Pirsig and Quality

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In preparing for an upcoming mini-lecture on the subject of "Quality," I found a few sources related to Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality (from his novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila). First is this Philosophy Now piece:

In my PhD I closely analysed his Metaphysics of Quality, and concluded that although traditional philosophical concepts such as causation and truth are given unconventional meanings in Pirsig's writing, there is an advantage in using his system because it has an internal coherence lacking in metaphysical systems based on Plato's example. I had the good fortune to discuss these ideas extensively with Robert Pirsig himself, and have used extracts from some of his letters to clarify various points in what follows.

I also stumbled onto this Guardian interview from 2006, in which Tim Adams referred to ZAMM as "the best-selling philosophy book ever"--with sales of more than five million copies [the snark in me wonders if that's more than Atlas Shrugged...]. As Adams writes:

After the army he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry. It was when he picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching, that Phaedrus and his desire for truth overtook Pirsig once more.

At that time, he recalls, in his early thirties, he was so full of anxiety that he would often be physically sick before each class he taught. He used his students to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the 'metaphysics of quality' in his books, the ideas that led him to believe that he had bridged the chasm between Eastern and Western thought.

Pirsig's pre-ZAMM situation "is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment," he observes:

Midwestern American society of 1960 took the psychiatrist's view. Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. Looking back, he suggests he was just a man outside his time. 'It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself.'

That immune system left him with no job and no future in philosophy; his wife was mad at him, they had two small kids, he was 34 and in tears all day.

Pirsig said that ZAMM "was a compulsive thing. It started out of a little essay:"

When the book came out, in 1974, edited down from 800,000 words, and having been turned down by 121 publishers, it seemed immediately to catch the need of the time. George Steiner in the New Yorker likened it to Moby Dick. Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused). It has since taken on a life of its own, and though parts feel dated, its quest for meaning still seems urgent. For Pirsig, however, it has become a tragic book in some ways.

For those unfamiliar with the book:

At the heart of it was his relationship with his son, Chris, then 12, who himself, unsettled by his father's mania, seemed close to a breakdown. In 1979, aged 22, Chris was stabbed and killed by a mugger as he came out of the Zen Centre in San Francisco. [...]

When his son died, Pirsig was in England. He had sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, Wendy Kimball, 22 years his junior, whom he had met when she had come to interview him on his boat. She has never disembarked. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to his first book, which further examines Phaedrus's ideas in the context of a voyage along the Hudson, with Lila, a raddled Siren, as crew.

Dan Zigmond's reminiscence from the pages of Tricycle magazine is also interesting, for this observation in particular: "With the elder Pirsig's passing last month [24 April 2017, at the age of 88], both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us." The author's "long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs," Zigmond writes, "might just be the inspiration they need to understand life's great mysteries:"

Over 40 years after its initial publication, the book now also serves as something of a primary source for anyone studying the history of Buddhism in America, having been the first exposure to Zen for so many outside the Asian American community. And it remains equally fascinating for its purely autobiographical content, the account of one man's deep spiritual struggle and eventual glimpse of enlightenment. If Pirsig could confront his considerable demons and find some semblance of inner peace, perhaps there is hope for us all.

After reading Mark Richardson's Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a while back, I was planning to re-read ZAMM (I have done this periodically for ages, but it's been a while since the last time). In addition to that, I should also read the Di Santo/Steele Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as well as Lila and Dan Glover's book on it called Lila's Child: An Inquiry into Quality.

Another reading quest to undertake...

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on June 6, 2018 1:09 PM.

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