Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Robert M. Pirsig

I went to bed feeling sad. I had my reasons. I awoke randomly and set in my living room chair to learn that Robert M. Pirsig had died a few hours earlier. His 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance influenced me more than any other book I’ve read. 

A few folks are lucky to produce one thing that may be termed a ‘masterpiece’; the rest of us are fortunate instead to read them. One hears of ZAMM’s inclusion in all manner of college syllabi: philosophy courses, naturally, but also classes in comparative literature and cultural studies, computer programming, and biochemistry. Really. Look it up. Seminars have been offered; dissertations have been written. Countless people (well, a few hundred, I guess) have sought to reproduce the motorcycle journey of the unnamed protagonist and his son – and Phaedrus, the shade of the author’s madness – documenting the beautiful and banal places that Pirsig visited. All to celebrate his Chautauqua on values, the ascent of inquiry. And his descent into madness, too.

A few years ago I taught a grad seminar where I invited students to chase an idea down a rabbit hole, following a chain of authors that stretched at least twenty years from citation to citation. Within the broad array of topics we covered in the course, they were challenged to choose their own adventure, so long as they descended into some degree of depth below the constellation of ideas they’d begun to master. It’s one thing, I explained, to draw water from the surface of a familiar well. It’s another thing entirely to dive deep in search of connections and conversations and conflicts that stretch back generations. One discovers a chain of argument, maybe, but one is just as likely to create links that the interlocutors might never have imagined. Some students loved the assignment; others endured it. But all were, in this manner, introduced to the experience of reading ZAMM.

For me, Pirsig’s book was that rabbit hole that dug beneath the surface of things, from contemporary technocracy to Enlightenment optimism, to Aristotelian structure, to Pre-Socratic origins. To the cosmologists and the mystics who investigated things that now left to poets and artists. ZAMM was also my introduction to rhetoric, the field of inquiry that helped me find my livelihood and my voice. Yet the book also mirrored my youthful confidence and subsequent doubts in its evocation of an intellectual expedition that both descended into madness and rose from idea to idea, connection to connection, to produce an ineffable sense of vision and perspective, a feeling that, having completed the journey, I might have actually seen a glimpse, a sliver, of how things fit together. Such is the double-sided coin of insight and insanity, that rabid, unkempt exuberance that "I alone understand how it all works."

ZAMM’s protagonist (like its author) dropped out of grad school after digging too deeply down his personal rabbit hole. Even now I can see him sitting in a small seminar room, warring with his professor about the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic: 
“The sessions on Aristotle were round an enormous wooden round table in a dreary room across the street from a hospital, where the late-afternoon sun from over the hospital roof hardly penetrated the window dirt and polluted city air beyond. Wan and pale and depressing. During the middle of the hour he noticed that this enormous table had a huge crack that ran right across it near the middle. It looked as though it had been there for years, but that no one had thought to repair it.” 
The crack is a metaphor for the modern divides, those artful contrivances that the author sought to transcend, at the risk of offending the academic gods and losing his sanity. Later on, Pirsig writes, he returned to Aristotle, to the site of his Chicago struggles, the scene of the crime, and wondered what the fuss was all about.

More than a few readers have felt the same way about ZAMM. Indeed there are plenty of puritans who dismiss Pirsig as a hippy huckster who merely wrapped a loose version of his autobiography around a muddle of ideas better explained by experts. Then there are those more-dog-eared-than-thou folks who dive so deeply into the book that they resemble those who have hiked too far into the Yosemite wilderness and return blinking away visions only they can grasp - shaking their heads at the fools who wander the parking lot, snapping pictures of nearby trees. For me, ZAMM was a book I’d sometimes cite and sometimes recommend. It towered above me but was still comfortingly familiar, accessible. I had made my own journey through its pages and imagined that its author was smiling somewhere at the enormity of his creation.

I’ll never know. I never sought an opportunity to meet Pirsig. I left it to acolytes and experts to catalog his words and parse his meanings. Even so, when I awoke after a miserable night’s sleep to read the news, I felt an obligation to reflect on his contributions to my life, my teaching, and my efforts to make sense of my own obsessions, values, and limitations. Pirsig was a writer, an all-too-human one. His literary output was sparse when measured in a certain way. Yet Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a milestone that marked my life. I am grateful to have traveled even a short distance with the man who rode up ahead.

Image credit: William Morrow/HarperCollins