Let me begin with a division: there are two kinds of readers of Pirsig--those who are attracted to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and those who are attracted Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. While being imperfect, as all such generalizations are, it has the benefit of highlighting one particular tension in Pirsig's works, that between literature and philosophy. The two are often opposed in the philosophical tradition, so it becomes a sort of standing question for all to attend to as to why Pirsig chose the route he did in presenting his philosophy the way he did. The kinds of answers deployed by fans and interpreters range from the more practical, utilitarian (e.g., "you can't write a dissertation for the mass the way they are written for PhD supervisors") to the more theoretical, conceptual (e.g., "he was making a point about the distinction between philosophy and literature"). But either way, we are confronted with the particular ways in which Pirsig deployed his philosophy and, either way, the literary quality of Pirsig's books make for the pulling out of philosophical theses difficult and dangerous work. And what's more, I think that's intended.
When I read others about Pirsig, I find less interesting the attempts to reconstruct the systematic structure of the MoQ. Questions asked about the layout of the levels of static quality, about the interrelation of the social and intellectual levels, about how exactly Dynamic Quality functions in relation to static, these questions can be important, or at least reach a level of some importance, but I question the desire to construct a systematic metaphysics out of Pirsig's writings. Pirsig's writings are the way they are precisely because Pirsig doesn't want to simply create a metaphysics. That would simply be at the intellectual level, to use Pirsig's own terminology, when the point of both books is to present all the facets together to show that all of them are needed.
To hearken back to that old cliche, about losing sight of the forest in the midst of the trees, I fear in study of systems of propositions the loss of sight of the forest of life. We are the entire forest of static patterns, inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual, not just a metaphysics, not just a thirty-thousand-page menu. Pursuing philosophy, which we can broadly call the pursuit of wisdom and seeing how things hang together, fits naturally with the forest metaphor: seeing how our forest hangs together brings us wisdom, particularly as we try and change the forest (which is the DQ/SQ dynamic).
So, pursuing simply a Metaphysics of Quality may be helpful, but it isn't the whole thing (as many would, and certainly should, acknowledge). The whole thing is the living of life, which the breaking into parts, pursuing philosophy, analysis, a metaphysics, may help us to see. When we write about Pirsig as a systematic metaphysician, I think we tend to lose sight of the pragmatic effect of metaphysics. What might be called "literary reading," on the other hand, tends to be more self-consciously contextual then the kind of writing that Pirsig describes in ZMM: "The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn't the way it ever is. People should see that it's never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance." (ZMM, 172) We should read Pirsig with all their rhetorical tools and tropes and metaphors and analogies and excavate their meaning and significance that way (which is really the only way anyways, but that's another debate). And I think, it would seem, Pirsig would say that that would be the best way to do it, because otherwise you lose sight of the whole.
I'd now like to offer a few very general readings of ZMM, in the hopes of supporting some of the things I've said so far. I think the way to read the book is as a philosophical dialogue the same way as Plato's dialogues are read, but even more complicated (if that's possible). Despite the fact that we know Socrates is the hero, what we don't know, because of Socratic irony, is what Socrates means. Many have read irony to mean the simple contradiction of what is said. Alexander Nehamas, though (in his brilliant book, The Art of Living), argues that irony isn't as easy as all that. Irony completely hides the direction of meaning, so you don't know whether a basic, contradictory 180 is intended, or something completely other. (And, to make matters worse, it is hidden not only from the audience, but from the ironist themselves.) So the philosophy of Socrates is always obscured, behind a curtain, never available for direct scrutiny. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye because wherever Socrates is pointing is not the direction he necessarily wants you looking.
I would argue that the same thing is going on in ZMM except, unlike the Platonic dialogues, we don't even know who the hero is until the end, and even then you are left wondering if we should think that. The book is soaked in allegory and irony and the author's point of view is only available out of the corner of your eye. It is written to be a philosophical journey, a journey that takes you through a set of hoops and stages but has no definite end point. It is designed to make you think, but not necessarily about any particular thing, let alone any particular way. So Pirsig is both all of the views and none of the views of ZMM. And I think this type of reading is going on in Lila, too, though the book isn't nearly so cleverly or fantastically crafted (much as Plato lost his craft as you move from the early to the later dialogues, though for another reflection on this topic, see "Prospectus for an Idiosyncratic and Possibly Controversial Reading of Lila").
So reading ZMM for doctrinal points, for philosophical theses, is fraught with peril as you are never sure what Pirsig means. All you have is the Narrator's presentation, but by the middle of the book you are led to wonder who's in control of the show (having learned of Phaedrus' real identity), and by the end of the book, after Phaedrus' triumphant return, you are led to wonder at what point Phaedrus began to dominate the Narrator, and so the presentation of the book itself. What we are left with, I think, are a clear series of philosophical episodes that start by being dominated by the Narrator, but are gradually replaced by Phaedrus' concerns, so "Narrator sections" (like the section on gumption) come fewer and fewer, until you reach the end of the book which is an extended meditation on Phaedrus' experience in Chicago.
As I mentioned earlier, the most complicated feature of this whole model is that while reading we don't know who the hero is, Narrator or Phaedrus. The Narrator through the beginning half of the book makes Phaedrus look like the bad guy, but through our extended ponderings over Phaedrus' demise we are made to feel sympathetic for Phaedrus which leads us to view Phaedrus as the hero, which reflects in the book by Phaedrus' triumph. The way ZMM is written is to have us move in stages through our feelings for the Narrator and Phaedrus, with the action in the book unfolding as a reflection of our feelings towards the preceding action. As our feelings for Phaedrus wax, so does his dominance in the story.
This, of course, brings us to the perplexing and infinitely interesting conclusion that the real audience of the story is the Author himself, not knowing how the book is going to end until he gets there because he is taking the journey with us, witnessing the events again as we see them for the first time, but the journey he is on is a psychical one. By creating "the Narrator" as a fallible, perspectivized character in Pirsig's own autobiographical story, rather than a traditional, omniscient narrator, the knowing autobiographer telling his own story, we get a third character, "the Author," reading the events as he writes them, trying to figure out his life by telling the story. The Author changes as the story unfolds, but that is the point for us also: we are supposed to change through the story. But because of the obfuscating mask of irony, the change intended is hidden not only from us but from the Author.
I would suggest that we should read ZMM as having three main characters, the Narrator, Phaedrus, and the Author, and we should read them in the fashion of Plato's Allegory of the Charioteer (which is from Plato's Phaedrus and Pirsig touches on it briefly in ZMM): two separate horses, both at war with each other, pulling the chariot in two different directions (though not necessarily completely in opposite directions; think of the physical description of a chariot allegorically and then remember that, as Nehamas argues, irony does not mean that a statement means the opposite of what it says, but simply something different) and the charioteer is trying to find a mean course between the two. The Narrator and Phaedrus are warring over the Author's mind.
Now, Pirsig says that the difference between the Narrator and Phaedrus is the difference between social and intellectual patterns. I think this a bad description. I think a better description (as I suggest in "Confessions") is between the Pragmatist Impulse and the Metaphysical Impulse. These impulses take two forms, one theoretical and one practical. On the theoretical level, the level at which these two impulses take on philosophical garb and become themselves philosophical positions, these two positions are oil and water--they are the warring factions between Protagoras and Plato, rhetoric and dialectic. On this level, Pirsig must be a pragmatist, for if a metaphysician he falls into self-contradiction.
On the practical level, however, we see the actual efforts of Protagoreans and Platonists and the kinds of real life considerations that conspire to make us one or the other. This is the difference between Pirsig's Coleridgean splicing between Platonist and Aristotelian--one focused on generalities, as supposedly the Metaphysician is, the other on particularities, as supposedly the Pragmatist is. The thing about a philosophical position, of course, is that it doesn't come with a focus--only people do. This is the great muddle--we can separate out logically distinct positions, but when it comes to action, the carrying out of beliefs, the living of life, it becomes sometimes quite difficult to tell what the connection is between being a Platonist and professing Platonism. Take the simple, obvious and sometimes overlooked (for the purposes of getting on with professing) contradiction of Plato's hatred of poetry and his poetic practice. Pirsig notes the lifeless quality of essays, preaching on in a void like God, but what could be more omniscient in position than Plato's Forms and more situational life-like than the Dialogues?
These are tangled webs that I can only approach for the moment, but the parallel between Plato and Pirsig should be obvious: on the other end of Plato's knotted theory/practice relationship is Pirsig's knot. Plato bequeathed to us the battle between philosophy and poetry and still to this day many philosophers still take that battle quite seriously. Literature is still looked on by many philosophers as something quite different than philosophy. The question must be confronted: what does it mean for Pirsig to write the way he does?
This was created out of a post in the currently defunct MF ("MoQ Focus") discussion group written in May, 2005. It was originally written in the midst of a beneficial discussion with Rick Budd and Sam Norton.