Member # 1611
posted 08. September 2005 09:42
Meaning is not something one can wrap up and walk away with. Often the mind's sensitivity to meaning is actually impaired by fixed notions or perspectives. It seems that often we must see things for ourselves, again and again, sometimes in community with its endless heterogeneity, sometimes in our solitude. For community is not always pastoral dream of innocence and togetherness and solitude is not always enriching. Here, as in music, there is an alternation between fast and slow and joyful and sorrowful; there's an ebb and flow to the emotional structure.
At the same time, I agree with what is called the essentialist view of group identity in community; namely, that there is a common identity for the members of a social group. This view emphasizes commonness of identity and the possession of a certain stability that is more or less unchanging since it is based on the experiences the members share. But I can only go so far in this essentialist tradition. I am also inclined to see group identities as fabricated, constructed, misleading, ignoring internal differences and tending not to recognize the unreliability of experience. Of course individuals can fabricate much of their own history. Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, for example, were notorious fabricators of their story. And to chose one final example, the man who was Mark Twain, Samuel Leghorne Clemens, lived behind a "layering of invented selves," and performing, of course, was simply another way of inventing or disguising himself. Or so it is that Andrew Hoffman describes Twain.
I take the view too that, however much I work out my life in solitude, my experience is what some sociologists call ‘socially constructed.’ This social and emotional self is mediated by the environment in which it lives and works. In this context the self is not exalted to the centre of the universe. The nature of one's inner thoughts and feelings are not purely personal or individual. The community in which we interact, the system of thoughts that serve as our beliefs, is a crucial determinant of who we are. Our fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity. This mental activity usually begins in the outside world and is imposed, at least to some extent, on the mind.
Canadians, for example, approach the survival of ordeals, not as the theoretical American would by finding and revealing a reservoir of inner strength and wisdom in some heroic fashion, but by banding together, by becoming a “company”--literally, as Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman suggests by using the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device, to create community. Literary critic Northrop Frye suggests that Canadians possess a garrison mentality with an image of a fort in the wilderness as a symbol of their psychic centre or domain. Margaret Atwood, Canada's major writer as the millennium turned, sees the Canadian character as one with a gloomy-through-catastrophic strain. This interpretation of the character is reflected in Canada's literature and especially in the writing of Margaret Atwood.
Atwood also sees the Canadian character as one that is incurably paranoid. There are various strategies suggested by artists, writers and critics to cope with this paranoia. Art, religion, relationships, a strong sense of fate or destiny, an avoidance of the heroic and a taking refuge in the ordinary, in a reticence, in trepidation, in the soft escape and boxing experience into frames, into limits. These are some of the coping mechanisms seen by these analysts. If one understands Canadian history, one can understand the sense of the overwhelming, the impenetrable, the claustrophobic, the sense of a world which denies entry to the human. It is these attitudes to self and life that are evinced by Canadians and Australian artists towards their existential condition. But perhaps the central attitude is a radical, deep-seated ambivalence. Both Canadians and Australians are ambivalent about the heroic, the posture taken by the American. I mention the Canadian and the Australian because it is in these two countries where I have spent all my life. I have realized, though, that the range of effects I could achieve writing as if I was an Australian or a Canadian were too narrow. It would be like playing one instrument, say, the drums or a cello. So I turned to writing in as broad a perspective as I could. I may have bit off more than I can chew. But even if I have, I find that there's a certain synchronicity in writing autobiography and also living my day to day life which makes the big-chew relevant to the daily nibbles that constitute the routine, the trivial, the predictable and the wonder that fills the interstices of life. I like to see this autobiography somewhat like the poet George Herbert’s: as the "story of the self reflected and improved in the mirror of Scripture," a self who "makes no claims to uniqueness" but is in fact content "that the truths he finds there are not his alone.” I might add just to get the context right that the Scripture is a new one and I do make a claim to uniqueness, a uniqueness each of us possesses.
There are certainly few writers and theorists of autobiography who believe that it is possible to remove one's commitments and values from the exercise of writing one’s story. I do not believe that I can separate the facts of my life from the theories, assumptions and frameworks that underpin them. I do not see myself as an objective gatherer of facts. I believe that values, commitments, goals, inter alia, all play their part in the scholarly analysis and interpretation of a life. They are part of all investigation, all intellectual activity, and spelling them out is essential if one is to attempt to understand the great kalaidoscope that is one’s life. My commitment to the Baha’i Faith supersedes any other identification of genre, nationality, race, culture, age, inter alia and I approach this commitment, this identity, from a wide range of perspectives which will unfold in a quite unsystematic way in the next 1000 pages. The practice of autobiography, of course, means different things to different people. I would not want to limit the discussion of autobiography to one approach, one theory, one model, even if that model is my own. There are so many ways to skin a cat, as they say colloquially in some places.
Pioneers in Canada for several hundred years before the word was first used by the Baha’i community in the 1930s, were swallowed up by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the great Canadian wilderness, the frozen Arctic tracts and the USA. In Australia there was a similar swallowing up process by means of: the hot desert centre, the vast interior spaces, the surrounding oceans and seas. The most ‘significant other’ in both these countries where my life has been swallowed up, in a different sense, is the landscape. Visual representations not language seems to be the most common window of understanding in the consciousness of these two national groups.
All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There are so many parallels I can make in relation to both countries. The white populations in both countries tend to congregate in a very few, relatively sizable centres. Boundaries and frontiers in the USA serve as limitations to be transcended or denied. In Canada and Australia they are seen as dangerous places to be negotiated. The relationship between these general psycho-geographical characteristics and my pioneering life will be elaborated on, unfolded, in the nearly 1000 pages which follow. What will also unfold, at least it is my hope, is what American novelist Normal Mailer said is the purpose of art, an intensification, an exacerbation, of "the moral consciousness of people."
Some writers go so far as to say they are their country. The Irish writer Seán O'Faoláin made this declaration in commenting on his autobiography. Ireland was the central metaphor of his self. This may be even more true for those living on islands; the concept 'island' implies a particular and intense relationship of land and water. Allegorical and structural associations of island characters become used for the reconstruction of people’s personal history and identity. The Irish professor in Aidan Higgins's novel Lions of the Grunewald suggests, “the smaller the island the bigger the neurosis.” If this has some truth, I may be protected from such a fate since I have lived on only two islands, Baffin Island and Tasmania. Others emphasize the highly ambivalent relationships between people and their island homes. My island homes are large ones and my stay, thusfar, has been for short periods of my life, ten years in total, unless of course one counts Australia itself as an island. Structurally and thematically speaking, the motifs of 'leaving the island' and/or 'returning to the island' seem to make for key scenes in a wide range of autobiographies by islanders. There are the emotionally charged events. This was not true for me given the short periods of residence thusfar on the island of Tasmania. The emotional charge did take place for me when I returned to Canada and to Western Australia. But more of that another time.
I intend to take a line, an approach, from the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, who said, in an interview with Gary Kamiya, that when he writes he has no sense of what is going to happen next. Plot, story and theme unfold. Ondaatje says that writing is a discovery of a story when he writes a book, a case of inching ahead on each page and discovering what's beyond in the darkness, beyond where you're writing. This is the way it is for me even when I have some broad outlines, outlines that are my life. For Ondaatje writing novels doubles his perception, he says, because he is so often writing from the point of view of someone else. To write about oneself, he says, would be very limiting. To each his own, I suppose. If the unexamined life was not worth living, if teaching one’s own self was not so significant, if ultimately all the battles in life were not within, if it were not important to understand our imperfections and be patient with our own dear selves, if the source of most of our troubles are to be found in feelings of egotism and selfishness, if the God within was not “mighty, powerful and self-subsistent,” then this autobiographical pursuit might be in vain.
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 five editions of this work. Each edition explores the field of human development and the uses of narrative. I would like this work to be as private, intimate and casual as my poetry, not structured, not having an agenda. That's why I have not planned this work.
The famous American novelist William Faulkner once said in an interview that when he found his poetry wasn’t very good, he changed his medium. “At 21 I thought my poetry very good and so I continued to write it when 22, but at 23 I quit it,” Faulkner continued, “I found my best medium to be fiction. My prose is really poetry.” Readers have been puzzled because Faulkner makes the anachronistic comment of "My prose is really poetry." He made the comment after World War II when all the society was totally prosaic. I regard my prose and poetry somewhat interchangeably. Poetry helped rejuvenate my prose and now I see both as part of an integrated whole. The comment I have quoted from Faulkner I could very well apply to this narrative. Faulkner saw himself as a failed poet and kept on writing poetry. I never experienced any popular success with my poetry, but I founnd it useful as a form of literary expression and still do. Readers, then, will find a good deal of it in this autobiography.
Before I leave these references to Faulkner let me add some of his words about publishers because the experience I had was very similar—and different. "One day," Faulkner said, "it suddenly seemed as if a door had clapped shut silently and forever between me and all publishers' addresses and booklists and I said to myself, ‘Now I can write.’" In the 1990s I had this same experience and literally thousands of poem poured forth. Early in the new millennium the internet opened its doors and I sent forth more ‘published work’ than I could ever have imagined in the fifty years I had by then been writing.
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. Indeed, it is impossible to say it all and revision is endless.
Hopefully this exercise will prompt readers to study autobiography and see how it contributes toward the realization of a multi-disciplinary form of learning in their own lives. 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. I write as I read, as deeply as I am capable, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to share in that one nature that is human, universal and, like me, writes and reads.
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 have 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 believed he brought a better order of society and an inner life, something private, something that moved him confidently “in the direction of his dreams.” I felt I 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. In Baha’i society the lineage of the pioneer extends back 70 years(1935-2005) with a 90 year historical foundation before that(1844-1934). The secular history of pioneering at least to the renaissance and reformation, if not long before that.
What I do here in this work 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. What I do is what culture critic and educator Edward Said(1935-2003) said he was doing in his The World, The Text, and the Critic. "Texts have ways of existing,” wrote Said, “that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society; in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly.” This idea is variously articulated as a motif in my work--and Said’s. "The writer's life, his career, and his text," Said remarks in his book Beginnings, "form a system of relationships whose configuration in real human time becomes progressively stronger.” These relationships become more distinct, more individualized and exacerbated with time. In fact, one could go so far as to say “these relationships gradually become the writer's all-encompassing subject.” Said's work as a critic emerges from his life as a dislocated Palestinian. Mine emerges from my life as an international pioneer whose convictions are centred on a new movement that claims to be the emerging world religion on this planet.
Some writers, some people, see pattern and meaning in history and some don’t. But whether one sees some plan, some system, in the great gallery of history or whether one doesn’t the death of 10 million people in some social tragedy, people you've never met, does not have the impact of the death of your sister? The newsworthiness of a handful of deaths in your hometown rates more highly than millions in the next continent. Personal tragedy beats impersonal holocaust every time. Propinquity is one of life’s core principles if one is measuring significance and is a principle determining what to include in an autobiography. This is the theme in Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. For this and for a host of other reasons this autobiography will deal more with the personal than the social, more with the immediate confines of my circle of activity and to a far lesser extent with the larger picture of world events. Amis’ book gives snatches of autobiography; my book gives snatches of social and historical analysis.
I don't have to create my story ex nihilo and I don't create for the pure pleasure I get in creating, in telling the story, although the pleasure I get in writing takes me, 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. Melody is crucial to most music and it is crucial here if the reader is to find pleasure in reading this 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 to the ideas and works of others that readers will find in this text. As I write these words I see that there are about two references per page, over sixteen hundred in an 850 page text. The vehicle for this work is thus enhanced, enriched, by the solo work of others, rhythm sections that draw on several writers and 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.
To continue this jazz metaphor briefly, I’d like to draw on the words of Mark Isaac, a composer of jazz music. Isaac says that his extensive improvising seems, to some listeners, like a hotch-potch. I’m sure some readers here will find my work somewhat of a hotch-potch. Isaac says he plays the music differently each and every time he goes about writing his work. It keeps coming out differently. Some of the harmonies in jazz and in my autobiography are obtuse; some are sharp. The melody line leaves openings for just about anything to come in. There is great discipline and much ease in the process of writing here and in the process of creating jazz music, as well, says Isaac. It often takes weeks to get the music right he argues; this work took twenty years to get it right, to get it into a form I was pleased with.
I do not write from the margins of empire, from within a national culture or even from an individualist perspective. I depict the family, the individual and the state, the media and a host of leisure activities all as nexus points or places of transfer in the formation of an international polity that is rushing at us faster than we can comprehend.
Pleasure, I find, tends to help me take the ride of life and the ride of writing. But, of course, there is more, for pleasure itself is never enough, never the whole story. It occupies only part of life's experience. "Experiences," writes that articulate psychohistorian Peter Gay, "testify to the uninterrupted traffic between what the world imposes and the mind demands, receives and reshapes." We construct our experience, says Gay, and that construction is "an uneasy collaboration between misperceptions generated by anxiety and corrections provided by reasoning and experimentation." There is more to our ideas and actions than meets the eye. Our life, our experience, is at one level simply what it seems to be. It is rooted in external reality. And it is also, paradoxically, not what it seems to be. Much of our life is silent; it seems to take place underground or in some inner ground. "We live in the mind," as the poet Wallace Stevens put the human experience. This autobiography tries to deal with both the obvious and the paradoxical. In some ways, the word 'narrative' could be replaced or added to other words like: view, claim, position, interpretation, world-view or even life.
To give the word 'narrative' some kind of pristine prominence at the centre of my claim to autobiographical authenticity, is too strong a position, a direction, to suit my tastes. To do so may be impoverishing, pernicious, even damaging psychotherapeutically. Even if, or as, I do centre this autobiography on narrative I am conscious of changes I make to my past, alterations, smoothings, enhancements, shiftings from the raw propositional facts and contexts, all processes that may be neurophysiological inevitabilities. Some analysts of autobiography would advise writers "that the less you do the better." There is too in all this writing a strange assortment of the satisfied and unsatisfied, the appeased and unappeased, the reconciled and unreconciled. There is also intransigence, difficulty and contradiction. From time to time I try to tell what I’m on about, but it is difficult to write a life.
Most pioneers, in both the secular world and the Baha’i community, have exhausted themselves in external activity or filled their lives with events and comings and goings that seem to leave, so often, just about always, no record for future generations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for we can not all be good gardeners, cooks, car mechanics or, in this case, writers. Over the years I have known many talented pioneers. But as a writer, my task is different. I want to place my readers on a stage, swarming with detail, dense with meaning; I want to give readers some of that constant sense of things and ideas that exist outside themselves and outside myself in my time, in these epochs, as Walt Whitman did when the Baha’i revelation was first bursting on the world a century and a half ago.