4. PHILOSOPHY/ SOCIOLOGY/ PSYCHOLOGY
In time these three subjects, indeed each of the social sciences and humanities which I feel some level of confidence to discuss, as a non-specialist, will have their own special section on this website. Such is my hope after more than ten years of having my own website. These are disciplines which captured my interest as an adolescent and in the years of my early adulthood(20-40) and the interest has remained. Although my knowledge deeepened in these fields in my middle and late adulthood, helped along by teaching them in technical and further education colleges as well as colleges of advanced educaton and, for a short time, in two universities, I always remained far, far from any sense of having attained to what one might call a reasonable degree of "comprehensive knowledge" in any of these fields. They became fields that burgeoned in the 20th century, in my time and before. Even if one sat around reading from dawn to dusk and had a photographic memory one could never achieve any comprehensive knowledge, except in a very limited sense, in just one of the fields. And so, this particular section will serve as a bit of a catch-all, at least for these three disciplines.
At the core of any of my understandings in philosophy, sociology, psychology as well as the social sciences and humanities in general, is a life of activity in the Baha’i Administrative Order. As the Universal House of Justice expressed it in a letter to the American Baha’is in 1988 about freedom and authority in the Baha’i community, this Order provides the very "structure of freedom for our Age," albeit for a still small section of humanity, about one in one thousand. At the core of my understandings of these disciplines is also a lifetime--some forty years--of work as a teacher and half a century of an extensive personal reading program: 1958 to 2008, puberty to the early years of my late adulthood.
Here are some prose-poems very broadly related to social science perspectives and some of my understandings of the Baha'i Faith in relation to these perspectives.
Since first coming in contact with the Baha'i Faith in 1953 I have seen much that was impressive and much that brought delight, as well as a long list of weaknesses and shortcomings, in its adherents. I have come to experience them as a fascinating mixture of humanity. This, of course, is true both of those I have known in this Cause and out. I have seen a certain charm and genius in her beautiful and commodious temples and administrative buildings around the world; I have enjoyed the hospitality and human contact with many of her believers in their homes across two continents; I have come to enrich my life through reading the literature of this Faith and appreciating its beauty and wisdom. In the process I travelled across wide rivers, seas and oceans, enjoyed fertile fields, boundless forests and mountains, and experienced the pleasures of many of the world's cities and towns. But not until I ceased to look at the words and deeds of my fellow mortals as a standard for the true understanding of the nature of God and of ultimate reality; not until I began to see the metaphorical nature of spiritual and physical reality, did I even begin to acquire a sense of certitude, a sense of a home, a home that was not always comfortable, for my doubts, my questions and my ponderings on the enigmas and pardoxes of life. I felt, as I approached the age of sixty and the years of my late adulthood(60 to 80), after more than half a century of an association with a Movement that claimed to be the newest of the great religions of history, that I had, indeed, become the recipient of a "grace that is infinite and unseen."1 Was it an unmerited grace that I felt, that was the source of these inner feelings and thoughts? I suppose it was many things; it was certainly a mysterious, a wondrous, process. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 8 October 2002; and 1Baha'u'llah, The Book of Certitude, Wilmette, 1950, p.3.
Was it grace that brought years of success
and a power beyond anything I had known?
Was it grace that brought more anxiety and
pain than I had thought life could ever give?
Was it grace, infinite and unseen, that brought
these effulgent glories and that will take me,
one day, to the abode of an immortality that
is so utterly mysterious and that, all being well,
will flood my heart with light and will refresh my
spirit with musk-scented winds from that Realm?
7 October 2002
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes that "the point of gravity in spatial organization has been shifted from the question 'Who?' to the question 'From what point in space?'…There must be or should be, therefore, a certain privileged point from which the best perception can be attained…..the best mean(ing)…..supra-personal…capable of accomplishing the miracle, of rising above, and overcoming, its own endemic relativity."1 Bauman's words reminded me of Canadian sociologist Hoonaard's closing two sentences in his history of the Baha'i community of Canada. He wrote that we need to see new religious movements from an international perspective not from the point of view of their local strength.2 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Polity Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 32 and Will van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Baha'i Community of Canada, 1898-1948, Wilfred Laurier Press, 1996, p.296.
The artistry of God beginning with holy dust
at the centre of nine concentric circles,
supra-personal, intimately spiritual,
holy-of-holies, awe-inspiring and yet,
paradoxically, with immense obscurity,
complexity, paralysis, tyranny and anarchy.
Freshness of vitality, coherence of understanding,
dynamic links, a change of time, a new state of mind,
the earth astir with deeper penetration, greater synchronizing,
crystallized sharing of a divinely driven enterprize and this Bread of Life.
14 September 2002
THE LOUDEST PLACE
The nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer thought that the experience of the sublime could be obtained only at times of contemplation when the will was made to stand still and be quiet. Since so many millions are not capable of achieving the sublime in this way and need some kind of "stimulation" or "activity," civilization results in heightened barbarism. Some thinkers thought this tendency to barbarism and its violence could be countered by heightened sympathy and love. Perhaps this dichotomy is part of the basis for what Shoghi Effendi calls the integrating and disintegrating forces of our age. I'm not sure. Certainly the question of social control or social order is the primary problem presented to the social sciences by society for solution. The 'answer' to this issue, for Shopenhauer among others, can be found in their total vision of the human being and in the sociological and psychological, the distinctive and compelling, landscapes they create. -Ron Price with thanks to Stjepan G. Mestrovic, The Barbarian Temperament: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory, Routledge, London, 1993.
This poetry creates a landscape
viewed at distance or close hand.
I wonder if my soul is here amidst
these words like sand they stand.
Belief creates a river and a mountain range,
viewed at distance their size is small, but close
they're rich, mysteriously deep and wondrously tall.
The days of life add up to make a painting or a book
and their loudest place I fill in the cellars of my soul
where they still take their toll, though long licensed....
to be still.
21 September 2002
THE HEALING ROAD
I first came across the ideas of sociologist Emile Durkheim while studying sociology at university from 1963 to 1967. Many of his ideas I have always thought were relevant to a Baha'i perspective. One thing he wrote certainly reflects my experience of intellectual, artistic and literary pursuits, what 'Abdu'l-Baha called "learning and the cultural attainments of the mind." Just as Baha'i administration was taking its first form under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi in the 1920s, Durkheim wrote that "the love of art, the predilection for artistic joys, is accompanied by a certain aptitude for getting outside ourselves, a certain detachment or disinterestedness….We lose sight of our surroundings, our ordinary cares, our immediate interests. Indeed, this is the essence of the healing power of art. Art consoles us because it turns us away from ourselves."
After forty years of pioneering
I find here my peace and supper
as if after a long day's work. Yes,
Emile, this is its own reward, yes!
Just a simple artistry in these poems,
part of my search for the right idiom
and the best ways of meet life's lot.
I do not feel like Frost, stricken,
intensely conscious, suspicious of
my struggle. A healing came, to me,
at last, and all that gloom, obsession,
temper, rage, depression softened
with the years and easy sleep
without the pain dulled, at last,
life's sharp and ragged edges.
And my style could lighten, take an easier road
without that heat and the tortuous heavy load.
22 September 2002
Without life's struggle and its sharp edges, there would often be no poetry. Paglia writes about this in her analysis of Emily Dickinson and her poetry. Dickinson's struggle, Paglia writes, is with God and with society.1 The following poem takes the theme of struggle from Dickinson's poem number 928 and turns it into a product of my own experience, understanding and struggle. My poetry, without doubt, profits from the great disparity between the Baha'i ideals and practice both personal and community, on the one hand, and between the immense beauty and complexity of this religion I have been associated with for half a century and the discouragingly meagre response of my society. I have whisked this discouragement and disillusionment into abstract and not-so-abstract poetry. I whisk it, not into the frigid, godless universe that the great poet Wallace Stevens conceived it, nor into the empty and absurd one as Kafka defined it. I whisked these and other tensions of life into a form that Baha'is all around the world are creating--a new world Order. I try to sort it all out drawing on "new faculties"2 created by the writings of Baha'i Scripture. While I do this whisking, I sometimes feel a great weight and a fatigue and sometimes feel a sense of wonder and awe. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage Books, NY, 1991, p.653; and 2 Horace Holley quoted in The Ocean of His Words, John Hatcher, Wilmette, 1997, p.3.
The heart sits quietly on the shore
just above the waves. Sometimes
it's calm; it does not stir.
There is a peace it saves.
It saves that peace for troubled times
when devastation hits the heart and then
one waits mysteriously for a divine power
to impart.1 With this aid one reconstructs
that place along the shore. To heal a heart
convulsed, is often like trying to win a war.
Often on one's journey long a tempest
violence heaves, demolishing all calm
walls like a pile of wind-blown leaves.
For divine power does not leave the soul
beyond turmoil; wind-blown leaves and
life's fatigue is part of soul's good soil.
1Shoghi Effendi, God Passes by, Introduction.
24 February 2002
SORTING THINGS OUT IN HOT SUMMERS
In the early years of my pioneering life, beginning perhaps as early as 1964 living in Hamilton Ontario at the far west end of Lake Ontario, until my second or third year in Ballarat Victoria in 1977-8, I read every book written by Eric Fromm. He was a theorist that brought other theories together: Freud, Adler, Horney, Marx. He was part humanist, part Marxist, part Freudian, a large part existentialist. I read at least seven of his books, perhaps more, during these years. I remember trying to connect the Baha’i teachings to the ideas of this eclectic, synthesizing psychologist who argued that, among other things, one’s identity and rootedness come from one’s religion, one’s development as a person comes from a religious framework and philosophy, one’s choices not one’s memories block one's development and the aim of one’s life is to live intensely. I read and reread this stimulating psychoanalyst. He seemed to be saying so many things that my religion espoused in different ways with different words; things like: the psyche adapts to the dominant sociopolitical structure of society; character is the result of our solution to and resolution of existential needs for survival, relatedness, expression and meaning, character shapes instincts; and we need hope as well as spiritual teachers. -Ron Price with thanks to Michael Maccoby, "The Two Voices of Erich Fromm: The Prophetic and the Analytic," Society, July/August, 2001, Internet, 25 November 2001, pp. 1-16.
We have the inverse of Christianity here:
not the individual changing society,
but society changing the individual.
I knew he was on to something;
it was just too good to be true.
The messianic view of history was here;
many words about liberation, the paradox
was kept before our eyes: that we were
the most important thing in the universe
but powerlessness, humility was our reality
before that utterly Unknowable Essence.
There was a great split between
the ideal and the actual in life,
much of which we had to accept.
There was a dialogue with Fromm,
with the Central Figures of my Faith
for a dozen years in hot Canadian summers
and hotter Australian summers as I tried to
sort out the dynamics, the intellectual parameters,
the paradigmatic shifts and bases of a new religion
that was emerging slowly from its chrysalis, from its
obscurity into the glaring light of public recognition.
26 November 2001
SOUND AND FURY
Some of the last writings of Erich Fromm were published in 1994 in a book The Art of Listening, some fourteen years after he died and nearly forty after I first read his writings. I came across this book just the other day and I gobbled it up. I'd always loved Erich Fromm. He'd been with me for most of my pioneering journey, but I had not read one of his books for twenty years, since the late 1970s with his To Have or To Be. The following poem is a reflection on some of Fromm's ideas in this new book. In particular, he tells me in his clear and easy prose, that I should not take an inordinate interest in myself. Interest in oneself, concentration on one's own problems, "should and must go together with an increasing enlargement and intensification of one's interest in life,"1 in music, the arts, walking, the great ideas, the best of what has been written and thought. Only then do we come to form a set of directions, goals, values and convictions "which are not put in oneself by others."2 For the general goal is to penetrate through the surface of life "to the roots of existence."3 -Ron Price with thanks to Erich Fromm, The Art of Listening, Constable, London, 1994, 1p.166, 2p.167 and 3p.171,
We all must overcome our narcissism;
we must struggle with it, understand it;
it's a lifelong task this battle with self,
the insistent self, He called it. And I'm
not talking about that affirmative, loving,
attitude towards oneself called self-love.
And one must recognize the non-experiences
that people, here, call parties1 where there is
no closeness, just a three-ring-circus, short
conversational concentrations, throw-away
one-liners, smiles and chuckles, endless edibles
and drinks, enough to float away on, leaving
your brain completely drained, a deep-emptiness,
as if you've been to a war, not of guns and swords,
but words, popping all over like those cap-guns
you used to buy as a kid which never made
anything happen, just a lot of strikes and sounds
signifying nothing at all to the last syllable of
recorded time—making our yesterdays just
lighted fools on the way to dusty, arid death.
1Fromm describes this 'American habit'(ibid., p. 178), but it is found here in Australia and approached with the same enthusiasm.
8 December 2001
COLONIZATION OF MY LIFEWORLD
The sociologist, philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, the major writer, the inheritor of the mantle of the tradition of 'critical theory' in sociology, writes in a useful way for the poet, at least this poet. Habermas says that narrative makes it possible for people to create coherent scenarios, for groups and individuals to define themselves. I do this in my poetry and in my prose. There is, too, he writes, an emancipatory potential in social analysis. Much of my writing is social analysis. Habermas argues that our "lifeworld" is "colonized through rational, purposively organized, system imperatives." My lifeworld, as expressed in my poetry, is colonized by the system imperatives of my own life, my society and my religion. "The exercise of our ability to communicate," Habermas says, "is part of and constitutes our consciousness." I see my writing as a form of this "exercise of my ability." -Ron Price with thanks to Jurgen Habermas, "The Tasks of A Critical Theory," Notes from 'Sociology for Human Service Workers,' Ron Price, Thornlie Tafe, 1998.
The project of the Enlightenment:
to ground our world, our society,
in a secularized, non-metaphysical,
non-religious ethic--has failed.
Still, you1 are trying, passionately,
in your massive corpus, your science
for a crisis, your sociology’s interpretive
schemata with your dialogue partners
all the way back to Marx, to overcome
this problem......so am I, passionately,
in my own massive corpus, my religion
for a crisis, my poetry par excellence,
my interpretive schemata, with my dialogue
partners going all the way back to Shaykh
Ahmad and the Bab, to overcome the crisis
of our times and set the foundation
for the Kingdom of God on earth.
19 October 2001
The philosopher Ayn Rand(1905-1982) had a conception of art that has some parallels to my view of poetry. Both of us see artistic expression, and hence poetry, as the concretization of the widest metaphysical abstractions and of our own particular philosophy; as broad brush strokes that assist in developing an integrated world view; as an exercise in contemplation; as an art form which depends not on the extent of our knowledge but on the means by which we acquire it; as a form whose value lies primarily in the process of cognitive integration it affords, as the mechanism, the means, for providing an integrated view of existence; as an art form whose sense of life is the product of philosophic conclusions; as an art which offers "life-giving fact" and "moments of metaphysical joy and of love for existence," which confirms our view of existence;" as something which satisfies the needs of our cognitive faculty; as an indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal; as an activity in which one can learn a great deal about life; as something that induces a sense of life through the work itself; as an act whose roots lie in the nature and requirements of our mind and in an objectification of our view of man and of existence. -Ron Price with thanks to Michelle Marder Kambi and Louis Torres, "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol.2 No.1, Fall 2000, pp.1-46.
Seeking a quiet place
and, then, a quieter place
for this profoundly satisfying
bit of philosophy made concrete,
point of sanity in an anarchic world.
With my broad and fine brush strokes
trying to bring it all together
in what you might call
with a sense of finding
moments of metaphysical joy,
of love for existence,
satisfying my cultural sensibilities
and the requirements of my mind
defining that integrated world view
that I became associated with
insensibly in those years
when Lenny Bruce was writing
about how to talk dirty and influence people.1
and the average American family
was consuming about 1000 cans
of food each year and new teflon pans.2
1 Bruce, a popular commedian of the time, published a book by this name in 1962.
2Teflon pans went on sale in December 1960.
25 October 2001
THE CRITIQUE GOES ON
A 'critical theory' of society emerged in June 1844 with the Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of Karl Marx. Marx had been working on his Manuscripts in the months before and after the Bab's declaration to Mulla Husayn in May 1844. Critical theory lay dormant after 1848 until 1917. The term 'critical theory' was not coined, though, until 1930 by Max Horkheimer. The first systematic philosophy of history or social theory, the precursor to Marx's critical theory, was Hegel's. Put another way, "the methodological basis of the critical theory of society" is to be found in "the dialectical logic of George F. Hegel."1 Hegel's first major works in philosophy were composed after Shaykh Ahmad had arrived in Iran to continue his work as a precursor of the Bab. Hegel died in 1831, five years after Shaykh Ahmad's passing.
The entire history of critical theory, one of modern sociology's major theoretical orientations, has, for me, an interesting comparison and contrast, an interesting juxtaposition, with the history of the Babi and Baha'i religions and their precursors -Ron Price with thanks to 1R. George Kirkpatrick, George N. Katsiaficas, Mary Lou Emery, "Critical Theory and the Limits of Sociological Positivism," Transforming Sociology Series, Red Feather Institute, 1978, pp.1-21.
You1 got a new lease on life
in the late teens,
say 1917 to 1921,
when George Lukacs' work
History and Class Consciousness,
was published and promulgated,
when the Frankfurt School
was born with its centre
at Columbia by 1934.
We, too, were articulating
our architectural ediface,
our institutional framework
in these years up to the mid-'30s,
not on a Marxian foundation
as it was with you, with your critique,
but on an ediface of some 75 years
of infallible, authoritative, guidance.
Yes, our world collapsed in the trenches.
Liberalism had proved useless
and socialism's death knell
would be wrung.2
When all hope seemed lost
in that decade of disillusionment,3
critical theory was born anew.
And we had found our
institutional form, then.
In time, you had your Habermas4
and we had our House of Justice
to provide the context for the search,
the adequacy of perspective,
the blending and harmonizing
of salutary truths, the generation
of spiritual nerves and sinews,
tapping as they do
the roots of motivation
and the meaning of this Revelation.
2many sociologists have pointed out the end of socialism and liberalism, some say by the end of WWI, others by the end of WW2 and still others at various stages in the post-WWII period. Of course, there are many who still find hope in these 'isms. Perhaps what I say here is said in the booklet Baha'u'llah(p.1) a little differently: "a succession of ideological upheavals.....have exhausted themselves."
4leading writer in 'critical theory.'
18 October 2001
THE DRAMA OF INVISIBILITY
In 1959, Alfred Ayer, the foremost advocate of logical positivism, published an anthology of essays written by bright men earlier in the century who had committed themselves to reconstructing philosophy uncontaminated by metaphysics. The book was called Logical Positivism. In the next three years several books were published demolishing the pretensions of positivism. Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions were two of these books. Philosophy swims in metaphysics like a fish swims in water. At the time, the years 1959 to 1962 being my first three as a Baha'i, I was beginning to swim in new metaphysical waters. I knew nothing of logical positivism or metaphysics, but I was clearly attracted to the poetry and the narrative I found in the Baha'i Faith. It was poetry and narrative that invited reflection on the nature of my culture and humanity itself. -Ron Price with thanks to Evan Cameron, "Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies," Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 21, No.2, pp.492-494; and Hayden White, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," Critical Inquiry, Summer 1981.
The story was simply there,
like life itself:
not really a problem,
Helped me translate
knowing into telling,
took my life, what I'd done
and fashioned a form,
structures of meaning,
but slowly, faintly, like a star.
The story was translated
into my world in southern Ontario
by the lake on Seneca Street
where I played baseball
without fundamental damage
to me or the story.
And so it was that I began that drama,
only possible with those whom
you share a common history,
a drama of the invisibility
of interior experience,
the place where feelings lie hidden
and we have few words, if any,
for what happens inside us,
where we feel defeat
at the problem's enormity,
where we have trouble naming what we see. ....Ron Price 7 September 2001
SOME PROSE-POEMS, MORE PROSE-POEMS AND YET---EVEN MORE PROSE-POEMS
A RECREATION AND A RECKONING
Given the failure of humanity to respond to Baha’u’llah’s message or to respond only meagerly in Europe, North America and Australasia-those places where I have been involved in promulgating its teachings, I am inclined to agree, at least in part, with Wittgenstein who wrote in 1930 of "the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the previous century." Wittgenstein says his book is written to ‘the glory of God’, in order to have ‘a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings’ and to help people acquire ‘the understanding that consists in seeing connections.’-Ron Price with thanks to Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, p.301.
Nearly all your writing-and mine-
are private conversations with ourselves;
and that degeneration you spoke of
has continued apace these past seventy years
in the midst of a rebirth, a regeneration.
And so I write, too, to the glory of God
in the midst of a series of testing experiences
needed, apparently, to weld the world
into a single people.
I write of a recreation and a reckoning.
18 September 1999
WONDROUS LUSTRE: THE GESTALT
It’s been developing as a field of psychology along complex lines since Baha’u’llah passed away and His soul was able to "henceforth energize the whole earth to a degree unapproached at any stage in the course of its existence on this planet."1 The stress in this sub-field of psychology, this area of theory, is on: organic wholes, patterns, shapes, organizing perceptual patterns, the determining or causative nature of perception, perception’s central role in increasing awareness and hence energy and poetic insight, as far as this writer is concerned. Mental processes and organic wholes in Gestalt theory are seen as dynamic, structural units unique to each individual and much more than the sum of their parts. Complexity derives from differentiation not summation.-Ron Price with appreciation to Harry Helson, Collier’s Encyclopedia.Vol.11, pp.75-6; and 1 Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.244.
The centre, here, of this perceptual whole,
is partly known and partly unknown,
the one out there in the holy seat, the Word
and a thousand perspectives, on a thousand
issues; and the other inside, as mysterious as God,
perhaps it is the indwelling God, valued, precious,
so remote with an ecstacy of perception coming at
the end, after the long road. The more I pursue
the prize, the more it increases in value, with eternity
my greatest Friend and poetry, an endless experiment
in the precarious world of spiritual possessions,
their fleeting perceptions, their transience,
their formlessness and the wondrous lustre
of their distilled essence, their gestalt.1
9 June 1999
1Emily Dickinson, Perception and the Poet’s Quest, Greg Johnson, University of Alabama Press, 1985, p.117.
MARTIN BUBER’S ‘UNITY OF MANKIND’
True address from God directs man into the place of lived speech, where the voices of the creatures grope past one another, and in their very missing of one another succeed in reaching the eternal partner. We are willed to a life of communion. Part of this communion is what addresses me, what occurs to me, a concrete world reality, a creation, that reaches out to me, as part of the world-happening. It is part of my road, it is on the road, to God. It includes the body politic. It is sometimes called the world. It can never be definitely formulated for it includes so much that is and by its very pervasiveness,extent and complexity, simply beyond formulation, description and understanding.
From all this world-happening, this participation in the body politic and in a world of solitude, a unified and responsible person, a unity of a lived life, of an emerging character as an organization of self-control, a system of interpenetrating habits arises. A unity of mankind can be created from this interaction but only if some noetic integrator, some agent, some philosophy, religion, some complex system of fixed and relative truth interpenetrates the world and comes down into the everyday.-Ron Price with thanks to Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, The Fontana Library,London, 1947, pp.9-146.
Men will yearn for the pure form,
a vision of the believing and hoping
generations of humankind, genuine
community which we are only at the
beginning of as process and which
seems to involve some tension, both
within and without: we are a problem
to ourselves. And poetry comes along
to announce that, in solitude, on the
narrowest ridge, the mind of man is
thinking of the Other, of Being,
of a perplexing presence, of being
visited, of blessedness, of Thou,
of an ancient eternity of essence.
14 June 1999
The individual, according to Carl Jung, is possessed of a set of mythic symbols that relate to him or her alone. They are the by-products of having a unique history.(1) Another way of conceptualizing this idea is in terms of the metaphorical nature of physical reality. In this scheme we each assign a meaning to individual objects that cross our path, from their mythic meanings to their more simple, practical and often quite unadorned meanings. Success for writers and poets is not measured by the popularity of what they write, but by meaning, inward feelings and the simple desire to keep writing. A proactive stance and attitude, a taking what comes that can’t be changed, a sensitive play and utilization of the dichotomies of solitude-social, nature-nurture and activity-passivity and what can be changed all become quite significant. One does not seek a balance; one seeks what seems appropriate, timely, suitable to the spectrum of needs, wants and complex motivations in both oneself and in others in one’s immediate sphere of social interaction.-Ron Price with thanks to (1) Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Heinemann, London, 1994, p. 135.
In Latin fictio means ‘shaping’,
fiction’s first meaning: shaping.
And so I shape. It’s all shaping,
life’s endless material into form,
small forms, page after page,
a literary whole, so many little
things and great vistas and a future
that has only had its first shaping:
a shaping that’s called vision.
15 June 1999
POETRY: A NEW WORLD FOR HISTORY
History is philosophy teaching by experience. -Carlyle in Fabricating History: English Writers on the French Revolution, , Barton Friedman, Princeton UP, 1988, p.17.
The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world. -D.H. Lawrence in Acts of Attention: The Poems of D.H. Lawrence, Sandra Gilbert, Cornell UP, London, 1972, p.5.
Historical knowledge rendered meaningful
by conformity to some teleological model,
some linguistic construct which we actualize,
reconfigure as we read, shooting the present
with chips of messianic time, my consciousness
with ever higher levels of connectedness,
shooting my life with questions which recreate
some microcosm in its depth, breadth, beyond
the narrow, distorted into vistas, multiple dimensions,
in the theatre of eternity; for written history is always
‘history-for’, never divorced from complicating contexts,
condensed, chosen, displaced, elaborated, rationalized,
structured, emphasized, extrapolated, vantage-pointed,
like the images of a dream intending some manifest content,
some knowledgework, analogous to life: far beyond some
sequence of rosary beads, some simple linearity, neutral facticity.
22 October 1995
A NEW ORPHEUS
Poetry was always meant to be an instrument of immense power with a scarcely foreseeable but wholly positive future.
-Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, Yale UP, New Haven, 1960, p.51.
A new Orpheus has come with golden touch
to soften steel and find the mystic bone,
to tame the tiger, uncover mysterious stone,
create new leviathan, to dance on sand,
to draw all things to Him, especially man.
This new Orpheus Who sings for all
to science, philosophy and poetry,
He has come and issued His clear call,
having been raised up by some
Most Great Spirit descended,
personated by a Maiden and I
have heard this Orpheus’ call.
It is this call that makes me yearn
toward a philosophic song and
cherish those times when time is reborn,
when a certain luminosity, deep coolness,
takes me back to myself, turning the visible
into the invisible and some inner breath.
The wondrous Orpheus of this new age
urges a harmony of science and poetry.
Dear Wordsworth in his The Prelude
did strike this harmonic chord and describe
an organic growth, its unity, timelessness
and ours in the exquisite chamber, the deep
recesses of my heart, the seat of the revelation
of the inner mysteries of Vision, of God, of Mystery.
It is here that we must free ourselves of the shadowy
and ephemeral attachments, to hear the piercing
sweetness of music unloosed when we free ourselves
of love and hate, detach and renounce and free our
tongues from excess or idle speech and imbue ourselves
with such a spirit of search that Orpheus, like some
Mystic Herald from the City of God, will endow us
with a new heart , a new mind, a new eye and a new ear
and we will gaze with the eye of God.
24 September 1995
OUR NEW HOME
We have here a centre of gravity, some ideal of the rounded fullness of life in all its variety, a normality, a natural condition in which men can feel easy and at home. There is something trusted and familiar here, an inner battle but not a man divided against himself, or against others, or against nature. There is skepticism here, deep and pervasive, necessary, a collirium. There is a single doctrine, a coherent conceptual schema which explains life and offers solutions to the human condition in all its staggering complexity. But it is not easy, not simple; it demands all we have as individuals and as a society. We have here a high idealism and the essence of pragmatism, an intellectualization of practice. We have a new, richer, deeper form of collective self-knowledge of what men are and can be. It is a branching out in a new direction, tidy in some ways, messy in others, still hesitant. It is not random, haphazard or chaotic, but there is tragedy here and a solemnity beneath the joy. There are many burning issues, but within a framework of conception, of definition, of order, of choice. There is something complete and cogent, growing and illuminated by a half-light, formidable and massive, yet unobtrusive and a symptom of a basic sanity in our time. -Ron Price with apprecation to Roger Hausheer for his Introduction to Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas-Isaiah Berlin, Hogarth Press, London, 1979, pp.13-53.
Here is a vision so novel,
so complex; here am I
spellbound in its grip,
in its constellation of forces,
in its richly suggestive doors
of perception, engendering
a perspective for what is
distinctive here, re-examining
the bases of modernity and
its underlying philosophy.
How can one sharply, succinctly,
say what is distinctive here?
Reason and revelation in an embrace
the like of which the world has never seen.
A vision of the world, unique, sublime,
relative to our age, in the words of
an incomparable, brilliant writer
now witnessing the triumph of civility
and we watch good men being made,
albeit slowly, in institutions, at last,
blessed, in a modern oasis amidst a sea
of aridity, imprecision, suspicion, technical
virtuosity, conformity, monotony, military--
industrial complexes, bureaucracy and
a craving for a new Gemeinschaft.
The crooked timber of humanity is being made
straight before our eyes in an amazingly complex
process while the heavy weight of recent centuries
of nationalism at last is loosened while we find
a true international friend in our own home.
1 December 1995
SHAPING INNER LIFE
The act of intuition is...an act of perception whereby the content is formed....turned into form.....a work of art is essentially in the artist’s mind...there is an intuited Gestalt...there is contemplation of the complexities, simplicities, import....meaning is synthetically construed...there is candid envisagement....there is clarification and organization of the intuition.....In the process the reader’s imagination of external reality can, in fact, be shaped...a revelation can occur to the reader’s inner life....because of some fresh formulation of their felt life, life which is at the heart of their own culture.
-Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953, Chapters 20 and 21.
Thank you, Susanne, for helping me define
just what I am doing, trying to do,
as I write all these poems, trying to
express all this trying, this doing,
this feeling, this thinking, this imagining,
this memory, this intuiting, this defining,
this clarifying, this organizing, this shaping,
this formulating: to see with my own eyes
hear with my own ears know of my own
knowledge1, so that others may do the same.
1Baha'u'llah, Hidden Words.
A LIVING AND BREATHING COMMUNITY
By its definition, a world view and its complex of ideas, aspirations and feelings is necessarily highly unified and coherent: yet art is frequently the exact opposite, striving to depict the complexity and plenitude of life through an open-ended form saturated with different levels of meaning. This tension between a unity of world view and a richness of multiplicity finds expression in social life, in history, in philosophy. Much of the estrangement and alienation, the suffering, in our experience of everyday life finds its origins in this tension, this tension between world vision and coherence on the one hand and the bewildering variety of stuff in the everyday on the other. -Ron Price with thanks to Alan Swingewood, "Theories of Aesthetic Form", Sociological Poetics and Aesthetic Form, St. Martins Press, NY, 1987, pp.3-76.
There’s an act of confidence here
in the birth of this writer, this writing,
which is never born in the minds of
most men, but in that still-birth a breath
of freedom is still-born for me through others,
through the interpretive meaning and consumption
of the few, a precious few. Here lies its destination,
its real unity in a field of complex social forces,
out in the collectivity, complete at last, living,
used in one great swarm of culture, history
and individuality intersecting and creating
great art or nothingness in tradition’s acute
defining consciousness which is impossible
to assess except in a very limited way.
Here the reality of contemporaneity
places its poetry, seeks to rise above
any spurious unity and closure of an
official culture, and lives in a struggling,
striving community of doing, being and having.
14 September 1996
STANCE AND WITHDRAWAL
History, for the poet, is a series of snapshots with the poet in every scene.....Genuine narrative must (i) respect time, (ii) locate elements of private or collective struggle and (iii) observe without sentiment, escaping if it can the unconscious conventions of society. These are the basic elements of a genuine political consciousness. This consciousness is sensitive and enriched by a great wealth of science, philosophy, religion, in a word, culture. In this wondrous milieux is found the new poet. His home is one of solitude and inwardness, emotion and reason, many selves and many moods. -Ron Price with appreciation to Frederick Pollack, "Poetry and Politics" in Poetry After Modernism, Robert McDowell, editor, Story Line Press, Brownsville, Oregon, 1991.
Poetry is, in essence about something;
this poetry seeks a public voice
commensurate with its political
subject-matter. And, so, I try to connect
with other stories. What I create is a record
of oblique, hesitant approaches to a new politics,
a new stance and withdrawals from that stance.1
26 November 1996
1Robert Lowell, major American poet of the 1950s and 1960s, wrote poetry that tried to be political in this way. See ibid., p.9. This describes, in some ways, my own poetics of the political and so I include Lowell’s view/words here.
ONE OF THE GREATEST PUZZLES
Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of the world, can alter. -Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p.155.
How is it that the same looking cells-
with the same genetic blueprint-
early in the development of the human
embryo become different tissues?
It’s one of the greatest puzzles in biology.
The recipies are genes; the cookbook
is the chromosomes and the chefs the
protein molecules on DNA which switch
genes on and off—so the story goes which
I read in some biology text—but I understand
it not....does anyone?
How is it that the same looking people
with the same basic human physiology
for the first phase of their existence-
some four score years and ten-
have such different soul experiences
after their separation from the body?
It’s one of the greatest puzzles in
the history of religion, philosophy
and theology. The recipies are the
specific theologies of the afterlife;
the cookbooks the Holy Writings
of the great religious traditions
and the chefs the prophetic Teachers.
4 January 1996
....the compound eye of the male horsefly....arrays about 7000 lenses in crystalline rows like a microscopic honeycomb....they register the movement of any visible object passing from lens to lens with such efficiency that a fly may accurately judge the speed of anything from the minute hand on a watch to a swooping bird or a flashing tail....This also explains why honeybees are particuarly attracted to flowers swaying across their line of sight. -Guy Murchie, The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration in Science and Philosophy, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1978, p.184.
Have you ever wondered why
the cat and owl look straight ahead
and the rabbit and dear see sideways?
Their eyes are set stereoscopically
coorindinated ensuring 360 degree vision.
Have you ever wondered why
some human beings see truth
everywhere they look and others
seem to be blind as well as deaf?
They seem to have turned on the
lamp of search and striving, even
devotion to learning, turned on....
The owl can swivel its neck more
than a full circle in a tenth of a second.
The much-hunted woodcock has eyes
in the back of its head; a gecko’s eyes
look like four diamonds and kingfishers
have eight times as many cells in their
retinas to notice fish or mice for the great
downward swoop and the great catch.
Humankind is endowed with the
greatest of tools for the rational
faculty: the eye. He has eyes to
see but sees not and ears to hear
but hears not. He sees with the eyes
of his neighbour, but not his own eyes;
and knows from the knowledge of
others but not his own knowledge.
5 January 1996
ENGENDERING A PERSPECTIVE
We make these observations.....to open up lines of thought, to encourage a re-examination of the bases of modern society, and to engender a perspective for consideration of the distinctive features of the Order of Baha’u’llah. -The Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Baha’is of the United States of America, 29 December 1988, p. 6.
I have thought, for years, read and read
and read about the bases of society---
ancient and modern, stone age and
middle age---I’d like to summarize,
as difficult as that is, in a short poem
the fruit of many years of that labour:
It seems to me, there are two lines,
two pillars, two great edifaces,
of thought on which the whole
of society is based: traditional religious
and political thought. These traditions
are the bases of society everywhere
on earth---now, then and in future.
The perspective this basic understanding
engenders in considering the features of
the Order of Baha’u’llah is to see it as
grounded entirely in the Writings of its
Twin-Founders and Their appointed
Successors over a century and a half.
All the world of writing in political and
religious philosophy over the last two to
three millennia serves to help us examine
the bases of modern society and sharpen
our insights into the nature of this distinctive
Order and our own complex global world.
When one begins to look at these great systems
of political and religious thought one is faced with
an enormous corpus of material, enough to spend
one’s whole lifetime pouring over for points for
comparison and contrast with this new Order for
our day and for our survival into humankind’s future.
4 December 1996
DEFINING THE WHOLE BUSINESS
Life is a dangerous bridegroom and to survive we need to approach each day as if we were going to war. We must take our battle to the very centre of the earth and defeat the right and left wings of the hosts of all the countries. We must be faithful to our principles. In these three sentences I have drawn on John Cowper Powys, ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Carl Von Clausewitz in an attempt to synthesize their attitude to life insofar as it is a struggle, as it is a war.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, December 15, 1996.
John Cowper Powys wrote a book
that came out in that Holy Year1
with a beautiful articulation of much
that is a Baha’i philosophy about:
driving off the evil of self-worship,
being a good companion to ourselves
accepting our loneliness, the power of
belief and wishful thinking, never getting
angry, laughing at life and ourselves,
travelling lightly and simply, keeping our
spirit up, as far as possible, drawing on
poetry to deal with those slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune and as a natural gesture
of both defiance and enjoyment, but still---
we must all decide what is this whole business.
15 December 1996
1He finished the book in 1952 and it was published in 1953---In Spite Of: A Philosophy for Everyone. That Holy Year spanned November 1952 to November 1953.
A SEISMOGRAPHIC RECORD
Dante had at his disposal a comprehensive and intellectually consistent image of the cosmos and its relationship to God.
-Harold L. Weatherby, The Keen Delight: The Christian Poet in the Modern World, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1975, p.5.
In an age profoundly infected with philosophical scepticism the problem of writing sacred poetry, the great song, requires that we recapture a genuine science of invisible things. This can be done through a grasp by the poet of both the external and internal worlds. The poet conveys his creative intuition into a receptive intuition -ibid. pp.123-149.
The poet, who is a member of the Baha’i community, has before him every atom in existence and the essence of all created things1. There is no break between nature, art, poetry, science, religion and personal life. It is all one, a dynamic unity amidst multiplicity, amidst an organic body of ideas. On the basis of a vast corpus of sacred Writings this same poet has before him a massive body of literature. Individuals who possess fully developed and comprehensive knowledge of the major issues of many fields like: systematic theology, philosophy, epistomology, ontology, aesthetics, theophanology, history and psychology are, for the most part, rare in our present age and hard to come by and expertise must be narrowed. The foundation exists for a rich and fertile global literature to evolve within a fusion of opposites, within a fusion of perspectives on some ladder of reflection and, inevitably, amidst a complex cross-fertilisation. -Ron Price, The Emergence of a Baha’i Consciousness in World Literature, Unpublished Manuscript, 1996.
You get enough principles here
to build a cosmos in your brain,
to wander with Dante through
his world of keen delight,
to rebuild his model,
a reconstructed universe.
This is far more than mere living,
of simply amusing oneself, more
than some restless dilettante spectator
on the lounge room couch; this is
appreciation, deep and full, far beyond
a momentary touch of sorrow; this is some
vortex spinning with ideas, driving, hopefully,
its readers into their own memory, back into
a reverie, past depths and the vagueness of
past-times into a oneness that is slowly sweeping
the face of the earth, a search that is one’s own
self-expression in the deepest of deep wells.....
This universe, this cosmos, this self, its likes and dislikes,
comings and goings, faults and weaknesses are one entity,
even in its contradictions: the oneness of a microcosm in its
egotism and limitations, walking backwards or forewords,
in some new Rome at the crossroads, in some solitude and
aloneness which is necessary and unavoidable, it seems,
bringing the past and the future into now, with delicate scents,
pulsations, unnameable tactile sensations, with an anxiety
surrounding my moments of tranquillity but with light as the
basis of structure and darkness always at the periphery
on an inner lifeline of such complexity, such a seismographic
record and sensibility, such a breadth of compass within the
distilled sphere of these words and their fusion of opposites.
18 August 1996
1Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words.
No summation of the field of psychology and the Baha’i Faith, insofar as both this academic discipline and this new world Faith relate to my experience and my years of study, would be a faithful record of what has been especially meaningful to me through their cross-fertilization, if I did not include the psychological theories of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung. This new world religion emerged at the spiritual low-water mark in human history just as the field of psychology was itself emerging out of a long history of philosophy and what might be generally called ‘the history of ideas’ for convenience. I do not want to attempt even a summary of the contribution of these three theorists in psychology: such a summary would itself lead to prolixity. Although the Baha’i writings are themselves silent concerning particular psychological concepts, there is much room for common ground, for further study, for comparison and contrast and, in the process, illumination of the lives of human beings.-Ron Price with thanks to Laura M. Herzog, "A Preliminary Analysis of the Baha’i Concept of Mental Health," A Clinical Research Project for The School of Psychology Chicago Campus, May 1998.
I’ve always liked the idea of salvation
as motion rather than a spiritual homeo-
stasis, a steady-state-theory. I’m saying:
some kind of individual and collective reflection
where I am a process not some thing, entity,
but a flow, a life-changing-not-fixed down--
a river to the sea, part of a whole and yet
separate, a yin-and-yang idea here folks---
some other world stretching-out and all this
stuff here reflecting another world....a using
this world to understand another...the next,
to explain the unfamiliar by the familiar......
abstract in terms of the concrete, extracting
our own meaning, no imposition thank you
very much—had enough of that!—a self-
choosing, independent search in context,
a dramaturgical, metaphorical exercise--
high and low drama, for that is our life
and light, our discomfort, tests, our growth.1
1John Hatcher, The Purpose of Physical Reality, Wilmette, 1987.
11 June 2007
--------------------------SOME PHILOSOPHY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY--------------------------
However changeable, new and wonderful configurations, an ever-varying splendour intimately connected with the power of thought and associated with a mysterious core of self or personality, has come into my life over the decades and it’s story is here, however obscurely narrated and however set in a context of change and mystery. It is found in my prose-poetry, my prose, my essays, my memoirs and my personal life. Some readers may enjoy reading this material and some may not. Most human beings on this planet, I’m sure, will never even see what I have written. The circumstances of life are always changing and truths seem to constantly need restating to maintain their grip, their purchase of truth. Perhaps that is why re-reading is as important as reading, rewriting is as important as writing and reliving every day is critical to our personal growth and development. Perhaps that is why, too, that, as Nietzsche said: "every great philosophy so far has been . . . the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." What Nietzsche says here is but part of the recognition that anything a person says or writes tells us something essential about the speaker or writer. This is a commonplace notion which extends to all areas of discourse. Not only literature but philosophy and science can also be seen as forms of self-expression, types of autobiography. Self-portraiture is very difficult to avoid when you write, indeed when you live and breath and have your being. As soon as readers accept that a literary text expresses, or makes exterior, something within its author, then it becomes inevitable that they will use that text as a key to that interior, that biography, that autobiography. As a man is, so he sees and so he writes—and lives.
The activism that has been part of my life over these four epochs has many facets. It is not like a journey to the corner store, not the occasional donation to some organization like amnesty or a save the whale or the tree campaign, or a periodic march in the name of some cause or an endless series of criticisms of government, institutions and prominent people in public. It is a plunge into the dark with a commitment, a commitment for life and with many strings attached. The plunge into the world of light, I have come to think, is something one must wait for when one has left this mortal coil, at least in terms of this form ofactivism that concerns me here. Of course, all is not darkness and all is not light. That is true here and may be true in the world beyond. The history of the activism I have been associated with since the 1950s is more like the weather than like checkers or chess or something that ends after an afternoon of protest or a vote in an election after weeks of advertising’s sloganizing and simplifying or after a job comes to an end or a bad marriage. Games, elections and protests, jobs and many marriages, all end, but the weather you always have with you. At the end of a game, you add up the scores, sort out the winners and losers, close up the board and go on to something else.
But with the social activism in this Cause, one can pause, take a break, pack up your bags and move to another town or even another marriage, but you can never add up the score. It’s part of your mental set until you resign, stop believing in its truth, get converted to some secular or other cause like pessimism, skepticism, nihilism, cynicism, one of the many wasms and isms that occupy people’s minds and hearts and that also can change with the seasons. You can’t tote up the score, close up the board, and go home unless, as I say, you lose your sense of commitment, your sense of belief.
We must acknowledge the darkness of our moment and our world, but we also must realize that the score isn't in, that it can't be known. Not ever, not really. We play a part in a process and we must define that process and examine in what way we want to be part of that process. We have to make a wager, to take a leap into the dark, and bet on faith in our cause, hope and commitment to its future and, in the short term, we simply can't know the consequences of our acts, a point I can not make with enough force. Sure and quick victories, always delightful and always giving you the feeling the fight was worth it, worth living for, are a different genre to defeats.
Defeats are not final and, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal eight months into WW1, "The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think." Dark, she seems to say, she seems to define, as something inscrutable, not as something terrible. We often lose the meaning of darkness as Woolf defines it. People imagine the end of the world is nigh because the future is unimaginable. Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world without the USSR and with the Internet?
We talk about "what we hope for" in terms of what we hope will come to pass, but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it's a more powerful and a more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa? But hope must be linked to something more, something akin to certitude, something akin to whole-hearted enthusiasm, something that invites a totality of response unchecked by any maybe, one of the characteristics of great art.
The famous film actor, Sean Connery, once said about writing his memoirs that the process was "time-absorbing and very wearing. It's the sort of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night." I, too, found the exercise wearing for many years especially after the first edition was completed in 1993. For nearly a decade, 1993 to 2003, I could not get a sense of meaning, of perspective, that accumulation of novelty, of freshness and of vitality with respect for my memoir that would make it live, if not for others at least for me. It felt like dry dust, the transfer of dry bones from one graveyard to another. When I finally did find a fresh approach in the years 2003 to 2006 the exercise became time-absorbing, time-consuming, indeed, an obsession and an enriching one personally. I felt a sense of literary virtuosity I had never had before, an interpretive extravagance which may turn some readers off even as it turned me on. My private scaffolding, though, was not so much one of self-assurance, but rather one of striving to cross the spaces between life’s fragments and its many points of separation and experience some sense of synthesis, union and wholeness.
Whatever I achieved in this vein, with this aim and direction in my work was a gift. I was not involved so much in amassing facts and relating endless details of my life, although I could not entirely avoid this activity, as I was experiencing a precarious literary existence suspended between the past and the present hoping to touch some ice-tipped azure of my highest excellence with both moderation and balance, flexibility and elasticity. It was like my soul trying to glimpse certitude, trying to touch my life with wonder, trying to tell something of my soul’s flight if not my mind’s ease, something that reflected the motions of my heart in this twilight generation, this generation of the half-light. But whether I was responding to the capacities of some potential readership, I really had no idea. In the several years that this work had been sprinkled in varying quantities onto the internet, I slowly learned, yet again and again, to respond to criticism and misunderstanding with either silence or a in a language that is "temperate, moderate and infinitely courteous," grounded in an awareness of my own shortcomings and my own frail vulnerability and weakness, tempering my voice and training my vison. This process, this tempering, this training is slow, repeated many times on the road of life and seems to need a whole lifetime to make it part of your very nerves and sinews.
Sean Connery also admitted that his autobiography proved to be "much, much more difficult" than he anticipated. When I started writing my narrative in 1984/5 I had no idea what the process would be like. I could not and did not anticipate that I’d still be writing it nearly twenty-five years later. Connery doesn't have any glib explanations about the way his career of fame and wealth developed. My explanations about how my life developed are also far from glib, although after more than 2500 pages, some of my readers may wish they were glib.
After long continued intercourse between my many teachers, as we have been in joint pursuit of our several, our many, subjects—over these decades--suddenly, insensibly, like the light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, there has been born, created, it seems in my soul, some dazzling rays of a strange, heavenly power, which nourishes and is nourished but is just about impossible to convey in language, in writing and a fortiori in dialogue with others without sounding presumptuous, pretentious, self-righteous, even arrogant in some sense. This flashing forth, this kindling and dazzling is and has been a process not an event. The process has been so incremental, often so insensible and certainly so mysterious that to discuss it here would require a separate book.
THE INIMITABLE CLIVE JAMES: HISTORY WRITING AND PHILOSOPHY
In closing this section of my website, I would like to say a few things about Clive James’ new book Cultural Amnesia. James and his book illustrate some of what I’d like to say about this process of writing that I have referred to in the above paragraph. James’s book also conveys some things about history and philosophy and their relation to the contemporary scene. His book is also prompted by the suspicion that a new age of barbarism is indeed descending on humanity. James has lots of company in this view as he entertains us both on TV and in his books. My recent memoir is also prompted by a similar intuition. But like the barbarism of the late Roman Empire in the West in the second and third century A.D., I take the view that a new religion is growing in our midst. Like Christianity which crept, half-hidden, along the foundations and against the background of an Augustan empire, the Baha’i Faith seems, thusfar, too insigniticant to be noticed by history for it, too, is growing slowly, obscurely, insensibly in our modern and postmodern world.
In his book James also offers a steady stream of advice on how to go about the business of self-education. I offer advice, for the most part indirectly, or such is my hope, for I am all too conscious of the limitations of direct advice-giving; I do not advise any must-reads or how-tos. There are, as in James’s work, many anecdotes, but I do not see myself as exemplar. Like James in his Cultural Amnesia I launch a symphony of voices; I hope it is not a cacophony.
My life, like James's, has been richly social, but not in the world of celebrities and media. I have read a great deal, but nothing like the quantity that James has consumed. James says that most of his listening was to the authors behind the books he read; in my case, until I retired in 1999, most of my listening was to people in the raw: individuals, groups, communities and, of course, the pervasive media. For a host of reasons--the expansion of universities, of suburbs and of telecommunications, to name three--the kind of face-to-face intellectual-artistic life that was exemplified in coteries in the past, and that flourished in other twentieth-century cities before WW1, simply no longer exists or so James sees it. I agree, but not all the way. I feel as if I’ve done an aweful lot of face-to-face stuff in my life.
James's answer to this intellectual-artistic bereavement is his book Cultural Amnesia as is my memoir, partly, and my prose-poetry. In James’ book he recreates the café, the former place of the intellectual-artist; he has created it in his mind; it is a convocation of voices that respond to one another across the barriers of language, outlook, expressive form and, most of all, time. Over the decades and beginning while at university in the 1960s, I was driven away from academic institutions of higher learning and toward a more journalistic approach, to a plain speech and a style of writing that was not as esoteric as an MA thesis or a PhD dissertation. Direct observation and the necessity to entertain was absolutely crucial for James—and for me. I would never have surived in classrooms had these qualities not surfaced insensibly over the first half-a-dozen years of my teaching experience from 1967 to 1973.
Not in the mass media eye, as James was and with his immense success, I settled for a more modest achievement in the world of "the school," "the college," "the classroom." Like James, I wrote essays, reviews, sketches and squibs for students; I also wrote in longer and more conventionally prestigious forms, but always in styles that had been honed by the whetstone of conversation. Obviously, too, my writing did not engender the prestige that accrured to James, that he accumulated over the last half century.
Writing for the student and for the popular press, even at a much less successful and prestigious level of everyday journalism than James, demands both simplicity and compression, and compression, if it is of good quality, makes language glow. I felt, as the years went on, that some light was finally being emitted from the marks on the page that I was putting down. The stylistic models that James and I emulated were much different. However different, they each could "pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs." James highest hero, "the voice behind the book’s voices" and one of several exceptions to his rule of writing only about twentieth-century figures, was Tacitus.
It was Tacitus who wrote the sentence, says James, out of which the entire volume Cultural Amnesia grew: "They make a desert and they call it peace." James heard the line quoted as a young man and "saw straight away that a written sentence could sound like a spoken one, but have much more in it."
My Tacitus, was Gibbon and Gibbon saw his history as a continuation of Tacitus’ work. I felt James and I were on a similar track. I would like to think that my memoirs are what James’ book Cultural Amnesia was to the reviewer in The Nation; namely, "less a collection of great figures than of great sentences." But alas and alack, this is not the case. That same reviewer, William Deresiewicz, went on to say, "reading Cultural Amnesia feels like having a conversation with the most interesting person in the world: You're not saying much, but you just want to keep listening anyway." Well, I’m not sure I have had such a conversation in years—as a talker or a listener—expect in books. But James is, for me, one of my many, one of my crucial, mentors.
The reason James is such a good talker is that he's such a good listener. He means it literally when he says that the book took forty years to write, because its quotations are the harvest of the notebooks he has kept for all that time, and the notebooks are the harvest of his insatiable reading. Forty years of talking tired me out as did forty years of listening. Forty years of my note-taking has resulted, for me, in a small study filled with files that annoy my wife who has a penchant for the tidy and the clean, the orderly and the useful. It is a penchant I share with her but in a different modus operandi, modus vivendi. Forty years of reading and note-taking gave me an even greater appetite for print after I retired from full-time, part-time and casual-work in the years 1999 to 2005.
Ever since running into Tacitus, says James, he has been a connoisseur of aphorisms and aphorists--of writing that is both conversational and compressed and of the kinds of minds that produce it. It's no coincidence that he is also a connoisseur of music. "Echoes of a predecessor's rhythm, pace and melody are rarely accidental": That sentence contains four terms that sound like they refer to music, but it's about writing. Rhythm is central to James's understanding of style, and so are "echoes"--that is, memory. He is himself an incandescent and virtually habitual aphorist.
I, too, went down this road but not quite as passionately as James, for I was not in the media spotlight that he was, a spotlight where the aphorism is one of the kings of the sound-bite and the clever turn of phrase. I did collect quotations in my many notebooks, but clever turns of phrase and jokes always slightly eluded me. As I approached my sixty-fifth year(2009), I found there was just too much to copy into notebooks; there was too much that was useful. By then my computer directory began to come in handy. I did not have had to transcribe an entire book, entire articles, paragraphs or sentences. The internet and the computer saved an immense pile of paper and pleased my wife, a person who had become, already by the age of fifty-five when I took an early retirement, the crucial person in my life. Micro-soft and google had become the base of my new library and it was a library that was infinite in its range.
The love of the beautifully turned phrase goes far deeper than mere appreciation. The identifiable tone of voice, a tone which is a synthesis of all the voices one has ever heard, is at the core of the term "voice." The most individual style in the world is the product of a collective effort. In gathering the voices that inhabit our own, the echoes we hear in our head, are indeed produced by the growth of our mind; it is the song of ourself. I have discussed this in connection with Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude and my own poetry.
To fully participate in community life in the sense that I place at the heart of this autobiography, each Baha’i must find ways to engage in the work, the community enterprize in their own individual way. They will do some things that others do, that other community members do, but they must be able to imagine their own work as being an important part of a larger enterprise. And they must be comfortable that the larger enterprise and its smaller components as well as the many conventions of that community are compatible with the identities they envision for themselves. Being a part of the community, then, is not simply a matter of learning new skills, new attitudes and new values, but also of fielding new calls for identity construction. This understanding of identity suggests that people enact and negotiate identities in the world over time. For identity is dynamic and it is something that is presented and re-presented, constructed and reconstructed in interaction. And like the tension in violin strings which are the basis of musical harmony, life in community also possess a tension with which we must play in harmony. Of course, this is not always so. Often only noise is produced. This is true when one writes, when one talks and when one lives and works in community and in solitude.
The individual experience of power derives from belonging, but it also derives from exercising control over what we belong to, what we participate in, what we read, indeed, an entire panoply and pageantry of activity. Each individual is heterogeneously made up of various competing discourses, often conflicted and virtually always possessed of contradictory scripts. Our consciousness is anything but unified. In many ways wholeness or integration is not so much a goal as a battle, at least some kind of perpetual balancing act of dealing with unstable forces, forces which we must try to reconcile or they will tear at our psyches. These unstable forces may also cause us to withdraw and, like a planet slipping from orbit and following the dictates of its own centrifugal momentum, become ultimately so remote from the magnetic attraction of the sun that it flies irretrievably into remoteness. This can happen to both individuals and societies. Inner conflict is not so much a disorder as it is the first law of human psychic life and is part of that principle of polarity at the centre of life. This may become untrue in some future golden age; I think it unlikely, but whether it will be true or false in some future society, it seems true now and it has been true in my time and, more importantly--at least for me--, in my own inner life.
The Australian critic and raconteur Clive James made a pertinent point in this connection when he compered an ABC FM Radio program about Australian orchestras in concert. He said that large countries like Australia and the USA don't have identities. They are too diverse. I think the same is true about individuals. They are also too diverse over a lifetime to have a single identity.
There is now a great wealth of literature available to the Baha’i community, both in-house literature and the burgeoning material now available in the marketplace. My book occupies a small place, possesses no particular authority and competes for a place, for space, with a print and electronic media industry of massive proportions. In order to survive and do well in most of the print and electronic media a writer must develop the ability to put things simply and effectively, in a manner that everyone can understand. Such a writer has maybe a minute and a half to two minutes if he is talking on the TV to explain a complex subject or a series of short verbal expositions if he is involved in an interview; even a book, if it is to find a large readership in the mass circulation market, must be as simple as possible.
Many academics and intellectuals are so steeped in academic jargon that they are unable to simplify their material. I hope this book is not an example of this academic problem, an example of the problem of someone who could not pull off the simplification process. I’m afraid simplicity and brevity are not marks of my literary style. So, perhaps, I will fail here. Time will tell.
I knew of a senior academic who was asked to appear on a local TV station. She showed up with six or seven books and they had little pieces of paper stuck in the books for purposes of quotation. The whole interview was over in less than two minutes; she never read any of her quotations and she was frustrated that she just couldn’t make her points. She didn’t understand that if you’re going to play in the media ballpark, you have to play by their rules, not your own. I like to think that this book, this autobiography, has allowed me to have my six books and their quotations and that the role of this book does not include a two minute TV summary or an interview of ten minutes on an arts program. On the other hand, I could probably write a ten second autobiographical-ad grab, summarize what I’m all about in one or two minutes and be interviewed for any appropriate length of time. Maybe it will never happen before I die.
There are many different kinds of self-referential writing. I have incorporated some of them in what is for me a surprisingly large work invoking Whitman's "I am large, I contain multitudes," as an appropriate presiding spirit for the genre. Whatever largeness I claim to possess, it is the same largeness we all possess in relation to ourselves. We all must live in our own skins for all our days and the sense of our largeness--or our smallness for that matter--is a result of our bodily manifestation, our physical proximity to self. In the multitude of methods and genres of studies of Baha’i history and experience, teachings and organization, autobiography is either tentatively acknowledged, invoked by negation or simply passed over in silence. It is one genre that is, for the most part, conspicuous by its absence from any bibliography. This has begun to change in the last decade or two. This piece of writing is part of that change.