Sunday, March 07, 2010

Zen and the Art ... Reconsidered

One of the books that had the greatest impact on me in high school was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He argued that Quality is what we like; Quality is the interaction of subject and object that produces them both; Quality is the undefinable root something from which all else that we know comes. This idea stuck with me more than I knew.

A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged. While I appreciate some of its sense that quality work is worth celebrating, I thought its view of human life was way too simplistic. And the story was very silly. However, a few people told me that it was a very important book to them in high school. It made them feel vindicated as smart kids, and gave them a larger vision of the world and the ideas behind it.

This got me thinking that it would be fruitful to re-read the books that most influenced me in high school. I got talking to a study group friend, and we agreed to re-read one another's influential books together. Zen and the Art is my nominee.

I am pleased to say that the book holds up well. It is mostly a "Chautauqua" about metaphysics, framed by a father-son road trip story. The pursuit of metaphysics made the father insane. He is now trying to reconstruct the argument, without the insanity, in the form of both talks to the reader and conversations with his son. Both parts of the story are based on Robert Pirsig's real experiences, including the insanity.

I see now that my later interest in Alasdair McIntyre's argument about the incoherence of ethical philosophy, and his further discussions of the good of practices, grows right out of appreciating Pirsig. I see, too, an affinity in my sociology, which does start with "what we like" as an important bit of evidence of what is good and true, with Pirsig's approach to Quality.

On the other hand, I am now more puzzled than I was in high school at why Pirsig does not think God is even worth talking about in his consideration of what Quality is and where it comes from. That is the question I want to pursue with the study group, and beyond.


Benny said...

It is one of my favorite books. As a young man I must have read it five times which I have never done with any other book.It touched me deeply each time, though I can't fully explain why. I am sure you will enjoy reading it once more with your study group.

randy said...

ZATAOMM was one of a relatively small number of books i've read where i came away w/the distinct impression that i would not like the author much IRL.

not sure why, exactly...he's pretty persnickety and tightly-wrapped about keeping the bike in tip top shape all the time; and there's something kind of self-righteous about him.

the tragedy is that his son was killed a few years later-the victim of a stupid, pointless mugging in SF.