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Essays on Robert Pirsig: An Introduction
The author of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila
Robert Pirsig, perhaps the most widely read philosopher alive (and yet institutionally ignored!), died a few years ago at the age of 88.
I’ve had trouble explaining why they stuck with me, but I know they’ve shaped me in a number of ways. I have read them over a dozen times in the last decade, and yet when people ask me to explain the appeal, I’ve struggled to synthesize. This forthcoming collection of essays is an attempt.
While Pirsig weaves together many themes, his main thesis in a nutshell is that we do not simply exist in a dualistic world of mind and matter or subjects and objects. Rather, there is a third entity, Quality, that is independent of the others. I’ll elaborate on this.
For years I tried to make sense of it, to write an essay that would explain what the hell the books are about, what his whole metaphysics of Quality is about, and yet I couldn’t. It didn’t seem Pirsig-like. Defining Quality almost went against the book.
One of his biggest gripes was that Quality couldn’t be defined. Once you defined it, it lost its meaning. And so I felt the same way with defining his books: it felt cheap.
And yet. His death finally convinced me to do it. To embrace the notion that, paraphrasing Wittengstein, the inexpressible is contained, albeit inexpressibly(!), in the expressed.
Sometimes, you have to say something. Words can never fully encapsulate reality, but they’re the best we’ve got.
Before diving into the books and the various themes they represent, let me tell you about Robert Pirsig.
There are many Robert Pirsigs.
There is the frustrated teenager in Minnesota, trying to uncover the meaning of life through biology and chemistry before becoming disillusioned and dropping out.
There is the young soldier in Korea, intensely studying Buddhism before realizing that Eastern philosophy doesn’t have all the answers either and coming home to try to bridge eastern and western thought.
There is the teacher in Montana making his freshmen churn over a definition of 'quality', before giving up entirely, for a bit.
There is the depressed worker bee, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry.
There is the absent father trying to bond with his son on a road trip.
There is the manic husband sent into a course of electric-shock treatment.
There is the best-selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
And there is, for a good many years, the reclusive yachtsman, continuing to ponder Quality.
Needless to say, Pirsig is a complicated character, a man of many contradictions. He ridiculed what he called philosophologists (philosophy professors who only studied what others thought), yet he craved their acceptance. He despised fame and the costs of being a celebrity, yet he wanted his work to be mainstream. He spent one book preaching that there’s no way of defining Quality, and then, 17 years later, wrote another book offering his total definition of it. He found enlightenment. He went insane. He claims he did both at the same time.
One thing is clear: Pirsig had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that made sense of everything, and spent most of his life trying to explain it.
This desire to merge all he thought was true — science, religion, the humanities — shined in his books, the most comprehensive manifestation of himself.
The following collection of essays is an exploration into Pirsig’s books and what I took from them.
Here are some previews of Pirsigian concepts:
Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and no food.
Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It's good for seeing where you've been. It's good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can't tell you where you ought to go.
The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know
The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or the petals of a flower.
Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What's the motive?
The truth knocks on your door, and you say 'Go away! I'm looking for the truth!' so it goes away.
The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.
To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
What I’m trying to come up with… is shortcuts to living right. …the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person who appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.
If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good…
Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it, there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it, there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.
Our relationship to technology:
The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is -not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.
This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that's what it is. Blind alley, though. If someone's ungrateful and you tell him he's ungrateful, okay, you've called him a name. You haven't solved anything.
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.
Now onto his books….