Thursday 26 February 2009

The knower as an artist, revisited

About 10 days ago, I began a new course of study, which will last for four months. Last year, I took some books out of the library about writing fiction. I got to thinking about it because I loved watching movies so much, and I wondered how stories were dreamed up and written. When I read the books, I didn't think that I would consider trying it myself. But by the end of the year, I had made some fundamental shift within, and opened up to the possibility. As it turned out, I noticed an advertisement in a magazine for an online course in fiction writing, and after looking into it, I realised it was just what I wanted and needed. So I here I am, surrounded and committed.

Despite my initial apprehension, by the time the course began in mid-February, I couldn't stop thinking about it, I was so excited. And the first week and a half have not disappointed. The book used as a textbook for the course is Janet Burroway's Writing fiction. From reading that, I was introduced to some amazing things that I never realised had anything to do with writing fiction. She said things like that stories do not come out of ideas but rather out of images and obsessions. And she said things like that

"Fiction is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven't yet found out, you're likely to end up pontificating or lying some other way." (p5)

Well, of course, when I read this, I could see how it related to what the Baha'is are doing with telling people about the Baha'i revelation. The Baha'is are completely given over to 'informing' and not 'finding out' and end up 'pontificating'. You see, the principle applies across the board. Sometimes, of course, it is appropriate to pontificate, such as in some teaching situations. But when it comes to things like fiction and revelations - hey, what's the difference, in that both are founded on stories; it's just that revelations are divine stories and fiction is made of human-made stories - then pontificating isn't going to get you very far.

I keep thinking about this. We know that the Baha'i community is stuck in a Shoghi Effendi time warp. But what does that mean on the ground? I think about the fact that kids these days are brought up with television and movies and video games and the internet; in other words, they are surrounded by visual media, which means that if you want a way in, then you have to get in with stories, not so much with ideas - and especially not by pontificating about one's ideas. Pontificating was more acceptable back in the Guardian's time. Important men who were considered experts got up and gave speeches. Baha'is were encouraged to give speeches - and people shared their ideas, political ideas, human rights ideas, gender equality ideas, economic ideas, sociological ideas, historical ideas. But I think people these days are much more sceptical of talking heads and take what they say with a grain of salt, especially young people.

Take for example, the huge success of the movie Slumdog Millionnaire, an indie movie that came out of nowhere to steal the hearts of everyone even over the blockbuster favourites. The movie has many messages in it that Baha'is would claim to teach - the triumphing of a young man who, unlike his brother, refuses to allow himself to be corrupted, and who remains faithful to love, despite extraordinary adversity; the highlighting of the plight of the poor; the power of virtues like truthfulness; the power of unity, in this case, through the mass support the young man received from the population, which was facilitated by mass media. In short, it is a very moral story. And look where it went in the end, to the top. But it doesn't achieve this by allowing itself to pontificate.

And this is the lesson I think the Baha'is need to take on board. There's no gaining mass popularity like that using tools such as Anna's Presentation, which do nothing but pontificate. I had to laugh when I read the following passage from Robert Olen Butler's famous book about writing fiction From where you dream:

"There's an interesting precedent for this idea - and what I'm about to observe has no intended religious message. A very influential person in Western and world culture taught almost exclusively in one way: only in parable, by telling stories. 'Without a parable he spake not to them.' He asked questions similar to the ones I suggested artists ask: What is the abiding universal human condition? What is this all about here on planet Earth? And his answer was, There was a guy who owned a vineyard and he had a son ... and so forth. He told stories." (pp12-13)

Now, I suppose, I can hear my detractors saying that Baha'u'llah came to tell it to us straight and not in parables like Jesus did. But that's beside the point. We can't let that be an excuse not to use stories ourselves. In any case, Baha'u'llah told many stories too - just look at the two Tablets of the Holy Mariner, for instance.

I am reminded of a young Baha'i woman who came to town (yes, a story) and who by sheer coincidence knew a guy who was a presenter for the local television channel. When he found out she was a Baha'i, he suggested she come on the programme so that she could tell him about what that meant for her. I sat down in great anticipation of what she would say. And so he introduced her and asked her what being a Baha'i was all about. Now, I am the first to own that such a question put to me on television would strike me dumb with terror, and it clearly did her because there was this awkward silence in which it was clear her mind when blank and after a while she managed to say something to the effect that Baha'is believed in unity. It was excrutiating, and it didn't take long for the presenter to realise that he wasn't going to get much more out her and so the interview ended not long after it started. I felt very sorry for her; and I don't want to claim that I'd be any better if I had a TV camera pointed at me. (Perhaps I have to explain here that, culturally, Kiwis are a reserved lot.) But I think that what became clear in that moment was that this woman couldn't access her own story about being a Baha'i.

When all said and done, what can we actually say about being Baha'i? It isn't any one thing; what each of us have is a set of experiences, many very painful, that we've lived through with Baha'u'llah as a guide and a help in one way or another. One person will tell you he came to them in a dream in which he protected them from a rioting crowd, and another will tell you that they were taken up directly in his rocket, straight from the launch pad; another will tell you that a couple of freaky things happened one after the other while they were investigating the faith and this confirmed for them that Baha'u'llah must be the Man; and still others will say how much they liked this idea and that one, and so on it goes. The Faith isn't any one thing - it isn't the set of ideas summarised in Anna's Presentation - it's in one important sense the millions of stories people tell about their encounters with Providence.

But the sad thing about the woman put on the spot in front of television cameras, was that, at that moment, she couldn't access her story - and that's because she was estranged from it. She felt like she had to tell the story she'd been told by others - 'Ah, yeah, the faith is about unity'. But I'll bet you anything the Faith isn't about unity for her. And so what I'm saying is that if we want the success of Slumdog, we need to access the real stories of Baha'is - not the 'unity' ones, the ones that we're not allowed to tell, but which are true. The ones that don't pontificate or lie in some other way.


Brendan Cook said...


Fascinating post. I don't think I could write fiction either -- as opposed to dramatizing intellectual conceits -- but I share your interest. You don't have to be able to do something to enjoy it. And I agree that Baha'is would be better off telling their own personal stories than repeating a standard 'script'.

Also, I'm intrigued by your passing mention of religion as a story told by God. I don't know if you were aware, but Tolkien was interested in this very concept. He felt that the 'story' of Jesus was a true story, but only because God's medium was reality. His life and death and resurrection were still a literary construction, as much as any fictional account might be. And that was why Tolkien argued that as human beings we feel to urge to tell stories: we're made in the image of the master storyteller. Certainly appealing, whether or not it's true.

Thanks for an interesting entry.


gail1933 said...

I found Bahai audio interviews at WXOJ-LP 103.3 M posted on the internet by Warren Odess-Gillett. A Bahai has some listed as well as the radio site.

The stories the Bahai's tell are very much what you are explaining. He has them start with how they grew up and the situations that brought the to the Faith.

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