Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Short Pirsig Presentation

This was a presentation for a literature class I took about a year ago. The subject was Modernism and time, and we were each asked to read a book on our own and relate the subject of the class to it. I took the easy way out and did Pirsig, but it allowed me to not only help some of the students handle the theoretical concepts we we're struggling with, but also focus some thoughts about Pirsig and his narrative.

The biggest insight into Pirsig the class allowed was in the genesis of his classic/romantic distinction. It was never a distinction, or set of concepts, that I'd encountered in philosophy, though obviously "classic" was typically a Greek reference and "Romanticism" was a movement (of poets, and possibly more) during the 19th century. Turns out, however, that it was a much applied set of concepts in early Modernism, in the beginnings of literary theory in T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis at the beginning of the 20th century.

The below, then, was written for an audience with a basic acquaintance with that context, though it does little to elaborate it. It is basically a very short introduction to Pirsig (though it does hazard some conclusionary remarks) for an audience who knows nothing of him, but has an interest in modernism, narrative, and timeIt also has a very simple, outline style, since it was to be delivered orally (with the ability to respond to a possibly dynamic audience) and it included a handout of selections from ZMM.

For a little bit about what we were reading at the time, you might read my critical jaunts from that class on James ("James and Woolf"), Lewis ("Lewis and Ulysses"), and Eliot ("Eliot, Forster, and Experience").

*NOTE* The internal, handout links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


I. Part I
a. The book is basically autobiographical. We are confronted at the outset with an “Author’s Note”: which says, “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact.” It is thus that we approach the book as a kind of memoir of a motorcycle trip of the author and his son Chris, with two friends, across the Midwest to San Francisco.

b. Things aren’t all that simple, however. Written entirely in the first-person, the narrator quickly let’s us know that he isn’t just going to be narrating the passing marshes and mountains. (first quote)

c. This should remind us of Eliot and Lewis, railing against romance and newness for the sake of newness. What I want to suggest is that Pirsig’s book suggests an answer to them, indeed on their own terms.

d. The problem the narrator takes up are embodied in his friends—they don’t like technology, but they can’t really explain it. Part I consists in the set-up of the problem. He links his friends with hippies, and people more like himself with the “squares” and says there is a dimensional gap between them. (second quote)

e. In fact, it doesn’t take him long to deploy the categories we’ve been using this whole class. (third quote)

f. The narrator begins using these categories to organize the problem and move towards answering it.

g. However, a little ways into Part I, we are introduced to a new character. Stopped for the night at a campsite, Chris, the narrator’s son, says that a friend of his, who’s Native American, believes in ghosts. The narrator says that that makes sense. When Chris asks if he believes in ghosts, the narrator replies yes: (fourth quote)

h. As the narrator is falling asleep, Chris presses him on whether he ever knew any ghosts. The narrator says that he did once know a ghost, someone “who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time.” We learn that the ghost the narrator knew was named Phaedrus, and the ghost he chased was Reason.

i. As the narrative continues, by which I mean, as the narrator continues, he becomes more and more preoccupied with this ghost, Phaedrus. He admits that all of the ideas he has are really Phaedrus’, including his use of the distinction between classic and romantic. At first his descriptions of this ghost are quite enigmatic: are we to really believe that the narrator knows a ghost, no less with the titular name of a Platonic dialogue?

j. The climax of Part I of the book occurs when we learn that the narrator used to be Phaedrus. He says he “first discovered him by inference from a strange series of events.” The narrator says that he crashed on a bed in a back room at a party one weekend and then woke up in, surprisingly, a different room. His clothes were changed and he walked down a corridor in what looked like a hospital. (fifth quote)
II. Time
a. I’ve spent a lot of time on narrative exposition, and particularly Part I, because the narrative—and the particular way it is written—is an integral part of the conceptual story that the narrator is also attempting to relate.

b. The narrator through the rest of the book spends more and more time on relating Phaedrus’ past—his past. We learn that he finished his first year of college, studying biochem, when he was 15, and failed out of the university when he was 17 for being unable to move past the problem of scientifically validating the scientific method. We learn of his encounters with the Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, of his short stint at the Benares University. In Part III, we learn of his teaching of English at the University of Montana-Bozeman. Each step leads us further and further back, it turns out, into philosophical history, until Part IV where we reach his brief studies of ancient philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he—Phaedrus—met his fate.

c. The fascinating twist of the book is that we learn, through the narrator’s own obsessive preoccupation with Phaedrus, that Phaedrus isn’t the bad guy, as ghosts usually are, but the good guy. The climax of the narrative occurs when the narrator realizes that he’s the bad guy for being the conformist. (sixth quote)

d. So Phaedrus rises like a phoenix at the close of the book, but this poses a series of questions:
i. Phaedrus was committed to a hospital because he became obsessed with nothing but his own philosophical preoccupations. So how is it good that Phaedrus is back?

ii. We’ve always been looking through the narrator’s eyes, through Pirsig’s writing, so of course, when Phaedrus wins the psychic struggle, he says that he—Phaedrus—is the good guy. So why should we trust his pronouncement in the last lines “It’s going to get better. You can sort of tell these things.”?

iii. We can now see the narrator’s own Chautauqua, from the beginning, as Phaedrus raising his voice, scratching back to the surface. We see the narrator’s increasing preoccupation with Phaedrus as Phaedrus beginning to win. And not only that, the narrator being preoccupied with Phaedrus is concurrently a preoccupation with Phaedrus’ original problems, the ones that got him committed. So, again, is this a good thing?

iv. Worst of all, we must confront the fact, completely ignored by the narrator except for the brief admission designed as exculpation at the front of the book (first quote again), that as the narrator relates the entire story, time is passing—which means that as he goes on and on about classic and romantic, Kant and Plato, time is passing on the motorcycle with him essentially ignoring Chris. Might this not have been the problem to begin with? Dereliction of life?
e. I think the problem posed by Pirsig, and enunciated in terms of classic and romantic, is roughly the same problem that Eliot and Lewis, and Bergson and James for that matter, tangled with. It is a towering complex of interrelated ideas, ones that Pirsig is at pains to swish around in his story, but the simple problem is this: for classics, revering the romantic, the now of life, is the reduction of life to a series of unrelatable moments, as if the romantic sucks the marrow out of each moment, but then is left no ingredients to make a stew. For romantics, however, to revere the classic, the underlying abstract forms of life, is to remove oneself from life, to play in an imaginary world of ghosts without any sense of what’s going on around them.

f. Pirsig’s answer, embodied in the story, is that both are right, the extremes of either are dangerous. Time is the ultimate category that governs everything, whether it’s the past haunting us, our slanted recapitulation of that past, or the relinquishment of responsibility because we don’t want to think about the consequences of our actions—because thinking takes time. Pirsig’s answer is that only a balance will do in an individual life. Cultures may have to sway back and forth, between broadening the banks in search of novelty and digging into the trenches to clear out the silt, but individuals should learn balance and harmony.
Handout of Pirsig Selections

Relevant Statistics
Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Holds degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and journalism and also studied oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India. He published ZMM in 1974, though only after having it rejected by 121 other publishers. It is constantly being republished, a new edition with afterword in ’84, a 20th Anniversity edition, a 25th with a new introduction, and a 30th just for kicks. It has been called the “most widely read philosophy book, ever.” Robert Redford attempted throughout the ‘80s to turn it into a movie. He is also the author of this book’s sequel, Lila—published in 1991, and the only other book he ever did publish. He is still alive, living on a boat, probably somewhere in the North Atlantic.

On Chautauquas (7-8)
Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. …
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that's the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Two Realities (57)
What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another. That's quite a situation. You might say there's a little problem here.

On Classic and Romantic (70)
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. "Art" when it is opposed to "Science" is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

On Ghosts (36)
"Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn't a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It's all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It's run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living."

On Phaedrus (87-8)
It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?

It was explained to me finally that "You have a new personality now." But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any "old" personality. If they had said, "You are a new personality," it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.

But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?

This was my first inkling of the existence of Phædrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I've learned much more.

On Phaedrus and the Narrator (412)
What I am is a heretic who's recanted, and thereby in everyone's eyes saved his soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they're convinced, you get out. If I hadn't turned on him [Phaedrus] I'd still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That's the difference between us, and Chris knows it. And that's the reason why sometimes I feel he's the reality and I'm the ghost.

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