It was in the Summer of 1967, as the psychedelic sounds from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album permeated through the parks, the streets and houses of this world, that Robert Pirsig first started writing an essay for his motorcycling buddy, John Sutherland. It was provisionally called Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance though, by the time of its completion about five years later, around 1972, it was the length of a rather substantial novel.
Though I’m heart broken to hear of Robert Pirsig’s recent passing, nearly all of the obituaries devoted to him in the last couple of weeks, or so, have at least given me a wry smile. You see these well meaning, professional writers nearly all try to categorise Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and they’ve been doing this since the book’s publication in 1974) with some type of traditional book category. “What type of book is this?” “What genre is it exactly?” “How can we squeeze this strange book with its strange title into some little intellectual box we already know?”
So, dear reader, should Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance be considered largely a philosophical treatise, a badly organised motorcycle maintenance manual with too many asides, a ‘self help’ book, a travelogue of mid-West America or simply a novel? I’d say that Pirsig’s first book can be considered partly all these things but it can also be considered equally as being an anti-philosophy book, an anti-novel as well as an anti-self help book! If anything, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an extended Zen koan (or puzzle) that points towards 180 degree enlightenment (i.e. the personal journey from our conventional ‘everyday world’ to the enlightened ‘world of the Buddhas’) while Lila (Pirsig’s second book published in 1991) completes the circle (hence the reason Pirsig thought it necessary to publish only two books) and takes us from the first stage of ‘enlightenment’ at 180 degrees to 360 degrees where upon the sacred (or Godhead) is seen in all things in our everyday, conventional world. “Show me that I’m everywhere but take me home for tea!” as George Harrison quipped in 1967. In other words, a library or a bookshop (certainly in the Western world) should ideally put a copy of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in their philosophy section, their Buddhist (or world religions) section, their motorcycle maintenance section, their self-help section, their American travelogue section and their fiction section!
I wonder if the question has arisen in the minds of these Western commentators of Pirsig’s work that their difficulty, that their ‘picking and choosing’ (to use the Zen Buddhist term), in categorising Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is actually a clue to what Pirsig tried to tell us. Human beings love to categorise this world. However, it is often forgotten that the universe is, ultimately, a continuous, dynamic whole (‘the indeterminate aesthetic continuum’ as the enlightened Yale philosopher, F.S.C. Northrop would say). Categorisation gives the false impression that it is composed of many definite and bounded parts (‘the static, everyday world’ as Pirsig termed it). And, if you read Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (to give Pirsig’s second book its full title), you will see that Pirsig hammers on about the ‘Dynamic’ (capitalised purposively, by the way) and the ‘static’ aspects of our world throughout the book (usually in conjunction with each other):
Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world.
Robert Pirsig, Lila, from the end of chapter 9
Now, I have a vague impression, heard some whispered tones, that there’s been an important political issue for all UK voters recently which required some ‘picking and choosing’… “You say ‘yes’, I say ‘no’. You say ‘stop’ and I say ‘go’.” It’s Brexit, the ‘Tragical Mystery Tour’, of course!
“Brexit is bad for us!” says one politician/commentator; “No, it’s actually good for the UK!” says another.
If I’d had the chance of asking any of these clowns, I would have asked them this: Which academic research are you basing your conclusions on? Did it employ Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality? Has a decent academic publisher such as the Oxford University Press published a recent book- using this research – laying out the likely consequences of a ‘Yes’ vote compared to the consequences of a ‘No’ vote?
You already know the answer (and the implications) to this, don’t you? You don’t need a little help from a friend or a PhD in the Metaphysics of Quality to tell you. The most important issue for the UK since the 1940s was influenced by personality, innuendo, prejudice, half baked information and myth. We have some of the best universities in the world in this country, some of the best researchers and some of the most creative intellectual people but, as far as I can see, they were hardly used in this very critical decision.
Moreover, last June’s Brexit vote was rushed through (for instance, Captain ‘Titanic’ Cameron could have held the referendum in 2019…) which gave relatively little time for anyone, no matter how well educated and informed, to reach the best decision. The Brexit iceberg appeared on the British scene all too quickly while Captain Cameron immediately rushed to the lifeboats. Yet it never needed to be this way. This was, ultimately, an internal issue for the Conservative party and there this issue should have remained. Talk about insanity…
It quickly became clear that many of these clowns also thought that the average member of the British voting public weren’t up to a serious intellectual analysis of the issues regarding Brexit. Well, as far as I’m concerned, they should have been looking in the mirror and patronising themselves.
Unhelpfully, most of the few educated sources that I can usually trust – such as the perceptive Scottish economist, Mark Blythe – have been generally very quiet about giving an opinion about Brexit. It’s probably a wise decision to make. The issues involved are horrendously complicated, but that’s little consolation.
On top of all this political nonsense, the Brexit referendum only gave the UK voter a binary choice of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Yet there should have been about TEN realistic choices for the public to make, on a spectrum from hard Brexit to maintaining the status quo. I have not met a single person who has had exactly the same opinions about Brexit as I have. While I have yet to ask anyone else who understands the Metaphysics of Quality (and there are a few hundred people in the UK who fortunately do) to see what they think about this issue, I doubt many of them would differ substantially from what I’ve said above. I believe we should make philosophy mandatory for all secondary school children. The UK simply can’t afford to keep making such important decisions in such a stupid way. Things are looking rather too ‘Titanic’ for my liking as it is.
Sadly, I have a feeling that philosophers haven’t intervened often enough when others (primarily professional politicians) make a hash of ideas like democracy. And, taking a rather Mark Twain/Catch-22 perspective here, though I have absolutely no plans to become prime minister, I still wish a half decent philosopher would take on this job. Professor Anthony Grayling, anyone? In the meantime, do thank God that the global environment has never looked better, that no TV reality star has a finger on the nuclear button, that the global population level is now dropping, that every kid has a decent education and that poverty was wiped out on this planet decades ago… A splendid time is guaranteed for all?
Whatever happens regarding the UK and its future relationship with Europe, do make sure to buy a copy of the newly remixed version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ (in both stereo and mind-blowing surround sound; released at the end of this month) and, above all, happy ‘motorcycling’. Overall, it is “getting better all the time”!
I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade.
And though the news was rather sad, well I just had to laugh. I’d seen his mystic path.
He’d blown his mind out rather far. He had noticed that the world can change.
(With apologies to Lennon & McCartney)