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Ron Price's Blog


Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Entry #6: Autobiography/Memoir

Recent autobiographies of the 'ordinary' person, however, appear to grow most often from the need of people to make sense of their lives, to define themselves by intellectually mastering their experiences, and to locate their place in a broader concept of history. There is an attempt in autobiography to heighten the ordinary events of life, to translate them into a series of extraordinary visitations. To do this a certain ardor, energy, is needed. But autobiography, for all its potential depth and insight into life, its witness and contribution to history, is far from commanding a canon. Like journalism, for different reasons, a canon is difficult to locate in such a burgeoning and complex field. Any attempt to do so must inevitably be challenged and reevaluated. This is not my task here, although I refer frequently to the autobiographies of the famous and not-so-famous in history for their relevance to this work. In the years since I moved to Australia in the early seventies, though, autobiography as a genre has moved from the periphery to the center of the literary canon. Autobiography has an affinity to advocacy and apology and enables various oppressed or marginal groups, like the Baha’i community, to claim, to obtain, visibility in the contemporary historical record.

I write of this theme in other contexts in this work, for this broad theme of the 'coming out' of ordinary people who otherwise would have been nameless and traceless, is a part of what is involved in this narrative. Autobiography, according to Nellie McKay, has been "the preeminent form of writing in the U.S.A." since the seventeenth century. And it has had an important place in the literary history of other nations, too many to describe in even the briefest of outlines here. What I do, and one of the things that distinguishes this autobiographical work, is "borrow", "adapt", and "modify" different theories, sources and ideas and use them to organize my own observations and experiences.

José Saramago, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, argues that for all of us the words we utter between the moment we get out of bed in the morning and the moment we go back there at night, as well as the words of dreams and thought, memory and imagination, all constitute a story that is concurrently rational and crazy, coherent or fragmentary. A story, an autobiographical narrative, can at any moment be structured and articulated in a written or an oral form or simply thought out or thought through. And the story is always only partial; it can never be complete. Even when we do not write, he continues, we live as characters. We live as characters in the story that is our life. For we are all on the stage now. And if great literature is, as Ezra Pound once defined it, "language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree," this work is, for me at least, great literature. For it is a work super-charged with meaning. For the reader, of course, whether this constitutes great literature is another question. Pound thought the two qualities a writer, a poet, needed were curiosity and a persistent energy. I certainly bring these two qualities to this work, to my writing. Time will tell if what I write is deemed great. In some ways this is not my concern at all.

The life-long project that living has been in the past, in history's endless caves, due to a career in business, the military, the bureaucracy, a profession, et cetera, or a belief system or an embeddedness in a family structure in a place of local habitation is, so often, at least in recent decades-in this tenth stage of history---not as possible, as likely, now. These careers, these systems, were often 'for keeps' in what Weber called 'an iron cage,' an institutional context. This is still common, but not so much the case as it has been. Career, family and a collection of interests still has centre-stage in the autobiographical accounts that make it into the public eye. The artistic products that result contain designs that vibrate in resonance with people's lives, their interests and the collective centres around which they orient their lives. But the world within which this autobiographical story is placed is much more complex than it has been in previous centuries and ages. Such is my view of history, such is my conceptual borrowing from postmodernism.

Of the half a dozen major theories of learning to develop in the last century constructivism has, arguably, the most application to this autobiography. Constructivism is based on the view that we construct our world from our experience and science is, then, for the autobiographer, "the enterprise of coordinating and arranging this experience." Knowledge, here, is the reconstruction of our experience and is relative to each person. Scinece is simply the systematic use of our rational faculty in its application to whatever we aim it towards. We make, we define, we construct, our worlds and that is what I have done here in this autobiography. Family, career and interests is what makes up the core of the experience of most of us. Autobiographies, then, inevitably deal with these three foci in some shape or form--and mine as well. To some extent, as the philosopher Bradley notes, "no experience can lie open to inspection from outside." Sharing is possible to only a limited extent. We are all alone, imprisoned in our sphere. What we construct, however much it takes place in a social context, has an important component of seeing things with one's own eyes and one's own ears. That is why, as I approached the age of sixty, I was able to say with William Hazlitt, "I was never less alone than when alone." I came to like solitude when I gave myself up to it for the sake of solitude. The fantastic, the deeply appreciated, was often just the prosaic viewed in a fresh light. The everyday world I lived in, the world of strip malls and highways and back yards, sidewalks and walls: the world of the quotidian, I occasionally saw anew.

In my own life, my profession had not been tied to a locality. I was a cosmopolitan rather than a local. Coherence and security came from the exercise of my skill more than from doing the job in a place which, as Sennett writes, was often an "empty arena," a place of intermittance, of lesser loyalty. The career-long project was associated with a location, a place only in part. A new economic map emerged in the half century I was involved in the workforce and many older workers felt obsolete as their working lives came to a close. I wanted out of the workforce by my fifties and experienced a sense of relief rather than failure when I retired at 55. My consanguinial family(birth) became, by stages from the age of 21 to 33 when my parents passed away, my affinal family(marriage) as the sociology of the family demarkates the two major types of family. My interests changed and developed as well and this autobiography provides more detail in each of these three areas of autobiographical investigation in the more than eight hundred pages remaining.

As the century was ending, I wanted to attend to the inwardness of my mental life. This inwardness, this inner world of thought, feeling and wish had undergone a transformation in the forty years I had been a Baha'i, 1959-1999. This inner world was not some permanent, inescapable, lifelong and unchanging reality. By my fifty-fifth year this inner world had gone through a host of changes; something new had been gradually acquired; it had accummulated, widened, grown, developed. It was, too, a product of cultural history, of my religious experience, my reading and study. My poetry, my writing and especially earlier drafts of this autobiography made me aware that I could give myself over and up to this inner world and put it into words. But I was also aware that much of this inner world could not be articulated by language. I simply had to admit defeat in the face of the inability of my ear, as Baha'u'llah wrote, "to hear" or for my "heart to understand." Perhaps, Geoffrey Hartman put the idea aptly when he wrote that "Art represents a self which is either insufficiently present or feels itself as not presentable." Looked at from a certain angle, there are simply few words for what happens inside us. Looked at from another angle the inner life is an endless spinning tumbler of verbiage. And so in the midst of this autobiographical memoir intersecting the discourses of my identity, my social and historical analysis and my religion, I try to give form to both the verbiage and to what can not be contained in words.

Locality was important to me especially as a node in a global network. Place had power through this exercise of talent, but it was not isolated power. Self had power, but was not a burdensome possession, rather, it was tangentially connected and yet an integral part of a durable institution with an important role to play as an emerging organization on the planet. Yes there was the fleeting, the disjointed and the fragmented; one could not avoid or ignore these realities of contemporary life. But some of these fortuitous fragments of reality lodged and embedded themselves in a place, my human spirit, where they could grow and endure. An attitude of blase indifference was a necessary defence against emotional overload, but spontaneous enthusiasm could and was cultivated and expressed in an individual way. As a pioneer, I was often a stranger and, as such, I possessed, it seemed, an inherent mobility, freedom and a type of objectivity. People often felt they could confide in me. At the same time, I was sometimes a little like the European Jew, the "internal other." At other times I was one of the gang. Strangeness, of course, can enter even the most intimate of relationships and it has certainly entered mine, all my life. I have grown to think it is part of life.

'Abdul-Baha seems to be an example of how to overcome this strangeness and I learned much from His example. I could write more on this process for strangeness is "one of the most powerful sociological tools for analysing social processes of individuals and groups." For I have been for so many years, at least forty, a potential wanderer who comes today and is gone tomorrow, with the possibility of remaining permanently. During all those years I was a sojourner in other cultures. By the late sixties intercultural communication was part of university curriculums. I was getting my learning in real and different cultures: Baha’i, Eskimo, Aboriginal, Australian, Canadian and the micro-cultures of schools, offices, factories, assembly lines, mines, taxis, trucks, et cetera, et cetera. People who had personal intercultural experience often landed jobs in academia. Here their experience was confirmed, given respectability and legitimated. My knowledge and experience was usually put down, or so I recall anyway, to merely the personal or subjective. It was this setting, this intellectual milieux, that led me getting a post in August 1973 as a Senior Tutor in Human Relations in Tasmania at a College of Advanced Educaiton. My sojourn in the world of intercultural experience was, by then, well on the road.

Australian psychologist and social analyst Ronald Conway once wrote, "The soul of the Australian is a starving captive in a dungeon created by generations of either not caring, or dreading to show care". Conway is harsh and I'm sure many would disagree with his comment. Yet it is the view of many of our writers, poets and film makers. D.H. Lawrence, a rather famous visitor to Australia right at the start of the Formative Age, observed "the disintegration of social mankind back to the elements". He saw, too, in Australia "a generous but shallow personality" groping vainly for integration in a society that was "chronically skeptical." There are now volumes of analyses of the Australian psyche which as a pioneer I have had to learn to deal with. This brief analysis goes some way to explaining the difficulty in teaching the Faith here. And there is much more to say.

In Canada one could find equally damning quotations like the following: Canadians "are a nation of contradictions floating helplessly in a sea of confusion with no framework for living, with no proper definition of justice and without a single philosophical clue as to how a nation of civilized men interacts and sustains itself." In the Guardian's letters to Canada and Australia one can find more honorific quotations to balance these pejorative characterizations. Between the two poles of opinion and some complex reality, this pioneer worked his way, plied his trade.

As an international pioneer, I have had to learn how to overcome strangeness, to make a home of whatever place I inhabited, dwelled in, occupied, however temporarily and however skeptical and shallow it may have been. My life-long project was associated with a value system that was part of my religion and, in retrospect, it appears that has been the case for at least those forty years. I have been "no owner of soil," not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the places I have lived in but, rather, possessing a particular structure of nearness and distance, indifference and involvement. I have been close but yet far from the locals. This year, in 2004, I will have been in this town in northern Tasmania for five years; I will be sixty and strangeness still exists on this suburban street, in this small town even as I own my home; even as I exhibit a friendly demeanor; even married as I am to a local. I think strangeness is part and parcel of the very pervasiveness of existence.

All the world is unquestionably a stage and as I write about my experience on this stage I have a double intention in mind. Some of this intention is clear and transparent. Indeed, it is highly desireable that the story the person tells is recognised as clear and transparent at every stage by the reader. The intention of the storyteller is also in some ways that of a conjuror, an unapologetic and unrepentant conjuror, who has no other excuse but his or her genius. And this genius is only, is simply, some extraordinary luck, some gift of unmerited grace if you prefer, a gift at some exact moment that cosmic grace was distributed among the several billion human inhabitants of the globe or a gift diffused insensibly over a whole lifetime.

In retrospect, to return to my own story and its thread of events, I now see my move to the Canadian Artic in 1967 at the age of 23 as, among other things, part of my rejection of the middle class culture I had grown up in during the 1950s and which I became more critical of during my further education in the early to mid-1960s. Of course, this move was part of the Baha'i community's pioneering thrust as well. It was a thrust I first became conscious of in the late fifties. The fifties may have given the world silly putty, Mr. Potato Head, barbie dolls, rock 'n' roll, paint by number and the first TV shows, but the affluent fifties were alienated years which worried about communism, the atomic bomb and possessed "a convulsive craving to be busy." This desire to be busy was an important quality because it was one which contributed to the massive extension of the Baha'i community to the uttermost corners of the earth. The craving to be busy, in a meaningful way, has been with me all my life.

But for the most part my identity did not derive from rejection, from alientation. I was not trying to forget the first or the second Great War, for they were history to me in the fifties, a history I knew little of as I played on the street, in the woods, in parks and in my backyard. When in 1960 that coat of Faith and belief was drawn aside again, as it was in the 1920s after the first war, "to reveal a changing face, regretful, doubting, yet also looking for a road to a rebirth," I had begun searching for my own form of authenticity. By my mid-teens the Baha'i Faith seemed to represent that form. In 1980 when I read Roger White's poem, New Song I realized quickly that he had said much about the identity I acquired in those critical years of the late 1950s and sixties. So, I will quote some of that poem here:

And he hath put a new song in my mouth......

-Psalms 40:3

It was comfortable in the small town smugness

of your childhood.

You were born securely into salvation's complacent trinity:

A Catholic, Protestant or Jew.

So begins this delightful poem by Roger White. He seems to describe the tone and texture of my childhood and adolescence. He continues:

The world was small and safe and familiar.

And very white.

No red or black offended

our prim steepled vaults of self-congratulation.

Indians were the bad guys who got licked in movies,

Dying copiously amid candy wrappers

And the popcorn smell of matinees.

.........

Yes, it was comfortable then.

.........

When you heard that God had died, you wondered

Whether it was from sheer boredom--

...........

The tempest came in your twelfth or fifteenth year,

a clean cold wind

and you were left like a stripped young tree in autumn

with a cynical winter setting in

and nothing large enough to house your impulse to believe.

The need lay as quiet, unhurried and insidious as a seed

Snowlocked in a bleak and lonely landscape.

So White describes my personal condition from about the age of ten or twelve to fifteen, the years 1954 to 1959. "The need' was there to believe. It "lay as quiet" as a seed and grew, germinated. The tempest blew into my life at eighteen, a little later than it did in White's poem, his life. But, in the years 1959 to 1962, fifteen to eighteen, I caught a glimpse of the Bab "in the clearing smoke of the rifles in the barrack-square of Tabriz." I heard His "new song./Up from the Siyah-Chal it rose." I could draw many parallels between my own life and the one described by White here. Perhaps at a future juncture, in a future edition of this work I will do so.

Manic-depression, or what is now called a bi-polar disorder, afflicts 1.5 to 2 per cent of the population. It also afflicts its sufferers in quite different ways. During the years 1962 to 1980 I had half a dozen major episodes as they are called. Only two of them required hospitalization and the worst were in the 1960s. Robert Lowell, the famous American poet, was hospitalized for most of his episodes which occurred each year from 1949 to 1974. In a book about his life, Lowell describes a bi-polar disorder as follows: "that terrible condition in which the mind is bombarded by more sensation than it can accommodate, when associations succeed one another so quickly that the mind feels stretched to the breaking point, painfully drawn out as though forced through the tiny aperture of a needle’s eye." But, thanks to lithium treatment in 1980, I was finally sorted out, well just about. Fluvoxamine, twenty-two years later, put the finishing touches on this treatment by medication leaving only a mangeable residue of emotional/mental difficulties by the time I came to write this fourth edition.

Due to the most extreme of my episodes in 1968, I had to leave the Canadian Arctic and return to Ontario in June of 1968. Here is a poem, a reflection on the process of pioneering, written over thirty years later. It is a poem that puts this Arctic part of my venture, August 1967 to June 1968, in perspective. I wrote about:

THE PULL OF PIONEERING

I would not want anyone to be under any illusions regarding the pioneering experience, at least the experience that was mine and many others in the last half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I would not want to see future men and women looking anxiously back in history’s landscape, in its towns, villages and cities, farms and rural aspects, and large and small organizations for non-existent excitements and the thrill of adventure due to some mythic pioneering identity, some imaginary creation, some literary and artistic representation of pioneering that had a particular potency in the collective imagination but was false. Some internal and external view of pioneering created by pioneers and travel teachers whose poetry and fiction, whose prose and story creates an idealised and Romantic myth, I want to counter and clarify. I would want the pull of pioneering, the quest for the heart of its potential experience to be a realization that, although one detaches oneself completely from one's normal social environment, much of life can and often does remain the same. -Ron Price with thanks to C. Aitchison, N. MacLeod and S. Shaw, Leisure and Tourism Landscapes: Social and Cultural Geographies, Routledge, London, 2000, p.89.

It's been an adventure, mate;

you could even make it

into one of those movies

for the evening escape.

This story is unscripted,

flawed and plausible,

only the predictable wonder

of an ordinary life,

none of the tedium of

the choiceless invulnerability

of the movie-evening-hero,

none of the glitter and gloss.

You can't edit your life

to emerge in celluloid safety

with that toothpaste-ad-smile finish,

sliding smoothly from scene to scene

with that sense of story-writ-large

across the two hour coloured show.

This one you have to make

which, like nature, is slow

and seemingly uneventful,

the hero quietly enduring.

The big story is on the inside;

the technicolour manipulation

is largely unbeknownst to all,

silent, rich, self-created

or not there at all.

Ron Price

2 November 2000

The next poem focuses more sharply on that Arctic adventure twenty-eight years after it ended. The word 'transformation' has much meaning for me when I view life over many decades. A different person emerges, perhaps several times in life but, in the short term, in the day-to-day grind, I would use the term epiphany to describe some intense experience but not transformation. We each describe our life in different ways for we are, as that 18th century autobiographer Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime."

GONE FOREVER

Genuine self-revelation is a rare gift, almost a creative gift. How alien, how remote, seem most people's memoirs, autobiographies and confessions from the real current of their actual days. Some autobiographies use self-revelation as a form of social protest, a form of victim narrative. Sylvia Plath's poem The Bell Jar(1950's) is one of the earliest examples. More recent victim narratives are about self-promotion, sensationalism and self-disclosure: here oppressors and victims all tend to blurr. Perhaps many who read my work will find it alien and remote, just not enough juices, not enough heat, not enough to turn you on, a little too analytical thank you very much. While the memoirs are focussed they are also in a context with too much analysis for many people’s liking. American humorist Will Rogers says, partly in jest and partly seriously, "When you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad things you did do, that's memoirs." Perhaps I’ve done to much of this.

I have tried to connect my work as far as possible to the real current of my times, my days and my religion. But I don't go anywhere near, say, the in/famous Howard Stern, the radio 'shock-jock' who introduced a new radar of naughtiness into media society. Most of his public revelations are, for me, private things. I'm not into exploiting myself to make a buck, to introduce self-tabloidization, pseudo-victimization or anti-victimization. -Ron Price with thanks to Freya Johnson and Annalee Newitz, "The Personal is Capital: Autobiographical Work and Self-Promotion," Bad Subjects, Issue # 32, April 1997.

Autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving content in an intricate process of self-discovery and self-creation.1 The self at the centre of all autobiographical narrative is in some basic, subtle and quite mysterious ways a fictive structure. But whether fictive or non-fictive, there has been at the centre of this narrative an explicit avowal, an acceptance, of the embodiment of moral authority in the Central Figures of the Baha'i Faith and Their elected successors, the trustees of a global undertaking, the Universal House of Justice. There was, too, a facticity at the centre of this work. This is not a work of self-creation as readers come across so frequently in the entertainment business.2 -Ron Price with thanks to: 1Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, Author Unknown, Princeton UP, 1985, p.3; and Joe Lockard, "Britney Spears, Victorian Chastity and Brand-name Virginity," Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, October 2001.

I have often written poems about his past. This one, written some twenty-eight years after the event that it is concerned with, attempts to summarize my year among the Eskimo and some of its meaning in retrospect. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 27 April 1996.

Like some shot out of the night,

a blast from the past,

from a frozen land

where big pioneering began,

where I was worn to a frazzle,

burnt to a crisp and at forty below!

Taken away on a jet and put in a net,

like a bird in a cage,

frightened on every page,

my brain burning with rage;

slowly it soothed

and the cold Artic air

became a thing of the past,

some moment in time,

like a memory sublime

with adventure writ high

and many a long sigh,

long before I was to die.

Some passing few months,

over in the blink of an eye,

there, for a time, I nearly died.

Ron Price

27 April 1996

This poem, one of the few rhymng poems that I have written, for I don't seem to enjoy rhyming poetry. It always feels contrived. But it does say something about that experience I had at the age of 23 on Baffin Island. However intimate my autobiography, I see my life as part of a universal history, a history that Lord Acton, one of the great modern Western historians described in a letter he wrote to the contributors to The Cambridge Modern History, dated March 12th 1898. His vision of universal history contains some of the perspective within which I write about my own mundane and ordinary life. Acton wrote: "By universal history I understand that which is distinct from the combined history of all countries….a continuous development…not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul. It moves in a succession to which the nations are subsidiary." In the twentieth century a succession of universal histories followed: Spengler's in 1918, H.G. Wells' in 1919; Toynbee, who began his monumental work, in 1921; and Eric Hobsbawn’s four volume work completed in 1996, among others.

In a strange and certain way pioneering, and especially international pioneering which was three years into the future from this experience among the Eskimo, lifts one into this universal history. Perhaps that is why I have found reading Toynbee so stimulating over more than four decades of pioneering. There is another historical paradigm that I have found useful for interpreting my times, my life, my religion, all that I have seen in history and anticipated in the future. It is what could be called "the decline and fall" paradigm. Saint Jerome, while writing his 'Commentary on Ezekiel', in 410 AD said that he was "so confounded by the havoc wrought in the West and above all by the sack of Rome" that long did he remain silent, "knowing it was a time to weep." So, too, is our time a time to weep. With Rumi, the Persian poet, we are justified in saying: "do not mock the wine, it is bitter only because it is my life." The generations of the twentieth century have seen, heard or read about billions dieing. Is this a taste of things to come? Whatever wine of pleasure and comfort we in the West have enjoyed in these decades, and there have been many pleasures and comforts, there is a tincture of bitterness, of sadness, of sorrow, of melancholy, in the cup from the immense and tragic sufferings which have afflicted the human condition in our time, the generations born in the twentieth century.

Toynbee sees the period of what historians call the ‘fall of the Roman Empire in the West’ as "vultures feeding on the carrion or the maggots crawling in the carcass" of that society. Roman society, argues Toynbee, especially in the days of the Empire(that is after 31 BC), was moribund. So, too, I would argue is our own society. The society we live in in terms of its traditional political and religious institutions is moribund. There are vultures feeding on the carcass of all its traditional institutions all over the planet. In such a climate autobiographers like myself must be on guard that, as William Maxwell says, "in talking about the past" it is possible that we may "lie with every breath we draw." The story, the history, is complex and one can easily get one's interpretations of the reality of our circumstances wrong. Our views are, so often, not so much lies as Maxwell saw it, but simply or not-so-simply errors.

We also need to develop, as Dr. Johnson did centuries ago, an acute sensitivity to artificiality in our writing and to the very nature of our analysis. In a resonant phrase by language theorist and social philosopher Roland Barthes, ours is a ‘Civilization of the Image.’ To get behind the image, away from the pervasive penetration of the image, requires the penetration of imagination, creativity, understanding and insight. I hope I provide some of these items in the recipe, the mixture, here.

Doomsdaying, present to a greater or lesser extent in all ages, has become a chief mode or form of social activity in modern culture. The ancient Romans are often compared to the Americans in what Patrick Brantlinger calls a "negative classicism." We have developed, many argue, some of the negative features of classical civilization. The serious literature of most Western countries, at least since 1914 writes W. Warren Wager, has been "drenched with apocalyptic imagery." It is not my purpose here to outline the optimistic and utopian or the pessimistic and dystopian scenarios that have filled the print and electronic media in my time, though Brantlinger does one of the best jobs of doing so. The analyses of our social, economic, political and psychological cultures now available are burgeoning and often enlightening. Indeed, I could devote a special chapter to what I see as relevant commentary and from time to time I will refer to some theory, some theorist, some commentary, some analysis. But I do not want to burden readers or myself with analysis. Readers will probably find I have provided more than enough analysis in my own individual way.

But, like Leon Edel, the chief biographer of American writer Henry James, I feel as if "my life has been the quintessence of what I have written......The way I am and the way I write are a unity." So, analysis is, for me, just part of the story, part of me, my thought, who I am. For the self is not a thing, but the meaning embodied in a man, in a life.

Just as our Western world emerged out of the chaos of the break-up of the Roman Empire and "the deep sleep" of the interregnum(circa AD 375-675)" which followed, so is a global civilization emerging out of the break-up of the traditional societies all around the world including our own western society. We, too, have a deep sleep in our own time in the midst of the break-up of the old world. The roots of faith, without which no society can long endure, have been severed. Perhaps they were severed in that blood bath of WW1; perhaps the severing was completed in WW2 just as I was born, but certainly in the half century that it has been my privilege to serve in this embryonic chrysalis church, the institutional matrix, the embryo, of a new world Order, the chord of Faith has been cut. In many ways, this chord has been recreated, rebuilt, reshaped around a thousand alternative faiths, sects, cults, isms and wasms creating a sense of confusion and noise that is part of the new set of problems of these epochs.

The policy of the many governing bodies, as far as they concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious part of the citizenry. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in this emerging global society, like the Roman world two thousand years before, were all considered by most of the people, at least the people who inhabited the landscapes where I lived during these epochs, with equal indifference or on some basis or principle of exclusivity or preference. Most philosophers, intellectuals and academics saw the multitude of religions as equally false. There were many, though, among the great masses of humanity, who saw these religions, or at least one, as true, useful, pernicious, absurd or simply the leftovers of a previous age. The blight of an aggressive secularism often replaced inherited orthodoxies and a unsatisfying religious heritage. Such was part of the climate that was the backdrop for these epochs.

But, however one analyses the process of social disintegration, the death of an old Order and the birth of a new one that is characterizing this age, for me the great historian and sociologist, Reinhardt Bendix puts my life and this pioneering experience in its primary and, what you might call, its existential setting. He quotes Jacob Burkhardt's emphasis on "man suffering, striving, doing, as he is and was and ever shall be" at the centre of the process. In autobiography this centre is inevitable whether one acknowledges a transcendental Centre or no centre at all.

The revolution of our time, as historian Doug Martin put it in a simple but pointed turn of phrase, "is in essence spiritual." It is also universal and out of our control, he went on in what I always found a style of writing that has had a significant impact on my thought. Martin was one of the many influences on my life that led, by the 1990s, to produce the following poems, poems that played with concepts of civilization, society and the future.

THE GENUINE ARTICLE

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset writing about the Roman Empire said that "the heads of the most powerful state that existed....did not find any legitimate legal titles with which to designate their right to the exercise of power...they did not know the basis on which they ruled....at the end of the whole thousand-year process which is Rome’s history, its chief of state went back to being just anybody. Hence the Empire never had any genuine juridical form, authentic legality, or legitimacy. The Empire was essentially a shapeless form of government...without authentic institutions....but the famous Roman conservatism resided in the fact that a Roman knew what law is....it is that which cannot be reformed, which cannot be varied. -Jose Ortega y Gasset, An Interpretation of Universal History, WW Norton, NY, 1973, p.120, 197 and 293.

We may eventually learn that

nothing in life is meaningless;

that it has all happened

with one grand purpose,

one unifying scheme;

that the tragedy of history all fits,

is not purely fortuitous,

not a set of chance-couplings,

on-and-on forever.

And that a genuine legitimacy

is a slowly evolving entity

like man himself, or homo erectus,

or the events of the Carboniferous:

you need several thousand years.

Developing out of a prophetic

an exemplary charisma,

the legitimacy of its institutions

found in a routinization

that has successfully negotiated

the first century and a half of its life:

Is this the genuine article, the key

to the puzzle of history?

Ron Price

10 January 1996

CIVILIZATION SLIPPING

During the 1980s, the concept of globalization began to permeate a diverse body of literature within the social sciences. An intellectual fascination with globalization, in which daily processes were becoming increasingly enmeshed in global processes, contributed in subtle ways to that rampant force that seemed to be part of the dark heart of this transitional age. During these dark years, too, perhaps as far back as the 1960s, it became obvious that the controlling strain of my character was clearly emotional. It would have been impossible for me to work as a teacher and serve in the Baha'i community as a pioneer if my character had not been dominantly emotional.1 For both these 'jobs' came to diminate most of my life. The other parts of my nature merged into or were contained in an earnest expression of devotion to God and man in a framework defined by this new Faith. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 29 October 1997 and 1Alfred Marshall, "On Arnold Toynbee: Marshall Studies," Bulletin,Vol.6, editor, John Whitaker, pp.45-48, 1996. The mystical and the emotional seem to be strongly linked.

While I was watching the slippage

of civilization into its heart of darkness,

like some kind of secondary reality

or should I say primary reality,

out there, on the box, periscopes up,

bringing it in through the tube,

some intensity was sucked out,

down, in, away from my heart,

day-after-day, hour-by-hour,

year-by-year, until now

a strange quietness invades my soul,

an easy peace, as I watch

the endless succession of signs

in an endless conversation with life,

where an uneasiness, cold and dark,

whispers through the spaces,

the rooms and high into the trees,

harrowing up the souls of the inhabitants

like some mysterious, rampant force.

Ron Price

29 October 1997

GLOBAL CIVILIZATION AND ITS SPIRITUAL AXIS

Civilization lies in an awareness shared by a whole people. And we, all six billion of us, are slowly acquiring a common awareness.1 Increasingly, the cities of the world in which I had been born and lived during these epochs, began to fill like Rome, the capital of that ancient empire or some great monarchy of old, with travellers, citizens and strangers from every part of the world. Some introduced and enjoyed the favourite customs and superstitions of their native country. Some abandoned them. The sound and the clamour, the diversity of appeal, the richness and the confusion of cultures was incessant. In the midst of all this cultural diversity, the decline and the diversification of authority, an authority which once had been transmitted with blind deference from one generation to another, now provided opportunities for human beings everywhere to exercise their powers and enlarge the limits of their minds.

The name of Poet was in most places forgotten, although their number increased with every passing decade. Many of the orators were like the sophists of old. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning. At the same time learning was advancing by leaps and bounds the world over. If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, not name that time which elapsed during the epochs of this Divine Plan serving as the background for this autobiography. Although the benefits of this period to many millions of people have been obvious and impressive, a sense of optimism has not resulted. A slough of despond has resulted from the troubled forecasts of doom and the light of the twentieth century is hardly appreciated. The vast array of changes and the complexity and the relativistic ethos of the times makes humanity, for the most part, ill-equipped to interpret the problems of society.2 And so the sense of drift, of chance and a social determinism comes to possess a stronger presence. –Ron Price with thanks to 1Thomas Mallon, A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1984, p.143; 2 The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 156, p.4 and Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Internet Quotations.

It kept moving west,

civilization on the move,

centre of gravity:

Fertile Crescent, Greece, Rome,

north and west Europe,

then North America.

And He kept sending Them:

One by One,

every thousand years or so.

And where now is the centre

as we go global?

Everywhere?

Yes, He's popped Them

all over the place,

but did not tell us

until just recently.

Can we prevent extinction

so we don’t go the same way

as the Easter Islanders,

or the Anastazi Indians?

Where will our children be

after the disappearance

of the tropical rainforest in 2030?

Or all the primary products in 2050,

in a global population

of twelve billion in 2040 or 2060

when they are sixty or eighty

and we are long gone?

Perhaps civilization will continue

its drift west into the middle of the ocean!

Perhaps that spiritual axis

he told us about before he died,

just after the first satellite

showed us ourselves as round ball,

this federated ship, beginning to sail

behind its powerful lights of unity,

for there is a manifest destiny

beyond this tempest blowing,

which will take us, crying, pleading,

bleeding humanity to the blessed mansions

of a global father and motherland.

Ron Price

19 January 1997

So much that we do in life we know we could have done better. Our sins of omission and commission are legion. It is not my intention to commiserate on the long list of my failings; the world will not benefit from such a litany. This autobiography is not quintessentially confessional. From time to time, though, I mention some failing, some sin; an autobiography would hardly be an autobiography without one or two or three of such confidences. It may just be that history is the essence of innumerable autobiographies, however confessional they may be; however private, silent, obscure and ordinary; however glamorous and in touch with the seats of authority and influence. If I felt the world needed more sins of omission and commission to lighten and enlighten its burden I might include many more than I have. But the world is drowning in the dust of sin and is not in need of my dark contributions here to clarify its direction and deepen its appreciation of my life. Some of the words of Roger White are pertinent here. "My nurtured imperfections," White says he has come to see as "not so epically egregious/as to embarrass the seraphim ruefully yawning/at their mention;/nor will my shame, as once I thought,/topple the cities, arrest the sun’s climb."

I would like to quote a poem by Emily Dickinson which puts so much that we do in life, whatever our role and place in society, in perspective. Her poem is philosophical, theological, psychological and speaks to both our hearts and minds:

A Deed knocks first at Thought

And then--it knocks at Will--

That is the manufacturing spot

And will at Home and well

It then goes out to Act

Or is entombed so still

That only to the ear of God

Its Doom is audible.

It is not my intention to get my readers to see things the way I see them. I like to think that this life story is open to interpretation in ways other than those which I intend or don't intend. As philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, points out in discussing autobiography "a Work does not only mirror its time, but it can open up a world which it bears within itself." It opens up possibilities, he goes on, for others to recompose their lives and their own life stories." Readers should also be aware in their reading of autobiography what Irving Alexander calls "identifiers of salience." These are psychologically important features of autobiography that can help readers understand autobiographical texts more fully. These salient features include: primacy, uniqueness, frequency, negation, omission, errors, incompleteness and isolation. I deal with all of these factors of salience, but not in a systematic, ordered, way; rather, readers will find these features dealt with in a spontaneous fashion each in its own way in the chapters which follow.

"Wars and the administration of public affairs," wrote Gibbon, "are the principal subjects of history." During these epochs this view has been challenged by historians with other views of history and this autobiography sees history quite differently as well. In whatever way that the autobiographer views history, though, this old and established discipline is one of autobiography’s major contributing fields of study; several other social sciences occupy subsidiary fields. Tedium and anxiety, suffering and tribulations of various kinds can be found on the east of these fields rising like the sun to bring new challenges to both myself and humankind and an obituary waits patiently on the west.

I would like to comment briefly on 'primacy' and 'uniqueness' before continuing on my way in this narrative. My life, this autobiographical statement, takes place in a world that is "shatteringly and bewilderingly new," that is part of the "break-up" of civilization in a divide greater than any, arguably, since the neolithic revolution. Like the neolithic revolution which was spread over several thousand years, so too is the one we are experiencing. It is not confined to these four epochs but is, rather, one whose time frame is difficult to define with any precision.

Some put the break-up of the old civilization in the early twentieth or late nineteenth centuries; others in the middle of the nineteenth century. We are, it seems to me, unquestionably in a new and radically different world and this autobiography is part of this modernist, postmodernist, unprecedented, catastrophic and unpredictable world, a world which eludes precise characterization. Surrounded as I am with imperfect fragments of my life, sometimes concise, often obscure, sometimes contradictory and often clear elements of fact in space and time, I am reduced to a vast exercise of collecting, comparing, and conjecturing. Such is the nature of autobiography, the nature of much of life in our time. And it must be asked: is this particular autobiography symptomatic of the general, the typical, story of the pioneer, international or otherwise? Or is each story so idiosyncratic and particular, so unique and individual, that one person's story is not of much value in conveying the general narrative for a community moving unobtrusively onto the global stage? There is for each Baha'i writer of autobiography a dialectic between the banal, the vacuous, the ordinary and what holds intense significance, what are vital and delightful moments of being as Virginia Woolf calls them. Another dialectic of equal importance is that between the culturally common, the shared values and beliefs, the unific and the whole and the culturally idiosyncratic, heterogeneous, divergent and partial. Readers of this work will, inevitably, get some of both sides of both dialectics.

I have tried in my day-to-day experience to implement a way of life that has a very wide embrace. Containing the diversity of human types that this way of life incorporates, it also contains a philosophical system, far from systematized yet. This philosophy is not a dead piece of furniture. It is something that, as Johann Gottleib Fichte said, "we accept or reject as we wish; it is a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it." Any of the difficulties I have experienced in implementing this philosophy in my relations with others are a reflection, as William James once put it, "of a certain clash of human temperaments." Temperament is often the source and cause of an individual’s biases more than any of his more strictly objective premises. Temperament "loads the evidence" for us "one way or the other." It is this temperament that individuals come to trust in themselves and they are often suspicious of the temperaments of others. The psychological sources of this temperamental orientation are important and complex. They are also beyond the scope of this narrative to deal with in any depth, although some of my own are explored from time to time, if not systematically at least in an ad hoc, serendipitous fashion.

Some writers refer to this temperament as ‘inner biography’ or ‘psychic constitution.’ I don’t want to dwell on this theme of relationships too extensively here for the issues are subtle and require much analysis and attention to grasp and, even then, they are often elusive. A poem or two is appropriate, though, to expand on this complex subject. I deal with the sometimes elusive, sometimes quite specific and obvious factors involved in understanding self and its failings in my poetry. Poetry started out as a simple handshake with my life twenty-five years ago and has become something of an arm-wrestle. Simplicity may derive from knowing little and thinking less, from a certain philosophical view as was the case of Thoreau, or from a sharp focus on one thing. Emerson once wrote, "great geniuses have the shortest biographies." After a century and a half since Emerson wrote these words and many massive biographies and autobiographies, he may have revised his words.

When one talks about philosophies of life one can't help imbibing something of the overall cultural philosophy of the country one lives in. Australian playright, David Williamson, commenting on the contrast between the Australian and the American philosophical ethos said the following about the American story structure: "I think that they(Americans) do very much have that story structure firmly in their heads, that the hero must start out, must go through a series of challenges, each of which he or she overcomes, and becomes a better and stronger person at every turning point, and finally ends up the film a true hero." Going on to comment on how Australian writers told their stories he said: "Now I think Australia and Australian writers tend to believe that this is a falsified picture of life, that life proceeds more often according to the neuroses theory where people keep making the same mistakes over and over again which is more conducive to a comedic approach than a heroic, dramatic approach." After a lifetime in both countries I think my approach is a bit of both.

PROJECT OF THE SELF

According to Ulrich Beck, the most dominant and widespread desire in Western societies today is the desire to live a 'life of one's own'. More and more people aspire to actively create an individual identity, to be the author of their own life. This involves an active process of interpreting their own experiences and generating new ones. The ethic of individual self-fulfilment and achievement can be seen as the "most powerful current in modern societies." The concept of individualisation does not mean isolation, though, nor unconnectedness, loneliness, nor the end of engagement in society. Individuals do not live in society as isolated individuals with dear cut boundaries. If they ever did, now they exist as individuals interconnected in a net work by relations of power and domination. This is how Edmund Leach put it.

Individuals are now trying to 'produce' their own biographies. This is partly done by consulting 'role models' in the media. Through these role models individuals explore personal possibilities for themselves and imagine alternatives of how they can go about creating their own lives. This is also done partly by reading history, for it is in history that some theoretical framework can be found. It is also done partly by reading biography, for here the autobiographer can find himself at every turn. In effect, it is one grand experiment or project of the self, with strategies for self and reinventing self, as it is often said in contemporary parlance. -Ron Price with thanks to Judith Schroeter, "The Importance of Role Models in Identity Formation: The Ally McBeal In Us," Internet:www.theory.org.uk, 11 October 2002.

I define myself in community

which is not the same as being

surrounded by people ad nauseam,

nor does it mean doing what I want

as much of the time as I can

or being free of difficulties,

stresses and strains--

which seem unavoidable.

I've been creating my own biography--

my autobiography--for years

and getting very little sense

of who I am from the media

and their endless role models.

I've been in a community

with two hundred years

of historical models

and literally hundreds,

of people I have known

who have shown me

qualities worth emulating,

helping to make me

some enigmatic,

some composite creature.

Ron Price

11 October 2002

The lives of others then, biographies in short, shelter autobiographical features within them. We collect these features or, at least we can, into bunches of flowers, ones that brought sweetness into our life and present them, as Andre Maurois suggested, as an offering. He suggested the offering be made to "an accomplished destiny." Saul Bellow places excellent snatches of autobiography into his novels. I might put it a little differently and suggest the offering, snatches or extensive passages, be made to "the souls who have remained faithful unto the covenant of God and fulfilled in their lives His trust."

MORE THAN A TRACE

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the leading sociologists at the turn of the millennium, wrote in his book In Search of Politics(Polity Press 1999, 1988, p.54) that "sufferings which we tend to experience most of the time do not unite their victims. Our sufferings divide and isolate: our miseries set us apart, tearing up the delicate tissue of human solidarities." In the Baha'i community, as a pioneer in isolated localities, small groups and larger Assembly areas, in my family and in the wider community, I have found this to be only partly true during the more than forty years 'on the road,' so to speak.

"Belief in the collective destiny and purpose of the social whole," Bauman continues, gives meaning to our "life-pursuits." Being part of a global collectivity with highly specific goals, purposes and a sense of destiny has not only given meaning to my life-pursuits but it has tended to unite me with my fellows even when isolated from them. I do not mean to imply that this collectivity is a homogeneous, univocal entity. I am only too conscious of its immense diversity. But my existence within this collectivity, however diverse, gives me a special sense of consecrated joy; the consecration comes from the difficulties endured and shared. Although these difficulties seem to tear that "delicate tissue" that Bauman refers to, they also provide some of that chord which binds. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 29 July 2002.

Often it was largely in my head,

that tissue of solidarity,

especially in Frobisher Bay,

Whyalla or Zeehan,

on the edge of a universe.

But always, they visited me

when I was sick, somehow

they were always there,

even when they left me alone.

For this is a polity which

gives you lots of space

when you need it and,

you can always go and get it

because there's so much out there:

solitude and sociability

in these vast and spacious lands.

Life is no mere sequence

of instantaneous experiences

without a trace left behind.

Here is a trace with my inscription

of lived time on astronomical time.

This is no singular, self-same identify,

shared or common ancestral, historical,

self. Fractured and fragmented it is,

spread across two continents,

two countries and four epochs,

cutting events out of flow

turning grief into lamentation

and lamentation into praise,

little by little and piece by piece.

See ibid., p.165.

Ron Price

29 July 2002

I’d like to say a little about the landscape of the Baha’i community that has been part of my being for more than half a century. I try to map its unique landscape of vision, hope, relevance, tolerance and aspiration in my poetry. Defined and described in my poetry, then, is a landscape with what I think is a distinctive voice. It is a deceptively insinuating, complex, quotient with a quality of religious feeling and thought that is not over-ethereal and that includes much of the raw material of life, perhaps too much for some. But the Baha’i community has supplied me with a great deal of raw material, a little too much at times. My poetry and the Baha’i Faith contains within it a landscape of human frailty and burnt-out cases of which I am one. Perhaps I am too honest like those confessional poets of a few years ago. But the people I have known in this community are ordinarily ordinary, humanly human.

There is so much that arouses my imagination and that I want to add to this landscape to paint its picture as accurately as possible. On an initial inspection of my poetic oeuvre this landscape contains a world, a world I have set out in over two million words, too much really for most people in this audio-visual age. With several million words, then, in my prose-poetry such a conclusion is not surprising. But t

Posted by Ron Price 2006-11-01 08:49:48


Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Entry #5: Autobiography

But there have been many aspects of the Baha'i experience, its history, the individual stories of what are now millions of adherents, which have been resistant to literary and historical representation whether as narrative, novel, play, poem, letter, diary, biography or autobiography, among the many genres in which humans convey their experience. Moojan Momen points out that "Baha'is have been lamentably neglectful in gathering materials for the history of their religion."1 But as the new millennium approached this has begun to change.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Moojan Momen, The Babi and Baha'i Religions 1844-1944, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981, p.xvii.

_____________________________________________________________________

In volume two of Toynbee’s A Study of History, he discusses the concept or doctrine that "the ordeal of breaking new ground has an intrinsic stimulating effect," and "the stimulating effect of breaking new ground is greatest of all when the new ground can only be reached by crossing the sea." Toynbee cites many examples and focuses especially on the Etruscans who "stayed at home and never did anything worth re- cording""and the "astonishing contrast between the nonentity of the Etruscans at home and their eminence overseas." This eminence, he argues, was due to the "stimulus which they must have received in the process of transmarine colonization."

My pioneering experience took me across the sea, first in 1967 across the Davis and Hudson Straits, extensions of the North Atlantic Ocean; second in 1971 across the Pacific Ocean and third, in 1974, 1978 and 1999 across the Bass Strait, an extension of the Great Southern Ocean, to live on Baffin Island, the continental island of Australia and Tasmania, respectively. These pioneer moves could have had the soporific effect that the migration of the Philistines had on them about the same time as the Israelites were transforming themselves from nomadic stock-breeders into sedentary tillers on stony, barren and landlocked highlands and pasture-lands east of Jordan and south of Hebron.

But I found these moves, like the Volkerwanderungs, that is the wanderings, of the past, those of the Ionians, the Angles, the Scots and the Scandinavians, possessed an intrinsic stimulus. For these moves were part of a modern Volkerwanderung, a national and international pioneering exodus. My own role in this story was as a part of that national exodus, the opening chapters of the push of the Baha’i Faith to "the Northernmost Territories of the Western Hemisphere" and Canada’s "glorious mission overseas." And to put this venture in its largest, its longest perspective and time frame: my work is at the outset of the second 'period' of a 'cycle' of hundreds of thousands of years, in a second 'age', over four 'epochs'; or to use yet another paradigm, my life is at the beginning of the federated state, after successive units of political and social organization on the planet: tribe, chiefdom, clan, city state and nation after homo sapiens sapiens emerged some 35,000 years ago from a homo sapiens line beginning 3mya.(ca)

If such are the most general perspectives on time in relation to where I am in history, the spiritual axis, mentioned by Shoghi Effendi in his 1957 letter, and a series of concentric circles define the spacial parameters of my life, in several interlocked and not unimportant ways. The southern pole of this axis is "endowed with exceptional spiritual potency." Many years of my life have been lived at several points along the southern extremity of this pole: in Perth, in Gawler and Whyalla, in Ballarat and Melbourne and in several towns of Tasmania. All of these points lie at the outer perimeter of the ninth concentric circle whose centre is the "Bab's holy dust."

In anatomy the second cervical vertebra is the axis on which the head turns. Axis also refers to any of the central structure of the body’s anatomy, the spinal column. The term is also used as a positional referent in both anatomy and in botany. Such is a brief exposition of the analogical importance of where I have spent my life as an overseas pioneer. Living, as I have at the end of the planet’s axis, endowed with an exceptional spiritual potency, an axis on which the Baha’i world, it could be argued, turns and serves, the line between Japan and Australia, as the central structure or positional referent, of the global community, gives me a crucial spacial orientation the significance of which only the future will reveal.

My several moves, part of the laying of the foundation for this federated, this future super-state, resulted in a periodic change of outlook and this change of outlook gave birth to new conceptions. The process was an insensible one at first but, over more than four decades, the process resulted in a change which one could analyse at many levels. It took place in such small incremental steps, especially in the first ten years of the adventure, 1962-1972. But in the second decade, 1973 to 1983 "new and wonderful configurations" developed, again, not overnight, but measurably and accompanied by difficulties as well as victories. Indeed, the temple of my existence was "embellished with a fresh grace, and distinguished with an ever-varying splendour, deriving from wisdom and the power of thought." Perhaps this puts it too strongly, makes too extensive a claim. It may not have been wisdom, nor "the dazzling rays" of "a strange and heavenly power" but, rather, a progressive healing of my bi-polar disorder. To express this fresh grace in practical terms I could use the following concrete experience: I spent half of 1968 in four mental hospitals receiving eight shock treatments and all of 1972 as one of South Australia’s most successful high school teachers.

After six months in several mental hospitals in 1968 and an emotionally unstable first decade(1962-1972) on the pioneer front, a decade that included five years of study to prepare for the job, the career, that would give me access to employment opportunities over a lifetime, opportunities undreamt of at the time and a decade that included moving from the Canadian Arctic to far-off Australia, a new world opened. What was clearly discernable in 1971 was "a new horizon, bright with intimations of thrilling developments in the unfolding life of the Cause of God." Such was the general hope for my own life, 'intimations of thrilling developments,' as I flew, with my first wife, Judy, across the North American continent and the Pacific Ocean: Toronto to Sydney, in early July of 1971. Within two years of these bright intimations Judy and I were divorced. But the first evidences of any kind of writing ability surfaced in these years. Such are the paradoxes and contradictions of life which I have lived with, as we all live with as we try to apply the teachings of this Cause to our daily lives.

Many theories of self have become useful, as I examine the past retrospectively, if I am to possess "an adequate definition of self-conception." The capacity to evaluate the qualitative worth of my desires and my actions, to express whatever is contradictory, paradoxical, ironic, complex and difficult if not impossible to understand, are part of creating accounts, reconciliations and explanations of my life or just small parts of it. The process is facilitated by the narrative self-conception of autobiography, a self-conception that surfaces from the interplay between events and the perception of them re-constructed in narrative form.

There is a multiplicity of narrative frames in this autobiography: gender, religion, family, nation, history, politics, sociology, psychology, that exist, all of which govern the narrative I endorse and the associated actions that take place in these pages. There are, too, the narratives of hope and accomplishment, those of dissillusionment and failure, as well as those of faith and belief as opposed to skepticism and doubt. In each of these, or some mix of all of them(which it seems is the case with mine), individuals act to create or fulfill their identities. The narrative serves to frame or orient action and action transforms the narrative by enriching and validating it. If the public narrative is consistent with our actions, we can say that self and identity are authentic. If there are opposing narratives, contradictions or even falsities, you might say that this is simply part of the dynamic nature of identity, an identity which operates in the context and texture of daily life with the same contradictions and falsities. For identity is not static, pure and unadulterated: context and audience are critical variables in what is inevitably, and certainly for me, a hybrid reality. The writing of this autobiography is a process of gathering information and testing hypotheses about myself, my roles and my relationships.

Judy and I flew to Australia to work for the South Australian government as primary school teachers in Whyalla. By April 1971 when the international Baha’i body sent its Ridvan message we had been hired and began planning for our overseas move. The Formative Age of this new Faith was rapidly approaching the mid-point of its first century. Those "bright intimations" certainly filled our world as we got ready to move to Australia in the southern hemisphere. We were hardly conscious of just how far from home this move entailed. Just how far it was I came to discover in the next several decades. I only saw my mother once again and my cousins not for more than thirty years.

However unstable that first decade of pioneering was, the memories I have of that period constitute what social scientist Peter Braustein calls "possessive memory." These memories now exist with me "in a lover’s embrace." I feel as if no one else can touch these memories, even if I share them with others in this autobiography. These memories, in a way, possess me. I do not possess that "sense memory" that, say, British actor Michael Caine enjoys in which he can go back to a point in time in his life and relive the emotional event in the same way. A tearful event will bring tears to Caine again by the simple but intense contemplation of the memory. The memory, for me, is very real but the experience is more like Wordsworth's: "emotions recollected in tranquillity."

Braustein says of the activists of the sixties that they "experienced a sense of self-generation so powerful that it became a constituent part of their identity." My activism was not based on rejection or opposition but, rather, on the part I played in the development of Baha'i communities in the ten towns I lived in during the sixties. I was fifteen when the sixties started and twenty-five when they ended. My pioneering life began during those years and that "sense of self-generation" is still part of my identity. Identity is, of course, a complex question and one's identity, my identity, has many sources. Indeed, the success of identity formation depends on various personality factors like flexibility, self-esteem, tendency to monitor one's behaviour, an openness to experience, cognitive competence, social context, family communication patterns, among other things. It is difficult to write autobiography based on the view that writing is not an expression of personality. Some writing is a continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand, especially autobiography.

I felt in the sixties, as I do now, that sense of urgency, as if I was an agent in history. Hippies and student activists made the counter-culture between 1964 and 1968, "by their explicit attack on technology, work, pollution, boundaries, authority, the unauthentic, rationality and the family," wrote Ortega y Gasset as he attempted to define the essence of that generation and its particular type of sensibility.

As I look back over what is now half a century, I perceive the panorama, the chaos, the picture of discrete events as they roll by my mental window indiscriminately. Humans and perhaps the primates in their ancestral heritage, the several progenitors of human beings, of homo sapiens sapiens, have had this ability for, perhaps, several million years. With the arrival of the train, though, early in the nineteenth century human beings were able to triple the distance that had been covered in one’s mental window in a given period of time throughout all of recorded history by horse and cart. They could "perceive the discrete as it rolled past the window indiscriminately" three times faster than in a horse-drawn coach. Wolfgang Schivelbusch says this is the defining characteristic of the panoramic. In fact he says the really crucial feature of the panoramic is "the inclination to fix on irrelevant details in the landscape or in the images that pass before the viewer's eye."

As I scan, in my mind's eye, the multitude of events in the panorama of my life, I fix first on this event and then on that, as Schivelbusch describes. Of course, there is some pattern in this autobiography, but there is also much that is serendipitous, spontaneous, highly discontinuous. Readers may find this latter quality somewhat disconcerting, especially those readers who are more comfortable with a sequential, a simple and somewhat predictable and absorbing narrative sequence. The electronic media in the same half century that this autobiography is concerned with(1953-2003) have also brought to the individuals--at least this individual--a profusion, a diaspora, of public spheres and so very much more of those discrete events rolling past my window indiscriminately. The imaginative resources of lived and local experiences have become globalized.

Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1936 that the process of nation-building had come to an end and, in my early years as a Baha'i, I often wondered at his meaning. The issue is, of course, complex, too complex to pursue here, but the window on my world, the imagined community, in the half century of this narrative, has become the entire planet. "The creation of selves and identities," as Imre Szeman wrote recently, takes place in a volatile and unstable mixture. The imagination now can play everywhere and instability, volatility, is part of the result. The autobiography of anyone living in this period must take cognizance of this colonization of the imagination by the media and what many call commodity capitalism.

However serendipitous this account may be, however much I improvise as I tell my story, as I move the events around in what seems like a loose, easy-going and fortuitous fashion, my aim is not that of those two famous American novelists of this period: Kurt Vonnegut Jr and John Updike. The former's novel Timequake is written with irony, humor and sarcasm to wake people from their stupor and apathy and to warn them of what awaits if they do not try to radically transform their society. Likewise, John Updike's Toward the End of Time presents readers with a future that is so grim and characters that are so repulsive that the very hideous images force them to either embrace his work masochistically or reject it outright and work towards preventing the dystopia he describes. Both writers try to jolt their readers, shock them.

There is little irony in this narrative, little jolting, little shock tactics, not anywhere near as much humour as I would like and only a moderate amount of sarcasm. If there is anything grim, it is my portrayal of aspects of the society I have lived in since the mid-twentieth century and some aspects of my life for which the word ‘grim’ is a suitable adjective. This narrative work is, rather, an attempt to hint at the utopia that I see at the heart of the Baha'i System, my experience of it at this embryonic stage of its development and the effort I see that is required to achieve its reality. I am aware as I write that for the Baha'i the future has never looked so bright and the Baha'i community has itself been gathering strength all my life. And so my aim is far removed from that of these two famous novelists. I would, though, very much like to write like James Herriot who, his son observes in his heartfelt, affectionate memoir, wrote with "such warmth, humour, and sincerity that he was regarded as a friend by all who read him." Sadly, I do not have that talent or a topic that, for me, lends itself to such an endearing style and approach. We all have our limitations and the qualities that make others great and their writing endearing do not define my writing or make me who I am. The style is the man and what makes that style is a quite idiosyncratic mix. Herriot sold 60 million copies of his books in 21 languages. I’m not sure I will even enter the book selling league. People will not be rolling with laughter in the aisles from an hour spent with me in this book. Alas and alack!!

I used to work at a College of Advanced Education in the late 1970s where one of my fellow lecturers in the social sciences aimed to dismantle the world views of his students, to shake them up, so to speak. I, too, want to do this, but my method is to be much gentler, to go around to the back door and, like a surgeon, give said students a new set of lungs without them feeling the experience, without too much of a jolt. Various fiction writers, famous and otherwise, assume the roles of performers in their books. At the centre of brilliantly imagined worlds these writers become actors who put on dazzling performances. The narrative personae in these works assume roles which often lead readers to question the reliability of their authors. If drama is the sister-art to life-writing, as some claim it is, then we must consider that the life-writer can use dramatic technique to shape what and how the reader imagines. By using stagecraft life-writers have the power to distort or to enhance the truth about what they are illustrating in their lives.

As an autobiographer I am conscious of creating a certain narrative persona and of establishing a context for this dramatic art but, the critical variable for me, is style. Style is a distinctive selection of words and phrases to express thought or feeling; it is a certain mental attitude peculiar to myself; it is the opposite of affectation which is an assumed habit or manner of expression; it is part and parcel of my very character. "The most perfect development of style," writes Archibald Lampman, "must be sought in those whose experience of the world has been full and at the same time in the main joyous and exhilarating." There has been, he goes on, a certain exquisite indulgence and graciousness of disposition, a capacity to delight others, to put others at ease, a happy attitude of mind, impulsive yet controlled.

It would be a rare soul who could do all these things all the time. And I am only too conscious of my many inabilities in these several domains especially the absense of joy from time to time due to a life-time of manic-depressive illness and the inability to feel joyous when life provides me with an abundance of problems. If the mark of nobility is to be happy in the midst of life’s tests, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha once wrote, then I think, at best, I occupy one of the lower ranks of this new, this spiritual nobility. But I am also conscious of the exhilarating aspects of my life and of the pleasure, the stimulus, that I brought to many, especially in my role as a teacher and lecturer. Lampman continues in many directions one of which is to associate "true style" with genius, to emphasize the unconsciousness of its acquisition and the writer being "haunted persistently by certain peculiar ideas." There is much in Lampman's analysis which resonates with my experience. In the end only the reader, at least some readers, will discover this style. And only the reader can impute genius; it would be more than pretentious to claim it for oneself! But, whatever the case, it is here in this elusive world of style that my dramatic art lies. Whatever excitement there is in the creation of this narrative persona it lies not in some conscious dramatic invention for the stage of life, however brilliantly devised and dazzlingly performed. For years I have been reaching out for a subject to give coherent form to my "voice." Poetic and non-poetic narrative has helped me find this "voice" in the last decade and lifted, refined and lifted it again. Form and voice has brought content into being, as Joyce Carol Oates describes the process. And now this autobiography spins in orbit about that kernel of myself, my society and my religion. In a very general--and yet quite specific sense--the Kingdom of God is both within and without. To put this idea a little differently: there is no dichotomy. Every atom in existence is testimony to the names of God. And every atom of this autobiography springs from my fascination with the movement of thought, of inner experience. There is here a braiding together of disparate fragments jotted down and refined and refined again.

Sometimes the experience of writing this account, like the experience of life, is euphoric; sometimes it is homely and domestic; sometimes there is the sense of the ceaseless surge of the sea, of a fierceness of energy; sometimes I feel as if I am in possession of the heart's foul rag and bone shop, as the elder Yeats poignantly described his inner life. Sometimes I feel as if I am obsessively preoccupied with refining perceptions, with analysing. I feel no need to continue the external journey, occupied as it was with living in some two dozen towns over the last forty years, but I do not want my life to end. This tinkering in the world of thanatos, of the death wish, does occur for short periods late at night, a residue of this bi-polar disorder. But life’s journey does not show any signs of ending in this my 61st year, so continue it I will, as we all must to the end of our days. As Emily Dickinson puts it:

The Brain--is wider than the Sky--

For--put them side by side--

The one the other will contain

With ease--and You--beside--

The Brain is deeper than the sea--

For--hold them--Blue to Blue--

the one the other will absorb--

As Sponges--Buckets--do--

The Brain is just the weight of God--

For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--

And they will differ--if they do--

As Syllable from Sound--

Many autobiographers and analysts of autobiography examine their lives and the field of autobiography in the context of postmodern theory. Postmodernism is a movement, a theory, an approach, to life which encapsulates the arts, the sciences, society and culture, indeed every aspect of day to day life, but outside the context of a metanarrative. I find this theory useful because it exists as a polarity, one of the ubiquitous, multitudinous, polarities that define who we are and what we do. Postmodernism suggests, sees the world, the external world as one of ceaseless flux, of fleeting, fragmentary and contradictory moments that become incorporated into our inner life. The modern hero is the ordinary person and the world is filled with abstract terms. This postmodern society could indeed be called 'the abstract society.' It is a society filled with a commercial, private, pleasure-oriented, superficial, fun-loving individual. This type of society and this type of individual began to appear, or at least the beginnings of post-modernism, can be traced back to the 1950s.

The post-modern in autobiography tends to doubt everything about both self and society. After examining more than fifty biographies of Marilyn Monroe the postmodernist is left with plausibilities and inscrutibilities but not unreserved truth. This school of thought sees, deals with, multiplicity rather than authenticity as the object of search for the analyst, student of human behaviour and autobiography. If we ultimately can’t be sure of why we did what we did in life, can’t be sure of some authenticity, some basic sincerity and simplicity of explanation in our lives we can not exercise great control of the process of explaining it retrospectively because of the very complexitry of it all. The post-modernists raise many questions about the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of doing genuine, real, authentic biography and autobiography. I find their approach mildly chastening, certainly provocative and stimulating, if at times discouraging. But such an approach provides a general context for the words of John Hatcher to be applied: "we cannot possibly evaluate what befalls us or anyone else in terms of whether it ultimately results in justice or injustice or whether it is harmful or beneficial."

There is so much information in this information-loaded society and so many interpretations that shift and slide that an atmosphere of meaninglessness or unreality often prevails, of absurdity or the comic, of an essentially problematic and unresolvable set of human dilemmas. Novelty, indifference to political concerns, no ideological commitments or beliefs in any metanarratives, but rather a commitment to hobbies, to entertainment and a host of pleasureable pursuits and pastimes fill the private space. Commitment and continuity become less important, except of course a commitment to a world of the private, the personal and the relationships contained therein, in their many forms. The analysis of postmodernism in the social science and humanities literature is extensive and too vast to deal with here. As a philosophy, a sociology, a psychology, an approach to literature and life, postmodernism helps furnish an understanding of society and the individual in the years since the mid-twentieth century, the years of this autobiography. Postmodernism is a state that inclines people to self-reflection, self-apprehension, self-definition. Autobiography is a natural bi-product of postmodernism and deals with a definition of both self and world that is outside the traditional metanarratives. This work, this autobiography, is a mirror of self-reflection and it encodes my life, my struggles and my joys, my engagements with the many issues which have played on the edges of my life.

Given both the complexity and the lack of consensus, though, about what constitutes postmodernism, I am hesitant to deal with the term in any depth here. I am not hesitant, though, to use Philippe Lejeune's definition of autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality." Although there are other centres of interest in this work, the focus on my individual life is certainly paramont. This autobiography also needs to be seen in the context of a wider and emerging autobiographical experience of many groups and peoples. Autobiography has undergone great changes during the years with which this particular story is concerned, the last fifty years of the twentieth century. It is seen now, much more among women writers, ethnic writers, gay and lesbian writers, indeed the writings of a host of indigenous and minority groups on the planet. Since the autobiographical tradition prior to this time belonged mostly to men and men in the upper classes, women's voices, particularly "ordinary" women's voices, and men's, ordinary men's voices, were relatively unheard. In addition, earlier autobiography was typically motivated by the desire of famous or "special" individuals to record and preserve significant thoughts and historically important experiences.

Posted by Ron Price 2006-11-01 08:47:21


Thursday, October 5, 2006
Essay on Autobiography

ESSAY 13: AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Writing an autobiography involves a matching up of a specific plot-structure with a set of historical events. The autobiographer wishes to endow these events with a particular meaning. Some writers see this process as "essentially a literary, that is to say, fiction-making operation." The document, the autobiography, is still a historical narrative. It is one of the ways a culture has of making sense of both personal and public events. For it is not the events of a life that are reproduced through the writer’s description; rather, it is a direction to think about these events, a charging of the events with "different emotional valences," that the writer produces. Of course, a writer does not like to see his work as a translation of "facts" into "fiction." But the crisis in both historical thought and in the writing of autobiography may be illumined by the insights gained from this perspective.

The ordering of events in a temporal sequence does not provide any necessary explanation of why the events occurred; for a history, an autobiography, is not only about events, it is also about possible sets of relationships, only some of which are immanent in those events. For the most part they exist in the mind of the writer and the language he or she uses. Hayden White argues that "if there is an element of the historical in all poetry, there is an element of poetry in every historical account." History is made sense of in the same way that the poet or novelist tries to make sense of it. The unfamiliar and mysterious is made familiar. Both the real and the imagined are subjected to a process aimed at making sense of reality. For this reason history often appears fictionalized and poetry often appears like reality, like history. Writers of poetry and fiction, says Hayden, impose formal coherence on the world in the same way writers of history do.

Such a view, if taken seriously, would go a long way to freeing historians from being captive of ideological preconceptions. Drawing historiography closer to its origins in literary sensibility, in the literary imagination, may help to increase understanding. For an increase in facts does not necessarily bring understanding. Chronicles of events, the sense of ‘what really happened,’ types of configurations of events, the emplottment of sequences of events, are determined as much by what facts are put in as what are left out and by the extent to which the writer can engage in constant currection and revision, in tireless seeking out of new information.

Aristotle saw poetry as unified, intelligible and based on the subordination of the part to the ends of the whole. History on the other hand was organized around continuity and succession, a congeries of events and is not intelligible in the same way as poetry is. He associated history with the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unsystematic. Poetry he saw as part of an ordered and coherent schema. Poetry was, to Aristotle, a more serious, a more philosophical, business than history. It speaks of universals; history of particulars.

Posted by Ron Price 2006-10-05 07:00:19


Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Autobiography: Instalment No.2

...more of the first section of my work entitled: Pioneering Over Four Epochs...

And so, in a rambling sort of fashion I introduce my life and something of my family in the twentieth century. I'm always by degrees and alternating: amazed, slightly surprised, impressed, perplexed, bemused, alienated and fascinated by the cross-section of skills, abilities, successes, failures, indeed, the life-stories of the many members who constitute my family of origin and family by two marriages. The group is now a burgeoning one of some fifty people, approximately. I can't even keep track of their names. The experiences of most of them will never see the light of day in this autobiography. For most of my life I have not tried to keep a detailed track of their comings and goings, too occupied have I been with my own and several, although not all, of the most intimate of my familial relationships. For the few members of my family of birth or of marriage who have entered this narrative, except for an even smaller handfull, they occupy a relatively small space.

Now that I am retired I take a distant and dispassionate view of the trail of people who are part of my consanguineal and affinal sets of relationships. Australian cartoonist Bruce Pertty, when asked to describe "the domestic trail" of his life, said it was "utterly incoherent" and "a huge mystery." I laughed when I read those words. I liked Petty's honesty here. I think these phrases apply, in part, to my domestic life. But I would also use other phrases to characterize the overall picture. For I found all three of these foundation stones very anchoring to my spirit and body over the last six decades. I would not want to dismiss them as facilely as Petty does, although in my lesser moments I have to agree with him and his characteristically delightful humour. Perhaps, though, I'll let these relationships unfold in more detail in the seven hundred pages ahead.

This chapter provides a start to what has become a long story and an equally long analysis. I hope readers will find the chapters which follow both entertaining and instructive. If at times they seem a little boring and mechanical, as so many autobiographies are, I hope that readers will also find that they are usefully informative from time to time and intellectually simulating on occasion. I may not lift ticks from the clock and freeze them as Proust once did and as Vermeer once did in his paintings, but I try to save some of this swiftly passing life and invest it with a verbal value that time never permitted me to give it when it was happening. The discipline of psychoautobiography confines itself to salient episodes, special fragments, illuminating gestalts, persistent modes of behaviour, formal symmetries and constellating metaphors in a life. I cover more ground than just the salient features. I solve enigmas but leave many unsolved and so can not apply psychoautobiography to what has become a seven hundred page narrative. But there is an informed use of the psychological in this narrative and I hope it makes for a more well-rounded, a more satisfying life history. There is also an informed use of the writings and ideas of some of the "greats" of the western intellectual tradition. The wealth of this tradition provides a burgeoning base of quotable material. Here is one, again from Shakespeare, one of the many precepts and axioms which seem to drop casually from his pen, which I found to be a crucial way of putting my own experience, my own feelings, especially about those I loved:

In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,

For they in thee a thousand errors note;

But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,

Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.

Baha'u'llah's says much the same ting in different ways, especailly when He refers to the sin-covering eye. Much in relationships depends on this one quality.

The information I have sought and the experience I have had has been used and lived over these many decades in the service of a commitment I grew into, insensibly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This information and this experience I now frame as I did while I travelled along the path within the context of goals I have had, goals which have determined what I needed to do on the journey. This information and this activity has been part of a life of committed action, what Kierkegaard called life in the ethical sphere. Now, in these early years of retirement, the information I am obtaining in abundance is supporting an engaged intellectual activity, furthering the coordination of my action in the Baha'i’ world and the life I live in relation to that world. My everyday commitments have always had a context within an overall framework of what ultimately makes sense to me. And that is still the case providing, as this framework does, the terms of reference in which I obtain the information I do. There is a passion and energy in my work and now a harmony; this is no mere dabbling. Kierkegaard says that "will is the real core of man. It is tireless, spontaneous, automatic and reveals itself in many ways." Seven or eight hours a day in the service of ideas and print is all my will can muster. There is spontaneity and the automatic in this exercise of writing and reading. For the remaining seven or eight hours a day during which I am awake I must turn my will to other things to refresh my spirit and survive in the world of the practical, the world of people and places. Like Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau more than a century before me, I travel widely within the confines of my small town with and in my mind. I confront life in and with my own spirit which is the most trying battleground life gives us. Only time will tell the extent of my mastery.

An insidious bi-polar illness, a long list of sicknesses beginning in early childhood, sadness and melancholy, fatigue resulting from fifty to seventy hours a week talking and listening, reading and writing, marking and planning as a teacher; guilt from crimes, follies and sins of a major and minor nature, baseness, impatience, lack of self-control, lust, indulgences of several kinds, the litany could go on and on; periodic failure in employment, in marriage, in relationships of various kinds, incapacities on a host of fronts--and still with this sense of burden, perhaps because of it, there arose this call to write. Perhaps this writing was simply--or not-so-simply--part of my "heart melting within me" as it says in the Long Obligatory Prayer. Of course, the heart did not melt all the time; the burden was not felt like some great weight over my head every minute of my existence.

Some of my sins I did not want the answer to "so keenly as to burn the bridges across which the sin continually" came. My entreaty to God to save me from my sin was mixed with a sense of repentance that was, often, "a very searching and disturbing affair." The effort to come to grips with many of my sins has often seemed too demanding. I have prayed long and hard over several decades but, it seems, that I so often simply(or not so simply) lack the constitutional fortitude. I can find the right "inward craving," but the promptings of my passions, their contagion, seems so much stronger than the control I need to deal with them. And so the battle rages.

I remember back in the mid-1990s, as I was beginning to plan my exit from the world of endless talk, people and listening as a teacher and Baha'i in community; I remember that tastes, touches, sights and smells began to take on a new meaning. I seemed to recapture the past and live in the present with a greater intensity than I had been able to do in previous years. As the new millennium opened and I was at last free from meetings and people coming to me and at me at a mile a minute, the present and especially the past began to come at me noticeably free of those disappointments and anxieties that had for so many years accompanied my life. There was the sense of blossom, of freshness, of new colour, of bright intensity and there was also the sense of calm and a solemn consciousness.

This consciousness seemed productive of a quiet joy that had not been there before, perhaps this was partly due to fluvoximine and lithium's soothing presence in my brain and body chemistry, especially at the synaptic connections. They were certainly essential but, as I listened to Chopin's Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Opus 23 and gazed occasionally out of the window of my study at the lemon tree and the flowers my wife had recently planted in our front garden here in northern Tasmania, I felt a quiet joy. It was a joy which resembled that equable temperament that Wordsworth is said to have had and which allowed me to experience the emotions and events of earlier days, only this time they were recollected in tranquillity, in that "bliss of solitude."

Canadian poets have been found to express a melancholy, a feeling of resignation to misery, isolation and the feeling that man is encompassed by forces beyond his ability to control which strike out repeatedly and blindly to destroy him. Australian poets have a slightly different take on the melancholy in life. There is a great upwhelling of humour which plays with any high seriousness. Heroic action is seen to be futile in both Canada and Australia. Literary subject matter often becomes so removed from life that one finds only the residue of personal values, personal relationships and private worlds – worlds of gloom and despair at that in Canada. In Australia there is more of the celebration of the commonplace. I don’t want to go into an extended analysis of the literary in both cultures but, when one adds the dimension of a Baha’i overlay, a hybrid personality is created, a a hybrid such as myself.

I do not so much want to recover the past; this work is not so much an autobiography of remembrance, although there is inevitably some of that. It is an autobiography of analysis and reflection. I want to write, also, about what I have not experienced and about what gives this life of mine meaning and worth. I am not living in this work the way some writers have done who failed to live in their life. I am certainly appraising my life, my times, my religion and the myriad relationships involved in such an appraisal, for appraisal has been for me somewhat of an obsession as these four epochs evolved and as the content of the appraisal shifted. For some writers, the great ones, it is style that endures. Lies, subterfuge and dissimulation become part and parcel of the text. This was true of Proust. For me, my aim is the essential truth of my life and times, however difficult it may be to find and describe it. Style is something of which I am hardly conscious.

I am conscious, though, of the epistemological upheaval taking place in the historical profession and in the field of autobiography. This upheaval has several major forms. One of these forms is based on the view that there are only possible narrative representations of the past and none can claim to know the past as it actually was. Of course, some historians maintain that conventional historical practice can be continued. Others say that the writing of history must be radically reconceived. The historian and literary analyst, Raymond Williams, says that the word "narrative" "is one of the most difficult words in the English language."

My work may be out of step with the modern consciousness; my sexual revelations may be tame; my social preoccupations of interest to only a few; my politics irrelevant to the vast majority; but I like to think there is a rich and analytical base that is quiet and possessed of what many I’m sure will find to be a dull but hopefully pleasing silence, a silence which will, in time, attract some readers from among the loud impatient honks and belches that occupy so much of the public space these days. For there is, amidst the noise and tumult, a serious and sophisticated reading audience that has developed in the last several decades and now includes millions. This work may find a home among some of these millions. But whether it does or whether it doesn't for a citizen who acts or a writer who spends periods of time cloistered from society, the dilemma is the same. It is the dilemma of the witness. As witness, one asks: "Who am I to say?" Or: "Who am I, if I don’t say." The more deeply you examine your own life, the more deeply you enter your times, and from there, history.

Were we endowed with a longer measure of existence and lived perhaps two or three centuries, we might cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition. But given the narrow span in which we live, that we are given, we seem eager to grasp at the precarious and short-lived enjoyments with which we are blessed. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges or depresses and confuses, the horizon of our intellectual view. In this autobiographical composition that has taken me some months or years, in this perusal that has occupied me for some several dozen days of total time, perhaps hundreds of hours, two centuries have rolled through these pages, with more attention paid to recent decades and less as the years go back. These are the two centuries since Shaykh Ahmad began his years as the Bab's precursor in Iran, circa 1804-6.

The duration of a life or an epoch, my life, is contracted to a fleeting moment. At the same time, this physical world, which gradually burst with wonder as the years rolled by, rapidly grew smaller as a result of radio, TV, the computer and a cornucopia of technological inventions. The grave, I sensed by my thirties, was ever beside life's achievement, however unconscious I was of its presence or should I say its absense most of the time. The success of life's ambition was instantly, or virtually so, followed by the loss of the prize. Our immortal reason survived as it reflected on the complex series of calamities and victories which passed before my eyes in history's larger and multi-coloured garment. The entire panoply and pageantry of it all faintly dwelt in my remembrance as I went about my daily duties. So is this true in varying degrees of all of us. And it is this remembrance that I write about in this autobiography, these fleeting years in which the Baha'i Faith and the world have been transformed; in which the proceses of integration and disintegration were gathering momentum, accelerating unobtrusively and yet, ironically, quite conspicuously; in which the world's landscape daily grew more desolate, threatening and unpredictable and yet more comfortable physically due to a range of consumer durables that were not enjoyed by the world's peoples at any time in history and were still not enjoyed by half the population, perhaps three billion or more.

Liberal relativism and capitalism represent a single, a dominating and comprehensive world-view, as they have in "Western civilization" during all these epochs and especially since the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Against this background, during these several epochs of my life, great conceptual, political and social changes have taken place in the midst of terrible suffering. The Faith itself has undergone a succession of triumphs which are documented elsewhere. It would appear an even greater toll of grief and travail, unimaginably appalling, is in the offing in the remaining years of this epoch and the epoch to come which will take us to 2144, in all probability. But there is too, somewhere down the track, a vision of great glory and beauty for man and society--from a Baha'i perspective.

I think that I have some advantages over the film-maker who tries to reduce a life to 24 frames per second. Something happens on the way to the screen that does not happen on the way to the page. Despite the evocations of the past through powerful images, colourful characters and moving words, film so often does not fulfill the basic demands for truth and verifiability used by writers of history. Film compresses the past into a closed world by telling a single, linear story with essentially a single interpretation at least such is the general pattern in the first century of film history. I try to avoid this trap. I do not deny historical, autobiographical alternatives. I do not do away with complexities of motivation and causation. I do not banish subtlety. I explore it in all its paradoxes and nuances. But in a world where most people get most of their information about history from visual media, I am conscious that history and one of its sub-disciplines, autobiography, have become somewhat esoteric pursuits, that a large part of the population not only does not know much history but does not care that they don’t know. It would seem that it is becoming difficult for many writers about the past to tell stories that engage people. At the same time there is a plethora of books that tell wonderful stories. Film tells stories so very well. We are certainly not short on stories.

To render the fullness of the complex, multi-dimensional world in which we live we need to juxtapose images and sounds; we need quick cuts to new sequences, dissolves, fades, speed-ups, slow motion, the whole panoply and pageantry of film to even approximate daily life and daily experience. Only film can recover all the past’s liveliness. So goes one view. On the other hand, some critics of film say that film images carry a poor information load. They say that history is not primarily about descriptive narrative. It is about debate over what happened, why it happened and what significance it had. It’s about personal knowledge. What I try to do in this book is get six each way. In the absence of film’s captivating charm I try to do what film can’t do or certainly won’t be doing with my life while I am alive. This book contains much that is the stuff of film, a surface realism, the truth of direct observation, but I try to reach out to people through the inner life, through character, through psychology and what is private and not visible or catchable on camera. In the process I am confident I will catch or contact some and with others no contact will be made. tis is inevitable.

I do with my life what history tries to do with people’s lives. I write and in the process feel less peculiar and less isolated, less alienated, less lonely. The wrap-around feeling one gets at the movies, the swamping of the senses, the feeling of being there, I get in the writing of this autobiography. I also get elements of reflection, evaluation, argument, weighing of evidence, dealing with inaccuracies and simplifications. Whether the reader can get both is another question. The intellectual density of the written word can be conveyed in film and the senses can be stimulated as much by print as by the cinema. One can try to do both but to really pull it off is no mean feat.

My work possesses, for me, an escape from the world and its complex of incidents, demands, compulsions and solicitations of every kind and a degree of urgency. These external and never-ending minutiae of life, these incidents, "overtake the mind," as Paul Valery once wrote, "without offering it any inner illumination." Now and in this work the world blows through me like the wind, as it has blown through my life and my times. Writing this account is a world of wait and watch, ponder and ponder. Its chief reward is a stimulating affect on my mind. Sometimes there is exhaustion. But there is and has been a daily renewal which was something I did not get in my last years of teaching.

By the time I was nearly 55 and ready to retire from teaching I had begun to taste a "pervasive spiritual strangulation," a disappointment, a fatigue of the heart, a tedium vitae, an "existential exhaustion." This was my experience in the 1990s beginning in my late forties and early fifties. It was part of Shakespeare's experience as conveyed in his sonnets. What every human being does in their inmost thoughts and responses, the play of feeling on things seen and felt, this is what we find in his sonnets. This is what I try to portray, too, in this narrative. It was not all gloom and doom, though. There was, as well, as John Updike observed, a new fun in life, "an over-50 flavour." This will become evident to readers as they progress through this book. Perhaps all I had was what Jed Diamond called, in his two books on the subject, the male menopause, which he regarded as the major male change of life in his whole life. There clearly was an angst, but there also was an inner peace, a dichotomy, a contradiction in terms, perhaps consistent with my bi-polar disorder. In 1998 I began a series of testosterone injections, not for my libido but for a fatigue which was making me go to sleep every afternoon. By late 1999, and my early retirement these injections were discontinued. The fatigue and angst gradually dissipated as the new milennium opened.

What I write here is closer to history than most dramatic film or documentary television. Things have to be invented to make stories, the content of dramatic film, a smooth documentary hour, coherent, intense, fittable into a two hour time-slot. The most difficult thing for many to accept about film is that this most litteral of media is not at all literal. What we see on the screen is less a description than an invention of the past. But what is here in this autobiography deals with ‘just the facts, mam.’ It deals with them in a certain fashion to deal with coherence and incoherence, intensity and boredom, time’s regularities and irregularities. It deals with history in a way that is new in the history of literature. For literature until the last century or so has dealt with the upper classes, the well-to-do, and only since the coming of these two modern Revelations have ordinary, everyday, men and women, even begun to tell their stories or have them told by others.

The awful mysteries and the true nature of the institutions of this Faith I have come to believe in and give a context to in this narrative as well as the devotional side of my life's experience I have both concealed from the eyes of the multitudes of humankind. Indeed, it seemed necessary to exercise the utmost caution, even to affect a certain secrecy, in these early epochs of this Formative Age when the tenets of this Faith are, as yet, "improperly defined and imperfectly understood." It was a secrecy, a caution, that for me derived from the implications of the claim of Baha'u'llah, a claim which over time would involve both opposition and struggle, authority and victory. I often felt a little like a secret-agent man possessed of knowledge no one around me had. Sadly, it appeared that those around me, for the most part, did not want that knowledge. So it was that I possessed only some of the equation, the analogy, the picture of the secret-agent man. I often felt the romance and the excitement of the role, however subdued it was by reality.

I am more than a little conscious that I am, like Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College, "swallowed up in a corporate body" which will outlast me. I possess, then, a kind of derivative immortality. My own life is only an element in that body's more permanent life. My work, like that of all my fellow Baha'is, will be carried on by my successors, the generations yet to come. Our story and the story of our successors will be found in many places. This is only one small part of that story. For humanity will again become united around a transcending moral issue and this narrative is a speck in the long road that is that story. At the moment the transcending pathfinders among us can not be spotted; society does not appear ready to risk the acquisition a new path, a new, a common metanarrative. But these pathfinders will not be going away; they will be waiting to help a confused society find its way back to a clarity of purpose. Of course that society and the individuals which compose it, must want what the Baha’is have to offer. I often feel the way a criminal I once watched on his release from years in confinement. He said at the time that he felt like he was being treated as if he had been lagging in suspended animation all those years he had been in prison. His old inmate friends, he said, had similar experiences. They had all been treated as though they had just returned from a brief trip to the toilet or out of town for a few hours. Even though they had been in the nick for a decade, they were greeted casually and their friends had then gone about their business as if nothing had happened in the interim.

I feel as if I am in possession of a wondrous jewel but it remains undiscovered, unknown and, for the most part, unwanted. This autobiography is part of the longstanding effort of the Baha’i community to take this jewel and, by some mysterious process, breathe a new life in this "spiritual springtime" and "array those trees which are the lives of men with the fresh leaves, the blossoms and fruits of consecrated joy." At least the words I put on paper are not in suspended animation, however much I am and have been during these epochs.

In my dress, my food, my homes, my furnishings, my gardens, my transport, my employments and enjoyments, I was clearly one of those favourites of fortune among the global billions who united every refinement of convenience and of comfort, if not elegance and splendour. So many of these emoluments soothed my pride or gratified my sensuality, insensibly acquired, largely unappreciative of their comforts due to familiarity and their continuous presence like the very air I breathed. One could not give the name of luxury to these refinements of mine. Nor could I be severely arraigned by the moralists of the age for possessing these basics. But I often thought that it would be more conducive to the virtue, as well as happiness of mankind, if all possessed the necessities and none of the superfluities of life. And one day, it was my view, that would be the case.

Many autobiographies purport to deal with one thing while, in reality, dealing with something else. Hillary Clinton's recent autobiography was intended to be about the many controversies and scandals in Bill Clinton's campaigns and presidency, presumably to get these issues behind her before she contemplated running for the White House herself. Yet her book skates over the problems the Clinton administration faced in its rocky debut and in the impeachment crisis and skims over details of matters like Whitewater and "travelgate." It expends a startling amount of space on Mrs. Clinton's trips abroad, on her personal appearance and on what is simply trivia. This is where her frankness is found; for example, her frank dislike of golf.

I hope this book of mine avoids this unfortunate trap of the populist autobiographer. I hope I achieve what I set out to do. There is certainly little frankness in this work about the trivia in life. Perhaps it would be better if there had been. Hilary Hammell, in her review of Hilary Clinton's book in the Yale Review of Books, concludes that Mrs. Clinton may just have convinced 600,000 people to vote for her in 2008. It may have been that she did not waste her words on trivia. And it may be that this work of mine should have taken a leaf out of Mrs. Clinton’s work and included much more of this everyday bone and chouder.

Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times about a book by one Scott Berg, says that Katherine Hepburn was decidedly unaccustomed to the art of introspection. Revelations in Scott Berg's biography of Hepburn, published two weeks after her death, are few and scattered. "Hepburn, I learned," Mr. Berg writes, "always lived in the moment; and once an event had been completed, she was on to the next. There was no looking back." This work, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, is strongly, decidedly introspective. It is just about entirely a book that looks back, but with one eye firmly fixed on the future. My role as witness to, as a contemporary of, the developments in the Baha'i community in the half-century 1953-2003 is a major feature of this narrative. It is a witness that has an eye on the future, that feels like it has the very future in its bones.

VOLUME 1: CHAPTER TWO

"Breaking New Ground"

When people collectively explore, in various ways, the real commitments that define their lives as human beings, they can create a vision of self-actualization in their social environment, a new way of expressing what their world is, who they are and what they ought to be. And when that vision is already defined in specific terms so that their analysis and discussion is about the elaboration of that vision, the results can be staggering. It is like a second coming into being of the self. -Ron Price with thanks to James Herrick, "Empowerment Practice and Social Change: The Place for New Social Movement Theory," 1995, Internet, 12 January 2003.

_____________________________________________________________________

The Baha'i experience has generated a massive quantity of print in the first two centuries of its experience, if we go back as far as the arrival of Shaykh Ahmad in Najaf and Karbila in about 1793 and his becoming a mujtahid in the following years as the beginning point for that history. This generation, the generation that came of age in the 1960s, has seen a burgeoning quantity of print become available, more than any generation in history. The Writings of the Central Figures of this Faith and its two chief precursors produced a mountain of print. What is now a monumental quantity of official documents, primary source materials like letters and reports from both within and without the Baha’i community and its efflorescing institutions around the world, and detailed analyses in book form and on the internet is bringing to the generations born after WW2 more print than they can deal with and absorb. -Ron Price, "A Contemporary Baha'i Autobiography to the Beginnings of Baha'i History: 1993-1793," Pioneering Over Four Epochs, Internet Document.

_____________________________________________________________________

But there have been many aspects of the Baha'i experience, its history, the individual stories of what are now millions of adherents, which have been resistant to literary and historical representation whether as narrative, novel, play, poem, letter, diary, biography or autobiography, among the many genres in which humans convey their experience. Moojan Momen points out that "Baha'is have been lamentably neglectful in gathering materials for the history of their religion."1 But as the new millennium approached this has begun to change.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Moojan Momen, The Babi and Baha'i Religions 1844-1944, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981, p.xvii.

_____________________________________________________________________

In volume two of Toynbee’s A Study of History, he discusses the concept or doctrine that "the ordeal of breaking new ground has an intrinsic stimulating effect," and "the stimulating effect of breaking new ground is greatest of all when the new ground can only be reached by crossing the sea." Toynbee cites many examples and focuses especially on the Etruscans who "stayed at home and never did anything worth re- cording""and the "astonishing contrast between the nonentity of the Etruscans at home and their eminence overseas." This eminence, he argues, was due to the "stimulus which they must have received in the process of transmarine colonization."

My pioneering experience took me across the sea, first in 1967 across the Davis and Hudson Straits, extensions of the North Atlantic Ocean; second in 1971 across the Pacific Ocean and third, in 1974, 1978 and 1999 across the Bass Strait, an extension of the Great Southern Ocean, to live on Baffin Island, the continental island of Australia and Tasmania, respectively. These pioneer moves could have had the soporific effect that the migration of the Philistines had on them about the same time as the Israelites were transforming themselves from nomadic stock-breeders into sedentary tillers on stony, barren and landlocked highlands and pasture-lands east of Jordan and south of Hebron.

But I found these moves, like the Volkerwanderungs, that is the wanderings, of the past, those of the Ionians, the Angles, the Scots and the Scandinavians, possessed an intrinsic stimulus. For these moves were part of a modern Volkerwanderung, a national and international pioneering exodus. My own role in this story was as a part of that national exodus, the opening chapters of the push of the Baha’i Faith to "the Northernmost Territories of the Western Hemisphere" and Canada’s "glorious mission overseas." And to put this venture in its largest, its longest perspective and time frame: my work is at the outset of the second 'period' of a 'cycle' of hundreds of thousands of years, in a second 'age', over four 'epochs'; or to use yet another paradigm, my life is at the beginning of the federated state, after successive units of political and social organization on the planet: tribe, chiefdom, clan, city state and nation after homo sapiens sapiens emerged some 35,000 years ago from a homo sapiens line beginning 3mya.(ca)

If such are the most general perspectives on time in relation to where I am in history, the spiritual axis, mentioned by Shoghi Effendi in his 1957 letter, and a series of concentric circles define the spacial parameters of my life, in several interlocked and not unimportant ways. The southern pole of this axis is "endowed with exceptional spiritual potency." Many years of my life have been lived at several points along the southern extremity of this pole: in Perth, in Gawler and Whyalla, in Ballarat and Melbourne and in several towns of Tasmania. All of these points lie at the outer perimeter of the ninth concentric circle whose centre is the "Bab's holy dust."

Posted by Ron Price 2006-09-27 09:35:43


Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Autobiography: Instalment #1

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A. EMPLOYMENT POSITIONS HELD

2006-1999-Writer/Poet: George Town Tasmania

2005-2002-Program Presenter, City Park Radio, Launceston
2004-1999-Tutor and/or President: George Town School for Seniors Inc
1999-1988 -Lecturer in General Studies and Human Services

West Australian Department of Training
1987-1986 -Acting Lecturer in Management Studies and Co-ordinator of
Further Education Unit at Hedland College in South Hedland, WA.
1985-1982 -Adult Educator, Open College of Tafe, Katherine, NT
1981 -Maintenance Scheduler, Renison Bell, Zeehan, Tasmania

1980-Unemployed: Bi-Polar Disability
1979 -Editor, External Studies Unit, Tasmanian CAE

Youth worker, Resource Centre Association, Launceston
Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour, Tasmanian CAE
Radio Journalist ABC, Launceston
1978-1976 -Lecturer in Social Sciences & Humanities, Ballarat CAE, Ballarat
1975 - Lecturer in Behavioural Studies, Whitehorse Technical College,
Box Hill, Victoria
1974 -Senior Tutor in Education Studies, Tasmanian CAE, Launceston
1973-1972 -High School Teacher, South Australian Education Department
1971 Primary School Teacher, Whyalla SA Australia

1971-1969 Primary School Teacher Prince Edward County

Board of Education, Picton, Ontario, Canada

1969 Systems Analyst Bad Boy Co. Ltd. Toronto Ontario
1968-67 -Community Teacher, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development, Frobisher Bay, NWT, Canada
1967-59 -Summer jobs from grade 10 to end of university
1967-1949 - Attended 2 primary schools, 2 high schools and 2 universities in
Canada: McMaster Uni:1963-1966, Windsor T’s College: 1966/7.
1963-1944 -Childhood(1944-57) and adolescence(1957-63) in and around
Hamilton Ontario.


B: SOME SOCIO-BIO-DATA

I have been married for 37 years. My wife is a Tasmanian, aged 59. We’ve had 3 children: ages in 2005-40, 35 and 28. I am 62, a Canadian who moved to Australia in 1971 and have written 3 books--all available on the internet. I retired from most of my volunteer activity in 2005, from my part-time teaching in 2004 and from my full-time teaching in 1999 after more than 30 years in classrooms. I have been associated with the Baha’i Faith for 53 years. Bio-data: 6ft, 225 lbs, eyes/hair-brown, Caucasian. See my website for more details at: http://bahaipioneering.bahaisite.com/ and go to any search engine and type: ‘Pioneering Over Four Epochs’ or ‘RonPrice Poetry’(etc) for additional writings.
_______________________________________

Posted by Ron Price 2006-06-27 07:58:58




 

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