, for it is showing no signs of cessation. I would like to think that what I write here will help others translate their potentiality into actuality--a process that Alfred North Whitehead called concrescence. But I have no idea whether what I write will be of help to others or not. In this exercise of mine I am quite aware that there are no guarantees for myself or for others.
I want to express beauty in addition to wholeness, a different kind of beauty than the painter or musician, to achieve a symmetry by means of infinite literary chords and discords, showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world; and to achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments. This seems to me to be a natural process, a type of flight of the mind. This is a worthy objective, not unlike that of one of the 20th century’s greatest writersVirginia Woolf as she described the process for her as far back as 1908.
I trust, too, that this epic work is not only a sanctimonious, openly pious, exploration of literary, practical and life-narrative themes, but also and simultaneously a self-questioning of these themes and forms, actions and motivations. What I write should not be seen as fixed and final, but a lifelong attempt to polish and not pontificate, a work in progress that tries to guard against blind and idle imitation as well as against narrowness, rigidity and intolerance--tendencies toward fundamentalist habits of mind--in my own spiritual path, if not those paths of others.
There has been, for more than a century and a half, a great silence on the part of most of my fellow believers when it comes to autobiography, memoirs, life-writing, their experience and that of their community. There has been an equal silence, a gap, an abyss, which I find fascinating, between the outer self, in some ways a fictitious but certainly a social, on-stage, person whom I and others carry partly like a mask about the world and a secret, inner, self. I have intended to write of both these worlds in several genres: poetry, narrative and, of course, diaries. Not taking offence and not giving it also creates and requires many silences in life and depends on a diplomacy that one gets lots of practice at implementing if one is to avoid argument. If one is not to give offence it is often better that one keep one's real opinions to oneself. If one is not to take offence the avoidance of verbal lance and parry and punitive rebuttals is useful but difficult. Autobiography and its epic nature as expressed in my poetic prose can help one overcome all these silences at least partly.
Pound was intent on developing an ideal polity of the mind. This polity flooded his consciousness and suggested a menacing fluidity, an indiscriminate massiveness of the crowd. The polity that is imbeded in my own epic does not suggest the crowd, probably because the polity I have been working with over my lifetime, over some four epochs of the Baha’i Faith’s Formative Age, has been one that has grown so slowly and the groups I have worked in and with have been small. At the same time I have become more and more impressed with what is for me this “ideal polity." As my experience of the Bahá'í polity and the polity itself has become more seasoned, more mature it has come to "flood my consciousness" as the decades have seen my lifespan head into late adulthood. I could expatiate on its System and how it deals with the essential weaknesses of politics pointed out so long ago by Plato and Aristotle and which continue to this day. But that is not the purpose of this essay.
This vision and this Movement, my role and my contribution, though, has not been so much to give people answers and convince them of the truth and wonder of this System but, as Bahiyyih Nakhjavani writes, to help pose, to stimulate the asking of, the right questions. People seem so very skeptical of answers and so playing the devil's advocate, so to speak, has seemed to me to have more mileage in the process of dialogue. I have dealt with my most rooted assumptions and questioned my most secret and instinctive self and many of the assumptions of my secular society. In the process and as this epic has evolved, I hope this exercise of writing has led to a greater openness of mind, a humility of response that finds resolutions as much or more than solutions and that it carries the seeds of other questions. There is an interdependence of diverse points of view rather than some total vision here. There is, too, what Nakhjavani calls, "a Bahá'í aesthetic" which is a form of seeing that enables us to use our creative endeavours to reflect the motions in the heart, motions of search, striving, desire, devotion and love.
My style, my prose-poetic design, though, is like Pound’s in so far as I use juxtaposition as a way to locate and enhance meanings. Like Pound, I stress continuity in history, the cultural and the personal. At the heart of epic poetry for Pound was “the historical.” It was part of the reclaiming job that Modernist poets saw as their task, to regain ground from the novelists; my reclaiming job is to tell of the history of the epochs I have lived through from a personal perspective, from the perspective of the multitude of traces both I and my coreligionists have left behind. This reclaiming process, I must emphasize, is a personal one. In many ways the events of my time don’t need reclaiming for the major and minor events of these epochs both within and without the Baha’i community are massively documented in more detail than ever before in history.
Perhaps, though, in the same way that Pound’s work was, as Alan Ginsberg once put it, “the first articulate record and graph of the mind and emotions over a continuous fifty year period,” my epic may provide a similar record and graph. Unlike Pound I see new and revolutionary change in both the historical process, in my own world and in the future with a distant vision of the oneness of humanity growing in the womb of this travailing age. I see humankind on a spiritual journey, the stages of which are marked by the advent of the Manifestations of God. And my “articulate record,” both in process and content is so different than Pound’s. Still the contrast is worth stating.
Those who are quite familiar with the poem Leaves of Grass may recall that Walt Whitman’s poetic work often merges both himself and his poetry with the reader. In the same way that Pound’s work provides a useful comparison and contrast point for me in describing and analysing my epic, so is this true of Walt Whitman’s poem. His poem expresses his theory of democracy; mine expresses quite a different polity: a deomocratic theocracy.
Whitman’s poem is the embodiment of the idea that a single unique protagonist can represent a whole epoch. This protagonist can be looked at in two ways. There is his civic, public, side and his private, intimate side. While I feel it would be presumptuous of me to claim, or even attempt, to represent an entire epoch or age, this concept of a private/public dichotomy is a useful one, a handy underlying feature or idea at the base of this epic poem. I also like to think that, as I have indicated above, this experience, this poetry, this epic work, is part and parcel of the experience of many of my coreligionists around the world even though my work has an obvious focus on my own experience. Paradoxically, it is the personal which makes the common in so far as it recognizes the existence of the many in the one. In my own joy or despair, I am brought to that which others have also experienced.
In my poetic opus, my epic, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, I like to think that, with Whitman, the reader can sense a merging of reader and writer. But I like to think, too, that readers can also sense in my epic a political philosophy, a sociology, a psychology, a global citizen--something we have all become. There is in my poetry a public and a private man reacting to the burgeoning planetization of humankind, the knowledge explosion and the tempest that has been history’s experience, at least as far back as the 1840s, if not the days of Shaykh Ahmad after he left his homeland in N.E. Arabia in the decade before those halcyon days of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath in the Jacobin Terror.
There is much more than verse-making here in my autobiographical opus. I have no hesitation in making what Donald Kuspit calls identitarian claims for my poetry. Donald Kuspit argues that only the idiosyncratic artist remains credible and convincing in the postmodern era. I would argue that this idiosyncratic artist is one who creates his own cosmology. He pursues a sense of artistic and human identity in a situation where the artist and literary guidelines are idiosyncratic. My epic is a radically personal one that establishes both conscious and unconscious communication between individuals some of whom are in doubt of their identity and others whose sense of identity is well-developed. Functioning as a medium of self-identification, this epic affords a sense of authentic selfhood and communicative intimacy in a postmodern society where authenticity and intimacy seem for many irrelevant and absurd and for others crucial.
My writing, my poetry, contains within, in page after page, an expression of, an identity with, what has been and is the ruling passion of my life: the Baha’i Faith, its history and teachings. This Faith seems to have wrapped and filled my being over my pioneering life over these last forty-five years. Indeed, I have come to see myself with an increasing consciousness, as a part, one of the multitude of lights in what ‘Abdu’l-Baha called a “heavenly illumination” which would flow to all the peoples of the world from the North American Baha’i community and which would, as Shoghi Effendi expressed it “adorn the pages of history.” My story is part of that larger story, the first stirrings of a spiritual revolution, which at the local level has often, has usually, indeed, just about always, seemed unobtrusive and uneventful, at least where I have lived and pioneered.
There is a narrative imagination, too, that is at the base of this epic poetry. As far as possible I have tried to make this narrative honest, true, accurate, realistic, informed, intelligible, knowledgeable, part of a new collective story, a new shared reality, part of the axis of the oneness of humanity that is part of the central ethos of the Baha’i community. As I develop my story through the grid of narrative and poetry, of letters and essays, of notebooks and photographs, I tell my story the way I see it, through my own eyes and my own knowledge, as Baha’u’llah exhorted me in Hidden Words, but with the help of many others. I leave behind me traces, things in your present, dear reader, which stand for now absent things, things from the past, from a turning point in history, one of history’s great climacterics. The phenomenon of the trace is clearly akin to the inscription of lived time, my time and that of my generation, upon astronomical time from which calendar time comes. History is “knowledge by traces”, as F. Simiand puts it. And so, I bequeath traces: mine, those of many others I have known, those of a particular time in history. Sometimes I think that these traces amount to a voluminous anatomy of self about which there is a very questionable value; at other times I think these traces are so intimately linked with the emergence of a new religion, a new Order, that there is an inner thrill and excitement that is difficult to keep in the form of a moderate expression.
In the years since the sense of my total oeuvre as epic was first formulated, that is since the period 1997 to 2000, I have been working on the 2nd to 6th editions of my prose narrative Pioneering Over Four Epochs. In these last eight years, September 2000 to September 2008, this narrative has come to assume its own epic proportions. It is now 2600 pages in length and occupies five volumes. It is one of the many extensions, one of the many facets, parts and parcels, of the epic that I have described above and which had its initial formulation form from September 1997 to September 2000. After ten years, then, from 1997/8 to 2007/8, my epic has extended my world of prose memoir, of narrative autobiography. I also completed in that same period a 400 page study of the poetry of Roger White which was placed on the Juxta Publications website in October 2003. It was entitled: The Emergence of a Baha’i Consciousness in World Literature: The Poetry of Roger White. The first edition of my website in 1997, also entitled Pioneering Over Four Epochs, became a second edition on May 21st 2001 two days before the official opening of The Terraces on Mt.Carmel on 23 May 2001. My website, then, is now ten years old. This website contains some 3000 pages and is, for me, an integral part of this epic.
There are so many passions, thoughts, indeed so much of one’s inner life that cannot find expression in normal everyday existence. Much of my poetry and prose, perhaps my entire epic-opus is a result of this reality, at least in part; my literary output is also a search for words to describe the experience, my experience, of our age, my age. This is part of what might be called the psycho-biological-philosophical basis of my work. My poetry and prose allows me to release surplus, excess, energy and an abundance of thought and desire which I am unable to assimilate and give expression to in my everydayness and its quotidian features. This entire work is an expression of thoughts, desires, passions, beliefs and attitudes which I am unable to find a place for amidst the ordinary. This literary epic adorns the ordinary; it enriches my everyday experience, as if from a distance.
I have come to see and feel my literary efforts as if they were a breeze en passant over my multifaceted religious faith, over my daily life. I do not write to convince or proselytise, but as a form of affirmation of all that has meaning and significance in life, my life and, by implication and since all humans share so much in common, Everyman's. I write of that foul rag and bone shop, as the poet W.B. Yeats called the heart, and of that golden seam of joy in life, of frailty and strength and of the abyss of mental anguish and a heart exulting unaggrieved. These aspects of my writing are all part of that trace I alluded to above.
An additional part of this epic is an epistolary narrative written over fifty years, 1958 to 2008. This epistolary work is driven by this same belief system acquired, refined and thought about over a lifetime, a belief system which finds a core of facticity and a periphery of interpretation, imagination, intuition, sensory activity and an everyday analysis of its history and teachings in the context of these letters. The inclusion of this collection of letters and more recently emails and internet posts in its many sub-categories is part of my effort to compensate for the tendency of my fellow Baha’is throughout the history of this Faith not to leave an account of their lives, their times, their experiences, as Moojan Momen has made so clear in his The Babi-Baha’i Religions: 1844-1944.
I did not start out with this motivation, nor did I think of my epistolary work as I went along as a sort of compensation for the strong tendency of my fellow believers not to record their experiences in letters but, after half a century of this form of collected communications, I realized that they offered an expression of my times and of the Bahá'í community during these epochs that may be of use to future historians, biographers and a variety of other social analysts. This view I have come to gradually as an inclusion, a retrospective gaze, an epistolary addition to a memoir what could only be enriched by such an addition. This epistolary narrative is yet one more attempt, along with the other several genres by this writer, to provide a prose-poetry mix of sensory and intellectual impressions to try to capture the texture of a life, however ineffably rich and temporarily fleeting, in one massive opus, one epic form, with branches leading down such prolix avenues that its total form is most probably only of use as an archive and not as something to be read by this generation for it would form so many volumes as to be valueable as a form of collected works in a future age.
At the present time there are some fifty volumes of letters, emails and internet posts under ten major divisions of my epistolary collection. The third division of the ten contains my contacts with sites on the internet and there are some twenty-five volumes of site contacts at: site homepages, forums, discussion boards and blogs with their postings and replies, inter alia. This collection of posts on the internet, posts largely made since 2001 and the official opening of the Arc Project in May 2001, is now a part of this massive, this burgeoning epic. I have written an introduction to this collection of letters, inter alia--and that introduction is found at Baha’i Library Online> Secondary Source Material> Personal Letters. The other genres of my writing: the character sketches, the notebooks and the five volume journal, the dozen attempts at a novel as well as the photographic embellishments and memorabilia within this epic framework I leave for now without comment--although readers will find ample comment at later points in this epic-opus.
After a decade since the initial concept of this epic was first initiated, I feel I have made a start to what may become an even longer epic account as my life heads into late adulthood and old age and the Faith I have been and am a part of soon heads into the second century of its Formative Age. This aspect of epic, this perception of my oeuvre as epic, the incorporation of all my writing into a collected unity in multiplicity, a memoir in many genres, necessitates the initiation of a sixth edition. I finalized the fifth edition of my narrative, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, on 1 September 2007, the first day of spring here in Australia.
I sometimes think, as Herbert Mitgang notes in his article in the New York Times "Virginia Woolf, Her Inner Circle and Inner Self" that in the future "Instead of discovering self-revealing handwritten letters, casual notes, first drafts and intimate diary entries, many biographers may be left with little more original material than lists of cellular phone calls, impersonal second-sight faxes and E-mail: all useful only as electronic confetti for a shredding machine." Future biographers, should any arise here, will not be faced with this problem. The fifth edition went through more drafts than I care to count. And now I alter this second draft of the sixth edition less than eighty days before the 50th anniversary of the election of the apex of the Bahai Administrative Order.
In this epic work memory clings to the essays, the poetry and the narrative, memory, the satisfaction of a life lived fully if not always with the best decisions made or the most appropriate emotional reactions taken to the circumstances in front of my nose. It may come as a surprise that this collection of writings, while almost entirely devoted to different aspects of my life, both professional and personal, does not in fact fall prey to the problem of Narcissus' endless gaze, at least, such is my view. Learning about those things in the world which annoy me or which resulted in my losing the plot, learning of my love for the works of Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon, or reading about my long experience of a very uncomfortable bipolar disorder, will hopefully come as a pleasure thanks to what I hope will be seen as my honesty and modest confessionalism and, perhaps, my gently mocking style. My target is more often himself than any person, creed, institution or belief.
In these writings, hovering as I am around the years 55 to 65, readers will find, I trust, a somewhat relaxed looking-backwards glance to my thoughts. I am not uncomfortable to have attained 'old man' status. to put this another way, I am as comfortable as a person can be as I enter the opening scenes of old age. 'Emerging from the shower,' I can honestly say that 'I stand naked in front of my bathroom mirror. This, let the truth be told, is not an altogether enrapturing sight.' Later, I admit that I still ogle at women. he would be considered a dirty old man, rather than a vigorous male admiring an attractive woman. Sunrise, sunset.
EPIC AS LIFE-WRITING:
LIFE-NARRATIVE AS ENABLING STRUCTURE
Life writing is now one of the most dynamic and rapidly developing fields of international scholarship. Life writing is a catch-all term developed to encompass several genres: autobiography, biography, memoir, journal, diary, letter and other forms of self-construction. During my pioneering life(1962-2008) and especially since I have been writing this memoir(1984-2008) or what I sometimes refer to as my autobiography, this dynamism and intensive development has been particularly prominent. The field also includes these several genres of life-narrative I mentioned above within various disciplines of the social sciences and humanities: history, anthropology, sociology, politics, leadership and leisure studies, narrative and literary studies, among others. I make use of all these genres in my memoir, but only a small portion of any one of them is found in my five volume memoir.
Life writing addresses and gives voice to many social constituencies including: women, men, indigenous groups, postcolonial societies, ethnic groups and a wide variety of society’s sub-groups like new religious movements. The sub-group I am concerned with in my work is the Baha’i community. This community is a major part of my focus. Life writing, among its many purposes, gives voice to those who suffer illness, oppression, misfortune and tragedy. It is also an enabling structure, tool or mechanism for those who wish to speak in a spirit of affirmation, inquiry, amazement or celebration among other emotional and intellectual raison d’etres or modi vivendi. My voice, my spirit, finds its enabling structure, its raison d’etre, in this lengthy work, a work which is part of an epic, a magnum opus. The result may be for many just a loose, baggy set of volumes, filled with superfluous and irrelevant details as well as repetitious observations, the sort of shapeless, charmless autobiography or memoir that many a critic in the last century has deplored.
In addition to its high, its increasing, academic profile, life writing generates great interest among the general public. Works of biography and autobiography sell in vast numbers; millions now work in or are part of large organisations; millions follow the endless political and economic analyses that are generated by the media daily. People in these groups are interested in the literature by or about the leaders and the special people associated with their group and organizational affiliations.
Many aficionados of entertainment and sport read books by or about the celebrity figures in these fields. There is also a wide readership for books that deal with life in various cultures and cultural groups; an increasing number of people are interested in writing family histories or their own autobiographies. And on and on goes the litany of enthusiasm and human interests for various types, topics and genres of books. Studies in biography and autobiography are burgeoning and blossoming at universities all over the world. Each institution in their own way aims to reflect and to facilitate their special component of the interests referred to above and to make their schools nationally and internationally recognised centres of excellence for integrated activities in the field.
For those with a philosophical bent, studies in biography and autobiography tap into some of the most profound and interesting intellectual issues of our time and previous times; for example, are we the products of nature, nurture or a combination of both? When we come to write the story of a life, be it our own or someone else's, what kinds of plot structures does our culture provide for telling the truest story we can? When do we need to invent our own plot structures, and to what extent is this possible? How true can stories about people be, and how do we know whether they are true or not? Is it possible to be objective about ones own self, or about another human being? What are the limits of confidentiality when putting a life on public record? How, and in what ways, does the experience of having a self, of being a person, differ from one culture to another? Such questions, and others like them, reach into central issues of recent literary and cultural theory. Issues pertaining to subjectivity, the social construction of the self, agency, identity, the structures of the psyche, and so on, are all part of this vast territory. The four books that make up this memoir or autobiography are part of this burgeoning, this dynamic, field.
The first hard copy of the fifth edition of my narrative memoir was made in April 2004. This hard copy, the first in the public domain, as far as I know, was made by Bonnie J. Ellis, the Acquisitions Librarian, for the Baha’i World Centre Library. The work then had 803 pages. The first paperback edition available from a publisher was at the internet site of lulu.com in June 2006, although it was not yet available to the public requiring, as it did, the review by the NSA of the Baha’is of Australia Inc. Anyone wanting to obtain a paperback copy will, I trust, soon be able to order it from lulu.com. This fifth edition is the base from which additions, deletions and corrections are still being made in the flexible world that publishing has become. The latest changes to that edition were made on 21 January 2008 in my 64th year, nearly two years into the Baha’i community’s new Five Year Plan, 2006-2011.
An epic work must leave a great deal of life out and, indeed, I have left much out of this autobiography. That energetic President of the USA, Theodore Roosvelt, said in the opening line of his autobiography, “there are chapters of my autobiography which cannot now be written.” I, too, have left much out. I would like to think that this book requires more exposition than criticism, more reflection than editing. To put it more precisely, I would like to think that as readers go through the pages of this memoir in its five volumes they may apply their critical faculty as a connoisseur might do. Readers would be advised to employ that critical faculty to discern what is distinctive and enduring here. That is what I would like to think, but I am confident that, should this lengthy work attain any degree of popularity, it will also receive its share of criticism. For many this work will not have what is an essential of popular writing: that it be written entertainingly, breezily, and full of snappy phrases. I trust this work does possess, though, that happy mix of copiousness and restraint, depth and lightness. When this narrative breathes out, the world is many; when it breathes in again, the world is one. When this narrative looks back in time it might be called retrospective or narratology and when it looks forward one could call it futurology. Time itself is only significant in terms of some relation; severed from relation it becomes merely a semantic term or construct.
Whatever this work lacks in the way of potential popularity it does aim to unite the greatest possible number of people. The oneness of humankind is, for me, more than a theoretical notion. Albert Camus in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1957 said that uniting people was or should be the aim of a writer. The Baha’i community has been engaged in this task of uniting people for more than a century and a half and as one of its members I have been similarly engaged for a little more than half a century. I often use books toward this goal. I see books as stories about human beings and, although books are not life, it is life that they are about. I got a surge of warmth and delight putting this life together for others to read and, if I knew a monk, I would get him to illuminate it as they once did in the Dark Age. As many writers often say their first aim is to please themselves for they are only too aware that they so often, if not usually, can not please their readers. This is certainly true of this epic work which, by virtue of its sheer size, will put many off.
I am confident that the standard of public discussion and literary criticism will, as the decades and centuries go by, significantly, profoundly improve. I confidently leave this work in the hands of posterity and the mysterious dispensations of a watchful Providence. Perchance editors and readers will be found down the roads of the future. The factors of fate and freedom will determine much on the future literary roads where this work will travel. I like to think that this autobiographical work may incline readers to re-examine their received ideas on the autobiographical genre. The inflated reputations that are a constant part of literary discourse in this field of literature need to be placed in a more balanced perspective. I hope the approach I have taken to this work is a step in the direction of a balance between over-inflation and being nameless and traceless. May this work be used as a sort of scaffolding--a burgeoning product in the public place--for readers to work on the buildings that are their own lives. For I aspire, as the literary critic Rebecca West once put it, to artistry not just a simple amiability, to the creation of a literary milieux not just simple narrative.
I’d also like to intellectually challenge the reader not just provide a story to satisfy human curiosity. Our world in the West is drowning in stories and so I try to provide something beyond a simple tale with its exciting twists and turns, with its moral-to-the-story, its romance and surprises. I like to see myself as a tireless interpreter of themes, resources, books and people and one who moves from the micro to the macro world faster than a speeding bullet, probably too fast for my own good many a time. Inevitably, of course, I do tire and I do not always speed partly due to the medication I take to slow me down. This shifting about and endless analysis is not everybody’s cup-of-tea. Any pleasure this work provides, any influence it achieves, I like to think derives from my peculiar artistry and my blend of truth, studies of the humanities and social sciences and the combination of the colloquial and the academic. There is nothing wrong with having such lofty aims even if I do not achieve them. At the same time, I do not want to make extravagant promises that, in the end, disappoint.
Readers will find here a conceptual density that can give both pleasure and instruction. Those who enjoy philosophical argument may enjoy this epic more than those looking for a good yarn. In fact, I would advise those looking for a captivating story to look elsewhere. This work may well repel those who have a low tolerance for compact, complex ideas piled on one after another, but whether the reader enjoys or dislikes this work, as a study of the past and the present from a particular perspective, an autobiographical one, it is my way of understanding my world. I like to see my work partly the way Mark Twain did his. As he wrote in the introductory lines of his autobiography: “my work has a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel.” His method, Twain went on, was a ‘systemless system’ that depended solely on what interested him at the time of writing. Such, too, is my aim and method, at least in part. It is easy I find to please myself when I write; the challenge and the greatest pleasure lies in writing for the pleasure of others.
The traces I bequeath are also, to continue an important theme of the epic tradition, those of the wandering hero. It is a hero, a wanderer, with many dimensions described in many contexts. It is a journey of redemption to union with God, as it was for Dante. It is a journey of adventure and finding my home, as it was for Odysseus. It is a journey that attempts to embody my vision of the Baha’i world order, as the poet Virgil tried to articulate his vision of Augustus’ order during the crucial years of the establishment of the first political order of the Roman Empire(29-19 BC). It is a personal epic, a personal journey, an inner journey, within the tradition of William Wordsworth and his autobiographical poem Prelude.
There are elements of the Miltonian epic here with the foregrounding of the author, his weaknesses and his strengths, in what is par excellence, a theological-religious journey. And there is the monumental journey of Baha’u’llah over forty years which acts as a metaphorical base in the world of physical reality for my own journey. The wanderer I draw on is, in other words, a flexible, elastic, figure which allows me to include in my epic poem virtually anything that I want to include that is relevant to the many dimensions and many contexts I have mentioned above in this text.
And so the wanderer that I describe in my epic is a composite. But this wanderer is not in search of the Path; rather, he has found the Path and the wandering takes place on the Path. The wandering through the sea of the experiential, the historical, sociological, literary, inter alia, is all part of the experience, the context, the definition of the Path for this particular journeyman. The reader will come across many references, many texts and thousands of experiences here. They are laid on a Baha’i-paradigm-map; I am not alone, as Pound was, relying on his own wit and courage with no framework of guidance and meaning within which to sift history’s and experience’s immense chaos into some order. I find that the actual writing of the poem and prose assumes characteristics of the epic journey itself. This was true for Pound, for Dante and, in all likelihood, the mythical Homer.
It may be that my journey on this Path is only half over and that this epic found its initial conceptualization at the mid-point of my Baha’i life. If I live to be ninety-five, my journey within this framework of belief has just passed the half way mark (age 15 to 95, a period of eighty years, with age 55 the half-way point). So I like to think that what I have now, after only fifteen years of intense writing of poetry, is what Pound had: “a dazzling array of finely wrought fragments straining in their own unique way to achieve order and unity” through the deployment and development of this image of the wanderer in its many forms. That is what I like to think. Time will tell, though, if I can sustain and define in precise and dazzling terms the structural, the organizational, principle enunciated above. This structural principle is based on a view of my poetry as: the expression of my experience, my sense, my understanding, in the context of my wandering and my journey, of the concept of the Oneness of Mankind or the axis of the oneness of humankind, as one writer put it in more colourful terms recently. Can I continue to develop this epic, beyond the start I have given it, to a satisfying conclusion in the years ahead? If I live to be ninety-eight and continue writing regularly I will reach fifty years of intense poetic work.
2 Robert Nisbet, Social Change and Social History, 1969. In this book the sociologist Nisbet describes the metaphor of change and its pervasiveness since the age of the Greeks(1200-400 BC).
3 Stephen Sicari, Pound’s Epic Ambition: Dante and the Modern World, State University of New York Press, 1991, p.x.
My single epic poem, begun in September 1997, but far from complete, is available to those interested. It is just the beginning of a specific, single epic poem that, as I say, has not been completed. As I have indicated, this specific and incomplete epic poem: (a) will hopefully be completed at a future time when circumstances and the inspiration permit and (b) for now it is subsumed within the context of my entire poetic and literary opus. This poem, I trust, will still be in this world long after I have gone. In this poem, I desire always to stretch the beauty and meaning, the mystery and force of the great vision of this Cause, perhaps as Virginia Woolf tried to stretch the night and fill it fuller and fuller with dreams. Perhaps, too, in this poem as in my autobiographical narrative, the plot, the story-line, has the same significance as the plot in Woolf's novels. When asked whether the plot mattered, Woolf shifted and looked over her right shoulder. "The plot is only there to beget emotion and thought, reason and sensibility. Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing." The story, the factual base, is not really the thing at all. It is merely the focal point, the hub of the wheel, the peg on which to hang the bright ribbons and dark cords of my perceptions, knowledge, understanding and what I have gained from my training in the context of every atom in existence and the essence of all created things which I have but sensed and studied from a distance.
Perhaps what is most interesting in this developing epic poem, for me at least, is the tantalizing moves in an ambiente of intuitions. With these intuitions, with glances and half-thoughts, I come to regard myself and my fellow-mortals, come to know my failures, overt and hidden, as well as those of my fellows. I often care less for the tangible and the wrought stone of my life or the lives of others, than for fleeting thought, quick and misdirected desire or the multitude of false perceptions experienced as I travelled along and observed my own self and the generality of humanity, as I tried to confront myself honestly and as I also tried to listen to the spiritual counsel which was always there in books by the truckload. Taking sober stock of oneself and girding up ones loins is so often not a tangible exercise, but is part of ones perseverance along ones chosen highway and does not partake of the tangible and the wrought stone, can not be measured per unit of meeting attended, visit made to someone in need or days that one has fasted.
AMERICAN AND BAHAI EPIC HISTORY:
CONTEXT AND COMMENTARY
FRAMEWORK FOR MY LIERARY WORK AS EPIC
The number of long epic poems written the world over is increasing. World history and the history of its many nation states is characterized by epochal statements and epics of various kinds. The Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were both epochal if not epic statements, to choose but two from American history. Then there are epic figures from cinema, like John Wayne and the epic biblical narratives of Cecil B. DeMille. John Wayne himself directed a film on an epic event, The Alamo. He also wrote a book on the making of this film. He called it The Making of the Epic Film. Epic, it seems, comes up everywhere when one thinks about America and increasingly in relation to all sorts of historical and contemporary events in today’s world. It also comes up in relation to my literary oeuvre, my poetry and the Baha’i Faith. In this essay I briefly link the American epic, the Bahá'í epic and my own writing which in the years 1997 to 2007 I came to see, to define, as epic. I could very easily, but with much more work, widen the field of epic study to include Australian and Canadian epic among other sources of epic, but I confine myself here for both convenience and to the critical nature of America to the development of Bahá'í history.
Our world and its history is characterized by many epic journeys, epic voyages, battles, wars, figures and personalities, inter alia. Calling up all the titles of books from recent decades that contain the word epic in the catalogue of a good library will reveal scores of subjects with epic themes. The same is true on the internet, the most recent source of a myriad epic adventures. The word is now applied indiscriminately to appropriate and inappropriate subjects. Does the story of United Methodist preaching or the study of the genitals of insects properly warrant the label epic? Yes and no. The question, the definition, of epic has become complex. We speak of epic not only in the strict sense of a long poem on certain topics, with certain characteristics more or less based on the founding epics of our Western epic tradition, Homers Iliad and Odyssey. We speak of epic in a broader sense, as a story recounting great deeds, typically in wars or battles or on dangerous voyages or as an application of some aspect of the definition that begins this essay. The use of the term epic has spread out in a burgeoning fashion from these points.
One is thus not surprised that Robert Hughes huge current book on American art, American Visions, is subtitled The Epic History of Art in America. Hughes tells us in a TV interview that the subtitle is the publishers. Is then the association of epic with things American all just a matter of merchandising, American hype, the spirit of P.T. Barnum? Are we dealing only with the epic of American salesmanship, which almost all foreign visitors to America have commented on, or is there something about America that properly summons up the idea of epic? One would not expect a book on British art, for example, to be subtitled the epic of British art, though there are of course wonderful buildings, paintings, and sculptures in Britain. Is that only a matter of characteristic British sobriety, discretion and understatement? Perhaps. The Chinese seem to be, as Martin Wright once wrote, too modest and pious to use such a term in relation to their culture. Perhaps. Of course, in this new millennium things are changing.
When one rolls the phrases around on ones tongue, the strong impression cannot be denied: Whatever the crass motives of the publisher of American Visions or of filmmakers who dub many a film epic, epic seems to suit America and American topics better than it suits many, if not most, other countries. Epic becomes, suits, American society and its history–in the sense in which Eugene ONeill used the term, in his great play, Mourning Becomes Electra. Was his play an epic?
The artist Willem de Kooning who was born, raised, and educated in Holland has an interesting comment on what happens when one sees oneself as American, rather than, say, Dutch. Its a certain burden, this American-ness. If you come from a small nation, you don’t have that burden. “When I went to the Academy and I was drawing from the nude,” says de Kooning, “I was making the drawing, not Holland. I feel sometimes an American artist must feel like a baseball player or something–a member of a team writing American history.” Certainly Hughes would agree. Americas size, its newness, its wonders engaged many American artists in the nineteenth century. They took up the American landscape not only as a subject but as a duty. In the early twenty-first century, it is still some particular idea of America–today, however, generally evoked satirically, ironically, critically, indignantly–that seems to motivate much of the oversized work of contemporary American artists. And then there is the great American novel, an obsession with some novelists, and the fact that, arguably, Americas greatest poet writes in a grand, elevated style about America. Indeed, his work is labelled by some an epic, as in James Edwin Millers Leaves of Grass: Americas Lyric Epic of Self and Democracy.
America as epic raises the question, what is unique, what is central, about the American experience that deserves the epithet epic? It reminds us of another, more sober, effort to get to what is unique about America, the discussion of American exceptionalism, conducted principally by sociologists. Seymour Martin Lipset has recently collected and updated a considerable body of his writings on this subject, one that has engaged him for many years: American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Daniel Bell, a second sociologist, has also mused on the subject of American exceptionalism in his book The End of Ideology and elsewhere. The issue, as they discuss it, arises because of the interesting question of why there has been no major socialist movement in the United States, which makes it unique among advanced industrial societies.
The epic proper recounts great and terrible deeds, founding ages, Lind describes this in his essay on epic in The Alamo. He does not believe we can have a Christian epic, or an international epic, or an epic of peace or brotherhood. One sometimes reads that with Milton or Wordsworth, or Whitman, the intellectual or spiritual development of the poet–Blakes mental fight–replaced the struggles of warriors as the proper subject of epic scope in narrative poetry. The sequence of Achilles, Rinaldo, Wordsworth or Whitman brings to mind Carlyles unintentional heroes, which begins with the Norse God Odin and ends with Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. Often moral courage and physical courage go hand in hand, in the case of members of this sequence of individuals when one is examining the epic in history.
Deeds, inner explorations of feelings, discoveries to improve the lot of man, a plethora of subjects and topics have, thus, all broadened the world of the epic. The proper subject of epic can now be found just about anywhere. Some are troubled by this democratization of the epic. Some literary critics who, after all, are often the first people to discuss what makes an epic, who set up its canons of legitimacy, assert that the purely personal is no subject for epic. Perhaps they are right. I am happy to include my writings and especially my poetry in the category ‘epic’ because it is inspired by and about the history of the Baha’i Faith. Although much of this poetry is personal, it is not only personal. It is also about what is unique, what is special, significant and original about Baha’i history and Baha’i experience. So much of what I am concerned about in this many-coloured epic, the fastidious and laissez-faire aspects on this plane of excellence and the common meeting place of the most diverse personages participates in one way or another in the concept epic by virtue of its association with the Bahá'í Faith.
It is this association with the Bahá'í Faith that gives both my own epic narrative and the epic aspects of American history genuine interest to me. For I am sure that there would be many critics, both within the Bahá'í Faith and without, who would refuse to treat my work as epic. If a typology of epics was considered, was to be drawn up, by critics, mine would not be a primary or secondary epic, but far in the background as a tertiary epic or no epic at all. But still for me, although I make what very well may be a pretentious claim from the point of view of others, there is so much as I have pointed out both above and below that gives this work epic prominence. There is a point of sacredness, indeed many points in this epic; there is a relentless questioning and challenging that lies at the heart of this epic's didactic rhetoric. There is in my work a reflection of the epic history of my Faith. A powerful determinant of my work and its sentimental ephemera is to be found in the monumental history of my religion and its epic. Virtually all of my work begins in media res, in the middle of things and it exists in a vast setting. These are two of the conventions and expectations of epic. But like the epic poetry of some other poets, for example H.D. Doolittle who was writing epic poetry in the years before I was born, when I was a child and into my teens, my epic poetry has a vast and complex scope, making it difficult for many readers. But like her poetry, much of my own work is grounded in the facticity of history.
Much of my work is also grounded in psychological and sociological processes which involve lifting veil after veil of my life and the life of my society and religion to reveal what I perceive to be the secret meaning of life as sifted through the teachings of this Faith that came into my life when I was but nine years old. When one finishes this book, if anyone ever does get that far, it is not characters that you will remember, hopefully not even me, but spiritual emanations which are in reality manifestations or facets of my rational thought, my supervision of existential realities. My peculiar interest is not in surfaces, but in mysterious motivations and in that inner life that does not meet the eye. Like the great poets--Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Blake--I try to say the unsayable. I do not pull the process off anywhere near as effectively as these several geniuses. I look upon existence as a maze of paradoxes, contradictions and enigmas, but I am continually uplifted and renewed by the transient beauty of the world, its meaning and mystery. In may ways, my work has no ending, no more conclusion than world history. The game, the battle, the play, runs for a time, the guests depart, night falls. I go to sleep and stop writing only to begin again the next day..
Walt Whitman, despite his insistence on the purely personal nature of his achievement, incorporated within his poetry the entire American experience of his time. He expressed the view that his life work, his poem Leaves of Grass, has mainly been the outcropping of his own emotional and other personal nature–an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being--himself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America--freely, fully, and truly on record. Whitman expresses here a determined reference to time and place. And Whitman wrote elsewhere that he contained multitudes within himself and these were the multitudes of America. As Samuel Beer has argued in an interesting essay, Whitman reaches out much further into a political community than the typical poet. In my poetry I do the same, but I reach out into the Baha’i community wherever and whenever it exists not especially the American people as Whitman did. Like a mirror, I reflect back the colours of the minds and personalities I have met and the books which I also take under consideration. I have been guided in this exercise by an instinct to create for myself out of whatever odds or ends I can come by, some kind of whole: a portrait of a person, a sketch of an age, a theory of writing, of society or of government, an impression of an embryonic Order at the earliest phase of its existence. After all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, it is I who finally decide here what to write down, what ideas and opinions I want to stress which, insignificant in themselves, I trust will, as Samuel Johnson once said might contribute to so mighty a result.
Wordsworth or any one of a host of poets in the last 200 years in many of the nations of the world and many contemporary writers in these same nations, as well as a multitude of others, have recorded their personal responses and personal development for all to read. Sometimes they celebrate a nation, its democracy, its multifariousness; sometimes they celebrate, as American art does, its variety and newness. Some of these writers are celebrating or commemorating the events of the history of their nation, their group, their homeland or their particular interest group in the same way as I am doing in poetry and in other genres in relation to Baha’i history. Often these writers are quintessentially individualists celebrating not a group but an individual ethos, philosophy, subject or topic of interest to them. One could argue that that is the other epic theme in recent centuries: the theme of the individual and his own special interests, philosophy, values, beliefs and attitudes. Wordsworth’s Prelude is certainly an epic venture and it’s essentially his story; its quintessentially about him.
Many of these same poets and writers of the last 200 years had a political or religious affiliation. All, of course, had some group identity. Everyone belongs to a group in some way or another. The theme of America as epic directs us to think, initially, not about the multiplicity that is America and Americans but of a single dominant story, carried by heroes. The traditional epic of America, the epic account that was dominant until at least the 1930s and 1940s, has been in recent decades eclipsed by another and quite different epic of America. It is a multicultural America with a host of epics.
For Baha’is who are also poets or, indeed, prose writers, the epic that arises in their poetry and writings is the history and the culture of their Faith and in the 1930s and 1940s their inherited epic also started to take a different shape as the American Bahá'í community expanded to include all of its states. The first Bahá'í-American epic, dominant until at least the first teaching Plan(1937-1944) emphasizes the newness, the vastness, the openness of America–the freedom thereby granted Americans. It is the old, or at least the older story, about America. Connected with it are such terms as the American idea, or the American creed, or the American dream, or Manifest Destiny. It is true that the frontier as a continuous line of settlement to the West no longer existed by 1890. It was in the first few years of the 1890s that the first Baha’i pioneers arrived on American shores, precursors of the pioneers who would later leave America’s shores. That first American epic and the epic in Baha’i history associated with the heroic age, one could argue, both lasted into the 1930s when Baha’i administration advanced to assume a form which allowed it to focus on a national, an international teaching Plan. It was here, in this international teaching Plan, that the second stage of the Baha’i epic emerged and, arguably, the second stage of the great American epic as well.
There was still much of the West to be settled even after 1890; there was to come an overseas expansion expressing very much the same values; and then there was the brief American Century, carrying forward similar and related values. The second American epic, which I place in opposition to the first, is a somewhat more problematic epic. It emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity, whether in an optimistic or pessimistic mood. The first epic was connected with an ever available frontier denoting free land, free institutions, free men. The second epic is significantly city-centred and finds its frontiers, if any, within a physically completed society. The first is the epic of the forests, the prairies, the plains. It is the epic of discoverers, explorers, pioneers, of Columbus, Daniel Boone, and Lewis and Clark, of the Oregon trail, the Mormon trek, the transcontinental railway..
The second phase of the epic story celebrates quite different voyages: the middle passage, the Trail of Tears, the immigrant ship, the underground railway, the tenement trail from slum to suburb. The first is the epic of the Anglo-Saxon, the Scotch-Irish, in lesser degree the German and the Scandinavian. The second is the epic of the Native Americans, the Africans, the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the new immigrants of the last three decades, cast generally as the victims of the protagonists of the first epic.
The first epic has not fully lost its power to evoke response in American consciousness, and the second is not entirely new but has been with us from the beginning, even if hardly noted. From a Baha’i perspective that first American epic could be seen, as I said above, as synonymous with the first stage of the Bahá'í epic, the Heroic Age(1844-1932), which lasted, one could argue, until the last and treasured remnant of that age, the Greatest Holy Leaf, died in 1932. Perhaps she is just a bridging figure. This is not the place to analyse this issue & its many interesting ramifications.
The poet Walt Whitman, among others I could site here, might be seen a bridging figure from the first to the second American epic. He maintains an optimistic stance embracing both. ‘Abdu’l-Baha or the Guardian and/or even the Greatest Holy Leaf serves as bridging figures from this first to the second stage of epic in Baha’i history.
One sees, in the last few decades, a transition in which the first epic, once dominant, becomes recessive, while the second asserts its problematic claims as the epic of America ever more sharply. Here, too, in these same decades the Baha’is, just one group in a host of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith groups, find expression for the epic in which my own life has been involved. It is here that my poetry finds its place as part of that faith-epic. The second Baha’i epic also asserts its problematic claims in the first epochs of the Formative Age.
The literary genius of Shoghi Effendi colours the landscape of the second stage of this epic. In using the word genius I mean to say that this writer, the man Bahá'ís call the Guardian, possessed gifts that have earned the once-coveted and shining title of genius; he enshrined the spirit these epochs, of a particular time and place, a type of tutelary deity whose radiance sheds an unflickering, beneficent light within the temple walls of our age. Beginning in the period that we now recall as existing precariously between two major wars, his spirit moved and brought its singular endowments of intelligence, wisdom and exegetical genius to satisfy the needs of the moment and thus serve the future as well as the present..
The Baha’i epic associated with its heroic age, 1844-1921, is not the same as the epic associated with its Formative Age. The potentialities that the creative force of that first 77 years-that heroic age-had planted in human consciousness would gradually unfold in a number of sources, one of which was what the Guardian referred to as the spiritual descendants of the Dawnbreakers. My life and the life of my parents would see the first century of that Formative Age unfold and come to completion or so it appeared at this late hour in that first century of that Formative Age. The poetry I have written, while inspired by that heroic age, is written in the main about the epochs, the four epochs, of my life in the Formative Age. The ethos and content of this second phase of the Bahá'í epic in the years 1932(or 1921) to 2008, at least three-quarters 1921) to 2008, at least three-quarters of a century, also has within it different stages. By the time my association with the Bahá'í Faith began in 1953 or my pioneering life in 1962/3, the Bahá'í Faith and its epic features had changed significantly from the first three decades: 1921-1951. These three decades were in many ways hiatus years, years before the first international teaching Plan which took the Cause to over 100 new countries and made it one of the most widespread, if thinly spread, religions on earth. Readers are advised to examine my poetry where issues of this nature and the flowering, the blossoming, of this epic story are examined.
Perhaps the equivalent to this winning of the west in Baha’i literature is Nabis’s book The Dawnbreakers with its thrilling passages and the splendour of its central theme which gives the chronicle its great historic value and its high moral power. Beginning as far back as the mid to late 18th century and continuing with the nine years marking the “most spectacular, most tragic, most eventful period of the first Baha’i century,” this heroic, this apostolic, age ended with the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1921. By the time I was born in 1944, Baha’i administration had consolidated into a framework of local and national assemblies and Baha’i teaching Plans began to take on a central focus. The second epic was already taking a specific shape by the time my life began at the outset of the second Bahá'í century.
To place the book The Winning of the West in its time: The first volumes were published in 1889 when Roseville was only 31. He had already served as a New York state legislator, had written a well-received book on the War of 1812 and a biography of the frontier statesman Thomas Hart Benton. He had turned himself into a ceaseless advocate of the strenuous life, had ridden with cowboys on cattle ranches in the Dakota Territory on the western frontier when Indian wars were still a reality, and had written a book of his experiences there. That experience led him back to earlier frontiers in American history. As Harvey Wish tells us: The task of writing four volumes of The Winning of the West ... had to share his time and energy while he served as an active member of the United States Civil Service Commission and then as President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners. He investigated slums, sweatshops, and graft.... In 1895-6, he managed to issue his final two volumes while campaigning for McKinley ... for which he was rewarded by receiving the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
I could expatiate on a similar pattern with respect to The Dawnbreakers first published in 1932 and which has gone through many printings since then. Its bulk in one volume sits on the shelves of thousands of Bahá'ís around the world inspiring them and telling them of a stage in their epic journey, a stage so unlike the one they have been engaged in all their life, except their coreligionists in Iran. Of course, the opening of the towns, localities, states and all the countries of the world to the Baha’i Faith by its pioneers is also a great theme of Baha’i history. And that theme can be found expressed again and again in my poetic-epic, an age of pioneering from the 1920s and 1930s onward throughout my life. My poetry is a work of unabashed religious enthusiasm with its disappointments and discouragements..
Turner had propounded the most influential thesis in American history in 1893. By 1914, he had to take notice of a great change in America: “If we look about the periphery of the nation, everywhere we see the indications that our world is changing. On the streets of ...New York and Boston, the faces we meet are to a surprising extent those of Southeastern Europe.... It is the little Jewish boy, the Greek or Sicilian, who takes the traveller through historic streets, now the home of these newer people ... and tells you in his strange patois the story of revolution against oppression.”
In this same address, a commencement speech at the University of Washington, Turner creates a striking image of these two worlds in contact. It seems Turner had to pass through the Harvard museum of social ethics–an early expression of sociology at Harvard which no longer exists–in order to get to the room in which he lectured on the history of the westward movement: The hall is covered with an exhibit of the work of the Pittsburgh steel mills, and of the congested tenements. Its charts and diagrams tell of the long hours, the death rate, the relation of typhoid to the slums, the gathering of all Southeastern Europe to make a civilization at that centre of American industrial energy and vast capital that is a social tragedy. As I enter my lecture room through that hall, I speak of the young Washington leading his Virginia frontiersmen to the magnificent forest at the forks of the Ohio. Where Braddock and his men ... were struck by the painted savages in the primeval woods, huge furnaces belch forth perpetual fires and Huns and Bulgars, Poles and Sicilians, struggle for a chance to earn their daily bread, and live a brutal and degraded life. He writes Huns but presumably means Hungarians.
We will note little reference to African Americans or slavery in Theodore Roosevelt or Frederick Jackson Turner: The epic of the westward movement had little to say of them. Roosevelt did write that the early settlers, to their own lasting harm, committed a crime whose short-sighted folly was worse than its guilt, for they brought hordes of African slaves, whose descendants now form immense populations in certain portions of the land. But slavery plays no great role in his story: He makes little distinction between the frontiersmen pushing out from Pennsylvania, or from Virginia and the Carolinas, and indeed asserts that they made little distinction. They were all mountain men, and the issue of whether slave or free was of no great moment then. It was before the great conflicts over whether the new western states were to be slave or free. Turner depreciates the significance of slavery as against the significance of the frontier in American history: Even the slavery struggle ... occupies its important place in American history because of its relation to Westward expansion.
This perspective astonishes us today: It is as if once the conflict over whether new states were to be slave or free was settled by the Civil War, race was no longer of great consequence in American history. Indeed, during the first half of the 20th century, the question of race, urgent as it was for black Americans, was little noted by others. If there was an alternative epic to the epic of westward movement, it was then (as in measure it still is) the Civil War and the destruction of southern plantation society, seen entirely from the point of view of the slaveholder. And so, the first great American movie epic is The Birth of a Nation, and two decades later the greatest epic becomes Gone With the Wind.
And yet, there is the quotation from Whitman, and he writes of the prophets of American democracy, that only Emerson glimpsed the real essence of Americanism and its dream of democracy.... Whittier was too concerned with the problem of the slave, and, like Lowell, who would have sacrificed the union because of his dislike of the South, saw America too much in terms of sectional evil. And the muddle only increases. After his criticism, typical of the time, of the new immigrants–and progressives as well as conservatives indulged in it–Adams ends his book with a vision of the American dream and one of these new immigrants dreaming it on the steps of the Boston Public Library:
“That dream ... has evolved from the hearts and burdened souls of many millions, who have come to us from all nations. If some of them have too great faith, we know not yet to what faith may attain, and may hearken to the voice of one of them, Mary Antin, a young immigrant girl who comes to us from Russia.... Sitting on the steps of the Boston Public Library, where the treasures of the whole of human thought had been opened to her, she wrote: This is my latest home, and it invited me to a glad new life.... The past ... cannot hold me, because I have grown too big; just as the little house in Polotzk, once my home, has now become a toy of memory, as I move about at will in the wide spaces of this splendid palace.... America is the youngest of nations, and inherits all that went before it in history. And I am the youngest of Americas children, and into my hands is given all her priceless heritage.... Mine is the whole majestic past, and mine is the shining future.
Perhaps I have written and quoted too much here about the American epic, but it was the Mary Antin's, the generation entre des guerres, that were the first to respond to the first Plans of the North American Bahá'ís. We see new epics being born even while old ones are being celebrated. By the time the Baha’is began to use the term pioneer, just as their first teaching Plan(1937-1944) was about to be set in motion, “the whole majestic past and the shining future” awaited them. This story of the second phase of the Bahai epic has yet to be expatiated upon and appreciated in the sense that the first phase has been. The historians have not arisen in the Bahá'í community as yet to tell of the developing epic and ethos as they have in American history. I write to some extent of that second phase of the Bahai epic in my own work, again and again. In some ways my entire oeuvre is part of this second phase. But my main aim here is to hint at the parallels between the American and Bahai epics, for they inform my poetry in a multitude of ways. My aim, too, is to get at the hidden core, the inner springs, of life in these four epochs. I often have felt the inadequacy of mere words for so much of my time is a pioneering exercise virtually in toto and an epic phase so different than the one I read in The Dawnbreakers.
In many ways my epic wanders at will, forgetting and remembering, as one does really in life, moving slowly or standing still and musing while new inventions and policies, new trends and emphases in the Bahá'í community clamour for attention. The people in my memoir live in the past, in the present and ponder the future vision in many of the roles that existed and that they lived through in these four epochs. Sometimes I provide readers with a sense of fun, but not often. Intelligence and common sense and an uncommon sensibility, it seems to me can be found here in my work, perhaps even a certain eccentricity of personality. No category quite contains my entire opus. Readers are as likely to find poetry as politics, sociology as history, to find quotations from Horace, Hardy or Hobbes. There is no cataloguing this mixture, this literary milieux and no way of regimenting its pot-pourri of material into the customary form: epic autobiography or history.
This mixture is what gives delight and pleasure, if delight and pleasure are found here at all. I try to provide a sense of people thinking and feeling and brooding by themselves, with vague memories and sharp present sensations, with bits of this and that and much prose-poetry. In all this, all these words, I trust readers will experience some definite contact with life in these four epochs: 1944-2021. These years both retreat into history and exist in the present as well as knock at the future. The years are here and there as something done and something still existing, bright with various discrepancies and compensations, with analysis and description. Through three-quarters of a century with little to no speech my life is here with perspective, not exact, not minutely recorded as I lived, a life through several decades delighting, in spite of the years and the wars, the personal problems, challenges and the attendant worries, in being alive and feeling the warmth of fresh life around it and the cold and indifference of the age. Pioneering Over Four Epochs goes far behind and beyond these epochs and their years, giving it character and depth, a local habitation and a name, and expressing my purpose more richly than I ever could have imagined when I started out. Whether I accomplish this for readers, time will tell.
This brings us up to date in considering America as epic. The epic of the frontier closed a long time ago. Many have worried about what succeeds it. Let us project America overseas, some said, in imperialist conquest, or in fighting tyranny, or in improving the lives of other peoples. We have now withdrawn from the empire, though a few pieces remain. We have faced, arguably, two great tyrannies, but our will in facing even small tyrannies is not strong. We are now doubtful about our capacity to improve the lives of other peoples. The new frontier, we are told, must be education, or space, or good group relations. How often have we heard it said: How come we can reach the moon and not improve our cities or race relations? Clearly, it must be easier to reach the moon, and that does require heroes and is a subject of epic stature. I doubt whether the improving of group relations can replace the conquest of a continent as the subject of epic. Of course, we can live without an American epic. But that does diminish us, and it is easy to understand why some of Americas poets, artists, writers, and historians keep on trying to create or recreate one.
The second phase of the Bahai epic, as I said above, is at the centre of my pioneering opus. I will not dwell on that theme here and only note that a detailed expatiation and analysis of the second phase of the American epic has yet to appear in relation to the Bahá'í experience, although many strands in the warp and woof have been set out in many a Bahai book. A start has been made after nearly a century of experience in that second phase-or more than a century, if one considers 1894 as the start of the second phase. I am often at my happiest when I can recapture a moment in Bahá'í history and view it in the light of my own day
Some time in 2006 I sent an email to a woman in Tasmania, retired like myself and also in the evening of her life. This email says something of this Bahá'í epic and its second phase and I include it here as a note in this extended essay on the American and Bahai epics and an attempt to describe just where my opus-epic fits in. My email, after opening with some preliminary comments in relation to this lady's email, went on to say that: "As the curtain begins to fall in these early years of the evening of my life, on what has been an adventurous sixty years and decades of pioneering, I scramble about with cultural theorists and artists, philosophers and men and women from a variety of religious perspectives, to attempt to sum up the last half century or so of both my personal life and society’s cultural production and historical experience. It's a self-interested activity, of course, with one eye on hypothesized readers in the future who may never materialize. I stand with social critics and philosophers as the millennium turns and I gaze both backwards and forwards. I would like to exclaim, "aha! I've got it." I’d like to win a gold star and enjoy endless invitations to dinners and panels for the next 10 years--well, at least theoretically. In reality, though, I have come to experience a strong distaste for much in the social domain.
The art critic, John Ruskin, organized his past life chiefly in terms of moments of vision because he conceived himself essentially as a spectator, as one, that is, who lived chiefly by seeing. He said he felt fully alive only when engaged in the act of vision. For Ruskin, the core of his life experience was the thirst for visible fact and a standing apart from the flow of life so that he could look on. For me, as it is for all of us, the eye is the chief tool of the rational faculty, but I have often felt somewhat illiterate visually. I am not able to encompass my life so centrally around vision as Ruskin did and, although I too have been a spectator--aren’t we all---I have been much more than this. I am storyteller, recaller of events, analyst, historian, psychologist and sociologist--- writing so that those of the generations to come will not forget the four epochs of the first century of this Formative Age or, to put it more accurately, will have more insights into this period in question and their own as they gaze with retrospective eye on this dark heart of an age of transition. This is a somewhat presumptuous literary activity. But such is life, such is my life and my belief.
In conventional fiction and autobiography a narrative continuity is usually and clearly discernible. This is true here in my work, at least to some extent. But it is impossible to create an absorbing narrative, it seems to me, without at the same time enriching it with images, asides, themes and variations, impulses from within. Just as the first historian in the West, Herodotus, placed great stress on personal identity and motive over institutional factors and often halted his narrative “for tangential observations,” so is this my approach.
This emphasis on and use of the tangential is evident in much fiction: Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner are obvious examples. The narrative line has tended to weaken, merge with, and be dominated by, the sum of variations. This is also true in much autobiography. Each narrative step in a great deal of modern writing is likely to provoke many sidewinding pages before the next narrative step is taken. A lot of the power of many writers is to be found in these sidewindings. In addition, a writer’s side-glances or, as Emily Dickinson called the process, 'looking aslant on the world', are equally important. What happens in jazz when the melody merges with the improvisations and the improvisations dominate has been happening in fiction and autobiography for some time now.
This is certainly true in both my autobiography and my poetry. There is some narrative in my autobiography and there is a sense of continuity which is clear, but there are also variations, improvisations, sidewindings, side-glances and impulses from within. These variations, especially when they amount to thousands of pages, I know from experience, are too much for many readers. And who can blame them in a world of multi-media that stimulates the senses without effort; indeed, the end of effort and the triumph of sensation as one critic put it. But as in daily life, one can not connect with everyone. In the end, one must write to please oneself. It's a bit like gardening or any other pleasurable hobby.
The element of epic in this memoir may give some readers trouble connecting. I see this work as an epic in its own right and as a small part in a much bigger epic involving the origin and development of the Baha’i Faith and its community. "All historical epics," as Benjamin Friedlander notes in his analysis of Bahá’í poet Robert Hayden's epic, "are first of all affirmations of community." While there is affirmation here, my rendition of epic is more a simple preoccupation with a continuing historical tradition which I played a part of during four epochs. Like Hayden's America and his failed attempt at an epic of the Negro community, my epic rendering of community, the Bahá’í community has, partly like the problem I used to have with many algebraic variables--many ways of expressing its reality, but no one vision, one view, solution to its often enigmatic reality. I do not see my work as either failure or success but, rather, work in progress/process.
This work and my life has been captive by the fascination of those things, mixed of light and darkness, that are the passing phenomena of this spacially and temporally conditioned universe of names and forms that I have absorbed in my life. So much of it has often seemed trivial, quotidian and far, far removed from any sense of epic. The shaping force of civilization is lived experience and at the heart of this epic is just that: inner experience--mine, peculiar and private, at a particular juncture in history. Community is problematic, enigmatic and the sine qua non of this memoir. But so, too, is the individual and a fortiori, his or her inner life. I can't help but agree with the sentiments of Joseph Campbell when he says: "each individual is the centre of a mythology of his own." As Bahá'u'lláh says, we each must find for ourselves the indwelling God, the Thou at the centre of our world--and the crossover, for the Bahá’í, the cornerstone of community, is symbolized by Bahaullah or as Ian Semple puts it: "Bahaullahs first call to us is not to obey, but to use our minds...and then to believe and then to obey...the ultimate authority resides in ourselves.".
Many historians make of their work, the content of their work, an epic. Herodotus, to continue drawing on his history, makes of the Persian wars a great epic, not a theocratic or mythic history but a humanistic one. He gives us a mass of heterogeneous facts as I do. I like to see my account as all three: theocratic, mythic and humanistic with heterogeneous facts provided in something like the archaic order that Herodotus provided his factual base. Herodotus' history is an outline of the struggle between barbarism and civilization projecting this struggle back into events long after they occurred and, as he does, he renders this struggle immortal. And so is this my aim and outline. there is laborious documentation with a fondness for anecdote but not order. Perhaps my work will be seen as transitional between early Bahá'í histories and later more comprehensive ones as Herodotus work was transitional between Homer and Thucydides. The Baha’i epic is ideally suited to be the screenplay for a Cecil B. DeMille epic film, but it will be some time before the Baha’i narrative of these epochs is seen in this context of epic. My own view is that the entire history of this Faith, beginning with the lives of its two precursors going back to the 1750s, reads uncannily like a dramatic presentation of history on celluloid. But I leave that for future directors, producers and cinematographers.
The earlier senses of 'form' in previous centuries in both autobiography and poetry are not important to me. I have rejected them as irrelevant or, at best, mildly influential to what I am aiming to achieve. Perhaps, to put the issue more accurately and more simply, I have introduced my own autobiographical mix and my own prose-poetic form because it serves my purposes more usefully. I find that the literal activity of writing itself is very often my focus. This may prove difficult for some readers as it has often proved difficult for me. The fragmentary, labyrinthine storyline that I present here, like that of Baha’i history itself, might also present formidable obstacles to readers or, indeed, to any commercial screenplay or epic that might come out of this work down the road of time. But I shall be long gone before this epic is ever translated onto the big screeen or the stage--and I have no doubt.
This feeling of certitude regarding the role of this epic in the future is the result of my intellectual acceptance of the Bahá'í Faith, of Bahá'u'lláh, and His writings as a source of truth. I have organized my emotions around this assumption; this acceptance and this source of truth is no longer a mere intellectual hypothesis or assumption. It has become part of the way I live, see my life and expect things to take place. It has been the basis for my own vision of the future and, indeed, of this very epic at the centre of my writing. These ideas are the basis for my intellectual inclinations. This dependence on assumptions is an inextricable part of my make-up, of all our make-ups. The very depth of this emotional attachment to our concepts serves as a pressure to force us to keep our concepts as close as possible to reality. Another word for this process is faith. Faith is, then, not some vague and mystic thing; it is an integral part of every human being. The quality of our faith is directly proportional to the validity of our assumptions. I shall say no more on this philosophical point, a point which has more than a little importance and is borrowed by me from the wonderful work of William Hatcher who died just last year in 2006.
Perhaps if I described the barren beauty and the forbidding nature of many of the landscapes I have lived in and combined many of these descriptions with my memoir’s literary and psychological complexities it would create a greater appeal to escapist tendencies of potential readerships. If I had dwelt on the lives and characters of many of those I have come to know and carefully written pages on many a person's activities, their spirit and the measure of truth and complexity that surrounds their spiritual existence--so that they might rise sharp and clear above the sea of strangeness and enigma that encompass most of peoples lives; if this autobiography contained more passages of acute insight in that direction, then I might have created a happier home for future readers. But this I have not done, although for several years in the first decade of this attempt to define and describe my times, I did make a gallant attempt, at least gallant for me; and readers can find perhaps two dozen finely sympathetic, searching and objective voyages into the lives of my fellow believers who might have remained unknown to history. The strong disinclination of others to have their lives put into written record brought this exercise to a halt by the time the first edition of my memoirs were completed in 1993.
I am somewhat skeptical as to whether this memoir will appeal to those who have already opted for and been persuaded of their own solution to life's riddles? Once adopted, the solutions people select become hardened and adamant and they become blind to better paths, better ways of interpreting reality. The emotional reorientation necessary to assimilate the new truth is simply too great. In some ways, this is only natural.
Let me comment on a second historian who provides somewhat of a model for my writing and broaden the focus of my comments here about recreating my times. Indeed, I like to think I combine or at least aim to combine the best of Herodotus and the best of Thucydides two of the first historians in the western tradition. The reason I even refer to these first historians in the western intellectual tradition of which I have been immersed all my life, however superficially and however studiously, is that they were part of a course on Greek history which I taught in the late 1980s and early 1990s and so I became more than a little familiar with their works. I like to see this work of mine the way Thucydides did: as a possession for all time, as a piece of investigation, interpretation and analytical writing, as an account of the moral and social breakdown of society, as part of a mythic paradigm underlying this work, as one attempt to give expression to the will of God and motivation as the two factors which shape the course of history, as an attempt to give expression to the continuity and development of my time and an analysis of the fundamental illness of the age--disunity. I'm sure this will sound presumptuous to readers and I suppose it is. But again that is one of the perils of strong beliefs. They have the habit of sitting deep within the soul and occasionally making what very well may be exaggerated claims and having aims which exceed ones grasp. But, as the poet Robert Browning once said:
Ah, but a mans reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
Thucydides sought a stable centre for society and I see that stable centre as one that will evolve, in time, from the nucleus and pattern of the Baha’i Order. That is my major concern: the unification of the children of men on this planet. If, in the process, I discover great meaning and purpose for my inner man, that is a plus. But the focus, the aim, for myself and for society after living through the last century and having killed, as one estimate puts it: a billion souls--is a global community at peace. The goal, then, the aim, for me is not a quintessentially personal one, although for me that has been a spin-off. Thucydides thought an absence of romance from his work would, over time, detract from its interest and lose him the applause of the moment. There is much which will detract from my work: lack of romance, absence of a simple and provocative story line, a lack of simplicity in the style of my writing; the failure to prescribe simple recipes for the soul, its salvation and true ending.
Thucydides’ culture was shaken to its roots and he feared for its survival; such is the case with my age and my society. It was shaken to its roots before I was born in two horrific wars. And the shaking has just gone on and on. Perhaps one day I will draw some further parallels with other historians. Fifteen years ago, at the same time that I began to write poetry extensively, I began a file on the major historians of history and there is much more I could add here from their several philosophies of history. But, for the moment, this will suffice.
My poetry has its beginnings in many places and times. One of the crucial beginnings is in modern times right at the start of the Kingdom of God on Earth, from a Baha’i perspective, in 1953. Specifically, the American poet Allen Ginsberg was one such influence. He had a list of slogans that he kept over his desk back in 1954 in San Francisco. The slogans came from Ginsberg’s friend Jack Kerouac. Kerouac called them: "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." They went like this:
“Blow as deep as you want -- write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then readers cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by the same laws operating in their own minds.... Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to the laws of time with the Shakespearean stress on a dramatic need to speak in ones own unalterable way or forever hold ones tongue. Make no revisions; write outwards swimming in a sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion ... tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow! -- now! -- your way is your only way....”:
It would be nearly forty years before I was able to put these words into poetic practice, but they say much about the way I go about writing and why? The objects which occur to me at any given moment of composition, what we might call objects of recognition, can be, must be, treated exactly as they occur to my mind and my senses. Ideas, imaginations, abstractions, conceptions, preconceptions from outside this sensory apparatus, world and paradigm are, for me, introduced to enrich my sensory, my intellectual, picture. They are handled as a series of additions to a field in such a way that a series of tensions are created. These tensions are made to hold and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of my autobiography and its prose and poetry.
This content and context have forced themselves into being through me, through my writing as autobiographer and poet. This is a central aspect of anything I might say and of anything which will remain after I am gone about those things which I analyse and describe. I do not want to devote whatever limited skills and energy I possess to making the trivial and the transitory, how much more the irretrievable, into the true and the enduring or the too complex and abstruse. So much of life is trivial and transitory and quintessentially beyond words and is best left unspoken and unwritten. But I take the view that the plot, my narrative, is not that critical. If asked how important my story is I might, as Virginia Woolf did, shift and look over my right shoulder and say something like: "The plot is only there to beget emotion. Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing." I hang many of my remarks on my narrative, the way a hat is hung on a hook. The hook, like the plot serves a purpose. My memoirs move in an ambiente of intuition and analysis. With half a glance they regard myself and my fellow-mortals and describe our hidden failures. They care less for the tangible, the wrought stone, than for fleeting thought, the power of understanding or quick desire. I try to lift veil after veil to reveal what I perceive as the secret meaning of life.
In many ways readers who stay with me will find that I wander at will, forgetting and remembering, as one does really in life, moving slowly or standing still and musing while new inventions and policies, activities and developments clamor for attention inside and out of the Bahá'í community and my life. The people readers come across live in the past, in the family, in a multitude of roles overfour epochs. There is little of a sense of fun. More would have been an asset in my work. Readers who persist will find intelligence and common sense and an uncommon sensibility as well as an eccentricity of personality. No category quite contains all my work. Passages and poems are as likely to burst into philosophy as politics, or to include a quotation from Horace, Hobbes or Hamlet. There is no cataloguing this work, even the rubric autobiography is limiting.
The self-chosen place of the autobiographical mode, the point of real reference, is the act and the situation of writing, which provides a sense of coherence. Coherence can be obtained in many ways in life. But, for me, the autobiographical mode, the situation of writing and its products are an important aid, a crucial focus and medium. They provide an overarching internal coherence. The recent increase of writings in the autobiographical mode, as far back as the early 1950s and sixties, seems to represent both a reaction to the so-called crisis of the novel and a possible artistic solution to the fragmentary nature of human experience. Yet at the same time the autobiographical turn reveals the paradox inherent in this form. My autobiography reflects a desire to express and a nostalgia for stability, continuity, past experiences and their memories as well as a desire to understand the paradoxes and complexities of life and deal as best I can with life’s vacuous, empty, semblances of reality, absurdities and vanities. I’m sure for readers that my narrative will seem disjointed, even plotless; if that is so, it may be due to the fact that life often seems this way. Defining and detecting omissions, describing the reasons for what I do select, for the discontinuities and the irregularities in my autobiography, my webs of speculation thin-drawn to a type of incommunicability may be as problematic for my readers to assess as it is for readers of many a historical text. Perhaps I am in good company; perhaps I am not. Like Virginia Woolf who once wrote: "I desire always to stretch the night and fill it fuller and fuller with dreams." I stretch and fill my work to overflowing with vague and sharp memories, present sensations, with many odd bits of poetry and with my contact with life over four epochs. I neither retreat into history nor knock at the future. My years are there as something done, and something still existing.
Disproving what I say will require readers to tell different stories and to do this will reveal different assumptions, explanations and interpretations of my life and times. To change the narrative is to change the explanation. At the same time, I should not want all those who would analyse this work, to be apologists for me and/or what I say. Until 1809, the first year the word autobiography was used, a life narrative was seen as an apologia, an explanation of why a person lived the way they did, a justification more than an introspection. I think there are many problems with my account: the frequent shifts of locale make narration difficult; the extensive use of analysis often gets in the way of a good story; chopped-up narrative, analysis of questions that can’t be answered by narrative and, for readers, a situation of being faced with the reality of the limits of narratological analysis. No matter how much readers study this text there are problems they simply cannot solve: problems with the text, problems with my life, problems with my analysis. The multitude of perplexing and sometimes tormenting questions that are the salt of spiritual life may, indeed, be increased by dipping into this work. If readers are stimulated in their thinking I will be more than satisfied.
Conventional autobiographies could be regarded as the proper medium for the realistic representation of a self and for the narrative recovery of past events from the perspective of the present. Many contemporary autobiographical texts over the last half century stress the illusory nature of what could be called mythopoetic autobiographical endeavour. Due to the breakdown of a clear demarcation between reality and fiction or reality and imagination, the traditional conception of the autobiographical genre has lost its degree of certainty and truth. I see it as my task as an autobiographer and as an epic poet to convey the varying, the often unknown and the usually uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display.
And so, dear reader, I have set some of the stage, some of the backdrop, some of the framework to the epic that is the total opus of my own writing. I encourage readers to delve into my writing and explore its features. And, if this they cannot do for whatever reason, I leave my work to those mysterious dispensations of a watchful Providence and the future to weave the meaning contained in the warp and weft I have threaded therein.
I would like to concludethis outline, this commentary, on my oeuvre, as epic, with the following prose-poem inspired by the great novel of Marcel Proust
PROUST: PERISCOPES UP
In order for the French novelist Marcel Proust to seriously begin writing his famous novel In Search of Lost Time he had to create an imaginary deadline.1 So writes Christine M. Cano an associate professor of French and comparative literature at Case Western Reserve University. Proust found this seriousness, created this sense of urgency, Cano argues, by coming to see and understand his writing in the context of a race against and a defiance of time. In this way he confronted the temporality of his life, his writing, his publishing and whatever he read by producing this 3200 page novel, a novel which resists simplification and cursory analysis. In this confrontation with time Proust found the sense of urgency that he needed; he found an intensity and a build-up of meaning in relation to what he was writing. It was an urgency which lasted until the end of his life in 1922.
Proust gave a sense of fixity to the facticity of his life by the process of writing. His writing provided a context for his many selves and the precariousness he felt in living. This precariousness of life and its endless processes of change and duration was dealt with by means of the written word, Proust’s novel. Writing helped him to deal with the strong sense he had of his existence as an entity which was soon to run out. By slowly coming to perceive his life in terms of its transformation into a work of art, by recapturing it, his past moment by moment, he aimed to bring the myriad of those moments in that past life under a microscope.
He felt that he was halting time and wrestling it from the flux of change and duration. By fixing the events of his life forever in a semblance of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis, much like the work of a photographer, he created what for some readers was a romantic reminiscence in a plotless labyrinth, in a vast ediface of a life and autobiography. For other readers, Proust’s literary creation felt like a conspiracy against them, a conspiracy of words with their “clumsy centipedalian crawling of interminable sentences.”2
I, too, had had a sense of urgency from my childhood. I always seemed to be in a rush as my father pointed out to me frequently especially at dinner-time when I was gobbling-up yet another evening meal. By my mid-thirties this sense of urgency was supplemented by a death-wish, due mainly to the affects of bipolar disorder. This death-wish was especially strong just before going to bed. The effect of this combination, death-wish and sense of urgency, was to create in my mind by the early 1980s at about the age of 40, these same imaginary deadlines, this race against time, this sense of the precariousness of my present state and so propel me into thinking that these words, the ones I had written that day or any day--might just be my last. This death wish was delimited when, in 2001, I went on a new mood stabilizer in combination with an anti-depressant medication. At about this time a new energy was unleashed into my literary life, an energy that was arguably a bi-product of this new medication.
Proust warmed-up to write his great opus of some 3200 pages by nineteen years(1890-1909 circa) of writing reviews, fiction and doing translations. Having been thus prepared, he worked on his seven volume work of novelistic-nostalgia, a work acknowledged by some as the greatest piece of fiction by the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The work took him from 1909 to his death in 1922. I, too, warmed-up to the writing of my autobiography with at least nineteen years of literary plodding(1983-2002 circa). By the literary recreation of my life, by the transformation of the transformation that had been my life, by the immersion of myself in memories of what was lost and what was gained in the process of living my life over more than six decades, I slowly came to see my lifetime as the only adequate unit in which to express in writing my succession of selves. I slowly acquired an irresistible autobiographical impulse; it took possession of me by degrees throughout the 1980s and 1990s and, by 2002, this impulse showed no sign of diminishing. Seven years later in 2009 at the age of 65 it had captured my life. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 4 January 2009 with thanks to 1Christine Cano, Proust’s Deadline, University of Illinios Press, 2006 and 2Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust: Chapter 1, Penguin.
I can hear them say: life is too short
and Price is too long. And who can
blame them? Millions of words and
more pages than I would even want
to try and count any more. There are
two kinds of writer-poets which I try,
quite unconsciously, to combine---or
so it seems to me, thanks to Aciman’s
review of Proust in that fine journal:
The New York Review of Books....1
The swallow’s quick, agile, speedy
travel across long, tireless stretches
of the world, taking that world in in
the ways whales gulp down plankton;
with mistakes easily corrected, bad
times put to good use, judgements
which are unwise just tweaked here
and there in some implacable line of
words where the only pieces that are
thrown away are printer-problems or
are items lost in cyberspace due to a
pressing of those little wrong keys.....
The snail’s slow, deliberate and fussy,
cramped and burrowing self, ingesting
choice bits down some multichambered
spiral and with an appetite for a whorled,
eternally whorled, vision. This snail, too,
was my second writer-poet-persona-anima.
I took this swallow and this snail into my
bunker, announced to the world my with-
drawal and retreat, sealed myself as far as
it was possible in my study and periscopes
up proceeded to yield again and again to my
demon, to my thought and to write on every
thing that struck my fancy to the point of an
exhaustion, producing as I went, carnivorous
vines that devoured its owner and led out to all
the corners of the earth’s world-wide cyberweb.
I yielded to a dense tropical growth within me;
I had a chart and a course; there was nothing in
it—tragic or reluctant—this quasi-abdication—
this focus on a single point’s--effective force;
for my work embodied a vision of a persona
which was not the same as the one I displayed
in quotidian reality. Writing was the product
of a work in progress, a discovery-creation,
where multiple desires-motivations converged
on my actions and inactions, impeding or, yes,
stimulating their execution, lending some type
of overdetermined quality to highly descriptive
and overwhelming attribution. But, still, this
work was not some excrescence of some sort
of psychological case-history, at least not yet.2
1 Andre Aciman, “Proust’s Way?” The New York Review of Books, Vol.52, No. 19, 1 December, 2005.
2 Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust: Chapter 1, Penguin.
5 January 2009