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Thread: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

  1. #1

    The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    The famous work The Education of Henry Adams, a text that appears and reappears periodically in the literature of our age, is an autobiographical work noted for its frankness, its elegance and its view of a man who saw his own life as the microcosm of his age. My work, my memoir, is far less frank, far less splenetic, far less elegant and hardly representative of my age. Like Shakespeare, though, I feel I am holding up a faithful mirror of the manners and life of my society thus reflecting atleast one version of reality through my writing. I’m informed that a meaning of the word reflect, obsolete by 1677, was to ‘turn back.’ I do a good deal of that in my writing, however obsolete that meaning may be. Holding up a mirror to oneself also has another meaning in our visual iconography—vanity or pride, Narcissus admiring his own beauty by means of reflection. The demon of vanity, Nobel prize winner Roger Martin du Gard pointed out, is never completely silenced. It whispers its flattering presumptions to us all. I am warned.

    Adams often used exaggeration to make his case as do many a literary figure and as most of us do in one way or another in everyday life. Leo Tolstoi wrote that Shakespeare’s characters are exaggerated and not realistic. Real people would not have spoken the way they do in Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets,Tolstoi emphasizes. And this is true of the language in my narrative. As far as real mirrors are concerned, in Shakespeare’s day they did not faithfully replicate reality. The skill in making real mirrors had some distance to go in 1600.

    The words of St. Paul are also relevant here: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face." Human knowledge is always partial and obscured. That is certainly true insofar as much of my autobiography is concerned. Like the mirrors in Shakespeare’s time, the mirror I hold up to life, society’s and mine, is far from free of distortion, however honest and clear I strive to be. In addition, literary histories and autobiographies have mirrors with a specific pattern of reception and usage determined by the ideological bias, the epistemological limitations and the specific concerns of their authors.

    I came to see, as I wrote, that a dialectical use of experiential, historical, religious and philosophical themes and positions is the most reliable way of anchoring one's experience, one's thoughts and arguments and making them more stable and complete. Of great benefit, too, in this the longest of my pieces of writing, has been the many disciplines of the social sciences and humanities and a continued dialogue and even controversial exchange with contemporaries, a controversy that must be characterized by an etiquette of expression and a judicious exercise of the written and spoken word. On paper, as in life, the phenomenon of freedom of thought "calls for an acute exercise of judgement." One must not say too much nor too little. One must find one's own checks and balances, one's own insights into the dynamics of expression. This edition of Pioneering Over Four Epochs is part of that search for these dynamics, these checks and balances and as acute an exercise in judgement as is possible given the blooming and buzzing confusion that so much of life represents to us as we travel this often stony, tortuous and narrow road to what we believe or hope is, ultimately, a glorious destiny. It is understandable how writers like Conrad and Naipaul can see human destiny in terms of darkness, weeping and the gnashing of teeth. If it were not for the political-religious ideas at the centre of the Baha'i Faith with which I have sketched a framework of meaning over the terra incognita of life for virtually all the years of this story, my life, I would not be able to create in comfort. I might very well see life, as so many writers do, as little more than a grotesque farce, as a petty pace that creeps on from day to day.

    The shape within which these dynamics operate, the genre of autobiography, is like water. It is a fluid form, with varied, blurred, multiple and contested boundaries, with characteristics some analysts say that are more like drama than fiction, containing constructed more than objective truth. So it is that other analysts of autobiography see it as "the creation of a fiction." This is an understandable conclusion if a writer tends to stress the perspective Baha'u'llah alludes to when He writes that life bears "the mere semblance of reality," that it is like "a vapour in the desert." Whatever universality exists in this text it comes from my association with the writings of this prophet-founder of a new religion rather than any of my specific pretensions to findings and conclusions that I like to think bear relevance to everyone. What I offer here is an interpretation, a voice, seemingly, hopefully, multivocal, that struggles to obtain the attention of others. In some ways what readers will find here is a series of interpretations, identifications, differentiations, in tandem, in tension, in overlap, to one another, each registering their own significances. There is some of Thoreau’s famous statement in my work: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

    I hope readers will find they do not have to penetrate elaborate sentences, wade through arcane terminology and deal with excessive jargon. I hope they will not find here a heaving mass of autobiographical lava as so often is at the centre of autobiographies. But with nearly 800 pages this document may prove more useful as a piece of archival history rather than something for contemporaries to actually read. I certainly aim to please and, as in life, I'm sure I will do that only some of the time. I try to please through this piece of analytical and poetic narrative which I have created not so much on paper as in my innards, out of the living tissue of my life. But, as George Bernard Shaw, once said with his characteristic humour: "I can do more write what people want than I can play the fiddle to a happy company of folk dancers."

    It is the autobiographical theorist James Olney who defines the process of literary creation best for me:

    "Autobiography is a metaphor through which we stamp our own image on the face of nature. It allows us to connect the known of ourselves to the unknown of the world. Making available new relational patterns it simultaneously organizes the self into a new and richer entity so that the old known self is joined to and transformed into the new and heretofore unknown self." Nature, in turn, provides all the means of material life and a common, human currency for representing ideas about that life as society and culture.

    The new and richer entity that is this autobiography is the result of a carefully edited version of personal experience and my particular version of reality. I place this before my readers and in so doing I indicate as clearly as I can the perspective from which this narrative is being written. This narrative depends on the deferred action of my memory and is based on the view that my writing is worth the risk however complex the task. I like to think of this work as part of a public space, a contributing factor, a small part in defining and unifying Baha’i culture and its heterogeneous population. This is a role all Baha’is have and which they play out in their lives, each in their own way. For we all try to be unifiers of the children of men. -Ron Price, For the Political Hotwire Site.

  2. #2

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  3. #3

    Re: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    I'm not sure how these two posts are linked but I will look into it in the days ahead.-Ron Price, Tasmania

  4. #4

    Re: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    Some internet threads are like life and virtually impossible to get a synthesis of/from the content. Sometimes achieving such a synthesis does not matter---I think this is one such case. As I said in my opening post in this thread: "I feel I am holding up a faithful mirror of the manners and life of my society thus reflecting at east one version of reality through my writing." I wonder what readers here will make of this thread and its mirror of the world of reality that has developed as others have posted here.:whistling:

  5. #5

    Lightbulb struggles to overcome difficulties

    success grows out of struggles to overcome difficulties.

  6. #6

    Re: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    We have come along way from Henry Adams...but for now--at this season of the year--I thank you.-Ron:scared:

  7. #7

    Re: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    thanking you, crazy_awper.-Ron

  8. #8

    Re: The Education of Henry Adams: Autobiography and Education

    I feel like I'm watching the Tele-tubbies..

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