Monday, November 20, 2006

Midwestern Megalomania

I've been tipped off to a new interview with Pirsig. Its another jounalistic style interview that narrates more than it reports, which is all fine for what it is, but when you have an autobiographical book, it doesn't do all that much for those of us who've read it recently. It's nice, but I prefer the Baggini interview because it tries to engage Pirsig's philosophical thoughts. It's also sad because it sounds like this may be his last trip into the public eye.

Not much struck me in the interview, except the new oddball details of his life and the recurring thematic of Midwestern megalomania--a reserved, polite, self-aggrandized revolutionariness that's so soft spoken as to be barely heard.

On the new details score, I have to admit that I'm having trouble fitting in this newbie: "When his wife [Nancy] came to see him [in the asylum] he knew something was wrong but he did not know what it was. A nurse started to cry because she knew that his wife had divorced him while he had been in hospital." Excuse me, what? Nancy divorced Bob before they lived in Minnesota, before Bob took Chris on the trip out west, before he wrote ZMM? Something doesn't fit right. At any rate, if that's true, it certainly means I have to revise somewhat my wild speculations about the subterranean origins of Lila.

However, one thing does fit a lot of pieces together. When Pirsig suggests that, as the interviewer summarizes it, "he was just a man outside his time," and that, as Pirsig puts it, "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," I feel like I can say with renewed conviction that--maybe, just maybe--it wasn't Pirsig's ideas that got him hooked up to a mind incinerator and was perhaps, ya' know, the gun he wagged in someone's face.

Maybe it's just my experience dealing with reflected-glory hounds, but I can't say that I have a lot of patience with Pirsig's outsider persona. To the point, I can't say that I have a lot of patience with anybody's outsider persona--"Oh, look at me, I'm so outside the norm. Aren't I cool?" I've run into more than a few of these comme il faut, très chic scenesters with a warm, nuggety center of sublimated I-just-want-to-be-loved to be absolutely sick to death of the goddamn cliché--which, of course, doesn't make it any less true. And why look here:
He hoped Lila would force the 'metaphysics of quality' from the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened. Though a website dedicated to his ideas boasts 50,000 posts, and there have been outposts of academic interest, he is disappointed that his books have not had more mainstream attention. 'Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly, and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that "quality" can not be defined,' he says.

This desire to be incorporated in a philosophy canon seems odd anyhow, since the power of Pirsig's books lie in their dynamic personal quest for value, rather than any fixed statement of it. But maybe eventually every iconoclast wants to be accepted.
It does seem a little odd, now doesn't it? But let me just lay this to rest: Pirsig is not "ignored" because of his insistence that Quality cannot be defined. Pirsig is ignored (if that's the term you want to use) because he didn't teach philosophy at any univerisities, because he never wrote books for any university presses, because he never wrote essays in any journals, because he never read papers or chaired panels at an APA Conference.

And you know what? A lot of people did do that kind of thing and they aren't read or discussed. A lot of people did that and won't be discussed much after they die. Does this mean that their ideas are ahead of their time or that there is a cultural immune system protecting itself from the heretic? Maybe, but probably not. There are many, many particular reasons for every possible outcome that has happened to a philosopher or intellectual-at-large. Does anybody take Santayana's philosophy seriously anymore? Or Royce? Or Brand Blanshard? These figures loomed during their time, but like Stanley Cavell will probably end up, they passed on into the dustbin of active philosophical opinion for one reason or another.

I do know one thing. Santayana, Royce, and Blanshard aren't taken seriously because they were out of style during their time and out of style now. That means that they never left behind a school of followers to continue on in their vein. They may yet come back into style, be rediscovered. And the same thing could happen to Pirsig. But Pirsig ain't makin' it any easier. If he wants to make it into the canon, he has to engage the canon. And Santayana and the rest are example enough that even if you do, nothing is certain.

Personally, I think he's fine right where he is (which is also why I don't cry much about Santayana or lose much sleep over Cavell's probable future). I think the interviewer is right, Pirsig's value is in the spiritual autobiography he's left us, at his attempt to create himself on the page. Why would you want a bunch of stuffed shirts preaching about you when you can have the young generation living through you?


p.s. I now have the links to the Q&A interview. One day too late for my first paragraph. Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. And from what I've read of it in the short time I have available, it seems much more like the kind of thing I'm happy to see from Pirsig. Not that the interviewer butchered Pirsig or anything, but the conversation is much more, well, conversational and likable then the trimmed narrated version of his lines. I still think Midwestern megalomania is a fairly decent hook for some of the things that come out of Pirsig's mouth (I still don't think Pirsig has his pulse on philosophy departments enough to tell what's going on, though I must say he's right about this: "Americans tend to be always just interested in the latest thing." I'm not so sure the Brits aren't culpable in the same thing, but isn't a short term memory good for following the Dynamic nose?), but hey, I certainly ain't sayin' I'm not a Midwestern egomaniac. It shouldn't take anyone that long to figure that out.

p.p.s. I had a really weird dream last night where I dreamt that I read in the interview that Pirsig has been divorced nine times. I woke up and had to shake the sleep from my head and say, "No, no he hasn't. That was a dream." Weird.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A monologue we should all memorize

I've never been subjected all that often to questions like, "So...what you gonna' do with that degree...?" It is true that my extended family doesn't understand my pursuits much at all, but my parents inherited from their respective families an awareness that different people lead different lives, even if you can't for the life of you imagine what that might be.

And my friends, well, they're all pretty much like me: overeducated, smart types that, though they don't fit the classic humanist intellectual mold like I do, are well aware that reading esoteric books might be good for somebody. Between that and my scintillating wit, blazing sarcasm, and oversized genius, I've mainly been able to squelch any possible jokes made at my effete sophistication.

But this is hilarious, sent to me by a friend of mine, an English major lost in the woods of Library Book Delivery.