Friday, May 12, 2017

Obituary to Robert M Pirsig

The classical philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of its kind in literature. Its author Pirsig passed away on April 24th. Ever since I read his two novels I wanted to write about it. I analyze and interpret almost every book I read. Some books remain in my memory forever. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are some examples. But Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book that totally changed my perception of life. It changed the way I think and see things.

I never had the courage to write in detail about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because every time I read that book I gained something new from it. So I let it go. The book was published in 1974.

I skip introductions in books usually. This book was gifted by my brother who left me two years back. It was approximately 29 years ago. When he gave me the book, the title or its cover did not attract me at all. I was totally confused what I had to do with Zen and Motorcycle and how the two were related in any way. I flipped through some pages and kept the book aside. On my first read, the book appeared to me as a detail about motorcycles and its workings. I was 14 years that time. After a couple of years, while I was doing my specialization in English Literature, I decided to read it again. This time I read the introduction given by the author. In the introduction, Pirsig explains that despite the book’s title, it should not be associated with the orthodox Zen Buddhist practice or motorcycles as such. On the second read, the underlying philosophy of Quality and its relation to his personal life began to develop in my mind. Pirsig tried to bring in this book the idea that Quality cannot be defined. It can only be felt. Once you define Quality it loses its meaning. He supports this by explaining Zen. Zen is nothingness. You cannot describe nothingness. You have to feel it. The book ranges from Eastern philosophy to empiricism, and rationalism to rhetoric.

The story is in the form of a personal trip the author took with his 12-year-old son Chris from their home at Minnesota through the Dakotas to California. The book is a struggle with the author’s personality and his philosophical quest in forms of conversations with his son and his friends who joined the trip.He named this conversation as Chautauquas. In the book, he identifies himself as a professor who makes his students go crazy over a definition of quality, a man who is sectioned to an electric shock treatment in order to remove his past from his memories, a father who tries to bond with his 12-year-old son and so on. I was always curious to imagine the sort of person he was because most of his autobiographical musings remain unexplained. It is the reader who has to find the answers. You feel like you are in a maze and you try desperately to find different ways to come out of it. It keeps you thinking over and again. The name Phaedrus which he pronounces in many places in the book remains a mystery which unfolds at the end of the story. Phaedrus, is named after an Ancient Greek Sophist who appears in Plato's Socratic dialogue, Phaedrus in this book is an analytical prodigy who is highly disenchanted with the western notion of reason.

The book differentiates between Quality and Reason. Quality as such is undefinable whereas reason is concerned with things that can be defined and explained in detail. He regards quality as the primal experience, the absolute bedrock from which all languages arises. There is a conflict when you try to define Quality with the help of language. Quality, otherwise reality is undivided. Language splits things into parts while trying to define something. So the very attempt of trying to define Quality is absurd. It is an evolving process of experience. 

We all know that the words we use to describe our experiences are never adequate to encapsulate the uniqueness and the zest of the actual experience we felt. Let me try to explain it with a work of art. The artist creates something. He leaves it to the audience. The audience tries to interpret it according to their knowledge and experience. Once the creation is done the artist should be left free. The one who sees the work of art may have different views and interpretations. Take an example of an Impressionist painting. Some people might be intrigued by the colours while some others by the perspectives. It all depends on personal experiences and the way we conceive ideas. No two persons feel the same while looking at a work of art. It can only be felt inside and it varies from person to person.But once you try to describe it the whole purpose of the art fails. 

In the book, he also tried to bridge the abyss between Western and Eastern philosophies’/thoughts. He describes himself as a difficult professor in many ways and in his own words by the end of the terms, his students were so exhilarated that if he had asked them to jump out of the window they would.

One of my favourite excerpts from the book.

“In our highly complex organic state, we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it”.

(Pirsig, 1974, p.317).

Persig's key message to us is his recitation of Socrates's message to Phaedrus: And what is good Phaedrus and what is not good/ Need we ask anyone these things?

The book is a tug of war between mechanical and spiritless. Pirsig’s iconoclastic approach did confuse me in many places while I was reading the book. It still does. But from my personal experience I suggest this book to all students who take philosophy as a serious subject but with a note of caution that it is not for light hearted reading.


Images are taken from Wikipedia under Creative Common License.

Written by Sreevidya Devanand.

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