Anyone who has examined seriously the literature on autobiography and memoirs in recent decades, in the very years that this travelling-pioneering story has been taking place(1962-2009); anyone who has attempted to fathom the nature and meaning of both his Baha’i community experience and his own inner life; any pioneers, and especially international pioneers, who have attempted to regulate their lives to the rhythms of sorrow and joy, of crisis and victory, of calamity and the unfoldment of divine power, of personal tragedy and the liberal effusion of celestial grace---in their lives and the life of their Faith and tried, in the process, to become the fundamentally assured and happy people they are asked to try to become—these souls will immediately recognise complexity at all levels: global, community and their own inner life. They will recognise the contradictions and paradoxes in their behaviour and the divergent identifications which barely ever fuse to make one coherent and continuous self. The ever-elusive and evanescent quality of experience makes so much that is life difficult to grasp, apprehend, define and formulate. Not everything can be understood or put into words, as Bahá'u'lláh has written, and this is certainly true insofar as these rhythms and our efforts to regulate our lives according to them is concerned. This hardly needs to be said.
Slowly one comes to understand some of the meaning and the secret intent of one’s personal myth, with its shadow side and its upside, as Jung and others have called the inner core of one’s life. One must be conscious of underlying and often unconscious tendencies to invent the story of one’s life. The power of words to create and to define the reality of one’s life, to make that life as we reflect on it become the words on the page is a strong power. That power can cause the writer to twist the truth and to alter the focus from time to time in a direction away from the facts. Just as a stage director employs stagecraft for the production of a drama, a life-writer uses his life’s craft, the tools of his journey, so to speak, to shape the way that he or she recreates the story, the description, of their life experience. Seizing the authentic story of our lives is for some, and certainly for me, an essential goal and aim of autobiography and autobiographical poetry, particularly if one is trying to tell the tale, the narrative with some sense of historicity, of history, of facticity. That might be how the psychoanalytically oriented and other psychologically theorists, among other theorists, would put the process.
William Spengemann asserts that in autobiography, "self-revelation is in fact self-creation" and the autobiography is not just a manifestation of the self but its very embodiment. As the self becomes identified with the autobiography, moreover, the autobiography becomes the subject of its own allegory; the autobiography becomes a work about itself. Spengemann laments in his comment on the literature about autobiography that "the more the genre gets written about, the less agreement there seems to be on what it properly includes.” For quite some time, he says on the same page, scholars have quarrelled "over the admissibility of letters, journals, memoirs, and verse-narratives.” I utilize all these genres in my autobiography. I see the entire corpus of my writing as part of my autobiography and, should some biographer arise in the future to tell my story, he or she can use all this writing. I am going to die, in all probability by the end of the second century of the Bahá’í Era(1844 to 2044), and my life is the repository of so much that I can tell and I will do my darnedest to tell it. Much, of course, will never be told because I can't find a way of communicating it yet or I haven't the time to communicate it or I don’t know what it is that I can or should communicate.
There is little doubt that what we experience in life we process, we elaborate, in unending sequences of images and acts and my autobiography, written during the last quarter-century, 1984 to 2009, has become as Spengemann asserts, “a work about itself.” One thing we could call this exercise is: thinking out loud or, at least, thinking in written form. New experience becomes ordered and integrated as part of this unending process and I will continue to order it until the end of my journey, or the end of my capacity and interest in writing while on my journey. I try to fit pieces in without straining and disquieting the self and I accomplish this aim in part.
We all want to know who we are, how we should behave and how to achieve order, coherence and continuity in our lives. Autobiography deals with all of these processes, all of these fundamental questions, at least this is how it works for me. These fifteen essays on autobiography, written over fifteen years(1994-2009), aim to help me and my work be understood. To be understood by both oneself and others is one of the greatest things in the world in the world of existence. Intellect and wisdom are just two of its expressions and these expressions usually are found in the realm of words.
There is the ‘me’ and the model I am trying to emulate is the person of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. And there are extensive elaborations of this model in the writings of both the legitimate successors of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the multitude of interpreters in the Bahá'í world. And there are, of course, other models, mentors, inspirations and sources of emulation. Unity and consistency, aims and goals, degrees of self-mastery and loss of control of self, telling it all and resistances to the telling of certain stories whose confessional nature makes resistances a normal and necessary event---these are all part of my search for the authentic and idiosyncratic self at the centre of my written, my autobiographical life. There is much philosophy, especially Bahá'í philosophy, in this autobiography and there are ideas from many others like these two sentences from famous Americans: “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die,” from Edward Kennedy; and “if you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it,” from Calvin Coolidge.
There is an inevitable selectivity to my reporting, to anyone’s reporting. True and indigenous autobiography is only a narrative inchoate, as the psychologist Frederick Wyatt calls the fragment of our lives we convey, that we put into words as autobiographers. Anecdotes are chosen for their illustrative power, to further a line of thought, for their narrative smoothing effect. Augustine was the first to do this in the western tradition.
That is why I have chosen poetry as the main autobiographical genre with journal and narrative, letter and essay as the back up, as poetry’s critical support staff. My million word, five volume, narrative tends to hover unevenly over my four million word corpus of poetry in the attention I give to story, to life-narrative, as a tool to come to grips with my autobiography. Poetry tends to plunge and even to crash. It is difficult, even undesirable in some important ways, to make one’s story smooth. Life is far, far from smooth.
Now in the evening of my life, in these middle years(65-75) of my late adulthood as the human development psychologists call the years in the lifespan from 60 to 80, I would like to have the help of an archivist and personal assistant to help me smooth out the immense pile of words, get it all into some framework. But, alas, I think it unlikely that this assistant will come my way for I am not famous, not rich and, if I did have the money for such an exercise in narcissism or self-absorption as my wife would rightly call it, I would spend that money on other things.
It is I who must give order to the immense pile of words that have come to exist in my study at the beginning of these middle years(65-75) of late adulthood(60-80) and the years of old age(80++), if I last that long. The multitude of times over the last 65 years that I tended to fire from the hip, get upset and come out with things I really didn’t mean or, on reflection, should never have said, made of my life something quite different than what it would have been had I been a more moderate and reflective person who, like my son, thought before he spoke, engaged his brain before the words came out. This is all part of the uneven nature of my life. I am sure this is as true of my writing in prose and poetry as it is of my verbal contribution to the many social settings, the millions of them, in my life.
Narratives, like those of biographies and autobiographies, which purport to tell the truth have had limited value in American psychology and, indeed, in the psychologies that have emanated from other nations. Although I must say that this is a complex idea and theme and needs much more working over, more reading, than I am prepared to invest in this short essay. Science has never been able to deal with autobiography’s complexities, some writers argue. I would argue, as many do now, that hermeneutics and reconstruction both are useful tools among the many in the social sciences when examining autobiography. They can bring out its meaning, delve into cultural-historical contexts or indeed a host of other contexts and examine inconsistencies, biases, textual distortions, dishonesties, basic assumptions, omissions, errors, the power of perspective.
With some six thousand six hundred poems, many millions of words, thousands of letters, three hundred pages of journal, some two thousand five hundred pages of autobiographical narrative and some three hundred essays: there is at the very least a base for analysis and interpretation of my life, my society and my religion. More importantly, there is a solid foundation for future Baha’i historians to gain some clarity of insight into these four epochs of the Formative Age and especially the experience of one pioneer within the first century of this sequel to the Heroic Age which ended when my father was but 26 years old, had just married and had three children and my mother was 17.
I like to think there is a balance between the two autobiographical poles of an enthusiastic and positive spirituality and a more restrained and moderate skepticism that have been part and parcel of autobiography in the last 1600 years. Autobiography does not enjoy convenient literary labels, does not possess various schools and movements with explicit definitions and literary boundaries. But writing it is a craft and the exercise possesses certain conventions. Since the early 1950s these conventions have been questioned and writing autobiography now has a new complexity, as Spengemann informs us.
The 1950s and the 1960s, which the Bahá’í community considers to be the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth, certainly marked the beginning of a whole new set of directions in autobiography. My work is written, to some extent at least, in the context of these new patterns and processes. When people ask if maybe I'd like to write something other than autobiography, autobiographical poetry and autobiographical essays, I look them in the eye and gently tell them I haven't yet begun to explore the complexities of writing autobiography in the several genres in which I write. These literary excursions allow me to look into my community, into my beliefs, into my heart and into much else. These aggressions, regressions, digressions and retrogressions allow me to write about peoples, places and things, ideas, values and concepts that stimulate my mind and my feelings. And this is a delight. What more is there than delight and joy, wedded as it is in these years of the evening of my life, with a solemn consciousness, the wellspring of that joy, that delight.
The autobiographical endeavour has endured and will go on for as long as the eyes can see due to its base in human diversity, human activity. With so much of life and even our identity beyond our personal control, we cling all the more fiercely, perhaps, to an institution which offers us at least one remaining area of symbolic power over our destiny as individuals. Much of life and our experience of it is fragmented and formless. People so often experience a sense of failure, guilt, meaninglessness and a wide range of negative emotions as well as a wide range of very positive ones. Autobiography provides a window, a home, for the expression of these experiences in words. This expression finds its form in a congeries of varying selves, in multiple subjectivities, not one fixed, static, self where one starts and finishes. The autobiography becomes the story of a personal phenomena which is itself a continually emerging self that is not so much “out there” but, rather, something within that reflects the writer’s inner life.
The dominant autobiographical truth, then, is a writer’s vision of the pattern and meaning at the moment he or she writes. It is an ongoing process of self-definition. What so often happens for the popular culture that reads the material, the autobiographies, though, is an experience of some formulaic or even non-formulaic literature that percolate downward, outward into bookshops and onto the internet. The immense field that now explores the complexity and reflective thought about this genre and that is now available in the social sciences and humanities is never read or even contemplated.
But these are still early days in this new culture of learning and understanding of the genre of autobiography. The last half century has opened up a wide vista of opportunities for us all. The story of the journey of autobiography which began, arguably, several millennia ago, has just begun.
24 December 1995 to
28 November 2009