Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert M. Pirsig wrote a facinating Book.

He has attempted to tie in several strands of thought and link them to an overarching philosophy. The book is described as and enqiry into values and describes two simultaneous journeys. One physical, across the USA on motorbikes and one intellectual, following roadsigns left by Pirsig's alter-ego, Phaedrus. He does so in elegant, yet sparse prose.

He describes the Technophobic "romantic" view of the world and the scientific, rational "classical" world view in a way that would be familiar to readers of "Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus". The Narrator's Friends, a couple on a BMW motorbike provide the "Romantic" foil to his "Classical" viewpoint. He offers the opinion that this Split personality in the western zeitgeist is irreconsilable. He explains the modern world's vulnerability to snake-oil salesmen of the Occult and Mysicism is more than filling the void left by deference and religion, more a function of science's increasing specialisation and remoteness from everyday experience.

The satisfying intellectual trip is concluded by the time the party reaches the home of a friend from Pirsig's past, and the last exploration of this bit of the mind-map concludes in comfort.

As this intellectual journey ends and the Couple leave, Pirsig breaks out onto the "High Plateau of thought" as he hikes up into the mountains with his son, Chris. He tries to find a link between the Romantic and the Classical. As they climb, he tries to define "quality" as , to borrow a phrase from cosmology, "the unifying theory of everything." During this process he offers the reader a summary of Hume and Kant's "Critique of pure reason". The difference between the subjective and the objective measures of "Quality" (is "quality" inherent in an object or thought, or is it a function of the observer?) leads to an impasse. It is this inability to define "Quality" that causes failure in this intellectual summit attempt. This is reflected in by Pirsig's paranoid reluctance to get to the top of the hill he and Chris are climbing.

As this intellectual and physical journey continues, we find out more about Phaedrus and his descent into madness. Scraps left behind give clues to the man Pirsig was before his Electro Convulsive Therapy.

As with many philosophical works, addressing the reader almost as one chosen to recieve wisdom flatters the reader into thinking wonderful things of the author. Nietzsche doe this explicitly with "we free thinkers", and I find myself agreeing with what is being written in this book, but unable to explain why afterwards. I'm not convinced the "Romantic" and "Classical" need reconciling, and I feel that Phaedrus felt the same before his descent into madness. Indeed the attempt to define "Quality" as the link drove him mad. I find much of this part of the book a pointless excersise in Philosophical semantics, which is never likely to acheive a satisfactory conclusion.

Nevertheless, I find myself caring about Pirsig and his son, while I enjoy the prose and the many Ideas this book throws at you. As for what happens to the father and son? You'll have to read the book. This is certainly one I'd recommend to a friend.


Momentary Academic said...

Nietzsche does this explicitly with "we free thinkers", and I find myself agreeing with what is being written in this book, but unable to explain why afterwards.

Welcome to the power of rhetoric and subtle ontological reasoning. This book was a part of so many American university book lists in the mid 1990s, and it's interesting to get a post-millenial perspective.

Jill said...

I also can't articulate why I agreed with it. I now feel compelled to reread it; however, I am reviewing a play tomorrow evening that is trying to meld Macbeth and Faust, so I should probably review them this evening. I'm impressed with your succinct discussion of the book; I always want to write posts like this when I finish reading, but for some reason my discipline is lacking.

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