Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What is Quality?

In my endless pursuit for Pirsig material, I once stumbled upon a book that contained a number of small reflections by authors on what books affected them the most. Pirsig was there and his answer, as befitting a man choked by the anxiety of influence, was fairly vague. The really interesting find in the book was when I went to the index and checked to see if anyone had chosen ZMM as their book. And lo’ and behold, there was someone. I don’t remember his name (I’m currently bereft of my materials), but he wrote that he was deeply affected after reading ZMM, but he couldn’t remember how. He just remembered that after reading it he felt as if a veil had been lifted.

I think a lot of people have had that same experience with Pirsig. In my own experience, most Baby Boomers, if they haven’t read ZMM, have at least heard of it, though most of them don’t remember much of what the book was about. Even many kids in my generation (yes, I still retain the right to call myself a kid) have read or heard of ZMM. But why, if the book is so revolutionary, or at least seems to deeply affect its readers, do most not remember how it was that they were deeply affected?

I’m not proposing to answer that question. I’m sure most of it has to do with the fact that most people can’t remember what a book was about or how it affected them five years after the fact. Some people just don’t consider the reading of books a central part of their lives. But what about the philosophy? Pirsig proposes a new kind of philosophy of life in ZMM, and people seem attracted to it, but they neither remember what it was nor seem to alter their lives accordingly. And why did philosophers not pick up on it?

I’m not going to answer that question either, but again, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that “professional” philosophers didn’t find it useful for their own pursuits. In my earlier phase as a Pirsig enthusiast I once wrote Rorty about Pirsig. Nice guy that he is, he wrote me back and said essentially that he remembered reading it, but recalls not being that impressed with the philosophy and not understanding what everybody was so excited about. Which is interesting considering that few these days, apparently, can remember what they were so excited about either.

What I would like to suggest about the effect that ZMM has on people is that, while it doesn’t instill a positive message about how to live one’s life (it isn’t a self-help book), it does instill curiosity in some. I think the reason some don’t remember the message of ZMM is that there isn’t much of one, more or less “live life excellently.” Pirsig’s philosophy revolves around this magical word “Quality,” but people don’t remember what the philosophy is, principally because Pirsig doesn’t flesh it out. That was the purpose of Lila. But ZMM does instill curiosity in us because we see how lack of curiosity almost killed Pirsig, we see how the “establishment” can try and suppress curiosity.

What ZMM makes us curious about is philosophy, and specifically in the question “What is Quality?” If people have been affected by ZMM in a strong way, and in a way that has a lasting effect, it is typically in the fashion of making them interested to read more philosophy. They try and read Plato and Aristotle, and anybody else. That’s what happened to me, at least. What I’ve come to see, however, are two things: one, that “What is Quality?” on Pirsig’s analysis gives way to a second question and two, that this second question is not strictly philosophical in the sense that we’ve been instilled with by Pirsig.

Pirsig’s question, “What is Quality?”, gives way on his reflection to “Who are you?” While the first question is overtly meditated on in the book, the second question is only implicitly given attention to by the functioning of the book itself. Pirsig is drawn to the first question because he has an analytical mind, or as he says, a Platonic streak. He has to answer that question at the prompting of the Bozeman English Department and this is what leads him to the University of Chicago. It is there that the book ends supposedly. But, upon further reflection, the trail of the book continues and wraps all the way around to the beginning. The trail is foreshadowed by the very beginning of the book, the no-doubt-forgotten-about-by-the-time-you've-reached-the-end-of-the-book inscription prefacing the entire novel—“And what is good, Phaedrus,/And what is not good—/Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

The only person we need to ask about Quality is ourselves. But how should we answer that question? As Pirsig shows in Bozeman, most kids are puzzled by the question, and yet they seem to know intuitively that some things have higher Quality than others. Why is that? Pirsig’s later answer is that “we,” each person’s “person,” is built out of our history, cultural and biographical, those “analogues upon analogues upon analogues.” And thus we see that Pirsig’s first, Platonic question, “What is Quality?”, gives way to the second, non-Platonic question, “Who are you?” And, as I’ve already alluded to, this second question gives way to a third, almost anti-Platonic question, “Where have you been?” And thus the trail of the book continues on after the University of Chicago. Pirsig leads us through his past, showing us how he came to be who he is, and that trail continues on all the way up to the very writing of the book, his effort to confront fully the consequences of his own analysis of his question “What is Quality?”

Of course, I’m not at all sure that this is Pirsig’s intended effect. First, while I’m sure that the first question gives way to the second, and that Pirsig would be okay with this, I’m fairly positive that his explicit philosophical stance is antagonistic to the functioning of his book to reach the third question. The second question, after all, can still be given a Platonic spin to it, but the third certainly cannot. Using Pirsig’s own categories, Phaedrus is the Platonist and the narrator is the Aristotelian, and the narrator is the one who is vanquished in the end, the narrator is the one to be found to be holding the hero, Phaedrus, the real Pirsig, down. Plato created philosophy. Plato followed his teacher, Socrates’, lead in asking, for every instance of justice, piety, and the good, “What is it? What is it outside of these instances?” This flung us into the arid climate of generalities. It is Aristotle, on the other hand, who wanted to keep us in the details. And the third question is all about the details and history, something that a Platonist has no use for.

If we settle on for the moment that “What is Quality?” is Platonic, and therefore philosophical (because Plato is philosophy), and that “Who are you?” is not Platonic, and therefore not philosophical (because we are usually drawn by such a question to detailed autobiography), then the tension in Pirsig can be drawn not only by the questions or by Pirsig’s Plato/Aristotle categories, but by drawing a contrast between philosophy and literary criticism. We know that Pirsig hates literary criticism, thinking it a parasitic enterprise best left to second-rate minds, and that most of all of what professional philosophers do is no better than literary criticism. I want to suggest that the second question belongs to literary criticism.

The reason can be seen in the very look of what we typically canonize “philosophical” texts versus “literary” texts. Philosophy is abstract, it deals with concepts by themselves. Plato’s dialogues are explained as simply the method of conveyance for his philosophy, Descartes’ meditations as simply a heuristic, the first grand modern thought-experiment. Kant is taken to be paradigmatic, Spinoza is taken to be the most pure, and Montaigne and Voltaire aren’t even taught in philosophy departments because they wrote too topically, too much about themselves. As for literary texts, we can take the novel as the obvious example: a novel charts the course of a character’s life. It is all about the details. It may give you ideas, but it gives you a whole lot more than that.

Philosophy’s roots are in the search for wisdom, but since Descartes invented modern philosophy, philosophy has largely abdicated that role in favor of the abstract manipulation of symbols, of the search for foundations or transcendental outlines. Wisdom has been left for novelists and poets to convey and explore. Dealing in the abstract can indeed help us, but, as Pirsig tells us, only if it can cash out into real life, only if it can be applied. But most philosophers in the modern period have thought of “applied philosophy” as a secondary effort, as opposed to their pure pursuits. Pirsig oscillates between the two, which is just as well, but by explicitly focusing on “What is Quality?” as opposed to “Who are you?” he gives new lease on life to the Platonic impulse, the impulse to ignore life. This is what ZMM can tend to instill in the reader. The way to read Pirsig is not as a philosopher, but as a literary critic. If we read as a philosopher we will be led to Platonism. But reading as literary critics, we can see the rootedness of his philosophy in life.

Another way of seeing the tension in Pirsig’s philosophy, and not just in ZMM, however, is by seeing what his philosophy does to literary criticism. One of the things that I’ve found suggested by Rorty’s philosophy is that there are two ways to read texts, two purposes that we can find them attuned to. One is the search for moral wisdom and the other is the search for aesthetic power. Harold Bloom has spent most of his life charting the intricacies of the search for aesthetic power, centered in what he calls the anxiety of influence and charted by criticism as “the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.” (The Anxiety of Influence, 96) Aesthetic power in its pure form is originality, centered around the question “What is new?” Bloom has often been accused of being too narrowly focused, but Bloom would be the first to acknowledge his narrowness, and he would simply claim to be reacting to the literary critical establishment of his time that has lost its way in performing one of its duties. But indeed, Bloom has not ignored moral wisdom, and in one of his latest books, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (dedicated coincidentally enough to Rorty), he reflects at length on the great writers in our Western wisdom traditions. Moral wisdom is centered around the question “What is best?” For true pragmatists like Rorty and Bloom, it is experiencing the actualities of life and reading the possibilities of books that gives us the wisdom to navigate our way through life and find what is best.

The reason I should put together such possibly odd pairings of words, “moral wisdom” and “aesthetic power,” as literary categories is because of my readings of Pirsig, Rorty, and Bloom. Pirsig has particularly taught us that all wisdom is a moral effort, that there is no distinction between morality and ethics and other categories of choice, such as prudence and taste. And Bloom has taught me, not only that to find what is new you must struggle with the vastness of time past, but that originality is a powerful force that changes us, the more original, the more we are changed.

What I should like to meditate on is how I’m making a distinction between the two and how Pirsig would not. This is crystallized in Pirsig’s concept of Dynamic Quality. DQ is both what is best and what is most new. DQ for Pirsig is a punch to the face that we cannot ignore, that changes us whether we like it or not. But for Bloom, originality does not mean wisdom. We can appreciate the power of new metaphors without being enticed into picking them up. Metaphors, for Rorty, are meaningless, and so, linguistically speaking, something like punches to the face. The trap that Pirsig falls into is twofold: first, he falls into the Heideggerian trap of searching for elemental words, words that can never be banalized by use and thus given meanings (hence DQ/Quality’s undefinition) and second, the Platonic trap of thinking that power and the good are the same thing.

On one of Rorty’s readings, Heidegger (as he says in Being and Time) is in search for elemental words and that we can trace his movement from early to late by the changes in those words he takes as elemental. In Heidegger, these words move from German candidates like Dasein to Greek candidates like noein. What Heidegger wants are words that slough off meaning, words that simply have force. By moving back to Greek words, to words that Plato first imbued with philosophical senses, Heidegger wants to reclaim these originary words by shedding the history of philosophy from them, thereby making them metaphors again. Heidegger thus, on Rorty’s reading, evinces Bloom’s sense of poetic anxiety.

I think it is instructive to read Pirsig as searching for, not just indestructible metaphors, but elemental words for two reasons. For one, Pirsig goes back to the Greeks and the roots of language much like Heidegger, such as his recapturing of arete in ZMM and rta in Lila. For two, and more importantly, Pirsig’s DQ/Quality is originary in a cosmic sense, whereby Pirsig traces them to being reality itself, and thus the causes of reality. DQ is both originary and permanently new, always a force and never banal. Pirsig hopes not only to find a metaphor that is always a metaphor, but a metaphor that has created all the others in its wake. The Heideggerian trap is one that is set for all those who feel the strain of their predecessors. Because Pirsig’s poetic metaphors are set for philosophical purposes, however, his production of DQ/Quality causes us to lose sight of history. By focusing on the question “What is Quality?”, Pirsig’s answer in the form of an elemental word produces the Platonic tendency of metaphysical speculation rather than autobiographical introspection.

The Platonic trap is one that is produced by Plato’s attempt to, in Yeats’ phrase, “hold reality and justice in a single vision.” Rorty spins the history of philosophy out of this phrase and it is epitomized in Plato’s Republic. In this dialogue, Plato attempts to philosophically explain why his fellow Athenians were wrong to convict his hero and mentor, Socrates, by showing that the Form of Good is reality behind the appearances. Heidegger, like Rorty following him later, traces the modern fixation on Reason to Plato (seen in the dialectic), which produces the modern ethical manifestation of Platonism in Kantian and Hegelian ethics. Pirsig, too, traces modern philosophy to Greek roots, but he still insists on equating the Good with Reality.

Pirsig obviously does not want us to repeat the failures of Plato. The Pirsig of ZMM has certainly located the roots of SOM in Plato, particularly in his dialectic, and there is no doubt he attacks him for it. Nevertheless, however, Pirsig does find that the Greeks were up to something good and that what this is is something like abstract thinking, which is why Pirsig suggests that he be seen as a Platonist as opposed to an Aristotelian in temperament. If Platonism and Aristotelianism are taken to be impulses towards abstraction and details respectively, then certainly these temperaments exist and are helpful and not to be denied. And yet Pirsig does seem to fall into the trap. The trap comes out clearly in what we might call the indeterminacy of Dynamic Quality thesis, when, after identifying reality with the good and with the new, Pirsig cogently says that one cannot ever tell whether one is being Dynamic or degenerate in the moment—only history can tell us that. If DQ is something that punches us in the face, how is it that we could be wrong about being punched? How does DQ help us then?

The reason Pirsig falls into the trap, I think, is not because he’s a crypto-Platonist, but because he places too much stock in abstraction. Pirsig wisely hitches his boat with pragmatism at the end of Lila, but after Rorty, having a “pragmatist metaphysics” looks like an oxymoron—and Pirsig even sees it coming when, attempting to split the difference between positivists and mystics, he says that a Metaphysics of Quality is a contradiction in terms. Pirsig takes that as a good sign for building bridges, but I should like to think that that would be a good time to look around for new terms.

From a metaphysical point of view—the view from which we make hard, deep cuts into Reality, splitting it into the correct pieces, the pieces Reality wants to be in—pragmatism is a monism because it denies that deep cuts can be made. Pirsig senses this and this makes pragmatism of a piece with the Buddhist strain in Pirsig. But while from a metaphysical point of view reality is monistic, from a pragmatic point of view reality is in as many pieces as you need it to be. There is an important sense in which Pirsig captures this in his distinction between DQ and static patterns. But I think there was a casualty in the process and that is the distinction between moral wisdom and aesthetic power, between what’s best and what’s new. After abstractly chopping everything down, I think Pirsig misplayed his hand in putting things back together.

So while Pirsig’s philosophy blurs the difference between moral wisdom and aesthetic power because a pragmatist metaphysics is a monism, there certainly is a pragmatic difference between the two that is lost in Pirsig because he takes “What is Quality?” to be the more serious question than “Who are you?” Pirsig takes metaphysics too seriously and so loses sight of life, lost in the mountains without a clear way home. Pirsig says that metaphysics ain’t worth a damn if it doesn’t help out in life and I can’t think of a clearer case of forgetting what we already intuitively and commonsensically know—the new may just be a passing fad.

This reflection has taken quite a few turns. I’d like to close by reiterating the difference between “What is Quality?” and “Who are you?” If we take the first question seriously, we will become lost in a sea of concepts, terms that can be pushed around in almost any direction, in an infinite number of constellations. If we take the second question seriously, however, concepts or terms we use become grounded in our lives, which is where they have their meaning. Literary criticism becomes the preferred discipline to exemplify because our lives are narratives that we reflect on. In the end, if we focus on the second question and literary criticism, the difference between the first and second question, and philosophy and literary criticism, disappears as we draw back to the roots of philosophy—the search for wisdom. Abstraction and details only gain their meaning when in harmony with each other, rooted in a narrative, the story we tell ourselves about history, our culture, our nation, our lives.

1 comment:

  1. A very nice piece of writing, Matt.

    I have to agree with you. What made ZMM a popular book was that it was a novel or narrative and not that it was about philosophy.

    Many of us who read it and felt our lives were changed glossed over the philosophy sections in ZMM and concentrated on the motorcycle trip with Chris. We were fascinated by the relationship between the narrator and Chris, father and son, and the haunting of the narrator by his ghost Phaedrus.

    The question on Quality was secondary to who the narrator was and the story he was telling us. If we took anything away from the first question of "What is Quality?" from ZMM it was, "Forget about it!" its is undefinable. What stuck with us was Pirsig's trip and his reflection on his life and from that we walked away with a lesson to take a journey and walk our own path to find out who we are.


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