Identity

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The purpose of autobiography is: the recreation, the nostalgic or not-so-nostalgic closure, or the simple delineation, of a life. This is without doubt, at least for me. But it is also much else and many writers describe the purpose of autobiography and of its several country-cousins: memoirs, diary or journal writing and even essays and poetry. A search for some clearer understanding of the autobiographer’s identity is a commonly found aim in the now massive literature on the subject of why autobiographers write. For some autobiographers of a scientific bent their work is animated by the purpose of proving that their lives are ultimately purposeless. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states, with his tongue in his cheek in his book The Function of Reason, that the examination of such autobiographies would constitute an interesting subject for study. My autobiography, in contrast, is animated by a significant sense of purpose and by a meta-narrative in which I do not possess an incredulity. Mine would not therefore be among those that Whitehead might find interesting in that context.

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Identity

  1. 1. IDENTITY The purpose of autobiography is: the recreation, the nostalgic or not-so-nostalgic closure, or the simple delineation, of a life. This is without doubt, at least for me. But it is also much else and many writers describe the purpose of autobiography and of its several country-cousins: memoirs, diary or journal writing and even essays and poetry. A search for some clearer understanding of the autobiographer’s identity is a commonly found aim in the now massive literature on the subject of why autobiographers write. For some autobiographers of a scientific bent their work is animated by the purpose of proving that their lives are ultimately purposeless. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states, with his tongue in his cheek in his book The Function of Reason, that the examination of such autobiographies would constitute an interesting subject for study. My autobiography, in contrast, is animated by a significant sense of purpose and by a metanarrative in which I do not possess an incredulity. Mine would not therefore be among those that Whitehead might find interesting in that context. My literary, my autobiographical, exercise involves a significant psychological dimension with its interface between my active, public self and my more contemplative private underside--side by side. Since autobiography constitutes a process of investigation rather than a finished product, it is inevitably open-ended. Until my early retirement at the age of 55 in 1999, my identity was tied-up with my career, my family and community life and far, far back in fourth place was my writing life fitting itself into corners that saw the light of day only when necessity or some selected sense of literary duty and, sometimes, pleasure called. I also had no trouble agreeing with Herbert Marcuse(1898-1979), a twentieth century sociologist and philosopher, when he wrote that: “people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.1 One’s appearance, clothes, hair-style and deportment became entwined with identity in the nineteenth century so argues one analyst. Clothing, the body, its allurements and images have become, for millions, a significant part of their identity. The “idea of the Self as a Work of Art,” also came to be seen as a false self. This falseness as expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex: “The least sophisticated of women, once she is “dressed,” does not present herself to observation; she is, like the picture or statue, or the actor on the stage, an agent through which is suggested someone not there, that is, the character she represents, but is not. It is this identification with something unreal, fixed and perfect that gratifies her.”2 1 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1964. 2 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Vintage, NY, 1952, p. 125.
  2. 2. In my case I have a different set of commodities which play a role in the formation of my identity: books and essays, ideas and concepts as well as, and especially as I got into my sixties, the metaphorical nature of the flora, fauna and material phenomena of existence, the close connections between physical and spiritual reality. My wife takes a serious and active role in the beautification of our home and garden and I am a beneficiary of her domestic enthusiasm. I am sure my identity is also formed in ways that are subtle and complex by my domestic surroundings. This is a complex subject which is difficult to deal with here although John Hatcher deals with it well in his book Close Connections3 and I have dealt with it in my autobiography in a chapter entitled ‘memorabilia.’ In the last ten years, 2000 to 2010, my life as a writer and poet, an editor and publisher has shaped my life and my identity in different forms and directions than it had been shaped in the previous half-century, say 1949 to 1999. As the poet e.e. cummings once wrote, if the artist does not shape his or her identity to their work, their life will crack open. My life had already cracked open several times before my early retirement. With the medication package I acquired for my bipolar disorder during this last decade, this decade of extensive writing--and as I entered my 60s--I think I have seen the end of those cracking-open experiences. This new- found tranquillity is not in the main because I am free at last to write, although that is an important factor; it is due to the new medications for my bipolar disorder. My religious identity as a Baha’i acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of my particular subjectivity, my particular sense of who I am. I also acknowledge that all discourse, all writing, is placed, positioned and situated. All of my knowledge, all of my writing, to put this another way, is contextual. I find it helpful and fertile, useful and engaging, if the way of looking at my Baha’i identity is contested by others, subjected to a dialectic and praxis, dialogue and discussion, apologetics and rhetoric. The assertion of differences, a clash of opinions, is a helpful way of establishing identity. In this way my identity develops from, is clarified by and is based on a process of engaging and asserting difference rather than suppressing it. This identity acknowledges the reality of and the need for decentralised and centralized, diffuse and specific, as well as systematized and fractured knowledge. This sense of identity acknowledges a sense of power which also has a diffuse set of sources. At the same time this inner and outer sense of identity accepts the useful concepts of periphery and centre, margins and depths, surfaces and heights in the expression of that power. Once I clarify the notion of identity, once it is redefined in a universal and non-derogatory way, once it engages difference 3 John Hatcher, Close Connections: The Bridge Between Physical and Spiritual Reality, Bahá'í Publishing, Wilmette, 2009.
  3. 3. without implying superiority and hierarchy, I hope that this expression, this set of views, will help those who read this, those who are both part of the Baha’i community and those in other interest groups, express their own group consciousness, help it to develop in a manner which is unfettered by the accrued and often inaccurate associations of history and culture, tradition and ignorance.4 My identity and my autobiography is wrapped up in, is part and parcel of, my search for and experience in a collective solution to the problems of our age. This collective solution is presented to me as both a moral imperative and the logical consequence of reason applied to my intelligible, and I trust intelligent, rendering of history and the nature of my society. The measures needed to cure the ills of civilization are identical with those needed to cure the individual but these measures must be practiced in a social milieux. Indeed the social milieux, the social interaction within the social order revealed in the Bahá'í scriptures, is the workshop for both my individual fulfilment and for the collective solution that I see myself as part of a functioning unit by my free choice. Individual identity and a more inclusive identity as part of a social structure and as a world citizen are inextricably conjoined for me—and they are examined in this memoir. There are so many ways of looking at identity. One popular view is expressed as follows: What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you--that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either. It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old."5 My autobiography, which in many ways is a series of depictions of my identity, is presented as a pastiche of many types of writing: first, second and third-person point of view narration, the use of the past as well as the present tense, letters, newspaper articles, speeches, lists, historical accounts, scientific jargon, definitions, photographs, recipes, conversations, obituaries, wedding announcements, telephone conversations and assorted memorabilia. The inclusion of all these kinds of writing both loosens and strengthens the genre boundaries within which I work and points to blurring and cross-pollinating between genres as being more useful.6 This work is no mere imparting of information. Alfred North 4 Emma Heggarty, “Native Peoples of Canada: Rewriting the Imaginary,” 14th April 2003, Internet, 2004. 5 Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels, MacMillan, Toronto, 1981, p.33. 6 For this concept I want to thank Winifred M. Mellor’s Review "THE SIMPLE CONTAINER OF OUR EXISTENCE": NARRATIVE AMBIGUITY IN CAROL SHIELDS'S THE STONE DIARIES,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol.
  4. 4. Whitehead once wrote: “no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the fifteenth century.”7 I would not go that far with Whitehead but the point he makes about information certainly applies to my autobiography. It is not essentially an information base, a data base, for my life. The sociologist, Anthony Giddens, has much to say of relevance to the autobiographer and the literary expression of his identity. “Each of us not only 'has', but lives a biography,” writes Giddens, “it is reflexively organised in terms of flows of social and psychological information about possible ways of life. Modernity is a post-traditional order, in which the question, 'How shall I live?' has to be answered in day-to-day decisions about how to behave, what to wear and what to eat - and many other things - as well as interpreted within the temporal unfolding of self-identity.”8 In writing my memoirs, my autobiography, I am defining myself because I am putting consciousness into text. In some ways I'm exploring personality, trying to understand myself better and at the same time I'm opening-up personality. I'm writing out of personality and it's my canvas in a sense. I could never have written my memoirs and or got a handle on my identity without postmodernism, without the licence to collapse generic conventions and see myself as many selves. I like the idea of calling my work a novel and then to define it further as creative non- fiction.9 But, again, I must emphasize, the overview of all of this life-narrative, the general context, the total orientation, the moulding and remoulding of my world, is in the form of a conscious participation, often on a very small scale, in the forming of a new society. The context is one of commitment, of solitude and solidarity.10 The Bahá'í community which I have been a part of for nearly 60 years gives to me a happy mix of creative expression and group solidarity. “Originality,” writes the psychologist Anthony Storr, “implies being bold enough to go beyond accepted norms. Sometimes it involves being misunderstood or rejected by one's peers.” In these last six decades I have often been misunderstood by my fellow Baha’is. Such an experience is an inevitable part of virtually any intense group experience. “Those who are not too dependent upon, or too closely involved with, others,” continues Storr, “find it easier to ignore convention. Primitive societies find it 20 No.2, 1995. 7 Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays, MacMillan Company, 1929; reprinted in Education in the Age of Science, edited by Brand Blanshard, New York, Basic Books, 1959. 8 Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, Polity Press, 1991. 9 An interview by Christine Hamelin, “JOHN MOSS: CONSCIOUSNESS AS CONTEXT,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Volume 20, No. 1, 1995. 10 Rollo May, The Courage To Create, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1975, p. 11.
  5. 5. difficult to allow for individual decisions or varieties of opinion. When the maintenance of group solidarity is a prime consideration, originality may be stifled.”11 I have not found a stifling of my creativity to be the case in this new faith, this new international community. This is not to say that I have not experienced tension in the many Bahá'í groups of which I have been a part. As Alfred Adler writes: we make our own choices on how we are to belong. I have done this all my Bahá'í life. Decisions on how best to make my contribution to the whole, to the local and to the national and international Bahá'í community have not always been easy. I have done this by means of my efforts in my career, my intimate relationships, my friendships and, as I say, the larger Bahá'í community. But in these areas of my existence there has been frustration and tragedy. Fulfilment, the release of psychic energy, has been an emergence, at least as I look back over my life, from the tragedy among other sources. Perhaps this is, in part, due to my view of religion as world loyalty, of unity as the first and last word and of tolerance as the requisite of high civilization. The ultimate ends of my lifelong education process are a living religion, a living aesthetic enjoyment and a living courage which has urged me toward a creative adventure. I play my part in the maintenance of the language, the history, the symbolic code, of my Bahá'í society and in the relevant application of its teachings to the society I live in. My identity is, therefore, bound up with an appreciation of the past, with history and with tradition. All of these things are necessary to a full life, a life which develops organically rather than one which is radically cut off from its roots. The roots of my society are Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman and the new Faith that has inspired my life and which is at the centre of my identity has a rich appreciation of these two roots. But, however I express my identity, I must acknowledge my appreciation to these words of Virginia Woolf: "I sometimes think only autobiography is literature--novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me."12 Since moving to Australia in my late twenties, in 1971, humour has become an important part of my identity. The nearly total absence of humour from the Bible, the Bahá'í writings and, indeed, from most of religious and philosophical literature, a literature in which I have immersed myself for several decades, has made of me a highly serious person.13 Living in Australia has brought-out in me an appreciation of the funny side of life. I became conscious of this slow development when, in 11 Anthony Storr, Solitude, Ballantine Books, 1989. 12 Virginia Woolf, “Letter to Hugh Walpole (1932),” The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V: 1932-1935, ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann, Harcourt Brace, NY, 1979, p. 142. 13 Quoted in Price's Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead
  6. 6. 1980, I got a job as a probation and parole officer in Tasmania and it was largely due to my sense of humour, or so I was told by the interviewing panel. Thirty years later, now in 2010, humour is part of my soul’s salvation, my modus operandi, Downunder, one of the main gainers from living in the Antipodes for nearly 40 years. The American essayist Joan Didion has also contributed to my sense of identity, the identity which writes, and I conclude this brief essay with a paraphrase of her words, words which she acknowledged from George Orwell:14 In many ways writing is the act of saying “I” and of imposing oneself upon other people. It’s a way of saying: “listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” It is also an aggressive, even a hostile, act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space. Didion says that she stole the title “Why I Write?” not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all that she has to tell us as readers. Like many writers, she says, she has only this one "subject," this one "area": the act of writing. She can bring readers no reports from any other front. She acknowledges other interests, as I do, but—like Didion—in these my latter years—writing is my game. Like Didion, too, I needed a degree by the end of one summer, for me it was the summer of 1966, so that I could enter teachers’ college. Like Didion, my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch. But, unlike Didion, it was also on ideas, hundreds of them. Like Didion, though, I knew only too well what I couldn’t do. I knew what I wasn’t and it took me some years to discover what I was. By the age of 55 and even more by 60, and even more by 65, I knew I was a writer. Didion goes on to say that when she said that she knew she was a writer--she meant not a "good" writer or a "bad" writer but simply a writer. To her this meant a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are/were spent arranging words on pieces of paper. In Didion’s case she emphasizes that had her credentials been in order she would never have become a writer. Had she been blessed with even limited access to her own mind there would have been no reason to write. She wrote entirely to find out what she was thinking, what she was looking at and what 14 Joan Didion, “Excerpts From Why I Write,” The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976.
  7. 7. it meant as well as what she wanted and what she feared. I had a different set of reasons, a different raison d’etre. I explore this raison d’etre in these essays on autobiography, on identity, as well as many other subjects. Ron Price 29 December 2009

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