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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggests that Quality is God—although he does not say this in so many words, for reasons that will become apparent. Pirsig’s sensibility matches, in many ways, Heidegger’s; and both share an interest in Zen: put simply, they think that Aristotle and Plato—particularly Plato, for Heidegger; and particularly Aristotle, for Pirsig—have obscured a crucial element of reality: Being for Heidegger, Quality for Pirsig; possibly these are the same thing. For Pirsig, Quality is synonymous with excellence (Arete) and reality; and reality cannot be captured in its totality; hence philosophers, such as Plato, who think they have established a system that can determine the True and beautiful inevitably exclude Quality. In Plato’s case, this is because he subordinates Quality (Arete) to Truth; it is a subcategory beneath Truth: for Pirsig, Arete comes first. It could be said that to have a soul is to engage with reality; and reality is too complex to be summarised as “Truth”—the truths we know are just attempts to navigate reality; reality always escapes truths, scientific or otherwise.

The implications are aristocratic, for the person of Quality will not be a technical specialist; he will be an all-rounder who appreciates life in full. This was the Greek aristocratic ideal, the gentleman who was not a vulgar specialist; he knew a little music, a little art, a little science, and a little war. Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is the same; he is the Renaissance prince who makes war on other principalities, but sponsors da Vinci in his spare time. Of course, in modernity, under techno-scientific specialisation and the division of labour, this approach is completely disprivileged; and this is why, in part, Pirsig went mad.

Pirsig realised that he was trapped in what amounted to a prison—an ugly prison—and that the people he was trapped in prison with were ugly because they had ugly souls; they could not find their souls, develop beautiful souls, because they were locked into the “Truth”, the Aristotelian (Christian-scientific) system that dominates our world; for Pirsig, Aristotle was a particular problem because he tended to pedantically categorise everything—an act that Pirsig sees as a murder of reality.

All people can do is engage with mass media and technological innovation, while at the same time they become uglier and uglier. Quality is banished and small souls abound; the Greek ideal, the great soul, is lost; as Pirsig notes, this ideal was celebrated by the poets and not the philosophers. Indeed, Pirsig, in a move that matches Taleb, praises rhetoric over dialectic; it is the practical skill—actual doing—that beats the Aristotelian disquisition. You cannot learn to persuade from Aristotle, you can learn from an argument in the pub: those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak—the Tao. Consequently, it is not possible to describe Quality as such; it can only be alluded to through analogies, actually there are only analogies—possibly Quality is best captured through poetry and music.

Quality is rather like pornography, in that you know it when you see it; but it is impossible to give a precise Aristotelian or Platonic definition of pornography. Indeed, to attempt to define pornography leads to the current situation where clever liberal lawyers tell you that when correctly viewed everything is lewd and, therefore, there is no such thing as pornography. The same holds true for Quality; again, many people would say that Quality is a non-concept; and, in a sense, it is. But it is a non-concept that exists all the same—it is existence. It can be likened to water because it is many and one at the same time; hence, in the Bible, the Elohim are described as many, but they are many because in ancient Hebrew water was also plural—it is one thing that is many, not many gods.

Pirsig’s work is brilliant, lucid, and covers complex topics without pretension; yet it has limitations. Pirsig’s dogged pursuit of Quality eventually led to his complete mental breakdown and institutionalisation; and this is no surprise, as with Heidegger and Nietzsche, he basically decided to uproot every conceptual framework that supports the Western worldview; and he did so in an almost accidental way. They say Buddhist enlightenment is rather like a schizoid episode—characterised by a collapse in subject-object relations—so we could say that Pirsig accidentally induced a kind of enlightenment in himself through a pursuit of Quality. As mystics, such René Guénon, might observe, we have to treat people who have religious experiences due to mental illness with reservations. In modernity, this is often the only way people can access the most primordial religious experience; but to experience reality directly feels like insanity; and, without external discipline, without being in a Zen monastery, possibly amounts to complete madness.

There is a contradiction at the heart of Pirsig’s work: he identifies Quality as the most important value; it is the ever-changing whole, the organic relation between things—the waters. Yet, at the same time, he asserts that technology and Quality can be reconciled; he thinks, per the book’s title, that he can find Quality anywhere—even in a motorcycle, the Buddha or Jesus is even in motorcycle repair. However, later in the book, Pirsig identifies technological society in its totality with a state that it is anti-Quality: technological society is too constrained by categories associated with Truth, Reason, and so on to appreciate Quality.

I think this ambiguity stems from the way Pirsig achieved his insight and his final reluctance to step right over and out from materialism and admit that what he means by Quality is God; and this is, no doubt, because after his institutionalisation he, by his own admission, had to pretend to be sane to escape the hospital. If there is one thing guaranteed to put you back in a mental hospital after you have been released it is to suddenly announce that you have had a direct experience with God and know the true path to union with Him.

The pretence he adopted to escape the hospital led to a genuine split personality—present in his novel—between his post-asylum self, “the Narrator”, and his pre-asylum self, whom he dubs “Phaedrus”. There is some indication that Pirsig remained unstable in this regard: he says that Phaedrus means “wolf” in ancient Greek, but actually it means “light-bearer”. This may, perhaps, be a joke on his part; perhaps he saw himself in his wild Montana days in search of Quality as a dangerous “lone wolf”, the lone wolf Phaedrus. However, it is also possible that he confused Phaedrus with a Roman fabulist who adapted Aesop, including a story about a wolf. I cannot tell if Pirsig simply became confused, made a deliberate joke to play with the reader, or still, in his composition of ZatAoMM, was disturbed to such a fundamental degree that he did not know who he really was—if, indeed, any of us know that.

As Guénon would observe, as is implied by Prisig’s thought, Quality is not to be mixed with quantity; a purely quantitative relation to the world characterises modernity in its debased and meaningless state. Yet technology is inherently quantitative, at least in modernity—though Pirsig will not give it up. I think Pirsig clings to technology for a few reasons; firstly, his insights, basically religious insights, came about through mental derangement, and so he cannot move to a holistic position with ease—he is somewhat incomplete.

Secondly, Pirsig is a leftist; and this is evident from his comments in ZatAoMM. He disdains the “conservatives” at his Montana college; he makes acidulous remarks about “the white man”; and he makes untrue observations, observations that are untrue to reality, such as his observation that beer cans complete a scene in a national park—possibly he is being ironic here, but, in general, Pirsig maintains an unironic autistic stance throughout the novel, so I doubt it. Beer cans do not complete a scene at a national park: beer cans, by Pirisg’s own logic, represent a quantitative intrusion into Quality; an intrusion into holistic nature. Further, Pirsig was trained as a journalist, essentially a training in leftism and how to lie. He has a predisposition to reject spiritual explanations and also possesses the leftist’s inherent faith in technology, not God, to improve mankind’s lot. Although he tears out his other assumptions about reality root and branch, Pirsig never touches these beliefs; although these are more immaterial and closer to an inversion of Quality than his concerns with Plato and Aristotle.

In short, the logic of Pirsig’s argument would be that we should reject technology, since it privileges Truth over Quality and excellence. It follows that nothing technological can be excellent, beautiful, or have Quality; technology is, by its very nature, fragmented into quantitative elements and pieces subordinated to fragmented truths about reality. Possibly, Pirsig steps back from this because to take this route would mean that he had gone “mad” again—the implication from this stance is really that people like Guénon, Heidegger, and bin Laden are correct; and we should wage absolute Holy War against society, particularly Western society, because, as currently configured, it is literally Satanic; i.e. it is literally soulless and destroys souls.

I think Pirsig would reply that non-dualistic thought demands that the Buddha is everywhere; hence the Buddha is present in motorcycle repair, Quality cannot be eliminated completely—it is there, if you care to look closely enough; although most people do not. For the most part, people do not endow their technology with soul. I would reply: true, the Buddha is everywhere, and yet maybe he is not everywhere equally; he is not evenly distributed, and when it comes to technology and the technological society he is spread very, very thinly. In this sense, nobody is soulless—even the most soulless person has a tiny stone chip, a very small soul; yet technological society increases this tendency to an obscene degree. For sure, there are men who maintain their motorcycles with soul, but they are very few and far between. The general tendency in technology is towards soullessness.

In the novel’s afterword, we learn that Pirsig’s son, Chris, whom he rides around America with in the novel, was eventually stabbed to death. He was about to visit Pirsig in England and he had written a letter that Pirsig received after his death that said, in paraphrase: I did not expect to live to see twenty-three. He was stabbed to death two weeks before his twenty-third birthday. To me, this is a supernatural event—call it synchronicity, if you like—but Pirsig passes over it without comment; presumably because to assert that it is supernatural would put him back on the path to the asylum.

Later, he notes that his daughter, Nell, whom he nearly aborted, has inhabited the same pattern as Chris; and he says this relates to the beliefs found among primitive peoples; and I think that is an admission, in an indirect way, in a quasi-materialist formulation about patterns, that he thinks reincarnation—something like reincarnation, anyway—is real. Ultimately, the book is written by a split personality: the book is written by the post-Phaedrus Narrator, a man who has learned, as he admits to Chris, to act sane. Pirsig can still admire technology because he has put the act back on; he has stepped away from what he called in another interview “hard enlightenment”. In other words, he has learned to pretend he is not enlightened in order not to be institutionalised.

Certainly, enlightenment cannot be sold: Quality does not advertise. Products with limited Quality advertise all the time; Coca-Cola, for example, is a low-Quality product that advertises all the time: it is fizzy sugar water that does not hydrate, it is an anti-product that leaves you more thirsty than before. Tesla, by contrast, hardly advertises at all—I cannot ever recall having seen a Tesla advert—and yet it is obviously, as far as technology goes, a high-quality product. Pirsig makes no comment on politics, but a society devoted to Quality—not Truth or “the good”—would, it seems to me, be an aristocratic society devoted to a sacred and poetic relationship to reality; technology would play a very minor part in such a society, and, in its aesthetic sensibility, it would be remarkably similar to the society envisaged by Nietzsche. Those people who think quantitatively—or are the people of quantity—would be marginalised, since they would represent an inverted force that conceals reality.


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