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Viewing Your Life:
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Posted 18 December 2009 - 11:46 PM
Just as casting is important in the role of the director so too is this the case for writers as they choose just what they will include in their work from the thousands of people who have been on the stage of their life. The right cast helps the dramaturgical process on the stage as well as between the covers of a book. A good play, a successful production, says Sue Rider, “is one which is electrifying, spiritually, emotionally, visually and intellectually stimulating for the people who see it, the audience.” This is, I think, equally true of the final product of a piece of writing. As the writer of this work, I have to be like a creative director and create an artistic environment where my own creativity can blossom. Flexibility, openness to change, listening to others, indeed, a wide range of qualities needed for creativity to find a home are necessary if the work is to live and engage others. Even then, in the end, only some will come to see the production, read the article or read the book. Few of the total population will become stimulated. The exercise is not fundamentally about popularity, at least not to me, however important a variable popularity may be.
Rather than seeing form, literary or physical, as something divided into the classical binaries of order and entropy, form now is often regarded as a continuum expressing varying degrees of pattern and repetition, elements that are at the core of structure, any structure. Insofar as the structure of this book is concerned, it seems to me it is more cumulative than sequential. What readers get here is more a group of semi-independent analyses occurring in unevenly distributed clusters, rather than linear arguments leading to a clear conclusion. The individual analyses I put on page after page are themselves often partial and the conclusions are stated somewhat obliquely. Some of the book's best moments are suggestive in ways that elude easy articulation. I want readers to realize that I am grappling with some of the central theoretical issues of autobiography, particularly in a Baha’i context, in a way that few Baha’is, if any, have done before.
Not everyone will enjoy thinking about such matters, such analysis and introspection, as I have raised in this book, and those who don't will probably dislike this book or, more importantly, they will probably not even pick the book up or come to know of its existence. What I try to do is make a case, one that is undeniably personal and quite idiosyncratic, but ultimately I hope persuasive--a case that this book is less interesting for its connections to existing scholarship than for the fresh and, I like to think, provocative things that I have to say. Each reader, especially each Baha’i reader--an organization I have been assoicated with for nearly 60 years-- has been weaned since the late 1970s and early 1980s--a generation now--on a diversity of print that no previous generation has enjoyed and I trust this diversity has set a heterogeneous perspective, thus overcoming whatever homogeneity had existed before. This experience of the last generation makes, I like to think, a receptive climate for my work. But, of course, those looking for a narrative, an interesting story, are likely to be disappointed when they come to read this work.
I have felt, more and more as my memoir developed in the last two decades, that the very appropriate role of both my memoirs and my poetry should be what Mary Shelley called “the intrusion of self in a work of art," and “the habit of self-analysis and display." For this approach results in a work in which "the human heart" is as some “undiscovered country." Mary Shelley says such works may become the favorites among men because of their “imagination and sensibility," but they are favorites only to some readers. Such works, she continues, belonging as they do to the imagination, are often not appreciated or enjoyed by many.
Doris Lessing once wrote that the great bourgeois monster, the bourgeois nightmare is repetition. It is, of course, both nightmare and salvation. At one end of the continuum we find extreme order, pattern and traditional forms and at the other end we find gibberish, chaos and disorder. Fragmentation is something we all experience and it is found between life’s extremes and at the extremes as well. Fractal autobiography works in the ground between the extremes of life. Digression, interruption, fragmentation and lack of continuity, then, are part of the normal world of autobiography. Fractal comes from the Latin for fragmented or broken: hence the term fractal autobiography. Autobiography, as a literary form, possesses a certain malleability, a certain pluralism of forms. In my work, my narrative and analysis, there is no single triumphant highway; rather, there is a maze of paths, a network of disparate forms. I have experienced much of my life this way. If there is any single, any major, creative achievement, it lies in the synthesis of divergent forms such as prose and poetry and content and ideas from several of the social sciences and humanities mixed with the quotidian narrative of an everyman.
However much of a synthesis I achieve, my work is riddled with heterogeneity, a strange composite of belief and scepticism, action, yarn and analytical or metaphysical abstruseness. Some of my narrative seems fashioned out of an adventure story and some seems derived from what I have read, heard and seen in several dozen places: amid the sounds of students moving down corridors and in classrooms, amid the screech of traffic in a taxi and many cities and towns, the deafening clatter of machines in a tin mine, the whisper of voices in offices and the variously pitched voices of people in lounge-rooms across two continents. Into such robust and not-so-robust stuff, however, I infiltrate fine-spun strands of philosophical and psychological speculation. My story and my analysis characteristically oscillates between contraries. Whatever unity I feel I achieve in the midst of these contraries and this heterogeneity; I’m sure there will be readers for whom this unity is equally elusive, usually unattained and, in attained, not of interest to them.
William Empson in his now classic work on ambiguity suggests, the "essential key to the poetic use of language is that it is the reader who invents reasons and weighs judgements as to why a poet has chosen to convey the facts he has.” Ambiguity is a major device for the poet to engage us imaginatively, by forcing us to evaluate the balance of a particular phrase. There is much poetry in this autobiography and there is some ambiguity. Ambiguity is unavoidable in both daily life and in poetry. I must say, though, that I try to avoid the ambiguous as much as possible to make the readers’ job easier and because, for the most part, I like to call things straight. Much of the humour everywhere, but especially here in Australia where I have laid my hat for decades, is based on ambiguity among other factors. I find it both enriches life and lightens it as well as causes problems between people because of that very ambiguity which so often can result in taking a comment the wrong way, causing offence.
As architect Nigel Reading writes, "Pure Newtonian causality is an incorrect, a finite view, of life’s processes, but then again so is the aspect of complete uncertainty and infinite chance." The nature of reality is now seen as somewhere in between. One writer called this interplay between chance and causality, a dynamical symmetry. It occurs to me that this shift in focus from a simple, a polarized view of life to a more dynamic, more complex, more chaotic view is something that is expressed in, found in, my autobiography. Of course the whole idea of freedom, of free will, is an illusion “in a world where every effect must have a necessary and sufficient physical cause.” It’s an old conundrum, free-will and determinism.. I like to think that we overcome this encompassing determinism by what Whitehead calls a “creative advance into novelty.” This is an expression I first came across nearly forty years ago. I liked it then and, after 40 years, I find it expresses much that has been my experience.
The poetry, the autobiography I am calling fractal shares many traits with that contested term--postmodern. Often the postmodern writer dismisses the very idea that a historical, coherent, composite person ever existed. The biographer does not have to dig for true persons with existential truths surrounding their lives. For such people and such truths do not exist.
Apologies to those readers who found this discussion (a) too long or ( too tangential to their particular interests.-Ron Price, Australia
married for 42 years, a teacher for 35 and a Baha'i for50
Posted 04 January 2011 - 08:39 PM
No worry Ron, as saying 'talk like a teacher". I enjoy your posting
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