In my pre-pioneering and pioneering life as a Baha'i(1953-2007) I wrote: reviews, commentaries of books and community activities, summaries of media programs and live performances. Those posted here were written in the 4th and 5th epochs of the Formative
Some of these written works were published and some were unpublished and I have subsumed them under sections V and VI of my autobiography, Pioneering Over Four Epochs. I have kept copies of most of my published work and very little of it is found here. Some was published in Baha'i magazines and newsletters and some in the secular press and journals. Since the turn of the millennium in 2001 my published work has multiplied many times due to the internet facility.
Reviews Of: Books, Articles, Creative Activities and Community Functions:
Pioneering Over Four Epochs: Sections V & VI: Published & Unpublished Work
published in Pioneering Over Four Epochs: An Autobiographical Study and a Study in Autobiography
, Sections V and VI
'JOHN ESSLEMONT WOULD BE PLEASED': A REVIEW OF JOHN DAVIDSON'S PATHWAYS TO TRANSFORMATION
I have been using a new Baha’i book for over two years and given its practicality to Baha’is and interested seekers, I thought I’d say a few things about it. Hopefully others will benefit from its use as I have done. For years I had been looking for a replacement for Esslemont's Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. Back in the 1950s and sixties Esslemont was the book you gave people who wanted to get a comprehensive picture of the Bahá'í Faith between two covers. By the 1970s and 1980s Esslemont was still useful, but getting a little tired. Newer editions were still somewhat dated. But there were also a host of other books appearing in the Bahá'í literary marketplace. By the 1990s there were so many books that the average Bahá'í was getting lost in a sea of new literature. This mass of literature was useful, though; indeed you could tailor a book for a seeker with a high degree of specificity after some good literary digging even if the process of digging was not easy.
With the arrival of the new millennium a new book appeared, as comprehensive as Esslemont but much more up-to-date; as easy to read as one of the many slim introductory works on the Cause that are just about flooding the market; as meaty and persuasive as, say, Huddleston's The Earth is But One Country; as full of quotations(well not quite) as the invaluable Lights of Guidance in its first or second editions; as much a practical guide as any of the many 'how-to' books which have appeared in Bahá'í book shops since the beginning of the great book burgeoning in the 1980s; as beautifully put together and presented, with a fresh, bright feel about it, as any of the glossier books you will find in our emerging and burgeoning Bahá'í library.
Am I overstating the case. Perhaps. But justifiably so because for me, at least, this book is about teaching, about information, about relevant quotations on a wide range of Baha’i subjects: useful for the novitiate and the veteran believer. I use it on my radio programs more than any other book. I use a wide range of books on my program, but if I want a quotation on some Baha’i subject on the spot without my computer compilations handy--then Davidson comes to the rescue. I use his new book every week.
You might not want to use it as your first book for a seeker or for someone who has just become a Baha’i. Every Baha’i has their literary preferences, their book preferences in their teaching work and their personal deepening. But for my money, I’d put this book in the running, in many of the races for relevance. It’s made to measure for a market, for an individual who just wants to read a few pages at a time, who needs a mini-encyclopedia for day-to-day reference with the writings of the Central Figures of the Cause and the institution which is Their trustee in our world laid out for readers in an up-to-date and handy compendium.
What sort of book do you give to people who want to know something about the Cause? One that’s not too heavy, not too light, not to simple, not too complex. We've got lots of books you could float by serious seekers for their initial investigation. You might like consider this one. There are many little booklets currently available which don’t say enough; others say too much and give the reader indigestion. Some oversimplify, although they often have their place. Here’s a book right down the middle, a kind of Baha’i encyclopedia without the weight, without the endless divisions of an encyclopedia; a book with quotations weaved together to make a quilt of the Baha’i teachings, a quilt you can put on when you want a theme, a quote, a thread to keep you warm for a time.
John Esslemont would be pleased. In a letter dated August 5th 1941 Esslemont wrote about the "most delicate matter" of teaching. In this delicate exercise John Davidson has put together for our use in the teaching process--and for our deepening--this invaluable resource manual for: personal and community development, history, social issues, the Bahá'í administrative order, the lesser peace, the list is long.
Davidson writes well, although there is little of his own words in this compilation. You find his outline of the text in his introduction. Here he summarizes the contents of this book in some six pages. He quotes Carl Jung with what is a very helpful perspective on the whole transformation process which this book is about in its explication of the Bahá'í journey. Jung wrote:
"the greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating mechanism. They can never be solved, but only outgrown."
This outgrowing, Jung continues, consists of a new level of consciousness, a wider horizon. Davidson presents to us some of the story of this wider horizon and the emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in the global culture especially since 1969 when he put together an earlier work entitled Bahá'í Life. With the help of several Bahá'í institutions, friends and family. Davidson presents the Bahá'í Faith centre-stage on what for me is a solid, a comprehensive, foundation. That foundation is the writings of the Central Figures of the Cause and those who are the trustees of the global undertaking set in motion over one hundred years ago.
John Davidson has been putting many things together for the Bahá'í community since he became a Bahá'í in the 1960s. He served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia over three decades and in the University of Tasmania Department of Psychology for an equal length of time. His book Pathways to Transformation has been out of the blocks for three years now, has been found to be user-friendly by many and I recommend it highly to Bahá'ís the world over for its practical usefulness as a resource in the teaching work and in their personal deepening.
November 22nd 2004
TWO WEBSITES FOR YOUR DELECTATION
A THIRD GENERATION HAMILTON POET
There’s a website for just about everything and everyone these days. When in 1999 I retired from teaching after 30 years--to the outpost of Tasmania, a place which in its relation to Australia is not unlike Newfoundland in its relation to Canada---I was somewhat concerned that I would not be able to get enough print for my reading tastes. But by 2004 I could find a site for virtually any poet, novelist, sociologist, historian, inter alia, on my intellectual horizon. Writing a review of a website is a problematic because there are so many which spring to mind. At first I though I’d have a look at a site with lots of information: the ones I use for studying history and the social sciences. Then I thought that anyone who reads this piece can do that themselves at sites of their own choice. Such people don’t need me to enthuse about sites which are already providing fertile resources for them. Then I thought I’d go for the newspaper, magazine, the print and electronic media sites which now litter the web and make the whole idea of buying a magazine or newspaper a bit of an anachronism--at least for me. But, again, people who read these reviews at ‘My Writer Buddy’ can access these kinds of sites with little grey matter required.
I said to myself, people who do a lot of writing would find sites useful that I find useful, at least if they are into poetry, essays and the literature of the western intellectual tradition. “So,” continuing to talk to myself, “I’ll give them two.” The Wild Poetry Forum and jollyroger.com are two rich and rewarding sites. I’ll tell you a little about the wild side first and then go over to jollyroger. The first is a special poetry site with a very Greek flavour, not contemporary Greece, but classical. The poetry sections all have headings after the 9 muses. The second site of my choice has just about the entire literary tradition of the west encapsulated on its multitude of sub-sections.
What makes each of these sites attractive to me is that I can get my poetry slotted in to a multitude of places with a few clicks of the old key-board. After twenty years of trying to get my poetry into a hard cover, I now casually stew my creations all across creation thanks to the gradual invention and implementation of the internet system.
The Wild Poetry Forum is visually attractive and that helps I find in my dealings with these, for the most part, impersonal entities. The physical attractiveness of a site, is not unlike the cover of a book. It’s important from a marketing point of view. Like bees to a honey-pot the internet users come a clicking onto the nine-muse sub-sites. And you get feed back on your poems. In fact, for every posting you make you are obliged to give two feedbacks to the works of others. The feedback does not need to be a long essay. Just a few words, three words, six words, a sentence or two, will suffice: whatever seems appropriate.
Jollyroger.com has an incredible array of sub-sites. Why, I’ve opened an arch-lever file in my study to keep track of all the divisions and sub-divisions. There is a classical flavour here too. There’s poetry all the way back to the origins of the western intellectual tradition. You can post your work, your thoughts about any one of hundreds of writers, poets, novelists, dramatists, any one of dozens of social, psychological and sociological issues. If you are a serious writer and thinker you could probably immortalize yourself by your extensive postings at jollyroger.com And if you are not into serious reading but prefer instead the act of creative writing--well there is something here for you too. I could wax eloquent about jollyroger.com and the two hundred pages I’ve photocopied from this labyrinthine site which provide a fertile resource base for both reading and writing--but it’s best to leave it to you. Have a surf at jollyroger.com, but watch you don’t drown in the sea of sites and sub-sites. As they say somewhere at, what is it, Nantucket, Great Books,KillDevil.com, Forum Frigate,Hatteras, “this site is not for the faint-hearted.”
I think I’ve given you all a taste of two sites and it’s over to you to enjoy the meal.
LIPSTICK AND BRUISES
In the 1990s I wrote a book devoted primarily to the poetry of Roger White. In that book I added special chapters to focus on a small selection of his letters, on his books of prose and here in this chapter which I have given to Orison on some of his other activities involving writing and poetry. I have done this to place his poetry in the wider perspective of a creative and imaginative life.
In a book celebrating the first hundred years of Hansard in Canada's parliament, John Ward wrote that Roger White was "acknowledged by his colleagues as one of the finest shorthand writers ever to serve his country." He also served as the official reporter for the Supreme Court of British Columbia. These were some of the skills White brought to the Publishing Department at the Bahá'í World Centre where he was editor-in-chief of several volumes of The Bahá'í World in the 1980s. He wrote the lyrics for 'Songs for Solo Voice' by Jean South in Luxembourg and the text of a book Forever in Bloom: The Lotus of Bahapur. Indeed, I am confident White had many other talents and abilities that are not mentioned in my book, devoted as it is to a study of White's poetry not his life's activites.
In 1989 White gave a poetry reading in Haifa. He had been at the Bahá'í World Centre for eighteen years by that time. The evening's program was called 'Lipstick and Bruises.' The tone was entertaining with a gentle satire in the air as he read and spoke. White was a sit-down, not a stand-up, comedian. He really was quite funny, not a surprising quality to anyone who knew his poetry and had received some of his letters. White satirized almost everything that the Bahá'í World stood for but, in the end, everything and everyone's emotions and standards were left intact. Most contemporary comedians who have gained popularity leave not a stone or an institution standing after a thoroughgoing evening of satirical work is done. Not so with White. He certainly turned stones over with his satire but the process was gentle and embodied an etiquette, a refinement, of expression.
I was reminded, as I listened, of the Jews who for centuries have been 'the funny guys,' the comedians. There seems to be something about suffering that brings out the lighter side of life as a survival mechanism. It seemed most fitting that two hundred Bahá'ís should join White in an evening of laughter and pure delight. Somehow it was a sign of the maturity of the Bahá'í community, so often measured in blood, sweat and tears, dogged persistence in the face of massive indifference and a faith which it was their hope and belief would move mountains, if not tomorrow, then over the centuries. One way of characterizing the Bahá'í experience, White's experience, perhaps, was with, as White put it in the title he gave to the program, 'Lipstick and Bruises.'
White read many of his old favourites and the audience's. He also read some new material: from letters he had received, from his experiences and those of others. He joked; he played the raconteur, the provocateur, the stimulator, the titillator, the poet-who-lived-there, the kind man that he was.
I was not present at the evening's entertainment which was organized, White informed us, by the Department of Organization and Personnel. I was one of those who received a cassette-tape with the background music of the Iranian musician Masoud Rowshan who played the santour. I was one of those who heard the voice of the poet, I think for the first time, after enjoying his many voices in poetry.
There was a dryness in his voice, a little like the dry humour that comes out of Canada, at least the kind I got used to back in the 1950s and 1960s as a youth and young adult. But there was that kindness, the kindness that 'Abdu'l-Bahá had pointed to when He visited Canada in 1912. White was one of those 'kind friends' that 'Abdu'l-Bahá had raised up just about the time when Canada was forming its first National Spiritual Assembly in 1948. With a lifetime of service, over forty years, and the experiences of lipstick and bruises behind him, White was a veteran. He was also greatly loved. There would be four years of 'lipstick and bruises' to go before his innings were to be completed.
I wish I could have been there, although I was able to savour each line as it came off my cassette tape. I felt as if I finally had White to myself after all these years, such are the illusions of technology. Nineteen months after this poetry reading White would leave the Bahá'í World Centre. With a quadruple bypass operation under his belt, so to speak, which he likened to "being struck down by a herd of stampeding rogue elephants or perhaps a small Sherman tank," he still had a little left. He put that little into three books of poetry which were published within three years of this public reading at the Bahá'í World Centre.
These were the words from my chapter ‘lipstick and bruises’ in The Emergence of a Baha’i Consciousness in World Literature: The Poetry of Roger White. But let me close for this essay in Orison some of the background that led to this short essay.
Geoffrey Nash, in a review of Roger White's poetry in 1982, wrote that White heralded "the development of Bahá'í consciousness in world literature." Literature, poetry and prose, letters and other genres, have been arriving on the world's literary stage from the pens of Bahá'ís for more than a century and a half. White certainly has been, in Nash's words, a herald. White's work emerged from obscurity at the same time as the Bahá'í Faith was rising from an obscurity in which it had existed for nearly a century and a half. The Revolution in Iran in 1979 marked a significant point aloing the road of that emergence. It is more than coincidental that White's first major book of poetry Another Song Another Season was published that same year. There is now a burgeoning literature on the Bahá'í Faith provided by individual Bahá'ís the world over in the two decades since Nash wrote what have become prophetic words. White has, indeed, become a herald. Though I'm sure he did not set out to become the brilliant initiator that he has been.
There are others I could focus on to describe this 'development of a Bahá'í consciousness in world literature': Robert Hayden, Bahiyyah Nakjavani, H.M. Balyuzi, M. Momen, Adib Taherzedeh, John and William Hatcher, among others, whose books, each in their own way, played their unique parts, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, in laying this foundation of consciousness. To pick one example: in April 1966 Robert Hayden was awarded "the Grand Prix" at the Third World Festival of Negro Arts for "the best" recent volume of Anglophone poetry. This was without doubt a milestone in the emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in world literature. I could cite other events along the road of this emergence, but my purpose here is to focus on the poetry of Roger White. The focus is timely since he passed away ten years to the month that Juxta Publications in Hong Kong placed my e-book on their website.
The efforts of poets and critics to come to terms with the legacy of a post-traditional poetry that had begun as early as the second decade of the twentieth century with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, especially its disturbing mixture of poetic innovation and reactionary politics, its vast international influence and intense Eurocentrism amounted to a kind of collective anxiety attack and this anxiety was reflected in post-war II poetry right up to the seventies. By the 1990s, by the time White died though, it had become clear that these sometimes embarrassing ancestors who appeared about the time 'Abdu'l-Bahá went on His western tour, had laid the foundation for a post-traditional poetry. That new poetry had been growing by the time of White's first major publication in 1979 for at least six decades. Brian Conniff describes its last phase in the 1980s in the African American Review. This poetry, he writes, is "more explicitly heterogenous and more international, both in its sources and its influence, in such works as Adrienne Rich's Your Native Land, Your Life(1986), Seamus Heaney's Station Island (1983), and Derek Walcott's Omeros (1990)." And I would add the poetry of Roger White here and his three books of poetry written from 1979 to 1984. Much of White's poetry has a very traditional style and tenor, although its content is for the international stage. White gives his readers what Arthur Koestler said was crucial for modern men and women: truths which were perennial without being archaic. He also gives his readers the global Bahá'í community, its history and its teachings. His is both a very traditional and an international poetic mix.
As a fellow poet I am only too conscious of the remarks of Charles Martindale in his introduction to the Roman poet Ovid that "artists, for all their intuitive insights, are often both idiosyncratic and egocentric when responding to the work of others." Martindale notes "the comparative poverty" of the critical tradition of Ovid." The afterlife of a great poet, the artistic responses of the generations that follow a writer, shows how even the finest writers can fail to be understood and appreciated. This first generation following the death of Roger White and the industry of critical reflection that it creates has yet to establish any pattern. I trust my book, essays like this and the writings of others will initiate a pattern of enthusiastic appreciation.
I think the period 1979 to 1984 was especially significant in bringing about a transformation in the literature available to Bahá'ís on their Faith. White published three books of poetry and a novella which I deal with in essays later in this book. Nakjavani published two books: Response and Four On An Island in a refreshing and highly stimulating idiom that was as much poetry as prose and, like White, left many readers puzzled. Others found her writing possessed of a vitality and originality that, as Henry Moore once put it, were uniquely her own. It was also a style of writing that was inspired by that same universal vision that inhabited White's poetry and that, I am confident, will take on additional significance as time goes on. And there were other books. But this series of essays deals with the poetry of Roger White. I leave it to other writers and critics to deal more comprehensively with the other authors who have been part of this emergence beginning, say, with the first teaching Plan(1937-1944) when, arguably, this Bahá'í consciousness made its earliest appearances in world literature and the Faith itself begin to expand over the surface of the earth to become the second most widespread religion on the planet.
The course of development of the prose, the language, the thought--and especially the poetry--of a group of people: a nation, an ethnic group, a religion, indeed any group with a specific identity, a specific set of characteristics is, as the nineteenth century literary critic Matthew Arnold wrote, "profoundly interesting." "By regarding a poet's work as a stage," he continued, "in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than it really is." Perhaps I am guilty of this literary sin in what I admit to be, again in Arnold's words, my quite exaggerated praise, my arguable overrating of White's work. What may be the long term historical estimate of White's work and what is the intrinsic estimate of his work to a contemporary individual--and particularly this critic-are not necessarily identical.
The internationalization of literature, its global orientation, its planetization, its planetary consciousness, the perception of literature as part of the essential fabric of a global civilization or culture has really only emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Goethe, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was the first great thinker to suggest that the literature of the future would be a world literature with a planetary consciousness. A. Alvarez remarks, in analysing modernism in literature in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that it was "synonymous with internationalism." The scholarship of comparative literature and the histories of comparative literature have demonstrated that a common vein of ideas and conventions runs through all of Western literature. Indeed, there is unquestionably an underlying uniformity in the literary heritage of humankind, although an outdated nationalism, parochialism and insular local traditions still militate against the thrusting sense of global culture. Of course, traditionality, localism, associations of a national culture will remain, will continue to be enriched. That, too, is part of the process currently underway on this planet.
Mr. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.” I’m not sure that is necessarily the case. It would appear than many of the greatest painters and writers did not write from an explicit, a defined and articulate philosophical perspective, but in the case of this work, this literary evaluation of the poetry of Roger White, I do write from much the same ethical and theological standpoint as White. Perhaps more importantly, though, the White I am analysing in this book is a very personal White. He is my White. A personal relationship grows up between poet and reader, a personal interpretation. My commentary on White is based, as Northrop Frye emphasized, in "the actual experience of art" that is in my actual experience of White's poetry. It is based, too, on a conceptual universe of analysis that I have constructed on my own with the aid of a range of ideas and concepts from the literary arts and social sciences. The poet may be part of an embryonic Bahá'í consciousness in world literature, but he also becomes part of the individual reader's consciousness in a very private and personal world often quite different from the world's of other readers. Lionel Trilling made this same point in relation to Robert Frost's poetry at a talk he gave at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1959 in celebration of Frost's eighty-fifth birthday.
For this reason and the personal friendship that I had with White over many years, I feel somewhat like the famous literary critic Helen Vendler who said in a panel discussion just recently in New York "I don't often do negative reviews…that does not seem to me an interesting kind of writing to do." Vendler went on to say that the negative, the critical, side of reviewing detracts from the affect, the vitality, of the content on the page. Critics want to write about the kind of poetry they would like to write themselves or they'd like to sponsor. No critic wants to write about some poet they don't like especially, Vendler concluded, as they get older and especially if they know the poet. Marjorie Perloff, another critic on the panel, said that to demolish or trash a poet was a devastating thing to do. Her approach was to say 'if you can't say something good about the poet, don't write the review or the book.' She said this is especially true for poets you know personally and when the review is not anonymous. Who wants to be critical of someone you know personally? It's not natural or instinctive, said Perloff. Some critics can hide behind the veil of anonymity and psychological distance and thus make more devastating comments. Others simply won't write about living poets. As far as these essays are concerned, then, readers will find little overt and strong criticism of White. There is, I trust, much of that etiquette of expression, that judicious and disciplined exercise of the writtten word, that moderation which "ensures the enjoyment of true liberty." Such is my aim.
I like to think my study, my literary criticism, is similar to that of the father of literary criticism, John Dryden. "His is the criticism" in the words of Samuel Johnson, "of a poet, not a dull collection of theorems, not a rude collection of faults….but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight is mingled with instruction, and where the author proves his right of judgement, by his power of performance." Whatever the standpoint, though, theological and otherwise, my aim, like the aim of White’s poetry, is to awaken and enlarge the mind by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand otherwise unapprehended combinations of thought. White knows that:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments.
And so he gives us that ‘many-coloured glass,’ some of his philosophy ‘the white radiance of Eternity’ and the process of the familiar feet of death trampling life ‘to fragments.’ And I give you this review of White's poetry. I try to convey something of the new voice that White creates for us in his several books of poetry. I try to save the poetry from the artist who created it. For this is what White wanted. He was quite insistent in making this separation. This book opens with a short biography in three parts. I know that readers are as much interested in the man as the poet and his poetry. I don't think I overdo it, though. I hope Roger would find my weighting of these two distinct categories in good taste. He was always so kind in his letters that even if he disagreed with you he would always let you down slowly, laughing as you went. And he is no longer with us, with me, to say "I think you overdid it here, Ron." He was also adventurous and frank, so you knew where you stood. He did not beat around the bush, as they say.
There is a high seriousness in White but his alembic is humour. For some readers the affect of his poetry is a lightness and pleasure that only humour can provide; for other readers White's seriousness and his language place too much of a demand and, not willing to read and reread his poems, these readers put him down without extracting the intellectual delights; for still others, White has the affect of an invigorating exercise of the mind. For them the laughs are a bonus and the reward is more than pure delight. These readers gain an understanding of the religion they joined at some time in the last half century, an understanding perhaps deeper than any learned commentary or, indeed, the efforts of their own investigation. These readers get a sense of a Bahá'í consciousness, a Bahá'í sensibility, a Bahá'í voice, from a poet who has made a distinctive contribution to the birth of a spiritual and universal art.
Blended with this voice are interlacing strains of White's literary ancestry. They influence his style in quite complex and mysterious ways making whatever seems original and a fresh creative force partly and inevitably derivative. At the same time, as the sociologist Levin Schuckling emphasizes: "Somewhere, at some time, the poet follows the divine summons sent him and, true to an inner urge, responsible only to himself and answering no call from the outer world, creates his works of poetry that are dictated by the ideal that floats before him. The works brought into the light of day often show divergencies from existing forms and do not fit into the contemporary scheme of taste. Over time, though, the poetry finds friends, gains recognition and affects the general poetic taste."
Matthew Arnold, writing about the 'sanguine hopes' which accompanied the splendid epoch of poetry in European civilization in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, said there was a 'prematureness' to its expression. He said that, inspite of its energy and creative force, that epoch did not know enough. The creation of a modern poet, he went on, "implies a great critical effort behind it" or it will be a short-lived affair. Time will tell, of course, if there has been enough of that critical effort behind the poetry of Roger White to make it a long-lived affair. There is certainly a critical effort required on the part of the reader if White's work is to be appreciated. In this twenty-first century, sinking deeper as it appears to be into a slough of despond, one can't help but wonder with Harold Bloom what will survive in the long term from the world's burgeoning literary and media productions that fill people's lives today to assume a home in the world's literature in history's long arc.
In this greatest drama in the world's spiritual history in which we are all engaged, Roger White appeared for a time on the stage and is gone. But his poetry remains: as playful as Robert Frost and as serious as Ezra Pound, with his delightful metaphor and the freshness thereof, with his sympathy, infinitude and expansive virtues which, as Shelley once wrote, await "a world of peace and justice for their due recognition.” White, the voyager, is gone, ten years now. He gave himself, the only thing a writer has to offer. And where life is concerned, a writer, a poet, can only truly see, as he does through his own eyes and his own heart. He gave us the results of his search which, as Mark Tobey once wrote, are "the only valid expression of the spirit." He gave us what Dante says are the proper subjects of poetry: venus, virtue and salus.
He liked the term ‘minor poet,’ at least he used that term to apply to himself in one of his first poems. I think he would have eschewed the term ‘major poet’ for many reasons but, if a distinction can profitably be drawn between ‘major’ and ‘great,’ then White, for me anyway, deserves recognition as a great poet. Minor writers, minor poets, can be loved as purely and appreciated as much as major ones, and sometimes more easily, as another great analyst of poetry, Helen Vendler notes. The distinction between talent and genius may also be useful here. The former, said Arnold, gives the notion of power in a poet's performance, while the latter denotes felicity and perfection in the art. For me, White has some of both.
It is, perhaps, unimportant to "decide" whether White was a great poet. Pursuing labels of this kind and making such distinctions, may not be that helpful. White was good enough to provoke the question; perhaps that is enough. He was an exquisite craftsman. He produced an ample body of powerful poetry. That was enough, in the case of Balzac, for Somerset Maugham to use the term genius, or in the case of Wordsworth for Matthew Arnold to use the same term. Arnold also felt that "poetry to be truely excellent must have a high seriousness." White certainly had that.
Arnold also wrote that: " Whether one is an eagle or an ant, in the intellectual world, seems to me not to matter much; the essential thing is to have one's place marked there, one's station assigned, and to belong decidedly to a regular and wholesome order" as one gave others a taste for the things of the mind. Bahá'u'lláh explored the same idea in writing about the portion of some lieing in a gallon measure and others in a thimble. 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote much about the cultivation of the mind. Arnold was in good company. I got the impression these questions did not matter much to White.
Now, of course, I think it unlikely that recognition of this or any kind concerns him in the slightest. As he writes in one of his last poems:
I shall yet divine your unspoken question:
Were you drawn away by the music,
The promised ecstasy of reunion?
The work of a critic can be fantastically overestimated. Readers often forsake the works critics are writing about. Instead of enjoying the poet, the reader turns to the critic as specialist, to his prodigalities of implication, his hyperboles, his nimbuses of rhetoric, his exaggerations and the various promptings that the critic places before the reader. This I do not mind. I think there is a certain inevitability here, at least for some readers. As long as all that I have written convinces you, the reader, if only for the moment, of White's talent and genius, I will have done my job. For my main responsibility is to the poet, Roger White, and the need to be truthful. If what I write appears over the top, as it is said colloquially these days, that is because of the genuine enthusiasm and pleasure I take in reading his poetry. White is a subtle, yet bewilderingly gifted poet. I would not want you to miss the experience of Whiteland. I like to think that most of White's life consists of only those things that weren't good enough to go into his poems. So, if his biographical details are a little light on, readers should not feel they are missing much. White wanted it this way.
The nineteenth century literary critic Amiel, describing perhaps that century's finest French literary critic Sainte-Beuve, wrote that "it is only at fifty that the critic is risen to the true height of his literary priesthood, or, to put it less pompously, of his social function." Only then does a critic have the required critical judgement. These essays were put in their present form when I was in my late fifties. I'm not so sure I qualify for any literary priesthood; I'm not sure I possess the maturity of judgement Amiel refers to, but I hope that readers enjoy the essays that follow.
Samuel Johnson wrote biographies of each of his subjects before proceding to comment and evaluate their works. Such a combination satisfies, it seems to me, a perfectly proper curiosity. Johnson's Lives of the Poets is part of a biographical tradition going back to the early seventeenth century and earlier, a tradition that keeps separate a man's poetry and the man. Gradually, in the nineteenth century, the study of a man and the interpretation of his work began to mingle and to mingle more in the twentieth century. I do some mingling. I am a moderate mingler. This is what White wanted. I hope both White and readers of these essays will find my mingling helpful but not intrusive.
My religious identity as a Baha’i acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of my particular subjectivity, my particular sense of who I am. I also acknowlege that all discourse, all writing, is placed, positioned and situated and all of my knowledge is contextual. I find it helpful, fertile, useful if this way of looking at my Baha’i identity is contested, subjected to a dialectic, if it arises from an assertion of a difference, a clash, of opinions. In this way my identity develops from, is clarified by and is based on a process of engaging and asserting difference rather than suppressing it. This identity acknowledges the reality of decentralised, diffuse and sometimes systematized knowledge; power which also has a diffuse set of sources and at the same time accepts the useful concepts of perifery and centre, margins and depths, surfaces and heights. Once we clarify the notion of identity, once it is redefined in a universal and non-derogatory way, once it engages difference without implying superiority and hierarchy, it is hoped that this will help the Baha’i community express its group consciousness, help it to develop in a manner which is unfettered by the accrued and often inaccurate associations of history and culture, tradition and ignorance. -Ron Price with thanks to Emma Heggarty, “Native Peoples of Canada: Rewriting the Imaginary,” 14th April 2003, Internet, 2004.
Since the House of Justice, back in 1979, encouraged the Bahá'í community to develop the intellectual aspects of its life, there has been a burgeoning of the Bahá'í book market. There is now a pot pourri of material for just about every conceivable niche of reader taste. This burgeoning has come at a time when the Bahá'í consumer is also inundated with print from a wealth of other sources not the least of which is the Internet. And then there is the visual and auditory inundation from the electronic media. Getting "a handle," as they say, on all of this information will keep the best of us busy for the rest of our lives, in these early decades of this new millennium.
Where would one begin to review the plethora of resources now available to Bahá'ís at their bookshops or through the many Bahá'í publishers now dotting the planet? Usually what one finds is a commentary on one book, a book that a committee, an Assembly, a reviewer, or a magazine editor, thinks the Bahá'í community needs some exposure to, some analysis of, for their current enlightenment. But given the wealth of literature available now-not to mention the costs-there are many books that slip through the net of current relevance.
Another problem we have as readers and consumers of print is that often, after buying and reading a Bahá'í book, it can sit on our shelves gathering dust for many a moon. Needing a second read it often never gets it. Drowned as we all are in enough print to sink a ship we all need some sifting mechanisms. One such mechanism is the traditional book review. Regional Newsletters seem to be one appropriate venue for such an exercise.
With the above factors in mind I'd like to take a look at John Hatcher's books-some of them at least. For me this will be a second look after buying them years ago, reading them and drawing on them from time to time. We'll do this in the next issue of The Beacon.
JOHN HATCHER: A REVIEW
Hatcher has been around the Bahá'í book and journal traps for nearly thirty years. He has written seven books in this time. It is not possible to review all of these books in this small space. But I would like to focus, however briefly, on what for me are his three central works: The Purpose of Physical Reality(1987), The Arc of Ascent(1994) and The Ocean of His Words(1997). What makes his works central is their analysis of the art and meaning of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. Taherzadeh gave us his four volumes between 1974 and 1987. Taherzadeh was, for the Bahá'ís of the last three epochs, the first person to give us an overview, systematic and sequential, of the entire Revelation.
Hatcher came along at just the right time and continued this systematic treatment. But he did it in such a different way. Hatcher's is a more poetic, a more literary, analysis, one befitting a Professor of Literature at the University of South Florida. Taken together, with Taherzadeh's four volumes, Hatcher's works provide a reader, both novitiate and seasoned veteran, with a comprehensive overview of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh.
The first volume(1987) focuses on the question of God's justice; the second on the sense of self(1994). They are written in the context of the great literature of the West. They provide a foundation for Hatcher's final volume(1997) which is aimed at enhancing our abilities, acquiring the skills, to study what is a vast and complex art, the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. It is a book to help us immerse ourselves in His Ocean.
MEMORIALS OF THE FAITHFUL: REVISITED
With penetrating and an apparently casual detail, with a crisp and for some a dry style, with an emphasis on the compression of facts; with vivid images, usually not more than three or four pages, wit, a concision of explanation or commentary, with a specific point of view, a style of biography has continued from classical times into the twentieth century. This is biography in miniature. It has a certain bias toward the person over the event, toward art as smallness of scale, toward structuring the confusions of daily life into patterns of continuity and process. There is a broad intent to sustain an interpretation or characterisation with facts teased, coloured, given life by a certain presentation and appraisal. For facts about the past are no more history than butter, eggs, salt and pepper are an omelette. They must be whipped up and played with in a certain fashion. -Ron Price with appreciation to Ira Bruce Nadel, “Biography as Institution,” Biography, Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
Nadel goes on to say that the “recreation of a life in words is one of the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform.”1 Freud said the recreation of a life, the getting at the truth of a life, can not be done; and if someone does do it, as inevitably biographers try, the result is not useful to us.2 People have been trying to write about the lives of others for millennia and, even if Freud is right, they will probably go on doing it. ‘Abdu’l-Baha gives the exercise a parting shot, to put it colloquially, in the evening of his life. His work, Memorials of the Faithful, is squarely in the tradition Nadel describes above: commemorative, didactic, ethical, psychological. His is a work of art as well as information, a work of pleasure as well as truth. His is a work of selection, as biography must be if the reader is not to be snowed in a mountain of useless detail.
He unravels the complexities of seventy-seven lives and in doing so he answers the questions of one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's contemporary's, the British writer Virginia Woolf: ‘My God, how does one write a biography?’ and ‘What is a life?’ If one can not answer these questions, Woolf wrote, then one can hardly write a biography.3
The act of reading Memorials of the Faithful is an opportunity to see how ‘Abdu’l-Baha answers these seminal questions about life, how He answers them again and again in the more than six-dozen of His biographies in miniature. Biographers and autobiographers arguably have one freedom, a freedom that overrides the genetic and social forces that determine so much of human life.4 It is the freedom to tell the story, the narrative, the freedom to explain a life, any life, even one’s own life, to themselves and others the way they desire. This freedom is part of that active force of will that ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote, in his pithy summation of the historic philosophical issue of ‘freewill and determinism,’5 is at the centre of all our lives.
Of course, it is incontrovertible that what has happened in a life has happened. There is no going back to change any one of the events, decisions or results. Life bears the stigmata of finality. There has been a relentless succession of facts, at once inflexible and in some ways arbitrary. All story-tellers are slaves to these facts, if their story is to enjoy the imprimatur of truth. Even bacon and eggs can not get away from these basics. You can't make a pork pie from these ingredients.
Charles Baudelair, a nineteenth century French poet who some say was the first poet to powerfully represent modern man, and who argued that the journey of human beings through life in a satisfactory way simply eludes us, once wrote that a biography “must be written from an exclusive point of view....a point of view which opens up the greatest number of horizons.”6 There are many ways in which one could define 'Abdu'l-Bahá's point of view in this subtle and deceptively simple book. The point of view is that of a lover of Baha’u’llah, one who wants to be near Baha’u’llah, one who wants to serve Baha’u’llah. The point of view is really quite exclusive. All the men and women in this biographical pot-pourri were lovers of the Manifestation of God, the most precious Being ever to walk on this earth; and they all had some relationship with Him during the forty year period of His ministry: 1852-1892.
Restlessness is a dominant theme, a strong characteristic, of the lives of many people 'Abdu'l-Bahá describes. They 'could not stay quiet', 'had no rest', were amazingly energetic', 'awakened to restless life', plagued by yearning love'. Nabil of Qa'in was 'restless, had no caution, patience or reserve'.7 Shah Muhammad-Amin "had no peace" because of the love that smouldered in his heart and because he "was continually in flight'.8 This restlessness 'Abdu'l-Bahá sets down among a galaxy of other qualities and a multitude of other people. Some of the most outstanding believers had this restlessness. Tahirih was 'restless and could not be still'.
The quality of quietness is also valued highly. One does not have to be a great talker to attract the attention of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Quietness also has its place in Bahá'í community life. There are people who are 'inclined to solitude' and keep 'silent at all times'. They possess an 'inner calm'. They are souls 'at rest'. In a community that highly values the social dimension of community experience such people often have a more difficult time.
The gregarious types and the types who keep to themselves are part of this quintessential dichotomy, a dichotomy that was as much a part of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's world as it is our own, although there seems to be a slight preponderence of the gregarious person in this last major book of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's. Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad both kept to themselves and "away from friend and stranger alike".9 Mirza Muhammad-Quli "mostly...kept silent". He kept company with no one and stayed by himself most of the time, alone in his small refuge".10 The more sociable type, like Haji 'Abdu'llah Najaf-Abadi, "spent his days in friendly association with the other believers."11 Ismu'llahu'l-Asdaq "taught cheerfully and with gaiety".12 "How wonderful was the talk,"says 'Abdu'l-Bahá of Nabil of Qa'in, "how attractive his society".13
In Memorials of the Faithful there exist all of the archtypes that psychology's various personality theorists have given us in this century. In addition to Jung's introvert and extrovert, there is the artist, the suffering artist-soul within us all, Mishkin-Qalam. He survives in all his seriousness, as we might, with humour. There are the types who William James describes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: the personality constitutionally weighted on the side of cheer and its opposite, the somber, more reflective even melancholic type. The two carpenters, Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad were examples of the former.14 The examples we find of the latter were often the result of the many difficulties these lovers of Bahá'u'lláh were subjected to and wore them "to the bone."15 I'm confident that 'Abdu'l-Bahá knew there would be many generations of servants to the Cause who would also be worn to the bone from time to time in their efforts to bring into being this new world Order.
‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses all of us, all of us on our journeys while He describes many of those He came to know in His life. For He is describing not only the lives of these men and women in the nineteenth century, He is describing us in our time. He is addressing us on our own travels, on our own turf. He addresses the restlessness in us all. He speaks to us in our victory and our loss. He speaks about what Michael Polanyi calls the tacit dimension, the silent root of human life, which is difficult to tap in biographies, the inner person. This private, this inner person, is the one whom He writes about for the most part. He sets this inner life in a rich contextualization, a socio-historical matrix. He describes many pilgrimages and you and I are left to construct our own.
We all must shape and define our own life. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Intellectually provocative? Spiritually challenging? ‘Abdu’l-Baha shapes and defines these lives given the raw-data of their everydayness added up, added up over their lives as He saw them. How would He shape my life? Yours? How would we look in a contemporary anthology of existences with ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the choreographer and the history of our days as the mise en scene?
For He is setting the stage, the theatre, the home, for all of humanity. The extrovert is here, the introvert, those that seem predisposed to cheerfulness and those who seem more melancholy by nature. All the human dichotomies are here, at least all that I have come across in my own journey. They are the characters which are part and parcel of life in all ages and centuries, all nations and states, past, present and, more importantly, future. Here is, as one writer put it, the rag-and-bone-shop, the lineaments of universal human life, the text and texture of community as we all experience it in the crucible of interaction. Of course, the setting is not new York, Sydney or Hobart in the year 2000, the setting is the life and times of His Father and the response of individuals to the new Revelation in the years 1852 to 1892.
Memorials of the Faithful is what might well be this age’s Canterbury Tales, that compendium of personalities who exemplify, as William Blake once put it, “the eternal principles that exist in all ages.”16 We get a Writer Who delights in other people but Who has an active and incisive mind, a practicality that He brings to bear on what are often difficult personalities. He dwells only on the essentials; His purpose is inveterate; His feelings sincere and intense; they never relax or grow vapid during His cursory analyses. He is exquisitely tender, but clearly wily and tough to survive in the burly-burly life of exile, prison and the unbelievable difficulties He had to bear along life’s tortuous path. He is also, or so it would appear, easy to please.
The heroic age was coming to a close when ‘Abdu’l-Baha put His pen to paper; and it was over by the time the Haifa Spiritual Assembly published this His final book. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had played a prominent role in the epic that was the heroic age. He played a dominant role in writing that epic’s story. Memorials of the Faithful is an important part of that epic. This epic tradition was quintessentially oral and quinessentially written. A written tradition par excellence had begun and a new religion was firmly rooted in a printed, a holy, text.
Since The Growth of Literature by the Chadwicks(1924-1926) the heroic epic has been seen in epic studies “as a cultural rather than a literary phenomenon.”17 The Baha’i epic has grown out of a complex and fascinating set of cultural conditions. Indeed ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s work has contributed to the resolution of problems involving the relationship, the transition, between oral narrative and written text. But this relationship is a question to occupy epic enthusiasts and is not our principle concern here.
Within about twelve months, perhaps even less, of completing this last of His books, ‘Abdu’l-Baha had begun His Tablets of the Divine Plan, the action station within which the community He was addressing could put into practice all the good advice He had given it in His Memorials of the Faithful. Like The Will and Testament, though, it may take a century or more to grasp the implications of this surprisingly subtle and, deceptively simple, book.
We are approaching, though, in the next two decades the end of the first century of the Formative Age. Perhaps the time has come to begin to seriously grasp the implications of these shining pages of ‘Abdu-l-Baha and His interpretive genius. For they have a great deal to tell us about love and unity in the community, in a process of community building that the Universal House of Justice says we have only begun.18
1 Ira Bruce Nadel, "Biography as Institution", Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
2 Sigmund Freud in Freud: A Life for Our Time, Peter Gay, W.W> Norton and Co., NY, 1988, p.xv-xvi.
3 Virginia Woolf in Nadel, op. cit., p.141.
4 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 1978, p. 198.
5 Arnold Ludwig, How Do We Know Who We Are? Oxford UP, Reviewed in New Scientist, 8 November 1997.
6 Charles Baudelair in Baudelair, Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, London, p.xiv.
7 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithfulm Wilmette, 1970, p.
9 ibid., p.46.
16 William Blake in Geoffrey Chaucer: Penguin Critical Anthologies, editor, J.A. Burrow, 1969, p.82.
17 Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World’s Great Folk Epics, editor, Felix J. Oinas, Indiana UP, London, 1978, p.1.
18 The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 1996.
Note: An edited version of this article appeared in the Newsletter of the Association for Bahá'í Studies(English Speaking Europe), Associate Issue 35, Summer 2001. The article here is a revised draft for the Tasmanian Bahá'í Summer School 2004.
The following material was obtained from Derek Pearsall's The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, chapter 6. In this book Pearsall informs us that the whole organization of Chaucer's narrative is in the intersticies of a world of ecclesiastical routines and needs. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's narrative, played as it is in the lives of seventy-seven souls, exists in the intersticies of lives transformed by a manifestation of God. Instead of ehe ubiquity of the Christian Faith and its practices we have a new religion emerging in the soil of people's lives. Both books gives us a narrative of faith. Women are dominant in Chaucer and men in Memorials of the Faithful. Both books provide us with a spiritual journey. There is a gusto and carnivalesque spirit, a contempt for marriage and sexual urges, in Chaucer while none of this is to be found in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's work. The is no sense of social and moral commitment in Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's London is a turbulent and dangerous place; so too in 'Abdu'l-Bahá'ís world. He writes of the domestic world rather than the politics of power. Both men possess a remarkable acuteness of observation; there is little of the sense of outrage. Chaucer makes a magpie-like raid on scholarly texts, perhaps more from conversations. The pilgrims are infinitely various.
The sense of dramatic vitality is so strong the temptation to read the tales as principally an expression of the characters of their tellers is strong. Chaucer is a self-concealing and evasive character. His audience in the imagination is "a miscellaneous company, of lettered London men, to be appropriately scandalized and delighted by the Wife of Bath and the fabliaux, flattered by the invitation to share in a gentleman scholar's easily carried burden of learning and intrigued by the novel expose of London low life in the Cook's Tale. The audience is, probably exclsuively an audienc eof men. The Canterbury Tales are Chaucer's maturer reflections upon the life of men and women is society and in the Christian faith written in the last decade of his life. (1387-1400) He was almost entirely occupied with writing 'The Canterbury Tales' in the last decade of his life.
He refrained from direct allusion to public events and it is difficult, unsafe, to make any deductions about specific connections between life, works and times. Some scholars prefer to see his work as chaotic and inexplicable.
HAVE YOU SEEN THE BAHA'I IN MDA?
I remember back in 1962, when I was eighteen, I went to hear Vic Damone sing at a theatre in Toronto Canada. Vic was a Bahá'í and a popular singer. I was a Bahá'í youth. Canada had about a thousand Bahá'ís at the time, perhaps a few hundred more. Two or three years later I heard Seals and Crofts on one of their first albums of popular music. Dizzy Gillespie followed in the seventies and eighties with his trumpet and his jazz. By the nineties several dozen Bahá'í artists from all around the world had produced CDs that I enjoyed. As the millennium turned its corner Bahá'ís were entering the world of popular culture through the window of sport and the creative and performing arts: choreography, composing, play writing, comedy, writing, dancing, concertizing, acting. Some were heard to say: The Bahá'í Faith is entering the cultural mainstream at last!
I'm sure a study of the presence of the Bahá'í Faith in popular, mass, culture would
reveal more than this brief sketch of my own experience. But the recent presence of Layla Young, a Bahá'í character in the Australian drama MDA, made me reflect on the many manifestations of the Cause in what you might call the culture industry in the half century I have been associated with the Faith:1953-2002. I can not deal with all of the major and minor art forms in which the Bahá'í Faith has been expressed in one way or another. For that would make this short article too lengthy. But I can focus on this recent characterization of a Bahá'í in MDA and attempt to evaluate its existence to the Bahá'í community in Australia.
Thusfar, with three episodes completed, the part played by this energetic and carefree receptionist in MDA has been so minimal that whatever Bahá'í content there is one could only define as subliminal, although the character is clearly likeable, intelligent, articulate and altogether charming. Of course, there may be more to come, more that will have something to say about the Bahá'í Faith. Perhaps it does not matter, Layla is good advertising all on her own.
The portrayal of the actions of fictional characters in dramatic situations has been a mainstay of entertainment worldwide for thousands of years. It remains today a major part of most people's lives in our industrialized world supporting an immense industry in the print and electronic media. There was one drama in the top ten TV programs in the USA in 1952, three in 1972 and seven in 1992.1 Courses in media and popular culture provide interesting analyses of why this art form of popular culture has endured and how it influences our attitudes, dispositions and behaviours. It is not my purpose to delve into what has become a 'literature on popular culture'2 of seemingly unlimited proportions. But I may make several observations on the character and role of Layla that draws on some of the analysis of drama and popular culture.
Australian popular culture is the culture of the masses. Unlike what some call "the high arts" which only a relative few take part in, popular culture comprises the amusements that occupy the nation's leisure time. They are widely diffused and approved of by the majority. They include: movies, the stage, televison, the radio, journalism, fictional writings and many other forms of expression that appeal to the majority. Recent studies, in the 1990s in Australia, indicate more people take part in 'arts activities' than 'sport.' It seems hard to believe.
Television broadcasts a number of fundamentally different programme types, styles and genres. Media programs and cultural studies are awash with explanations and commentary on human nature, political systems, social experience and on western and global society. I do not want to enter into the endless material on these pathways, but rather to focus on drama.
Drama programmes, excluding movies, took up 27 per cent of all televison time in 1987 and 40 per cent of the peak period 6 to 10 pm and throughout the 1990s these percentages increased. In the mid-1980s, for example, the Seven Network held the lead in most ratings thanks to Sons and Daughters at 7 pm four days a week and Country Practice at 7:30 twice a week. The Sullivans had once done the same for the Nine Network, as did Number 96 for Channel Ten and its affiliates in the mid-1970s.3 Some see drama in a position of primacy in television.
Drama has been around since the 1930s in radio first, aimed at housewives and sponsored by soap manufacturers. Hence the term soap-operas. Drama deals with issues that confront audiences in real life. It functions, so one writer says, to provide moral support and confirmation of community values. It trys to show us, among other things, that the problems we face are faced by others. If producers are remote from or irrelevant to the genuine affairs of their audience they lose them.
The case that the best Australian drama has been an agent for reinforcing important social values and for fostering social change in civilized directions is overwhelming.4 Of course there are glaring omissions and silences within the tradition of drama: Australian Aborigines, for example, until the 1990s, hardly got a look in.
Obviously Australian sport, comedy and drama offer diversion, distraction, escape and entertainment, vicarious experience in peoples' lives, fictionalized and otherwise. Large numbers of Australians prefer to watch Australian made top rating drama, among other shows, than to do anything else in the evenings. Commercial stations still pull in bigger audiences than the generally up-market ABC offerings. There's a big audience out there watching some sterotypical Bahá'í behaving in a way Bahá'ís are supposed to behave or not supposed to behave as the case may be. What little there is of Layla is, from my point of view, good advertising. Even if one were critical, I'd say she's better there than not there.
Tad Friend calls drama "the most pervasive, powerful and cherished form of media output."5 Amusement, distraction and the satisfaction of curiosity are legitimate functions of culture. Various features of our lives lead us to seek out vicarious experience in the lives of glamorized fictional characters. Watching drama has both functional and dysfunctional qualities which we won't go into here. The products of media, of popular culture, are often inconsistent, contradictory and shifting. So if drama gives form to an aspect of culture, like the Bahá'í Faith, by means of some role in a series of TV productions, it is just about inevitable that many aspects of the full meaning of that item of culture will not be represented.6 In fact, so much of TV programming, rather than informing people about something, drains out, foreshortens, neglects or hides the real. The essential meaning is not there and the total meaning often becomes impossible. So…don't be too disappointed if the Bahá'í Faith doesn't quite get the coverage you were hoping for.
The goal of entertainment and amusement often makes the task of deciphering information very difficult. After watching the events in the 'real' world in the evening news we identify more with the fictional stories which follow. Although we all can separate the two forms they blend in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways.7 Drama becomes news and news drama; dramatic items are integrated with news commentary in TV news; news reporters become detectives and moral guardians. Fictionalized characters like Layla become commentators on our real world from a Bahá'í perspective. Layla becomes a national Bahá'í icon whether we want her or not. In this case, if her role continues to be minimal, this icon will be one of lesser intensity. This MDA icon becomes a lesser luminary in the heavens of media personalities.
The news never solves the crimes of society and so it never quite makes it as drama. Drama often 'solves problems,' but never quite makes it as news. So the icon becomes part fantasy, part reality, part fact and part fiction. To have arrived in the popular media is better than not to have arrived at all. But you pay a price. The Bahá'í Faith becomes not only a legitimate part of Australian society; it becomes legitimate. For the media's role is, in some ways, to grand legitimacy, to determine the agenda.
If we feel a distance from the news reporters and readers, as people often do with a set of complex news items, evening drama brings us closer. We can solve problems vicariously and then we can sleep in peace. So goes one of the theories of the role of the evening drama. I'm not sure how accurate that view is any more, but it has been a common one in media literature in the last several decades.
If the role of commercial TV is to serve as our society's god or should I say Mammon, its principal virtue is to maintain and foster material prosperity. So another common argument goes. This entertainment we all enjoy is paid for by business and industry and, in the case of the ABC, the government. Ian Mills argues that altars, pulpits, pews and halls have been the four principal physical features of Western churches for more than a 1000 years.8 These features have now been transferred largely to the home. The TV box takes up all of these functions with drama having a special place as part of what might be called 'the expressive arts.' Many theorists argue that these expressive arts deal with some of the functions that religion used to deal with for millions in our secular society today.
It is not the content or substance, some emphasize, but the form that is the essence of TV drama. Just as there is an apparent neutrality and detachment in the evening news, or in drama, in reality there is an advocacy of a dominant ethos and social structure, an ideologically predetermined mode of presentation. The evening drama reinforces and validates the TV news and makes its problems seem more solveable. Both news and drama are essentially extended advertisements for the very society we all live in, or vehicles for questioning that society. So goes yet another common argument from the literature on popular culture or media studies.
About 1970 I was in a movie theatre with my first wife and suddenly, out of the blue, some character in the movie turns to another and says: have you ever heard of the Bahá'í Faith? There was no answer. The scene cut to another set. The effect, I thought at the time, was almost subliminal. Thirty years later the presence of the Cause in the electronic media has become significantly more than this blip. The exposure, the presence, of the Cause in the wider society is more extensive now due to its continuing rise from obscurity.
With the exhaustion of what some call modernity, with the demise of Soviet Communism, with the tedium of the unrestrained self, with the meaninglessness of much of the political chant, there are strong indications that we are at the end of an era. The world is groping for a new vocabulary. The Bahá'í Faith can be found at the edge of the clearing with its new vision, with its sense of the sacred, with its immense capacity to deal with the existential questions of our time and respond to the deepest feelings of people everywhere, with its new institutions. In the centre of this clearing is Layla, holding up a flag, or is it a Bahá'í book, or is it the role of receptionist in MDA?
If, in watching TV, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death, as Neil Postman at New York University argued in 1985; if our cultural life has become a perpetual round of entertainment, enough to bring us close to 'culture-death;' if we have become addicted to our technologies; if the future belongs to the new round of drama in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium like: The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Roseanne, Something In the Air, Sex and the City and Friends, etc., these are other issues not to be examined here. For the media confronts us with many issues not the least of which is what is the value of Layla in this second year of the fifth epoch?
1 Tad Friend, "Sitcoms Seriously," Esquire, March 1993, pp.112-24.
2 Popular Culture became a subject for the first time at Bowling Green State University in 1977 David Jacobson informs us in "Pop Culture Studies Turns 25," Internet, 3 July 2002.
3 Keith Windshuttle, The Media, Penguin Australia Ltd., 1989.
5 Friend, op.cit.,p.114.
6 Roland Barthes, Mythologies,Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1957.
7 Ian Mills, "Pulpit Drama: The Mythic Forms of TV News Programmes,"
The News in Focus, Patricia Edgar, editor, MacMillan, 1980, p.56.
RESPONSE TO PETER TRUEMAN
It was with great pleasure that I read Peter Trueman’s challenging article in the November Bulletin. What I write below is a response to that article. My response should be seen more as a companion piece to the emphasis Peter gives, for I agree with the thrust of his argument. Who could disagree with what he says, with the clarity and straightforward way he presented his case?
To summarize his case as briefly as I can, I would say that Peter’s focus is on what one might call “the inner life and private character,” the moral ground. “Only one thing will ensure the undoubted triumph of the Cause,” the Guardian emphasized, in highlighting the essentially moral base for the triumph of the Faith. How can one disagree with this? My favorite quotation of the Guardian’s on teaching has been the one Peter closes his article with. I first came across it some time in the mid-1960s when my own pioneering life began in earnest. The House of Justice has also included that same quotation in several of its letters. This quotation should be part of the air we breath now after all these years. Thank you, Peter, for saying your piece in a refreshing way.
Now to my companion piece. My quotations will be different. They won’t have much to do with morality or the inner life. My perspective is in another domain. In a word ‘the historical.’ My first quotation is also from the Guardian, from God Passes By(p.111). The Guardian is describing the first phase of the newborn Revelation in Iraq. He writes: “The process whereby its(the Cause) unsuspected benefits were to be manifested to the eyes of men was slow, painfully slow, and was characterized, as indeed the history of His Faith from its inception to the present day demonstrates, by a number of crises which at times threatened to arrest its unfoldment and blast all the hopes which its progress had engendered.” Now that sentence needs some study to unpack it a little. This quotation is very helpful to those of us who have been teaching in the field for decades and seen the “painfully slow,” “discouragingly meagre”(UHJ, Ridvan, 1979) response go on year after year.
Perhaps I should have started further back in our history with a quotation from The Dawnbreakers. “Every step He took, “writes Shoghi Effendi of the Bab, “every endeavour He made, had but served to intensify the sorrows and disappointments that weighed upon His soul.”(p.652) There follows a series of 13 statements summing up those sorrows and disappointments. In their midst he even helps us to recognize the one which is the hardest of all for us to face, to swallow: our own failure to observe the guidance given us. I won’t elaborate here on the failings of the Babis. But it is critical for us to recognize that what Peter is saying in his article has been a problem since the 1840s and probably will go on being one for, who knows, centuries to come. Entry by troops and mass conversion one day will unleash a set of moral problems the like of which we have hardly tasted yet.
One final example from the distant past, again from the Epilogue of The Dawnbreakers. The Guardian draws our attention to the fact that, in 1852, even “the stoutest supporters” got discouraged. “The entire conception that had evolved in the mind of its Author seemed to have been foredoomed to failure. The work of the Bab...would seem....to be one of the saddest and most fruitless that had ever been the lot of mortal men.”(p.651) So, too, is this feeling of discouragement also our own from time to time.
I could go on and on citing examples from what John Hatcher calls “the metaphorical nature of Baha’i history”(The Purpose of Physical Reality, 1987). If we ignore our history, the history of the Cause, we ignore it at our peril. For it can illumine the present. Problems we face, whether it is the type of behaviour and the sort of attitudes of our fellow believers, or a dozen other concerns, have been problems that have existed since the inception of the Cause in the 1840s. An appreciation of our Baha’i history can help us become conscious of the fact that generations, as many as five or six now, have all faced what we face, albeit in a different form. Indeed, the Central Figures have also faced “the discouragingly meagre” response and “the moral inadequacies” of the believers. And it wore Them out, each in Their different ways, as it is wearing out many a soul even as I write.
The Tablets of the Divine Plan, the foundation document for the teaching work, utilize what might be called ‘the military metaphor.’ For we are all involved in a war. Victory faces us in the years, the decades, the centuries, ahead. It’s a victory in an inner war as much as an external war. It’s been going on for 156 years. Ours is a mental war perhaps more than ever before. (See Letters of Shoghi Effendi to Australia and New Zealand, p.1) As the Guardian wrote, analysing the experience of Baha’u’llah in Iraq in the 1850s, the threat of having our hopes ‘blasted’ rears its head occasionally in our lives, especially when our enthusiasms are flying high.
I just showed this article to my wife. She thought it was ‘negative’ and ‘discouraging.’ I say, far from it. These words are a note struck for realism, a sense of the slowness and the immense difficulty of the process. The nature of history’s story back to 1844 has been one of momentous achievements but also of tragedy. Momen states that the great tagedy of Baha’u’llah’s life is that the majority of people who came in contact with Him never became Baha’is. Will this be our experience too? I am emphasizing here a never-give-up attitude, but I am making a plea for the possession of a set of expectations that are realistic. We need to be sensitive to the symbolic meaning of our history, of loss, of suffering, of defeat in the history of the Cause and religion. The symbolism of the Cross in Christianity, of the Bab’s martyrdom. The forty years of the Blessed Beauty’s exile and imprisonment is, if it is nothing else, the presence of victory in apparent defeat. The struggle of this generation of believers, with or without their moral inadequacies, is yet another set of images, another slice of time, another take, on this great theme of victory in the presence of loss. Indeed, this is so true in our own dear lives, our families, our despair. For this is the foundation, the basis, for our consecrated joy(SDC, p.116). The truth in the statement that “the reality of sacrifice is that there is no sacrifice” comes from this apparent contradiction. The sense of loss and sorrow is mercy and peace.(‘Abdul-Baha, Selections, p.245)
“I’ll close with a final quotation from that Epilogue of The Dawnbreakers. “The moderation He had exhorted them to observe was forgotten in the first flush of enthusiasm that seized the early missionaries of His Faith, which behaviour was in no small measure responsible for the failure of the hopes He had so fondly cherished.”(p.652) So we have this cautionary note, from our own history, in the presence of our day-to-day enthusiasms. We have another example of the moral factor that Peter Trueman exhorted us to reexamine in our lives.
“We stand too near the colossal edifice,” the Guardian concluded in 1932, for us to comprehend the process. That is still the case. “Remember My days during thy days,” Baha’u’llah exhorts us. And these are ‘our days.’ A “glimmer” of His sufferings may help us be patient in ours. A glimmer of “the power of understanding” may aid us(WOB, p.17) to cope with the complexities of the issues that face us in these ‘darkest hours before the break of day’(UHJ, Ridvan, 150), engaged as we are in ‘an immense historical process.’ (UHJ, Ridvan, 153) which, strive as we may, we will only partly understand.
Thank you Peter for reminding us of some of this process, this battle, this war, so cogently. Perhaps it may move us a little along the road of understanding.
Some Ways to Look at Pioneering Journey
To see for ourselves the meaning of a story, we need, first of all, to look carefully at what happens in the story and while we are doing this we need to see if what is happening is relevant in any way to us. This relevance, of course, is increased significantly, if we see the empirical data of our own lives in the same broad theoretical framework as the author of the story sees his. -Ron Price with thanks to Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, Vintage, NY, 1957, p.27.
The self-consciously psychological poetry that I write, whether in the form of explicit prose-poetry or in the form of narrative could be said to be but another word for what today is now called cognitive neuroscience. As I pursue this neuroscience, I write about my life and I search for evidence of external forces that have diminished the expression of my potential, my capacities. I also search for, try to define, recover and describe the sources of my own wealth: spiritual, psychological and monetary.
This search of the past, this learning and understanding of my life could be seen in terms of many different models. Mary Belenky and her colleagues identified five developmental stages, or perspectives on knowledge, regarding what it is to come to know oneself and one's life. I'd like to describe Belenky's model briefly here. It is but one of many I could draw on, but one will serve my purposes here.
Belenky found that many begin in silence, without awareness that they possess knowledge or the confidence to articulate any perspective on that knowledge. This is how she described the first stage, the starting point in our search to understand our lives. This understanding of our life is, for the most part, inarticulate, confused and bewildering and, at worst, a jumble of events without any particular meaning. In the second stage, often coextensive with and part of the first, but also often separate and distinct from that first stage, people are seen as viewing their knowledge as something 'out there,' as something that is to be received from others. Here the individual is the recipient and the tabula rasa on which life imprints its messages. Thirdly, as we progress in our understanding of our existence, we begin to recognize our own intuited truths as something of value, and thus, begin to recognize and put forward our own subjective views.
Then, in stage four, comes acknowledgment of procedural structures and strictures, and the need to strive for a balance between an 'outer' and 'inner' knowing. Finally, in the fifth stage, people can combine all of these perspectives into a more integrated view of knowledge. They come to see knowledge as something which is constructed through interaction between the knower and the known. We are all at different staging points from others in the development of ourselves as constructed knowers. Even so, through autobiographical writing, we can make, as Grumet (1988) suggests, the link between our experience in life and our life as learners.
By connecting our personal knowledge to theoretical perspectives gained in life, we can more fully integrate our own lived experience into our knowledge base. We can relate our life to the five developmental stages mentioned above and, in the process, come to understand better what it is to know. Without going through all the stages and unless one is engaged in a specific analytical exercise one is unlikely to go through these stages one by one, I identify stages one and two with the period of my life up to about eighteen, up to the year my pioneering life began, 1962. While there is no precision with this conception, this model, there is some degree of logic to its process. It fits in, too, with Erikson's eight stage process and specifically, for me, his stage four: identity and role confusion, the major conflict-tension of adolesence. The years before I was eighteen seem to be associated with inarticulateness, a desire to work out my identity and a slowly maturing process in these teen age years. The years before I was a Bahá'í at fifteen, or before I first came in contact with this Faith at the age of nine, could be applied to stages one and two with an even finer degree of application.
Models of human development are many and they can be helpful in different ways, in helping us understand our own lives, our autobiographies. Applying the various stages that developmental psychologists have defined to our own lives can be a helpful exercise, helpful in giving a framework to the often bewildering chaos of events that come our way over the four score years that have become our average lot in developed societies. Piaget, for example, examines our lives in terms of progressive stages of cognitive development; Freud in terms of stages of psychsexual development; Spence examines the lifeline in terms of narrativisation and a process he calls narrative smoothing. And there are other ‘narrative therapies’ such as self-authoring where the goal is to get individuals to take control of their stories, their identities; and constructionism which sees selfhood and identity as “the product of public discourse rather than internal psychic processes.” Constructionists see our stories as shaping who we are. In sum: there is much material here in developmental psychology that can be useful to autobiographers.
The normal mind, wrote William James during psychology's earliest and formative years, operates in a field of consciousness in which one's awareness shifts among different hot spots of ideas, memories and feelings. This shifting, this juggling, goes on all of one's days in manifestly different ways in each of us. The philosopher, Henri Bergson, saw the normal mind in quite a different way to James. To Bergson, experience of the world and of oneself was seen as a flowing continuum of insepar- able moments. These moments could not be divided into a sequence of individual parts, however articulate and deep those moments were. Reality, to Bergson, was experienced as duree, duration, and it could be grasped best by intuition not by the rational intellect. Cezanne's paintings and cubist art illustrate Bergson's understanding of experience, at least partly, as do some of the modern video clips and films.
Martin Heidegger's concept of dasein is also useful in an attempt to understand autobiography. Heidegger said there were three modes of possible existence: factuality, existentiality and fallenness. We all live and take part in mode one and understand that mode to varying extents. People who find a sense of purpose in life, find authenticity and are therefore successful in their drive toward existentiality. Those who do not find their purpose, these are the fallen, or so he calls them. They never understand why they are here or they make up their own framework of understanding completely, or so it would seem, divorced from any traditional religious system of meaning. Often, too, some in this category do not seem to care about ultimate questions. They learn to live with an ultimately existential meaninglessness. The world, for them, is essentially incomprehensible and indifferent, although they often take pleasure and meaning in the day to day, the physical realities of life itself.
The reality of life is not some essence, Heidegger wrote, but existence which can only be partly understood. Ultimate justifications for our choices, an ultimate meaning in life, can never be found. The various philosophies of life are legion and this autobiographical package tends to synthesize as many approaches as is possible, useful, helpful to my understanding. Even existential approaches like Heidegger's offer ideas that are helpful in this journey.
In an article in a new journal called Janus Head Bernard Jager writes about life's journey. He says that, cut off from the sphere of dwelling, life becomes aimless wandering. It deteriorates into mere distraction or even chaos or fugue. Perhaps this was part of the human experience forty thousand years ago in band societies, hunting and gathering communities. In some ways we in our world have, in our time, become faced with "forced migration" which, as Douglas Martin suggests is "the paradigm for the whole human race. The process is unstoppable, Martin continues, and will radically alter humanity's sense of place and identity. My migration was, on the other hand, "unforced." I made a conscious decision to move, to migrate. This was not always the case. There were occasions among my many moves where relocation was forced by circumstances.
But whether one's movement is forced or unforced, the journey requires a place of origin as the very background against which the figures of our world can emerge. My place of origin geographically was, of course, in southern Ontario, Canada. In terms of ethnicity, social class, sub-culture, institutional influences, et cetera, 'origin' becomes more complex to define. Jager writes that to be without origin is to be homeless and--blind. On the other hand, the sphere of dwelling, or origin, cannot maintain its vitality without the renewal made possible by the path, the journey. A community without outlook, without vision, he goes on, atrophies. It becomes decadent and incestuous. Psychological incest results primarily from the refusal to move on the path. It is a refusal to accept the future, to accept change and a suicidal attempt to live entirely in the past. The sphere of dwelling, if it is not to be a moribund location, is interpenetrated by journeying. The pioneer, and certainly this one, a person who has lived now in two dozen towns and three dozen or more houses, has had a life interpenetrated with journeying.
In Greek mythology the god Janus is a theorist in the original Greek sense of theoria which, as Jager shows, includes the idea of a journey. The Theognis, written in the sixth century BC, depicts the theoretician as the official representative of the polis who visits the Delphian oracle. Here, the theorist is described “as a recipient of the divine message and as a faithful transmitter of that message back to the people." The poet, then, is a theoretician in the truest, most original sense of the word. The poet is the dwelling-venturer who discovers the Divine not by rising above materiality, but rather by a deepening of experience.
The poet-critic Allen Tate, in his discussion of the role of imagination, says that poets try to show traces of the Divine in the concrete description of the mundane. The poet, who imagines symbolically, cultivates the dwelling-place of the human and in the process discovers the gods in the round dance of the fourfold — Earth, Sky, Gods, Mortals —as this movement is expressed by things. With the imaginative description of the thing, poets both witness and participate in the dance. Poets find themselves within a deeper, richer, more human place, a place that implies an endless seeking, draws connections, creates metaphors and engages readers to think. The experience of the pioneer could be said to participate in this dance.
I could spend much time on more of the philosophical bases of autobiography, but I am disinclined to do so since philosophy provides such an immense labyrinth of ideas that will take me away from my purpose here which is to bring together into a series of essays much of the material I have already read and absorbed on the subject. Inevitably, I will draw on some philosophy in the context of the material I have already read in the last several years. It would appear that I am engaged in a long autobiograpical project, one which began in the mid-1980s. Like Wordsworth's project which began in late 1798 and early 1799 and continued all his life to his death in 1850, mine may continue until my final years as well. So, readers who come back to this site in the years and decades ahead will find much more to chew over in the field of autobiography.
Baha’is all over the world draw on the same resources of their history for the subject matter of their narratives and poems and in the formulation of the moral and intellectual frameworks of their writings. These resources, of course, mean different things to each writer and poet as they each concentrate on different aspects and interpretations of their history and quite separate ideas on what exactly is significant in that experience. Each writer’s sensibility and individual experience acts as an overlay on this historical data and the fine qualities of their personal particulars lead them along many cunning passages and contrived corridors into a varied preoccupation and involvement with the past. Other Baha’i writers draw less on history and more on many of the other aspects of their Faith: philosophy, morals and ethics, spiritual development, social and economic development, the list is long. Each Baha’i comes to love different aspects of the dream that is this Faith. What holds this dream together for me is the principle of the oneness of humankind and how it takes form in this Faith and becomes the basis for the practical reality that it is. And the life that exists and is informed by this principle is, on the one hand, like a revolving crystal, multifaceted, various and constantly changing and, on the other hand, is a fixed quality, filled with distinctions and patterns that are limited by our experience, our stock of words and our mental and psychological capacities. In some ways this autobiography is the autobiography of an idea as much as it is a life.
Had I not examined this idea and many of the ideas that come with it I think my feelings about this narrative would be much like those of Ayn Rand about hers. Telling the story of her life, she wrote, "would bore me to death." Indeed, after finishing the first draft of this story back in 1993, I felt much of that same feeling of tedium vitae. Had I not been able to place an idea, ideas, at the centre of this account, it would have languished in my study, incomplete and I would have felt deeply unsatisfied.
It is difficult, though, to know what late adulthood and old age will bring in the years ahead. The process of dieing, as T.S. Eliot once noted, is somewhat like being born. It is a slow process, a slow decline into old age, into senescence. The world begins to break up around us, he goes on. We find ourselves often, he notes, surrounded by strangers and it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate. Physical features undergoe alarming change and often the aged feel like dismal aliens to each other. Such is some of the dismal picture presented by Eliot but, as anyone who knows anything about aged care studies today, this is not all there is. For many millions late adulthood and old age offer a much more fulfilling and happy picture than the one Eliot describes. I like to think that, as the evening hours close in toward night that the "invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts" which Bellow spoke of in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976 and "which binds together all humanity-the dead to the living and the living to the unborn" will increasingly find its apotheosis in the Faith that has been at the centre of my life or on life's perifery for half a century. For most of the twentieth century these noble-sounding words of Joseph Conrad were measured against the millions of dead and, if uttered, it was with a grain of skeptical salt. In the Bahá'í community and in my own life, this salt has certainly not lost its savour even if on occasion some of us seem "called by sorrow and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness." Sometimes, though, there is an "inevitable isolation and disillusionment" that "a really strong mind" experiences, like that of Shoghi Effendi. Perhaps it is, as Henry Adams once observed, something that happens to a mind "that combines force with elevation." Perhaps it is, as he concluded, some of "the romance and tragedy of statesmanship." Certainly for me, Shoghi Effendi combined both romance and tragedy; so, too did my own dear life. And the ideas which have captured centre-stage in this narrative will go on to fill the stage and to fill the stage long after I am gone for the future of humanity is deeply linked with these ideas. And they have occupied me for only several epochs.
About a year ago I read an article by George McLean called "The Call of Abraham." Shortly after reading the article I wrote the following essay about my pioneering venture and autobiography. McLean's article seemed to provide an entry point into the big picture of my life. What I am trying to do, among other things, in this article is to combine notions of the past with the exigencies of the present and produce, in the process, a design for living. Not that the Baha’i Faith needs any more designs, but we each have to work out our own design, our pattern within the great one, the great Plan, within which we live and work. History, for me then, is a continuum out of which I emerge and to which I belong. A series of intricate and unbreakable strings which bind me to that history and to all others, especially those people whom I influence and who influence me. Writing this autobiography is somewhat like playing those strings in as coherent and harmonious a fashion as possible and creating, while I write, a series of symphonies. It is like creating, too, one great variegated portrait, not so much by invention as many novelists do, but by analysis and synthesis, by giving substance and congruence to perception and experience, a substance and congruence my life would not otherwise possess. I try to see my life, my religion and my society steadily and whole; I try to fulfill the demand made on me by the historical context within which I find myself. It is a demand made largely by some inner tension, some inner need. I do this by examining the landscapes running through my life, my times and my religion and giving them a unity and a sense of relevant connection though various strategies of imaginative reference and revision. There are still, after all this analysis and synthesis, ends left hanging loose and stories only partly told. There is in this large exercise a sense of vocation that William Faulkner called a “quest for failure” because, no matter how much I find the right sentence which crystallizes an experience there is, in the end, a futility to this self-imposed task. Through the agency of one’s prose and poetry one’s own particular sense of life can be externalized. But there is so much in life that "can not satisfy nor appease the hunger,” as Baha’u’llah once wrote. Now.....to that essay.........
A PRIMORDIAL PERSPECTIVE ON PIONEERING
The call of Abraham and of his subsequent pilgrimage has become part of the primordial journey of the Jewish people. "It is part, too, of that theophany, that appearance of God to man, that has been sedimented in narrative" writes George McLean and has become part of that biblical "primordium around which a people" has been shaped. This primordium, Peachey says, needs interpretation and application in the changing circumstances of time and place, our time and place. And that is what I am doing here.
Having embraced a new theophany and become a part of a new Faith community which claims descent from this original Abrahamic experience, I am in possession of a new tradition, now only a century and a half old, which possesses a richness of detail that was scarcely perceptible in that original primordium, but which has been enacted again in the life of Bahá'u'lláh. This new narrative, not unlike Abraham's, is of immense value to the international pioneer in the Bahá'í community.
Contemporary religious practitioners usually have little direct engagement with that seminal Abrahamic-primordium of about 2000 BC. Tradition and its institutional configurations overshadow this ancient narrative. They are rarely animated by it. But, for me, in the Bahá'í community, Abraham's story has found eschatological and apocalyptic significance in what you might call a contemporary rerun. In this globalizing, individualizing, pluralising world, a prophet, a manifestation of God, has been forced, not called, out of his country, taking his kindred with him on the journey. I find in my life and in 'pioneering over four epochs,' that the narrative of Bahá'u'lláh's exile, his journey-narrative, is one I can shape as I become more familiar with it and as it shapes me.
"Learning the existing story, its language and its logic," says Peachey, "enables individuals to experience on their own in the terms of that story or to use it as a foundation for new and expanded experience.” Learning the story is like learning a language. Learning and becoming a part of a religious tradition is also like learning a language. Learning this language is essential if one is to function within that religion's parameters. The story of Abraham is the beginning, the first chapter, of the Israelite narrative; the story of Bahá'u'lláh is the end, the last chapter, of this same narrative extended into our time, our age.
From the father, the first patriarch, the birth, of the Hebrew people about 4000 years ago right up to today in the person of Bahá'u'lláh, this pattern of leaving one's country and going to another land is, in some ways, the basic myth, model, metaphor, for the international pioneer. The Bahá'í pioneer goes and makes his home "to develop the society God calls" Bahá'u'lláh's followers to build. "I will make of you a great nation,” God says to His people in The Bible. The pioneer is also in the same position, only he is at the beginning of a global, a planetary, system, a world Order, that he is helping to establish. This is the core of the pioneer's service to humanity. God will train both the pioneer and the Bahá'ís, it would appear, following the metaphor right back to Abraham, in a series of sacred-historical events different from, but similar in other ways to, the great literary-metaphorical history that is the Bible. Abraham's leap of faith is ours, too, as we walk into history.
Bahá'u'lláh's exile over forty years took place only once, as did Abraham's journey, but each inaugurated the history of a divine-human relationship which will go on unfolding for centuries, millennia to come. Just as Abraham had little comprehension of the nature of his call or of his destiny at the beginning, so,too, are we in a similar position, although we do have some glimmering of the future given to us in the Bahá'í writings. At the very start of the building of this World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, it is difficult to fathom the process, the reality, the meaning. The narrative takes unexpected turns; uncertainty enters in from time to time. Faith is at our core as it was for Abraham.
But history, for the Jewish people, and for the Bahá'ís, is seen as an extended course of instruction filled with lessons and tests by which God seeks to educate us for our redemptive work. In this narrative is found the meaning and purpose of our lives. To help establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Just as Abraham went from his country, kindred and father's house so does the international pioneer, launched on a mission to other people, to all people, wherever he goes. The journey has gone on in our own time in the life of Bahá'u'lláh. That great journey of the Abrahamic peoples is the paradigmatic, the metaphorical, vehicle, that the pioneer takes on board as he becomes a part of a wondrous tradition that weaves its way through the holy scriptures of four of the world's religions. For the pioneer's story is the story he will find there in that holy writ. Therein will he find his life's meaning and purpose.
Back in 1974, while teaching at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, I came across the writings of a specialist in the history of childhood, Lloyd deMause. I always found deMause provocative. I include here a short essay I wrote on deMause and his ideas because of the relevance of deMause's ideas to the life of the pioneer and to this autobiography.
SOME 'PSYCHOHISTORY PERSPECTIVES' ON THIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY
In trying to understand my life and especially my pioneering life over these four epochs a book like Lloyd deMause's The Emotional Life of Nations, particularly his chapter four, is a helpful one. It places the importance of understanding emotions, individual motivation, interpersonal relationships within the family and child-rearing practices at the very centre of any attempt to understand self and society. Indeed, deMause's philosophy of history places these factors right at the centre of any genuine understanding we might achieve of history. Not economics as Marx would have it, not religion or bureaucracy as Weber would have emphasized, not sex as was Freud’s focus, but an intimate and personal domain within the family is where we must go if we want to understand history and ourselves.
Cultural determinism, deMause argues, can account for only some of our behaviour and our life. "The environment," "the culture," being the pervasive, all-embracing, entities that they are, I can keep pretty busy analysing this complex explanatory matrix and how my life is a bi-product of it. But this matrix does not cover the whole story. Indeed, inner meanings and motivations, relationships and parenting, must be seen as a crucial, if not 'the' crucial, focus of causation in your life and mine, particularly insofar as autobiography is concerned. This is the certain and central core of any attempt to secure a real and illuminating autobiography, as far as the DeMause thesis is concerned. It is not my intention here to go into detail on these aspects of my early life. Hopefully, I will do so at a future time. I will examine, too, in more detail my relationship with my father, my mother, my grandfather, my extended family, specific friends and the Bahá'í community which gradually became an important part of my psycho-social life from the age of nine onwards. In the process it may be that my autobiography and those of others, other minor figures like myself, will tell future historians more about our times than the lives of major historical figures. For it can serve as a helpful entry-point for any study of the fine structure of Bahá'í experience, as a source of primary materials for any attempt to integrate the intellectual and the institutional narrative, the personal and the community aspects of this emerging world religion.
The field of developmental psychology suggests strongly that there is more to an explanation of human behaviour than simply self-interest or idealism. There are many powerful human feelings other than greed and devotion to a Cause that shape our lives and we must explore these feelings if we are to explain our lives to any significant extent. I feel that my autobiography has only partially dealt with these factors, thusfar. Perhaps society is the flawed product of both an evolving and flawed psyche and the evolving and flawed units of social organization in which we are all enmeshed. Certainly an examination of my early days will, must, deal with these flaws.
I have just reread my notes on motivation and attitudes from a psychology course I taught in Perth in the early 1990s. I could very well examine, say, each of the dozen major theories of motivation summarized there and see how they apply to my own life. It seems to me, following deMause, that it would be useful to understand the psychological origins of my behaviour and specifically the content and psychodynamics of my negative memories. It is difficult to unwind the attitudes, beliefs, values, motivations, negative memories and see my life in a developmental perspective, one that is psychosexual and/or psychosocial. The exercise is, to say the least, complex. I have examined this theme to some extent elsewhere, both on my website and in this autobiographical account focusing as I have on Erik Erikson and his model of human development.
DeMause argues that the sense of 'self and other' is one of the most creative achievements of humankind over the last several thousand or hundreds of thousands of years. It has taken humankind millennia to accomplish this sense of self, this sense of identity. From a Bahá'í perspective this internal, this ego, this 'self-sense' must also include a sense of the physical environment, the human environment and the environment of unknowns dealt with by religion and philosophy among a range of humanities and social sciences. This sense of self is acquired through the actualizing of potentials, an actualizing that occurs through the acquisition of competencies in several areas: psycho-motor, perceptual, cognitive, affective and volitional.
I should go on to say that, underpinning this sense of self, is a philosophy that Jordan and Streets call "a philosophy of organism." Creativity guided by purpose and expressed by two fundamental capacities "to know and to love" is the basis of this philosophy. This is part of the rationalization of the vision that is at the core of the Bahá'í teachings. The integration of knowledge and belief and the transformation of experience into attitude is also taking place here within the framework of this philosophy. These are all part of the underpinnings of my philosophy, a philosophy which tries to give "logic and coherence to what"1 I see and do and helps provide the rationale and standards of explanation for what I see that counts in my world. It is my world view.
One of the obligations of the storyteller, the bard, the poet, is to tell his own story, tell who he is and tell it intelligibly. He has to share his own story, his interests, his perspectives, his needs, his loyalties, his beliefs, his loves, his frustrations. For all he has is his story. Some writers tell their story through novels or short stories; some through poetry. In addition to this narrative, I write what is openly autobiographical poetry. This is how I tell my story. I would not bother to write if all I was doing was providing sophisticated entertainment, but what I am doing is many-fold: clarifying a commitment, capturing an inward, private world for public consumption, probing the mystery of artistic creation, explaining me to myself, expressing human life at a deeper, more intense, clearer-sighted way than I ever could in my daily life, recounting a lifelong spiritual pilgrimage, inducing change, explaining the turning points in my life and in life and trying to arrive at a just characterization. People can find out much more deeply in my works what, for the most part, they could never find out from me in real life.
The titles of each of my booklets of poetry, over fifty now, are drawn from recent experience in the Baha’i community often in connection with the Mt. Carmel Project. What is happening on Mt. Carmel, I often feel, is very much something that is happening to me. For community, shared community, is largely and most intimately experienced alone, no matter how much of the experience is shared in group interaction. In this poetry the reader will see how I people my solitude, how I am alone in a crowd and how I achieve that degree of virtue proportional to what I am worthy—always an unknown quantity--but one can try to take account, guesstimate where one is at. The writing of autobiography is one way of doing that guessing, taking that account. The art of writing autobiography is partly the art of knowing what to leave out and it is the excitement of finding a form for the material. The form, the perspective, the style, that is this third edition evolved so slowly I had just about given up hope. It was a lesson for me in the great truth that in "one's art of craft one can't afford to be impatient."
Studies of introspection and self-perception "fail to appreciate the complexity of establishing the accuracy of a self-judgment." It is undoubtedly a complex business. One advantage that narrative has is that one's identity is carved out of a mass of interacting entities and out of a social construction of reality. My identity has so many sources, a bewildering variety. And what this autobiography does, among other things, is to show the man, the evolution of the man within the poet that I am, that I have become.
Reading about Flavius Josephus recently, for example, I could not help but contrast this man's life, impressed as he was with the excellence of Roman culture in the first century after Christ, with my own life in the first century after Bahá'u'lláh impressed as I am with the culture of the Bahá'í religion. Or examining the autobiography of Australian poet Judith Wright I cannot help but feel an identity with her as she describes herself as "a shimmering multitude." She says her "early memories could have been written in a dozen different ways" and now "that multitude has expanded in all directions." Wright says she does "not know what 'fact' is" any more. Perhaps more important than which of the many ways one can write one's autobiography is the importance of being "thoroughly penetrated by what James called the wonder of consciousness in everything" as one goes about one's task.
Our private life, Wright goes on, "leaves less trace than the silver trail of a slug which dries and blows away" although, as I have pointed out in relation to some diarists and autobiographers, there is a strong penchant to immerse themselves and their readers in the trivia of everyday life on the assumption that it will either be of interest to someone or it will illuminate the everyday life of the times. One's public life is, in the end, a multiplicity. Even if one constructs an autobiography, one knows that ultimately one selects from the great mass a succession of personas and in reflection constructs a procession of 'I's; even if one dwells on the external events of one’s life, the measureable quantities, the exercise is fragile, subtle and enigmatic.
History consists of the stories we tell each other, stories that attempt to explain who we are and where we have been. For me, many of these stories can be found in Bahá'í history which has a metaphorical base. The metaphorical meanings suggest paths that I might tread toward the uncertain and the certain that is the future. These Bahá'í stories tell of my most sacred beliefs and suggest patterns of moral and social behaviour that I should follow. And it seems to me I must be on my guard not to focus primarily on the things which vanish or I and what I write will vanish too. For this reason there is little in this autobiography about what I have bought, eaten, shopped for, what brand names have been a part of my life. The symbolic world which we all inhabit is for the most part a depthless realm of masks, of images and brand names whose cache and status inevitably change, revealing no stable core at best or no substance at all.
I see this autobiography as the story of a life that suggests, exemplifies, a psychological reality that opposes and withstands as much of the plague of popular fantasies that bombard consciousness as I have been able in these epochs. My identity is not associated with an image, an image that is ultimately empty, of an-other's demand in an image-conscious society. I accept that image has become a central aspect of life today; indeed to some extent I revel in it. I play the game, but realize it's a game. I know that much of what I desire I have been taught to desire through my only partly avoidable immersion in society's realities. I have been hooked, as we all have been to varying extents, by the "aesthetics of consumerism." "Coolness," "glamorousness," a host of images I am aware of, but I know my reality and the reality of others is not this. Still I must admit that all this surface piffle, surface reality, has influenced me in much of my life. Of course, I am not the only one to realize this; so, too, do millions of others who sit and take in what some have called 'secondary reality.' In the first eleven decades that these electronic media products have bathed society and now billions of its citizens I, too, have enjoyed their many pleasures for they have not been without their value. Given the quantity of time in my life in which I have absorbed products from film, TV, radio, musak, advertising, hi-fi sound-music systems, video, CDs, I would guesstimate a minimum of one-eighth of all the hours of my life and, perhaps, as much as a quarter, they really deserve a separate study of their own.
The movies I have seen are entertaining but not real. They are surreal, hyperreal, colourful, stimulating, but not life as I live it. Consequently, I am plunged into and forged by a sea of signifiers which, while stimulating my sensory emporium, ultimately signify something approaching nothing. I am conscious of body image but I get little sense of identity, little that I am aware of anyway, from my body. My psyche, to the extent that it is filled with electronic media products, is a void because that environment of media seems, as I gaze back on its consumption, like an abyss, and the inner world, if one can call it that, which it creates in this narration is thin and, although entertaining, depleted of significance and depth. I do not measure my life in terms of movies consumed, documentaries viewed, clothes and food purchased, although they are all part of my life. They bring pleasure and learning, but they do not represent landmarks, turning points, significations. In a strange, somewhat sad, way, they represent points, episodes in time, which occupy time, and which rest my spirit and body, provide a recoup, a retank, so that I can get on with living. In the half century that this autobiography is concerned with, this electronic media has enriched my life but I have quite ambivalent feelings about its value.
Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, to some degree inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and our own biases. This is not only true of the great events of history and in our Faith but in our own personal lives. There are times when history and our lives make no sense. We feel we have learned nothing and our life is a weary rehearsal of mistakes. At times like this a multitude of doubts assail us. And this electronic media seems mainly to help us occupy time as we try to deal with these tests that belabour and beleaguer our lives. Of course, there is more, much more to the whole question of the electronic media in my life and society's. But I shall leave this question for now.
The Durants write that "Most history is guessing and the rest is prejudice." Writing autobiography is partly guessing and partly prejudice and there is a strong element of facticity born of several elements which history in general lacks; namely, closeness to the source, being yourself at the centre of the text; relative ease of retrievability of information however fallible and probabilistic the process. Both historians and writers of autobiography tend to oversimplify and select only a manageable minority of facts from a multitudinous complexity which can never really be embraced and comprehended. There is an elusiveness in the search and frustrations inherent in never really knowing so many things with certainty, but the attempt to decipher the past, one's life, has the potential to inform the human endeavour.
The physical landscape where the events of our story, our narrative, our life, occurs is unavoidably a focus for our activities, our meanings. There is also a spiritual, a historical, a psychological landscape which is equally, if not more, a focus for much that has significance in our lives. Much has been written about these two types of landscape; indeed, a separate book could be devoted to their associated themes and the vast literature now available which explores them. Here is a poem I wrote which explores some of this theme in my own life:
Most Canadians dislike and mistrust any great show of cheerfulness. Australians are the same. The uncertainty of the weather makes Canadians morose, haunted, apprehensive. Perhaps the cynicism and skepticism in Australia is due to the unalleviating glare of the sun and the dryness. Canadians once battled their furnaces in the winter and the weeds and mosquitoes in the summer back, as late as the fifties; Australians swatted flies in the summer, ran to the beach to cool off, where they swatted flies some more and worried about bush fires. In the winter they kept warm by their electric heaters and fireplaces.
If a national literature develops out of such experience, if a civilization or a religion grows and flourishes, it evolves through different stages in relation to that experience. People go over to gas and the coal-furnace becomes a relic; people move into small flats and never fight weeds again. Air-conditioners become plentiful and then you can be comfortable at 50 degrees celsius. People become less affected by climate with the comforts of modern life and the basis for a literature, civilization and religion shifts. -Ron Price with thanks to Robertson Davies, Major Canadian Authors: A Critical Introduction, University of Nebraska Press, London, 1984, pp. 197-211.
A consciousness had grown
in the quiet backwaters of our1 lives,
so silently, so inarticulately,
so unbeknownst to even our most
exemplary members, had just emerged,
stuck its head above the ground,
found form, words, shape, texture,
direction, a place in the sun.
It was scarcely visible back then,
but you could get your teeth into it
and your mind.
There was a philosophy there
in a minefield of gems and rare metals
where great wealth could be amassed
and great distinctions made
between a mysterious loftiness
and the many degrees of baseness.
Over the centuries we've come
to live with nature, adjust to it,
sometimes dominate it.
Slowly, too, we're learning
to control it in our inner lives.
14 February 1998
1 I am referring here to the Baha’i community.
This physical and psychological landscape has an influence on us which is really quite immeasurable. The developmental psychologist and specialist in the history of childhood, Lloyd deMause, argues that at the centre of any understanding of history and of our own lives we must see our primary relationships with parents, siblings and close friends. DeMause goes so far as to construct a philosophy of history based on our experiences in childhood.
Here are two poems that express some of the ways my son might see me now that he has grown into early adulthood at 25, is still at home and in the second year of his working life as an engineer. They were written when he was in his late teens and very early twenties, but the sentiments are still relevant.
MORE PLENTEOUS NOW
My first memories are of my father typing. In fact, throughout my childhood and adolescence about all he did around the house was write and read. We played a little sport together, once a day if we could make it. He washed the dishes alot, entertained the occasional visitor and watched a little TV. But mostly he read and wrote. -Ron Price with thanks to my son, Daniel Price, “A Son’s View of His Father,” Pioneering Over Four Epochs, Saturday, 29 March 1996, 9:30 pm.
It’s difficult to see yourself as others see you.
Now, take my son, for example:
I think I’d have a pretty good idea
of how he sees his old man,
after all I’ve watched him grow
to a youth of eighteen
and we have a lot of laughs, you know.
Occasionally, we have something
you could call a conversation,
certainly more than those grunting
relationships I’ve heard of from time to time.
He’s a smart lad, smarter than me,
gentler, kinder, wiser, more controlled.
He’s got that sadness I had, back then,
when young, but not as much;
he’s more balanced.
He wonders where I get all my flatulence.
I wonder too. There’s a mutual respect there,
a quiet grace, a love I gave my father
as best I could, as best he could.
I think the quantity of love
rains more plenteously now
upon me and he than once it did
when I was the son.
29 March 1996
FATHER AND SON
In about two weeks time my wife and I are moving from Perth to Tasmania. Last night my only son, Daniel, moved out of the family home to go into his own flat, since he would be staying in Perth. It was a sad night for each of us. My wife and I shed many tears after he left around 9 pm. About midnight, just before I was going to retire for the night, I thought of my own father who died some thirty-four years before. This poem was the result of the poignancy of that memory and, perhaps, the juxtaposition of the loss of my own son. I write the poem as if I am speaking to my father, just after he died about one in the morning in May 1965. There is also, inevitably, some sense of the poem being written on the night of my own son’s departure. Somehow, as I wrote the poem, time and son and father, over three generations blended into one complex and mysterious whole. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 21 June 1999, 1:00 am.
I wish you happy sailing
through the mists of time.
The pain is over now,
all the knocks and crosses
that flesh is air to.
I trust He will forgive your sins,
pardon your shortcomings.
May you enter the garden of happiness,
be cleansed with the most pure water.
One day, when my sailing is done,
I trust we will join hands
and I will kiss your cheeks and eyes,
if you will love me then
as you loved me then, when I was young
and you were so old and so soon, perhaps,
to enter His paradise and retreats of nearness.
21 June 1999
1 ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Baha’i Prayers, USA, 1985, pp. 45-6.
One of the chief qualities of my son, Daniel, is his sense of humour. Humour is endemic to, pervasive in, Australia. It is a rich and important part of the culture. While not wanting to go into a history of humour in America and Australia, I would like to mention three humorists who were important in western society, Lenny Bruce back in the sixties before I left North America and as the third decade of this pioneering story turned the corner in the early nineties: Robyn Williams and Billy Connelly. There have been others since the fifties and the sixties, indeed there seemed to be a great spauning of comedy through both the print and electronic media.
"Laughter," wrote the historian Thomas Carlyle, "is a token of virtue. No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether bad." Perhaps, if I have one disappointment in this book, it is that it is not funnier. For many people religion holds no attraction whatsoever in any form and, with Thomas Mann, I am inclined to the view that comedy is, at least on this earth, part of the soul's salvation." To the average, the typical(if there is such a thing) secular enthusiast, this book offers little in the way of salvation by laughter. "Humour is one of the elements," wrote the famous Bahá'í George Townshend, "that make up a balanced and complete mentality." In this sense this book lacks that balance.
If I could convey that sense of self, of history and of the religious community that my life has been enmeshed in as, say, William Wordsworth conveyed his life in his four volumes of The Prelude it would be quite unsatisfactory to the modern temperament, the modern sensibility. Even though The Prelude promises much for the future people get a sense of tedium from what it says of the past. It is rare now to meet anyone who has even read this very long autobiographical poem.
This, too, may be the fate of this work. But the road from "me" to "me" is through "the other" and that is the road I have taken here even if few travel on it with me and even if few laugh. Perhaps it would have been more useful if, like F. Scott Fitzgerald who dramatized the years between the wars, I could have dramatized these epochs in a memorable novel, a stimulating television series or some in-depth radio documentaries. Instead I tell a story at the dark heart of an age, an age of transition, the story as it was experienced by one man. I have written, too, to give some idea of how in my individual case life became converted into art and how art was born of life and of experience.
Research in audience studies shows that readers of fiction or viewers of films are voraciously interested in the "real" story of fictionalized persons and events. Fictional forms often succeed in representing life: underlining its fullness, complicatedness, inexplicability, fragmentation, and its subtextual richness. Often it is difficult to represent these aspects of life by a linear narrative of historical "facts." Thus, an interpretation of the interrelation between the historical subtext and its fictional rendition may be more useful for readers and viewers than a more analytical narrative like the one I have written. Since it is unlikely that anyone will be making a film of my life while I am alive, I will leave this promising interrelationship to history’s future.
Writing in the mid-1990s, Smith and Watson address the prevalence of personal narratives in everyday life. They are communicated, they outline, via diverse means: on the body, on the air, in music, in print and electronic media, at meetings. While emphasizing that occasions for confessional storytelling are multiple, Smith and Watson argue that narrators create historically specific personal histories by assembling fragments of the identities and narrative forms that the culture makes available. Smith and Watson concentrate on how consumers from all strata of American culture are eager both to construct their own narratives and to learn about the life stories that other people tell. Smith and Watson argue that postmodern America is culturally obsessed with getting a life, with sharing it and advertising it to others, with consuming the lives of others. The lives we consume, they say, are translated into our own lives, into story, into some personal narrative.
Smith and Watson also discuss the contrast between ‘official’ autobiographies and ‘personal’ versions that subvert or contradict the authorized versions. This enables consumers, say Smith and Watson, "to align the privatized consciousness” of autobiographers, conveyed in those narratives with the identities of those same autobiographers created and experienced in the public sphere. These disparate personal histories with their contradictions and misalignments are part of the storyteller's attempt to "get a life,” part of autobiographical narrators positioning themselves as the agents of the stories they tell.
There is an element of personal control that often appeals to speakers who have stories to share, but would be impossible to convey, would be considered culturally unspeakable, for a host of reasons. In the telling of unrecited and unrecitable narratives such as histories of child abuse, spouse battering, interracial marriage, homosexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, and disability, inter alia, the narrators, as witnesses, reframe what is regarded as unspeakable or simply too difficult to speak about and open up new ways to speak about their personal battles. Autobiographical narrators, whatever their stories, often connect with others in new ways as well, especially when their stories resonate with the stories of people in a comparable and compatible group or what might be called a “community of secret knowers.” In these ways, Smith and Watson contend, narratives provide a way to intervene in postmodern life, and the narrators "can facilitate changes in the mapping of knowledge and ignorance, of what is speakable or unspeakable, of what is disclosed or masked, alienating or communally bonding.”
Autobiographical home videos that ordinary people produce are generically analogous to videos produced about and by the various celebrities in society. Such videos promote new forms of intersubjectivity between artists and their audiences, between autobiographers and their readers. Smith and Watson also distinguish between the "backyard ethnography" which focuses on "the everyday practices of autobiographical narrating in America" and autobiographical texts that are aligned with the 'high culture' of published, 'artful' autobiography.” Such distinctions do appear tenuous, though, in a postmodern culture that encourages people to draw on a common multimedia repertoire for identities and narrative forms. Consumer video modes also connect the formerly elite practice of video art with more pedestrian uses of the home video user and his autobiogrpahical exercise. Variously positioned autobiographical discourses prompt interventions in everyday life that bring like-minded people together either actually or virtually. Autobiographies are found in both high art and in popular culture. They are not limited to either side of this dichotomous cultural divide and its social hierarchies.
Autobiographical texts can, as I’ve said above, promote new forms of social interaction in everyday life. Literary approaches to personal narratives and popular culture approaches; low-end confessional videos by independent artists and more sophisticated analytical treatments, are all part of the varied mix that is found in today’s world. The tension that the confessor experiences between a focus on subjectivity and an attempt to construct an identity that is communal rather than individualistic is a common one and it helps to provide a welcomed opportunity for introspection and often a brilliant piece of analytical and subjective writing. Autobiographical videos have been making their appearance in the last two decades more and more. While video will not be part of this third edition, I may be more adventurous in a fourth or fifth edition. Somehow, I think it unlikely.
Alexis de Toqueville quoted in: David Raney, Plague of the Century: Thoughts on Crowd, Conformity, and Contagion, Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2.
Gianfranco Poggi, Images of Society: The Sociological Theories of Tocqueville, Marx and Durkheim, Stanford UP, 1972, pp.43-4.
Bakhtin, Mikhail, "Discourse in the Novel," The Dialogic Imagination, editor, Michael Holquist. Univ. of Texas Press, Austin, 1981, pp. 293-4.
Kenneth Clark, op.cit., p.210.
George Townshend, The Mission of Bahá'u'lláh, Oxford, 197391952), p.94.
Kenneth Clark, op.cit., p.222.
Max Weber, "The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization," 1896 in J. Eldridge, editor, Max Weber: The Interpretation of Social Reality, Scribner, NY, 1971, p.256.
Matthew Arnold, "Sonnet," quoted in Patrick Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay, Cornell UP, Ithaca, p.68.
Stanley Kubrick in The Film Director as Superstar, Joseph Gelmis, Penguin, 1974(1970), p.381.
Roman Polanski in Gelmis, op. cit., p.13.
This theory holds that the meaning of a film is controlled in the main by the director not the script or the story.
Letter written on behalf of Shohi Effendi, quoted in Lights of Guidance, no.264, p.76.
Letters of Ayn Rand, M.S. Berliner, editor, Dulton, NY, 1995, p.1.
"The World at Noon," ABC Radio National, Report from Australian Reporter in Toronto, 6 March 2003. This Australian quality was found by this radio journalist to be present in Canada but not in United States.
A. Nelson, op.cit.
F.C.S. Schiller, "Must Philosophers Disagree?" Must Philosophers Disagree? London, 1934, pp.10-11.
William James, Pragmatism, World Publishing co., 1970(1907), p.19.
Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E.C. Flitch, Dover Pub., 1954(1921), p.2.
C.G. Jung, Letters, Vol.1: 1906-1950, Princeton UP, 1973, p.331-2.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, editor, L.A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford UP, 1888(1739), p.219.
Brian Finney, The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, p.206.
Roger White, "Lines from a Battlefield," Another song, Another Season, George Ronald, Oxford, 1979, p.111.
The Universal House of Justice,Messages: 1969-1973, Wilmette, 1976, pp.123-129.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.244.
Ray B. Browne, "An Interview," Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to present), 2002. This article outlines the progress in the study of popular culture since the 1960s when it became a part of the academic curriculum.
J. Lacan, The Berkeley Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture in 1985. Lacan says he is sustained as much by what he knows as what he does not know.
Paul Ricoeur, "Toward A Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation," Essays in Biblical Interpretation, editor, L.S. Mudge, London, SPCK, 2980, p.102.
Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Hutchinson, London, 1992, p.198.
Some human development models call the period form 20 to 40, early adulthood. Others call middle age 30 to 70 with the core 40 to 60. See Rebecca Clay, “Researchers Replace Midlife Myths with Facts,” American Psychological Association, Vol.34, No 4, April 2003.
idem. Research evidence suggests this is generally true for others.
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 1972.
Much of my analysis in this paragraph comes from a book by Charles Fair, The New Nonsense: The End of the Rational Consensus, Harper and Rowe, 1974.
Walter J. Burghardt, "On Turning Eighty: Autobiography in Search of Meaning," Woodstock Report, March 1995, pp.2-11.
The Universal House of Justice, Messages: 1968-1973, p.119.
Will van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada: 1898-1948, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996, p.101.
The Universal House of Justice, op.cit., p.113.
Ruhiyyih Rabbani, Poems of the Passing, George Ronald, Oxford, 1996, p.13.
THE TWO HATCHERS: ON LOVE
The Law of Love Enshrined: Selected Essays, George Ronald, Oxford, 1996 is a collection of essays by John and William Hatcher. The title gives some idea of the content of this book: the subject is love especially as expressed by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. In fact, though, if there is a common theme to these essays it is the question how do we know something, how do we know it spiritually speaking? Nearly all of these articles have been published elsewhere, and in the case of some of William Hatcher's essays they have appeared in slightly revised forms numerous times. The difference that these two brothers offer us in their approach provides an interesting contrast. While William Hatcher utilizes the rational tools of a logician to establish some of the central doctrines of faith, John Hatcher uses the more holistic approach of one trained in the humanities. Given these two very different approaches, the result is a varied mix of material that gives readers a range of useful insights into the subject of love. -Ron Price.
A summary used for a discussion group:
BOOK REVIEW: 'CENTURY OF LIGHT'
A new book has just come into Bahá'í bookshops. Prepared under the supervision of The Universal House of Justice, it is written to help the Bahá'í community understand the changes that have taken place in the twentieth century and the process of the emergence of the Cause from obscurity during these years.
The House of Justice commends Century of Light and its one hundred and sixty pages, "to the thoughtful study of the friends" that "the perspectives it opens up will prove both spiritually enriching and of practical help."1 This is a book for both the novitiate and the veteran believer. It provides an overview of Bahá'í history in the twentieth century and a linkage with the happenings in the world's history of this same period.
Beginning with the first decade of the twentieth century, the book finishes with the developments on Mt. Carmel. A brief look at the 162 references in the 'Notes' shows a broad intersection of Bahá'í references and a wider reading and supplementary comment. Century of Light is not just a familiar survey of things we already know; rather it is an integrated picture that conveys an overview of the century just completed, an understanding of just where we have travelled and, by implication, where we are going.
Coming to understand the "nature and meaning of the great turning point" of this last century and "the implications of what occurred,"2 will help us, writes The Universal House of Justice, "to meet the challenges that lie ahead."3 Our task is to "grasp the significance of the historical transformation"4 that has occurred in the last hundred years.
One aspect of the historical transformation that occurred in the twentieth century, and one that is underlined in the very first paragraph on the first page, is that this transformation is "the most turbulent in the history of the human race."5 Humanity "appears desperate to believe that, through some fortuitous conjunction of circumstances" it can "bend the conditions of human life into conformity" with human desires."6
There follows twelve chapters, five with more than ten pages, only one with more than twenty. It is not my intention, though, to summarize each chapter; to outline all the highlights in this beautifully written book; everyone can read the book for themselves. I would like to highlight, to focus, on what the function and purpose this book has at this moment in time for the Bahá'í community. What is the Universal House of Justice trying to tell us in this their first publication at the outset of another measure of time, the fifth epoch of the Formative Age?
First, it seems to me, it is part of the "series of soul-stirring events"7 that celebrated the completion of the Terraces on Mount Carmel. It is part of the "auspicious beginning" of the occupation by the ITC "of its permanent seat on the Mountain of the Lord."8 It is part of "the revolutionary vision, the creative drive and systematic effort"9 that is coming to characterize more and more the work of all the senior institutions of the Cause. It is a humble attempt to"comprehend the magnitude of what has been so amazingly accomplished"10 in this century. It is part of the "new impetus to the advancement of the Cause."11 It is part of "a change of time," "a new state of mind," a "coherence of understanding," a "divinely driven enterprise."12 Such is my brief effort to place this book into a context of recent events on Mt. Carmel and a large number of messages received this year, in 2001.
Second, "the magnitude of the ruin that the human race has brought upon itself," "a catalogue of horrors unknown" in the past, the House places in the context of "God's fury"13 and that famous introduction to The Promised Day is Come: the tempest. The failings and the accomplishments of the century are reviewed; the replacement of inherited orthodoxies by the blight of aggressive secularism is noted; religious prejudices that keep the smouldering fires of animosity alive are underlined; the unification of the world's peoples in this century is stated as a fact; and the role of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and especially His The Secret of Divine Civilisation, His development of the Persian Bahá'í community, His success in constructing the mausoleum of the Bab; His trip West; His prediction that a war would break out; His proclamation that He was the Covenant are all reviewed in what I found to be a fresh light.
Third, the conditions for the unity that the Bahá'ís are establishing is outlined; and an appreciation of the place of the Guardianship as a focal place "throughout the coming centuries" was emphasized. First, the period between the wars and, second, the teaching Plans: 1937-1944, 1946-1953 and 1953-1963 are examined as twin-foci and include a range of the Guardian's accomplishments in a series of thumb-nail sketches.
Fourth, the 37 year period in which the Universal House of Justice guided the Bahá'í world is examined, especially "the victory that the Cause won in 1963."14 The years 1963-1983 were "one of the most enriching periods"15 we have experienced. Other highlights are succinctly summarised before the last three chapters conclude the book.
Fifth, the work of the Bahá'ís in helping to establish the beginnings of an international order and the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran are each given lengthy treatment: pp. 113-136. The theme of unity, in the context of the Arc Project among other contexts, is returned to again as the book concludes. The book concludes on an optimistic note emphasizing that we should "take deep satisfaction from the advances of society"16 and "see in them the very Purpose of God."17
But humanity yearns desperately for its Soul. Without its Soul it will find neither peace, nor justice, nor unity. Our job as Bahá'ís is to bring humanity its Soul by opening people's "minds and hearts to the one Power that can fulfil their ultimate longing."18
1-6 These reference can all be found in the 'Foreword' and the 'Preface.' of this book.
7The Universal House of Justice, Letter 16 January 2001. 8The Universal House of Justice, Letter 14 January 2001. 9 ibid.,p.2. 10 idem. 11 idem. 12 The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2001.
13 Century of Light,p.1; 14 ibid., p.92; 15 ibid.,p.99; 16 ibid.,p.144; 17 idem, 18 idem.
Ron Price 6 August 2001
MY JOURNEY THROUGH SOCIOLOGY:
My experience these days of sociology, as a formal discipline, as just about entirely on the Internet. Occasionally I dabble(for I am retired now and I have made of dabbling an art-form) in this rich and variegated field which forty years ago I had just entered. I remember well that first year of the formal study of sociology, which ended in early May of 1964, just before I got a job checking telephone poles for internal decay. In about February or, perhaps, March, a tutor joined the sociology staff. He was able to explain the mysteries of Parsons better than anyone. And at the time, Parsons occupied a position in the emperean of sociological godheads. Everyone admired this tutor as if he was some brilliant theologian who had just arrived from the Vatican with authoritative pronouncements for us all to write down on our A-4 note paper to be regurgitated on the April examination. He was an Englishman, if I remember, rather slim and a good talker. And Parsons, for all of us, was about as intricate as you could get and still stay in the same language and on the same earthly plane.
For a year I had no contact with sociology, except for a short period of time toward the end of my second year at university. I got to know a young woman of 27 who had one son and who studied sociology. I took her ice-skating in about February of 1965. I can’t quite remember how I met her but for two or three months I went to the occasional lecture with her in sociology. She had a passion for helping Africans and I had a passion for her. Our mutual passions interlocked nicely and it was this reciprocity that led us to join together in third year sociology.
I took six courses in sociology that year, enough to bring the dead to life, or is it the living to death or, perhaps more accurately, I should say enough to kill any enthusiasms for sociology. In retrospect it was fortuitous that Canadian universities begin in mid-September with exams starting in mid-April. With the Christmas break, the week off for Easter and exam study the student is left with six months of lectures-reading-tutorials. That is about all one can stand of reading sociology. The cold Canadian wnters keep it all on chill: nothing like a brisk walk to class in sociology 3A6 to examine the essence of Marxism, if there is an essence, or the intricacies of functionalism and it has many intricacies especially the Parsonian brand. Part of me always wanted to take it seriously and part of me found it such a burden of words that my already incipient depression just got another kick-start on its way.
I look forward in my dotage to a long and happy life with this strange field I chanced upon more than forty years ago when I was trying to avoid the world of work and its deadening and so often predictable stamp of boredom. The labyrinthine channels of sociology one can travel in forever; the library shelves are getting more extensive; it is a burgeoning field as are all fields now. The river of sociology, now in its middle age, perhaps, will flow on into its third century while I get old. And when my days are long and I am freed from the work-a-day world and its routines I will play among its waters, bathing myself in its endless streams, having learned how to avoid drowning in its heady froth. I will only sample its choicest and its freshest glasses of refreshment. For by then I will be an accomplished connoisseur of its mysteries. I will be old and ready for my final hour.
This may not turn out to be the 'final word,' but a response to all these comments generated by my first review and the comments of others seems to be in order.
The Passion of the Christ: A Second Look
There has been so much reaction to my first review, critique, comment on Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ that I felt a need to write a second statement. This statement will deal with some, but not all, of the main threads of response that I received. The responses, the postings at internet sites, of most people were responses not so much to what I wrote but, rather, responses to issues raised by the film itself--not necessarily my article in particular. There were so many responses over so many areas that they made me think, not so much about this film of Gibson's but about wider issues. Some readers may find what follows not sufficiently focused on Gibson and his film. For such readers they may be advised to discontinue reading at this point.
The first concern of many commentators, critics and casual observers alike, was the violence in the film. That seemed to be the most generalized concern, although there were many cryptic responses that gave vent in sometimes creative and often puzzling ways to various conspiracy theories, to a range of anti-Jewish or government sentiments and a host of other passionate and not-so-passionate worries. Many of the respondents' comments focussed on what they felt were Gibson's poor directing, his failure to develop the characters of the actors making Jesus, in the end, not very likeable. of course, other commentators stress just the opposite.
The literature on violence in cinema and society is burgeoning. That was a major concern more than 25 years ago when I taught media studies at what became a university in Ballarat, an old gold mining town, in Australia. So, too, is the concern with real violence in the wider society, the global society we all live in. The violent image has been extraordinarily preeminent in the visual media as is the profound concern about the culture of violence in general. There has been what one analyst called a hyperviolence in post-1960s cinema. I was only 19 when Kennedy was shot in 1963. I have lived in a society filled with real violence and hyperviolence for more than 40 years. Gibson’s film in some ways is just one of 1000s that have a violent base. Of course, in Gibson's film, the person to whom the violence was done has a special, a unique, place in the history of western civilization.
The media is now both scapegoat and cause, explanatory framework and rational for the violent society. Of course, religion and politics have been intertwined with violence since the days of universal animism in 6000 to 8000 BP. One writer whom I read over twenty years ago, Guy Murchie, wrote that we’ve had 14,400 wars in recorded history. Violence is as human, it appears, as apple pie or should I say potatoes, pasta or pumpkins?
In The Passion we are exposed to Gibson’s serious effort to represent a particular conflict, a crucial event, in the history of Christianity and its accompanying emotional sensibilities. Can we arrive at a historical account faithful to the evidence when we move from prose, from books, from scriptural text, to film? Poets like Homer(750 BC ca) and historians like Thucydides(420 BC) exaggerated and invented what they wrote to please and engage the audience. It became a convention of historians to insert made-up, but appropriate, speeches into their stories for 2000 years, until at least the sixteenth century.1 Just as poetry can enhance the power of history to convey aspects of the past so, too, can film.
But poetry and film can also be creatures of invention with little connection with the experienced world or the historical past. Film has had only a century to find its way as a medium for history. It’s future, I think, suggests some exciting possibilities. But along the way there will be many false starts. For many, Gibson's film was down that road of false starts.
No single view holds "the truth." Our eyes and ears are different than those of 2000 years ago. Small fragments are inevitably incomplete and this film contained, at best, a small fragment. There is a final unknowability, as Spielberg said in discussing the efforts of film makers to capture the lives of great men. Freud(1.1) said the same of biography in print. A movie blends fiction with true events.2 Considerable artistry, ingenuity and money went into giving "an overall impression of what it really would be like to be transported back into that time"3 of the life of Jesus of Nazereth. For millions, if not for all, Gibson achieved this effect. For millions, too, he did not.
But there remains, it seems to me, too cavalier an attitude to the evidence about lives and attitudes in the past. This evidence is all we have to go on and the imagination must work from there. The danger is that the audience is left with the false impression of "a true story." Considerable dramatic license is taken by directors. The truth status of historical films often remains unclear, obscure. In this film, the story comes from the New Testament. And the evidence in the New Testament is far from clear. It may be clear to those with a more fundamentalist theology, but it has not been clear for at least two hundred years to literally millions of students of the New Testament, liberals, agnostics, atheists, non-Christians, ex-Christians, et cetera.
History is not a closed venture, fixed and still, but open to new discovery and reinterpretation. Spectators don’t just look in at the events of history becoming in the process all-knowing. They look at and engage with the ideology of the director and make their assessments partly in terms of their own ideology, often conscious and unconscious, that they themselves espouse. It is this, among other things, that gives rise to the varied reactions to a film like Gibson’s.
Then, too, cultural historians generally acknowledge that there is a time lag between the moment a new technology like film is invented(1895) and when a full understanding and utilization of the potential of that technology emerges. After one hundred years, I often think we have just begun to utilize the power of cinema. I wonder how long it took civilization to begin to use the wheel with dramatic effect after its invention in about 3500 BC?
The flow of images in our lives is increasingly torrential. Film images often cloud reality with pseudo-events. We are often adrift in an illusion that seems real. Peter Weir’s 1998 film "The Truman Show" illustrated what is often called ‘the cultivation effect.’ Put another way, cinema transforms the world into a spectacle. There is a mysterious energy in the swirl of shadows and light in film that is sometimes called mise en scene and it often produces a vain and empty show, a show that bears the mere semblance of reality. It is this mise en scene that captures our attention, or repels it, although often we are looking at a vapour in the desert which we dream to be water but, when we try to taste it, we find it is but illusion.
We often get moved and satisfied as much, though, by illusion as by reality. In the last decade there has seen the beginning of a demise of the cinephiliac. The love-affair with movies in western society is in decline, or so say some analysts.4 Millions of us have also developed a stimulus shield to protect ourselves from cinema’s neurological shocks. But the story has an up and a down-side. In cinema we also recover our own sensuous experience; history is disclosed to us in unique ways.
The upside of that vaporous illusion is a sense of the real. Proust referred to this as memoire involuntaire, being seized by memories, by mixtures of the past and present which flow into a strange no man’s land. What was once ignored by us in our daily lives often becomes registered with a striking, sensuous clarity because of film. Movies often grip us in a way that life does not. It is not so much the illusion of reality that movies create as the construction and organization of reality that goes on, an order and identity not found in daily life. Movies tend to be easily grasped, accessible in a way not present in daily life especially with complex aspects of history and psychology. Such cinematic experience must be countered by some voluntary memory in the service of the intellect.
The Passion was Gibson’s third movie as a director. All his movies involve a culminating spectacle where the doomed hero faces death agonies. His movies, as director, all employ the sufferings of the title character to critique the social structures imposed on them. They all present decadent societies that have lost contact with traditional patriarchal values. Gibson is a champion of conservative and vanishing social orders.5 He is also a champion of Christianity. You might not like what he does, but he has electrified and annoyed millions for both good and ill. Perhaps, in the long run, it will just be another movie from the movie mill.
1 N.Z. Davis, Film as Historical Vision, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, p.4.
1.1 One reader of this my second review had such a vehement anti-Freud bias that half his comments were concerned with undermining my reference to Freud and anything that existed in Freud's 28 volumes of writings.
2 ibid., p.126.
3 ibid, p.127.
4. Christian Keathley, "the Cinephiliac Moment," Framework: the Journal of Cinema and Media, 2000. Attendance at movie houses was highest in the USA in 1936(or was it 37?).
5William Luhr, "Mutilating Mel: Martyrdom and Masculinity in Braveheart," Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, editor, Chistopher Sharrett, Wayne State UP, Detroit, 1999, p.229.
Ron Price is a retired teacher, aged 60. He taught for 30 years in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools. He lives with his wife, Chris, in Tasmania. They have 3 children. He has published three books on the internet.
The dust of reviews has settled on this film and so: the time has come, perhaps, for a more dispassionate, a more considered, a more reflective, little review. Perhaps review is not quite the right word; perhaps what I have written here is just a comment, but it is no less provocative than the most provocative youve read thusfar and I hope you will find here some refreshing and intelligent insight into the way the film was made and perceived.
This film is not intended to be a masterful historical documentary as, say, Ken Burns' work on the Civil War or one of many others done in the first century of the existence of the cinema. Gibson's work is far from possessing what some might call an intellectual poverty in its pretensions at historical documentary. Shawn Rosenheim says all TV documentaries possess an intellectual poverty. If Rosenheim is right the visual media are simply incapable of producing historical documentary.1 And if Rosenheim is wrong, as I tend to think he is, historical documentary of an event 2000 years ago is not impossible. It is, rather, a recreation. We simply do not know enough about the event Gibson is recreating to claim that what we are seeing is a documentary.
We all know that Gibson did not take his camera crew to downtown Jerusalem or into the little hamlet of Nazereth in some kind of time-warp to produce an anti-Jewish, anti Roman clip for the evening news. Even if he had and he then produced for us all an evening two hour special, spectacle, called "the crucifixion," there would still be questions about visual manipulation and the program's service in the name of directing popular thought toward a new religious movement. New religious movements have always had trouble getting popular exposure unless they can be associated with conflict and violence, eccentricity and the bizarre, indeed, anything visually stimulating and distracting.
No one would claim that Gibson's is a neutral recording of objective events. It is a construct operating from a certain point of view. It is a rhetorical argument achieved through the selection and combination of elements that both reflect and project a world, a world view, a cosmology if you like. It is achieved by certain cinematic conventions that try to erase any signs of cinematic artificiality. An ideology is promoted by linking the effect of reality to social values and institutions in such a way that these values seem natural and self-evident. In the case of Mel Gibson's work, a work that I found quite stimulating in its own way, the ideology is simply and strongly: fundamentalist Christianity.
I've never been attracted to Christianity in any of its fundamentalist forms. But I liked this film. Film can often get to people in ways that words, ideas and simple beliefs cannot. It was not because of its historical accuracy that I liked it. I liked All the Presidents Men and a number of other films based on and rooted in some historical theme. Rarely are historical films accurate; the main reason they seem so is that the people watching them know so little about the theme, the event, that it seems plausible to them. Sadly, but truly, we know so little about the events of the life of Jesus of Nazereth that a good script writer, a good cinematographer and a big band of men and women can bring something to life that may never have happened at all.
Bertrand Russell wrote in his Why I'm Not a Christian that, in a court of law, there is little evidence for even the existence of Jesus let alone his manner of death. Historicity simply does not exist when it comes to the events in the life of a man who has had a profound affect, I believe, on history. Of course, Russell says he does believe Jesus existed; he just wanted to make a point about the paucity of historical evidence. What we believe in life and what we know usually exist in two separate worlds, although hopefully their assumptions are not totally blind. What people who are believers and what they are as knowers, so to speak, about Jesus are radically separate. The distance between the pulpit and the academic chair of religion has been widening for at least two centuries. In fact for millions of men and women these days historicity is irrelevant to their beliefs. History has become, for those millions, what it was for Henry Ford: bunk or was it bunkum? My optimistic muse gives you 4/5, Mel and my pessimistic muse a 2/5.
As a sort of epilogue to this brief comment on the film: one of the main reasons many people are turning to Movements like the Bahá'í Faith is that historicity is important to them. Religions that have grown up in the modern age face different problems of historicity, often too much rather than too little information and distortion by opponents and critics whose prime aim is to create dissention.
The Bahá'í Faith, to stay with this example, confined as it is to only 6 million adherents, has grown slowly since the mid-nineteenth century. The originating impulse for each of the major religions of history, an impulse that led to the phenomenon of revelation or some defining religious experience has receded so far into history as to be accessible to us in only a very limited and unsatisfactory degree. Far otherwise with the work of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith. The details of His life are massively documented. And one could choose other claimants in modern history as well but that would lead to prolixity here.
History has a thousand faces, a thousand forms, and Mel Gibson has given us some very stimulating ones, perhaps a little too visually acute, in his film, The Passion of the Christ. They will serve for some of the millions who watched it to bring them closer to One whom Bahá'u'lláh, the Bahá'í Faith's founder, said "when Christ was crucified the world wept with a great weaping." Bill Graham wept; many stayed home; millions viewed the film as it went into the top ten money spinners in cinema history two weeks ago. Some were appauled; some stimulated. To each his own.-Ron Price, Tasmania.
Ron Price is a retired teacher, aged 60. He taught for 30 years in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools. He lives with his wife, Chris, in Tasmania. Their 3 children are now aged: 39, 34 and 27. Ron moved to Australia from Canada in 1971. He has written three books since 1999. They are all available on the internet for free. He has been a member of the Bahá'í Faith for 45 years.
MINI-FESTIVAL OF PERTH
As the 4th epoch slipped unobtrusively into its 12th year and Perth got ready for its annual Festival, the Western Australia Baha’i community and friends enjoyed their own mini-festival, a concert and a play. The concert was presented by the newly formed Baha’i Institute of Performing Arts. The play was a production of Dizzy Dance Theatre. There are over a thousand Baha’is in WA now and they have for several years come to enjoy summer programs from a talented core of energetic and youthful enthusiasts. In addition an impressive array of production, promotions and publicity people, a truely consultative effort, brought together the abilities of a wide range of people from many communities in WA.
Writing novels, plays, music and poetry is for the most part the effort of individuals working alone. The performing arts, like making movies, is a marathon exercise involving dozens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. The making of The Seven Valleys involved literally hundreds of people, although the cast on stage was only ten players. There were two writers, four script assistants and the cast itself in workshop, in what you could call the consultative method of group creativity and decision-making. They gave the script greater definition as they worked together. The original working script was the creation of Dr. Drewfus Gates and Vafa Ferdowsian.
A who’s who here would occupy much space and this group of co-creators are well enough known anyway in Western Australia not to need names being mentioned. Needless to say the behind the scenes work, involving as it did so many people in so many places, kept many people very busy, especially the Production Manager, Malini Sundram-Parker and the Musical Director, Greg Parker.
There was a simplicity to the whole play. And to the concert. If I had to find one word to describe the whole experience it would be ‘simplicity’. The choreography was delightful; the lines, the story, the flow from scene to scene was deceptively easy and apparently effortless in the overall orchestration. There is always something refreshing, original, surprising, when Greg Parker is involved in musical productions. If he is an example of what can happen when someone is self-taught we should have more of it.
What was produced by the Dizzy Dance Theatre in The Seven Valleys is an unusual blend of drama, dance and music in what the program notes said “touched on both contemporary issues as well as the heart.” What was produced by the Baha’i Institute of Performing arts in its 13 and 14 December concerts at Murdoch University were songs that “giveth wings to the spirit”-a choir of some 36 men and women. In addition a special Persian choir, Bisharat, provided a uniquely contemplative sound.
It seems to me that we might just be witnessing here in WA is the beginnings of what the Universal House of Justice referred to as the first intimations of “the enormous prospects for a new birth of expression in the civilization anticipated by His World Order.” Two thousand years ago Christianity grew slowly on the edges of an immensely sophisticated and complex society-the Roman Empire. The Baha’i community is just sticking its head above the ground in the performing arts. It will be interesting to watch the maturing of these arts in the years and the decades ahead as they play their crucial roll in the expansion and consolidation of the Baha’i community.
-Ron Price 24/1/98.
It was thirty years ago, in 1964, that I bought the ten volumes of Toyobo’s A Study of History. Every once in a while I get some time to dip into these volumes, or some commentary on them. Although reading Toynbee is a solid intellectual exercise, not unlike Edward Gibbon who served as his model, he comes closest to providing some perspective on history that seems to be written by a Baha’i. The very fact that he considers the Baha’i Faith one of the two religions of western civilization(Vol.7B, p.771) is enough to give him an honoured place in my pantheon of important historians.
I find, though, that Toynbee is not easy to read. In fact, it has taken me at least two decades to be able to read more than a few pages at a time. His writing, like Gibbon, like Shoghi Effendi, requires a good deal of exposure in order to acquire the tastes of appreciation. I’m sure the Guardian would have loved him, as he loved Gibbon. Sadly, after 1921, Shoghi Effendi was so swamped with work he had little time to follow the literary developments in the social sciences and the humanities. Toynbee began his Study of History the same year the Guardian come into office and finished his final Reconsiderations in 1961. The eleven volumes were the tour de force of his life.
There is something magisterial about this work of erudition. I think it is more than a coincidence that it was written just as the World Order was being designed and put into its first shaping. It is impossible for the amateur to assess Toyobo’s work, just as it is impossible to truly appreciate this
embryonic World Order. When the Kingdom of God on Earth began in 1953 Arnold Toynbee was just finishing Vol.10. It was as if this Kingdom had been given a fitting history in which to cloth It and give It a context. At the centre of Toyobo’s thesis is the global imperative to federate. Our survival depends on it. History, as the relationship between God and man, found its raison d’etre in the higher religions. They played a critical role in the story of humankind.
I have observed three reactions to Toynbee. The most common one by far is: “who is he?” To most of the post-war generations Toynbee got lost in a sea of print. He is a heavy dude, not the sort of chap you take to bed for a light night cap. Others have heard of him but, like the Guardian, just got caught up with life and its busy highways and byways. A third group finds him wonderfully stimulating. For me, he is quintessentially the Baha’i historian-if we needed one-and we do. The story of the human experience in history is immensely complex and Toynbee gives one a flavour of this complexity. This third group, also contains a sub-group which has found the time to read Toynbee, but disagrees with just about all his major assumptions.
In 1955 in responding to a range of criticisms of his work in The History of Ideas, one of the many journals in the social sciences, Toynbee said he was ‘studying history’. One of the many charges that Toynbee responded to was that he was unconventional and tried to write about too much. In closing his brief response of less than a page Toynbee said he felt like a minor poet, a minor historian. He has given us a lifetime of reading. Given his global perspective, the similarity of assumptions and the rich diversity of his work, he may come to occupy an important position at some future time. Perhaps after these troubled times become more peaceful and we develop a more literate and cultured sensibility.
In the meantime I will continue to dip into his mind from time to time. A second thirty years would do me fine. We still await that federation which Toynbee hoped for but was not convinced he, or we, would ever see. A certain pertinacity, persistence, determination is required in taking Toynbee along for a ride. An elan vital, an energy is crucial to overcome incipient fatigue, concentration’s lapses and one’s own sheer ignorance. If one stays with him, like the Guardian, he becomes part of one’s own backbone. He occupies several essential strands in my intellectual make-up. His paperback volumes are getting warn. Back in the early 1960s they cost three or four dollars a volume. They have become old friends.