Flotsam from ZMM

..being a confusing and reductive discussion of Robert Pirsig’s book, that probably should never have been written for posting on this blog. The reason for posting this nevertheless, is that it has already languished in Unpublished Drafts for too long and that it would carry forward, if only by a hair, this discussion started by Litlove.

While reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), it took me some time to dissociate myself from the disturbing elements of the book and to concentrate on the subject of Quality, the indefinable something that goes by the other names in different philosophies – the Tao, Zen, Truth, and (perhaps loosely) Dharma. Before the reader can look Quality in the face and ask his own questions, he must deal with the story of a college professor so consumed by his philosophical inquiry into Quality that the effort drives him mad. He must endure the strained relationship between the recovered professor, now on a motorcycle journey in the American West, and his young son. He must face the horror of knowing before the end of the book that this son would be shot to death in San Francisco. These concerns are immediate, they grab the mind and rob it of the space needed to think. They tell a harrowing story, and because I seemed to be in a frame of mind that was easily troubled, these became impediments to the inquiry into values that made me pick the book up in the first place. It took some effort to lay them aside and concentrate on the book’s main ideas.

I knew where Pirsig was going before he got to the point of quoting the first line of the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be named is not the true way,” and it wasn’t just because the book’s title telegraphs it in advance. It was because the early portion of the book is devoted to an inquiry into two ways of looking at the world – one based entirely on rational (objective) perception of the world, and another based entirely on non-rational (I deliberately hesitate from using irrational) subjective impression of it. I struggled, along with the narrator,  to define Quality according to one or the other method, or a synthesis of both until the futility of the task brought the non-definition of the Tao to my mind, many pages before I read it in the book. There onward, the book became easier to read, the narration of the professor’s darkest moments tempered by the realization that I would soon find out more about Pirsig’s conception of Quality, even if that conception must be arrived at obliquely, never head on.

During this fertile phase in the book, I became fascinated by Pirsig’s Church of Reason, a phrase he uses to describe the idea of a University. Before the foundation stone of a university is laid, before funds are allocated, before the faculty is hired, before students are admitted, there is according to the author, an idea of a University. There is, in the zeitgeist of the founders’ minds, a concept of a place devoted to free inquiry, a place that celebrates rational thought and aims to cultivate it among those interested in rational inquiry as a way of life. This concept is independent of course syllabi, classrooms, grades, homeworks, and research grants; it underlies all of these and gives meaning to them. This is not idle romanticism, as those among us can attest who have had the occasion to see the alma mater defiled by unnecessary competition, lack of resources, lack of mutual respect between student and teacher, the race to publish or perish, the cynicism about pure research both inside and outside the university.

At the same time, this idealized Church of Reason is a problematic concept, for even though it celebrates rational inquiry, it must begin from somebody’s subjective ruminations, somebody’s intuition that such a concept is a beneficial thing for society. This, I think, threatens to derail the idea of the Church of Reason entirely, because if nobody’s subjective opinion is more sacred than another’s, who is to lead and who is to follow? While I agree that the underlying merit of the Church of Reason is usually perceived or realized intuitively, my experiences leave me with no certainty that two people will have the same perception of what constitutes merit in the first place. This concerns me both in life and in work – I find myself trying hard to temper some of my objective positions while at the same time dreading the relativistic swamp that spreads ever wider in personal and academic circles. There are champions of subjectivity who play Devil’s Advocate in everything until there is no telling whether there is anything useful embedded within their postmodern circumlocution – a fact exposed mischievously but effectively by the Sokal Hoax. Equally there are champions of morality who would not budge from their positions, leaving in their wake a self-righteous inferno of unrealized benefits. What chance does pragmatism stand in their midst?

While reading the book, my own mindscape became divided into two ludicrous camps – one in which I am pig-headed about the validity of my supposedly rational perceptions and another in which I am pig-headed about the validity of my supposedly subjective opinions. Zen – so the wise men seem to say – would try to straddle the two camps – to realize that there are often two, three, or myriad ways to the same destination, to hold the entirety of disparate ways in one’s mind and understand simultaneously that neither is correct and all are correct. Depending upon perspective, this position seems to me variously new-agey, mystical, wise and weird. It appears that Zen takes the metaphorical space between finding a discrepancy and attempting to minimize it and fills it with a sort of neutral acceptance, neither grudging not enthusiastic. I wonder if this sort of acceptance, out of character for both my internal objectivist and my internal postmodernist, might make life easier for both of them.

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5 thoughts on “Flotsam from ZMM”

  1. I think you write about this book beautifully, Mirkwood, and illuminate some fundamental problems with it. There’s a concern, I feel, that we may never make it back out of postmodernism, the loose collective of the myriad, the multiple and the internally contradictory, and yet pragmatism demands that somehow we should. I agree that everyone’s concept of the ‘university’ will be different. And so what ZMM lacks is a useful understanding of community to balance its pinnacles of individual thought. Community can agree to an idea and then attempt to put it into practice. But ZMM’s lone wolf mentality doesn’t promote this, and so one ends up at the impasse you insightfully describe. I’ve much appreciated your thoughts on this book, which have brought it back to me in all kinds of interesting ways.

  2. I’m conflicted: I have a bit I’d like to add, but typically no time to do so. My compromise will appear very drive-by and trollish, maybe; but I don’t intend such.

    There are a few questions begged here. The one I’m most curious about at this moment is: why need we “make it back out of postmodernism”; how does pragmatism demand such; and, if so, why should we bother assenting? Mind you, I don’t ask in that disposably academic way we might when holding a subject just close enough to enjoy its social buoyancy.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Litlove. To tell you the truth, I am in two minds about ZMM; I like it for igniting the problem in my mind but am (slightly) cross with it for taking me to the fissure and not showing me how to build the bridge. But, I really shouldn’t be expect this from anyone other than myself, right?

    Daniel, from my own perspective, I don’t feel like retreating from postmodernism. I find it useful in many areas, such as reconciling (to myself, and with difficulty nevertheless) my disagreements with people. I feel that, in the right amount, it might make a die-hard objectivist humbler. The postmodern outlook is extremely useful in areas like social sciences and anthropology. The trouble I have, is with this systemic indoctrination that happens in some university departments, as a reaction to the “scientific indoctrination” that these departments claim, has been happening unchallenged in our lives. A good example – this may sound ludicrous – appears in the book Challenging Nature by Lee Silver, where the author cites an encounter with a professor who rejects the idea that brood-parasitism in some varieties of cuckoos could be inherited via DNA and provides a weird alternative explanation, “Perhaps the cuckoo is spastic.”

    I’d like very much to hear your compromise, so please consider writing when time permits.

  4. Sorry, in what I can only imagine was my hasty excitement to comment, and the little time I had (was at work), I was kind of vague. The drive-by was a characterization of the comment I was going to leave, that it was going to be a bit rhetorical perhaps, and appear to goad. The comment itself was the compromise.

    Still, to the point, there’s a linger compromise waiting to claim us, I sometimes. I’m very much in the same game you describe—the tension between holding to objectivity and subjectivity—even if with different pieces. The opportunistic, hungry Compromise (we might allegorize) wants to break the tension, wants us to give in without concern. A part of me wants the break from constant in(tro)spection, but part of me is certain that that way lay monsters.

    Maybe there’s a more active option: realize, objectively, that each human is without the faculties to understand everything, not “the world” nor the precise limit of our faculties, and stay healthily optimistic and skeptical of what does make sense to us, and of the fact that even if our attentive scrutiny can’t tackle an idea, that doesn’t mean our tangential scrutiny (what is variably called “the subconscious” or our “spiritual being” and the like) can’t crunch the data for us. Metaphorically, our attentive scrutiny is chrooted, and as long as we know that, and that other bundles of neurons are analyzing using methods no more a priori illegitimate than those used by our attention, we might be most able to make use of all our limited faculties.

    If Zen suggests neutral acceptance of the divide, we might do well to ensure there is a divide in the first place. I’m not even remotely well-read enough to say that with any authority, but I’ve read some of the Tao Te Ching, and passages about “no beauty without ugliness” evoke an attempt at building a dichotomy where none may be necessary or warranted.

    Hope that makes some sense.

  5. Daniel, that was good to read. I agree about the tension between wanting to break from constant introspection, and wanting to continue. When there is another person, or persons involved, this becomes very exhausting (for me), because each person introspects based on his or her own values.
    I, too, endorse a healthily optimistic and simultaneously skeptical outlook; I thought I had it in loads, but am fishing for it lately – it is hiding somewhere.

    I must say in parting that this, from your comment, is explanatory genius: “our attentive scrutiny is chrooted…”. 🙂

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