Yay, finally another post about a book! Yep, it’s been quite a while, especially since I have read 86 whole books since January 1st of this year, and written about practically none of them. But, after finishing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (by Robert M. Pirsig) tonight, I don’t think the stuff I am thinking will fit in well on my facebook page, or my tumblr, though I am sure the quotes I’ve marked will, as usual, be well enough received there. But a ‘good old-fashioned’ blog seems the best place to write about a book and the thoughts it generated in my head.
We actually have a rather heavy downpour going on outside, so if I get struck by lightning while writing, I guess the Universe has other intentions than allowing yet another review of this book to go up online. Pirsig wrote this book back in 1974, and reading from this author’s deeply ingrained psychosis with relating to philosophy and life, I am actually a bit glad I was born when I was, and grew up being educated in the West, and well away from the classical education and entrenched Protestantism that Pirsig’s Phaedrus wrestles against. Much of what Pirsig writes about meshes nicely with what I perceive as the Universe, but he seemed, as his earlier Phaedrus self, to miss the point that the Buddha principle is in all of the Universe, including all the things and ideas he rejected and despised.
He also missed that the structure of the Universe, and the notion of Quality make poor excuses for letting your own life and the lives of those you love wither. Quality in a person is not expressed to its fullest by a man who has allowed his enlightenment about Quality to replace actually living. Nothing in what Phaedrus was saying necessitated his collapse, but it did require that he re-evaluate his world view and figure out how he would best realize his own potential, to live his life to its fullest Quality. The Universe existed long before humans began inventing rhetoric and dialectics, and long before they invented the term ‘quality’, too. For Pirsig/Phaedrus to allow life to squeal to a halt as he examined the convolutions of these philosophical terms seems silly, like killing a bug by stuffing it in a freezer to figure out the dynamics of how it moves. Perhaps a part of my reaction to Phaedrus comes from my having grown up decades later, in a world more accepting of transcendental concepts and Eastern-influenced philosophy.
But clearly, too, to me anyway, Pirsig, as Phaedrus, was acting out because he knew something wonderful that no one he spoke to understood. Just as Ayn Rand acted out in her odd affair with Nathaniel Branden, with no one willing or able to stand up to her and tell her that she was wrong and why, Phaedrus ‘went insane’ and broke with the people around him who didn’t see the Universe he saw. The same loneliness Pirsig describes in this book show up around the edges of Rand’s work, too. There is a loneliness to being a genius- it means you see things in ways others cannot, or at least choose not to, and it means that people are more likely to feel threatened by your very existence. People who act ‘smart’ or who like talking about ideas instead of football scores and sitcoms don’t fit in well in contemporary society, any more than they fit in ever, really.
It may have been easier psychologically for Phaedrus to retreat from reality rather than try to reconcile the demands of his own genius to realize the full extent of his genius in a world that was not at all interested in his ideas. For him to live a ‘Quality’ life, he would indeed have to be able to explore the limits and fullest expression of his mind, and every step of his inquiry would have put him further from the people around him. Lacking the ability to relate well to other people, a lack which quite a few geniuses seem to share, he could not translate his ideas and create the bridges between his mind and those around him. If he had enjoyed the support of a community of equally gifted intellectuals, including a few with more interpersonal talent, he would perhaps not have gone mad.
I’ll probably rant more on music and Pirsig’s “Quality” concept later, but for now… Another vein of thought I rambled into this afternoon, while listening to the inane song sequence at McDonalds, applied the idea of quality to shed some light on what is wrong with the songs on pop radio today. Not all of them are bad, but most of those songs were written without any ‘quality’ underpinning them. They were not so much crafted as mass manufactured, written not to express anything deeply personal, nor to demonstrate the virtuosity of the performers, but simply to make a fast profit. The new pop songs released next year will be just as unimportant and uninspiring, and almost all the songs we hear on modern radio today will be forgotten by next July. Some will get recycled, rehashed by next year’s performers, who may use different instrumentation or change the tempo slightly, but otherwise, they will still add no depth or quality to these songs.
The few songs that come along showing some real glimmer of quality stand out, even if they are just hinting at the quality we think we perceive in them. They can be in any genre, and from any time-period, and be sing or played in an infinite variety of ways, but the underlying ‘quality’ which was brought to life in them remains so long as the songs do. This may be in part why old songs are more powerful and longer lasting- they have quality in them in their initial crafting. The old Irish lullaby “Seoithin Seo Ho” seems a more solid, precious piece of music than any of the stuff on the radio now, despite there being no recording of this song that really expresses the true potential of this song. The song “Paper and Fire” by John Cougar Mellencamp also has this quality, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the contemporary song “Caledonia”, and countless other pieces of music. And, I suspect that musicians and songwriters know about quality, and can recognize when what they have created has reached closer to its full potential quality.