Not in Zen

An intrusive but well-meaning bookseller at Boston’s Logan airport saw two books in my hand and recommended that I buy the smaller one. It was Asimov’s Foundation; I have wanted to read it for a long time. At the last moment though, I disregarded the recommendation and bought Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is what I have been reading on my visit to India, on occasions that permit some reading and even on some occasions that do not.

It is rather a different book, in terms of content and style, than I had expected. Pirsig talks about the pleasure of seeing red-winged blackbirds on his motorcycle rides in the American West, and I smile to myself. This  bird has been good to so many people. The book slides seamlessly between a description of Pirsig’s motorcycle expeditions with his son, and recollections from his past –  he was declared insane and spent time in an asylum. I had not read anything about the book before, and so it disturbed me greatly to discover its subject matter. I haven’t had the energy to read for days and was looking for a book that would be a calming experience, and did not expect this level of focussed and rivetting introspection in a book with “Zen” in its title.  Clearly, I do not understand Zen!

There is a sense of foreboding whenever Pirsig shares his recollections of Phaedrus (his former self) and of the problems that Phaedrus saw in the world. I don’t know where the book is going, but it has gone beyond the point at which it could have been abandoned. Last night, cramped in the lilting semi-darkness of a middle berth inside the force of Nature that is  an Indian train, I was troubled and piqued by Pirsig’s (Phaedrus’s) meditations on the nature and limitations of the scientific method. He was commenting on the fact that as knowledge advances, truth grows ever more distant – the sheer number of available hypotheses defeats the attempt to arrive at the truth by testing each hypothesis. I hadn’t thought about it in this way, but it is indeed true. The scientific method, by its very construction, seems to be leading us away from the aim for which it was developed – to arrive at the truth.

In reading the book, I am aware of the obvious metaphor of the motorcycle journey; I am reminded, predictably, of  Kerouac’s On The Road. But, more immediate than these two is the (possibly self-manufactured) connection between the book’s subject matter and the circumstance that I find myself in – visiting India after a long time to find that some places and concepts in my own city have changed beyond recognition. I find myself looking at the new and thinking back about what used to be in its place, and by extension, comparing the person who was at home in the old places and this restless person who finds everything so changed. May be, subsequent posts will have something to say about this.

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4 thoughts on “Not in Zen”

  1. I read this book because my husband’s uncle said it changed his life. I got to the end and found that the message corresponded to my internal ethics in any case, so it had less impact for me. But it is a strange, taxing, demanding and ultimately beautiful book. I loved what you had to say about the experience of reading it.

  2. Nice review, and I’d be interested to hear more about your journey, and any books that inspire your thoughts along the way. Isn’t it great the way that reading reflects our own thoughts (or clarifies them) so well. Reading a suitably relevant book on holiday seems to be a wonderful meditation.

  3. Litlove, I agree that it is a taxing book not just on the philosophical front, but also in terms of Pirsig’s personal life-story – something I didn’t want at this stage. I’ll keep plowing through it, I think. Since writing this post, I have read some very interesting things about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Pirsig contrasts this with Hume’s views) and was really impressed by how clearly he communicates such a difficult concept. There is an awesome passage about what constitutes a University, in which he differentiates between the equipment, laws, infrastructure, physical things, etc., and the underlying spirit of a University without which all else is meaningless. Thanks for linking to Mirkwood from your post!

    Pete, thanks for visiting! Yes, it is uncanny how reading reflects our own thoughts at any given time. This is probably what leads people to think that books, stories, film roles etc. come into their lives at a particular time for a reason. I don’t think that this is true, but the sentiment is so compelling that one almost wants to believe. India, and things Indian tend to be a little bit too personal to talk about, but I am often like a zipper bursting at the seams – apt to divulge things on the way 🙂 .

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