In 1953 Shoghi Effendi outlined a ten stage sequence or framework for the study of contemporary history from a Baha'i perspective. In this framework the 10th, and final stage, began in 1963. All of my pioneering life has taken place in this stage.
The focus for the poetry and prose found in this document is on the first half century of this tenth and final stage of history(1963-2015)beginning, as that stage did, with the world's first global and democratic election. The Universal House of Justice, the trustee of the global undertaking set in motion by events over a century ago, and associated with the life of Baha'u'llah, has been at the centre of my life since 1963 when I was 19.
The Universal House of Justice, with its seat in Haifa Israel, represents another institutional stage in the fully legitimate institutionalization, routinization as the sociologist Max Weber might have put it, of Baha'u'llah's charismatic Force. My poetry and prose in this document deals with aspects of the first fifty-two years since this apex of Bahai Administration was put in place, and since this 10th stage of history has begun to unravel decade by decade from 1963 to 2015.
In many ways my life goal has been to serve as a precisioned instrument for this trustee of the global undertaking outlined in the massive corpus of Baha'u'llah's writings: 1852-1892. These early decades, the first half century, of this 10th stage of history, as well as the 9th stage(1953-1963) during which I was first associated with this Faith, can also be seen as part of a prelude to an eventual mass conversation to the Baha'i Faith.
Often not very precisioned an instrument, this pioneer tells his story, his Faith's story and his society's story--only part of these now massive and complex stories. The subject matter here, part of a large poetic opus-epic, I dedicate to that trustee. I trust I offer, too, a perspective on the feeling of confidence with which Baha'is the world over contemplate the future of our planet and our race in spite of the many calamities of our time.
The 10th Stage of History: The First 50 Years: 1963-2013:
Pioneering Over Four Epochs, Section VIII Poetry
published in Pioneering Over Four Epochs: An Autobiographical Study and a Study in Autobiography
, Section VIII: Poetry
I would like to open this document with some of the prefaces to my autobiography dedicated,as my autobiography is, to that institutional "trustee of the global undertaking which the events of a century ago set in motion."(1) -Ron Price with thanks to the Bahai International Community Office of Public Information, Bahá'u'lláh, Preface,1992. My autobiography, or memoir, also sets my poetry in a larger perspective, a perspective that is my life, my religion and my society, a global, a planetary, society.
PIONEERING OVER FOUR EPOCHS
A STUDY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND A STUDY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
This work, in its now several volumes, is dedicated to the Universal House of Justice in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its first election in April 1963, and to Alfred J. Cornfield, my maternal grandfather, whose autobiography written in the opening years of the first century of the Formative Age of the Bahá'í community was an inspiration to the one found here.
PREFACE TO THIS SEVENTH EDITION:
A 2600 page, five volume narrative, a 300 page study of the poetry of Roger White, the major Bahai poet of that half-century; over 7000 prose-poems, 150 pages of personal interviews, more than 400 essays and 5000 letters, emails and interent posts; 300 notebooks, six volumes of diaries/journals, 12 volumes of photographs and memorabilia, a dozen attempts at a novel, indeed, an epic-opus of material has been integrated into an analysis of my religion, my times and my life. This variety of genres aims at embellishing and deepening the understanding of my own experience and that of readers. Only a very small portion of this epic work is found here, a portion that readers can dip into anywhere.
This is the autobiography of an ordinary Bahai, perhaps the most extensive one to date. This epic-opus illustrates what hardly needs illustrating these days, namely, that you dont have to be a celebrity or a person of some fame or renown to have a biography or autobiography. This literary genre is now so popular that men and women of little interest and significance feel impelled to record their life-stories. In the wide-wide world my life is clearly is this category. The Bahá'í Faith provides, it seems to me, a nice balance between the importance of community and the necessity for that community not to stifle the voice of its members. This is not an easy balance to strike but, in the decades ahead, the world will find that this Faith is one of the organizations, perhaps the critical one, which provides the mix of freedom and authority, unity and diversity, without which planetary survival will be difficult if not impossible.
The question we face when considering principles for effective organization and administration on this planet is how to enhance personal creativity and freedom within the context of social interdependence. I hope this autobiography contributes a small part to the free expression which lies at the basis of achieving creative and unified solutions. It is not only the right but the sacred obligation of Bahais to express freely and openly their views. In this work I exercise both my rights and my obligations.
The autobiographies and the biographies in the Bahai community that have come into Bahai bookshops since the Kingdom of God had its inception in 1953 with the completion of the Bahai temple in Chicago are, for the most part, about individuals of some significance in the Bahai system of social status or stratification like Hands of the Cause Ali-Akbar Furutan, George Townshend and Martha Root. Extant autobiographies and biographies have been written about or by individuals with some special, publicly recognized, talent or experience like: Andre Brugiroux who hitch-hiked around the planet; Dizzy Gillespie or Marvin Holladay both of whom had a special musical talent and fame; Louis Bourgeois or Roger White, men of great artistic or literary talent; Angus Cowan or Marion Jack two of the 20th century's great Bahá'í teachers.
There are now hundreds of short & often moving biographical & autobiographical pieces by or about quite ordinary people with simple stories of their lives and their often significant contributions to the work of this Cause. Such accounts can be found in the many volumes of Bahai World and other books. Claire Vreelands And the Trees Clapped Their Hands is a good example of such other books. If, as Shakespeare suggests in his play Hamlet, “bevity is the soul of wit,” there is a potential for much wit in much Baha’i biography. Sadly there may be little here in this work if one follows the same reasoning. But if, as Walter Pater emphasizes in his essay on style, the greatness of a work lies in its content, perhaps there is hope for this work. Like the poet-writer Jorge Luis Borges, I like to think of myself as unusually liberal in my insistence that every reader must have his own autonomy: "I think the reader should enrich what he's reading. He should misunderstand the text: he should feel free to change somebody else's original gift into something else." Life is full of contradictions and misunderstandings, conflicting views and paradoxes. I am sure that this now lengthy work contributes its fair share.
I like to think that whatever quality of writing is found here is a gift and can't be duplicated, and the study of it may help to make others more careful guardians of their own gifts. The Australian essayist Clive James makes this point at his new website. And even if a reader has no plans to be a writer himself, there is always an extra fascination in watching a craftsman at work. Writing in any form is never just the style, but it isn't just the subject matter either. Hopefully what I write here can help others to deepen their own feelings and thoughts, help them express those feelings and thoughts more clearly, understand them more fully and adapt them to their own lives. There is a drama in writing a book of any sort. The famous American essayist Joseph Epstein expressed the view that to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that it would have been better if one had worked instead at bricklaying. While I find this to be true, I also experience much pleasure and intense satisfaction at the other end of the emotional and intellectual continuum.
Here is one of the first extensive autobiographies about one of these quite ordinary Bahais, without fame, rank, celebrity status or an especially acknowledged talent, who undertook work he often felt unqualified or incompetent to achieve, with his sins of omission and commission, but with achievements which, he emphasizes, were all gifts from God in mysterious & only partly understandable ways, ways alluded to again and again in the Bahai writings. They were achievements that arose, such is his view, due to his association with this new Revelation and its light and were not about name, fame or renown, although some of these now tarnished terms play subtly and not-so-subtly on the edges of many a life in our media age. These achievements and their significance are sometimes termed: success, victory, service, enterprize, sacrifice, transformation, all words with many implications for both the individual and society.
This story, this narrative, is unquestionably one of transformation: of a community, a Cause and a life that has taken place in a time of auspicious beginnings for both humankind and the Bahai community, at one of history's great climacterics. The concept of this oeuvre, this prose and poetry, as epic, took shape from 1997 to 2007 after more than 50 years of my 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 the ten years, my final years of full-time teaching in a technical college in Australia and the first years of early retirement, this concept of his work as epic began and was first developed.
By 2013 I had been writing seriously for at least 50 years and writing a great deal of poetry for, perhaps, 25. The concept of this written opus as epic gradually crystallized after more than 40 years of my association with and involvement in the Bahai Cause between the two Holy Years 1952/3 and 1992/3 of the Formative Age and at a time when the projects on Mt. Carmel and the garden terraces on that Hill of God were being completed. With the increasing elaboration, definition and development of the structure and concept, the notion and framework, of this entire collected work as epic has come a conceptual home of reflection, memory, imagination, action and vision which readers will find described, albeit briefly, in this abridged, this truncated, edition and document at Bahai Library Online.
No intelligent writer knows if he is any good, wrote T.S. Eliot; he must live with the possibility, the theoretical uncertainty, that his entire work has all been a waste of time. This provocative idea of Eliot’s, I believe, has some truth. But whether for good or ill--write I must. One of the results of this epic work is another provocative idea which I like to think also has some truth; namely, that my work was a part of the new patterns of thought, action, integration and the gathering momentum of Bahai scholarly activity indeed, the change in culture evidenced in the Four Year Plan(1996-2000), that befitting crescendo to the achievements of the 20th century; that my epic work was a part, too, of that very beginning of the process of community building, a new culture of learning and growth, and, finally, a part of those traces which Abdul-Baha said shall last forever.
To approach this epic, or even a truncated edition of my 2600 page narrative, in three Parts at Bahai Library Online---and read it--certainly requires an effort on the part of a hopeful internet user, scanning the web as millions are now doing. I like to think that such an effort will be rewarded, that such an exercise on the part of the reader, will be worthwhile. Of course, as a writer, I know that I can make no such guarantee. Readers, all readers, take pot-luck, and hope that the time they have devoted to this batch of words will be a pay-off, so to speak.
Some writers are read most widely for their fiction; there is often a closeness for them of the two worlds, reality and invention. Fiction for these same writers often represents a mere short step from their essays or their poetry. A similar sensibility often pervades all their work in whatever genre. I do not write of reality and invention, at least not consciously. Fiction does not inhabit my several genres, although I like to think there is a common sensibility across all my writing—but I’m not so sure. I leave such an analysis, such a statement, to readers, readers with the interest. This is no Facebook exercise and, it is my considered view, that few will stay with this work beyond a few pages. Still, I have written this work largely to please myself, to get rid of some itch, to give vent to some inner demons, some inner force, some inner passion. If readers find they are being rewarded as they read, that is a bonus. I've always liked bonuses.
The American poet William Carlos William’s used the term 'locality' or 'ground' and expressed his agreement with Edgar Allen Poe that this locality or ground was to be acquired by the “whole insistence in the act of writing upon its method in opposition to some nameless rapture over nature. . . with a gross rural sap; he wanted a lean style, rapid as a hunter and with an aim as sure — Find the ground, on your feet or on your belly. . . . He counsels writers to borrow nothing from the scene but to put all the weight of the effort into the WRITING.” For me, for my written expression, this locality or ground in either my verse or my prose was not easily attained. The evolution of my oeuvre since the 1950s and 1960s, and its present style here in this now lengthy autobiography entitled "Pioneering Over Five Epochs" reveals my long struggle to capture the complex interrelationships between self, society and the sacred.
The time is ripe to articulate questions about the complex interdependence of internationalism, nationalism and locality and the critical need for a basis for communitas communitatum and to infuse literature and social analysis with a relevant vocabulary. After several thousand years in which the world has been the private preserve of a small leisured class, something that can truly be called humanity is being born and a world society fit for human beings to live in. The process is both slow and fast, both very encouraging and highly chaotic, at least for this writer.
Like many writers and thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs, in these epochs of my life, I have found that there is a world towards which I can direct my loyalty and whatever skills, by some unmerited grace, with which I have been endowed. Many never find that world, never find some commitment into which they can throw their heart and soul. They have to settle for: self, family, some local set of isssues, perhaps a political party or a cause like: the environment, whales, seals, a personal career, sex, fun and partying, indeed, the list is virtually endless. These commitments around which millions and billions sketch the meaning of their lives over the terra incognita of existence, around which the creative imagination with which each of these human beings is endowed, attempts to produce a reality that is consistent with that commitment, with the facts that each individual sees around them. And I do the same. This autobiography is a sketch of that commitment, that reality, that imagination and its set of facts.
I am not concerned by the degree of exposure that is necessitated by autobiographical writing; I do not feel the need to provide a thin shield of anonymity over my life by using pseudonyms rather than real names, by using fictionalized autobiography or some form of story to hide behind. There is a shield here, but it is not the shield of anonymity; rather it is the shield that results from only a moderate confessionalism in my writing of these memoirs. I do not tell it all. It should be said, though, that even though this series of five volumes has now evolved over nearly 30 years, it is still only a preliminary work. Like the first Seven Year Plan(1937-1944), this 2600 page work with the many additional accretions of millions of words of poetry and prose, is a preliminary task to use the sober and soft term
that Shoghi Effendi used to introduce that first Plan of the North American Bahá'í community, a Plan during which I was born.
It is, I like to think, the main drama of my life, and of this work, "how I reacted to this new Faith with my whole soul and how my soul became richer because of it." There is more than enough opinionated reflection and generous regret to make the narrative useful in its scope to the generations who are and will be new to this Faith, as well as those who have imbibed its teachings for many a year: the veterans and the novices. Still, I have only just sketched the story in 2600 pages and, as I say, their associated genre accretions. I’m gradually putting in the full story of my developing response to this Faith in these closing years of the first century of its Formative Age. But, however this work is written, when all is said and done, and I’m gathering rose-buds as I might in the hereafter, it will not be a stand-alone masterpiece. This work is far too long for those who come upon it, at least those of the X,Y and Z generations. Frankly, I don’t think many will even get past these several prefaces. But perhaps I am too modest. Anyway, I'm thinking: posterity, as the famous entre deux guerres poet W.H. Auden thought was the domain of any serious writer worth his salt.
The Bahá'í community has been colonizing the earth, arguably, since 1894, arguably again since 1919 and without doubt since 1937. Many of the 200 odd countries and territories have long been sufficiently in flower to spread their spiritual pollen on the pioneering-wind. There were always the loyal and dutiful, the sacrificial and the escapists, the theatrical types and the artistic, and then, after World War II in 1946, 1953 and 1963, came a succession of Plans that spiritually conquered the planet, little did anyone know. Quite apart from the incredible letters of Shoghi Effendi, now ensconsed in a series, indeed a shelf, of books that it would take a long paragraph simply to enumerate and quite apart from the architectural splendour that was popping up in rare sites all over the planet, the Bahá'í Faith had, by the time my pioneering life began in 1962, discovered “a most wonderful and thrilling motion,” that in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was “permeating all parts of the world.” This autobiography is but one part of that grand motion, one part of that immense permeation.
PREFACE TO THE SIXTH EDITION
On 2 February 1983, upon the occasion of the occupation of the magnificent edifice on Mt. Carmel, The Seat of the Universal House of Justice, in close proximity to the resting places of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, the Universal House of Justice cabled the followers of Bahá’u’lláh in every land as follows:
“THIS AUSPICIOUS EVENT SIGNALIZES ANOTHER PHASE IN PROCESS FULFILMENT SAILING GOD’S ARK ON MOUNTAIN OF THE LORD AS ANTICIPATED IN TABLET CARMEL, WONDROUS CHARTER WORLD SPIRITUAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRES FAITH BAHÁ’U’LLÁH.”
At the time I was living in Katherine in Australia’s Northern Territory and working as an adult educator. It was mid-summer. I found the heat oppressive and sought the comfort of air-conditioning whenever I could. The Universal House of Justice was in its twenty-first year at the apex of Bahai Administration. On 19 January 1984, less than a year later, I wrote the first entry in my journal, a journal that is now in its thirtieth year of having entries. Back in 1984 I had just received a copy of my maternal grandfather’s autobiography from a cousin in Canada: my mother's sister's second son, David Hunter. That autobiography was not the record of my grandfather's entire life, just the part of it from his birth in England in 1872 to his marriage in 1901 in Hamilton Canada. By the time I made that first journal entry I had browsed through, but not read, this one-hundred thousand word 400 page double-spaced narrative written “about 1921-1923,” by an autodidact, a self-educated man, when he was in his early fifties. As 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 write this first preface to the sixth edition of my autobiography or, more properly, this epic literary work, on 21 September 2007, it is my hope that this epic work of mine will also "arouse interest."
I had no idea when I made that first diary entry in January 1984 that this literary beginning would become, as I write these words, by insensible and sensible degrees, a five volume journal, a narrative of 2600 pages, a body of more than 7000 prose-poems, a collection of 5000 letters, emails and posts on the internet and; finally, in this sixth edition, a work that meems appropriate to refer to as an epic. I remember reading how both Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon 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. Sixteen years ago in 1997 I began to think of writing an epic poem and so fashioned some ten pages as a beginning. My total poetic output by September 2000 I began to envisage in terms of an epic. The sheer size of my epic work makes a comparison and contrast with the poetic opus of Ezra Pound and, indeed, other epic works, a useful one. But I shall confine my comparisons and contrasts to two poets of our modern age: Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman.
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 I had come to define as epic, firstly in retrospect by September 2000. I gradually came to see my individual poetic pieces as part of one immense epic opus both in retrospect 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 envisage 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(1992-1997) of an intense poetic production. At that point, in 1997, this epic covered a pioneering life of 35 years, a Baha’i life of 38 years and an additional 5 years when my association with the Baha’i Faith began while it was seen more as a Movement in the public eye than a world religion. In December 1999, several months after I retired from a 50 year student-working life(1949-1999), 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 until 30 December 2000.
As I say above, I had begun to see all of my poetry somewhat like Pound saw his Cantos, a work in which he would draw on a massive body of print or Analects, a word which means literary gleanings. 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 a great mass of literary gleanings, quotations, comments, allusions and references. So is this true of the great mass of my poetry. The conceptualization of my poetry as epic, though, came long after its beginnings, beginnings as far back as 1980 or, possibly, 1962 at the very start of my pioneering life.
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 forty-five years in the realms of belief, 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 of a religion which claims to be the latest, the newest, of the world's Abrahamic religions, 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. I have called this 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 poetry, this epic, has to do with heroism and deeds in battle of contemporary and historical significance & 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 last years of the first, and the first half-century of 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 the inner life as much, if not more, than in the 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 fifty years of pioneering:1962-2013 and sixty years of association and involvement with this Cause. But more importantly, the part I play, the mark I leave, is as an individual thread in the warp and weft that is the fabric and texture of the Baha’i community in its role as a society-building power.
Indeed, 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. The last year of my teen age life was about to begin back then. More importantly, though, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel regarding “that blissful consummation” when “the Divine Light shall flood the world from the East to the West” also took place.
The magnitude of the ruin, the catalogue of horrors unknown in any previous age, the most turbulent period in history has been occupied, I believe, by the lifetimes of my parents and myself. The changes that have been precipitated are, for the most part, little understood by the present generation. During this same period, the Bahá'í Cause emerged from obscurity and demonstrated its unifying power. This 2600 page memoir reviews, among other things, these processes of change and this emergence from obscurity. But this is not the prime focus of my memoirs. For these changes and this emergence are surveyed in detail in a host of books that I have no need to document and list here. The focus in this lengthy work is, as one can appreciate since this work is "my memoirs," my life and the background to it in my society and my religion. I see my work, my memoirs, as part of a larger literary work which in total I entitle "Pioneering Over Five Epochs." I see it as a part of a long epic tradition.
In the Greek tradition 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 furnishes “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’ brings “the Supreme Concourse to the door of life” and “opens the heavens of mysteries, colours and riddles of life.” So, I have read in some unauthenticated passage. Much more could be said about inspiration from a Baha’i perspective, but this is sufficient for now in this brief description of the origins and purpose of this my poetic oeuvre.
Mary Gibson emphasizes, in her study of Ezra Pound’s epic entitled "Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians," that one question was at the centre of Pound's '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 in the same years that Bahá'í Administration, the precursor of a future World Order, was coming to assume its earliest form in the last years of the second decade of this century and the early years of the third, a form that was slowly coming to manifest those qualities Pound strove in vain to find in a modern politico-philosophy. The wider world did not yet see these qualities in the as yet early phases of the development of this new System. But in my mind and heart, and certainly in my poetry, I found these qualities and gave them expression. I do not address an unusually cultivated class as Pound did leaving most readers feeling they were faced with a terminus of incoherent arrogance; 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 was that of a voyageur who was not sure where his work would end up.
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 disciples and detractors. And I may never have; I am certainly not on the lookout for such enthusiasts or critics. 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. The reactions of many, I'm sure, will range from lavish enthusiasm to outright indifference and acute criticism if the feedback I have had in the last 60 years of my writing is any indication. If Pound’s was a “plotless epic 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 Dante’s Commedia six centuries before. 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,a metaphorical interpretation of physical reality or, to put it simply, my view of the Baha’i myth. At the heart, the centre, of my own epic, then, is a sense of visionary certitude, derived from my belief:(i) in this embryonic World Order of Baha’u’llah, and (ii) that a cultural and political coherence will increase in the coming decades and centuries around the sinews of this effloresing Order. My work is serious but not solemn and, like 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 either, I hasten to add. As I indicate above, though, I have strong convictions about my work. But they are convictions tempered with a lifetime of expectations which came to naught, and other expectations that were fulfilled beyond my wildest hopes.
The poet Wallace Stevens’ expressed his sense of the epic “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. I am involved in the act of creating a 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 are part and parcel of my beliefs and what occupies the knowledge base of the Baha’i Faith which I have been assoicated with now since 1953. 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 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. In many respects, both my long poem and the thousands of shorter poems are purely speculative philosophy, literary playfulness and autobiographical description that I try to integrate into Baha’i and secular history in a great many ways. I attempt as I go along to affirm a wholeness within what I refer to as “a noetic integrator,” a concept I utilize in this long, complex and fragmented world in which I have lived my life and where a tempest seems to have been blowing across its several continents and its billions of inhabitantswith an incredible force for decades, for over a century.
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 has been one that has grown so slowly; the groups I have worked in and with have been small. My style, my poetic design, though, is like Pound’s insofar 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. In some ways these events don’t need reclaiming for the major and minor events of our time 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. But 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.
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. His 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 insofar 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 the decade before those halcyon, if bloody, years of the French Revolution. But there is much more than verse-making here. I have no hesitation in making what Donald Kuspit calls “identitarian claims” for my poetry. 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. They seem to have wrapped and filled my being over my pioneering life over these last 45 years. Indeed, I have seen 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.
It 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, 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.
In the years since this epic was first formulated, that is since the period 1997 to 2000, I have been working on my prose narrative Pioneering Over Five Epochs. In the last seven years, September 2000 to September 2007, this narrative has come to assume its own epic proportions. It is now 2600 pages in length and occupies five volumes. It is an extension of the epic that I have described above and which had its first form from September 1997 to September 2000. After ten years, then, from 1997 to 2007, my epic has extended into the 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 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 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 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. I write of that foul rag and bone shop, as the poet 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.
An additional part of this epic is an epistolary narrative written over fifty years, 1963 to 2013. This epistolary work is driven by this same belief system acquired 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. This collection of letters and its many sub-categories is part of my effort to compensate for the tendency of my fellow Baha’is throughout the history of their 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, though, nor did I think of my epistolary work as compensation as I went along. This view I have come to gradually in a retrospective sense. 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, 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.
At the present time there are some 50 volumes of letters, emails and internet posts under ten major divisions of my epistolary collection. Division III contains my contacts with sites on the internet and there are some 25 volumes of site contacts at: site homepages, forums, discussion boards and blogs with their postings and replies, inter alia. This collection of letters, emails and posts on the internet, posts largely made since 2001 and the official opening of the Arc Project in May 2001, are also a part of this massive, this burgeoning epic. I have written an introduction to this collection 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. After some 16 years since the 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 will soon head into the second century of its Formative Age.
29 July 2013
PREFACE TO THE FIFTH EDITION
The first hard copy of this work was made in early April 2004, six months after creating a fourth edition. 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. Anyone wanting to read this fixed edition will find it there. It is this edition, the fifth, that is the base from which additions, deletions and corrections have been made in the months and years since then. The latest changes were made on October 11th 2005, with some six months left in the Baha’i community’s current Five Year Plan: 2001-2006. This edition now comes to over 1000 pages in the form of five volumes with more than 2000 references. Such a number of references are enough to turn off anyone but the most zealous reader. Readers of the Internet edition may come across one of several of these editions since I frequently make changes to the content. This is one of the advantages and disadvantages of the internet.
I originally thought that this fifth edition would be the final one of this autobiographical work. The Baha’i Academic Resources Library and Morfik.XS.com, a website design company, both have variations of this edition at their site, although this latter site will not be online until 2006, at least so I presently think. At this stage in the evolution of this book, though, I could benefit from the assistance of one Rob Cowley, affectionately known in publishing circles back in the seventies and early eighties --as “the Boston slasher.” Guy Murchie regarded his work as “constructive and deeply sensitive editing.” If he could amputate several hundred pages of this work with minimal agony to my emotional equipment I’m sure readers would be the beneficiaries. But alas, I think Bob is dead and I have not found an editor or even a copy-and proofreader willing to wade through my labyrinthine chapters and pages, smooth it all out and excise undesireable elements.
John Kenneth Galbraith’s also had some helpful comments for writers like myself. Galbraith’s first editor Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, was an ace at helping a writer avoid excess. Galbraith saw this capacity to be succinct as a basic part of good writing. Galbraith also emphasized the music of the words and the need to go through many drafts. I’ve been working my way through endless drafts. I’ve lost count, but I’m not sure if in the process I have avoided excess. In some ways I have found that the more drafts I do, the more I had to say. So I have Galbraith watching over my shoulder and his mentor, Henry Luce. Galbraith is now in a nursing home but his spirit will live on, I’m sure. Spontaneity did begin to come into my work at perhaps my sixth or seventh draft. Galbraith says that artificiality enters the text because of this. I think he is right; part of it, perhaps, is the very artificiality that one senses in life itself.
I avoid humour. This is a delicate matter and in a country like Australia perhaps an unwise policy. But readers won’t find much to laugh at here. In some ways I don’t mind either the absence of humour or the presence of excess, if excess it be, because I have grown fond of my sentences and paragraphs, however voluminous they may be for the reading public. I have also grown fonder of life after years of having to suffer ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ As far as laughs are concerned, I have made much ‘ha ha,’ as Voltaire called it, in the public domain in these last six decades, especially since coming to Australia in 1971. A goodly portion of my life has been light and cheery and I’m confident it will stay that way, barring calamity or trauma, until my last breath. I hope some readers will enjoy this narrative in all its excess, its voluminosity and its serious note and tone.
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 these pages in five volumes they may apply their critical faculty as a conoisseur 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 the essential of popular, of good, 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. The writer can always hope.
I am confident that the standard of public discussion and literary criticism will, as the decades and centuries go by, significantly, profoundly improve. The capacity to entertain and be clever will not occupy such an important place in the literary landscape in the centuries ahead, I tend to think. Still, I like to think readers will find here a song of intellectual gladness and, if not a song, then at least a few brief melodies. I would also like it if this work possessed an unwearying tribute to the muse of comedy that instills the life and work of, say, Clive James. Alas, that talent is not mine to place before readers. They will be lucky to get a modicum of laughs in the 1000 pages that are here.I confidently leave this work in the hands of posterity & the mysterious dispensations of a watchful Providence. Perchance editors and readers will be found down the roads of the future. The determining factors of fate and freedom leave much to be decided on those roads.
I like to think that this autobiographical work may incline readers to re-examine their received ideas on this 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 balance. May this work be used as a sort of scaffolding 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. I’d also like to intellectually challenge the reader not just provide a story to satisfy human curiosity. Any pleasure this work provides, any influence it achieves, I like to think derives from its artistry and truth. There is nothing wrong with lofty aims. We do not always achieve our goals.
Readers will find here a conceptual density that gives pleasure& instruction. Those who enjoy philosophical argument may enjoy this book 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 from a particular perspective, an autobiographical one, it is one way of understanding the present. 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. Of course, this can only be done in part.
There is also a similarity in my writing to the works of various artists in the last century. Picasso's revolutionary paintings, T.S. Eliot's verse with its strange juxtapositions and odd perspectives, Igor Stravinsky’s music clashing sounds. Readers may find that their conventional reactions to literary works may require that they confine this work to the dustbin of autobiographical history. Their desire for an orderly impulse, a simple narrative sequence may produce an initial discomfort due to their perception of disorder.
The most recent additions to this edition were made in early June 2005 four years after the last edition of my website was first made public with autobiographical material on it. This new edition of my website is a more user-friendly model, a twenty-first century edition. I want to thank the Morfik.XS team for their work in up-dating my old site. I have had a webpage for eight years, but what readers will find here is a site, a piece of writing, an autobiography, in a much more readable format.
As I was making a recent addition to this autobiographical work, I came across the words of Paul Johnson. "Balanced, well-adjusted, stable and secure people,” he wrote, “do not, on the whole, make good writers or good journalists. To illustrate the point, you have only to think of a few of those who have been both good writers and good journalists: Swift, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Dickens, Marx, Hemingway, Camus, Waugh and Mark Twain--just to begin with." All these men had great personal struggles, instabilities and battles that, arguably, help to give their writing the quality it possessed.
I’m not sure if I deserve to be ranked with this group of famous men, however much I might like the idea. But neither am I sure if I could describe myself as balanced, well-adjusted, stable and secure. I leave both of these evaluations to my readers, most of who will never know me personally. Future biographers, too, should there ever be any, may well find their path one of perplexity. But whatever their answers, it is my hope that they enjoy the process of trying to resolve the questions. All they will have are words on paper, all that any writer leaves behind. And, as I get older, there is coming to be so much of it.
This work is partly an account of my stabilities and instabilities, balances and imbalances; as poet, writer and autobiographer, I must go into myself. It is not a lonely region, but a place where I may find fresh vigour and nourish my disposition to repose. I also have a certain preoccupation with personal relationships, intensity, manic-depressive illness and movement from place to place, living as I have in over two dozen towns from Baffin Island to Tasmania. It’s all part of my particular expression of a process which Baha’is call pioneering and which readers will get much exposure to in this narrative.
April 11th 2005
PREFACE TO THE FOURTH EDITION
After completing the third edition of this work on July 9th 2003, in commemoration of the 153rd anniversary of the martyrdom of the Bab, I continued to polish and to alter its basic structure and format. By the celebration of the anniversary of the Birth of Bahá'u'lláh on November 12th 2003 it seemed timely to bring out this fourth edition, due to the many changes I had made. The second edition had been essentially the same as the first which I had completed ten years before in 1993, although I added a series of appendices and notebooks that contained a substantial body of resources that I could draw on. These resources had become available on the nature of the autobiographical process and on life-writing. The social sciences and humanities material which became available in cyberspace also began to contain essays on the various themes I wanted to pursue in my work. And I did just that. I engaged in extensive amounts of reading in writing the third edition.
In 2003 I wrote what was essentially a new autobiography of over 700 pages with over 1300 footnotes. In this fourth edition of some 350,000 words I have divided the text into five volumes that are now found online at several journal/diary sites and some Baha’i sites. The Bahá'í Academics Resource Library located on the internet at bahai-library.com has the fullest version. It has taken me nearly twenty years to satisfy my autobiographical and literary self after years of finding my autobiographical writing somewhat dreary. I’d like to think I offer some enlightenment in these pages now after 20 years of practice. But to attempt to enlighten anyone these days rings of a certain pretentiousness, and so I make this last comment with some caution. I know that the artist Andy Warhol expressed the feelings of many people in these days of electronic media when he said that ‘words are for nerds.’I am not anticipating a great rush to this text.Words are a poor resource for capturing complexity, as Leonardo da Vinci once said, but they are our chief tools for such a capture.
When a substantial, a sufficient, number of changes, additions and deletions have been made to this edition I'll bring out a fifth edition. This exercise will depend, of course, on being granted sufficient years before "the fixed hour" is upon me and it becomes my "turn to soar away into the invisible realm." Readers will find here augmentations of the third edition rather than revisions or corrections, in a very similar way to those that, Michel Montaigne, the first essayist in the western intellectual tradition said he did with the editions of his Essays. Readers will also find in this work an application of what I call the Reverse Iceberg Principle: 10% cold hard facts on the surface and 90% analysis, interpretation, imagination.
This edition represents a reconciliation of a certain zestful readiness of my imaginative life with the challenging demands of the world of teaching, parenting, marriage, Bahá'í community activity and various social responsibilities. It is a reconciliation that could not have occurred, though, had the demands of job, community and family not been significantly cut back to a minimum. The swings in my bi-polar cycle and the practical demands of life ennervated and depleted whatever energies I could have poured into writing this autobiography for a long time. But after my retirement from the teaching profession nearly five years ago and after the final stage of the treatment of my bi-polar disorder during these same years, a whole new energy system unfolded, productive tensions between self-creation and communal participation, enabling me to put together these seven hundred pages in the course of one year. I feel a little like that towering literary giant of my time Doris Lessing who, in a recent interview, said: “all kinds of circumstances have kept me pretty tightly circumscribed. What I've done is write. I used to have a very great deal of energy, which, alas, seems to have leaked away out of my toes somewhere.” I certainly don’t have the energy I used to have when employed full-time, but God has granted a good deal to emerge from between my toes.
Lessing also wrote in her 1994 work Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography--To 1949: “Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path. Had I written this when I was thirty, it would have been a pretty combative document. In my forties, a wail of despair and guilt: oh my God, how could I have done this or that? Now I look back at that child, that girl, that young woman, with a much more detached curiosity. Besides the landscape itself is a tricky thing. As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember in every detail a whole week, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don't?”
I hope I have not just built an autobiographical skyscraper to adorn the literary skyline. I hope that at least a few readers will take an elevator up to my many floors and check out some of the multitude of offices hidden away. After travelling up and up at the press of a button, readers will find some useful resources for their everyday lives, at least for the life of their minds. As one of the 'writingest pioneers,' I hope I provide some pleasureable moments to anyone brave enough to take on the 850 pages here. The kind of pleasure I am talking about is the fine delight that follows the fluid matrix of thought, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once put it.
I was able at last to satisfy the autobiographical impulse. And the impulse led me on many paths but only one direction--deeper. This book became, in a way, the crystallization of a way I wanted to write. Out of the privacy of my thought and writing I was able to make more and more and more of my life; it was a 'more' that was on the social dimension of life, but as my life had been hitherto for virtually all of my pioneering experience. It was, though, a 'coaxing of a context' out of my experience and the history of my times and of my religion. The result is the edition you read here completed several months before my sixtieth birthday. I offer this edition of my work in celebration of the birth of that Holy Tree near day-break 186 years ago this morning.
I do not try to fix this autobiography into a single frame; I do not try to write my own story with a sense of closure and definitiveness. Nor do I write with a great emphasis on disclosure and confession; I do not try to 'jazz-it-up', make it more than it is. I'm not tempted to give it a glamour it does not possess but I do strive to find its meaning, the meaning in what is already there. My story is based on remembrance, memory, yes, unavoidably, first-person reportage, necessarily. I have converted some of that which I have seen, thought, held, tasted and felt into thought, language, memory.
There are an unlimited number of possible narratives that could be constructed as reporter on my life. What readers have here could be called an interpretation, adaptation, abridgement, a retelling, a basic story among many possible basic stories. It is neither true nor false, but constructed. It has meaning because, as the poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “it changes into memory.” The universal currency and assumed naturalness of narrative, though, may well suppress its problematic dimensions such as: parsimony, inclusion and suppression as shaping factors in the composition of narratives.
There is some ordering of the incidences and intimacies of this specific, individual life into a narrative coherence giving readers some idea of what it was like to be me, some idea of what my inner, private, mental life was like. This private life is for the most part illegible; we live it and fight it alone. I have tried to make this inner life, as much as possible, as legible as possible. The sense of self which has emerged in the process of writing this work is two-fold. One is this private, mysterious, difficult to define self about whom it seems impossible to boast about. This self is an enigma, a mysterious who that I am, a transient entity, ceaselessly re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts. Along with this transient entity, though, there is what seems like a second self, what one writer called an autobiographical self. It is this self which gives this autobiography some narrative flow; it is the self of everyday life, the surface existence. It is not trivial but is really quite important in a different way than that more enigmatic self.
If, in opening both my narrative self and my inner self to others, readers may see ways to describe and give expression to their lives and in so doing be open further to the immense richness of life's experience, that would give me pleasure. For, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote in the opening pages of The Secret of Divine Civilization, "there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight" than "an individual, looking within himself, should find that....he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men." Time will tell, of course, how successful I have been in this regard.
I make no claim, though, to my life being some apotheosis of the Bahá'í character as, say, Benjamin Franklin's autobiographical persona was of the prevailing conception of the American character back in the eighteenth century. Bahá'í character and personality, it is my view, is simply too varied to be said to receive an apotheosis or typification in someone's life. Franklin, and many autobiographers since, have been interested in self-promotion and in being an exemplar for the edification and moral improvement of their community, exempla as they are known in the western religious traditions. I have taken little interest in the former or the latter as I proceded to write this work. The Bahá'í community has acquired many exempla in the last two hundred years and only one true Exemplar. If this work plays some role, however limited, in developing an "aristocracy of distinction," as Franklin's did, and in contributing to "the power of understanding," as this great Cause goes on from strength to stength in the years ahead, I would welcome such a development. To think that this work could play a part, however small, in the advancement of civilization, may be yet another somewhat pretentious thought, but it is a hope, an aspiration, consistent with the system of Bahá'í ideals and aims which has been part of my ethos, my philosophy of life, for nearly half a century now.
And finally, like Franklin, I leave a great deal out of this autobiography, a great deal about my times, my religion and myself. I make no apologies for this any more than I make any apologies to particular individuals I have known along the way. Conscious of the problem in autobiographical literature of the "aggrandisement of the self," I stress the very ordinariness of my life, my part of a larger, collective, community memory and the coherence of my life around a host of themes which can never be considered in isolation from the communities that shape and inform their values.
Most of life's experience has been left out, as Mark Twain informed us is an inevitability, part of the nature of any autobiography. Perceptual gaps, cognitive omissions, lacuna of many kinds, prevent an accurate or complete account of reality. But, because we are seldom aware of the lacuna, because the neural processes, the neurophysiological data underpinning autobiographical memory, the cerebral representation of one’s past is difficult to elucidate and difficult to tap, we tend to believe the cognitions.
Clocking in at a burgeoning 850 pages, as I place these additional words, is too much. If that is the case, some future editor can cut it back to a manageable portion or publish it in several volumes. Readers may be advised to read part rather than all of this text, if they read it at all.
November 12th 2003
PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION
Forty years ago this week the Bahá'í community elected its first international body, the Universal House of Justice. The timing for the completion of this third edition of Pioneering Over Four Epochs has been fortuitous since I have dedicated this book to these Men of Baha, as the Bahá'ís sometimes call this body at the apex of their administrative Order. The completion of the third edition of this work, this autobiography, in the last few days, coinciding as this completion does with the election of that international governing body for the ninth time, has been encouraging. Over these last two decades I have often been inclined to discontinue this whole exercise. With the writing of this third edition a renewed hope has entered the picture.
After nearly twenty years of working on this autobiography, or narrative non-fiction, as it might be called, I feel, at last, that it has a form worthy of publication and so I have entered it on my website at http://www.users.on.net/~ronprice/ Since the 1980s there has been a great interest in autobiography among the many minoritarian constituencies, as they are often called. The Baha’i community is but one of these many constituencies. My work it seems is part of this new wave of personalized, embodied narrative that foregrounds the particularity, as Anne Brewster puts it, of the everyday. Readers will also find elements of the grandnarrative here. For I link the epic and monumentalising narratives of history and science to the quotidian. There is no hierarchical opposition between the everyday and the official discourses of public life. I try, as far as I am able, to integrate the micro and the macro into one whole.
The everyday, it seems to me, is not reducible to simply pure or raw data from which the larger discourses of life are produced. I would argue that this here and now world and all its mundanities, underlines, shapes and informs the modes of rationality, the philosophies and ideologies, which are said to transcend it. Formal and official discourses and institutions, in turn, inform and shape this everyday life. My work seeks to deconstruct and integrate the conventional playing out of the relationship between these two domains which, historically, have been hierarchised, gendered and always in conflict, always contestatory. Rather than being mutually exclusive, these heterogeneous zones inform each other. Rather than being seen as redundant, trivial and empty, everyday life is thought of here as a field in which 'macrostructural categories', such as those of official and pedagogic discourses, 'are ongoingly translated into manageable structures of sense at human scale.’
I first read my grandfather's autobiography in 1983. It is a book written in the first two years of the Formative Age, 1921-1923, by a man who had just turned fifty years of age. The book was the account of the first twenty-nine years of his life. This work of more than 100,000 words, by a formally uneducated man, was an inspiration to me and my writing. And so I have also dedicated this book to my grandfather, Alfred J. Cornfield.
I have now written perhaps more than 200,000 words about the first fifty-eight years of my life, twice as many years as those in my grandfather's autobiography. I see this edition as a working base, a mental precinct, for an ongoing exercise in autobiography and autobiographical analysis and an exercise, too, in integrating the multitude of insights from a lifetime of experience of which reading in the social sciences and humanities has been an important part. When enough changes to this third edition have been made, a fourth edition will take its place some time in the years, or perhaps just months, ahead. Perhaps, too, like Edward Gibbon I'll complete six editions before this earthly life is out. Gibbon's autobiography, of course, became significant because of its association with his famous work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The significance of this work, if indeed it comes to possess any significance at all, will be due to my association with a Movement that claims to be the emerging world religion on, as William Blake puts it, "Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” I completed a first edition of this work ten years ago in May 1993. I dedicated it to the Universal House of Justice on that occasion, as I do here in this edition. A second edition contained additional sentences and paragraphs, alterations and a wealth of quotations and essays on the subject of autobiography as well as a dozen or so updates to take the story into this my fifty-ninth year of life and my forty-first as a pioneer. I was trying in this second edition, although I don’t feel I was in any way successful at that stage, to write the kind of sentences Henry David Thoreau advocated: “Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as Roman aqueducts; to frame these, that is the art of writing . . . [a style] kinked and knotted up into something hard and significant, which you could swallow like a diamond, without digesting.” Well, it’s good to have a lofty aim. In the third edition I began, or so it is my impression, to take the first steps toward achieving this goal.
As I worked on the second edition I was often inclined to leave the account there and break-off the writing. But something kept pulling me toward a more extended, a deeper, treatment of my life and times in the context of my religion. This third edition was written in the first four months of 2003. Drawing on much of the resource material I had gathered on the subject of autobiography in the previous ten years, I was finally able to tell my story in a way that was satisfying, if far from perfect. I look forward to further developments to this autobiographical work in the months, the years and perhaps even the decades ahead. If I live to be one hundred and I am in possession of my faculties I could be working on further editions for another four decades. Should I be granted such a long life in which to recount the 'tokens that tell of His glorious handiwork,' it will be interesting to see what changes there will be, what will be added and what will be taken away, in future editions. The significance of my efforts, what they ultimately will reveal and have revealed, what those mysterious and unmerited graces will uncover from behind the veil of silence, a veil that seems to ultimately cover the lives of most people on this mortal coil, is an unknown quantity. Providence has ordained for my training every atom in existence. Some of the evidences of that training experience are here in this book.
In writing this third edition, I seem to have at last found a successful strategy for writing something longer than a few pages, longer than an essay or a poem, literary forms that somehow got fixed by my many years as a student and lecturer in academic institutions and by my own inclination and need to write short pieces for personal pleasure and/or practical necessity. If this work possesses a slightly complex and involved style, perhaps it is because I have found life to be complex and involved. I have learned, at last, that revising can be a pleasure and that even the clumsiest initial draft can take on a life of its own in subsequent drafts. A revision, for me, seems to function in a multitude of ways. It yields simplification; it achieves greater depth and complexity; it results in a penetration, a digging beneath appearances to something I see as a greater reality or truth. Something quite new is produced as well as a refining of the old.
I have discovered too that spinning out ideas and experiences is not only idiosyncratic but also something usefully connected with what others have said. Each spinning seems to require its own web and the search for fixed points of reference is part of the struggle for coherence, completeness and the autobiographer’s attempt to penetrate, to dig, beneath those appearances to something closer to reality. As a result, I like to think that each sentence of Pioneering Over Four Epochs is a "flower in a crannied wall," as a poet once wrote. The crannied wall of autobiography has been a popular one in the last several centuries, since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, but especially in the last four decades, in the years of this pioneering venture. Many thousands of people in my lifetime have turned to this genre as a means of self-expression and cultural and social reflection. I would not be the first person to see in my own life a mirror of the times.
The famous work The Education of Henry Adams, a text that appears and reappears periodically in the literature of our age, makes much the same claim for its subject, as does Shakespeare himself who says he is holding up a faithful mirror of the manners and life of his society thus reflecting reality through his writing. I’m informed that a meaning of the word reflect, obsolete by 1677, was to ‘turn back.’ I do a good deal of that here, however obsolete that meaning may be. Holding up a mirror to oneself also has another meaning in our visual iconography—vanity or pride, Narcissus admiring his own beauty by means of reflection. I must be warned.
In this regard, one should keep in mind the comment of Leo Tolstoi that Shakespeare’s characters are exaggerated and not realistic. Real people would not have spoken the way they do in Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets. And this is true of the language in my narrative. As far as mirrors are concerned, in Shakespeare’s day they did not faithfully replicate reality. The skill in making mirrors had some distance to go in 1600. The words of St. Paul are also relevant here: “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” Human knowledge is always partial and obscured. That is certainly true insofar as much of this autobiography is concerned. Like the mirrors in Shakespeare’s time, the mirror I hold up to life, society’s and mine, is far from free of distortion, however honest and clear I strive to be.
Autobiography is a genre of literature that is arguably the most popular of all genres in the Western tradition, at least since the Enlightenment. But books, like civilizations and life itself, are fragile things and, however splendid, often come to mean little in the hearts and minds of a people. Like a flower in a crannied wall, however beautiful and however strongly it may cling to the crevice in the wall, in time it comes to flower no more with no evidence at all of its existence. It is possible that the abyss of history, so deep as it is, may bury this whole exercise. Writers must face this possible reality, no matter how much hope they may entertain for their works.
I came to see, as I wrote, that a dialectical use of experiential, historical, religious and philosophical themes and positions is the most reliable way of anchoring one's experience, one's thoughts and arguments and making them more stable and complete. Of great benefit, too, in this the longest of my pieces of writing, has been the many disciplines of the social sciences and humanities and a continued dialogue and even controversial exchange with contemporaries, a controversy that must be characterized by an etiquette of expression and a judicious exercise of the written and spoken word. On paper, as in life, the phenomenon of freedom of thought "calls for an acute exercise of judgement." One must not say too much nor too little. One must find one's own checks and balances, one's own insights into the dynamics of expression. This edition of Pioneering Over Four Epochs is part of that search for these dynamics, these checks and balances and as acute an exercise in judgement as is possible given the blooming and buzzing confusion that so much of life represents to us as we travel this often stony, tortuous and narrow road to what we believe or hope is, ultimately, a glorious destiny. It is understandable how writers like Conrad and Naipaul can see human destiny in terms of darkness, weeping and the gnashing of teeth. If it were not for the political-religious ideas at the centre of the Bahá'í Faith with which I have sketched a framework of meaning over the terra incognita of life for virtually all the years of this story, I would not be able to create in comfort. I might very well see life, as so many writers do, as little more than a grotesque farce.
The shape within which these dynamics operate, the genre of autobiography, is like water. It is a fluid form, with varied, blurred, multiple and contested boundaries, with characteristics some analysts say that are more like drama than fiction, containing constructed more than objective truth. So it is that other analysts of autobiography see it as "the creation of a fiction." This is an understandable conclusion if a writer tends to stress the perspective Bahá'u'lláh alludes to when He writes that life bears "the mere semblance of reality," that it is like "a vapour in the desert." Whatever universality exists in this text it comes from my association with the writings of this prophet-founder of a new religion rather than any of my specific pretensions to findings and conclusions that I like to think bear relevance to everyone. What I offer here is an interpretation, a voice, seemingly multivocal, that struggles to obtain the attention of others. In some ways what readers will find here is a series of interpretations, identifications, differentiations, in tandem, in tension, in overlap, to one another, each registering their own significances. There is some of Thoreau’s famous statement in my work: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
I hope readers will find they do not have to penetrate elaborate sentences, wade through arcane terminology and deal with excessive jargon. I hope they will not find here a heaving mass of autobiographical lava as so often is at the centre of autobiographies. But with nearly 800 pages this document may prove more useful as a piece of archival history rather than something for contemporaries to actually read. I certainly aim to please and, as in life, I'm sure I will do that only some of the time. I try to please through this piece of analytical and poetic narrative which I have created not so much on paper as in my innards, out of the living tissue of my life. And it is the autobiographical theorist James Olney who defines this process of creation best for me:
"Autobiography is a metaphor through which we stamp our own image on the face of nature. It allows us to connect the known of ourselves to the unknown of the world. Making available new relational patterns it simultaneously organizes the self into a new and richer entity so that the old known self is joined to and transformed into the new and heretofore unknown self." Nature, in turn, provides all the means of material life and a common, human currency for representing ideas about that life as society and culture.
The new and richer entity that is this autobiography is the result of a carefully edited version of personal experience and my particular version of reality. I place this before my readers and in so doing I indicate as clearly as I can the perspective from which this narrative is being written. This narrative depends on the deferred action of my memory and is based on the view that my writing is worth the risk however complex the task. I like to think of this work as a public space, a contributing factor, a small part in defining and unifying Baha’i culture and its heterogeneous population.
May 1st 2003
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
It has been nearly ten years since I finished the first edition of Pioneering Over Four Epochs. Since that time I have added a large body of my poetry among other additions, deletions and alterations. The poetry of history is rooted in the geography, the landscape, of each poet and the facts of the period of history in which the poets wrote. This is also true of my work. The addition of my poetry seemed a natural process. It also helped to give a new lease on life to the writing of my autobiography which by 1993 was wilting, its vitality and the energy and enthusiasm I began with dissipated.
The size of the original work has been increased many fold. Time has moved on and my life is being lived in another epoch, the fifth, necessitating a new name for this work: Pioneering Over Four Epochs. Here is the story, then, of more than forty years of pioneering experience: 1962-2002 and fifty years of association, 1953-2003, with a Movement which claims to be--and I believe it is--the emerging world religion on the planet. I like to think, with the historian Leopold von Ranke, that “self-imposed discipline alone brings excellence to all art.” If that is the case, then there is some excellence here. There is here, too, some of what Proust called "true impressions:" hints from life's realities, persistent intuitions which require some art form, some autobiography, so that we are not left with only the practical ends of life which, although necessary, are never really sufficient to living.
The choice of subject is a deeply emotional affair. Poetry and history are, in this work, allies, inseparable twins. But there are other brothers and sisters that anchor and define this autobiography: philosophy, sociology, the everyday, religion, inter alia. Style, too, is, as the historian Peter Gay emphasizes, the bridge to substance, to all these family members. I hope readers enjoy the walk across this bridge as I have enjoyed this organized, disciplined and certainly emotional encounter with some of the substance of my life and times and the many family members, friends, students and myriad associations I have had in life.
It is the belief of some writers, some thinkers, some human beings, that there is nothing new under the sun or perhaps, to put their view more accurately, there is nothing new to say about the human condition. The greats of history, the Shakespeares and the Sophocleses have already said it inimitably, brilliantly. At best, it seems to me, this is only a partial truth. The historian, the critic, the autobiographer, among others, interprets and reinterprets the human condition and, although, the human condition has elements that stay the same(plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose)much changes. For, as it is said, you can not step into the same river twice. There is, then, much more to say, much more that is new. At least that, in summary, is my view.
I think that some may find this book peculiar. Such was the view of the autobiography of the nineteenth century novelist, Anthony Trollope. Late Victorians found his book cantankerous and they had trouble absorbing its contents. For many reasons, not associated with cantankerousness in my case, I don't think many will find this book of mine absorbing. Although, like Trollope, I chronicle some of life's daily lacerations upon the spirit. I also move in channels filled with much that comes from flirtations with the social sciences: history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and several literary studies. My book has come to assume what many, I'm sure, will experience as unmanageable proportions. Five hundred pages and more is a big read for just about everyone these days. Readers need to be especially keen to wade through that much print. Perhaps at a future time I will divide the text into parts, into a series of volumes. But even then, in the short term, this world is a busy place and lives are confronted with so much to read, to watch, to do and to try to understand. This work will, I think, slip into a quiet niche and remain, for the most part, unread. I hope I am proved wrong.
I like to think, though, that should readers take on this work they may find here the reassurance that their battles are my battles, that we are not alone and that the Cause is never lost. Most readers coming to this book, I'm inclined to think, already believe these things. But what I offer here could be seen as a handrail, if that is desired, a handrail of the interpretive imagination. Here, too, is a handrail informed by my experience, my life's basic business of shunting about and being shunted about, carelessly and not-so-carelessly, for more than half a century in the great portal that is this Cause. Finally, I like to think this handrail is coated with an essential compassion and what Anthony Trollope’s wife Joanna says is the monument of a writer, a hefty dose of humility. That's what I'd like to think and, with Plato, I’d like to think that I am "a good writer(who) is a good man writing.” But of course one never knows this sort of thing for sure.
22 January 2003
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION
What began in 1984 as an episodic diary and in 1986 as a narrative of pioneering experience covering twenty-five years has become an account covering thirty-one: 1962-1993. Coincidentally, I have finished this third and what I hope is the final draft of this first edition in time to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the first election of the Universal House of Justice. This short account of some seventy-five pages has been dedicated to this institution which I have tried to serve, successfully and unsuccessfully, as one noted analyst once put it, like a precisioned instrument, since April 1963. Often the instrument has been dulled by life, by incapacities, by the tests that are part of our existence. Sometimes, one is conscious that the instrument one has developed is a mysterious gift of God, an unmerited grace.
Readers will find here what could be called a descriptive and analytical narrative, a narrative that intensifies my life in the process of putting it on paper. This writing has had what you might call a restorative function on my life. By the time I came to finish this work I felt a strong need for an even greater restoration of my psyche. This was in 1992-93. There is no doubt that my writing, my art, has shaped my experience, lending it style and direction. Life in turn informs this art giving it variety, giving it a granite base. I have also used other genres to tell my story: diary, letters, essays, poems, fiction, photographs, notebooks and memorabilia. They can be found in other places, none of which are yet available in published, in some available, form. Together, all the genres, all the writing, several million words in all, paint the story of a life, a life that is far from over, far-light years-from perfection, but in many ways typical of the thousands of lives, of people who have pioneered in the three epochs that are the backdrop for this account.
And the act of writing is, as one writer put it, "a high, this writing thing, a kind of drug, and once you experience it nothing else is ever the same." "Ordinary life," that writer went on, "seems like a prison sentence in comparison to the freedom of writing" That puts it a little strongly but I agree with the general sentiment. But however one characterizes writing it is difficult to grasp the mystery of its origins. As Freud once wrote, "Before the problem of the artist analysis must alas lay down its arms."
My story is unique. The story of the experience of each pioneer is unique. Under the guidance of the trustee of that global undertaking set in motion nearly a century and a half ago, men, women, children and adolescents have scattered across the planet to its most remote corners. Few write their accounts, their experiences, their journey and try to tell of its pulse, its rhythm, its crises and victories. Whether from humility and a feeling that writing autobiography is somehow an inappropriate exercise, perhaps too self-centred; whether from a lack of interest in writing or the simple inability to convey experience in a written form; whether from the tedium of the everyday and its routines and responsibilities which come to occupy so much of their time; whether from the responsibilities and demands of life or simply the battles which pioneers inevitably face in their path of service: most of the stories never get told. This is one that I hope will make it. One of the things that attracted me to writing autobiography and that keeps me interested in it is the diversity of perspectives that exists within it as a field, as a discipline. Once I realized it was not just about writing your life from go to woe, that the discipline of autobiography had a rich theoretical and intellectual base, a base that I found fascinating, I was airborne. As I complete this first edition, I have just started to fly or, to put it even more accurately in a metaphorical sense, I feel I have started taking flying lessons for a future in the sky.
For many years I thought it would be better to keep this story under wraps, keep it from seeing the light of day. Perhaps, I thought, it would be better published posthumously, if it was to be published at all. Alternatively, it could be kept in some local spiritual assembly or national spiritual assembly archive and retrieved by some scholar or archivist as a curiosity, a sample of a work written in the darkest heart of an age of transition. This may be, in fact, what eventuates. As I completed the first edition, it was difficult to know what would become of this document. But I liked to think, as the French scholar Jacques Derrida reminded us, that archives are as much about the future as the past. If what I wrote here was to be about the future, as Derrida suggested, if it was to be useful to some group of human beings at a future time, then that future Baha’i archive or internet site would have to be an active corpus linked to original documents, organically connected with original stories like mine.
After I completed the first edition of my autobiography in early 1993 I was not concerned about publishing this piece of writing. This writing provided some helpful perspectives on the pioneering process and on teaching and consolidation in the first decades of what Shoghi Effendi called the tenth stage of history. Whoever had the opportunity to read this account would find themselves, or so I hoped, entertained and stimulated by a man who paused, as Henry David Thoreau did at the dawn of this new era, to give as full an account, a report if you like, of his experience. I thought my book was a good read. It was certainly a pleasure to write. It was a start, at least, to a story which I hoped to continue in the years ahead in future editions, for I found reading this first edition not altogether stimulating. The rich reservoire of literature on autobiography I had only begun to discover as I finished working on the third draft of this edition in 1992 and 1993.
Memories are things, nouns if you like, which we all have. Remembering is an activity, a verb if you like or more accurately a gerund. It is more like a book in the process of being written, something that seems, in part at least, made up. Remembering is not analogous to a book that I read or create from a printed script. Remembering is a problem-solving activity, where the problem is to give a coherent account of past events. Memory itself is both the problem and the solution to the problem, if indeed the problem can be solved at all. Memories are also, as John Kihlstrom suggests, "a special class of beliefs about the past." Belief, Kihlstrom argues, is the phenomenal basis of remembering. I have always taken some comfort in the words of Charles Darwin about his memory, taken from the last page of his autobiography: “So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.”
Authentic religious faith is notoriously difficult to depict accurately on screen: big screens, little screens, any screens. A literary autobiography has a much better chance at depicting a life of reliigous faith without having to resort to caricature and distortion, negative sterotyping and trivializing. The standard film conventions for portraying religious faith in our antideluvian world are a mixture of fanaticism and irrationality. Of course, we all know that a person can be religious without being morally reprobate, inflexibly ruthless and intellectually helpless. If the writer throws in a touch of sincerity for believeability and good measure, the negative sterotype is often enhanced. I invite you to see if I have been successful in my depiction with just the right amounts of several virtues sprinkled in to season the mix. Of course, I suppose you will never know for sure how accurate the mix, the recipe, is. You have to take it all on trust. Knowing this is not possible, I bequeath to you the following story, the following mise en scene which my words can not tell nor my tongue describe.
April 12th 1993
SUMMARY AND OVERVIEW OF VOLUMES ONE TO FIVE OF THIS WORK
Anyone wanting to get a bird's-eye view of the 1000 pages in this book need only go to volume 1, which is essentially a life-overview; volume 2 is a discussion of my pre-pioneering days during the Ten Year Crusade: 1953-1963; volume 3 examines homefront pioneering: 1962-1971 and volume 4: international pioneering: 1971 to 2005; finally, volume 5 can be summarized by simply reading the chapter titles. The 30 headings at the outset of the chapters give anyone with little time a quick picture of the contents of this autobiographical work. Volume 1 contains essays on pioneering, some special poetry and a detailed resume and bio-data. Three hundred and fifty thousand words is a big-read. Those who come to this book can dip in at any place. There is no need to begin at the beginning. The author wishes those who do come upon this lengthy piece of writing much pleasure, much insight and a feeling that time spent reading this is time well-spent. This work can not be adequately understood as merely the story of my life. Were this just my story, I'm not sure I ever would have written it in the first place, however personally meaningful the exercise has been to me. A play in four acts, innumerable scenes and more lines than I care to count are found here, from my childhood to old age.
This work is, like William Wordsworth's great poem “The Prelude,” the account of the growth of a poetic personality and an imagination. It is also an account of another prelude, a prelude within the context of the Baha’i Faith. For at the start of my Bahá'í life in the 1950s, a prelude to mass conversion began. This preulde was called 'entry by troops' and all of my Bahá'í life has been lived within the context of this prelude period.
And finally, after several thousand years of the recording of memory in the western intellectual tradition, a balance between personal memory on the one hand and collective memory on the other is being achieved in modern history. These two major nodes of memorialization have taken place since the Homeric Period(if not before) in the middle of another Formative Age This is yet one more effort in the contribution to the achievement of such a balance.
Note: the first several pages of my 2500+ page autobiography are found below.
VOLUME 1: CHAPTER ONE
Section 1:Some Introductions and Genres
"Not beginning at the Beginning...."
Dispositions are plausible responses to the circumstances individual Bahá'ís found themselves in and these dispositions led to the gradual emergence from obscurity of their religion in the last half century. The story here is partly of this emergence and partly it is my telling of own life-story. For I have gone on writing for years, perhaps as much as two decades now, in relative obscurity doing what I think is right.
I am intentionally not going to begin at the beginning. Autobiographies which I’ve had a look at seem to be exercises that begin in as many different places as there are authors. Sometimes first memories are found on page one and the account proceed chronologically if not logically until the last syllable of their recorded time, their allotment on earth, at least up to the time of the writing of their said autobiography. This is not my intention here. Anyway, when does one really begin a journey, a friendship, a love affair? Beginnings are fascinating, misunderstood, enigmatic. I’ve written much about beginnings and the more I write the more elusive they become. But there comes a moment, a point, when we realize that the journey has started and we had not realized it. As we travel along we mark historical moments which we weave into our narrative. They often change, our view of them that is, as we grow older: these rites de passage, these coming of age moments. Unlike the Roman historians of the republican days who wrote their histories annalistically, that is year by year in sequence, this work is much more varied and informal with a slight tendency to write by plans and epochs. It is important, too, that life, my life, not be seen as simply journey and not life. The two are not mutually exclusive.
My ideal doctor for this journey, wrote the late Anatole Broyard, would be “my Virgil, leading me through my purgatory or inferno, pointing out the sights as we go. He would enter into the world of sin or sickness and accompany this pilgrim, this patient through it.” Virgil was Dante's imagined guide in the Divine Comedy. My Virgil, my ideal doctor, in this autobiography is, without doubt, Baha’u’llah; my Divine Comedy is this autobiography. The parallel is, of course, not exact, but it has its relevant points of comparison.
I strive for my account to possess narrative lines that move forward, like lines in music, lines that keep their listeners waiting for and wanting resolutions. At the same time I think it's vital for many lines to develop at once, as in a fugue, so that when one narrative line resolves itself, another is already developing. I frankly do not know how I am going to approach this story, though I have no trouble finding historical moments and various lines of development. There are always in the background to my life ever-present plans, new beginnings, fresh initiatives, systematic advances, "leaps and thrusts," triumphs and losses, vistas of new horizons and dark clouds. There is also, as I have moved around two continents over the second half of the twentieth century, the tracing of an end of Empire, an end of an age, an order, a politico-social system and the arrival of a new kind of order. This new order is rootless, without a centre and constantly shifting on the one hand; and rooted, centred and global on the other. They allow one to explore, to write of a place, to explore foreign societies and new ideas at a crucial time in history--a time of beginnings. The Baha’i order and the people in it which I had identified with and participated in personally as far back as 1953 were caught between an old order they had sloughed off, had ceased to pin their hopes on, and a new one they had yet to mature.
At the outset I want to emphasize the inadequacy of language to match and give sequence to life’s experience. This poem of Emily Dickinson’s expresses this idea well:
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind --
As if my Brain had split --
I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam --
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before --
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls -- upon a Floor.
Thinking seriously about autobiography or, indeed, any intellectual discipline, requires us to acknowledge our ignorance of the subject. This is a prerequisite. Our past, any past, is another country, a place that exists in our imaginations and in those uncertain and often unreliable echoes of our lives that we trace in words, in places and in things. There is, then, an inscrutability which paradoxically lies at the heart of this work. I say paradoxical because the more one describes one’s life the more mysterious it gets. I return again and again, taking the reader with me, to absences, spaces in my knowledge, my memory, my construction. I recognize that the act of making this my life, into a whole, from the pieces I have left from my past is necessarily a creative one, an act of imagination, what one writer calls "the dialectic between discovery and invention." In the process I transform my history and the history of my times, from something static into something lived. I am not imprisoned in some imagined objectivity; rather, I reenter the moment, the hour, the days and the years and imagine it as something experienced from multiple perspectives, simultaneously acknowledging its erasures and silences. This book compels me to think again about my life and readers to think about theirs. I explore my views about contemporary life and values and in the process of exploration I define my thinking.
I don’t see my life or make any claim to my life being necessarily representative of that of an ideal Baha’i or a Baha’i pioneer. This is not an exemplum. Claims to representativeness, it seems to me, are at best partial. I find there is something basically unstable or slippery about experience or, to put it in even stronger terms, in the words of Baha’u’llah, there is something about experience that bears only “the mere semblance of reality.” There is something about it that is elusive, even vain and empty, like “a vapour in the desert.” There are so many exegetical and interpretive problems that accompany efforts to tie down the meaning of a life, of an experience, of a relationship. There is something divided, duplicitous, something that has happened but has yet to be defined and described or, as is usually the case, never described, at least not in writing, depending of course on the experience of the person and their literary skills. There are innumerable and indispensable points of reference in a life and yet so many of them take on the feeling of a mirage, as if they are not really there, like a dream, particularly as the years lengthen into later adulthood and old age.
In many ways this narrative belongs in the company of the thousands of individual and communal narratives of the Baha’i community. But there are several narrative frames that exist and operate in tandem in this autobiographical work. My family and friends, most of whom are not Baha’is, my students over the years and the literally thousands of people I have come to know will find the narrative frames in this autobiography exist in tandem. In life and in autobiography the same story must often be adapted for different audiences that value different things and will judge one’s story by different criteria. Narratives must necessarily be censored for specific audiences or for ourselves. The censoring that must be done here, must be done by readers. This narrative that I am endorsing by placing it in the public domain contains a multitude of stories, perspectives and narrative lines suited for some but not for others. The individual, therefore, in accordance with the demands of each situation, each portion of this autobiography, must do the validating of opposing narratives about myself. Two opposing narratives, sets of actions, apparently contradictory behaviours, demonstrate the dynamic nature of identity. It is not static and we all do all sorts of things that to the people we meet are upsetting, wrong, confusing, etcetera. What I am trying to conceptualize here is the pastiche, the fluid, nature of my multiple self-identities that have emerged in my lifetime. Some are suppressed at different times, depending on the cultural demands or constraints of a particular context or audience; some are given expression at other times. These identities are context driven. Behavioral repertoires are not always easy to adjust as one moves from social setting to social setting. Culture shock or acculturative stress often arise and this narrative which follows is the story of some of these shocks and stresses.
Meaning is not something one can wrap up and walk away with. Often the mind's sensitivity to meaning is actually impaired by fixed notions or perspectives. It seems that often we must see things for ourselves, again and again, sometimes in community with its endless heterogeneity, sometimes in our solitude. For community is not always pastoral dream of innocence and togetherness and solitude is not always enriching. Here, as in music, there is an alternation between fast and slow and joyful and sorrowful; there's an ebb and flow to the emotional structure.
At the same time, I agree with what is called the essentialist view of group identity in community; namely, that there is a common identity for the members of a social group. This view emphasizes commonness of identity and the possession of a certain stability that is more or less unchanging since it is based on the experiences the members share. But I can only go so far in this essentialist tradition. I am also inclined to see group identities as fabricated, constructed, misleading, ignoring internal differences and tending not to recognize the unreliability of experience. Of course individuals can fabricate much of their own history. Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, for example, were notorious fabricators of their story. And to chose one final example, the man who was Mark Twain, Samuel Leghorne Clemens, lived behind a "layering of invented selves," and performing, of course, was simply another way of inventing or disguising himself. Or so it is that Andrew Hoffman describes Twain.
I take the view too that, however much I work out my life in solitude, my experience is what some sociologists call ‘socially constructed.’ This social and emotional self is mediated by the environment in which it lives and works. In this context the self is not exalted to the centre of the universe. The nature of one's inner thoughts and feelings are not purely personal or individual. The community in which we interact, the system of thoughts that serve as our beliefs, is a crucial determinant of who we are. Our fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity. This mental activity usually begins in the outside world and is imposed, at least to some extent, on the mind.
Canadians, for example, approach the survival of ordeals, not as the theoretical American would by finding and revealing a reservoir of inner strength and wisdom in some heroic fashion, but by banding together, by becoming a “company”--literally, as Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman suggests by using the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device, to create community. Literary critic Northrop Frye suggests that Canadians possess a garrison mentality with an image of a fort in the wilderness as a symbol of their psychic centre or domain. Margaret Atwood, Canada's major writer as the millennium turned, sees the Canadian character as one with a gloomy-through-catastrophic strain. This interpretation of the character is reflected in Canada's literature and especially in the writing of Margaret Atwood.
Atwood also sees the Canadian character as one that is incurably paranoid. There are various strategies suggested by artists, writers and critics to cope with this paranoia. Art, religion, relationships, a strong sense of fate or destiny, an avoidance of the heroic and a taking refuge in the ordinary, in a reticence, in trepidation, in the soft escape and boxing experience into frames, into limits. These are some of the coping mechanisms seen by these analysts. If one understands Canadian history, one can understand the sense of the overwhelming, the impenetrable, the claustrophobic, the sense of a world which denies entry to the human. It is these attitudes to self and life that are evinced by Canadians and Australian artists towards their existential condition. But perhaps the central attitude is a radical, deep-seated ambivalence. Both Canadians and Australians are ambivalent about the heroic, the posture taken by the American. I mention the Canadian and the Australian because it is in these two countries where I have spent all my life. I have realized, though, that the range of effects I could achieve writing as if I was an Australian or a Canadian were too narrow. It would be like playing one instrument, say, the drums or a cello. So I turned to writing in as broad a perspective as I could. I may have bit off more than I can chew. But even if I have, I find that there's a certain synchronicity in writing autobiography and also living my day to day life which makes the big-chew relevant to the daily nibbles that constitute the routine, the trivial, the predictable and the wonder that fills the interstices of life. I like to see this autobiography somewhat like the poet George Herbert’s: as the "story of the self reflected and improved in the mirror of Scripture," a self who "makes no claims to uniqueness" but is in fact content "that the truths he finds there are not his alone.” I might add just to get the context right that the Scripture is a new one and I do make a claim to uniqueness, a uniqueness each of us possesses.
There are certainly few writers and theorists of autobiography who believe that it is possible to remove one's commitments and values from the exercise of writing one’s story. I do not believe that I can separate the facts of my life from the theories, assumptions and frameworks that underpin them. I do not see myself as an objective gatherer of facts. I believe that values, commitments, goals, inter alia, all play their part in the scholarly analysis and interpretation of a life. They are part of all investigation, all intellectual activity, and spelling them out is essential if one is to attempt to understand the great kalaidoscope that is one’s life. My commitment to the Baha’i Faith supersedes any other identification of genre, nationality, race, culture, age, inter alia and I approach this commitment, this identity, from a wide range of perspectives which will unfold in a quite unsystematic way in the next 1000 pages. The practice of autobiography, of course, means different things to different people. I would not want to limit the discussion of autobiography to one approach, one theory, one model, even if that model is my own. There are so many ways to skin a cat, as they say colloquially in some places.
Pioneers in Canada for several hundred years before the word was first used by the Baha’i community in the 1930s, were swallowed up by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the great Canadian wilderness, the frozen Arctic tracts and the USA. In Australia there was a similar swallowing up process by means of: the hot desert centre, the vast interior spaces, the surrounding oceans and seas. The most ‘significant other’ in both these countries where my life has been swallowed up, in a different sense, is the landscape. Visual representations not language seems to be the most common window of understanding in the consciousness of these two national groups.
All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There are so many parallels I can make in relation to both countries. The white populations in both countries tend to congregate in a very few, relatively sizable centres. Boundaries and frontiers in the USA serve as limitations to be transcended or denied. In Canada and Australia they are seen as dangerous places to be negotiated. The relationship between these general psycho-geographical characteristics and my pioneering life will be elaborated on, unfolded, in the nearly 1000 pages which follow. What will also unfold, at least it is my hope, is what American novelist Normal Mailer said is the purpose of art, an intensification, an exacerbation, of "the moral consciousness of people."
Some writers go so far as to say they are their country. The Irish writer Seán O'Faoláin made this declaration in commenting on his autobiography. Ireland was the central metaphor of his self. This may be even more true for those living on islands; the concept 'island' implies a particular and intense relationship of land and water. Allegorical and structural associations of island characters become used for the reconstruction of people’s personal history and identity. The Irish professor in Aidan Higgins's novel Lions of the Grunewald suggests, “the smaller the island the bigger the neurosis.” If this has some truth, I may be protected from such a fate since I have lived on only two islands, Baffin Island and Tasmania. Others emphasize the highly ambivalent relationships between people and their island homes. My island homes are large ones and my stay, thusfar, has been for short periods of my life, ten years in total, unless of course one counts Australia itself as an island. Structurally and thematically speaking, the motifs of 'leaving the island' and/or 'returning to the island' seem to make for key scenes in a wide range of autobiographies by islanders. There are the emotionally charged events. This was not true for me given the short periods of residence thusfar on the island of Tasmania. The emotional charge did take place for me when I returned to Canada and to Western Australia. But more of that another time.
I intend to take a line, an approach, from the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, who said, in an interview with Gary Kamiya, that when he writes he has no sense of what is going to happen next. Plot, story and theme unfold. Ondaatje says that writing is a discovery of a story when he writes a book, a case of inching ahead on each page and discovering what's beyond in the darkness, beyond where you're writing. This is the way it is for me even when I have some broad outlines, outlines that are my life. For Ondaatje writing novels doubles his perception, he says, because he is so often writing from the point of view of someone else. To write about oneself, he says, would be very limiting. To each his own, I suppose. If the unexamined life was not worth living, if teaching one’s own self was not so significant, if ultimately all the battles in life were not within, if it were not important to understand our imperfections and be patient with our own dear selves, if the source of most of our troubles are to be found in feelings of egotism and selfishness, if the God within was not “mighty, powerful and self-subsistent,” then this autobiographical pursuit might be in vain.
Note: the rest of this autobiography is available at Bahá'í Academics Resource Library.
TENTH AND LAST STAGE
On the second Sunday in February 1964 the Beatles appeared before 72 million people on the Ed Sullivan Show. Eleven weeks earlier President Kennedy had been assassinated. Ten weeks later the first Universal House of Justice called the Bahá'ís of the world to the first Plan to begin the last, the "tremendously long" tenth stage of history. I was in my first year of university at the time, in the midst of one of my first manic-episodes and in the start of the eighteenth month of my pioneering life. I would be twenty in five months and my dad would be dead in three.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, February 10th, 2004.
The effects would be grievous
in the years, the decades ahead,
of the rolling up of that old order:
convulsions and waywardness
would afflict us in the battle that
stretched over the distant horizon.
We were the indulgent generation,
non-self-critical and, with the years,
we had many casualties,
former certainties and empires
died,1 but a new social movement
created a sense of self-regeneration
that is still a part of my identity
and my memories, owned somehow,
in a lover's embrace
where no one can touch them.2
When I give them away
they keep coming back
like so much of the past,
like the Beatles, President Kennedy
and the Universal House of Justice
which calls us again and again
in Plan after Plan after Plan.
1 Doris Lessing in an interview on SBS TV on 18 September 2000.
2 Rick Perlstein, "Who Owns the Sixties?" Lingua Franca, Vol.6 No.4, 1996.
10 February 2004
There are many themes beyond my religion, myself and my society in this book. One of the main ones is the act of reading and its content. All of the grand, masterly tomes, the great canon of the social sciences and humanities, is now too extensive to read in one lifetime. I have been committed to a reading life since the 1970s. I had decided at some time during that decade, after reading Abdul-Bahas Secret of Divine Civilization to aim at a life of learning and the cultivation of the mind. If one is to think of oneself as a cultivated person, then there is an inevitable association with reading that must be engendered in one's life. Since the 1970s I have been reading at least four or five hours each day and since my retirement I have not had to read the writings of students.
I hope that readers find in the voice that has also been cultivated in my writing a clear, unfrilled one, no gaudy baubles of metaphor or long strings of similes stretched together in an ever increasing line of confusion. I hope they enjoy and are comfortable with quotes from Montaigne, James,Auden, Eliot and Gibbon, among others--sliding sentences and paragraphs as I go into my text with enhancements which do not overwhelm but simply stimulate the intellect. There is a sense, I trust, that there is some confidence and sureness about what I am doing with my references and comparisons. They are not there merely to add luster to my writing; rather, they are intended to add luster to my meaning. I do not possess as many comedic skills as I would like to enhance my work. I am not a witty author and my text will soon prove this claim to readers. There is little to none of the laugh-out-loud funny: to use an Internet expression. But I hope to entertain with elements that combine to relax the reader until he or she is in such a state that I am able to slip in ideas which readers think they thought of themselves.
Section 4:AUSPICIOUS JUNCTURE-SYNCHRONIZATION
The year 1992 was an auspicious juncture in the history of the Bahá'í Faith, the centenary of the Ascension of that Faith’s Founder, Bahá'u'lláh. The year 1992 was the 500th anniversary of a number of other events. This prose-poem is a commentary on a propitious synchronization: the new dispensation beginning in the 19th century in 1844 mirabile dictu marking the culmination of the 6000 year-old Adamic cycle and the inauguration of a 5000 century Bahá'í cycle.(1) Some dozen events of 1492, exactly 500 years before 1992 and 400 years before Bahá'u'lláh’s Ascension, a year which marked the beginning of my own poetic outburst of creativity, are listed as follows:(2)
* January 2 – Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, surrenders his city to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella after a lengthy siege, ending the 10-year Granada War and the almost 800-year Reconquista.
* Christopher Columbus is in Alhambra and sees the Moorish king come out of the city gates and kiss the hands of the Spanish king, queen and prince.
* January 6 ---Ferdinand and Isabella enter into Granada.
* January 23 ---The Pentateuch is first printed.
* March 31---Ferdinand and Isabella sign the Alhambra decree, expelling all Jews from Spain unless they convert to Roman Catholicism.
* July 31 -------The Jews are expelled from Spain; 150,000 flee.
* August 3-----Christopher Columbus "sails the ocean blue" on his first journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Asia, but he ends up in the Americas
* October 12 – Christopher Columbus' expedition makes landfall in the Caribbean and lands on Guanahani, but believes he has reached the East Indies.
* October 28 – Christopher Columbus lands in Cuba.
* December 5 – Christopher Columbus becomes the first known European to set foot on the island of Hispaniola.
* December 31 – About 100,000 Jews are expelled from Sicily.
* Many more events could be listed here. -Ron Price with thanks to: (1) The Universal House of Justice, “A Tribute to Bahá'u'lláh,” 28 May 1992 and (2) “Events of 1492,” Wikipedia.
He transmuted His tribulations
into instruments of redemption
and summoned all peoples to
the banner of unity through
mysterious forces, resonances,
awakening them from a strange
sleep and I, too, found a poetic
in these years of some onrushing,
quickening wind, the publication
of the Most Holy Book and this
special time for the rendezvous
of my soul with the Source of its
light and guidance, for the retreat
to my inmost being so that I might
find Him standing within me mighty,
powerful and self-subsisting with a
revitalizing energy for teaching—
that most meritorious of deeds.
30 November 2009
SOME MORE POETRY
A REVELATION OF AN INNER WORLD
Allen Ginsberg was one of the most famous literary figures in the USA during the ninth and early decades of the tenth stage of history(1953-1995). He lived to the age of seventy(1926-1995). His poetry was strongly autobiographical in the tradition of Walt Whitman. In this poem I follow Ginsberg through the first half of the second Bahá'í century.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 16 July 2001; and "No More to Say and Nothing To Weep For: An Elegy For Allen," ABC TV, 10:45-11:35 pm, 15 July 2001.
The decisive moment came,
for you, on the eve
of the celebration
of the close of the first
You developed a sense of oneness,
one mind, one universe,
as early as the year
Canada had its first NSA.2
Your famous poem Howl
was banned by US Customs
the year the Guardian died.
The best minds of my generation3
hardly got near this new
and embryonic Cause in those years
of that Ten Year Crusade.
By the time I pioneered
you were in India chanting.4
But poetry was, for you,
what it has become for me,
a revelation of an inner world.
And that utopian dream
of your mother-crazy-then
destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked3
can be seen up-on-the-hill.
Can you see it, Allen?
Can you see it?
Kerouac would have seen it
as part of that 'beat-beatific.'5
Old poets do write about death,
each in their own way,
but not for me a Rimpoche,6
rather a leavening force
that leavens the world of being
and furnishes a power
through which I manifest wonder.
1 In 1943 Ginsberg had his first significant turning to poetry
2 In 1948 Ginsberg developed his first expression of that sense of Oneness which was to inspire his earliest poetry
3 This is the first(and second) line of the poem Howl
4 Ginsberg went to India in 1958; in the TV program that this poem gets its core of information we see him in India in 1962 chanting.
5 There were several definitions of 'beat.' To Kerouac it was 'sympathetic' and 'beatific.'
6 This was the Buddhist leader who most influenced Ginsberg.
16 July 2001
ENGRAVED WITH RADIANCE
So nigh is grandeur to our dust, so near is God to man!-Emerson
...the believers must eschew affectation and imitation, for every man of understanding will instantly detect their loathsome odour.-Shoghi Effendi in Letter to Persian Believers, 10 February 1980 from the Universal House of Justice.
So many deaths: human beings
whose days were crowded
with work for him and them and it.
Memories, such slight things:
a phantom of an attitude remains,
an echo of a mode of thought,
a book or two, at the heart of victory
in some critical hour, shrunk now
into a mere musical note, some phrase,
suggestive of singularity, clarity,
so clear as to be victorious
over the inevitable diminution,
abridgement of death’s rare necrology*,
abstract for new generations
who get to the backs of books
and discover what’s indescribably
precious in the spirit of humanity.
And so the soul’s note rises strong
and clear above the uproar of our times,
to exert in indefinable and infinitessimal ways
its ennobling influence over the future,
occasionally a written garment, inseparable
from matter’s chemical marriage, some style,
some reporting of spiritual seeing
and inborn desire, gift of grace,
which eschews affectation and imitation:
some portion of the soil was its to tend
and when all is done what it is, what it was,
engraved on tablets of light as the moment
is engraved with radiance on this
axis of the universe.
26 September 1995
*necrology: -a list or record of people who have died, an obituary
-found in some Baha’i books with some accompanying statement on the life of the person.
In 1962 the poets John Berryman and Robert Lowell were placed at the head of what Australian essayist Clive James more than 30 years later called “the pugnacious Penguin anthology The New Poetry.” English poet, writer and critic A. Alvarez wrote an introduction to that anthology in which he wrote a savage rejection of the gentility principle. The gentility principle was the view that "gentility, decency and all the other social totems will eventually help us all muddle through.” This was the view, wrote Alvarez, of the timid English poets.
As well as giving an account of what was happening to poetry in the 1950s when I was a child and adolescent, it is quite possible that Alvarez’s editing of this anthology helped to shape what happened to poetry later in the 1960s and 1970s. Three years later, the year I decided to move to the NWT in Canada as part of my contribution to the Canadian Bahá'í community. In that year, 1965, Alvarez placed it on record, in his book Under Pressure: The Writer In Society, that there were dangers, overbearing difficulties and all sorts of problems that poets who wrote a personal poetry of breakdown might conceivably run into.
When poets begin to internalize everything: nature and society, art and life, intimacy and response, the focus on the self which is the result of such internalization can result in boredom for the reader. Extremism in the arts — the cultivation, the endless description, of one’s breakdown and all the diverse facets of mental disorders — can end not so much in anarchy as in a kind of internal fascism by which the artist, to relieve his own boredom, becomes both torturer and tortured. The critic, however, should always be ready to face the contrary possibility that an artist, in order to stay creative, might cherish his wounds or even invent them. (1) –Clive James, “Al Alvarez: Big Medicine,” and “On A.D. Hope,” at CliveJames.com
I had no idea back then in ’62
when I had only just written my
first poem, moved to the next town
with my parents, helped form the 1st
spiritual assembly of the Baha’is of
Dundas, begun to experience my own
BP disorder & started my final year of
high school-that New Poetry & essays
of A. Alvarez even existed. We sat on
the edge of nuclear war in October ’62
as I studied nine matriculation subjects.
But I have come to agree with A.A.
when he wrote back in 1968 when I
was going in & out of 4 psychiatric
hospitals, clinics and wards that.....
Perhaps the basic misunderstanding encouraged by Extremist art about one’s in extremis experience is that the artist’s life on the outer edge of whatever the tolerable aspects of life are--is somehow a substitute for creativity. In fact, the opposite is true; in order to make art out of deprivation and despair the artist needs proportionately rich internal resources. Contrary to current belief, there is no short-cut to creative ability, not even through the psychiatric ward of the most progressive mental hospital. However rigidly his experience is internalized, the genuine artist does not simply project his own nervous system as a pattern for reality. He is what he is because his inner world is more substantial, variable and self-renewing than that of ordinary people, so that even in his deepest isolation he is left with something more sustaining than mere narcissism. In this, of course, the modern artist is like every other creative figure in history: he knows what he knows; he has his own vision steady within him, and every new work is an attempt to reveal a little more of it. What sets the contemporary artist apart from his predecessors is his lack of external standards by which to judge his reality. He not only has to launch his craft and control it, he also has to make his own compass.-A.Alvarez in the title essay of Beyond all this Fiddle, 1968.
Well, A.A., I’ve had some external
standards to judge life’s realities &
I’ve had some help making my own
compass as I’ve been launching and
controlling my literary-writing craft..
I would agree with Clive James that it is the distance from the tragic events of one’s life that makes us free from them. This distance could be called detachment. Detachment helps to free us from being blindly inclined to the many errors of reason and the senses or from being repelled from facing life’s truths due to our personal loves and hates, our judgmentalism, as some call our tendency to see find faults in others.
This detachment also frees us from the propensity for absorbing history into the self and being under the impression that it fits. The shock around the images of our personal tragedy is the shock of sentimental excess, James calls it. Poetry can by its nature encompass personal tragedy, but there is also material which the poet can’t encompass, can’t render personal, due to the material’s nature. The tragedy is just too intense that it can’t survive the scaling down into words on a page. Where and when the poetry of such tragedy works at all, as in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, it works because of the very pathos of the attempt. -Ron Price with thanks to Clive James, op.cit.
Thanks Clive for this essayistic
journey down my road of life
and the power of understanding:
intellect and wisdom are for sure
the two most luminous lights in
the world of existence, Clive.....
goodonyer, Clive, goodonyer....
8 December 2009
AUTOBIOGRAPHY and MEMOIR
My autobiographical narrative, my memoir, is partly an experiment with a means, a way, of defining my experience of a religious and cultural heritage. This heritage to which I refer is bound up with the Baha’i community and my experience of it for nearly sixty years(1953-2010) and a heritage that could be said, arguably, to go back to 1744. Through this writing, this autobiography, this literary production, I attempt to turn my small part in one of the world’s most significant but, as yet, quite obscure diasporas—that of national and international Bahá'í pioneers--as far as the general public is concerned into a literary activity that is both an act of personal memory and a part of that heritage and its institutional and cultural memory. My narrative records my confrontation with both a native and a host culture, a Baha’i and a non-Baha’i culture, a confrontation that has been part of my total experience since 1953. I recognise that any attempt to explicate my experience of the Bahá'í community and this Bahá'í heritage in the space of a few paragraphs will necessarily result in a crudification, an oversimplification, of that experience and that heritage. It is necessary to provide some account of my experience in order to set a point of reference for my understanding. It is this understanding that, in some ways, is at the foundation of my autobiography, a work that is now a 2600 page narrative.
What I try to do in some 16 essays on autobiography written over a sixteen year period from 1995 to 2010, after completing the first edition of my memoirs themselves written over the decade 1984-1994; and, indeed, what I try to do—among other things--in most of my writing is to try and understand a pioneer condition, accept its many dimensions and explain it to others as much as I am able. I resort in this work to the act of narration as an expression of my role in the hybrid nature of this global phenomenon, a phenomenon of voluntary migration, migration both in my own homeland and overseas. This diasporic phenomenon in its individual details is not written about, at least not significantly in the public domain. It is simply, virtually, unknown to the general public. This great diaspora won’t be forgotten by history and history’s public memory, though, because the Bahá'í archives in their multitudinous forms have the stories now in books, in boxes, in libraries and in computer hard-drives in thousands of localities around the world.
I face the basic inability of linguistic discourse to fully articulate the whole of my lived experience. The whole exercise is partly to dream the impossible dream. The brilliance of the Bahá'í diaspora over more than a century and a half now, a diaspora largely hidden from public gaze by the judicious use of the proverbial bushel, by lack of any real interest on the part of the wider society and by the very complexity of our age—will one day become well-known. The Bahá'í community is a pioneer society in so many ways.
Canada, the home of my birth, is a pioneer society historically. It is a country six time-zones wide (93 degrees of longitude), with its head high in Arctic ice and its feet in the same hot latitudes as the Mediterranean Sea. It has ten million square kilometres of land, over half covered by boreal forest and 32 million people. It is a country filled with pioneers: the indigenous peoples long before the end of the ice age, perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago, came across the Bering Strait; the first Europeans five centuries before Columbus--1985 was the millennium anniversary of the Norse arrival in what is now Canada; and in the last century or more pioneers who came from many lands to make up the present multicultural society that is Canada. These first European peoples lived in tiny communities of fishing and minimal farming which lasted some 350 years. These Norse people did not try to enslave the native peoples and the natives were not destroyed by disease nor were they worked to death in gold and silver mines as happened in the Caribbean after the Spanish arrival.
Small fishing, hunting and farming communities made good sense in a cold, rocky landscape. That northern tradition of life continued over centuries: it was largely people from the Orkney Islands and Scotland who, after 1670, opened up the centre of our country to Europeans through the fur trade via Hudson Bay. I mention all of this because Canada has a long history of pioneers and so, too, does Australia, although I won’t go into that here as I have done in relation to Canada. The pioneer is endemic to both countries and I see myself within this long tradition, of course in quite a different context, a socio-historico-spiritual one.
This autobiography of my own pioneering takes nearly half a century(1962-2010) of personal events in the realm of memory and locates connecting points between ancestral, family, societal and religious history along linking lines in an attempt to create a unified whole, a synthesis in time and space. And so it is that, in the context of reproducing my history and my family's history, this autobiography is critically rewriting—at least in part--a new version, a variant, of the old story of my community, my Baha’i community. At the same time a dialogue is created both within and without the Baha’i community, a dialogue about that community’s memory, its contents and discontents. Fiction writing it is often said is about things that are not true but they are real or, to put it another way, they are not real but they are true. In the case of my story, I like to think it is both real and true. I try to steer a safe navigation as I go about this written exploration of a course between the twin perils of scepticism and dogmatism which dog the paths of memoirists as well as the writers of many other genres of expository and intellectual writing and belle lettres.
In this essay I want to draw on the writing of a fellow Canadian here: Emily Carr(1871-1945). This famous Canadian artist wrote a great deal of autobiographically-based prose and the collections of her work are now read as a record charting the development of a uniquely Canadian brand of individualism and artistic development. Perhaps this work, all of my autobiographically-based prose and poetry will one day help to chart the Bahá'í experience in the first century of the Formative Age. This writing could be said to exist as a text, as "literature engagée," which attempts to contribute in its own way to new didactic readings of Baha’i history, its politics and sociology, its psychology and the poetry of its community, indeed, in general terms what it means to be a Bahá'í, and especially a pioneer, in the last six decades(1961-2021) of the first century of that community’s Formative Age. There are many layers of circumstantial memories in the Baha’i community, a multiplicity of narratives, multiple voices and multiple interpretations of the same story. The ones that are written down—and there are a myriad of them now after more than a century and a half of the history of this community—are for the most part short and sweet or not-so-sweet as the case may be; some are of medium length and they can be found in all sorts of publications and a very few, like my memoir, are long-and hopefully sweet, bitter-sweet and of some pleasure to the intellectual taste-buds of readers. There are a very few personal and historical narratives that are long ones and multi-volumed as is this one.
The story of Emily Carr’s life and art, writes Susan Elderkin, sometimes appears to eclipse the woman and her experiences. I trust this will not be the case with my story, although one has little control over what others will do with what one writes after one’s passing. Throughout her fictions, autobiography, journals, and published letters, Emily Carr displays her frustration and preoccupation with the public reception of her works. Perhaps, if Carr had had access to the internet in the way that I have enjoyed in the last decade, her frustrations and preoccupations would have been less intense. I get feedback which is immediate and simply pass by the publishers who once concerned me back in the 1980s and 1990s. It has also been suggested that Carr needed to regard herself as an unappreciated artist in order to continue her work. For the most part, the appreciation or lack of it in the public domain does not concern me since I am a small-time player in an immense ball-park of print that threatens to submerge the reading public, if they have not already drowned. This great burgeoning of print is something of concern to many a writer and they must each and all work out their own solution to this problem.
Carr's attention to the reception of her work suggests a keen interest in self-disclosure and disguise. The two apparently contradictory impulses, revelation and self-protection, appear in a wide variety of guises in all of her prose. She repeatedly describes identity as something immediately present yet undisclosed and she accentuates this paradox by expressing selfhood metaphorically. Self-disclosure and disguise or non-disclosure is also a concern of mine as memoirist. This is not only because of the desire for self-protection but also due to my preference for a moderate, as opposed to, a full-blown confessionalism in my writing.
I aim to create a construction of history and culture that is a shared one, a process, based on a collective effort, that excludes no one in the Bahá'í community and involves anyone who has the interest and the desire to read what I have written. As a general comment, though, I would like to emphasize that my memoir is not a particularly easy read. My own experience of the many fields of analysis in the social sciences and humanities is now clearly hopelessly out of date but, still, I try to draw on the developments in the several disciplines of the social sciences that are relevant to this account. It has been impossible for me to keep abreast of the burgeoning fields of knowledge that relate to writing this memoir. As I have gone about this literary construction I have done the best I can, given the expanding, efflorescing nature of the social sciences and humaities that relate in one way or another to my wliterayr work. I am tempted to say: “who can?”
Writing this autobiography has been a major exercise with many hurdles along the way. Readers trying to engage with this work may find they, too, have their problems. The language that I use may cause them to get out their dictionary or turn to a glossary which my editors may want to include one day when my work is published. Sometimes I think my work, my writing and commentary, is overly courteous, that I have a too gentlemanly manner and that in reading my multi-faceted oeuvre readers may form the impression that I am too polite and uncritical. This would be a mistake for I have often been aroused in life, even on not-so-rare occasions to towering rages, in part due to my bipolar disorder. I have certainly been moved to much displeasure and annoyance when irked by the often and awkward uncooperativeness of many who have crossed my path in life.
By these middle years(65-75) of late adulthood(60-80), this annoyance and irksomeness has dissipated significantly but I think this has been due to the new medication regime that came into my bloodstream at the age of 63 more than any inherent spiritual development that has come my way. I am not the gregarious person I once was and my capacity for social interaction and maintaining patience, tolerance and compassion--when I do engage with others--is not as high as I would like or as it once was.
“The provincial intellectual is doomed to arguing at low level,” Clive James wrote in an essay on the Australian poet Christopher Brennan which appeared in the London Review of Books in 1982. “There is still no Australian literary world, not in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth or Canberra,” writes James. It is some consolation to realise, at least according to James, that there is no literary world in Birmingham or Los Angeles either. James says that he has heard there is one in Montreal, but he doesn’t believe it. The literary world is in London and New York, he continues his analysis. They are the only cities big enough to sustain magazines which can afford to reject copy. I’m not sure how accurate James’ views are here. It hardly matters to me one way or another. My intellectual world is in cyberspace and there it looks like staying for the time being. I do not have the social and psychological energy to sustain such a world in real space, if it did become available to me. If I lived in the midst, in the vortex, of such an intellectual world in any of these cities I would have to remain far out on the periphery.
In my intellectual world and the larger non-intellectual world of cyberspace in which I have come to dwell in the last decade, I have no desire to dumb down my work, although I do make every effort to use simple language, language free of unnecessary jargon. And I am more than willing to put up my own hand in pleading appalling ignorance in so many fields. Being sent scurrying to look up words like ‘hermeneutic’ and ‘epistemology,’ should not be too frequent an experience for readers of my work. I hope so anyway. I try to keep readers free from the experience of swallowing sentences like: ‘The idea of an ungraspable entity that affects discourse is one elucidated by the Lacanian psychoanalytical concept of the “real.”’ It is sentences like this which fill many a volume in today’s academic world, which give readers intellectual indigestion and which make them jump analytical hoops in the course of their literary negotiations. I hope I fully explain my analytical journeys and help readers work through as well as comprehend each argument that I use as i go about my own journey. In this way, I trust my memoir and my writings in general, are both educational and rewarding. May readers gain an appreciation of my life, my times and my religion that they could not acquire any other way.
Dipping into my five volumes of memoirs and expecting to glean little nuggets of information which readers can slip casually into their next conversation is an ideal that for some will be reached but I’m sure, for most, such an activity is something I advise readers not to expect, not to shoot for. If readers want to prepare to read my work, if they want to prepare the foundations for their own appreciation of my autobiography, they can read in much the same way I did when writing my book, my prose in its several forms and my poetry. In this way readers will be involved with me in what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin(1895-1975) calls dialogic interaction. "Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of dialogic interaction," writes Mikhail Bakhtin in his analysis of Dostoevsky's Poetics.
AND YET MORE PROSE-POETRY
I CAN SEE YOU NOW
I have found it difficult in the last several years to get my mind off the Arc that is being built on Mt Carmel. It fills me with profound pleasure and ardent expectations.-Ron Price, A comment on the poem which follows.
For if we look back at one hundred years of an unexampled history of unremitting progress, we also look forward to many centuries of unfolding fulfillment of divine purpose...incrementally realized...-Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 1992, p.1.
I can see you now: close and distant, near and far,
with pregnant and tragic import, loosening and
tightening, expanding and contracting, separating
and compacting, soaring and drooping, rising and
falling, dispersive and scattering, hovering and
brooding, unsubstantial lightness, massive blow--
such is the stuff you are made of, up on that hill,
over there, infinitely diversified, but I can express
you here: the significant, the relevant, compressed
and intensified in some exalted rising, surging
and retreating, the sudden thrust, the gradual
insinuation until I am obsessed with your wonder
and can hardly take my mind off of you: the enduring,
the voluminous, the solid, room, filling, power, energy
of position and motion, rightness in placing.
And so I am in poised readiness to meet your
surrounding forces, to persist, to endure with
some energy and some opportunity for action
with my unique experience, gradually letting
you yield to me in the changing light and moods,
your enduring sacredness and charm and your
monumental register of cherished expectations.
23 December 1995
IN MEMORY OF SUSAN SONTAG
The present age lives by a scenario in which apocalypse looms and it doesn’t occur...And still it looms. -Susan Sontag in Susan Sontag: the Elegiac Modernist, Sohnya Sayre, Routledge, NY, 1990, p.147.
Dear Susan, I send you this prose-poem on hearing of your death as Australia lives through its vernal equinox. You lived through some of “the darkest hours before the break of day.” “Peace, as promised, will come at night’s end. Press on to meet the dawn.”1 And you pressed on, indeed, you pressed on. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message, 1993.
(Note: more editing required below at a later date)
In these early years of
the last stage of history
you1 have written, written,
like so many, pouring
a flood of knowledge
onto a world drowning,
drowning in an obscure ocean.
I always admired your work,
your endless, obsessive work
and your insights: tragedy is
the way we acknowledge
the world’s implacability.*
The House referred to it as
a ‘discouragingly meagre”
response. Then, there was your
succinct statement on comedy
as a precarious ascendancy.*
You wrote so much that
most people I’ve ever met
just stay out of the ball park
or way out in left field;
you become the lone figure
in the lonely landscape,
you who have been writing,
You knew, then, that thought
was in ruins and your eschatological
mentality and concern for religious
redemption never found its way
near the Nightengale of Paradise
Who sang on the Tree of Eternity.
Your melancholy, your seriousness,
your death of history, of self,
of culture, your homelessness,
your autobiographical thinking,**
heroic amidst the ruins, seeking
to simplify, not trusting--all
in this apocalyptic which looms,
while we wait, which looms
in these last dark minutes
and hours before the dawn.
3 October 1995
1 Susan Sontag
* Susan Sontag, ibid., p.90.
**Sohnya Sayre, ibid., p.128; all thinking has an autobiographical aspect says Sohnya.
A COMPLEX JOURNEY
We make these observations...to encourage a re-examination of the bases of modern society, and to....lay the ground for a contrasting observation of the origin and nature of the characteristics and philosophy underlying that Order.-Universal House of Justice, 29 December 1988.
The quest for a rational ethic1 was
what launched the social sciences
into orbit. Their mission was to define
modernity in all its labyrinthine forms.
The ground for the contrasting
observation of this new Order
has one or two features which
this poem would like to underline.
First, is the sacred nature of this
Order as opposed to one that
drew on Greece and Rome as
the source, the model, for today.
We can no longer look to them;
nor can the long and tortured
history of the great religions
be of any value as we search.
But to understand where we
have been and how we got there
is a useful matrix to describe
why we are where we are today.
To gain this understanding
you can spend your whole
lifetime, for the journey is the
most complicated you can take.
Ron Price 6 October 1996
1 Donald N. Levine, Visions of the Sociological Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1995, p.317. In this interesting account of the position of sociology today, Levine argues that this search for a rational ethic was what got the social sciences going in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This ethic is essentially a secular one, like the ethic that was the underpinning of Greece and Rome.
Levine describes the fracturing of the social science disciplines since the late 1960s and ealry 1970s. The very maps for describing them seem to be in question. We seem to need not only new maps, but new principles for mapping. Answering questions like those raised by the House of Justice in this 1988 letter will keep Baha’i social scientists busy for decades to come for they are fundamental and extremely complex.
6 October 1996
When you1 wrote of the next Augustan age
you had no idea in the slightest
that a fully institutionalized charisma,
a different glory,
leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried
A golden age of poetry and power
of which that noonday was the beginning hour
and about to dawn in the celebration
of the Most Great Jubilee.
This was no King Arthur
presiding over a Camelot,
but a new order of the ages.
There would be no assassination here,
no glamorous fatality,
just the slow growth of a prophetic message,
unobtrusive, unbeknownst to humankind.
Yes, as Mailer said,
these were boundary-making times
of epochal significance,
not in Los Angeles2 ,
but in London and Haifa,
as the ninth stage of history,
a grand design3 unfolded.
Mailer’s words were already sounding hollow
as paeans of joy and gratitude
were raised to the throne of Baha’u’llah
for those who kept the ship on its course
and brought it safe to port4
as the tenth and final stage of history
opened its doors to the mighty task ahead
and a dream which was never written
in shorthand, never truncated, always vast
as if we were asked to reach for the stars,
a renaissance always in the making,
always it is morning
and back, then, the beginning hour,
the alpha5 point of postmodern history
joining the past with the future
in one continuous garment of light,
corridor of brightness, now,
concentric circles irradiating the globe
from the holiest spot on earth
in an alabaster sarcophagus.
1 Robert Frost wrote a panegryric poem at President John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. These italicized lines are from that poem and are quoted in The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, p.228.
2 The Democratic Convention of 1960 was held in Los Angeles at the Sports Arena and Norman Mailer, a popular American writer of the time, saw this Convention as “the most important...in America’s history.” The essay in which he expressed this idea was published in 1963 in The Presidential Papers. -ibid. p.229.
3 The Universal House of Justice used this term to express Shoghi Effendi’s unfolding of the meaning of history and of the Cause in his thirty-six year ministry. -Wellspring of Guidance, p.1.
4 The Hands of the Cause in: ibid., p.2.
5 there are a wide range of ‘alpha points’ the poet could draw on in playing with this concept of beginnings. April 1963 is just one such point.
7 December 1996
Among those who visited...some were recalled to life...But others, in truth, have simply passed through; they have only taken a tour.-’Abdu’l-Baha
Not on the ocean, on a semi-circular bay,
always impressed me as a rather grotty place
in pictures except for those places on the hill.
Just another noisy, dirty city as far as I could see,
except, as I say, for that garden up on Carmel.
Recently, they’ve been building, building,
excavating, ornamenting, terracing, planting,
putting in more of that Pentelicon marble:
I tell you they’re transforming this old place,
giving it a future--Herzl’s ‘city of the future.’
I’ve never been here, as it would appear;
never touched down at Ben Gurion,
nor moved through the humid summer air.
I could be one of those tourists that
the Haifa Tourism Board is so keen on.
This journey has taken longer than I had planned
when I began to think about this place back in,
what, 1955? That’s as long as Moses took to
get to the promised land. Fitting really: the
whole thing tastes of new beginnings.
27 December 1995
THE FLOWERING OF SEEDS
In 1909 William Carlos Williams started with writing poetry like Keats and the body of the Bab was placed in a marble sarcophagus in Haifa Israel. So began a fascinating journey of a quintessential American poet and so ended another of risks and perils to enshrine a precious Trust in Its home in the Holy Land. -ABC, Sunday Afternoon: WCW, 25 June 1995 and Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp.274-275.
You gave us something new:
a new poetry for everyman,
for what he did, words-
these were the units, real, concrete,
anything felt, anything amusing
makes poetry, you said.
You celebrated the new,
(logical for a pediatrition)
contemplated your loneliness,
your world and ours.
And you did all this just
as a new Order was breaking
onto the world, unbeknownst
to most, perhaps symbolized
when He came to America
in 1912 as you were starting
to run from the Old to a new voice,
as another new Voice was breaking out
unobtrusively in the mid-most heart
of a new world, Chicago.
And now in the midst of that other
Old world, the Voice reposes
on the Isle of Faithfulness,
having been carried ever so
surreptitiously to that Mount
where mystic influence now radiates
for our handiwork and wisdom to adore.
A new loveliness seemed to burst out
over the arts, raining down, raining down
as an old world died with blood pouring
out in buckets, as if history was expiring
her last breath, perhaps at Verdun and the Somme.
Now a beauty, only just seen, can be starred at,
leaned on, from above, below, kissed
on those ever-sleeping lips, hidden now
beneath a Dust of magic Light.
A beauty, crystal-concentrate, light
in an old spiritual place--you can’t miss it,
no one misses it who goes there.
Has a grace so contained as to pose no threat.
Has a touch of Marxism, a little of the green,
a flavour of the liberal and a cup of tradition:
something in it for everyone,
two-bob each way, some might say.
The Age has not figured Her out, perhaps,
deserves Her not, but needs Her in these
troublesome days of plague-swept streets,
chilled hearts and utter unbelieveable complexity.
25 June 1995
SUPREME REALITY AND ALLEN GINSBERG
The poems in this volume(1953-1960)...mostly lack the desperately earnest cry for truth and the snug-tension accuracy of Ginsberg at his best. -A.R. Ammons, “Ginsberg’s New Poems”(published 1964) in 'On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg,' Lewis Hyde, editor, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1984, p.185
Truth and justice are achieved, not questioned and described. -Maurice Blanchot, The Siren Song: Selected Essays, Harvester Press, 1982, Brighton, p.135.
Yours just may have been the
quintessential cry for truth
as it was uttered at the very beginning
of the Kingdom of God on earth.*
For your story really begins in 1953
which was quite a big year
for this mystic and messianic poet
of impossible visions
in the liveliest spot for poetry
in the USA: San Francisco,
after your eight months in
a mental hospital in 1949.
Your howl against everything
in our materialist world
in your new poetics of vision,
as you tried to catch
the texture of our age
and as you tried to catch
the Supreme Reality+
you caught the mystical
death wish, a desire to draw
near to that sense of cosmic awe.
The ninth stage of history
was opening up and the inception
of the Kingdom of God on earth:*
a mystical air of new beginnings
was caught by your poetic consciousness
which turned to Buddhism.
The step of search in the path
leading unto the knowledge
of the Ancient of Days
took you down some road
leading to illusions
of embodiments of satanic fancy.**
And so it was that the Beat Generation
and the New American Poetry
missed an eschatological centre
that was completed, at last,
in Chicago in 1953 with all
the trappings of millennial zeal
and the apocalyptic as it was
symbolized and enshrined
in Real manifestations of a New Age,
Whose Dust was now in Haifa.
4 October 1995
* Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.351.
+ Allen Ginsberg had a profound interest in spiritual reality in the late 1940s and early 1950s
and turned, in 1954, to Buddhism.
** Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, Tablet of the True Seeker.
MEMORY: BRIEF ESSAY
The Experience of Pioneering in the Baha’i Community
By becoming authors, performers and educators, pioneers continue to revisit, verbalise and teach the importance of their traditional identity in self-created ways. Their work can be an exemplary model for how memory and creativity combine to form the impetus that drives the pioneering tradition forward in addition to traditions in the Baha’i community not necessarily associated with pioneering. From a distant angle, memory is a deceptively dormant force, often disconnected with the everyday life of the Baha’i community save for bursts of nostalgia from the places and contexts of the present, from the lives of the pioneers themselves.
One of the literary places for the past and its memory which resonates within the culture of the pioneer, that is the pioneer who has moved from the places of his birth and youth, is that of the carrying stream, or the stream of consciousness in the writing of the pioneer. Memory is understood as a place in continual motion, a personal and collective archive of occasional knowledge. It is like a vast repertoire that is subject to periods of increased relevance and creativity or irrelevance and inactivity in the context of, and the relationship to, the life cycle, the pioneer’s life cycle, his lifespan.
In the culture of the pioneer the idea of memory as an ongoing stream of conscience and consciousness can make the content of his experience contemporary, instructive and meaningful to others, at least he hopes that is the case. Memories transmit not only the events of his past, but also coherent learning processes, the worldviews that provide the foundations for confident creativity, individualism, and various forms of the collectivity that is the Baha’i community. When viewed as creativity, memory becomes an evolving store of knowledge, a source of informed imitation and individualistic originality.
A pioneer like myself who has been on the road, so to speak, for half a century has a whole world at his command and that's where he can find pure creativity. That's where real story telling and writing about his experience come from. It's about looking with one’s spiritual eye, with one’s inner eye. When that eye opens, many of the former barriers disappear. The writer who is the pioneer can go to many places. Of course, this is not the case all the time for there are always various constraints of time and circumstance.
I see this pioneering venture of mine like a series of films or plays in front of me. I am the producer, the director, the actors, the narrator. I’ m every character in these films and plays. My hope is that others can see me in these films. But I’m the one who’s got to convey it! If I don’t convey it, it will not come to exist in the collective memory. I can see it on the big screen and then I transcribe it into words on the page. I see it in a cinemascope Hollywood production. Every colour's there, and everything's there, everything I put there. And I want folks to see this vision. Writers like to have readers in similar ways that talkers like to have listeners.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of memory to a pioneer like myself, contributing his small part to the great pioneering tradition within this latest of the Abrahamic religions, is its role as a human treasury of immeasurable wealth. It may be overstating the case to describe my inheritance as a silver chalice to be nurtured and passed on. I attempt to share my experience, my culture of the pioneer, in the face of change. This sharing is an act that embodies the belief that nothing is gone unless it is forgotten or, more importantly, unless I don’t write about it. By choosing to remember my pioneer experience, so often outwardly and apparently insignificant, I have prioritised the communal bonds of my personal and community life. I have engaged in a human exchange in order to celebrate my part in a pioneering heritage that is a source of pride, ownership and creativity.
Without my active belief in the continuing vitality of my pioneer experience, it would be nothing more than a dirt track. Combining memory, tradition, and creativity, I have recreated its understated landscape as a living and monumental archive, an archive that is my pioneering life. Unless I write about my experience it is carefully buried in what you might call a midden. A midden is a place where one disposes of rubbish or where one buries things for posterity. Concealed in layers, the midden is capable of divulging artefacts which relay a history of human dwelling. From the fragmented and unknown to the objects of living memory, the pieces of broken china, horse brasses and tackle, or cracked pots, cups and basins confirm the ancestral and emanate belonging. Nearer the surface objects become more complete in their direct relationship to remembered people. This midden will never be unearthed if I do not write about my experience. It will remain concealed. My relationship to remembered people will never find a public face.
The material in this midden becomes a conduit for new narratives that use a sense of the past to objectify the present. Within pioneer culture the pervasive themes of cyclical renewal, or life as a journey, reflect a worldview instilled by the practical, descriptive, and symbolic richness of pioneering as a form of education in which the guidance of family and community, tradition and nature is always accessible when sought.
My life as a pioneer and my memories of the journey have taught me to cultivate the spirit of discernment and the ability to read my environment from the inside. Tradition, the tradition of pioneering in the Baha’i community, manifests itself in the connections of knowledge drawn between the visible and the unseen. My belief as a pioneer in both the material aspects of my life and the traditions of my religion carry energetic properties, tangible shadows of the lives and experiences they connote. Handed down in my writing is a belief that "the eyes are the mirror of the soul.” Looking in, so to speak, on the landscape that is my environment has become a type of teacher, a type of reflection of the human situations in which I have been involved.
My work today honours the memory of those pioneers who came over, perhaps, the last two centuries. I carry their knowledge forward in a unique and individual way. By passing on the mantle of tradition with an informed knowledge of its symbolic importance and an awareness of my sources I, in turn, become a teacher and ensure, in the process, the continuity of that tradition. Memory, experienced through tradition, provides what you might call an ancestrally sanctioned route for the development of solutions to current challenges.
Catching a glimpse of this journey, mine and others, can give visitors and readers a sort of return to a tradition that is richer in knowledge and transformed by the experience of a world perceived anew, perceived anew by this pioneer. In the dedicated work of sharing the experience within my pioneering culture, performers like myself communicate a worldview that can cross the boundaries of outside memory, using tradition as a force to instigate positive changes in popular belief.
Moving past the "tip of the iceberg", between the study of community and the experiential language of tradition, terms such as "multi-dimensionality" can suggest ways of looking anew at the complicated dynamics of memory in traditional contexts. "Looking in" on the sensory dimensions of the experience of tradition elucidates how places exist in memory. It suggests that these places of memory serve as a motivational and creative force in tradition because of their human connections.
The pioneer journey is a landscape humanised by tradition. Its land is rich with the ancestral memory of learned knowledge and narrated in the distilled essence of experiences represented by a host of archetypal figures. Just below the surface, from the stories told of people that lived once, to the intensely individualised associations of living memory, the vertical meets the horizontal, the continual and immediate. Going through the eye of the writer creates a place; it is the land where stories grow, where levels of knowledge and immediacy converge, resulting in moments of epiphany or timelessness, in the realm of experience. Journeying through tradition in the landscape, the evolving present meets with the vertical strata of commonly held, cross-generational truths, converging with layers of sensory experience in the here and now. In its spirit of renewal, the past and the present exist in unison because each feature of its landscape contains multiple layers of association, the many levels of experience between the exoteric and esoteric which inhabit the memories of every human being.
The transition from the experiential to the written is made possible by journeys of the mind through what you might call the eye of the writer. Travelling through the eye of this writer, or breathing in my chosen surroundings, I understand that people and places are an ever-present part of myself and may be revisited by the mind and through the intensity of memory from any physical location. Memory fuelled by tradition is a place in the mind; it comes from the past yet lives in the moment of recollection. Everyone continually relives and recreates from their past. It is the attentiveness of the going within that brings the creative spark of the pioneer to the moment and ensures the vitality of tradition. To look at memory as a multi-layered process of tradition, dwelling and humanisation is ultimately to ask "Where does memory live?" In the pioneer tradition of the immense Baha’i diaspora of the last dozen or so decades, this is not entirely in the past, but in the consciousness of its eternal presence.
-Ron Price with thanks to Sara Reith, “Through the "Eye of the Skull": Memory and Tradition in a Travelling Landscape,” The University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Cultural Analysis, Volume 7, 2008.
VISIONS AND CONSECRATED JOY
On or about December 1910 human character changed.-Virginia Woolf in The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, Malcohm Bradbury, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria, 1989, p.15.
We heard about your leaving, then,(December 1910)
at the age of sixty-five, after twenty-four
years in Haifa. You’d seen Carmel and Akka
joined in light, around the bay,
teeming with ships from all nation,
shining like jewels, a global metropolis
that would have excited Abraham.
And the world did change as you
walked down that Mountain to the steamer
and on to Egypt. Needing a rest, you
took your visions West, to those minarettes
of materialism. With that Dust finally
in its home, You were ready to flood new
regions with that light that was The Call
to change human character forever
with those seeds of Ancient Splendour
and the fresh leaves of Your consecrated joy.
27 October 1995
A PURE IDEA, A PURE PASSION
The most deeply known human community is language itself. The greatness of the Baha’i Writings lies in their community of speech, of language. Here, new structures of language enable us to see things differently. The process of communication and its language, its speech, is in fact the process of community. During the 1840s, Raymond Williams maintains, the whole concept of community, in terms of the way people experienced it, defined it and related to it, became increasingly uncertain. The novel became the major form in English literature in this decade.-Ron Price with thanks to John Eldridge and Lizzie Eldridge, Raymond Williams: Making Connections, Routledge, NY, 1994, pp.131-132.
You certainly timed it right, then,
appearing as you did on the edge
of it all, way out on the periphery,
with major shifts going on all
over the place from ‘what hath God
wrought’ to Marx’s first writings,
to communication and community.
Your words, so many of them, of
such beauty: man’s glory lieth in
his knowledge1 and the Bridge which
is sharper than the sword and finer
than a hair.2
Again, a maiden appeared in a dream
in that pestilential pit to him, after you
were gone, and whole new processes,
structures of feeling, were deepened
and widened, in a pressure for renewal,
always moving, inexorably to a future
that was hard to grasp, hard to find in
a rhythm, a movement, a necessary shape
of a quite different life, a pure idea, a pure
passion for a different world where nothing
would be seen more fitting than the observance
1 The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, Haifa, 1976, p. 118.
2 ibid., p.96.
Ron Price 2/11/96.
WE MUST BE HAPPY
Dolly is tied to a man who is intelligent, gay, good natured, but without morals-a man delightful and yet shallow...A part of his nature is simply missing, yet he is charming. Anna’s life, in contrast, becomes a catastrophy because of her conscience, her loyalty, her morality. -Logan Speirs, Tolstoy and Chekhov, Cambridge UP, 1971, p.89.
Where do you anchor your heart?
In water that yields a bitter taste?
From what cup do you drink?
One that contains a bitter wine?
Only non-existence can bring
the sweetest taste, the honey,
that has no taste of self, no taste
of here, nothing of this narrow
place of shadows, this dust heap
of the fleeting moment, this devilish
prison place, place of ravening wolves
and animals with blinded eyes* where
we must lay down our lives and, in so
doing, rejoice: for we must be happy!
14 April 1996
* ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa, 1978, p.72.
...lightening and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. -Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, p.125.
We have just been seen, at last
beyond the sea of obscurity;
the light of our star has finally
reached humankind: you can see it
now on Mt Carmel: Haste thee O Carmel!
It took many billions of years
before the Earth was formed
and more billions before man
appeared in his present form.
Everything seems to have a time,
a season, for its fruiting.
The time for the unity of the world
as one people in one common faith
has come. Nothing on Earth can stop
its relentless force; the plan of God
will unfold with an inevitability
that is unseen and unknown.
The dominant principle of the million year
period(500,000 BC to 500,000 AD) is the
political and religious unification of the planet.
And it is all happening imperceptibly before our eyes,
an important part of it in our lifetimes.
We have gone from three million people
in 8000 BC to nearly six billion today.
He appeared at the start of this great
burgeoning, this flowering beyond
our wildest dreams and greatest understanding.
Here we are. He was here. Its apotheosis
can be seen on Mt Carmel in Haifa Israel.
IT IS DAWN
....it is dawn already. Draw back the curtains and open the windows wide. How cool the morning air is! The mountain lies at our feet like a great pregnant mother. The dew is heavy on the grass. The shadows of the houses range from a dirty grey to purple. It is too late to sleep. Let us go up to the Hanging Gardens and look at that many-splendoured-thing which hangs like a jewel up there on her bare chest. Come! I am tired of thought.-Ron Price, imagined conversation in, say, late 1999 in Haifa in some small apartment near the city centre.
Come, let us go up the hill.
It is all so new and fresh.
There is whiteness and green
everywhere and sacredness
flowing down, down, down.
Come, let us go up the hill,
this mountain above the town
and the sea, far from the ocean,
near another Ocean that billows with
endless conversations, consultations.
For this is a place of words, the Word,
from the Point to a Beauty that can not
be told of here, beyond passing, but we
try in this token of our love, our gratitude
for all that has gone before and all that is to come.
24 February 1996
San Francisco as a literary frontier has been a contentious place....these tensions are worked out within the myth of a “city on a hill” that claims belatedness as a sign of divine largess. Because that community was founded late in the history of a corrupt world, it might serve as a fulfillment of an ancient covenant. -Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century, Cambridge UP, 1989, pp.217-218.
Haifa as a religious frontier has been part of a contentious place...these tensions will be worked out within the myth of a “city on a hill”. Perhaps belatedness is a sign of divine largess here too, a sign of a fulfillment on an ancient covenant. -Ron Price, Comment on the poem below which compares the origins of the Baha’i Administrative Order and a new renaissance in poetry.
We* were born---the Order that is---
amidst the immense panorama
of futility and anarchy
which is contemporary history,
that constellated world
of shattered shibboleths;
by the time the Kingdom of God
really got going with
that manifest Standard**
a renaissance of poetry had begun
amidst vertiginous spirals
of contradictions and restatements,
a babel of noise in bars, cellars,
jazz sounds, cafeterias, readings,
primitive energy, instinctual forces,
hostility to civilization,
mystiques of participation
and an unholy holiness:
It looked like the real thing---
those beatniks, Allen Ginsberg,
Jack Kerouac who searched
for a realm of comfort and vitality
in the great urban brontissaurismus,
Zen Buddhism, poetry, McCarthy,
Eisenhower and a post-war
sleepiness and apathy.
The alternative was being born,
then, amidst his herculean labours,
a miasmal ooze in lounge rooms,
in a thousand homes around
the world, with a healthy terror
where humbling summits
were assulted by men and women
painfully inching their consequential
and necessary way past chasms:
dry-mouthed, ragged semi-circle
equipollent, in contact with some
unseen kingdom of oneness;
learning about fire, submission,
humility, some supreme angels
and mysterious holy ones.
And still the world slept on
amidst the fiercest conflagration
and that still unobtrusive Order.
21 January 1996
* By the early1920s a new poetry had been born; a second renaissance occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Baha’i Administrative Order was also born by the early 1920s with a significant thrust taking place in the early 1950s.
** ’Abdu’l-Baha refers to the completed Baha’i temple in Chicago (1953) as the ‘manifest Standard’.
Emily Bronte seems to have been determined that her life should come under the category of “uneventful”....because she was intensely taken up with her own particular calling of life....To the end, she caused very little to happen to herself by her own agency.....The result of this compressed, instinctive discipline, was....her novel, Wuthering Heights.....It may be that Emily did not herself realize her own nature until she had produced Wuthering Heights.-Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford, Emily Bronte: Her Life and Work, Peter Owen, London, 1966, pp.11-13.
Having been intensely taken up with writing poetry
and intensely taken up with other callings, I have
compressed this instinctive discipline into some
precious moments, intensely, intensely, and life
uneventul, uneventful--beyond the callings because
you can only do so much and put yourself into so
many places when it’s all so intensely, intensely.
So I keep it all down, down, quiet, quiet after the
long runs, the dartings, the endless talk fests, the
dieing and the blowing, so I can find the world
within this world, disengage my inner self,reflect,
at every moment, new splendours from the Sun of Truth
and, undistracted, be wholly absorbed in the emanations
of the spirit*at the centre of this slowly realized intensity.
2 March 1996
* ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa, 1978, p.192.
A LETTER WRITTEN TODAY
...a mass conversion....will suddenly revolutionize the fortunes of the Faith....and reinforce a thousandfold the numerical strength...of the Faith of Baha’u’llah. -Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, Wilmette, 1965, p.117.
Burlington, Ontario, Canada, 18 July 1953.
The crickets sing closely in the garden
on this warm summer night
as they always do this time of year.
I can hear familiar human voices
a few feet away.
My world is warm and safe and home--
and I am eight years old.
The world is new and fresh and familiar
even now. The screens have been there
on my window forever and my mother
is as old as the hills.
Fear hangs around the edges of my life
and the sound of my father
always brings a little my way.
I have no idea that the Kingdom of God
has just begun, nor do I know about the letter,
written only today, by a man in Haifa,
a little older than my father,
predicting what he calls ‘mass conversion.’
They are just big words to me now,
laying on these cool sheets
listening to my mother’s warm voice
and feeling a love I scarcely know,
in a world which is still so small.
30 April 1996
Life is unquestionably shaped by fate, by the consequences of necessary and impersonal relationships as well as by will, an active force which controls these relationships and hence this fate. Through this agency of will man can confront his fate bravely, with style, dignity and awareness. The victory, then, lies with our spirit, its struggle and its endurance, its simple dealing with what seem imperatives, fatal flaws, nemesis, paths in tragic fields and, in the process, our forging of identity and dignity.-Ron Price with appreciation to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa, 1978, p.198 and Wirt Williams, The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway, Louisiana State UP, London, 1981, pp.226-229.
Where did you fellows get your
understanding of fate, your sense
of the tragic? Buried deep in your
lives, in your own sorrow, your burden,
your struggle with your fate, your acceptance,
your energy, your despairing moments, you
wrote and wrote, into the night, into the
heat and the cold of life, distilling all that
you knew into stories and wisdom for
generations born into that post-war*
emptiness which still lives on in its
multi-coloured dress of grey and black,
swallowing millions in a sense of nothingness
and meaninglessness so profound as to have
28 February 1996
* The writings of both of these men began to be extensively published in the 1920s. They have been reissued many times in the years since their deaths. Three generations have now been able to read their writings.(1921-1996= 75 years)
For some there is a growing ability to cope with their inner demons and to achieve a degree of self-mastery that is highly prized; for others there is an acute sensitivity to suffering that cannot find escape in humour, pleasure and the delights of existence. Severe trials and hardships cause the nature of some people to recoil so that they desire death, desire to leave this world of honey and poison. -Ron Price with thaks to ‘Abdul-Baha, Selections, Haifa,1978,p239.
They’ve gone down like flies:
Poe in the gutter, Crane over
the side of a ship; Kees and
Berryman over a bridge, Maupassant
to syphilitic breakdown and alcoholic
poisoning, Beckett to a stoic pessimism,
Sartre to the horror of existence.and its
Nausea, Waugh and Green to futility,
Lovecraft and Faulkner to the past and sadness,
Dostoevsky to a compulsion to suffer,
or to live in shame as in Strindberg, to
pleasure and the tragic as in Wilde and
the necessary deceptions of Catholicism
as in Yeats.
We all go down:
with our joys and sorrows,
our spiritual accomplishments and failures,
our pockets of detchment and self-love,
tested and stretched to acquire those tools,
soon, so soon to find the gifts of mysteries
and secrets far beyond this Kingdom of vision
on an arc bound for God. Will I be a pure,
refined and sanctified soul? In this world
beyond struggle, where the identity of my soul
is the same and I will receive light upon light
through entreaties, supplications and grace.
I will move beyond stubborn and obstinate
pride and willful perversity, their enfeebling
atrophy and ultimate incapacity; or, perhaps,
I may slip from my spiritual orbit and fly
irretrievably into remoteness beyond those magnetic
forces into an icy cold hell of frenetic passivity.
Having gone down, beyond this temporary shelter,
I will make my way beyond this world of liquid
nitrogenous oxygen and starry grandeur to an
3 March 1996
PRISONS: OLD AND NEW
The metaphor of imprisonment haunts Australian literature. In Canada its garrisons, all those garrisons, those forts. Today, so many of them are political. -Ron Price with thanks to Australian novelist Randolph Stow, West Australian, November 1996.
We’re used to being ill-at-ease,
we in Canada and Australia,
in our garrisons and prisons1
from sea to sea, wall-to-wall,
fated by our history, preoccupied
unbeknownst with distant echoes,
resounding into the present,
in our strategic locations,
especially the pioneer, archtype,
putting down roots,
roots that go all over a continent,
in a new prison
of our coursings through east and west.2
You don’t easily escape the past’s prison
even in these days of tourism, candy-floss,
take-aways and endless techne-engines.
It’s fitting really: a new prison can now
be found across this land, this hall of mirrors
and vapours in the desert, far from those
old prisons and forts, far from those Indians,
the indigenies, who were hardly-not even-human,
from exile and expulsion, here on the verandah,
here where new dreams are born,
where strangeness is removed from the heart
and laid with gold, brought by a loyal lover’s caravan.
And around this house, its intimate space,
place of dreams, sign of new spirituality,
home for a new Revelation, no darksome well,
but place of burning desire, hazardous, tortuous,
narrow: no facile pop-psychology here,
no pseudo-political jargon--
one level above the ordinary
with the lover seated in the heart3
and one level below the ordinary
where we court restlessness, failure,
difficulty, more and more urgency
and eagerness, quicksilver-like,
astir, aflame, always more and more.
2 November 1996
1 Gillian Whitlock compares the early history of Canada and its garrisons to Australia and its prisons. She goes on to compare the Arctic to the Outback. See Australian/Canadian Literatures in English, Russell McDougall and Gillian Whitlock, editors, Methuen, Melbourne, 1987, pp. 49-67.
2 ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa, 1978, p.236.
3’Abdu’l-Baha in Four on an Island, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, George Ronald, Oxford, 1983, p.67.
And what is the experience that the poet is so burning to communicate? By the time it has settled down into a poem it may be so different from the original experience as to be hardly recognizable. The “experience” in question may be the result of a fusion of feelings so numerous, and ultimately so obscure in their origins that the poet may hardly be aware of what he is communicating. What has been communicated in the poem was not in existence before the poem was completed.-T.S. Eliot in The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, Laurence Stapleton, Princeton UP, 1973, p.255.
Here is a fusion, a result of a precipitate, a single event, so crystal clear and distinct, a fusion of feelings, experience known and obscure, but reaching out for definition and substance, understanding and existence.-Ron Price, comment on this poem.
I think she lived up in the hills,
above the city and its noise and haste,
didn’t know her well, talked to her two
or three times in six or seven years and
now she’s gone: took her own life and
so young, so talented, so infinitely precious.
An American in Australia: was that the problem?
The continent where tragedy has been fully sucked,
fully dried out by dry winds and searing temperatures.
Was it the complications of a divorce that made her
feel a sense of shame, guilt, loneliness, desperation?
Was it life’s honey and poison, its burning grief,
tossing her like a fish, its inward parts afire leaping
about in terror upon the sand*. And so she sought
the cool draught, a cup tempered at the fresh fountain.
Oh friends: let us spurn this mortal world and be indifferent
to its pleasures. Let us laugh at our journey across this space
and at our endless analysis. Let us not complain, but being
oblivious to self let us drink the wine of heavenly grace and
cry out our joy, however silently in the centre of our heart.
2 March 1996
*.’Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa, 1978, p.222.
The following is a hypothetical book and is entitled An Annotated Edition of the Correspondence Between Ron Price and John Bailey(1997 to 2010). It is edited and has a 50 page introduction by Mrs. Belle Lettre. It is published in Ottawa Ontario by Tecumseh Press, 2080, pp. 252. The book contains a selection of 50 letters by each writer from an archive of 320 letters. The correspondence between Price and Bailey has until now been generally available mainly in the selective and unreliable editions of Arthur Setlet: Ron Price’s Letters to John Bailey (1997-2010) and The Letters of John Bailey to Ron Price (1997-2010), which were published in 2056 and 2057. Belle Lettre’s Annotated Edition of the Correspondence, which meticulously reproduces transcriptions of 50 of the 320 available letters between the two men, together with copious annotations, a lengthy and intelligent Introduction, various Appendices (including facsimiles of several letters), an Index, and a Bibliography, is a most welcome addition to Canadian poetry and Baha’i studies.
Mrs. Lettre’s edition has an appealingly modest and workman-like quality. At a time when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is funding editions of/about early Canadian prose and poetry works in the Baha’i community it is rewarding to see a volume such as Belle Lettre’s Annotated . . . Correspondence which has, to judge by its acknowledgments pages, been created and published through the painstaking efforts of an energetic and enthusiastic committee and a relatively small grant from the Ontario Arts Council’s subsidiary, Baha’i Studies in Ontario.
Mrs. Lettre’s Introduction runs to over fifty pages. Rightly observing that the Price-Bailey correspondence represents the only extensive exchange between Price and a trusted literary friend which covers the entire span of Price’s mature creative life. Lettre shows how the letters bear both on the poet’s literary career and on his private life at a time (1997 to 2010) of great poetic activity for him and changes in his personal, professional and Baha’i community life. As anyone who has read the Price-Bailey correspondence in manuscript knows, the letters offer detailed insights to several of the books that began to be published in the years after 2056/7 on both Price and on many other individuals and developments in the Baha’i community back at the turn of the century. The correspondence also offers insights into Price’s family life, aspects of his ill health, his attitudes to various political and social questions, his fellow poets, and so on.
A valuable aspect of Lettre’s Introduction is its discussion of the different uses made of the Price-Bailey correspondence by critics and biographers from Carl Cannot to Munro Cando as far back as the beginning of the second century of the Formative Age in 2021. It is a discussion which, from a particular, although limited perspective, offers an overview of features and perspectives on Baha’i history and sociology which have in a peculiar and unfortunately limiting way been dominating the discussion of developments in Baha’i history in the 4th and 5th epochs. The sequence of letters is remarkably readable. –Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, September 19th 2005.
I’d like to think there was something
enduring in all these letters, John.
I know it is of absolutely no importance
to you and the way you see ultimate things.
But I’d like to think that those 1300 pages
and more than half a million words can
bear some ultimate fruit down journey’s
long, stony and tortuous road. I would.
–Ron Price, September 20th 2005.
SET FREE/FREE VERSE
On July 23rd 1908, exactly 36 years before I was born, the Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman government in Constantinople and on July 24th Abdu’l-Baha was released from a forty year confinement. He was free. The world of free verse had its origins about this same time in the poetry of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and others. The cause of free verse was first discussed in the years between ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s release from prison and the end of His historic trip to the West. Some of the earliest documents in the struggle to free poetry from the trammels of end-rhyme and to liberalize its methods and its substance are to be found during these years.1 Pound’s first work was called A Lume Spento(1908).2 Many of T. S. Eliot’s first poems were conceived in the years 1909 to 1913. Ezra Pound wrote an article on imagisme and free verse. It appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse published in Chicago.1
From August to December of 1911 `Abdu'l-Bahá visited cities in Europe, including London, Bristol and Paris. The purpose of these trips was to support the Bahá'í communities in the west and to further spread his father's teachings. In the following year, he undertook a much more extensive journey to the United States and Canada once again to spread his father's teachings. He arrived in New York City on April 11th 1912 and while he spent most of his time there, he visited many other cities. In August of the same year he started a more extensive journey eventually travelling to the west coast of the US. before starting to return east at the end of October. On December 5th 1912 he set sail back to Europe. Back in Europe, he visited several European cities as well as London and Paris where he stayed for two months. Finally on June 12th 1913 he returned to Egypt where he stayed for six months before returning to Haifa. .-Ron Price with thanks to 1Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, "The Precursors: 1910-1925," The Making Of Modern Poetry In Canada, Ryerson, Toronto, 1967, p. 3; and 2Michael Dirda, “Ezra Pound: A One-Man Literary Revolution,” The Guardian, January 15th 1989.
Ezra jump-started artists
of every sort, crackling
with a personal electricity
that powers every page
of his letters and essays.
And Who powered him
back then in those early
days when he was in his
twenties and that Great
Soul was freed from prison:
mysterious cause and effect,
mysterious, Ezra,1 Thomas,
beginning to charge language
with a meaning so intense,
to an utmost possible degree,
with a pressure producing fusion
and a conception of beauty
as a living whole, as a union
with creation in artistic labour,
of all that has been and would be.
Ron Price September 22nd 2005
THE ARCHITECTURE OF OUR MINDS
There exists in Haifa a structure so potent and glorious that I would like to think that its existence in my mind becomes the actual architecture of my mind, a structure through which all my dreams and ideas and hopes are funnelled. While this is partly true, I know only too well, that the architecture of my mind contains much else. Buildings transform space into location and thus perform a function that is essential to human dwelling or emplacement. The buildings, the gardens, the terraces in Haifa do not just connect pieces of land that are already there they designedly cause them to lie beside and across from each other by setting one side against the other, one part in juxtaposition to the other and, in so doing, they bring to the port of Haifa a path for Kings and to the mount of Carmel an expanse of landscape that is redesigned, renewed, rebuilt. The whole entity gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals. Borders or boundaries are certainly sites, locations, from which something exquisite begins its presencing. They are also places that demarcate the distinction between Holy Place and Other, perhaps “us” and all “others.”1 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Anthony Wilden and his discussion of the complexities of boundaries or borders as barriers and loci of communication. Anthony Wilden, System and Structure: quoted in D.M.R. Bentley, Essays on Literature and Architecture in Canada: 1759-2005.
I came to stare and walk
upon her, above her,
below her and kiss her
ever-sleeping lips, hands
and beauteous face or,
should I say, gaze on
that portrait, that photo,
so rarified and perfected
there across the room.
What was the exquisite power
she wielded in this huge place,
these big rooms and small,
intimate ones where she had lain
for years in a crystal concentrate
of beauty, in this artefact, placed,
marvelled at, forgotten by many,
by most, by millions who once
stopped to amaze, be amazed.
There was a grace here so contained
as to pose no threat, undeserved
was our age but so needy
and our days have grown
more troublesome, many have wept
beyond the borders. We circumambulate
mostly in our minds where the architecture
of this place will live forever
in our hopes and dreams,
funnelled into everyday reality
Ron Price September 15th 2005
FORECASTS OF DOOM AND TANGLED FEARS
On June 24th 2000 my wife, son and I arrived back in Tasmania from our nine-day pilgrimage in Haifa. The next day, June 25th 2000, a press statement was released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary. It read: “President Clinton Announces the Completion of the First Survey of the Entire Human Genome.”1 I had just completed 37 years of pioneering and a thirty-seven day trip to Haifa and back. The initial sequencing of the genetic blueprint for human beings-the human genome-promised to lead to a new era in ways to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure disease. This was all part of what was slowly developing into an unparalleled world civilization. This was all happening in the darkest hours before the break of day; the phantoms of a wrongly informed imagination troubled men with forecasts of doom and tangled fears.
Whatever mark I would make in these swiftly passing days, at this crucial turning point, in this chronology of expectations, during one of the historic periods and happenings in the Formative Age,2 time of course would tell. But as I arrived back in Tasmania on June 24th 2000, I felt the time was right: I had retired from full-time work less than a year before; I had just completed the pilgrimage of my lifetime; I was 55 with five years of middle adulthood and all of late adulthood beckoning and possibly some years of old-age if God should grant me such an extension into the evening of my life; the major periods of my suffering were behind me, at least that was what I intuited and I was all set to promote the Cause through my writing to an extent that had not been possible before. Such was the chief aim of my remaining years, or such was the way I saw it on June 24th 2000. -Ron Price with thanks to 1The White House, “Press Release,” 25 June 2000; and 2The Universal House of Justice, “Messages: 1999-2001,” Personal File: 1995-2002.
I had started on a new road
and so had the world---one
of the many roads in my life
and in the world’s in the last
century and a half or so…..
I had replenished wonder,
had hope revived on those
pebbled paths and my dreams
were no mere children of an idle
brain, no mere phantasms, not just
thin of substance like the air we breath.
I had walked on stones worn
over one hundred years of men’s
expectant feet. Would my
choreography of reverence
and my simple need bring
my Redeemer to my aid
as I approached the first years
of the evening of my life?
July 30th 2005
FOLLOWING THAT STAR
The philosopher Goethe wrote that Hamlet is a play that depicts the story of a soul on whom a great deed is laid. The tragedy, he went on, is that this soul is unequal to the task.1 It seems to me that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the story of you and I. Baha’u’llah says that no task is given to us which is beyond our capacity. Nevertheless, life’s task often seems beyond us especially if that task is in the context of what to many of us who work within the Baha’i system often seems like an “impossible dream.” We seem to be unequal to life’s burden, its apprecenticeship.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Goethe in John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor, Michael Morrison, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1997, p.126.
John Barrymore played Hamlet in New York in 1922-1924. “Barrymore heralded,” said Morrison, “the dawn of a new age of theatre.”2 Barrymore’s view of Hamlet was the same as Goethe’s; namely, that the task laid on man was more than he could handle. The play opened on November 16th 1922, just four weeks before Shoghi Effendi returned to Haifa to take up the burden of the Guardianship, a task, a role, which his wife said called him by the 1950s, thirty years later, to “sorrow and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness.”3 Being equal to a task does not mean one does not get discouraged, does not feel defeated. Being equal to a task is, among other things, a philosophical position which, for the Baha’i at least, is rooted in theological doctrine and means that one keeps on going, keeps on following that star “no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”4–Ron Price with thanks to 2 Morrison, op.cit., p.304; 3Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, p. 451 and 4 “The Impossible Dream,” Man of La Mancha, Musical 1965.
You botha rose to be artists
of winged imaginations
and reinvented both your
cause and yourselves,
product of resolve, labour
So little was the little
that we knew, then,
and little even now
for the task so few:
heaven’s humble handful.
The crucible of transformation
you took us through, grinding,
joyful, natural, organic, forged
something new, oriented to action,
exegisis evolving with community,
expounding knowledge, arousing
response, satisfying, transcending
the need of the moment, serving
the future’s meaning as well as
the past’s, heightening the horizon,
intensifying the vision of the faithful
for the impossible dream, its idealistic,
its improbable, its quixotic elements
and thousands of practical bits
for the manual that would quide us
through the tenth and final stage of history
which opened just after you led us to
the beginning of that Kingdom of God.b
a John Barrymore and Shoghi Effendi
b This Kingdom of God on earth began, such is a Baha’i view, in 1953.
July 20th 2005
THE BIG BANGS
Baha’u’llah visited Haifa four times during the years 1868 to 1892. On his second visit in August 1883 he stayed for a short time, a few days at most. It was within a week or two of one of the greatest volcanic explosions in history: Krakatoa. The greatest, the largest, explosions in history have occurred at times approximating the appearance of the manifestations of God in western history. Baha’u’llah had lived in Bahji for four years by this time. This period in Bahji was the time Baha’u’llah “ascended the throne of His sovereignity.” Bahji was “the spot which God ordained as the most sublime vision of mankind.”1 It was here that His forty year Revelation was consummated and the application of His teachings to the building of His new world order became apparent. -Ron Price with thanks to Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Vol.4, George Ronald, Oxford, 1987, p.114.
The sky turned blood-red,
shock-waves circled the earth
seven times; the sun was darkened;
the climate cooled by one degree.
It happened before in 79 AD
and 416 AD just as the religion
of Jesus was becoming the system
for western civilization for 1000 years.
And it was happening again
just as this new system
was taking its first form
through the Pen of the
Greatest soul to ever live.
The Most Great Ocean
in the world sent tsunamis
and thousands died.
It was a sign of things
to come, a tempest
catastrophic in its effects
would sweep the face
of the earth for decades
perhaps centuries to come.
April 11th 2005.
I could have been involved in the mainstream of the politics of the Left beginning at a crucial moment when, briefly, it appeared that a new social order might emerge from the student unrest in the mid 1960s. I was involved early, in 1964, with the Civil Rights movement in America, but my involvement was short. By 1966 I was at teachers college and by the student rebellion in 1968 in France I was recuperating in a mental hospital outside Toronto from a bad episode of manic-depression. Many intellectuals who were at the barricades in the 1960s spent the following years preoccupied with understanding why and how all that social and political energy and promise seemed to have turned to nothing. As a Baha’i, the energy and expectations I held in the 1960s proved in some respects quite unrealistic, seemed to go nowhere. Hoped for results “did not readily materialize” and “a measure of discouragement frequently set in.”1 -Ron Price with thanks to 1The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, Haifa, 2001, p.101.
Our experience, it seemed,
looking back on those early years,
offered few answers.
Indeed, that was often the case
given the immense complexity
of our times, our years, our days,
the urgent and interlocking
broke my health,
destroyed my marriage,
sent me spiralling
around the world
from Eskimos to Aboriginals,
teaching in every conceivable
setting and wearing me out.
1 Century of Light, p.102.
June 3 2004
Forty-five years ago in 1959, the year I became a Bahá'í, there was a film released that was made in England called The Devil's Disciple. The film was set in 1777 in the days just prior to the surrender of the British to American troops at Saratoga. 1777 was in the middle of the American Revolutionary War(1775-1783). And 1959 was, of course, days of a quiet revolution in my own life centred as it was at the time on baseball, schoolwork, ice-hockey, girls, on the endless indulgence that was growing up in the fifties in the middle class in Canada and on a new religion that had blown into my life thanks to my mother's continuous combination of curiosity and need. -Ron Price with thanks to Candidus, "Hollywood's Treatment of the 18th Century," The Colonial Movie Critic, April 2004.
I must have missed that one
as I have come to miss most
of the films of the 20th century
which is not to say I have not seen
an eye-full of stuff since
the Kingdom of God on earth
had its silent and unobtrusive start
back in '53 when that temple
in Chicago was finished and
that superstructure of the Bab's
Sepulcher in Haifa was completed.
I was on my way to being
a disciple of another kind
in a religion that was on its way
to being the religion for humankind.
And in '59 I only saw movies at
the Roxy Theatre down by the lake
where I'd been a marquee
with my bag of metal-letters.
Maybe The Devil's Disciple
just did not come to town:
maybe I was at a fireside that night
or the snow was drifting at 20 below
or maybe I had a grade ten exam
or maybe I had to play ice-hockey.
The dust of time has hidden this
from view as the revolution has proceeded.
April 28 2004
CELEBRATION: THE TASTE OF VICTORY
In the seven days(20/7/44-26/7/44) surrounding the day of my birth, 23 July 1944, there was a significant turn in the fortunes of the allies in the drama that was WW2 following in the various stages of the Normandy invasion beginning in June 1944. The assassination attempt on the life of Hitler on July 20th; the suicide of general Rommel; the British push, code-named Cobra, in the western sector of the front with some 3000 aircraft support beginning on July 25th; the million men in the allied force on a 50 mile front in northern Europe: these all contributed to the disintegration of the German army during the period July 15th to August 21st with the fall of Berlin. It looked as if the war might be over by Christmas, or so Eisenhower thought. Sadly, it would take another year.-Ron Price with thanks to ABC TV, “The World at War,” 5:00-5:50 pm, 27 June 2004.
It was a hot summer--
aren’t they all
after those cold winters
especially when a million men
are lined up over a 50 mile front
and there are bodies--men’s
and animals’ all over the place
rotting, smelling, but
with the taste of victory
in everyone’s mouth--at last.
And that little man in Haifa
the end of the beginning1
or was it
the beginning of the end
with his gift
to the Baha’is of the world--
that great achievement of his mind2
and for us a vision:
the majesty and meaning
of 100 years of history
and its ceaseless sacrifice.3
1 The end of the first of the Plans, Seven Year Plan: 1937-1944
2 God Passes By
3 The Universal House of Justice,Century of Light, p.70.
July 4th 2004
A CORUSCANT ENERGY1
Once ranked number six on Playboy’s 100 sexiest women of the twentieth century and also named the most beautiful woman in the world, Sophia Loren has been acting in movies all my Baha’i life. In the year my mother first had contact with the Baha’i Faith, 1953/4, Loren acted in four films. She had just started her acting career in the early fifties. In the year I joined this Faith, 1959/60, Loren acted in six films; in the year my pioneering life began, 1962/3, she acted in another six. One of these latter films(1962) was Boccaccio where she stared with Anita Eckberg. She won the first Oscar for a foreign language film in 1961. Some regard Loren as the most celebrated actress of the last fifty years(1953-2003). This month Loren turned 70. Both she and I are getting old. -Ron Price with thanks to “The Official Sophia Loren Website,” September, 2004.
1 With appreciation to Roger White for this title from “Death of the Greengrocer,” Whitewash, Haifa, 1982, p.22.
This icon of the cinema
during my pioneering life,
this woman of grace, elegance,
beauty and charm, unpretentious,
as sexy, as seductive, as they get,
she came out of the woodwork
and blazed across the screen
and blew me away, yet again,
one of thousands of beauties
that played in the background
of my life, all my life really,
right from my first memories
when I was only three or four,
before breasts bud, before groins
fill out, jostle and strain toward
their imperative destinations.
And they still blaze and dance,
still jostle and strain keeping
the concupiscible appetite on heat,
always wanting more than I can get
or should get or would get or could get.
What’s the big idea anyway?
Is it some kind of cosmic joke:
sticking this incredible pulchritude
in front of my nose and saying:
you are only supposed to look.
Don’t touch; it’s only for show!
It’s to reproduce the species;
that’s why there’s such awesome
force here. I’ll give you a taste,
but don’t ask for more than your lot,
your share of this coruscant energy
that pops and glitters, spurts and tangles
to achieve life’s unthwarted, fecund purpose.
September 25, 2004