Friday 6 September 2013

Zen and The Art

I'm delighted to report that Robert M Pirsig is alive to celebrate his 85th birthday this morning.  I've had many occasions on The Blob to reflect on the enormous gulf that yawns between the Arts Block and Science.  It's a gulf which exists mainly because so few of us dare cross over to the alien other shore and really talk to the natives.  Pirsig was born smart and had academic parents, so as a child he tested with an IQ of 170 - the poor little scruff.  He followed the cycle familiar to the parents of many gifted children in school, which was incapable of interesting him, let alone challenging him. And, of course, because he was different, he was bullied. They even forced him, a south-paw, to write with his right hand until he developed a crippling stammer.  He graduated the hell out of there at the age of 15 and went directly to the University of Minnesota.

He read biochemistry in college, hoping/expecting to thereby know everything, but instead of knuckling down and remembering the Kreb's Cycle he was stopped dead with the unsettling realisation that there might be, indeed must be, a number of different explanations for whatever observation or measurement you might make about the world.  His existential crisis drifted him right off course until he flunked out of College and joined the US Army.  Two years later he resolved to finish his education but signed up for courses in Eastern Philosophy rather than Western Blotting.  And he has made valuable independent contributions to Philosophical thought at least partly because he had spent time in Korea (army) and India (Benaras Hindu U): "I remembered a quote from Alfred North Whitehead which read: 'The first thing you can learn about Western philosophy is that it is all footnotes to Plato.' Metaphysics of Quality [Pirsig's stomping-ground] was not that. Plato and Socrates insisted on all terms being defined. If you start with a term that is undefined, like Quality, it is no longer a footnote to Plato." Interview here.

So he is one of a small cohort who carried out some serious committed exploration on both sides of the gulf . . .  and went mad.  Paranoid schizophrenic, electro-convulsive therapy mad, not merely a tad eccentric. 

Having had his mind whacked off centre for far too long, he got well enough to take a long bike trip across America with his 12 year old son Chris.  The voyage was written up as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which in June I suggested was too much for Summer reading.  It's a strange book which everyone found difficulty to categorise - it was rejected by 120 different publishers before it got printed.  But lots of people loved it - indeed it went cult-viral, perhaps because it gave parity of esteem to the diligent exercise of the mind and skilled labour of the hands.  So something like this where the narrator Phaedrus reconciles core concepts in Buddhist and Hellenic philosophy:
"Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine "virtue." But areté. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along."

is intercalated with a paean to the consummate skill of an elderly welder:
"He sparks the torch, and sets a tiny little blue flame and then, it's hard to describe, actually dances the torch and the rod in separate little rhythms over the thin sheet metal, the whole spot a uniform luminous orange-yellow, dropping the torch and filler rod down at the exact right moment and then removing them. No holes. You can hardly see the weld. "That's beautiful," I say."

And through it all runs the father-and-son road movie.  How could you not want to read it?  The text appears to be all here and if you like your books bound, Amazon has it for a penny.  Don't bother with the title-ripoffs:  Zen and the Art of: Knitting/the Internet/Happiness etc. there is no nourishment in them.

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