Robert Pirsig (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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Robert Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the zeitgeist book of the seventies. Like Harry Potter but for adults it came with its own mythology. The reader can study pre-production notes between James Landis who commissioned the book for the publishers William Morrow and Robert (Bob) Pirsig. In a note by Bob Pirsig dated June 15, 1973, the author admits to anxiety and moots changing the title of the proposed book from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to ‘The Bendable River’. Landis dissuades him. In earlier correspondence admits the book ‘is not a marketing man’s dream’.  Robert Pirsig’s book was rejected by 121 publishers and he didn’t write his novel but live it. It wasn’t considered ‘“commercial” in the way that term is understood by most people in publishing’, but prior to publication was judged a work on genius by among others book reviewers on the New York Times.  After publication Robert Redford bid for the rights to film the book, which was rejected. But what would a film of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance look like?

I can’t remember when I first read Pirsig’s book. I guess late teens, perhaps early twenties. I loved it. Pirsig’s IQ measured aged nine was 170, he was a child prodigy with, we later learn, ‘a near photographic memory’. I don’t know what the opposite of photographic memory is and if I did I’d probably forget it, but if anybody asked me what the book was about I’d say it was about this guy that takes his son Chris, who’s aged eleven, on a road trip across the backroads of America on his motorcycle and blabs to him, and the reader, for almost 400 pages and also tries to emotionally reconnect with his son and explain he’s not the man he was, which is quite difficult, because he’s  emotionally guarded and not in touch with his feelings.  Pirsig jokes that if he were writing a novel he’d have to give an extended backstory.

On a motorcycle, ‘You’re in the scene’.  There’s a comparison with cars and the way the world is experienced. ‘Through a car window…everything is just more TV. On a motorcycle you’re an active participant in life. In a car, a ‘passive observer’. This is a value judgement. In the theoretical, film of the book, a world-weary narrator played by someone like Harry Dean Stanton would explain how to fix a motorcycle isn’t just a question of mechanics, but a question of life and who you are and who you want to be at that moment and in the future. He’s nostalgic for a simpler life (that probably never existed) when ‘a sort of Chautauqua… a travelling tent show, moved across America, this America…giving popular talk shows to improve the mind.’ He compares this unfavourably with faster paced radio, movies and TV. This is another value judgement. And now the narrator tells the reader about his friends John and Sylvia.

Sylvia says of those in the cars, going the other way. ‘The first one looked so sad. And the next one looked exactly the same way, and the next one and the next, they were all the same way.’

In other words, there’s something about modern life that is alienating. She is in agreement with the narrator, but offers no solution. The narrator’s quest is to find out what it is and where it comes from and perhaps suggest a tentative solution to this ‘mass hypnosis’. It’s in the title of course. Zen.

But John and Sylvia differ from the narrator. They are romantics. John, for example, buys a BMW motorcycle and doesn’t want to know about mechanical problems. He just wants the bike to work and if it doesn’t work it has nothing to do with him. The narrator is more a classicist. His classical education allows him to suggest an extensive nomenclature of tolerances and intolerances of different parts. But he comes unstuck when an elderly welder fixes the bike guard in a manner closer to art for art’s sake than his understanding allowed for. Rationality is always bounded. In Phaderus’s face off with Chairman of the Committee of the University of Chicago he raises his hand to contradict the speaker and suggest the Socrates’ suggestions of duality between those riding the white horse of reason (classicists) and others the black horse of passion (romantics) was actually an analogy. In terms of drama, his photographic memory allows him to quote verbatim from the Chairman’s own writing, unseating him. Classicists had rather a romantic view of themselves as the bearers of light and truth. Evidence suggests it was based on common myth. Mass Aristotelian hypnosis which separates subject from object and bounded by rationality that is impermanent and not rational.

Quality is neither of the subject or the object, but  suggests no answer, but rather we ride both horses, simultaneously, as Pirsig did in his writing. ‘Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies contempt for efficiency, or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.’  Or as William McIlvanney’s great Glasgow detective Laidlaw said, ‘I don’t like questions. They invent the answers.’

koan

ˈkəʊɑːn,ˈkəʊan

noun

  1. a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.

The narrator can figure out how to fix almost anything mechanical, but he can’t fix himself. He works endlessly trying to pin down the idea of Quality. But ‘The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.’ Sleeping four hours. Sleeping two hours. The journey back to self begins with self. Thoreau’s maxim, ‘you never gain something, but lose something’.

‘I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,’ he recalls. ‘I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers …’

This is a different kind of hypnosis to the mass variety. This is Socrates listening to the voice of his demon. This is Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This is the Mohammed listening to the voice of God in a cave. This is Buddha gaining enlightenment. Or this is madness. I’d go with the latter.

You cannot recant without believe. Phaedrus was institutionalized and his brain zapped by electro-shock therapy as his carers tried to press the default button and reset him on the straight and narrow path to normality. I guess the world has moved on and we no longer use electro-shock and call it therapy.

I guess if we were making a movie of the book the Hollywood-type denouement is a bit too tinsel, Phaderus is giving a different font, which stands out on the page, so that when the ancient Greek Sophist, and ghost, behind the glass door that stalks the narrator as his alter-ego speaks to Chris, it’s not Robert Pirsig, but the man he was, admitting, no he was not mad, bad or sad. Just your normal genius. Amen to that.

 

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Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

What would Jesus tweet?

My twitter account got Spammed, where is God when you need Him? But it got me thinking what would Jesus tweet in the twenty-first century. Then I tried to figure if counting was thinking and is this the twenty-first century? I’m getting old, what happened to the last one? If it is, where’s Buck Rodgers?

My three followers on Twitter were outraged with the tweeted message asking them to strip naked, post a photo online and send money. It was the last part that drove their fury. If anybody’s missed it I’ve been tapping everybody for money. http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

It’s not my fault, but a compulsion. If the Sermon on the Mount was reduced to tweets it would read something like – shit I’ve run out of tweets and I’ve not even mentioned love or send me money to fund this worthwhile and charitable book called the Bible. As long as your name’s Isaiah you can be one of the characters.   For as little as £500 you could make a difference to Jack O’Donnell’s life.

Today is the first day in the rest of your life. It’s also the day Peter Ustinov was on the telly as a gay Nero letting it all hang out as he burns with confidence. You know Quo Vadis. Toga and sandals and God reduced to a voice-over.  Tweeting, the devil’s work,  hadn’t even been invented.

Ustinov, like God, is everywhere. He was also in another dystopian fantasy Logan’s Run. Remember Jenny Agutter got to stroke and fiddle with his beard. There was no word for beard inside the dome, because everybody was young and beautiful and facial hair belonged to Yetis and old folk, none of which they believed in.  Young girls inside the dome had never seen a beard. They got all excited about it. Everybody wanted to stroke the old guy’s beard. I still get flashbacks of Jenny Agutter swimming naked in Walkabout. But that was last century. I’ve really got to grow up. Please buy my book – I’ll be your friend for a century or more. You can stroke my beard.