Thursday, 13 September 2012

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance

India | International

"We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the results is not just bad, it is ghastly."

Writing the post on this book has been postponed multiple times. First because I didn’t really know where to begin and then due to Murphy developing a sudden liking for me and my gadgets (scowl scowl scowl!).

But the technical snag is also serendipitous in a way because this is exactly where Pirsig starts his enquiry into the nature of knowledge, its acquisition and how we relate to the world. Pirsig begins his self proclaimed Chautauqua by talking about his travel companions’ discomfort with the very technology that makes their bike trip across the US possible. The specific case of John and Sylvia not wanting to know just what makes a motorbike tick (a very important skill according to the author when one is on a cross country trip through deserted backroads… and I would tend to agree with that) soon becomes a more generic pondering on the nature of knowledge.

As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is – emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be for a long time to come… I see people like John and Sylvia living lost and alienated from the whole rational structure of civilized life, looking for solutions outside that structure, but finding none that are really satisfactory for long.

With each discovery, Pirsig steps back, trying to arrive at the root of the problem. From our every day relationship with the world around us and the alienation that technology has brought, he moves on to how the education system plays a role in dividing knowing into dualistic, mutually exclusive yins and yangs creating our discomfort with a holistic, non-dualistic view of knowledge and the world around us.

… is the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, which every engineer uses today. Newton invented a new form of reason. He expanded reason to handle infinitesimal changes and I think what is needed now is a similar expansion of reason to handle technological ugliness. The trouble is that the expansion has to be made at the roots, not at the branches, and that’s what makes it hard to see.

Of an experiment conducted with a course he was teaching:

… the brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.
Pirsig then relates the quest of his alter ego for a unifying concept that brings together the dualities of the subjective and the objective. He recounts vividly, the uphill climb of trying to escape the dualistic though process as well as mode of expression that one has been long conditioned to.

Mountains like these and travellers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make

As Pirsig and his son journey through the mountains and valleys together, the reader knows from the pace of their journey, the pace of the upcoming portion of the Chautauqua. Pirsig also gives encouragement to the reader to chug along with him, advices to go slow but steady to avoid burning out through the advice that he gives Chris on pacing himself through the climb to the top of the mountain. Advice that the reader would do well to take at this part of the book.

Pirsig's argument for the fundamental unity of knowledge (defined dualistically as subjective and objective or classical and romantic or art and science) draws extensively from the oriental – Zen, Hinduism, Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – and the Occidental – Plato, Socrates, the Sophists, Aristotle, Kant, Hume. There is a particular section that reminded me directly of the cornerstone of the Hindu notion of detachment and the Bhagvad Gita:

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too… Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest.
He argues that quality, or a sense of value, is the central unifying theme and that while this quality cannot be defined, each of us is equipped to recognize it. That it is because of this underlying quality that science and art essentiallyfeed off each other (In the first part of this video, visual artist Kelli Anderson talks about her two loves - Physics and music).  visual news

Pirsig’s Schizophrenia (Pirsig and Phaedrus) to me was also essential to understanding the difficulty, the near impossibility of stepping out of established ways of thinking (especially for a mind conditioned to think dualistically) and near insanity that it could drive one to. I love the fact that the story of the road trip is almost an analogue, an allegory to the philosophical Chautauqua that is the main purpose of the book.

This is a book that is worth a slow thoughtful read and then many multiple reads thereafter. My biggest take away from this first reading is to not be restrained in my thinking by the formal processes and ways in which we acquire knowledge and to know that there are deep relations even between things that my seem un-related.

My copy of the book also looks much thumbed after this single reading and I must add that I am glad I bought this book and did not borrow it. Reading this book, I've discovered the joy in marking and post-it-ing books!

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