Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

                This is undoubtedly my most overwhelming undertaking yet. In school, if you didn’t understand something, you could kind of bullshit your way through a paper. Here, blog-bullshitting defeats the point. As such, I think I’ll approach this book the way the author rode his motorcycle—at a slow and steady pace, so bear with me! This is a book that has to be chewed, not swallowed.

                Let’s start with the basics. According to Pirsig (the author), there are two separate modes of understanding the world that up until now have been incompatible with each other in the Western sphere. Think of these as completely different visions of reality, as entirely different dimensions. There is the romantic approach which is concerned with what things are (artistic appearance, feelings/intuitions instead of facts, aesthetics rather than reason, living in the moment, etc.) (Pirsig, 85). This outlook is embodied in Pirsig’s motorcycle-riding friend John Sutherland who leaves the maintenance of his bike to the mechanics—he’d rather not bother with all that detailed science stuff. Conversely, there is the classic approach which is concerned with the underlying form of things, i.e. what things mean (purely using rational analysis). Pirsig himself appears to adopt the classic viewpoint—when something goes wrong with his bike he is able to resolve the issue himself using problem solving skills. It is difficult for a romantic to find common ground with a classicist and this is the source of quite a bit of trouble.

                A related modern day crisis, he claims, is how humans (romantics especially) butt heads with technology. I don’t know shit about technology. I watched Her the other day (great movie, highly recommended, have some tissues on deck for sure) and found myself distracted by wondering the whole time what an operating system really is. So, yeah I’d say there are some current problems with the relation between humans and technology. Confirm. Pirsig explains that, “technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land” (Pirsig, 20). Okay, I can be on board with that. He also says that “what’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and the heart…people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and aesthetically in order to satisfy material needs” (Pirsig, 211). Now you’ve lost me. 

                I started to break it down. I’m texting you, you’re texting me… we’re communicating but there isn’t the kind of deeper, more personal interaction that you can have when you talk face-to-face. Well, duh. My heart isn’t fully in it—you’re not speaking to my spirit, you’re speaking to my phone. Moreover, rapid advances in technology can be very overwhelming. All those technology types are consistently offering ways to make my life easier and more efficient but isn’t constant connection also a source of stress? So, I’m talking to a phone rather than a person and I feel somewhat alienated from the here-and-now because technology is urging me to think about what’s coming next. Read: I’m lonely. Pirsig pins this as the “loneliness of objectivity” (Pirsig, 460).

                What does objectivity have to do with loneliness? Well, everything, and we can blame those goddamn Greeks! There is a philosophical concept called mythos (as opposed to logos) which holds that the patterns of beliefs we have today are reflective of a culmination and evolution of prevailing attitudes of the past. To use an analogy, the trees we have in front of us are results of the shrubs they used to be (Pirsig, 499). The way we look at the world today is an outgrowth of how humans have previously looked at the world, even in prehistoric times (side note: for a better understanding of this in regards to religion specifically, I recommend “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright). We (Westerners) are slaves to the mythos of subject-object distinction. I (the subject) am looking at my bomb ass new tablet right now (object). I have an automatic understanding that I am separate, physically and emotionally, from that tablet. We are such slaves to this line of thinking that we don’t even remotely acknowledge that there could be any other way. Pirsig is like woahhhhhh hold up…what about Tat Tvam Asi (Sanskrit for “thou art that”)? Eastern philosophy asserts that, “everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided” (Pirsig, 177). We believe that the separation of subject and object is reality when in actuality it’s just an “artificial interpretation superimposed on reality” (Pirsig, 361). It’s not reality itself. Even if you don’t buy into all this, hopefully you can at least acknowledge that it’s possible that you don’t buy into all of this because you were somehow programmed not to—that the Western outlook on life is so ingrained in your brain that it’s difficult to admit that there could be other ways. After all, “our common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of ghosts from your past” (Pirsig, 44).

We’ve established that, according to Pirsig, the division between subject and object is illusory. This leaves the subject feeling a bit outside of things and left alone…the loneliness of objectivity (ringing bells with our feelings of hostility with regards to technology?). There are disciplines that empower you to remove the subject-object illusion—one of which is Zen (Pirsig, 177). Ah ha, there’s the Zen! Finally. But what if there were other ways too? Ways which permeated day-to-day life? Ways which went all the way back and addressed that romantic-classic distinction I spoke about before? These problems—the way we feel about technology and the inability of romantics and classicists to see eye to eye—are "caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought to cope with the situation” (Pirsig, 211). The mythos we have that praises subject vs. object also hails rationality. Rational thought is important, but according to contemporary science, it’s the only thing that’s important. All of this talk of loneliness and incompatibility is in part due to the fact that we are relying on an outdated mythos. Western dogmatic intransigence has left us with “old forms of thought to deal with new experiences” (Pirsig, 212). And technology is particularly vulnerable because Aristotle sure as hell didn’t see the iPhone coming. What we desperately need is a cross-fertilization of Western and Eastern forms of thought.

Pirsig offers a satisfying, albeit quite confusing, resolution. He claims that “the solution to the problem isn’t that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it’s capable of coming up with a solution” (Pirsig, 211). He reminds us that the structure of reason and the methods of rationality that we’ve inherited are “emotionally hollow, aesthetically meaningless, and spiritually empty” (Pirsig, 143). He holds that the way to enlarge rationality is by introducing “quality” as a third entity in the subject-object dualism, creating a metaphysical trinity. It would be enormously difficult for me to fully and comprehensibly explain his understanding of quality in a reasonably short manner, so you’ll have to trust me a bit. If you want to understand “quality”, pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and replace the word “Tao” with “quality”. Quality is primarily concerned with the relation between subject and object. As a result, it is neither objective (it does not reside in the material world), nor subjective (it does not reside merely in the mind), but somewhere in between (Pirsig, 301).

Let’s try a concrete example. When you are fixing a motorcycle, you are selecting which facts to observe and which facts to ignore. You might consider the weather if you’re concerned about a part being too hot whereas you might not be totally fixated on the color of a wire that doesn’t have anything to do with the hot part. If you do this fact-selecting purely scientifically, i.e. disinterestedly, you could fix the problem but there certainly won’t be any oomph to it. It will probably not be aesthetically pleasing but it will do the job; thus, the mechanic has chosen classical/rational reasoning over the romantic approach. Pirsig is saying, wait! There are more options! You no longer have to pick and choose. Don’t look at that screw objectively. If you’re a good mechanic you can separate the good facts from the bad ones using quality as your guide. You make the first move to fix the problem and you get the feeling (romantic) that the cycle is worse off because of this move (bad quality) so you need to problem solve in a different direction (classic). High quality work uses underlying forms that are good (classic) to attain something that looks good (romantic), thereby enjoining both perspectives and leaving no one behind. We’re so used to blindly following the “tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good” (Pirsig, 462). With quality as a guide, you are a craftsman that is truly engaging in contact with basic reality. The world becomes dynamic-- you’re no longer an outsider in your own life, rather you are an active participant! You gain an “understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it” (Pirsig, 486). Life is malleable based on which pathways you deem “good quality”—and they are numerous. In terms of the motorcycle, you feel a sense of identity with the machine you’re working with—that malleability changes the OBJECT you’re working with just as much as it changes the SUBJECT. Object and subject become one and the same. Tat Tvam Asi. His metaphysical trinity has now fused “three areas of human experience which are [currently] disunified: religion, art, and science.” (Pirsig, 353). Science is no longer “value free” aka “quality free”. By doing all of this, he “showed a way in which reason may be expanded to include elements that had previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational” (Pirsig, 377). He has expanded reason to include quality-- to be centered around it in fact.

The relevance of all of this is to spice up our monotonous lives. Pirsig’s consideration of the dullness and emptiness which plagues modern existence is eerily similar to that of Aldous Huxley’s in The Door of Perception and I swear Pirsig just needed to take some mescaline. In the midst of the surrounding far-reaching government attempts at reform and the wide-sweeping efforts to placate the masses, Pirsig felt that the best way to start was at the individual level. Develop this notion of quality and oneness with the objects around you and go from there (Pirsig, 381). Individual worth is a resource begging to be cultivated (Pirsig, 484). One of my favorite parts is when he comedically states, “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? Easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally” (Pirsig, 417). Fixing a motorcycle isn’t divested from the rest of your existence. If you’re a lazy thinker six days a week, do you really think you won’t be a lazy thinker on the seventh? “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together” (Pirsig, 417).

One particular institution he feels is holding the individual back is the University. He claims that schools teach students to imitate…but to imitate slyly so as to deceive the teacher into thinking you were not imitating (but really, everybody is in on it). If you regurgitate, you get an A. It’s originality that’s really treacherous…that’ll get you anywhere from an A to an F (Pirsig, 242). Creativity and unique expression is squashed and foregone in exchange for a diploma. Now, I do not think this is entirely true, mainly because I think my University was awesome and provided an excellent, high-quality learning environment. But, he has a point. I probably wouldn’t be able to turn this blog in as an answer to an assignment in school. Well why not? I’ve by no means mastered his philosophy but I’ve clearly learned something and I’ve been able to (hopefully somewhat successfully) communicate that certain something in relative layman terms. Personally, I think it’d be refreshing to have a course taught on solely this book.

After all of this, you might have some questions. Like, who is this Pirsig guy and why does he have all of these wild ideas? The book reads like an autobiography but there’s very little characterization (he notes that he does this intentionally—he is not a novelist, he is an orator) (Pirsig, 169). We know that he has a wife, but she is never named and rarely mentioned which I find a tad rude. We know that he has at least one son, Chris, who is his cycle companion throughout the entirety of the book. Guh Chris is a huge brat. You can’t really gauge how old he is because he’s so moody and whiny but you have to guess that he’s too old for his actions because he’s on this long road trip and does a lot of hiking and mountain climbing and backpacking. But at the same time, Pirsig exacerbates the problem because he doesn’t know how to deal with him. He doesn’t strike you as the best father. He has an ominous, nebulous past. He is very curt and doesn’t always truly say what he’s thinking even when the truth would better the situation. Indeed, his past is a major plot driver. In real life, Pirsig’s obsession with Quality and the surrounding philosophical implications resulted in a nervous breakdown. He was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia and involuntarily subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. Yowza. The book is written several years after this shocking diagnosis (hehe). From this perspective, he explains everything that his former-pre breakdown self thought in terms of Quality, referring to this person as Phaedrus. He then picks up where Phaedrus left off. Interestingly, he does not consider himself insane but he does recognize why others thought so. He explains that “to go outside the mythos is to become insane” (Pirsig, 450). When you drastically deviate from the thought processes of your contemporaries, people begin to wonder. They started to not take his philosophic statements seriously because they labeled him as crazy. “When you look at an insane guy, all you see is that he’s insane so you don’t really see him at all” (Pirsig, 100).

While I can sympathize with that rationale, that doesn’t make me totally like him. For one, he’s pretty arrogant and I think that his opinion of his new philosophy was self-aggrandized. He constantly said that what he was exploring was of utmost importance and that his work was so unprecedented that it was filling a huge void. Pretty pompous, even if it’s true. I guess to convey an extreme viewpoint to ignorant masses you have to be a little over the top but still, chill. Truthfully, I think it is a little less groundbreaking than he pictured. But that might just be because I have yet to see how this reimagining of objects and my relation to them will play out in my life. Perhaps I will feel like an entirely new, better person. As a 23 year old going through a complicated moratorium phase I am often terrified at the fact that I am in charge of my own life. I am ultimately responsible for screwing up or not screwing up. Envisioning my steps in terms of quality…might help? At the same time, it doesn’t give me a whole lot to hold on to tangibly. But that’s just the Westerner in me and I am confident that I am capable of adaptation.

The story of Chris is even harder to digest and I almost feel bad for calling him a brat. Chris was the victim of a stabbing five years after the book’s publication—an incident which Pirsig bravely confronts in a brief afterword in my copy. It was an extremely emotional read and it grappled with death in a philosophical way that I could deeply identify with, which led me to respect Pirsig even more. Shortly after Chris’ death, Pirsig, in his fifties, found himself potentially the father of a newborn when his second wife became pregnant. At first, they decided to terminate the pregnancy. After a while, they chose to have the child, believing that her life was a continuation of the pattern that Chris left behind. In any event, it was a poignant couple of pages.

Another question you might have is: why the motorcycle specifically? I went back through my annotations all Harriet-the-Spy-like and saw that on the third page he notes that when you’re on a cross country road trip in a car, you’re just a passive observer through a window, whereas on a motorcycle you’re actually in on the action (Pirsig, 5). In my opinion, this is a parallel for being a true participator in life. In on the action. In on creating a quality world and a quality self. The motorcycle was actually a large source of frustration for me during my reading. I do not want to maintain a motorcycle. I do not want to hear a detailed description of which screws attach which parts. But, I had faith and it paid off.

For the record, the way I wrote this blog post is exactly how he wrote the book. At ease and conversational, but with structure and clearly-defined flow. He argues that he did not want to write in essay form because he didn’t want it to sound like “God talking for eternity” (Pirsig, 216). I admire that he is able to skillfully present a modern day metaphysical philosophy in a way that deviates from typical works of philosophy and reads more like a story. And that’s exactly why the book is the cult classic that it is.

All in all, it was an edifying book but I can only say that after the fact—I liked it much better when I was done with it. I thought to myself, wow I really learned something—and not just about myself but about the world and history. I got to hear about scientific materialism, classical formalism, Euclid’s postulate, the Sophist vs. Socrates/Plato/Aristotle conflict, etc. At first I didn’t like it because I didn’t understand it. Well, that’s just stupid. And if I maintained my motorcycle like that it would be very poor quality. Furthermore, his emphasis on creativity was encouraging. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I get intimidated by creativity. I think—what if I’m not creative enough—or I attack a problem rationally first and foremost and then try and salvage some originality by sprinkling some last minute creativity on top. This book reminds me that anyone is capable of uniqueness because as human beings we can recognize what is good quality work and go from there. It won’t be good quality if it’s a mere imitation. Because of this, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. It’s not exactly a walk in the park but it’s worth the run.

*Pirsig, Robert, M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1974. Print.

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