Tuesday, December 8, 2009

newnoise1 reviews Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Wow! Why did I write the longest review in blogging history on this book? Firstly, the author is saying something that's worth repeating. Secondly, trying to get clever with this book review will be like jumping into a bog and expecting to float around safely on a crocodile's back. Even if the review is lengthy I tried to keep it as basic as possible to avoid being swallowed alive by the bog wildlife.

This is not an easy book. You get the feeling that in real life it would be impossible to have a conversation with the author, Robert M. Pirsig. Half of the book is about his struggles to communicate with his ten year old son.

The manuscript was rejected 121 times until a publisher at William Morrow finally described it to his managers as a work of genius that will attain classic status. This is exactly what happened once the book was finally published in 1974.

Why would an author try 121 times to get his book published? My guess is that it was extremely important to him to let the rest of the world understand the implications of what he had to say.

The book is a descriptive 'thought journey' that the author undertakes to cover a subject he has been thinking about for 20 years. This subject is how rational thought and traditional ways of thinking have taken centre stage in our lives to such an extent that the actual experience of reality has been placed on the back burner.

The book can be compared to Ayn Rand's Fountainhead where the entire focus is on rationality. Rand had an axe to grind with those who, she suspected, did not think for themselves at all. I have no idea if she would have been in agreement with Pirsig's view that the rationality tool has been sharpened to the point where it manages to cut the freshness and newness of everyday life from our sight.

However, as a trained scientist and philosopher Pirsig is in an ideal position to confront the subject of rationality and reality. To him this confrontation became a matter of life and death. It is fascinating to read how he becomes completely preoccupied and obsessed with the subject, looses his mind, is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, receives shock treatment and wakes up from that experience with his memory erased and a new identity.

It all starts with the term Quality. Pirsig uses the term Quality to refer to reality before it is intellectualized through rationality. Quality is the immediate here and now reality. Science misses a large part of this reality as its focus is mainly on the rational part of reality, including logic, labels and words. Science can only describe this exact moment trough logic, labels and words. Furthermore, science ignores the hip, artistic or feeling parts of life that Pirsig terms 'romantic reality'. In scientific terms 'romantic reality' does not exist. The term Quality combines rational reality and romantic reality into the one actual reality.

Pirsig's point is that Quality (reality) comes first and rationality is secondary to this. He writes:

'Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It's the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been.' (page 287)

Pirsig describes how these thoughts inspired him to help the students in his freshman writing class write better. They had become so stuck in the rules of writing that they had nothing to say, their creativity disappeared. He recounts how he helped a student get rid of this 'stuckness' by advising her to write about the upper left-hand brick of the Opera House in Bozeman:

'She was blocked because she was trying to repeat in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day, he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.' (page 197)

Zen is all about gaining insight through seeing originally with your own eyes in the here and now. In the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (reality as described by Eastern philosophy) Pirsig finds long descriptions that correspond with his understanding of Quality (reality).

At the other extreme Pirsig considers the motorcycle as an example of a rationally developed machine. Mechanics cross out the 'romantic reality' part of the motorcycle. Yet, the motorbike is in fact much more than the mechanical methods used to develop it. Ever heard bikers enthuse about their motorbikes? The real, actual motorbike is about much more than the rational, analytical and mechanical methods used to develop motorbikes. To mechanics these romantic aspects are beside the point. To Pirsig missing these points limits our view of reality.

According to Pirsig we have been using the same methods to find truth and knowledge for too long. Knowledge has become mechanical. For instance, consider the child bored to death by the same learning method repeated day after day. Has she learned anything new? No, millions of children had to study the same material she is now studying. Once romantic reality is removed she is left with the cold hard facts. Insight is beside the point as long as the facts can be memorized. Yet, memory always works in the past and can never, like insight, operate in the immediate present.

Robert Pirsig managed to write a book that tells a fascinating story and that contains a mind blowing message. A large part of life, the actual experience of each moment as new, fresh and creative can be missed through an obsession with rational methods of thought and traditional knowledge. By now it must be obvious that no matter how many times you read this book you'll always find something new. Read it, often.

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