Friday, April 28, 2006

The Tree

This was an allegory I wrote some time ago, right after I got turned on to Pirsig. It again begins with the same tired story of my early years, the one I've told countless times about my Methodism. But it branches out, so to speak. I have no idea what gave me the idea for this. But one thing it'll do is strike some heavy disharmony with the way I think about Pirsig now. It is a record of how I first thought about Pirsig (and a record of how important narrative has always been to me), of a time when my thinking was more in sync with Pirsig of Lila.


When I was a child my parents took me to church every Sunday. I diligently went to Sunday School and learned all the stories and when I was 13 I was baptized and confirmed a Methodist. At that point in my life I had never really thought about what it meant to be a Christian, or believe in God for that matter. The next year I started High School and the Methodist Youth Group. My teacher there opened up my eyes to entire other realms of thinking. I started to see that maybe Christianity isn’t the only way.

At this point I looked around and found myself in a pasture with a lot of trees and other Christians. Except now I didn’t know what I was doing there. I looked to the gigantic tree that they said Christ planted. I didn’t know what to think. I felt strange and out of place. I asked the others what we were doing here and they said, "We have faith in God." Where before I would’ve understood what they meant, now I couldn’t comprehend what they meant by faith. It didn’t make sense anymore. What does faith mean? And every time they answered, it never seemed to make any more sense.

So I decided to leave. The only thing that seemed to be keeping these people here was that word … faith. And all I knew is that, apparently, I didn’t have it. So I left. I walked to the edge of the field and climbed over the stone fence onto a path that was in between two fences. It was here I realized something: I had never seen this fence here before! I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before, but now it was obvious that there was one. Even stranger was that I saw people walk to the fence, close their eyes, and walk straight through the fence! They then walked across the path I was on, through the next fence, and then opened their eyes after they reached the next field. I then realized that I always remembered this other field as being apart of the field I had been in. There were all sorts of other trees in this other field and I noticed my chemistry and physics teacher and other people in white lab coats walking around.

I peered into this field and saw a lot of the old trees I liked to play on. But it didn’t look as inviting as it used to. It was missing something. It seemed cold and unfriendly. The people didn’t talk to each other very often. So I left both fields. I just started walking down the path.

I walked for a long time. I saw a lot of other fields over their stone fences. Some of the fences were bigger than other ones. Some were much smaller. I didn’t see many people in between the paths either. Once in a while I would see someone and we would talk about the different paths we had been down and the different fields we had seen. But we usually parted before too long. As I continued down the path I noticed that it was beginning to get overgrown. It started looking less like a path and more like just a corridor in between the fences. I began to see some people actually building fences around this part of the path. They would find a particularly open stretch of the “path” and just start building. Some of them walled themselves in. But all of them started growing trees in their little walled in field.

I walked and walked. Then I saw something I had never seen before. A tree growing in the “path” that didn’t seem to be claimed by any fence. It didn’t seem so big from a distance but the closer I got the bigger it got. When I got to the base, the tree seemed to stretch indefinitely into the sky; I couldn’t see where it ended. I also saw a man sitting in the shade. He was reading Farewell to Arms.

He looked up once and then went back to reading. I walked around the tree. The man continued to ignore me. So finally I tried talking to him.

"Hi. My name’s Matt. Matt Kundert."


"Uh, what’s your name."

"Bob. Bob Pirsig."

"So … this your tree?"


"Oh. Who’s tree is it?"


"Really? I’ve found that most trees are claimed by someone. Like Aristotle’s tree and Kant’s tree. And Christ’s tree."

"Yeah. I know. And then they build walls around themselves to block out people who don’t like their tree. Or to keep people in. Well, I take that back. Not everybody builds walls around their tree. Sometimes other people build the walls. Like Christ. He planted the tree, true. But he didn’t build the walls. Paul did that."

"So … what’s with this tree? Why isn’t it walled in?"

"Actually, it is walled in. You can’t really see it from here, but this tree is actually at the very center of it all. And all these walls aren’t just free standing. All of these walls and all of their trees are actually walled in by a much bigger wall."

I looked around. "Where? I don’t see it?"

"Well, did you see the walls before you left them?"

"No, not until right before I left."

"Right. And you won’t see this one until you’re ready to see."

"Well, I do want to see. Can you show me?"

"Sure, but this isn’t just for fun. I’ve showed too many people who just look and smile and say, 'Wow, that’s fascinating' and then go back to their old walled-in existence. If you want to go, then you're gonna' have to want to go."

He then put down his book, got up, and started climbing the tree. I shrugged and started climbing after him. I had climbed trees before. It was how you truly got to understand what the tree was there for. But whenever I got to the top I always found the view less than impressive. Some of the trees showed me things I had never seen before. But after a while I would become bored of the view because a lot of times, while I would get to see new things, a lot of the old things I liked became obstructed. I had supposed it was because you were never meant to see everything at once.

I kept climbing and climbing. We seemed to be climbing for all of eternity.

But then I saw it.

The ground was above me.

I didn’t understand. I looked back down and there was the ground, way, way down below me. I looked up and there was the ground! But then I noticed something about the ground above me: there weren’t any walls. Only trees stretching down to me.

We finally reached the "top." Pirsig then jumped off the tree, flipped, and landed up on the ground! I just looked at him.

"Come on. You can do it."

Still clinging to the tree, I reached out a hand to the ground above me.

"Just … let go."

So I did.

And promptly fell on my head.

"What … is this?"



And that's where it ends. I never wrote any more. Seeing it and being reminded of having started it, I remember being really excited about writing it. And I remember finding it again when transfering files from my old computer to my new one several years ago. I don't remember what I thought then, other than perhaps a hint of nostalgia and the possibility of finishing it.

But now, I feel very nostalgic. As I read it, it felt like I was being put in touch with a kindred spirit--which is to say, somebody that ain't me. Because the truth is certainly that I'm not him anymore, at least not philosophically. As I read it, I recognized and remembered my old thoughts about the relation of religion and science and other things. That Pirsig's reading Farewell to Arms because the teacher that first put ZMM in my hands told us that Pirsig had a style like Hemingway's (and that I didn't like Hemingway or Pirsig when I first read them).

The part that really punches me in the face, though, the part that really intrigued me, was when Pirsig says, "And you won't see this one until you're ready to see." I never realized that I was canny enough in my youth to recognize the importance of that response by Pirsig. That is the appropriate response for Pirsig, about opening up his philosophical doors, because of the importance of mysticism. What was lost to me for a long time was how heavily that response rests on that visual metaphor. And what has also lain dormant, but is now obvious through and in this picture of somebody who once recapitulated Pirsig with more heart than I do now, is how Pirsig's cranky, obtuse, curmudgeonly stance that is well displayed by his Baggini interview is a direct outcome of that visual metaphor. People just don't see. It's so simple to see it, and yet they just don't. They stare right through it, in fact. The trouble with seeing is that you can never talk about "it", you can only show it to people.

I understood that somehow in my youth. I'll never know why "The Tree" ends where it does, why I didn't write more. But I suspect it was because I never saw. I understood that it all hinged on me seeing, but when I got to the part where Pirsig would now describe what I and he see--I couldn't do it because I didn't see. I probably didn't know it then, but it was probably by writing this little allegory, and getting to that point at which I couldn't write anymore, that forced me down the road I've travelled down. It's as if I kept trying to finish "The Tree" with everything that I wrote up until the point at which I stopped and started to wonder if it ever could be finished. The way I read it now, to finish that story is to fulfill the dreams of Plato, of metaphysics, to encapsulate Quality with a ceiling instead of the Dynamic, open sky.

That's, ultimately, what's so wrong with the mystic's ocular metaphor. If they actually saw, they would be fulfilling Plato, not refuting him.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: