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Opening Pages of My Autobiography (1 Viewer)


Senior Member

Some Introductions and Genres

"Not beginning at the Beginning...."

Dispositions are plausible responses to the circumstances individual Baha'is found themselves in and these dispositions led to the gradual emergence from obscurity of their religion in the last half century. The story here is partly of this emergence and partly it is my telling of own life-story. For I have gone on writing for years, perhaps as much as two decades now, in relative obscurity doing what I think is right.

I am intentionally not going to begin at the beginning. Autobiographies which I’ve had a look at seem to be exercises that begin in as many different places as there are authors. Sometimes first memories are found on page one and the account proceed chronologically if not 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 much about beginnings and the more I write the more elusive they become. But there comes a moment, a point, when we realize that the journey has started and we had not realized it. 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. 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. It is important, too, that life, my life, not be seen as simply journey and not life. The two are not mutually exclusive.

My ideal doctor for this journey, wrote the late Anatole Broyard, would be “my Virgil, leading me through my purgatory or inferno, pointing out the sights as we go. He would enter into the world of sin or sickness and accompany this pilgrim, this patient through it.” Virgil was Dante's imagined guide in the Divine Comedy. My Virgil, my ideal doctor, in this autobiography is, without doubt, Baha’u’llah; my Divine Comedy is this autobiography. The parallel is, of course, not exact, but it has its relevant points of comparison.

I strive for my account to possess narrative lines that move forward, like lines in music, lines that keep their listeners waiting for and wanting resolutions. At the same time I think it's vital for many lines to develop at once, as in a fugue, so that when one narrative line resolves itself, another is already developing. I frankly do not know how I am going to approach this story, though I have no trouble finding historical moments and various lines of development. There are 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. There is also, as I have moved around two continents over the second half of the twentieth century, the tracing of an end of Empire, an end of an age, an order, a politico-social system and the arrival of a new kind of order. This new order is rootless, without a centre and constantly shifting on the one hand; and rooted, centred and global on the other. They allow one to explore, to write of a place, to explore foreign societies and new ideas at a crucial time in history--a time of beginnings. The Baha’i order and the people in it which I had identified with and participated in personally as far back as 1953 were caught between an old order they had sloughed off, had ceased to pin their hopes on, and a new one they had yet to mature.

At the outset I want to emphasize the inadequacy of language to match and give sequence to life’s experience. This poem of Emily Dickinson’s expresses this idea well:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind --
As if my Brain had split --
I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam --
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before --
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls -- upon a Floor.

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 say paradoxical because the more one describes one’s life the more mysterious it gets. 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 explore my views about contemporary life and values and in the process of exploration I define my thinking.

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.

In many ways this narrative belongs in the company of the thousands of individual and communal narratives of the Baha’i community. But there are several narrative frames that exist and operate in tandem in this autobiographical work. My family and friends, most of whom are not Baha’is, my students over the years and the literally thousands of people I have come to know will find the narrative frames in this autobiography exist in tandem. In life and in autobiography the same story must often be adapted for different audiences that value different things and will judge one’s story by different criteria. Narratives must necessarily be censored for specific audiences or for ourselves. The censoring that must be done here, must be done by readers. This narrative that I am endorsing by placing it in the public domain contains a multitude of stories, perspectives and narrative lines suited for some but not for others. The individual, therefore, in accordance with the demands of each situation, each portion of this autobiography, must do the validating of opposing narratives about myself. Two opposing narratives, sets of actions, apparently contradictory behaviours, demonstrate the dynamic nature of identity. It is not static and we all do all sorts of things that to the people we meet are upsetting, wrong, confusing, etcetera. What I am trying to conceptualize here is the pastiche, the fluid, nature of my multiple self-identities that have emerged in my lifetime. Some are suppressed at different times, depending on the cultural demands or constraints of a particular context or audience; some are given expression at other times. These identities are context driven. Behavioral repertoires are not always easy to adjust as one moves from social setting to social setting. Culture shock or acculturative stress often arise and this narrative which follows is the story of some of these shocks and stresses.

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, although I make a claim to uniqueness, it is a uniqueness each of us possesses. I might add, too, that a myriad details, a multitude of meaning-neutral objects, arise in the course of this text. They are details which appear and guarantee a certain plausibility of context, generate a certain sense of reality, of real life, construct a persona, fashion a self, smooth over life’s accidents, make it more understandable and coherent.

None of us ever quite lives up to their idealized personae, but the more successful a person’s writing is and the more integral it is to the achievement of their life, the more closely they can be identified with their author-ideal, that is, with the self they fashion and present to the world as the voice behind her texts. There is, for me, in this text, a strong sense of identification, a close match between text and reality.

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.