Monday, March 20, 2006

Phaedrus, the Woolf

In the last few years, I've been trying to convince myself to retool as a literary critic. I am convinced that I want to give academia a go by entering an English Department somewhere, but I have difficulty shedding my obsession with philosophy—my desire, when given a choice, to reach for Hilary Putnam instead of Milan Kundera. That and I don't have much experience reading literature. My greatest fear is turning into the kind of literary critic Rorty deplores—one steeped in theory and philosophy, but doesn't know much about literature. Fear alone wouldn't be enough to keep it from happening—I would actually have to enjoy reading novels.

Thus, it was with a kind of relief that, upon taking a lit class this semester, that I found that I did enjoy reading literature—and not just novels, either, but poems, too! (Granted, though, we were reading Yeats and Stevens, two "philosophical poets.") At any rate, I consider the exercise to be a great sign about how I hope my future pans out.

One of the books we read was Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It is a little frustrating to read sometimes, but ultimately proves to be captivating. There were two things that stood out in the book as I read it: one was Septimus' illusions of grandeur and the second was the way in which the past influences the present. I'd like to weave together these two things with Pirsig's own writing.

Mrs. Dalloway shifts between several narrators and basically contains two different stories that become intertwined—one about Clarissa Dalloway, preparing for a party and dealing with lost passions from the past, and Septimus Warren Smith, a WW I vet who has suffered great psychological trauma from the war. Septimus struggles throughout the novel with a kind of insanity, a kind that should be familiar to Pirsig fans. Septimus thinks that he has found the secret of life, the cure for humanity, he thinks he has found the Truth: "he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last, after all the toils of civilization—Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Darwin, and now himself—was to be given to.... 'To whom?' he asked aloud. 'To the Prime Minister,' the voices which rustled above his head replied." (MD, 67) Now, this is kinda' funny and over the top. But we do read in Pirsig's ZMM a kind of megalomania in Phaedrus, in his descent to madness—that he has found the key.

What I would like to suggest is that both Septimus and Phaedrus suggest to us the ways in which we can see ourselves in world-historical terms. It can come out in slightly hysterical ways (like in Septimus and some of Nietzsche), but also in more moderate ways. In a piece about Rorty ("The Quest for Uncertainty," in Rorty's new Take Care of Freedom and Truth will take Care of Itself), David Hollinger says that "Dick really does see himself in world-historical terms. And he is one of the few people who can do this without being pretentious about it." (16) I think there are personality reasons for this in addition to reasons to do with the particular intellectual gifts he has, but there is one thing that links Septimus, Pirsig, and Rorty: their concern with the past.

In their own way, Pirsig, Rorty, and Woolf show how easy it is to see yourself in world-historical terms. One way is by digging into the contingent tissue that makes up your web of beliefs and desires, your self, and digging into the past to see how history has made you the way you are. This is the kind of genre of writing Hegel and Nietzsche specialized in, the writing of a narrative history to show how you are the way you are, the vicissitudes of history that have produced you. Rorty and Pirsig both perform this kind of writing, Pirsig stunningly so by weaving this historical narrative into his own autobiographical history.

There is another way to see yourself in world-historical terms, however, something a little simpler. It involves the way we evolve ourselves, the way in which our beliefs grow and change. To see what I'm getting at Woolf provides a good example in her novel. Clarrisa's former beau, Peter Walsh, is narrating and he tells a theory of his about Clarrisa to account for some of her views:

Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met,
and possibly (this was a theory he used to make up to account for her, so
transparent in some ways so inscrutable in others), possibly she said to
herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite
reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical
metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part;
mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the
dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those
ruffians, the Gods, shan't have it all their own way,—her notion being that the
Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives
were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady. That phase
came directly after Sylvia's death—that horrible affair. To see your own sister
killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry's fault—all his carelessness) before
your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them,
Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn't so
positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so
she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness. (MD,

There's probably a lot more in this passage, but I want to focus on Clarissa's shift from "Gods" to her "atheist's religion." The way I see it, I think Woolf was shooting up into this small passage a bit of intellectual history, specifically a shift in moral thinking. The first thing that should strike you is that Clarissa, good turn-of-the-century British woman that she is, should say "Gods" and not "God." Why polytheism when there hasn't been polytheism in the West since Greece? This is partly why I read this passage as exhibiting the evolution from Homer to Plato. She went from believing in "those ruffians, the Gods" to thinking that "no one was to blame." This is where we should remember that Socrates was put on trial for atheism, for not believing in the Homeric myths. With the pairing of "atheist" with "religion," two supposedly antithetical terms, I think Woolf is suggesting that the shift from Homer to Plato, the shift from polytheism to Augustinian, neo-Platonist monotheism, will naturally end in the demise of monotheism and bring about simple worship of altruism, much like Plato's Form of the Good and Kant's categorical imperative.

So what does this have to do with Clarissa's identity? I think exhibiting the narrative of our lives and laying it side by side with narratives of history, when thinking about where we want our narrative to go, we can learn from history and gain suggestions about where to go. We can see ourselves reflected in history. For instance, exhibiting that reading of Clarissa's past to Clarissa, and extending that history to try and show how Homer moves into Plato, Plato collapses into Kant, and Kant eventually eats itself away to settle in pragmatism. Doing so, I might be able to convince Clarissa to further evolve into a pragmatic ethical outlook. This is a tactic I often perform with people who write me about Pirsig or with people in the discussion groups. Often people will begin with a Cartesian picture of, say, language or consciousness and, sometimes in response to my probing, move very smoothly into a Kantian picture. The Cartesian picture produces one set of conundrums, the Kantian another similar set, and I try and exhibit the historical shift in philosophy from Descartes to Kant to etc. to help suggest a way out of these conundrums.

This also suggests how important our past is to the way we are now. This is something that Woolf exhibits in Mrs. Dalloway and Pirsig exhibits fantastically in his books. In Woolf's novel, the narrative often takes long sidetrips into the past of the characters, as they think about the past and its relation to the present. One of the centerpieces of the book is Clarissa's relationship to Peter. Throughout the book, when in one character's psyche or the other, we take sidetrips into their history together, as they think about their past and its relation to the present. Early on in the book Clarissa is reflecting on Peter, who has been gone for years, and thinks, "So she would still find herself arguing in St. James's Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry him." (MD, 7) Clarissa is justifying her choice of her husband to herself, Richard over Peter. But then Peter shows up at her doorstep, flames are tentatively rekindled and Clarissa thinks to herself, "Now of course, thought Clarissa, he's enchanting! perfectly enchanting! Now I remember how impossible it was ever to make up my mind—and why did I make up my mind—not to marry him? she wondered, that awful summer?" (MD, 41) Clarissa's past seems to waver and change before our eyes through the novel.

I think this is the kind of thing that all of us do. And Pirsig's books display this shifting narrative brilliantly. Throughout ZMM we are pulled through Pirsig's autobiography, but the narrative's perspective on Phaedrus changes as the novel goes on, shifting Phaedrus, and Pirsig's past, from a point of distance and vilification to finally one of present closeness and approbation. Furthermore, there is a shift in Pirsig's past with the movement from ZMM to Lila. The narrative of how Pirsig came up with Quality is situated in Pirsig's classroom experience at Bozeman. That story is gone and missing from Lila. Instead, it is replaced with the peyote experience. We Pirsig interpreters have yet to fully chart the shift from ZMM to Lila, but there certainly was a shift, which we can see explicitly with the move from the romantic/classic split to the Dynamic/static split. I think this can be partly explained and connected to the shift in Pirsig's narrative of his own personal history. We can detect shifts in his philosophy or the way he thinks by the story he tells of how it grew in his own mind. The move from ZMM to Lila is a shift in the way Pirsig narrates his own life because the way Pirsig views life (and Quality and philosophy) has shifted.

Who we are now in the present is partly because of the way we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves. Self-narration is an important element in our identity. We tell ourselves how we grew up to be who we are, we tell ourselves stories about who we are going to be when we grow up. We try and embody the stories we tell of our futures and we change the way we tell the story of our past as future elements bring out different emphases in our past. The self is a self-consuming artifact (to use Stanley Fish's term) because our self is an artifact of our heritage, of our contingency, and because this artifact's movement through time consumes itself and changes itself. We are self consuming. Once you've absorbed an experience you revise your self, your web of beliefs and desires, to include that experience so that that experience is no longer the same experience you just had. As Heraclitus said, you can never jump in the same part of the river twice. The story of how you got to be you changes as you go along because you've changed. And if the story of your life is a piece of the changing of your life, then the story is a ladder to be dispensed with once it is told so that it can be replaced with a better story to show how you got to where you are by the telling of the story.

That, I think, is the connection between ZMM and Lila.

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