This is an 800 page autobiography. It is really more of a study in and of autobiography. It links quotations, some 1600, from the social sciences and the humanities, with my life, my society and my religion--the Baha'i Faith.
Pioneering Over Four Epochs
"Not beginning at the Beginning...."
My individual journey from the promised land, from my home in Canada, my home town in Burlington Ontario, from one promised land to another and then another I have written in the form of a 800 page autobiography. It took me twenty years to write this piece and in the pages which follow I have included some of chapter one, the introduction. I hope readers find some pleasure here and there:
Dispositions are plausible responses1 to the circumstances individual Baha'is found themselves in and they led, in toto and inter alia, to the gradual emergence from obscurity of their religion over these four epochs. The story here is partly of this emergence and partly it is myself telling my own life-story, as Nietzsche writes in his life story, in his famous autobiographical pages of Ecce Homo.2 For I have gone on writing for years, perhaps as much as two decades now, in relative obscurity doing what I think is right. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Joseph Kling, "Narratives of Possibility: Social Movements, Collective Stories and Dilemmas of Practice," 1995, Internet; and F. Nietzsche in Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, Adriana Cavarero, Routledge, NY, 2000, p.85.
I am intentionally not going to begin at the beginning. Most autobiographies that I have examined thus far seem to be sequential exercises beginning with the author's first memories and proceeding logically until the last syllable of their recorded time, their allotment on earth, at least up to the time of the writing of their said autobiography. This is not my intention here. Anyway, when does one really begin a journey, a friendship, a love affair? Beginnings are fascinating, misunderstood, enigmatic. I’ve written many poems about various beginnings and the more I write the more elusive they become. But there comes a moment, a point, when we realize that we are already well on the way; we know the journey has definitely started. And as we travel along we mark historical moments which we weave into our narrative. They often change, our view of them that is, as we grow older: these rites de passage, these coming of age moments, these transition periods, these passages, these crises, calamities and victories. Unlike the Roman historians of the republican days who wrote their histories annalistically, that is year by year in sequence, this work is much more varied and informal with a slight tendency to write by plans and epochs.
I frankly do not know how I am going to approach this story, though I have no trouble finding such historical moments and there is always in the background to my life ever-present plans, new beginnings, fresh initiatives, systematic advances, "leaps and thrusts," triumphs and losses, vistas of new horizons and dark clouds. Thinking seriously about autobiography or, indeed, any intellectual discipline, requires us to acknowledge our ignorance of the subject. This is a prerequisite. Our past, any past, is another country, a place that exists in our imaginations and in those uncertain and often unreliable echoes of our lives that we trace in words, in places and in things. There is, then, an inscrutability which paradoxically lies at the heart of this work. I return again and again, taking the reader with me, to absences, spaces in my knowledge, my memory, my construction. I recognize that the act of making this my life, into a whole, from the pieces I have left from my past is necessarily a creative one, an act of imagination, what one writer calls "the dialectic between discovery and invention." In the process I transform my history and the history of my times, from something static into something lived. I am not imprisoned in some imagined objectivity; rather, I reenter the moment, the hour, the days and the years and imagine it as something experienced from multiple perspectives, simultaneously acknowledging its erasures and silences. This book compels me to think again about my life and readers to think about theirs.
I don’t see my life or make any claim to my life being necessarily representative of that of an ideal Baha’i or a Baha’i pioneer. This is not an exemplum. Claims to representativeness, it seems to me, are at best partial. I find there is something basically unstable or slippery about experience or, to put it in even stronger terms, in the words of Baha’u’llah, there is something about experience that bears only “the mere semblance of reality.” There is something about it that is elusive, even vain and empty, like “a vapour in the desert.” There are so many exegetical and interpretive problems that accompany efforts to tie down the meaning of a life, of an experience, of a relationship. There is something divided, duplicitous, something that has happened but has yet to be defined and described or, as is usually the case, never described, at least not in writing, depending of course on the experience of the person and their literary skills. There are innumerable and indispensable points of reference in a life and yet so many of them take on the feeling of a mirage, as if they are not really there, like a dream, particularly as the years lengthen into later adulthood and old age. Meaning is not something one can wrap up and walk away with. Often the mind's sensitivity to meaning is actually impaired by fixed notions or perspectives. It seems that often we must see things for ourselves, again and again, sometimes in community with its endless heterogeneity, sometimes in our solitude. For community is not always pastoral dream of innocence and togetherness and solitude is not always enriching.
At the same time, I agree with what is called the essentialist view of group identity in community; namely, that there is a common identity for the members of a social group. This view emphasizes commonness of identity and the possession of a certain stability that is more or less unchanging since it is based on the experiences the members share. But I can only go so far in this essentialist tradition. I am also inclined to see group identities as fabricated, constructed, misleading, ignoring internal differences and tending not to recognize the unreliability of experience. Of course individuals can fabricate much of their own history. Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, for example, were notorious fabricators of their story. And to chose one final example, the man who was Mark Twain, Samuel Leghorne Clemens, lived behind a "layering of invented selves," and performing, of course, was simply another way of inventing or disguising himself. Or so Andrew Hoffman describes Twain.
I take the view too that, however much I work out my life in solitude, my experience is what some sociologists call ‘socially constructed.' This social and emotional self is mediated by the environment in which it lives and works. In this context the self is not exalted to the centre of the universe. The nature of one's inner thoughts and feelings are not purely personal or individual. The community in which we interact, the system of thoughts that serve as our beliefs, is a crucial determinant of who we are. Our fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity. This mental activity usually begins in the outside world and is imposed, at least to some extent, on the mind.
Canadians, for example, approach the survival of ordeals, not as the theoretical American would by finding and revealing a reservoir of inner strength and wisdom in some heroic fashion, but by banding together, by becoming a “company”--literally, as Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman suggests by using the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device, to create community. Literary critic Northrop Frye suggests that Canadians possess a garrison mentality with an image of a fort in the wilderness as a symbol of their psychic centre or domain. Margaret Atwood, Canada's major writer as the millennium turned, sees the Canadian character as one with a gloomy-through-catastrophic strain. This interpretation of the character is reflected in Canada's literature and especially in the writing of Margaret Atwood.
Atwood also sees the Canadian character as one that is incurably paranoid. There are various strategies suggested by artists, writers and critics to cope with this paranoia. Art, religion, relationships, a strong sense of fate or destiny, an avoidance of the heroic and a taking refuge in the ordinary, in a reticence, in trepidation, in the soft escape and boxing experience into frames, into limits. These are some of the coping mechanisms seen by these analysts. If one understands Canadian history, one can understand the sense of the overwhelming, the impenetrable, the claustrophobic, the sense of a world which denies entry to the human. It is these attitudes to self and life that are evinced by Canadians and Australian artists towards their existential condition. But perhaps the central attitude is a radical, deep-seated ambivalence. Both Canadians and Australians are ambivalent about the heroic, the posture taken by the American. I mention the Canadian and the Australian because it is in these two countries where I have spent all my life.
Pioneers in Canada for several hundred years were swallowed up by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the great Canadian wilderness, the frozen Arctic tracts and the USA. In Australia there was a similar swallowing up process by means of: the hot desert centre, the vast interior spaces, the surrounding oceans and seas. The most significant other in both these countries, countries where my life has been, in a certain sense, swallowed up, is the landscape. Visual representations, not language, seem to be the most common window into the consciousness of these two national groups. All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There are so many parallels I can make in relation to both countries.
People in both countries tend to congregate in a very few, relatively sizable centres. Boundaries and frontiers in the USA serve as limitations to be transcended or denied. In Canada and Australia they are seen as dangerous places to be negotiated. The relationship between these general psycho-geographical characteristics and my pioneering life will be elaborated on, unfolded, in the nearly 800 pages which follow.
I intend to take a line, an approach, from the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, who said, in an interview with Gary Kamiya, that when he writes he has no sense of what is going to happen next. Plot, story and theme unfold. I also want to do what that popular English writer Kingsley Amis said he wanted to do when he wrote: give shape to the randomness of life, to make sense of things, to create and resolve some of life's enigmas, to give meaning to the endless repetition in life, to the things we experience again and again, a thousand and a thousand thousand times or in merely unusual combinations of what is around us. Personal habit is an expression of this repetition, laws of nature predict it, genes direct it, the edicts of organization and state encourage it and universals, as William Gass puts it so nicely, "sum it up." The exercise is somewhat like the work of Michelangelo with marble. Always there is an unfinished struggle to emerge 'whole' from life's block of matter.
This autobiography is based, then, on what is often called the narrative construction of reality. There is in life, in adulthood, a rich domain for development and learning, a domain which recognizes the utility of narrative. This work, this story of a life, is an experiment with autobiographical form. It seems to me that in this work I forge a unique non-fiction work which is many things at once: memoir, prose poetry, perhaps even song or rhapsody. I don't know, but I hope it both sings and informs. One of my aims in writing this extended piece of narrative and analysis is to find the most effective way to give this narrative theoretical and practical interest for readers. Autobiographies are not, it seems to me, inherently problematic, but they become so when tension results, as Graham Hassall notes, "from differences between a writer's intentions and readers' expectations." Over a twenty year period now I have written four editions of this work. Each edition explores the field of human development and the uses of narrative.
I sew readers into the seam between two lives: on two continents, in two marriages, in two cosmological worlds, in two stages of development. They are lives which are tangled and in tension rather than in some form of tightrope-walking or some razor-thin-sharp dichotomy. Some of my life is untidy; some of my life results in dead ends; some follows paths to unimaginable or imaginable new worlds. Some of what I write captures, conveys, a clearly discernible script, some of which may have been predestined, the script of fate. The narrative is, inevitably, incomplete, a half-life. There is much that has yet to be written, like a half-finished portrait. It holds a promise and a potential which is always a mystery, at best only partly known.
Hopefully this exercise will prompt readers to study autobiography and see how it contributes toward the realization of a multi-disciplinary form of learning. It may be, though, that readers will see, as Adriana Cavarero writes, that "to tell one's story is to distance oneself from oneself, to make of oneself someone other." Some readers may also find the process of writing autobiography pretentious or a somewhat artificial, a little unreal, externalization of inner and intimate, essentially private, reflection. They may see biography as the appropriate, natural, act but not autobiography. Seeing that denial, avoidance and selectivity are inevitable in autobiography, readers often approach autobiography with a skeptical eye and mind. Anticipating hagiography, the disembodiment of the authentic person, readers feel deceit at every turn or only the partial uncovering of truth.
While I must confess to harbouring elevated notions that I am conveying, at least for the most part, the truth of my life, it seems to me that I am bringing me into the world, calling it to my attention, as much as I am bringing the world to me. Impressed by the depth and complexity of the writing of some authors and the superficiality of others, I increasingly took pleasure in exploring the richness of life and the mysteries of human character. Perhaps I had an overactive hypothalmus or limbic system. I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps it was pure desire, an intensity that led to this work. In the end, the activity is its own reward.
An autobiography is not the story of a life. More accurately, it is the recreation, the discovery, of a life, in this case the life of a pioneer, a pioneer who brought a better order of society, an inner life, something private, something that moved him confidently “in the direction of his dreams.” It was a type of pioneer that had a noble lineage in both Baha’i society and in the secular society he was a part of. What this pioneer does, here, is arrange and rearrange things from this blooming and buzzing confusion called life to give point and meaning, direction, flow, ambience, simplicity and a certain coherence to complexity.
He doesn't have to create these things ex nihilo and he doesn't create for the pure pleasure he gets in creating, in telling the story, although the pleasure he gets in writing takes him, with the poet Paul Valery, a long way. Reading this autobiographical work is somewhat like the experience many people have when listening to a jazz performance. Whatever the musicians are playing, you hear the melody and then it goes away or seems to. The musicians play the overall work against the background of the melody or around the melody or they take the melody off into another zone. Then the melody comes back; listeners recognize it yet again amidst a world of other sounds. This, it seems to me, is one way to see this long--and for me at least--stimulating work. A central narrative thrust is reflected and recreated with ideas and emotional content that take readers away again and again. Like the aural idiosyncrasies of jazz and its spaces and places, my narrative has its own idiosyncratic dimension and I provide the spaces and places for readers to participate. There is a type of intimacy created, but not everyone appreciates that intimacy; not everyone likes jazz and not everyone will like my work.
Most jazz music is created in bands: trios, quartets, quintets, etc. This narrative work establishes some of this sense of a band or group by the frequent references there are in the text. As I write these words I see that there are about two references per page, sixteen hundred in an 800 page text. The vehicle for this work is thus enhanced, enriched, by the solo work of others, rhythm sections that draw on several writers, thinkers and philosophers, etc. as accompaniment. They add complexity, tension, different pulses, staggered patterns, superimpositions, repetitions on a theme, similar statements with an ever changing expression.