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The Metaphysics of Quality
December 6, 2006 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Korea, the Beats, Quality, and Mental Illness: A fantastic interview with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance's Robert Pirsig.
posted by malaprohibita (51 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting. Thanks, malaprohibita. A few excerpts for those who may not have time to read the whole thing:

RP: Well, I grew up as a university child. It is my opinion that university faculty people are not very nice. They grade people every quarter, every year. That temperament develops. You know when you talk to them they are judging you. And their judgment is usually harsh. My father was Dean of the law school. He was very liberal on a general level, but on an individual level not quite so much... He was a very tough guy.

The Koreans and I became good friends and they gave me a Korean chess set. I told them one time the most marvellous thing about the English language is that in 26 letters you can describe the whole universe. And they just said: 'No'. That was what started me thinking. In the East, the basis of experience is not definable. That...set me on the road to Zen.

When somebody who goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself. People say mental hospitals are for the patients, in fact they are to protect society from them. They are justified in doing that. Society has to do what is best for itself.

I have to say, generally speaking it is not good to talk about 'Zen' because Zen is nothingness and the more you talk about it the further away you go from it. I'm completely justified in not saying anything all these years, but if this is the last interview I do, I ought to say something about that, because many people are wrong about who is the hero and who is the villain in the book. In a sense the culture is the villain, the narrator is the guy who got it wrong and Phaedrus is the guy who has it right, but was suppressed. But ultimately that was just because the culture had not arrived at the point he was at. It's changing, you see a lot of Zen activity happening these days.

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:29 AM on December 6, 2006


Pirsig is the only philosopher entirely outside of the establishment whom I think actually has interesting things to say, even to philosophers.

Which isn't to say that it's incredibly profound stuff, but it is well thought out, and rigorous in a way that pseudo-philosophy often is not. (Insert Ayn Rand hate on here).

Not to entirely derail, but this leads me to ask: Are there any other philosophers outside of the establishment that people can think of that deserve this sort of recognition?
posted by Alex404 at 9:32 AM on December 6, 2006


John Lennon.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:52 AM on December 6, 2006


Not bad - only two comments to get to an Ayn Rant.
posted by parki at 9:53 AM on December 6, 2006


Not bad - only two comments to get to an Ayn Rant.

It was only a footnote.
posted by Alex404 at 9:57 AM on December 6, 2006


Very interesting post. Thank you!
posted by speug at 10:01 AM on December 6, 2006


Wow, that picture at the top really looks like somebody's all "I has a fotochops"
posted by tehloki at 10:12 AM on December 6, 2006


Great interview. He's a stunningly interesting and intelligent fellow.

Looks like the old thread with his original pictures from the Zen... trip has a bum link, but here's an update.
posted by lazywhinerkid at 10:23 AM on December 6, 2006


Alex404, re. the derail. Allan Watts?
posted by BillJenkins at 10:24 AM on December 6, 2006


you see a lot of Zen activity happening these days.

Ha ha! Good one, Robert.

I've always been grateful to ZATAOMM for introducing me to philosophical Taoism.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:25 AM on December 6, 2006


Had a friend who was a philosphy prof and he said Pirsig might be good writer and good bike guy but he was not very good as a philosopher. Another friend, a long-tinme motorcycle owner, mechanic, said Pirsig perhaps good on philosphy and writing but not very good on motorcycles...
The best part of his book is the trip with the son--
Sad about what later happened to his son, something I imagine a parent never fully gets over
posted by Postroad at 10:29 AM on December 6, 2006


I think ZATAOMM was fascinating as an account of an intelligent man's coming to terms with mental illness, and in it many people saw reflected their own existential yearnings and failings in a way never before explored. But, yeah, as philosophy, it just kinda doesn't work. Unless I'm really missing something, the term"quality/Quality" gets so muddied in the process of elucidating this metaphysical discovery that while he's got you hooked, anyone familiar with the sources he's drawing on will just end up going "wuuuh?"

I'm a big fan of Alan Watts, by the way, and anyone who isn't familiar with his work should really do themselves the service of picking up one of his books, perhaps "The Book" or "The Way of Zen." Or ...

There's an Alan Watts podcast now! Check it out:

http://www.alanwattspodcast.com/

It's selections from his lectures, compiled by his son, and of course it's free. Well worth a drive-time listen.
posted by billpena at 10:48 AM on December 6, 2006


He doesn't seem outside as much as disconnected.

Was Frank Loyd outside?

He doesn't seem outside zen. He seems party-line-ish. I don't mean that negatively, better a party than no-party.

I read Zen and the Art and I didn't really find any zen. I read a book on zazen to the same effect.

Then I read about this guy who cut this cat in half, and this other guy who wore his shoes on his head... and it all came together. I think shoes on the head... that may be outside.

That's what it comes down to. Does everyone get to have their own zen? I'm pretty sure they don't. I'm pretty sure that you can lie about zen or say nothing... and then there is the third way.
posted by ewkpates at 10:50 AM on December 6, 2006


" Zen is nothingness and the more you talk about it the further away you go from it. " ........ "It's changing, you see a lot of Zen activity happening these days."

Meybe the word you're looking for is inactivity, then?
posted by IronLizard at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2006


See, I love Pirsig's work, but I also understand why academic philosophers don't have much time for it.

In the English-speaking world, at least, academic philosophy is all about precise workmanship — putting together an argument that's solid, well defined, clearly explained, firmly supported and carefully tied in to its context. Frankly, good workmanship is just as imporant to these guys as good ideas.

I think it comes from the frustration of trying to figure out what their ancient and early modern forebears were talking about. From Aristotle on up to Wittgenstein there's a long line of thinkers who were brilliant but maddeningly vague. At a certain point, it's enough to make you say, "Fuck genius! I don't care if I'm brilliant! I just want to be intelligible to future generations!"

The same thing's happened with the idea of proof — it's gotten much more important over the past 100 years. Again, I think it comes from the frustration of dealing with ancient texts and the awareness that we'll be ancient too someday. There are millenia-old debates on why Aristotle thought some of his ideas were correct. After you come away from one of those debates, shaking your head and wondering why Aristotle didn't just spell out all the steps for us, you're going to be a lot more serious about making your own arguments explicit.

Pirsig... well, he ignores all that. There's nothing like a proof in ZATAOMM, and no real definition of terms either. I know he's got his reasons. (Hell, I don't know of anyone who's written anything worthwhile on the Tao without admitting that it's undefineable; it's right there in Lao Tzu's first sentence!) But still, he and the current batch of English-language philosophers are working on different projects, with different goals and different sets of standards. Why should they get along?
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:00 AM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others. --Cormac McCarthy
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:15 AM on December 6, 2006


Is there any discipline that doesn't hate its popularizers?
posted by srboisvert at 11:22 AM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Wow. I love Zen and read my copy to tatters (haven't read Lila), so of course I was aware of his psychiatric troubles, but I didn't realize how crazy he was, and not in a good way:
I was pretty violent when I was brought in. I was picked up by the police, I was swinging at people. They put me on thorazine, and they were astonished at how I was surviving that. That may be a characteristic of the Zen thing.[...]

TA: It was your father that eventually put you in for shock treatment?

RP: My parents saw I wasn't getting any better, I lived across the street from them, and then things got worse and worse and worse with my wife and I was getting dangerous, really hostile, I was classified as homicidal.

TA: Did you have the sense you were capable of anything at that point?

RP: I was capable of homicide certainly. One policeman came to the front door and one to the back, and they knew I had a gun. But I had nothing against them so I went with them.
What bothers me is how nonchalant he is about it all, and a little resentful that he got stuck in the hospital (even though it's OK because "society has a right to defend itself"). I kind of get the feeling that if he'd shot his wife or something he'd still take the calm, Zen approach to it. "Well, you know, if her dharma put her in front of a loaded gun and my dharma told me to pull the trigger... It's all Zen, man..." That's just a little too philosophical/inhuman for me. Great book, though.
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I couldn't care less what Professional Philosophers think about his work. When they write a book normal people can read with pleasure and/or have some meaningful impact on the world beyond the Philosophy Department, give me a buzz and I'll rethink the matter.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on December 6, 2006


When I was studying philosophy (and I have to agree with Pirsig's assessment of academic philosophy; it's quite vapid) people were always telling me I should read this guy. I never have, however, and this interview is the first I've read of him.

I have to say, having read this, I don't really feel like reading more. He comes off like just another person trumpeting the fabled east-west dichotomy. That dichotomy is a silly notion, if you ask me; the current difficulties in the world go a long way toward demonstrating it. If Iranian Muslims and midwestern-American secularists are all in the same metaphysical rut, it's a rut so wide as to be impossible to delineate.

That's not to say that it's easy to understand other cultures and societies; to the contrary, people who speak vaguely about "the east" could learn a thing or two, I think, about the vast diversity of thought in different lands. I just think it's so vague as to be meaningless when somebody says "westerners think like this, easterners think like this."

I think the source of most of the concepts against which Mr. Pirsig seems to want to rebel is the early enlightenment, specifically the thought of Descartes. He is the founder of the vaunted "subject-object metaphysics," although it had some roots in the decline of the great Medieval metaphysicians.
posted by koeselitz at 11:44 AM on December 6, 2006


I suspect that Zen was, and continues to be, many people's first encounter with zen, so it's groundbreaking and mind-expanding to them. I didn't read it until I was well into my 30s, and had already studied (passingly) pretty much all of the concepts, so it seemed a bit stale and overly strident. It's kind of like how people react to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it seems to me.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:53 AM on December 6, 2006


Trivia: Anybody else remember the paperback of Zen coming out and you could choose which color cover background you wanted to buy? Mine was purple.
posted by hal9k at 11:59 AM on December 6, 2006


Is there any discipline that doesn't hate its popularizers?


Nope. Even Sir Francis Bacon was critizied for "Utopia". I believe the word is "vulgarizes" science or philosophy proper. It happens anytime a layman tries to open the gates of some cloistered community.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 12:00 PM on December 6, 2006


I liked Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence an awful lot. When I was reading it it felt important. But when I thought about it, in retrospect I grew less and less fond of it. I'm not down on it, and think the problem is as likely to be with me as with the book. It is just that what seemed so lucid initially grew more and more garbled whenever I thought about it. Returning to the text was no help either.

It was kind of like when you have a memory of you as a little kid and you realize that you can see yourself in the memory and realize that it isn't a real memory but something that is stitched up from wishes and your mothers voice and old photographs.

Anyways the interview was quite nice; it gave me a chance to remember the specialness I felt reading his books without ruining them for myself by ruminating over them.
posted by I Foody at 12:03 PM on December 6, 2006


I tried doing the book-on-tape thing with Zen... and I'll be honest, I couldn't even get through it. Maybe it was just how I was feeling at the time, but it all seemed too...annoying, really, to me. Maybe it was just the reader's voice. I dunno.
posted by inigo2 at 12:04 PM on December 6, 2006


I just think it's so vague as to be meaningless when somebody says "westerners think like this, easterners think like this."

Having spent a lot of time in South and Southeast Asia and done quite a bit of reading on Tibetan, Thai and Zen Buddhism, I really couldn't disagree more.

The reason this East-West dichotomy always sounds so vague is because it's so hard to explain precisely, but it's hard to be precise about because it encompasses everything. It's the air you breathe and the social fabric you inhabit. What are you going to do, describe the weather? Try and tap out the unfamiliar rhythm? There's no simple shorthand, is my point.

I could, for example, tell you that after a year in India I could hail a Delhi rickshaw pretty efficiently. Find a guy on the roadside, exchange howdies, haggle back and forth about price for maybe 15 secs., toss in a couple numbers in Hindi to let him know I knew shit from shinola, and a bit later off we go. I could even tell you this became semi-natural to me - I understood at an intellectual/functional level that this was not an obstacle to my goal but part of accomplishing it, this exchange. As much as I understood it, though, it'd never be part of my nature. And what's more, I couldn't possibly put in words what it was like to look into that rickshaw-wallah's eyes and have a perfectly comprehensible conversation and yet have no idea - none at all - what he was thinking. Of me, of life, of anything. Just no sense at all what his frame of reference was.

And that's why it's hard to be anything but vague about.

Anyway, great link. I'd always written off Pirsig because I always saw his book in the clutches of the shallowest of easy-trippin' hippies, but this convinced me to give him a read.
posted by gompa at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


I know many people that couldn't get into zen and the art and they all stopped reading at the same place. Which I think is a neat occurance. (Its the part where he lists the things he takes on the trip)
posted by I Foody at 12:10 PM on December 6, 2006


What bothers me is how nonchalant he is about it all

he's 78 ... after 40 or so years, there's not much immediacy left, is there?

I kind of get the feeling that if he'd shot his wife or something he'd still take the calm, Zen approach to it.

that's not what i got from it ... i think he regrets that it happened, but what can he do about it? ... nothing now

people tend to get more distant from their lives as they age ...
posted by pyramid termite at 12:19 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


I have to say, having read this, I don't really feel like reading more.

Please do not judge the book by the interview (and in general, it's a mistake to judge writers by their interviews—that's why writers shouldn't give them). Zen is a wonderful book and has little to do with "the fabled east-west dichotomy." It's about quality and how we interact with the world. It makes you think, and occasionally laugh. It's a great read. Give it a try before you knock it (and try not to give up at the part where he lists the things he takes on the trip).
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2006


Languagehat; what struck me ao things in the interview is how he insinuates that his psychosis/schizophrenia was society's reaction to his transcendance of common socially constructed reality and instantly reaching enlightenment, thinking thoughts that nobody ever before was brave&intelligent enough to contemplate etc.

Of course these are exactly the ideas a psychotic person will have....
posted by jouke at 12:23 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Are there any other philosophers outside of the establishment that people can think of that deserve this sort of recognition?

Kelley L Ross has some interesting things to say.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:26 PM on December 6, 2006


gompa: "I could, for example, tell you that after a year in India I could hail a Delhi rickshaw pretty efficiently. Find a guy on the roadside, exchange howdies, haggle back and forth about price for maybe 15 secs., toss in a couple numbers in Hindi to let him know I knew shit from shinola, and a bit later off we go. I could even tell you this became semi-natural to me - I understood at an intellectual/functional level that this was not an obstacle to my goal but part of accomplishing it, this exchange. As much as I understood it, though, it'd never be part of my nature. And what's more, I couldn't possibly put in words what it was like to look into that rickshaw-wallah's eyes and have a perfectly comprehensible conversation and yet have no idea - none at all - what he was thinking. Of me, of life, of anything. Just no sense at all what his frame of reference was."

Exactly. The sense that Westerners are one way and Easterners are another way comes, I think, from the experience of Westerners in an Eastern city. But it's simplistic.

But, to be specific: have you tried to make it in Tehran? Have you wandered around Budapest? Have you attempted Cairo? I have a feeling it wouldn't be extremely simple. Then, think about what it must feel like for a Japanese person to visit Delhi. I have a feeling that, again, it wouldn't be an immediately comprehensible experience.

For that last reason alone, I think it's silly to speak of "the east" and "the west." I've asked a few Koreans what they thought of being grouped sociologically with Hindis, and they thought it was a bit ridiculous. I tend to agree; that's what I mean when I say it's a bit vague.

Aside from all that, there's also the fact that Indian metaphysics has dealt with many of the concepts that the ancient Greeks did, anyhow. Ideas like "nature" and "matter" and "form" and even atheism and science were thought of in India long before they were a glimmer in Plato's eye. So it's a bit off to say that "Western ideas" and "Eastern ideas" are completely foreign to each other; at the very least, there isn't a handy boundary to be drawn between the two.

In short, I wasn't saying that the East is any less foreign to us than it seems. Certainly, it's worlds away. I was only saying that the apparent familiarity we have with the rest of the world besides "the East," which we call "the West," is an illusion. Differences exist everywhere, and there is no simple delineation of "East" and "West."

And that's why it's so annoying to me when people talk about "Western Philosophy," as if there were any idea that "philosophers" in the west have always agreed on. Certainly, we're in a rut now; but pretending that it's existed since 6000 BC, and that every single one of the billions of people who have lived in the western hemisphere for five thousand years has been wrong, is dismissive, to say the least.
posted by koeselitz at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2006


languagehat: "Please do not judge the book by the interview (and in general, it's a mistake to judge writers by their interviews—that's why writers shouldn't give them). Zen is a wonderful book and has little to do with "the fabled east-west dichotomy." It's about quality and how we interact with the world. It makes you think, and occasionally laugh. It's a great read. Give it a try before you knock it (and try not to give up at the part where he lists the things he takes on the trip)."

Okay. It's on the list.
posted by koeselitz at 12:34 PM on December 6, 2006


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a confused, convoluted book written by a confused and convoluted person. It is interesting in that regard. The notions of Quality it espouses are not concrete, comprising good questions worthy of contemplation, but it neither proffers, nor pretends to proffer, any real answers.

It also has bugger all to do with Zen.

Lila, an inquiry into morals is by far the superior philosophical treatise. As a metaphysic it is surprisingly appropriable. Plus - it has a sex scene. Hoorah! Wittgenstein would have a much larger readership if he'd had some hot monkey lovin' going on mid-chapter. I recommend those people who have read Zen to actually go the library and read Lila as it is, philosophically speaking, and in my humble opinion, by far the better work.
posted by Sparx at 12:40 PM on December 6, 2006


koeselitz : I think the source of most of the concepts against which Mr. Pirsig seems to want to rebel is the early enlightenment, specifically the thought of Descartes. He is the founder of the vaunted "subject-object metaphysics," although it had some roots in the decline of the great Medieval metaphysicians.

in ZAMM Pirsig goes much further back than that - to before Plato (and Socrates) to the Sophists, whom Socrates argues with/dispenses with in one of the dialogues. The concept of Quality is related by Pirsig to the greek word Arete. Any more than that I have completely forgotten.
posted by criticalbill at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2006


This is the interview with Julian Baggini which Pirsig mentions in the article and which is worth a read.
posted by criticalbill at 12:50 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Differences exist everywhere, and there is no simple delineation of "East" and "West."

Yeah, as soon as I hit post, I thought, damn, I hope I don't get dragged into a we're-all-different debate.

So fine then, briefly: places in which there is a Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic cultural tradition tend to be much less marked in these baseline differences, in my experience. (mrs. gompa would tell you, for example, that South Asian Muslims are much easier for a North American to make laugh than Hindus generally are.)

At a somewhat educated guess, I'd suppose it's because Judeo-Christian theology and philosophy generally begins from a sort of logical explanation or argument predicated on ancient Greek approaches, whereas damn near every book worth reading about (for example) Zen begins with an elaborate caveat about how there's no point reading about it because its fundamentals can't be understood logically. And Hindus generally won't try to explain their faith at all, because what would be the point - you're not Hindu and never will be in this lifetime. (Plus odds are they barely understand it logically - they don't speak the Sanskrit the Brahmin's muttering much better than you do.)

Or to put it one final way: I've also spent quite a bit of time in Europe. Germany especially. I show up at a busy Gasthaus where the waitress is kind of gruff, I can parse it - this isn't just the usual German formality, it's a busy night and she's maybe had a bad day on top of that. I might even be able to guess at what kind of bad day - not a death-in-the-family thing, not that vibe, maybe just a fight with her boyfriend. Whereas, to return to my Delhi rickshaw-wallah, I left India after my time living there knowing pretty much for certain that I could spend the rest of my life on the subcontinent and never really get any closer to having the slightest clue what makes him a little gruff on any given day.

The East/West shorthand, I'll grant you, muddies the water. (Thanks a lot, Mr. Kipling!) I think of it as Abrahamic/Theologies-With-Their-Origins-In-India dichotomy.
posted by gompa at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2006


(Turns out there's pretty funky Abrahamic/Dharmic map over at Wikipedia's "Abrahamic" page.)
posted by gompa at 1:16 PM on December 6, 2006


Gee...I liked reading Zen and the Art. Including the list part.

I thought it was about how riding across the country on your motorcycle with friends on back roads was a good thing and that paying attention to little details and knowing something deeply (a motorocyle or a road or yourself) was also pleasing to the soul.

I don't really care what that's called, I just appreciated that when I read it at the age of 18 most of the 80's culture around me was about becoming a stockbroker and working harder. This was one of several looks into a different approach to life.


Some of the discussion on this thread reminds me of some inquiries I made into Taoism 5 years ago - a few responders were very formal and reprimanded me when I mistakenly mentioned Taoism as a philosophy. "Taoism was officially recognized as a World Religion at the Official Religion Conference of 1978!". I just laughed...cause that's sooo not Taoism. :-)

But my interests aren't in being official or becoming a professor of philosophy or defining things rigourously. My interest is in enjoying life. And it seem like the more I seek that the more I find that the difference between defining something and living something are the difference between getting a grade and eating honey.

Mmm...honey.
posted by django_z at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2006


gompa: I guess Aristotle was one of those "Abrahamic" writers, right?
posted by koeselitz at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2006


gompa: I guess Aristotle was one of those "Abrahamic" writers, right?

I was trying to talk about something a little broader than what can be discerned about a culture from its philosophical canon, and I have no interest in pissing contests.

Namaste.
posted by gompa at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2006


I like his work. Lila in particular. I didn’t realize until I read this that we had very similar life paths - some details are remarkably similar (IQ, fighting bullys, loner) some are very different, I did well in the military - of course I’d discovered Zen through the martial arts very early in life and got into Taoism at a young age. Huh. Explains the sort of odd feedback distortion I always got reading him (“I KNOW this - Duh!”) and why I persisted.
The interview wasn't bad, I could do without all the “in” jargon tho. Dynamic this. Dynamic that. It’s a dynamic city. My dick is so dynamic. Yeah, ok, it’s your toolkit, that’s great. It’s kinda turning into ego. (Which I suppose is why he’s a hermit - bad trap to get into - metafilter is almost the exact opposite method it seems, your words are under constant scrutany and if you derive opinon from ego, or your statements are ego driven you tend to really get your ass kicked...metaphorically, or worse - ignored.)

“Is there any discipline that doesn't hate its popularizers?”
Yes, masturbation. Although Diogenes caught some flak.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:41 PM on December 6, 2006


The interview wasn't bad, I could do without all the “in” jargon tho. Dynamic this. Dynamic that.

Static vs dynamic is the fundamental argument of Lila, causing the hierarchical progression of natural morality/value. It doesn't seem odd that the interview would use those terms, so I'm not sure what you're trying to say.
posted by Sparx at 1:59 PM on December 6, 2006


I first read ZATAOMM sometime in late 1976, just having picked it up from a remainder table at the front of a bookstore. I've used it since in many ways, not the least as reading material for teaching non-mechanical people the basics of tool use and machine work. Most don't get even the limited sections of the Bantam and New Age editions, of which, I've probably handed out several hundred copies, over the years. I usually just mark out the beginning of Chapter 8 as an introduction to the use of the first of the precision measuring tools, the feeler guage, and later take up the kinesthetics of "mechanics feel" and torque in fasteners, and talk a bit about "gumption traps" in mechanical work, with other parts of the book as a reference, a paragraph or two at a time.

But mostly, after 1979, I pretty much quit mentioning Chautauqua and metaphysics, and Quality with a capital Q. You can't sell this stuff, I found, and you can't keep it from those who need to find it. So I just kept passing out the book, as circumstances warranted, and let Pirsig sermonize to those who had the stomach for it. I bet maybe 10 people of the hundreds to whom I ever gave a copy got as far as the list for the trip, at the beginning of Chapter 4. Good thing I was mostly buying remaindered paperback copies in bulk.

I went around in the world a lot in the 80's and 90's, and spent time in Israel, Japan, India, Korea, China, and Central and South America and Europe. Traveling on business alone, you have a lot of time to read, and in those pre-Internet days, books were still important culture markers. ZATAOMM was still selling in airport book shops right up to the end of the 1980's, and more than once I had a conversation with someone in an airport bar, or at 30,000 feet, some of whom seemed to be plowing through it all, determinedly. For my part, I kept coming back to it, now and again, and particularly after Lila came out, in those first months after I read Lila in the spring of 1992. Part of re-reading ZATAOMM again then, with all the other reading of old Greeks and dead Europeans I'd done in the meantime prompted me to see his outright mistakes in ZATAOMM, such as the Phaedrus character confusion in the UoC episodes that have been extensively commented upon, and later admitted by Pirsig in subsequent editions.

Lila seemed a much darker book, and entirely an artificial thing, as if Pirsig was made bitter by the kind of success that ZATAOMM had, and was toying with his readers. But Lila was also worrisome, as ghost stories often are. Lila followed, and yet it didn't, from ZATAOMM, to me, and I spent a few months flipping back and forth between the two, wanting to see why.

Somewhere in there, I realized that Pirsig had saddled himself at every turn with the impossible. Chose to be a purveyor of a metaphysics based on a refusal to define your central concept, and you'd not be taken seriously in academia. Chose to be a storyteller and then load your narrative with tons of metaphysical cruft, and you'd never be entertaining. Chose, finally, to insist on proceeding to write as only you yourself wished to do so, and you couldn't expect to "engage" the broad mass of readers. As an approach to spreading enlightment, saddling yourself at every turn is tremendously Zen, but it doesn't play well with Western audiences. And if you won't sell the movie rights to Robert Redford, when he asks 3 times, and brings his checkbook, you may be too good at sitting zazen, to be truly practicing the MOQ of which you speak so ardently.

Look, I love the guy for what he pushed me to discover for myself, as much as any reader he has. And so I make allowances for him, in the shortfalls of his argument, not that he needs my help. I think his exploration of the boundary between insanity and reason is original, but necessarily limited; there's much to be learned watching brains wind themselves down, but I don't recommend it either, and yet I don't think there is all that much to explain about the process to the sane, at least in the broad traffic of ordinary society. I do think that the mass prescription of psychiatric phamacueticals in the last 20 years is helping individuals at the expense of society. We're grounding out waves of personal disassociation at earlier stages, but that's leading, I think to less perception of how thin the veneer of sanity really is.

But I don't give away his books any more, not that I think they shouldn't be read or discussed. I'm glad he wrote them, glad to have read them, hope that people I like would make the effort to understand his points, and share some of that world view in their interactions with me. But if they don't, the world will go on, and I in it.

But thanks, Mr. Pirsig, and good sailing with fair winds.
posted by paulsc at 2:02 PM on December 6, 2006 [2 favorites]


Funny that the comments went so quickly to Ayn Rand. They're read heavily in adolesence (however long that lasts for some people), and are seductive, I think, because they are a little anti-establishment-- which isn't solely the government, but any prevailing group or idea system-- and also provide an deceptively simple to understand explanation that transcends the original topic. So, too, Marx, Freud, Hofstadter (Godel, Eshcer, Bach), etc.

It's also interesting how violently people turn against these previously so important books when they grow older.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 2:28 PM on December 6, 2006


I find the guy to be a bore. I enjoy reading philosophy and there's not much there of substance.

In my opinion the interview with Julian Baggini should be the front page link. He makes a number of very good points and Pirsig doesn't make a persuasive case for his worldview. The section on monism is particularly penetrating.

Basically he's given himself an impossible task and I don't mean that in the sense of talking about philosophy in a more literary fashion. Several philosophers have done that to great effect, like Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. His task is impossible in that he agrees with with a nondual (Zen) world view where language has a mostly pragmatic character and there is no hidden metaphysical shape to the world, or if there is one it is irrelevant. Then he goes on to tell us what this metaphysical structure is and "the way things are". If you can't talk about Zen because to talk about ultimate things is all opinion and attachment to opinion deepens suffering (see Hsin Hsin Mind) then why try to create a new metaphysic? He claims that the Metaphysics of Quality is a new framework for understanding pretty much everything. Well, a framework that contains the world is not really separable from a notion of ultimate things, a comprehensive theory of everything. If that was possible then the non-dualists would be wrong and the mind really can grasp it all. There would be no point to making the comment "You can't talk about Zen". If that statement is true and Zen has value the creating a framework to explain it all is pointless.

It's important also to see the distinction between a writer like Pirsig and someone like Lao Tzu or Heraclitus. The latter may talk about "the way things are" but it is done in order to express a sense of mystery about the world and to express its unknowability. Again the difference with Pirsig is that he feels he has discovered an "Archimedean Point" where the whole world can be meaningfully understood in the light of one concept.

Also, his understanding of Plato seems very shallow. In the elenchic dialogues the primary point is the difficulty of actually coming to a meaningful definition. When Socrates does give an account of X he frequently resorts to myth and metaphor. The whole dramatic interpretation of Plato (Strauss, Rosen, others) is that the character of Socrates changes his declarations from dialogue to dialogue not because Plato's views have changed but in order to serve the dramatic needs of the dialogue.

Hsin Hsin Mind can be read here: http://www.texaschapbookpress.com/magellanslog5/Saltlick/hsinhsinming.htm In my opinion it is worth considerable attention.
posted by BigSky at 3:10 PM on December 6, 2006


Here's three things I wrote on another message board, in a discussion about books as I began, endured, & finally finished Zen...

Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Is this book really as trite as it seems in the first ten pages, or should I persist? It's one of those things I've always heard I should read, but I'm wondering if I should have read it when I was 14.

Arrggh! He just exhumed Hume's moldy skeleton and is belaboring it with a bloody stump he ripped for the corpse of Kant. I'm sure glad he's not about to ruminate on the definition of "quality" for umpteen pages. Blech.

I endured, but I'm sorry I did. 2 weeks of reading time I'll never get back. The book reveals nothing that your average introspective thinker cannot realize on his or her own, or get maybe from another more satisfying source.


Sorry, just me, but he seemed so full of himself, having it all figured out for the first time in the history of man, and imbuing all this IMPORTANCE on what struck me as banalities. It really grated. He could have at least spared his unwilling & unhappy kid the misery of the trip.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:21 PM on December 6, 2006 [2 favorites]


Obligatory Your Favourite Book Sucks comment:

Zen & the Art etc is one of very few books that I have stopped reading before the end, and it is almost certainly the only book I have actually thrown away (as opposed to keeping, selling or giving away). It went into the garbage. And when I say I stopped before the end, I am talking about ten pages before the end - I couldn't see the point in persisting for even the final ten.

It could be that I expected too much from it, due to its reputation. It might be that I had been studying too much “real” metaphysics. It might be that I had also been reading a heap of actual Zen literature (not that it really has anything to do with Zen). Maybe I was just in a bad mood. The overall effect, though, was that I just couldn’t see the appeal, at all. The prose was that of an airport novel, and the “philosophy” seemed about as profound as, say, Hermann Hesse. “Between the subjective & objective, there is a third element, Quality”. Spare me!

I think the only other book that I could put into the same class of grossly overrated, embarrassingly earnest pseudo-intellectual drivel would be The Dice Man.

I’m still keen, however, to find out what the fuck people see in the novel, so, yeh, thanks for the post & all the comments.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:04 PM on December 6, 2006


Gomba, thanks for your insite on the cultural dichotomy.

It makes so much more sense as an Abrahamic/Subcontenent thing.

There's problems there too, but West and East is just ridiculous.
posted by wires at 10:21 PM on December 6, 2006


I've asked a few Koreans what they thought of being grouped sociologically with Hindis, and they thought it was a bit ridiculous.

Which is hilariously ironic, given the Korean predilection for mentally tossing everyone not Korean into a big catch-all box labeled '외국인' ('FOREIGNER'). Bar the Japanese and Chinese, who get their very own boxes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:34 PM on December 6, 2006


“It doesn't seem odd that the interview would use those terms, so I'm not sure what you're trying to say.”

Tone. The way the terms are bandied in the interview.
F’rinstance - used in reference to sailing - ok. Liverpool, Democrats, - not so much. Seems like unnecessary conflation.
But it’s a freekin’ interview. Just a matter of taste.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:53 AM on December 7, 2006


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