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12 August 2008 @ 09:08 pm
vroom vroom  
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

Everyone should read this book. So sayeth the Guardian. And so sayeth I.

At least, halfway through, I thought so...



Be warned: if you didn't think I was stupid before, you will by the end of this.

At the back of my copy of this book is contained a 'Reader's Guide' - apparently for people involved in book clubs and so on. Here's a quote from the second paragraph:

Clearly it is the work of a writer determined to ask difficult questions of himself and his readers: how do we know what is true and what is not true? What makes us who we are?

This simply solidified my hatred for forewords and reader's guides and everything, really, where my opinion is supposed to be sublimated into that of someone else's. It's what I hated about being taught English at school. I'm pretty sure it's what Phaedrus hated about the university system.

I DON'T KNOW what this book is about. It's written about Quality, and motorcycles, and Aristotle V Plato, and schizophrenia, and romantic/classic worldviews, and mathematics. None of those is what it's about. I feel completely confused. I'm sure I've learned something, I'm just not sure what. But the last thing I need is to be TOLD what it was.

Ideally this book should be read when you have a quiet week, maybe in a foreign country where you can't understand the TV and the internet connection is poor. I thought that most of the way through, because my main motive was to finish it and move on to the next book in my list. It was interesting but it didn't captivate me enough to stop me counting pages. I probably needed more time to mull over what he was saying, but by the end I came to wonder if what he was saying wasn't very slight. Narrow, almost. Intense, incredible detail about what seemed to be a nearly pointless issue of definition. As I got deeper into his struggles to figure out what Quality is - of the world, in the world, makes the world - I pretty much got lost. Not because I'm stupid - imo - but because ... well ... who CARES? So what if Quality came before reality or reality came before Quality or Truth is more important than Quality or vice versa? In the end, if Truth beats Quality, will that stop the sun rising or my internet connection being kickass slow? Will it make the love of my life break up with his girlfriend or my breakfast taste any better? I can see why he went insane. His Minotaur was his own brain and he never brought any string into the maze.

I reckon my reaction is the uneducated one. For me, Truth means Not Lying. I'm sure in philosophy that's not it at all, but that doesn't make them righter than me. And I do mean 'more right'; I'm not bastardising the word for the sake of it. To me, Joe Soap, a lot of philosophy appears to be a game in which the more incomprehensible you are to the greater number of people, you win.

As a philosophy book, I'm sure this was more readable than, say, Kant. As an idiot's guide, I preferred Sophie's World. That pretty much laid out the history of philosophy without passing any judgment. That was the main flaw in this book - that it was the referee in some great cosmic showdown between Plato and Aristotle and Plato and the Sophists. (Plato was kind of slap-happy, apparently.) The point for ME is that Aristotle said something like, "Women are inferior to men because their brains are smaller and slower and also possession of a vagina negates the possession of a mind, so pay no attention to the little woman behind the curtain." And thus, for ME, everything ELSE he says is COMPLETELY INVALIDATED. If he got this most basic of things UTTERLY FUCKING WRONG, how can I trust anything else he says? The answer is I can't. (I'm pretty sure it was Aristotle, anyway. I could be wrong though. After all, I have a vagina.)

As a book, it's - well. The prose is stodgy and the characters are nothing more than vehicles for his monologues. And the point of John and Sylvia was? How do we hear everything, but everything, about Phaedrus' career but nothing about how he met his wife or came to fertilise her womb? What happened to Chris' brother - did Phaedrus just not love him as much? If he'd been a better writer, he could have worked in all these elements in order to show both Phaedrus' intellectual development and his descent into madness. For all that he was an accomplished professor of rhetoric, he wasn't very good at making language work for him.

What is rhetoric, anyway? I thought it was freaking speech-writing. Apparently it's some big deal, but he never bothers to explain exactly what it is. So essentially, I'm there: he's fighting with his brain and the University of Chicago and the world over speech-writing? Um. That is certainly philosophical.

At first it seemed like an anti-technology rant, which is not something I'm down with. How could I be, when my main hobby - my main lifeline - is the internet, the most technological thing about the lives of non-technological laypeople? In fact it's not, something about which I'm glad, because I imagine a technology-less world to be cold, dark, and - above all - boring. No thanks. I may love 'You and the Candles' by Hawksley Workman, but I still think he's a tool for desiring it. So. Thank you, Pirsig, for pointing out this:

It's sometimes argued that there's no real progress; that a civilisation that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanised existence can hardly be called an advance over the simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times. But this argument, although romantically appealing, doesn't hold up. The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset.

Granted this was the seventies and as yet we haven't invented the Smog-Bashing De-existifying Landfill Machine, but I actually have a lot of faith in humanity. After all, just before the internal combustion engine was invented, people predicted that by the year 2000 the streets of London would be filled with building-high heaps of horse manure.

The best students are always flunking. Every good teacher knows that.

My response to this? Basically 'hrrrumph.' Speaking with the complete lack of modesty that's necessary to even say this, I was top of my class all through school. Straight-A student. (Don't worry; any self-esteem I had in regards to this was soon beaten out of me in med school, and I'm all the better for it. But I knew I would be before it happened, because it always happens like that. Narrative imperative, you see?) While I'm not saying becoming a doctor is the loftiest peak one can reach, it's still pretty elevated. I don't see the flunkers from my class even clearing the foothills. I'm always envious of those outside-the-box thinkers who just couldn't gel with the school system, dropped out or were kicked, and ended up Richard Branson. But these super-dooper entrepreneurs are the exception among flunkers, not the rule. I didn't like this concept of lauding losers. It reminded me too much of On the Road and the whole system of rewarding mediocrity. It makes a mockery of everything I worked my ass off to achieve, for one thing.

The purpose of abolishing grades and degrees is not to punish mules or to get rid of them but to provide an environment in which that mule can turn into a free man.

I really liked the anecdote about the gradeless term Pirsig taught. (Especially the bit about how the people most in favour of the grading system were D students!) He articulated something that's fermented in my mind for a long time - to wit, that people go to college for the wrong reasons. I class the wrong reasons as parental pressure, fear of what to do otherwise, lack of confidence in skills that lie outside the academic spectrum, and desire to participate in the social scene and the social scene alone. Not enough - nowhere close to the majority - of undergraduates attend university to learn. If you didn't get the degree, the hallowed piece of paper and the respect, out of the whole experience, attendance would drop by 90%. Maybe I'm smug because I'd be one of the 10% who'd hang around just because they want to find out stuff. But I like to think I have respect for all jobs and professions, because I feel hairdressers and mechanics and factory workers do a lot more for society than many an Arts or Food Science graduate.

If you can't distinguish between good and bad in the arts they disappear. There's no point in hanging a painting on the wall when the bare wall looks just as good.

I liked the beginning of the Quality debate, but after this beginning I got totally bogged down in the whole WHAT THE HELL IS HE TALKING ABOUT question. Oops.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That's the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn't separate from the rest of your existence. If you're a sloppy thinking the six days of the week you aren't working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.

I related that to writing, which is why I liked the quote. I mean, yesterday I was lying there having a facial. Did I lie back and enjoy it? No. I was thinking about writing a treatise on the need for non-sexual touch between humans that I could post to lj. Never free from this removed, analytical, 'how will I write about this?' standpoint. Not ever. I hope that counts as seven days.

This was how [Crater Lake] was before the white man came [...] but now that the white man is here, it looks fake. Maybe the National Park Service should set just one pile of beer cans in the middle of all that lava and then it would come to life. The absence of beer cans is distracting.

Very Pratchettian philosophy, don't you think? It reminds me of the whole 'human evolution has been a drive to get as far away from nature as possible.' Trees are nice and all, but give me Blenheim Palace any day.

... in Judeo-Christian culture [...] men are living to sacrifice and live by and die for words. [...] But one can transport this court [of law] to India, as did the British, with no real success on the matter of perjury because the Indian mythos is different and this sacredness of words is not felt in the same way.

Interesting point! Maybe that whole racist thing I came across in Kim - that all Indians are liars - is based on this fundamental misunderstanding of worldview. In fact I'm sure it is, it's just that most people aren't fixated enough on the origin of everything to point it out.

It's paradoxical that where people are the most closely crowded, in the big coastal cities in the East and West, the loneliness is the greatest. Back where people were so spread out in western Oregon and Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas you'd think the loneliness would have been greater, but we didn't see it so much.

Because in smaller places everyone knows everyone and it's not so impersonal? I suppose. Point.

Probably all the problems I have with this book can be encapsulated by the fact that his slang for a motorcycle is a 'cycle.' NO DUDE THAT WOULD BE BIKE. OKAY.



Previously, on Book Glomp 2008:
Middlemarch
Invisible Monsters
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Love in the Time of Cholera
Oscar and Lucinda
Kim
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Atonement
To the Lighthouse
On the Road
Brideshead Revisited
 
 
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mrsquizzical: roaninishmrsquizzical on August 12th, 2008 09:14 pm (UTC)
ahahaha! that's hilarious, because i remember my parents and our lodger reading that book back when i was a kid and i'm sure the conversations around the dinner table sounded almost exactly like that!
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: sunflowerscoradh on August 12th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
AHAHAHA VALIDATION IS MINE! :D
jehnt: sw - impossible is our stock in tradejehnt on August 14th, 2008 09:55 am (UTC)
Yeah, I really don't know much about this book other than I keep hearing that it's OMGWTFAWESOME! but never anything more substantial that might actually make me interested in it.

the lives of non-technological laypeople?

At first I read that as LADYPEOPLE. I think I'm going to use this new word I just invented in the future. Instead of saying "women," I will say "ladypeople," and I will anger many feminists.

But I knew I would be before it happened, because it always happens like that. Narrative imperative, you see?

DOES YOUR LIFE MAKE A GOOD BOOK TOO? MINE TOTALLY WOULD.

If you can't distinguish between good and bad in the arts they disappear. There's no point in hanging a painting on the wall when the bare wall looks just as good.

By his estimate, I guess, because my favorite style of art is minimalism/minimalist abstract, all my walls should be covered with, like, blank canvasses and flourescent lights tilted at 37 degree angles, or post-it notes, or something, rather than luscious paintings.

hmm. Your review of this book left me with the exact same feeling every other discussion of it has left me with: indifference. Huh.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: snowy owlscoradh on August 14th, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)
As a feminist LADYPEOPLE doesn't anger me. On the contrary, how so awesome? But we must add in MANPEOPLE too, for balance and yang. Or ying.

I'll let you know in fifty years; maybe something will have happened in it by then. ;D

... Oh, gawd. I hate art that looks like I could do it. For me, art stopped at approximately nine am in October 1898. But his point is that the bare concrete slabs and the art - even minimalist art - are the same if there's no Quality in the world.

The crux of the problem as I see it is that it's a philosophy book with an action plot. Um, no. I kept skimming the philosophy to get to the action, which in the end was duller than a wet day in Dullsville. There was an action plot in Sophie's World, too, but Gaarder gave equal prominence to it and there were also more chapters. I don't even know, dude. It seemed all over the place to me.
jehnt: narnia - peter - windsweptjehnt on August 14th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
But there are some feminists who have a fundamental objection to the word "lady" and it would anger them! I understand the objection but like the way "lady" sounds on my tongue so I do not share it.

The crux of the problem as I see it is that it's a philosophy book with an action plot.

My response to this description was "lol no." haha. I think what bothers me about this book is generally when people talk about it, they say it's brilliant but then nothing they say after that justifies their initial assertion -- it's generally all a bunch of confusion. I mean, maybe if I read the book it would make sense, but eh. There are much more riveting philosophical accounts I could be spending my time on, I'm sure.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: bandsscoradh on August 14th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
Huh, this is where things get a leeetle stupid. Some words are intrinsically offensive, but I doubt there's much of a case to be made against 'lady.'

Absolutely. That's why I prefer to hate books - I have so much more to say about them. Even when I found some elements to be good, as in this case, it's the niggles that provide material for discussion.
Emila-Wan Kenobiemila_wan on September 14th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the book, but I think this line from your review deserves its own T-shirt: "His Minotaur was his own brain and he never brought any string into the maze."
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: frangipaniscoradh on September 15th, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)
Okay, cool! Mind you, it'd probably have to be quite a big t-shirt.