Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (reject)
I like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but I have to reject it overall. The reason is that the author, Robert Pirsig, went completely mad and was psychiatrically committed. This is all related in the book, aside from the philosophical speculation it also contains.
You shouldn’t listen to people who have been psychiatrically committed. It’s why you shouldn’t listen to Nietzsche, either—he didn’t have syphilis, as his smearers say, but his father died young from a brain condition so he obviously had some congenital brain defect. Nietzsche’s constant talk about “strength” and “vitality” reflected his own permanently weakened state—he was an ill man, and his works try to “talk himself well”.
Not to listen to people like Nietzsche is common sense, really—but we live in a society where common sense is rare. In fact, at least since the Romantics and the French Revolution, we’ve had the idea that we should listen to lunatics, the deformed, whores, children, drug addicts, racial outsiders, homosexuals, women, and sexual perverts.
These people have special wisdom to impart to us—the idea must go back to Christianity (“the last shall be first”) and perhaps even further back than that, but it took off again around the time of the French Revolution and has only gathered force since then. It’s connected to sentimentalism combined with a prurient taste for the unusual (i.e. feminisation).
Figures like William S. Burroughs are symptomatic in this regard: when he shot his wife to death in a game of William Tell he was on heroin—he said he was possessed by “the ugly spirit”, felt it descend on him just before he shot her (same deal with Burroughs’s fellow writer, the chronic depressive and heroin addict David Foster Wallace—who eventually hanged himself).
Personally, to judge by the heroin addicts I’ve seen, I think they’re possessed by demons in the literal sense, with the drug being akin to ayahuasca or some sacred ichor that lets the demons in.
But hang on, didn’t you say some time back that you had a psychotic episode? Not quite—that was what other people said and thought (for insincere reasons). In fact, from my view, I was just very very angry—and I was completely aware of consensus reality at the time, even though I was very angry. I certainly do some odd and sometimes outrageous things, but I’ve never been in a state where I didn’t understand what consensus reality is (even if I don’t agree with it).
Similarly, in the previous article I spoke about “poetic madness”—but I meant that in the colloquial sense that to the normal person the poet seems “away with the fairies” (i.e. very eccentric and impractical). I don’t actually think any of the really great poets have been psychiatrically committed—though they might have had agonies of passion.
Pirsig, by contrast, was actually psychiatrically committed and for a period didn’t know who he was—he relates how he “woke up” in the hospital, with only fragments of who he “was” around him (so leading him to discourse throughout the book with the ghost “Phaedrus”, who is the remnants of his old self in dialogue with his new self).
You shouldn’t listen to these people—Nietzsche, Burroughs, Pirsig. You shouldn’t listen to people who actually go mad or are actually possessed by literal entities they describe as “the ugly spirit” or “the anti-Christ”. For sure, you can take the odd insight here and there, nobody is wrong all the time—even people who are mad or generally evil.
However, what you shouldn’t do is buy “the whole package”—and it’s typical that in our age these people, particularly people like Burroughs, who isn’t an entertaining writer, are pushed forward. Because the world is in chronic inversion and so you are encouraged to follow these people—basically by demonic forces.
It’s a point Guénon makes—you shouldn’t listen to spiritual advice from people who have been psychiatrically committed; and, secondly, people who tangle with the esoteric often go mad (at least for temporary periods). I think that was a sensible and common-sense observation.
It’s like The Exorcist; in that film, the priestly authorities resort to anything but exorcism and use conventional psychiatry right up to the last minute before they admit it’s a possession. The reality is that real spiritual positions are not about “powers” or “phenomena”, which are almost illusions that fool people who don’t know what they deal with—the full union being characterised by peacefulness, not disturbance.
It’s worth noting that Pirsig was also a leftist. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance features complaints about the college he teaches at in a very conservative state like Idaho or Montana—he complains it’s too conservative, and that the college consensus thinks that Eleanor Roosevelt, who has been invited to speak there, is a communist. Pirsig thinks this is foolish and contemptible—but Eleanor Roosevelt was really far to the left, further than her husband. So Prisig was…
Ultimately, you have to be suspicious as regards anything that has mass success—especially post-1945 (and, if you ask me, post-1500 BC). If it has mass success, it has been pushed—and if the masses like it then you have to be suspicious (because the masses don’t have great taste—and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had mass success).
As noted, I don’t mean to be obtuse—as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa pointed out, something can be mostly wrong but still contain a singular truth; it would be fanaticism and bigotry just to throw something away and say “worthless”—however, what you shouldn’t do is swallow any of these things whole (for example, swallow Nietzsche whole); because, taken as a whole, they’re almost certainly bad.
It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but there isn’t really much Zen in it—and perhaps that’s the problem. Pirsig stays at the scientific level. He admits in the book that he prefers technology, he prefers science—he has no time for his fellow motorcycle riders, a drummer and his girlfriend, who both hate technology. Pirsig has contempt for them—perhaps because they have what he needs (rhythm).
The whole book is him engaged in resistance to the rhythm—he wants to find an intellectual way to get at “quality”, to reconcile it with “the machine” (but there just isn’t a way). It’s significant that he worked writing technical copy and advertising copy—it explains why his prose was so clear, and why he sold so well. But perhaps it explains his dilemma: he didn’t have much of a soul—he was scientific and commercial.
Pirsig’s son, whom he rides his motorcycle with in the book, was murdered by a black man outside a San Francisco Zen centre. The last letter he sent to Pirsig, days before his murder, said, “I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday.” He was murdered two weeks before he turned 23.
To me, the conclusion is obvious—a premonition. But Pirsig fights shy of that—later, he does say that he thinks a girl child he decided not to abort represents his son’s rhythm returned, but it’s still kept in material terms. He never accepts *.
I suppose, for me, I began to divorce myself from that view when I started to think about coincidences as “synchronicity”—the more I saw things as synchronicity, the more I moved, without realising it, to the view that the world isn’t to be understood as being about cause-and-effect relations, but rather the true origin of everything that happens is in another realm.
There’s a term to dismiss synchronicity as a logical fallacy—“the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon”—developed by a researcher who had synchronicity around the Baader-Meinhof faktion terror group in the 1970s. He saw the group’s name everywhere—and his mind had to squash that as being “a statistical anomaly”.
However, if you persist in seeing things as meaningful coincidences you will eventually break with cause-and-effect thought—and see that it all comes from another realm; it’s all wyrd—it’s all about your destiny.