Saturday, September 25, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance review

I think the following passage captures Pirsig's theme:

"A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly...
"If you're experienced you'd probably apply a penetrating liquid and an impact driver at this point. But suppose you're inexperienced and you attach a self-locking plier wrench to the shank of your screwdriver and really twist it hard, a procedure you've had success with in the past, but which this time succeeds only in tearing the slot of the screw.
"Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn't just irritating and minor. You're stuck...
"It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you're doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out." - Ch. 24, pg. 271 [out of 402]

Pirsig builds of this common feeling of stuckness--lost keys, test questions that we can't quite remember, computers that don't do what we are telling it, etc. The book opens on a road trip that the author is making with his son Chris, and John and Sylvia, a likable couple who also enjoy motorcycle riding. Chris is riding on the back of his father's cycle, John and Sylvia on their BMW. Pirsig knows his bike inside and out, observant of every mechanical nuance that might be a clue toward keeping the motor in top condition. John and Sylvia, however, both are "stuck" when it comes to technology (BMW cylces are known for having few mechanical problems on the road), and leave even the smallest jobs to a paid mechanic. Finally Pirsig comprehends why: "To get away from technology out into the country in the fresh air and sunshine is why they are on the motorcycle in the first place. For me to bring it back to them just at the point and place where they think they have finally escaped it just frosts both of them, tremendously." (Ch. 1, pg. 8)

Pirsig's book presents a theory about the source of John's and Sylvia's exasperation with technology and outlines the foundations for a solution. At this point I feel it necessary to issue a disclaimer. You may be thinking this book sounds like both an enjoyable and illuminating read. And for the first 100 pages you'd be right! The core of the book shifts in style, though it's not necessarily a change for the worse. My disclaimer: "This book was written for people who like to struggle with ideas." Pirsig, who also spent four years teaching rhetoric in the Montana and Illinois university systems, admits as much at this point within the book--"I suppose if I were a novelist rather than a Chautauqua orator I'd try to 'develop the characters' of John and Sylvia and Chris... That would be quite a novel, but for some reason I don't feel quite up to it." (Ch. 12, pg. 129)

Webster's defines a Chautauqua as: "a traveling show or local assembly that flourished in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, [among other activities]." This book was written precisely for those individuals who feel excited by the idea of a Chautauqua.

The rest of the book is more an autobiography of the author's journey through Western thought than a novel, although it retains many literary elements. Pirsig's insights continued to surprise me through the whole 373 pages. His main concern is the question "What values does scientific thinking teach us?" He comes to doubt society's commonly-accepted viewpoint that science teaches only morally-neutral, objective analysis.

Pirsig is not satisfied with this answer because for him, science is a means to Truth rather than a means to utilitarian application. Utilitarian application may satisfy most, but Pirsig invested too much in the pursuit of deeper Truth to stop there. To him, the near universal acceptance of utilitarian application as a validation of science, at the expense of the pursuit of a single absolute truth, becomes a ghost that haunts his whole way of thinking. "Great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says." (Ch. 7, pg. 85)

The problem, as he sees it, is that there are infinite possible applications of science, and indeed an infinite number of truths that experimentation can prove. We treat scientific knowledge as an end worthy in itself, but there is no ultimate completeness to be found there. "It is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones... Science itself is producing the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate." (Ch. 10, pg. 108)

Science, when its end is only technology and no longer a meditation on Truth, becomes every bit as subjective as musical taste or religious belief. We use science to extend lifespans and rearrange the elements of the earth into any number of products for physical comfort or electronically-produced amusement in the same way that one prefers Beethoven over Mozart, or Catholicism over Baptists.

To avoid facing this inconsistency, Western thought has petrified, insisting that Classicism and Romanticism are mutually exclusive spheres rather than two approaches toward the same end. There's the "hard" sectors of science and business, which are ruled by objectivity, and then everything else--the arts, volunteer work, religion. In fact these spheres are different, but it is wrong to think think they have nothing to do with each other, and that the "hard" sphere should be controlled only by objective analysis. Classicism develops out of our social predisposition to use language--to learn the accepted name of things and conform to one's cultural grouping. Romanticism comes from humanity's evolutionary, biological need to experiment and experience until arriving at the behavior that feels most right. It is the interaction of these competing worlds that created and has the ability to expand humanity's consciousness. Pirsig is exploring this fundamental duality of consciousness through the lens of Western philosophical thought, using motorcycle maintenance to explain the Classical mode of dividing and classifying knowledge, and Zen, the Romantic holistic approach.

This book is for those who enjoy wrestling with these sort of ideas. In one of the more revealing autobiographical segments, Pirsig employs a quote from Albert Einstein describing an angel who expels the egoists and utilitarians from the Temple of Science. All that remain, "those who have found favor with the angel," are those whose "finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity." (Ch. 10, pg. 104) For these, I could not recommend ZAMM highly enough.

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