Anthony McWatt

Four Thousand Holes in Brexit, Lancashire

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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)

Day Trip to the Dark Side of the Moon

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The lunatic is in my head
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me ’til I’m sane
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.
And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon!
Roger Waters

INTERVIEWER: I would like to thank you for taking time to talk to me about Robert M. Pirsig’s life and work and especially 1974’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM). Mr. Pirsig is not able to discuss these issues himself so would you like to tell our readers why he is unavailable?
PHAEDRUS (the ‘intellectual’ of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance): Pirsig is dead as a dodo. Get over it. Can we talk about Lila now?
THE NARRATOR of ZMM: It’s really great to be here. This is an absolutely fantastic place, by the way. Thank you for inviting us to do this interview with you while taking this day trip to the Moon. We are coming back to Earth today, aren’t we?
DR MCWATT: Sadly, Robert Pirsig has been too ill to write anything (even a short note….) since suffering a serious fall about five years ago. This is why we are here answering your questions on his behalf. I have the first (and, up to now) only PhD in Pirsig’s ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ so I should be able to answer at least some of the questions that you had originally planned for Mr Pirsig.
INTERVIEWER: Rest assured, we’ll be back in New Hampshire this evening… Otherwise, our thoughts are with Robert Pirsig’s friends and family during this difficult time. 
PHAEDRUS: Pirsig’s death is completely irrelevant concerning the philosophical merits of his metaphysical system, the MOQ. (The MOQ stands for “The Metaphysics of Quality” for those readers of yours who have still not read Lila which, in my mind, is a much better book than ZMM; certainly intellectually speaking.)
THE NARRATOR of ZMM: Yes, to answer your question, it’s certainly been a difficult time for the Pirsig family over the last five years. Your thoughts are therefore much appreciated.
DR MCWATT: To add to what the Narrator of ZMM is saying, this why I now tend to deal with much of the philosophical correspondence that Robert Pirsig once dealt with himself. Having said that, I tend to agree with Phaedrus here though I wish he wasn’t so rude about it!
INTERVIEWER: I read in our archives that ZMM was rejected by publishers 121 times.  Yet, it is now recognized as a best seller. Did Robert Pirsig ever talk about his struggle in getting this book published?
DR MCWATT: Yes, he did in some detail. The complete story can be found in the foreword of the 25th Anniversary Edition of ZMM.
INTERVIEWER: My journeys, at least between solar systems, can take a relatively long time. A colleague suggested (as I am now usually based near the Earth and Mars) that I listen to some of the iconic human music and literature books for educational purposes and to help with the monotony of interstellar journeys. I went to our library and noticed ZMM because of its relatively strange title. To be honest, I thought the book would bore me with primitive technical details and obscure cultural references but I took a chance anyway and was pleasantly surprised by its soul searching characters and central theme about Quality. Have other readers expressed a similar response to Pirsig’s first book?
PHAEDRUS: This so-called soul searching of the characters in ZMM is largely a rhetorical device used by Pirsig to draw the “average person in the street” into seeing the Narrator and his so-called buddies as relatively normal, sane people. They are nice people aren’t they? But nice people tend to give the answers that other people want to hear at the time rather than the absolute truth which can be difficult to deal with at times. This is why I don’t consider ZMM an honest book. It tricks the reader into reading it and, again, is why I would recommend anyone of any intellectual ability who is actually interested in really improving their life and their philosophical knowledge to read Lila (published in 1991) and then F.S.C. Northrop (I’d particularly recommend his The Logic of Sciences & Humanities published in 1948).
THE NARRATOR of ZMM: Hey, I enjoy listening to ZMM while in the car too. Anything that can get Pirsig’s message over to the general public (on Earth or anywhere else for the matter) is a good idea, in my mind.
DR MCWATT: I think the phrase often applied to ZMM is that “this book will change your life” and has been true for many readers of the book. We often played the audio version of ZMM when we retraced the story’s route for a movie we filmed in 2006. One of us would also read passages out loud. These moments were highlights of the trip. When you are reading a passage from a book and travelling through the scenery that it is referring to, this can be – surprisingly – quite a touching moment. It may not be as intense as listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” when viewing the Moon from a spaceship but then again, not too many things are!
INTERVIEWER: I have served in several types of craft throughout the years and each one displayed a personality, at least to me. I am sure many people feel that way about their Earth-based rides as well.  If one travels in a spaceship, a plane or motorcycle for any length of time, what we drive often becomes more than a machine, it can become a companion (in the wider sense of term). In an early section of ZMM, the Narrator notes that:

Each machine has its own, unique, personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance.

Do you have a favorite passage in the book that reflects certain aspects of your life?
PHAEDRUS: The end chapter of ZMM redeems the book though I think Pirsig would have been more honest by writing a conventional ‘heavyweight’ philosophy book without all the rhetorical devices.
THE NARRATOR of ZMM: I love a number of the rhetorical phrases throughout ZMM especially his ruminations about the scenery as it slowly changes in the mid-West of North America. I think Pirsig is a great writer and a great philosopher too. Lila is not such a pleasant read though…
DR MCWATT: Speaking for myself, I think the quote at the front of ZMM: “And what is good, Phaedrus and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” sums it up very well. As such, that is probably my favorite quote from the whole of that book.
INTERVIEWER: One of the characters in this book is Phaedrus, he is a haunting figure throughout the narration. Without giving away the author’s philosophical twisted plot, for readers who have not picked up the book or heard a digital recording yet, I would just like to consider Phaedrus’ role. I found him to be more than an inner demon who wrestles our very patient Narrator into a startling confession. Phaedrus is a recurring reminder that our past can catch up with us. What are your thoughts on this character? 
PHAEDRUS: I’ll answer this. I am largely concerned with the truth irrespective of whether anyone appreciates it or might be hurt by it, and irrespective of their origin. I was a rhetorical device invented initially so Pirsig didn’t seem so egotistical. When the first draft of ZMM was completed around the beginning of 1970 (if this date means anything to you), it was full of the word “I”. Again, if he’d written a pure philosophy book, he would have avoided this problem. To conclude, I guess I represent Pirsig’s conscience. But as Pirsig comments in McWatt’s “On The Road with Robert Pirsig” film, I soon developed a life of my own, sorted out that hypocrite, the Narrator, and gave Pirsig a best seller plus a follow-up book too. The latter book, Lila, I am pleased to say, does not include the character of the Narrator and, in my mind, it conveys his philosophy (the MOQ) a lot better too.
INTERVIEWER: Did Robert have any idea that his book would become so popular? To your knowledge, can you estimate how many copies were sold worldwide?
DR MCWATT: I don’t think he did. Robert Pirsig wrote to me about 12 years ago saying that ZMM had sold well over six million copies, including editions for Mongolia and Japan!
PHAEDRUS: I think the publishers of ZMM (initially William Morrow, who were then bought out by Random House in the early 1990s) have always been a little coy about updating Pirsig with the exact number of copies that ZMM has actually sold to date. As such, and knowing how modern corporate publishers operate, I’d double that six million estimate.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think people are so attracted to this book?
DR MCWATT: It deals with many of the issues that many Western people on Earth find themselves concerned with today whether that’s dealing with modern technology, family relationships or where we are going as a society. Not only that, it has some unique (and, in my mind, better!) answers for these issues that you won’t be able to find elsewhere; not even on Mars…
INTERVIEWER: Some of us would say that there is nothing better than enjoying peace of mind. ZMM seems to reflect that sentiment and, in this sense, Pirsig’s writing is rather refreshing. Moreover, I would like to thank you all for speaking with me.  Do you have any final thoughts to share with our colleagues back home?
PHAEDRUS: I’ll leave the social niceties to the Narrator and McWatt though, as you asked, peace of mind can be found, ultimately, by only being true to yourself.
THE NARRATOR of ZMM: I’m sure any reader new to ZMM will enjoy being in my company and the company of my friends, the Sutherlands, travelling on the road by motorcycle from one side of America to the other. On the whole, we have a great time, racing sports cars, stopping at bars, talking philosophy and seeing some stunning scenery.
DR MCWATT: Please keep in mind that ZMM is as much an anti-novel as a novel. It is anti-philosophy as much as it is a philosophical treatise. It is the great anti-dichotomy book to paraphrase Professor Ron DiSanto of Regis College! No matter, I hope bringing Phaedrus and the Narrator of ZMM into this interview has helped you understand the type of thinking that Pirsig was going through as he wrote his first book. While we need to stick to the truth (represented by the character of Phaedrus), human beings are also social animals. In other words, there is usually a nice way of saying the truth; of presenting things. Someone such as Phaedrus will find himself limited in the type of relationships he has; whether that’s personal or for the day job; despite being true to himself.
The Narrator of ZMM will, on the other hand, be eventually caught out by being a friend to everyone; he’d be no good as a doctor or taking another responsible role as he’d tend to provide people with what they want to hear rather then what they need! He’d make a good politician.
The trick, of course, is keeping an even balance between being too intellectual and being too socially orientated. Fortunately, the Phaedrus that we find in Lila is a much better balanced character even if the latter tends to be intellectually minded.
(All responses are by Dr Anthony McWatt with the moral support of the Pirsigs. They found some of the responses hilarious… Phaedrus and ‘the Narrator’ are characters originally to be found in ZMM and Lila.)

Utopia on Mars; or the Boundaries of Human Intellect

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I’ve been travelling to Mars – off and on – since 1975, just before the first Viking landers arrived there. Now, I really didn’t have any plans to go there, but ever since I can remember, alien entities have been interactive observers of my life. As a young kid, you don’t think of your invisible playmates as ‘alien’, and it was quite fun seeing them up to mischief (such as switching my parents in their double bed overnight which always gave Mom and Dad a very puzzled look in the morning. Like many married couples, you see they always slept on the same side of the bed!)
The Apollo Moon missions and Viking changed everything though… I was mesmerized by them, but my extraterrestrial friends could see that the time human beings would land on Mars would then be only a matter of decades, and as essentially scientists (as most visitors to Earth are – and you should really know that by now if you’re a ‘visitor’ to this website), I think they wanted to see first how human beings could survive on the red planet – if possible. A precocious child who trusted them and was open to relatively strange, non-human ideas was an ideal candidate. Until I spoke to my closer friends at high school (and fortunately, most of them just thought I had an over-active imagination!), you have to remember this is how I thought this world worked. I really did think everyone had these types of ‘invisible friends’, and I certainly never knew anything different! And until now, I have never spoken about these events in public… I quickly realised as a teenager not to talk about my ‘invisible friends’, especially to adults. (You know so many things get trained out of us as children… and I think these adults sincerely hoped that I was insane or just over-imaginative, but from the fear in their eyes, I could often see I was rekindling very old memories for them that they’d rather forget. And fear of ‘the unknown’ is the biggest fear that you can have…).
Anyway, as you’ve bothered to read this far down, dear reader, I’ll give you something. I do know my alien friends are from outside this solar system. I won’t be telling you where exactly – it probably wouldn’t be safe for you to know – but I can tell you that their original home planet is thousands of light years away. This is why they can only reach our solar system through the combined use of astral projection and wormholes. You have to remember that mind, as most human philosophers of the West understand it, doesn’t actually exist as ‘pure mind’, and if it did, probably couldn’t go through a wormhole! Still living in the 19th century, my friend? Think about it logically: How can a sentient mind evolve from the matter created at (and after) the ‘Big Bang’ if it doesn’t have a ‘physical element’ to it? If mind and matter aren’t created from a more ‘fundamental substance’ then you need to explain when and how ‘pure mind’ suddenly appeared in this Universe. (Answers to the editor, please!) Anyway, to expand on this a little, this process of evolution (from matter to mind) might take billions of years, but rest assured, readers, ‘mind’ evolved from ‘star dust’. Using modern science and logic we can now see that we simply live in a pan-psychic universe; not one made from two completely different substances of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’. Moreover, human beings (certainly in the Western world) have only been aware of evolution (let alone cosmological evolution, which shows this connection) since the late 18th century…

‘Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.’
The Temple of Nature by Erasmus Darwin, published 1802

Eramus was the grandfather of Charles Darwin (who was in a safer position – politically – than his grandfather who, even in the late 18th century, had to be mindful of religious authorities). Hence, Eramus used poems to introduce ‘the theory of evolution’ rather than a conventional scientific textbook. Though freedom from religious authority was asserting itself in England during the late 18th century (largely thanks to the French Revolution), it was still dangerous then – certainly socially – for a British philosopher or scientist to be ‘too literal’.
Anyway, every so often, my ‘invisible friends’ still visit me, and we take a trip using wormholes to a base on Mars (not too far from the Viking 2 lander actually – those NASA scientists of the 1970s had something right!). Though I find it generally an unpleasant experience the ‘journey’ through a wormhole only takes a few minutes. You also have to have the right, relaxed frame of mind and imagine yourself where you want to go. A meditation session before helps. If you’re interested, the actual journey is like being on top of a mountain with a gale rushing past you, while simultaneously immersing yourself in a 3-D version of the opening credits to Doctor Who. (Doctor Who was a Brit sci-fi TV series and screened in the New York area during the late 1970s; just in case you’re too young to remember it!) And, by the way, you can’t go back in time using wormholes, only forwards! Doubt this? Have you met a descendant of yours yet from centuries ahead? The answer is sadly ‘no’, isn’t it?
However, when I was younger, I had planned to jump a couple of decades on Earth using a wormhole (and, yes, you can travel forwards in time… as was even proved using atomic clocks and supersonic jets by human beings in the 1970s). But these days with increasing human populations, global warming and constant wars, I can’t be sure if Earth’s environment will even support human life in only a few decades, let alone centuries. I could jump ahead a few decades on Mars but, the ‘problem’ there is that things change so slowly in these ancient alien bases (they have been built to last thousands of years), it hardly seems worth it. However, having said that, human interference might just change things there soon, in a radical way, and this is the primary reason why some late 20th century people have had these types of alien encounters. In other words, we human beings have to learn to look after Mars before we’re allowed to do any serious environmental damage to it!