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Thread: Instalment #3: Autobiography

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    Mr Ron Price RonPrice's Avatar
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    Feb 2005
    George Town Tasmania Australia

    Instalment #3: Autobiography

    Apologies, folks, for writing this far-too-long post. Just skim or scan it. When your eyes start to glaze over just stop reading.-Ron Price, Tasmania
    Part 1:

    It seems to me that, as W.H. Auden once wrote, the pleasure of readers and any ensuing literary success gives but small satisfaction, a momentary pleasure or a series of moments, to an author and his vanity or his idealism. What is worth winning, Auden went on, was to be of use to future generations in the inner sanctum of their thoughts, to be a hallowed mentor. Although the society I describe here and my role in it will, in time, be gone forever, something may indeed be left from accounts like the one I provide. I like the emphasis Auden puts on the issues but, of course, it is unlikely that I will ever know if I have been successful in the sense he describes, certainly while I am alive. And not having tasted literary success significantly, publicly, in this life thusfar, I do not know what the level of satisfaction is that might accrue to my ego, my vanity and my idealism should public success come my way.

    I like to think, indeed I believe, that it is possible to reach the whirling mind of the modern reader, to cut through the noise and reach that quiet zone. The fact that the great majority of humankind will never read this book does not concern me. If I can find a few in that quiet zone that will be a bonus. For my real reward has been the pleasure I have found in writing this book in the first place. I don't find any pleasure in gardening, in cooking, in fishing, indeed, in a long list of things. Each person must find their own pleasures in life. Sometimes pleasures can be shared and sometimes they can't. We all contribute, it must also be added, each in their own small way, to the big picture that is history. This book is part of my contribution. For my part, I fully admit to the vice of many a writer and autobiographer to pick the things I find most interesting and challenging.

    I think, like the biographer of ancient history, Plutarch, I am enaged in writing lives--or a life--more than I am history. Sadly, too, like Plutarch, I am only too conscious that "the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of vurtue or vice in men." Often a matter of much less significance, an expression or a jest will tell more of a person’s character and inclinations than one’s great achievements, the major events or the principle failures in life. And so it is that in this autobiographical work I give my particular attention to the friction of anecdote, the arresting detail, the turn of phrase, the inner life and private character, to elicit a certain moral bearing, to bring a life and a time into a moral theatre and recapitulate some of the events for the edification of others. Like Plutarch, I do not eagerly or gratuitously display my defects or whatever misdeeds of wickedness I displayed in my life. In this regard I show restraint in both the display of virtuous character, which others may not want to emulate or imitate, and the display of what is not so virtuous.

    Part 2:

    For many the threat of death multiplies stories of life; for others it is the simple opportunity to tell an interesting story and tell it well, with or without a moral. For still others it is love for some other: friend, loved one, community. This is a difficult question for me to answer: why do I write this story? There are probably many answers I could give but the one that comes most readily to mind is: to play my part in contributing to an ever-advancing civilization. This sounds somewhat pretentious but, however over-the-top it sounds, it honestly expresses the big-picture, the motivational matrix of my narrative, my metanarrative. I've liked this somewhat elusive phrase since I first came upon it in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I sense in what I write a destiny that proceeds through the events and occurrences of my days. It is a unique destiny; it is partly unmasterable; it is unrepeatable; it is the course my life traces. Some have called this destiny, their daimon. There is clearly in all our lives something we cannot refuse. Perhaps it is the price we pay for our life. Of course, my story, like that of all authors is "conjugated within a geography of social relationships" and it possesses a fragile reality. This fragility is implicit in the words of historian Henri Lefebvre’s characterization of "The Home as nothing more than a historico-poetical reality." Space, landscape, where we live our lives, Lefebvre emphasizes, is a product of "the perceived, the conceived, and the experienced." That it is best expressed in historico-poetic terms is, in fact, one of the underpinnings of this work. The myriad spaces and places where I have lived and had my being, heterogeneous relational spaces, have played an important role in producing the self that I am inasmuch as I have experienced them so differently.

    For the places and their spaces I have lived and worked in have been both haven and cage, source of solace and anxiety, peace and psychological warfare, my bedrock, my identity, ambiguity and anguish. I try in this book not to get too caught up in the many microcosms of my life, their interstices and accompanying relationships. Such analyses are a dime-a-dozen and can be read in many other places. I try to follow the advice of ‘Abdu’-Baha here: "laugh at our coursings through east and west...Let us not keep on forever.....with our analysing and interpreting and circulating of complex dubieties.....let us not make known of our sufferings nor complain of our wrongs." In each location there is a more porous, floating exchange between the self that I was and am and the self that I became. The two bodies overlap and merge in some ways and they separate in others.

    I can interpret my life and try to explain it; I can search out its unity in the events of my life or the hidden substance, the soul, that dwells with this body in some mysterious, indefineable way. I can look inside it and excavate its appearances, discover its interiority and, in the process, hopefully bring my readers closer so that they see me as more like them, more of a friend. But no matter how I examine it in all its complexity and simplicity, I only partly control it, plan it, decide it and make it. There is much that is simply uncontrollable, that has no author, that is solely in the hands of God or what might be called those mysterious dispensations of Providence. As Producer and Director Who defines the mise-en-scene, Who sets the stage and the choreography, He provides the context in which many lives intersect and mine is but one.

    My life does not result from a story, although some students in this field believe that it does. This story results from my life. Unscripted, flawed and plausible, this life can not be lived like a novel or a movie. There is no "choiceless invulnerability" in our lives as there is in the edited and celluloid safety of lives on film in what Roger White calls that choiceless tedium of their impeccable heroes. But still there is, for the Baha'i, some plan, some form, some idea, some centre, to focus the dazzling and frenetic blooming and buzzing confusion of existence. There is a panorama, a megavision, which for the Baha'i adds an incomparable power of intellection. It provides a bird’s-eye view which Baha'is can assume in an instant, in a lifetime, for their own. It gives them the world to read and not just to perceive.

    Part 3:

    As Emerson once observed, even for the hero, for those animated by a passion and a plan, life has its boredom, its tedium, its banalities. Even with all the plans and programs, there are barricades in the way of the Baha’i who is also an autobiographer, barricades that prevent his understanding. His passionate convictions and the historical experience that forms these convictions, are, as Eric Hobsbawm puts it, part of these very barricades. The road to understanding is not always smooth and untroubled.

    In my copy of God Passes By, the 1957 edition which I purchased in the first year of my pioneering experience, 1962, I have written many quotations from Gibbon and commentaries on Gibbon. I wrote the quotations on the blank pages at the beginning and the end of the hard-cover volume I own. There is one quotation, I think it is from J.W. Swain, which goes: "history is an endless succession of engagements with a past in which the dramatis personae were never able to fathom, control and command events." This could equally be said of autobiography. Roy Porter also writes that "diligence and accuracy are the only merits of an historian of importance." While these qualities are certainly of benefit to the autobiographer, the ability to write well and in an interesting way is paramount or no one will ever read his work. Gibbon became important to me because of his importance to the Guardian and his importance to an appreciation of the great beauty and complexity, subtlety and power, of English.

    There are other quotations which I have written on the blank pages of this great book by Shoghi Effendi, quotations which apply as much to this narrative as to Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gibbon's work, writes Keith Windshuttle, is a demonstration that much of history is driven by the influence of unintended consequences, chance and a human passion which "usually presides over human reason." My own work, while finding no conflict with Gibbon's words, demonstrates in addition, I like to think, a Baha'i philosophy of history "which has as its cornerstone a belief in progress through providential control of the historical process." But neither is man "a thrall to an impersonal historical process." He must deal with the forces of fate, perhaps battle with his fate, as Nietzsche once put it, with his socialization and the free will with which he has been endowed. Perhaps, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he will come to have a great influence on his age. Perhaps, like Solzhenitsyn or, perhaps, like Xavier Herbert, he could write for sixteen hours a day to tell his story.

    Part 4:

    He must battle, too, with a prophetic view of the modern age which can only be "proved" in part and which can be so variously interpreted that agreement is difficult and often impossible to forge among the children of men. The story of personal development, like that of artistic change, is not one of progress, like the development of tools, alphabets, or air conditioners; rather, this development embodies the unique expressions of individual souls situated in their own ages, responding to and emerging from the mesh of experiences and cultural habits unique to them. That unique emotional expression, which consistutes the expressive genius of the individual, speaking out from his own place in the world and in history, is what constitutes art--not a checklist of mimetic requirements--and is at the heart of the story of my personal experience.

    With David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, and with Edward Gibbon, I have come to regard my life and, indeed, all of history, "as a drama of human passion." For human passion is many things, some associated with sexual love and others with strong emotion and belief. The former perpetuates the species, is a source of immense pleasure and, for me, for most of us, many problematics; the latter is the motivational matrix behind so much of action. Passions are timeless and the circumstances in which they occur are never the same. Beliefs, on the other hand, especially a belief, a commitment, to a new religion, are seen by most, most of those who were part of my life in some way, as a strange exoticism, at best a movement that impressed them and at worst one that was simply not for them. I have often been an outsider, but one learns as far as possible to make both yourself and others feel at home. My task became to win friends and influence people, to get on some inside, so to speak.

    Part 5:

    There have been two ruling passions in my life: the Baha'i Faith and learning and the cultural achievements of the mind. I find Abraham Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs, which he elaborated during the Ten Year Crusade, goes a long way, at least for me, toward integrating into a helpful perspective my various human needs and passions, desires and wants, which we all have in varying degrees. I won't outline this theory here because any reader can learn about Maslow's theory with a little effort. The erotic, for example, which has been a strong need/passion in my life and requires a separate story all its own to go into the detail this need warrants, fits nicely into Maslow's first level of needs: what he calls physiological needs. I have a health problem, relating to the physiological needs of my neurological system. The several manifestations of manic-depression relate to the failure to satisfy this need. Maslow's theory is, I find, explanatory, and I leave it to readers to relate Maslow, his theory and his ideas to their own lives: their needs and passions, wants and desires. I could go into an elaborate explanation of my own experience drawing on Maslow. But that is not my purpose here. There are, in addition, other theorists of personality and of human development who are helpful for autobiographers and I mention them from time to time in the course of this text. With more than eight hundred pages left to read, only readers who perist with this narrative will be exposed to the various theorists I draw upon to give text and texture to this my life.

    As self-representation, autobiography is perhaps uniquely suited to validate, to explain and analyse, the experience I have had with my bi-polar disability and to counter stereotypical representations which I find arise, in some ways quite naturally, in the course of my life. But this work is not so much an attempt to justify myself before the court of life, so to speak. If this work is ever read to any significant extent, I will be gone to the land of those who speak no more and self-defence will hardly matter then, at least not to me. This work is, rather, a representing of myself to myself and in doing this, others may find that the content and process I go through is useful for them as they go through the process of self-understanding.

    Part 6:

    Power, inner strength, identity, is in some ways re-achieved in this narrative of myself after it had been sucked out of me by the demands of life by the time I came to write it in my late fifties. Self-narrative, say some students of autobiography, is a tool used to gain self-determinacy. In this "illness narrative" which Pioneering Over Four Epochs is to some extent, there is an act, a story, of becoming and re-becoming. Through self-narration I re-make myself, re-fashion and re-invent a new understanding of myself. With my story, I try to resist the disabling definition of mental illness or manic-depression. I try to write, reexpress, these pejorative terms into a rhetorical normalcy which I hope will play a small part in society achieving a real understanding and acceptance of this illness in everyday social life. Narrative is used as a tool, a technology, that is intended to be a vehicle to freedom, self-definition, and self-expression. My character has been reshaped by the integration of modern medical technology(medications) with my body. Without these medications, this narrative would assume quite a different trajectory. Living my daily life, again and again, I establish, I create, through the simple act of repetition the medium of my becoming. The story is long--and some of it is here.

    I build a narrative out of individual agency, the agency of my own actions, the surprises, the events, "the shadows on the high road of an inevitable destiny," and my own sometimes peaceful and secure world, but like Edward Gibbon, "the sheer accumulation and repetition of events" and the unprecedented tempest of my times, in the end, leaves the reader, I am inclined to believe, with patterns and processes, ideas and ideals, philosophy and analysis and a much bigger picture than an isolated, an individual life. And I, along the way, experience an element of surprise. I don't look for it or even anticipate it. It seems to come along like a bonus, the way flowers grow in a garden and one enthuses over them with friends. But the book, this book, as Proust argued, is "the product of a very different self" than the one I manifest in my daily habits, in my social life, in my vices and virtues. The self that writes is a mysterious entity that no amount of documentation can take the reader into. In the end this autobiography must remain incomplete, not because it does not tell all the facts--which is impossible anyway-- but because it deals with a mystery, a human being.

    Those things we call interviews, conversations recorded for the public and found in the print and electronic media by the multitude, while not entirely superficial and valuable in their own right for information and entertainment, for the quirks and friendships laid out for us, do not deal with the innermost self which can only be recovered or uncovered by putting aside the world and the social self that inhabits that world. "The secretions of one's innermost self," says Naipaul quoting Proust, "written in solitude and for oneself alone" are the result of trusting to intuition and a process of waiting. In time, with the advance of years, I will come to understand what I have written, although even then not fully.

    Part 7:

    If the autobiographer is sensitive to the processes of minute causality, he will slowly and inevitably come to see that behind each fact there is a "swarming mass of causes on which he could turn the historical microscope." The fragmentary, ambiguous and opaque material of our days makes it difficult to wield the pen with any kind of authority over our lives. What started off with a sense of my authorial imperium, as was the case at the start of writing this autobiography in the early 1980s, is often the case with writers and was also the case with Edward Gibbon. Such a feeling of literary authority often results, though, over the long stretch of writing in an increasing vulnerability. Egotism, energy and a will to power are all required to sustain a long piece of writing like this. Such qualities are not all a writer needs to create a literary presence, but they are essential. I would use the word power but not authority. As Richard Sennett wrote in his brilliant analysis of authority: "authority is an act of the imagination, it is a search for solidity and security in the strength of others." Although this work is certainly an example of the former, it does not possess any of the capacity to bind, to bond, people together. Power is quite an ambiguous word as used in the social science literature. It’s use is so ambiguous I am happy to coopt it, to use it in association with my writing, as I proselytize for my vision using my life as a vehicle.

    There is some degree of frustration in trying to put words behind the elusive complexities of life and the multitude of unfocused and divergent aspects of one's days. Giving life a unity of form, a unity of literary expression, can beat the best of them. One toils with a performance that struggles endlessly with ideal. I may generate a powerful impression of sequence and it certainly does exist behind the pages of this narrative. But readers may also find that there is just too much to be contained by their intellect in a narrative that contains such frequently competing claims of evidence and experience and such a variety of standpoints. My imagination is always active to enlarge the narrow circle in which nature and circumstance confine it. And enlarge it I do, perhaps by "the revelation of the inner mysteries of God," mixed with that "obscuring dust" of acquired knowledge. It is often difficult to know what is revelation and what is dust, although intuition’s unreliable guide often gives us a feeling of certainty. And there is much, too, that eludes the net of language no matter how active the imagination.

    Part 8:

    Millions of human beings in the years at the background of this autobiography came to find in cinema insights into their personal life-stories by observing directors' insights into themselves or their society. Perhaps this is partly because in the last century the fusion of the arts, the sciences and technology has been so seamlessly institutionalised by the cinema. Competing world views are fused and inscribed on human consciousness by skilled film directors. Some film directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to choose one of many, offered film goers a cinematic persona that reflected their own personality. Fassbinder’s films are autobiographical in the sense that they attempt to confer shape and meaning on a chaotic life and a scandalous society, on a catastrophic social and political environment. As Fassbinder said in an interview his films "always place himself at the centre." This literary work Pioneering Over Four Epochs, like Fassbinder's work in cinema, tells of my experience. Other people, other Baha'is, inevitably have a different setting for their lives but, ultimately, there is a sameness, a strong similarity. Like Fassbinder, I tell my story very personally but I give it, as best I can, a universal context.

    Film directors all have their signature; no matter how they like the work of other directors, they try to tell their own story in their own way. The generation of important American directors who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola, among others, just after I came of age in the mid-sixties, have told their story citing the influences on their work. So, too, have I told mine in a work that has burgeoned to over 850 pages. The autobiographical documentary film, in TV and on radio, with its themes of self and identity, like autobiography in print, has been a fascination to western film-makers, to journalists, producers and directors since those late sixties. Like Jim Lane's book, which shows the significant role of autobiography in the history and culture of our time, at least in the last three decades, I like to think that my book will play a useful role in understanding how autobiography can assist in illuminating the collective experience of a generation within the Baha'i community, the history and culture of that community and the experience of one individual within it over the last four epochs. The generation that came of age in the sixties was the most affluent, well-fed, well clothed in history but they had, as writer Doris Lessing has frequently pointed out, their own particular and quite severe anxieties and maladjustments resulting from the two greatest wars in history.

    There is one particular theory of film making called radical constructivism which I mention here because it, too, has some interesting similarities to the way I am going about writing my memoir. To the radical constructivist knowledge is actively built up by the knowing subject. It serves to organize experience, to construct knowledge. Such is the way I have constructed my autobiography building layer on layer, assimilating, accommodating, adapting. What I construct is less than the past and possesses an "epistomological fragility." It is an explanation of the present in terms of the past. Facts about the past are elements of the observer’s experience.

    Part 9:

    This autobiography has my signature and no matter how much I borrow and blend, copy and plagiarize, I draw the lives and experiences, the ideas and concepts of others making them into my own unique recipe. In the details I can not and do not imitate even if I use some of the same ingredients and even if I sometimes borrow with appreciation. I adapt to fit my particular constellation, my interpretation, of reality. No matter how much I draw on the views of others and I do extensively, in the end, as Yale professor Harold Bloom argues, "there is no method except yourself." I react differently, from time to time, from year to year, sometimes with more spontaneity or more reserve, more adventurousness or more caution. I create my own personal world, tell of my own emotional and intellectual cells and their depths. I hope they resonate with readers; I hope they sensitize readers--at least a few. For what is involved here, in addition to the articulation of some of the core parameters of community, is that "introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself" or a seeing things with one's own eyes and hearing things with one's own ears which Baha'u'llah links with justice and which I refer to several times throughout this text.

    Just a final note from one of the interviews with Fassbinder. I include it because I think film, philosophy and autobiography have, or at least can have, one thing in common and that is the world. Their mutual interrelations are complex and, as Andrew Murphie puts it, hectic and in need of mutual nurturing. He was asked if film making was "a sort of love substitute." His response was that his first take "was more fantastic that the most fantastic orgasm....a feeling indescribable." The finished product, the film we see, is indeed a collage. Sometimes, if not frequently, the visual immediacey of film prevents reflection. All the takes are the materials that have to be reduced and assembled to form the coherent whole of the film. It is this that eventually comes to be the final art-product ready to come to life in the perceptions of viewers. The other finished product, this autobiography, also involves reduction and an assembling of material to form a coherent whole, but there are no problems of visual immediacy. There are no problems either of the collaborative nature of film making. For the most part, autobiography is a solo event. Although, like film, the credits could go on for many minutes--even hours in the case of autobiography. Of course, who would stick around to read such a list of credits, a list, for the most part, totally meaningless to most readers.

    I would not put writing in quite the same context as making love. Orgasms are shortly lived experiences; love relationships are complex in different ways to writing, even if one forgets about orgasms and focuses on touching and hugging, gentleness and kindness. Writing and love, it seems to me, have many similarities. Writing goes on for years, for a lifetime like a permanent, long-term loving relationship in marriage. Writing often has a short duration, is episodic, like most of the relationships we have in life. The passion of writing obviously lasts far longer than any single erotic act or collection of them, at least for those writers who keep at it over their lifetime. Both writing and love-making chart the intersection of multiple and often contradictory points of view, different concepts of community and interpersonal understandings and levels of social integration. At one level it all seems so easy, so natural, so organic, love-making and writing that is. At another level both processes are complex, a source of both angst and pleasure and both can, in the end, come to nothing.

    Part 10:

    I should add, too, in this connection, that memory is filled with images of the nonself, with all sorts of things from the physical, human and religious worlds and a multitude of disciplines that attempt to assimilate this information and these images and these memories enrich and frustrate, deepen and accompany both love and writing. To put some of this another way: in The Ethics of Ambiguity Simone de Beauvoir argues that we are born in the midst of others without whom the world would never begin to take on meaning. For me, writing helps me make of the world much more. For writing helps me to fertilze the solitude that, as Beauvoir adds, is as essential as interrelationship.

    Poets, writers and many others, often turn away from the world of objects in their jouissance and they rediscover the non-self within the self; or to put this idea more concretely, self and world are rediscovered in a richer symbiosis. "It is in themselves," as Leo Bersani writes, "that their insatiable appetite for otherness is satisfied." This idea is a complex one; perhaps it is just another way of saying the cultural attainments of the mind, that first attribute of perfection as 'Abdu'l-Baha calls it, have more lasting power than anything associated with the physical.

    I should say at the outset that this book will contain an autobiography, several essays about autobiography and generous helpings of poetry. I have come to see my individual poems as part of one long epic poem and it is my hope that this epic will come to have something more than just a localised and purely antiquarian appeal. Great poetry has been and will continue to be written about private life: such was the view of John Crowe Ransom, arguably the greatest twentieth century poetry critic. But I would add that poetry is at its grandest when that private domain is linked to some lofty purpose. For me there are several lofty purposes here. The general principles of the subject of autobiography are, as yet, hardly agreed on by either practitioners or theorists of this embryonic discipline. Perhaps these principles never will be. I'm not sure it matters.
    Last edited by RonPrice; 09-26-2014 at 06:55 AM. Reason: To update the wording
    Ron Price is a retired teacher, aged 71(in 2015). He taught for 32 years in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools, and was a student for 18 years. He lives with his 68 year old wife in Tasmania. Ron has been a member of the Baha’i Faith for 56 years(in 2015).

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