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.


  1. This would be bad for our darker reading of LILA.

    According to the record, Bob and Nancy's divorce was in October of 1978, seven months before his wedding to Wendy Kimball. It's possible that the divorce was initiated years earlier and only finalized in 78, or that they had seperated earlier and he meant they had divorced in effect (which would explain why Nancy is absent on the ZMM motorcycle trip).

    A note on Ian's timeline dated October 8, 1975 seems to indicate an interview with Wendy that suggests they are still married, and subsequent entries indicate that Nancy was meant to join Bob on the Hudson boat trip (Ian? any thoughts here?).

    Nonetheless, I think our reading of LILA could be salvaged (neglecting other holes we've already talked about for the moment) though it would probably need to be toned down a bit.

  2. Oh, and suddenly I seem to recall that Bob and Nancy were living together in a trailer while he wrote ZMM.... something's fishy.... Ian? Are you out there? You're the closest thing there is to a biographical expert on RMP.... help, please.

  3. Ian has a few notes on his site about the new interview and is planning on investigating and up-dating his timeline.

    And, meh, maybe some of the speculations have to be dropped. That, I guess, is why they call them speculations. Like you, though, I don't think all that much changes. Lila is still a written psychological response of some kind, as Pirsig suggests, though probably more to his son than a posited Lila clone. It is interesting that he chose Lila and sex as the mysterious area to be explored.

    Oh, and did you see the "theory of everything" talk? Yeah, pure Platonic instinct. Rejected Platonism my ass.

  4. I still think there's mileage in the 'darker reading' - but let's see what Ian has to say. The actual dialogue is much more interesting than the condensed interview.

    BTW Matt, when he talks about 'centredness' it's very close to what I mean when I talk about God, and when he talks about being knocked off-centre, that's what I mean by idolatry. There's quite a close parallel on some things.

  5. Hi Matt, Rick,

    I confirm Rick's point about the final effective divorce date. I'm pretty sure the timeline checks out OK, with this new info.

    They were certainly still living at the same address and fronting up as a married couple, (during the whole ZMM trip and the writing / publishing period) until separating during the Lila boat-trip, almost exactly two years before the final divorce date. Sounds like Nancy must have initiated proceedings way back, but they found it convenient for everyone's welfare to stick together.

    I'm planning to add the new anecdotal details to the timeline when I get a chance. BTW Pirsig confirms Wendy will be his official biographer ... something he told me a couple of years ago, so I would understand why I wouldn't get full biographer access to interview / research his story.

    Megalomania or other imperfections, just makes the whole story more real, human.

    I think when I commented on the Baggini interview I remarked that the old dog was unlikely to learn any new tricks in philsophical discourse. Take it or leave it. You gotta admire him for it.

    Arrogant, like Wittgenstein, who didn't go in for comparative philosophology except with Russell (and Frege) ?

  6. Perhaps I should make it clear, if you read the timeline and the comments on the various contemporary linked interviews ...

    It was already apparent they were "drifting apart and strained" at the time of the ZMM effort and success and the (real) Lila boat trip. The news is not really a surprise, just the earliest date.

  7. Hey Ian, Sam, and Matt,
    Thanks for the info Ian. So Wendy is the official biographer, eh? I'm not sure how I feel about that. I mean, on one hand I'm excited about the notion of a forthcoming Pirsig biography packed with details of his life and context for his theories heretofore unknown among MoQ fans. On the other hand, can anyone think of a less objective, less independent source for this info than the man's own wife?

  8. Pirsig is a very sympathetic character-and I think this was and is the appeal of ZMM and Lila for the general public that put both books on the bestsellers list and also led to the internet discussions that created

    Many, if not all of us, spend a time in our life when we are unsatisfied with our circumstances and we begin questioning our roles in life and we begin wondering if we are straddling the line between creative/artist/iconoclast and insanity.

    What made us love Pirsig was he crossed over that line and came back. I often put ZMM next to another novel called "A Fan's Notes," by Frederick Exley because it is another autobiographical novel covering the same experience of being institutionalized, undergoing shock therapy and returning to the world (to writ e a successful novel).

    What is tragic about both Exley and Pirsig is that their Mental illness continued even as they remained insightful and brilliant in thier own way.

    I was just struck by the interview and his admission that he was recently depressed and a psychiatrist prescribed some drug due to a chemical imbalance and he was currently as happy as he has ever been in his life.

    His open and honest description of his life (most of which we have already known from ZMM, Lila, and other sources) reveals a life a torment that is much greater than most. That he was brilliant with a high IQ only partially explains his reclusiveness. I think most people can put together that his life story reveals a man in a constant search for social recognition and approval only to be rejected in his own mind, because of his perceived brilliance.

    His last mad dash hope is to get acceptance from Philosophy Departments or the Intellectuals so his intellect and social misfit can finally be united. I can't help reading both interviews (Bagianni and this one) and feel the same profound sense of sadness as I felt after the MOQ hoax.

    I don't say this with an ounce of meanness, because I genuinely identify with people like Exley and Pirsig and am thankful that they wrote about their experience dealing with mental illness so I could remain on the sane side of the cultural immune system's defense mechanisms. Pirsig and Exley were both pitiful men in the end, however.


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