A Quality Read

I’m not sure what path I took, but I stumbled across this website a few weeks ago. I recalled it was one of my friend’s favorite books, so I decided to read through a few chapters. Besides, it was dead-time at work and I was bored. Thankfully, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a semi-autobiographical account of Robert Pirsig’s cross-country bike-trek with his son (Chris) in the late 60s. With loose, flowing prose Pirsig alternates between rich accounts of the American west and a philosophic inquiry called ‘Chautauqua’. He explains: “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua…that’s the only name I can think of for it…like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.”

As they wind their way through the Great Plains, Pirsig utilizes his motorcycle as a philosophical object – how the parts align, why the ordering exists, the difference between romantic and classical understanding. This divide leads us to his central point of the book:

“Quality — you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? Obviously some things are better than others — but what’s the “betterness”? — So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Riding into the Absoraka mountains in Montana, Pirsig recalls his own studies at Bozeman, as a professor. He speaks of a character named Phaedrus, a ghost from his own past, and also one who debated Socrates:

“And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good…
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

Pirsig’s past haunts him, and throughout the book his history is exhumed through dreams and hazy memories. Why does he think himself a ghost? Why did his ponderings drive him mad? How did this affect his relationship with Chris?

Their journey continues through the mountains, into Oregon, then south along the coast of California. Yet the Chautauqua does not relent, touching on major philosophers of the past, from Kant and Hegel to Plato and Aristotle. By the end, Pirsig has uncovered Phaedrus’ thoughts on Quality – it is neither material (an attribute of matter) or mental (a construction of the mind), but instead a third paradigm, a pattern that is both eternal and external. Similar, in fact, to Plato’s concept of Ideals. However, Phaedrus continues to dig, churning paradoxical notions and metaphysical objects until he is sucked into madness.

The book works on multiple levels. On the surface is the journey through the American West. There are wonderful scenes of old diners, country roads, fields, forests and mountains. Pirsig has a relaxed style, naturalistic, smooth. It mirrors perfectly the action of his character – cruising along the backcountry in a motorcycle.

But the Chautauqua is the meat of the book, uncovering the meaning and source of Quality. He uses multiple ‘tools’ to illustrate quality, starting with maintaining a motorcycle. These were potent passages for me – describing the mental process to approaching a technical problem, particularly because I was having technical problems on my job at the time. Pirsig illustrates the scientific method (hypothesis -> experiment -> results), but then poses the question: “how does one decide on an appropriate hypothesis?” Aren’t there theoretically an infinite number of hypothesis? He answers this with a resounding call to Quality.

It’s an interesting theory – that Quality exists outside of mind and matter, both a metaphysical and mystical entity. I agree somewhat – what is the thing that drives first principles, that allows emergent behavior in atoms and molecules? Why is there consistency, symmetry and pattern at all? Where does Information live, and what is the engine that makes it meaningful? Pondering these unknowables is where the Zen comes from – a meditative peace arising from the journey.

One recommendation – if you do want to read it, pick up the paperback. It’d be a lot better reading this outside in the sun then cooped in a cubicle. Either way, Pirsig’s classic has my thumbs up.

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