..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 The reason for posting this nevertheless, is that it has already languished in Unpublished Drafts for too long and that it would carry forward, if only by a hair, this discussion started by Litlove.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.