Sunday, 20 July 2008

Plot and character

I've started reading a book about how to write fiction. It's called "Writing. The Craft of Creative Fiction". I love the movies, you see, and desire to understand how movies are dreamed up and put together. I found this book in the public library; it was published in 1964, which would be considered old these days, but I like it because it's old. Some modern books about writing are so chatty and once-over-lightly they're unreadable. Or they tell you how to run your life, which always grates with me. But this one was written by a guy called Olaf Ruhen, who Steve tells me was born in Dunedin (where I live!), and he's thought hard about his craft and has shared some insightful ideas about it.

Chapter 2 of the book is called "Plotting" and discusses what a plot is and how one is developed. Olaf Ruhen describes methods that authors have used to come up with plots. For me, a key factor to come out of this discussion, and a point that Olaf emphasises, is that plot is actually a product of character. I hadn't thought of this before. The idea is that the main character will be a person of a certain personality (that is, a person with particular virtues or vices) who is submerged in a particular field in life (that is, particular circumstances such as time and place) and who is driven by a desire, ambition goal or similar. From these few things, a plot can be quite readily developed. For example, if the person is wicked and lusts after a maiden and lives in times when women were easy prey through money and manipulation, then you may have a plot where the main character carries out a plan to marry and thereby control a woman he desires, despite her revulsion towards him. In his discussion, Olaf gives this example:

"Let us say that he [the antagonist] moves from love to hate... He never does so in a single movement; even a chameleon needs periods of adjustment, and it is the orderly progress of this opposing character that outlines the plot of the novel and provides an ever-increasing conflict. Going from Love to Hate he passes these road-markers: Love. Disappointment. Annoyance. Irritation. Disillusionment. Indifference. Disgust. Anger. Hate. In that order." (p 11)

The more I thought about this idea of plot emerging out of character, the more I thought what an important idea it is. One of my favourite quotes from Baha'u'llah is from Surah of Blood: "Adorn yourself with my character". This is from paragraph 5 of the surah; the full sentence reads: "Adorn yourself with My character, in such wise that should anyone treat you unjustly you would take no heed of him, nor oppose him." If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the plot follows - we will not take any notice of someone who treats us unjustly and would not move to oppose that person. That's a plot in itself. In a similar way, the writings are full of ideas of how a particular plot would emerge from a person in various situations if they were adorned with Baha'u'llah's character.

But what's even more interesting about this is what it means for our concept of teaching the faith. I was pleased to find this idea about plot emerging from character because I thought it might give me, for the first time, a means of explaining what I think teaching is, and what Baha'u'llah intended by it. It is a very powerful idea, which sweeps away in a heart beat the need for door-knocking and other methods of questionable integrity.

The point is this: Baha'u'llah tells us repeatedly to be persons of good character. How do we respond? We think to ourselves: 'Well, I'll try my best to be a good person but, in the meantime, I'll carry out teaching activities, I'll attend meetings and do my bit for the portals. If I throw in some prayer and reading on top of all that, I feel sure that my character will be as it should be. How could it not be? I am doing all the right things, aren't I?' Based on my experience, this approach does not bring about transformation of character or end in effective teaching. It does succeed in generating a lot of activity and energy and, when you're in the thick of things, you sincerely feel like you're doing something very important. But lots of activity and energy isn't what matters - what matters is character. The Guardian stated this principle in plain terms:

"Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching - no matter how worldwide and elaborate in its character - not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and sceptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha'u'llah." (Shoghi Effendi: Baha'i Administration, p 66)

Why is it that character is so important? Because plot emerges from character. Our character will determine the choices we make, the people we attract, the circumstances we find ourselves in and the kind of relationships we build with others. If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the world will change around us. We are authors, just like those who write fiction. But we write the story of our lives and if we want the plot to include teaching the faith and influencing others, then we need to set up the ingredients of that future reality in our character. But if we set character aside and get involved in 'activity', thinking that that's what results in change, then we're wasting our time. No fundamental change will occur. Character and deeds are fundamental to this revelation. They may not have been so important in previous revelations, but there's no getting around them in this one:

"O son of my handmaid! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds. In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet." (Persian Hidden Word 76)

There's an interesting passage in the fourth valley of the four, where Baha'u'llah states that a person can achieve a spiritual station where they will become like God: "O My Servant! Obey Me and I shall make thee like unto Myself. I say `Be,' and it is, and thou shalt say `Be,' and it shall be." (Baha'u'llah: Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, p 63) How can it be that a person can say 'Be!' and it will be? The answer is: through their character. It isn't about a person expressing or suppressing their will, thinking this or that outcome is in line with God's will; it's about the creative writing of reality through character.

What does it mean to adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character? I think the essence of this idea is found in the following Hidden Word:

"O children of vainglory! For a fleeting sovereignty ye have abandoned My imperishable dominion, and have adorned yourselves with the gay livery of the world and made of it your boast. By My beauty! All will I gather beneath the one-colored covering of the dust and efface all these diverse colors save them that choose My own, and that is purging from every color." (Persian Hidden Word 74)

What's interesting here is the idea of "purging from every color". Again, this can be understood in terms of character and plot. Olaf Ruhen makes the following statement in his book on writing fiction: "There is an unbreakable bond to tie the pivotal character and the changing character together." (p 11) In other words, opposites are bound up in each other. If you have an enemy, you are tied to that enemy by your antagonism toward them. The bond is the mutual antagonism; any strong feeling towards someone is a bond that ties us to them, whether the feeling is negative or positive. And this bond is integral to the plot of our lives; our character is given over to an uncontrollable state of being and this dictates what turns our lives will take. The point about purging from every colour is becoming detached. If we work on our character so that we are not in any way affected by such feelings as love and hatred (as Baha'u'llah identifies them in the Iqan (para 213)), we become detached from them and this means they no longer determine our future. When we are free of these character traits, we become free in the real sense of the term, for we become free to plot our lives in the manner we choose. We are no longer written by our passions; instead, we control them and become creative authors of our lives.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 2

This posting follows on from my last one, Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 1, in which I said that I would begin slowly reading through and reporting on the many volumes that Ahang has painstakingly translated and published on his website, Witness to Babi and Baha'i History. As my title indicates, I began my reading with volume 3 of the series because volumes 1 and 2 were not yet up on the site. I have since found out why - at least for volume 1. If one clicks on the link for volume 1, "The Genesis of the Babi-Baha'i Faiths in Shiraz and Fars", one is taken to the site of the publisher, Brill, and told that this volume is expected to be published in September 2008. The catch is that the expected price is US$200! Ouch. I guess I won't be reviewing that volume. But never mind, most volumes are available for download on Ahang's site and one must make the most of that. [Note: at the time I published this review, I couldn't access volume 3. But I assume that this is just a temporary glitch.]

Volume 3, you'll recall, is titled "Eight Years Near Abdu'l-Baha", and is the memoir of Dr Mu'ayyad. In part 1, I focused on pages 1-88, or the first two chapters, because the work is over 300 pages long and I couldn't do justice to it by reviewing it all in one go. In part 2, I cover pages 89-176, which comprises chapters 3-5.

Now, I have to be strictly honest here and say that one doesn't read this work expecting a gripping narrative like a good novel. A person reads this memoir because they're keen to gain some insight particularly into Abdu'l-Baha. This means being prepared to do some work wading through text that isn't all that interesting - well, not to me anyway. This was particularly true of chapter 4. Ahang has done his best to make the narrative as easy to read as possible by adding useful footnotes and headings. This helps enormously, making it more informative than it otherwise would be. However, there are rewards for those prepared to persevere.

Chapter 3 is titled "Years of study in Beirut". By all accounts, Dr Mu'ayyad's years of study in Beirut were a difficult time for him. The impression you get is that most of his time was devoted to study and any 'spare' time he had was devoted to serving the Baha'is. The author says that in his second year at medical school, all went badly for him.

"The second year of my medical studies was filled with difficulties. First, I was required to pass the mid-studies examination by the medical faculty in addition to another test administered by an examining board of the Ottoman government, which came from Constantinople. Second, since there was a delay in the arrival of my stipend, my [financial] situation was growing critical, and I did not even have the twenty-five liras needed for the examination fee. Third, because of my immense workload, I became very ill, requiring hospitalization and medical attention. ... Every time a letter arrived from my father, it was filled with grievous and most unhappy tidings and lamentations. He informed me of the plunder of our house by the Sáláru’d-Dawlih and many other troubles that unceasingly surrounded them." (pp 91-92)

In the midst of his anguish, Dr Mu'ayyad wrote a heart-felt poem to Abdu'l-Baha, which he quotes some of in the text. Here's two stanzas from it, to give you the flavour:

"‘Abdu’l-Bahá, have mercy on me,
Sacrifice my life for Thee,
Sacrifice it for Thy locks,
Hold Thou my hand, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá," (p 92)

The reply from Abdu'l-Baha is fascinating - to me, anyway. He replies that: "... thou must employ this pure water [of poetry] in praise of our loving Lord, the Ancient Beauty and the Greatest Name ... since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is but a drop, but the Greatest Name is the mighty Ocean. When you have praised the ocean, it will also encompass the drop." I am constantly surprised by the way the believers would laud and praise Abdu'l-Baha in the manner illustrated above. To me, Abdu'l-Baha's point is well taken and I don't understand why such verses were not written in praise of Baha'u'llah. Perhaps I can't identify with it because I've never met Abdu'l-Baha and, if I had, I would be writing poetry about him too. But in any case, despite Abdu'l-Baha's expressed feelings on the matter, the poem became popular and "was often sung in the gatherings, which brought great excitement and joy to all. The honored Hájí Mírzá Haydar-‘Alí, that love-intoxicated elder believer, would be filled with delight by hearing this chant." (p 94)

Another element of chapter 3, which contains a number sections each devoted to an event of the time, is the discussion on Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl. There is quite a bit on him, which was interesting and all news to me. One reason it interested me was discovering how it compared to the impressions of Abú’l-Fadl given by Ali Kuli Khan in his book "Summon up Remembrance". I'll never forget reading what Ali Kuli Khan said about Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl there. I don't own the book and so cannot quote from it. But, if I recall it correctly, I remember Ali Kuli Khan describing someone who worked at his writing something akin to the way a young man would approach an addiction to an on-line computer game. You see them on TV reports sometimes. They play for excessive amounts of time, between 12-24 hours or longer, without stopping or having any regard to their health. I recall Ali Kuli Khan saying that Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl's poor eating habits were of immense concern to the believers in America. So anyway, back to Dr Mu'ayyad's memoirs, he also paints a picture of a person who worked compulsively and had scant regard for his well-being, and was frail due to ill health. Nevertheless, Abú’l-Fadl refused all offers of help. The believers complained to Abdu'l-Baha, who instructed them not to interfere. The irony of this, from what I can see, is that Dr Mu'ayyad records Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl lamenting toward the end of his life:

"If anyone spoke his praise, Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl would become very embarrassed and only speak of his own shortcomings, particularly expressing his immense regret over his weakness and ill state. He would note that because of these infirmities, he was not able to serve the Faith the way his heart demanded. He used to say, “My earnest desire is to be granted a thousand lives a day so I could sacrifice them all in the path of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!"" (p 100)

This issue is close to the bone for me, a writer who has devoted her life to writing for Baha'u'llah. You are always saying to yourself: how can I wring out of my life the greatest volume in the time allotted to me? About four years ago, I had my life set up so that every second was accounted for. I became so overworked that my back gave out and I was facing the very real prospect of being flat on my back in bed unable to move. The thought of being sort of paralysed terrified me and forced me to question what I was doing. What if I lost my health and could no longer write? The pointlessness of it all began to dawn on me. It has taken until now for me to set reasonable goals for the day, which allow time for variation, rest, prayer and slow food. One of the reasons I was driven by overwork to a state of ill health was because of the example of selflessness found in those like Abú’l-Fadl. His characteristics are held up to the community as examples of the way we should be. And yet, I have come to see that I must see these virtues in the light of the principle of moderation in all things, which balances them against other competing requirements.

In any case, Dr Mu'ayyad includes in his discussion on Abú’l-Fadl the details of how Abú’l-Fadl came to write a long refutation in response to Kitab Nuqtatu'l-Kaf, a manuscript that was published in 1910 by the Cambridge Professor E G Browne, but not written by him. Dr Mu'ayyad saw an advertisement for the publication in a Jesuit magazine and told Abú’l-Fadl about this. Unfortunately, Ahang's notes don't explain what is in this book. But it must be objectionable indeed, given Abú’l-Fadl's response when he heard that it had been published. The first thing he did was ask Dr Mu'ayyad to go to a Beirut publisher and ask him for "the cost of printing a book, about one thousand pages, on good quality paper and large fonts, so that I can start composing it and give it to him section by section for printing." (p 97) He also wrote down a question for Professor Browne and asked Dr Mu'ayyad to have all the Beirut students sign it (evidently, he understood the principle of strength in numbers). Dr Mu'ayyad explains in a footnote that: "The question posed to Prof Browne by Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl through the students of Beirut was about the source and authenticity of the book [The Nuqtatu’l-Káf]. He [Prof Browne] replied that he had acquired it from the library of [Comte Joseph A.] Gobineau. It is evident that Muhammad Khan Qazvíní had interpolated the text and deposited it in the library. (HM)." The memoirs tell us that there had been an attempt to tie authorship of the manuscript to the martyred Haji Mirza Jani of Kashan.

And so Abú’l-Fadl began composing his refutation. And when it was getting close to completion, Abdu'l-Baha was cabled for permission to have it published. He cabled saying that a Persian and an English version must be published in Cairo. Abú’l-Fadl set out for Cairo with his incomplete manuscript, but died there before finishing it. Now, here's the astonishing thing. During Abú’l-Fadl's final days, he was unconscious, and while in this state "a section of this manuscript was stolen by Dr. Amínu’lláh Faríd, son of Mírzá Asadu’lláh Isfahání, who wished to publish it in his own name and thereby gain universal notice." (p 99) !!! What an extraordinary thing to do! What a scurrilous act!

The memoirs go on to tell us more about this Dr. Faríd, and his list of offences makes modern-day disenrollees look like angels. In a section devoted to the reasons Dr. Faríd was expelled from the community by Abdu'l-Baha, one is left jaw-dropped at what this scoundrel got up to. He gave Abdu'l-Baha one massive headache, even though Abdu'l-Baha had raised him and paid for his education. Pages 104-107 are devoted to an outline of his transgressions. Dr Mu'ayyad reports that Abdu'l-Baha was finally pushed to make these widely known to the community in order that believers might be protected. One of the problems was that Dr. Faríd was telling believers that he was the future guardian and Abdu'l-Baha's successor. He also succeeded in extracting vast sums of money from believers under false pretences. He even stole Abdu'l-Baha's seal and was using it to receipt donations he had obtained through misrepresentation.

Chapter 3 also contains a wonderful description of Abdu'l-Baha from the writer's point of view. It's a heart-warming account of how Abdu'l-Baha had this remarkable ability to be all things to all people. I'll quote the paragraph:

"While I was in the Holy Land, people from all strata, races, ethnicities and backgrounds, whether visitors, resident believers, easterners or westerners, would attain the presence of the Master. Each would ask his questions, which hardly ever resembled the ones posed by others. One inquirer had materialistic tendencies, another, philosophical proclivities. One would be religious and deeply attached to his convictions, while another was afire by the love of his country or was universalistic in his approach, and considered all people equal and the same. Some were black, others white, some from Asia, and some were European. While one talked of feminist movements and advocated women’s emancipation, another spoke of the subjugation of women and the advantages of multiple wives. One spoke of the needs of the proletariat, while another would ask the Master of communism. One wished to know about literature and poetry, another, about history and philosophy. One would ask about the traditions and prophecies, and sought solutions to complex problems, while another inquired about the meanings of abstruse passages in the Sacred Books – passages that had perplexed him for some time. One was Arab and would present the problem of Arab liberation, inquiring of its solution; another was Jewish and wished to know of the future of Palestine." (pp 119-120)

Chapter 5 is titled "Holy Land, Fall of 1914", and follows chapter 4 which chronicles Dr Mu'ayyad's visit to Germany. In chapter 5, the format changes into a diary rather than a narrative. I assume that Dr Mu'ayyad did this because while in Germany, he'd learned about how Europeans kept diaries. Chapter 5 contains a vast amount of material describing what Abdu'l-Baha did and said. Given that this installment of my review is long enough already, I won't go into details now, but may pick up on some ideas later on. I'll sign off for now with a few pithy comments that took my eye.

"The purpose of the divine teachings and exhortations is precisely this: to aid us to become perfect people. It is not merely for reading." (p 140)

"If the Blessed Beauty were in this world and I presented Him these letters from the believers in Germany, how jubiliant would He be!" (p 146)

"Seldom does it happen that both God and the people are pleased with someone." (p 151)