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.

 

great Scottish writers – William McIlvanney

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I was out watching the fitba yesterday, having a couple of pints and old Lawrie was trying to explain what pub he’d been in, years ago, not by telling us where it was, rather by telling us who’d once owned it and who’d given him the money to buy the pub, but he couldn’t remember that either. ‘It was a great Scottish author.’ That was the clue to unravelling the mystery.

‘William McIlvanney,’ I said.

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘A great Scottish author’.

Let me tell you a wee secret, William McIlvanney is a great Scottish author and like Spike Milligan with Hitler, I’ll explain my part in his downfall. I’m going to read Docherty again just to prove that point to myself again. If you’re Scottish and you’re of a certain age and generation you’ll remember Taggart.  You might even remember it if you’re not Scottish. And if you’re drunk and want to overdose in nostalgia Taggart is still part of STV broadcasts in the same way that Dad’s Army still pops up on BBC (too frequently). The classic line in Taggart, ‘There’s been a murder,’ was so recognisable that talk show hosts used to mouth it cast members and smile, inviting the audience to laugh at them. Taggart became a cliché, to be mocked and so Laidlaw and Scottish noir also became something to be looked down on.

You probably don’t remember me being in Taggart, but at one point in time everybody in Glasgow featured in Taggart. You may have saw me featured in a bar chatting to someone, or walking past Taggart (Mick McManus) and looking very much like me, with the wrong coat on. I did also feature in a tracking shot as the back of Dr Finley’s head. A J Cronin is another of Scotland’s writers greatly neglected.

William McIlvanney allegedly tried to sell a series to STV featuring a straight talking Glasgow detective. But they didn’t fancy the idea. The next thing Taggart appears. Ahem. Do the maths. One-word detectives, that human aphorism, with the answer to a question you don’t know, in the title. Taggart. Laidlaw. Taggart is an older dour detective inspective showing a fresh-faced new start behind the ears the ropes. There’s been a murder. No son, there’s been a theft, the stealing of a body of work from an author. Detective Inspector Laidlaw is an older, dour detective, much given to philosophising and doing what he’s got to do, even though it’s not in the handbook, but because it’s the right thing to do and there is no handbook. Just life.  His sidekick Detective Constable Harkness, a fresh-faced new start has been appointed the higher-up heid yins to keep an eye on Laidlaw, and also, incidentally to help him in the murder of Jennifer Lawson.  That line – there’s been a murder – appears in the first of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, Laidlaw, followed by The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties.  Laidlaw doesn’t attempt to solve murders, he attempts to understand them and does so by wrestling to the ground Glasgow punter’s prejudices and inhumanity to humanity. Murder comes in many forms, in hopes and dreams.

The reader already knows who the killer is in Laidlaw’s first case, when the reader meets the detective. It’s the guy running away from the scene and we know he’s a poof and we know somebody is protecting him and we know why, because they love each other, or once did. But Jennifer Lawrence is not just another wee lassie that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, her da is a Glasgow hardman that lives in Drumchapel. Laidlaw has a soft spot for hardmen, he speaks their language and knows how their arcane rules work, and he knows where to find them in their natural element, Glasgow’s pubs.

Poppies was in a court behind Buchanan Street, along with a couple of abstruse businesses and an anonymous second-hand bookshop. It was the most recent example in Glasgow of a pub with adjoining disco, recent enough for Harkness not to know it. He knew The Griffin and Joanna’s in Bath Street, Waves and Spankies at Custom House Quay. The pub here, the Mavrick, was closed just now but the door to Poppies was open.

An open door is always an invitation. Laidlaw and Harkness need to find the murderer of Jennifer Lawrence before his poofter pal helps him to escape, or the Glasgow underworld help Lawrence’s dad find him first and bring the Old Testament eye for an eye vision of justice into view. The smart money is always on Laidlaw, but if you think it’s about solving a murder you’re missing the point. It’s about the writing. It’s about Laidlaw’s epigrams for living and way of seeing the world.

The Papers of Tony Veitch is a case in point. Laidlaw gets a tip off from a reporter, who talked to a porter in The Victoria Infirmary. ‘Old bloke brought in. Chin like a Brillo-pad. Smelling like a grape harvest. Just about conscious. But he kept asking for Jack Laidlaw’.

A doctor explains their predicament to Laidlaw.  ‘Having trouble with his airwaves. They had him in E. God he was filthy. Didn’t know whether to dialyse or cauterise. A walking Bubonic.’

Laidlaw does know the old bloke, he appears in his first part of the trilogy, an alky and a tout who no longer had his finger on Glasgow’s underworld pulse, because he doesn’t have a pulse. But Eck Adamson leaves Laidlaw a cryptic message. ‘The wine wasnae really wine.’

For colleagues such as Laidlaw’s nemesis Milligan it’s an open and shut case. An alky dies the world applauds, one less problem to worry about. The same wipe-your-eye principles apply, another thug, Paddy Collins, who died of stab wounds in the Victoria Infirmary at around the same time. But Paddy Collins is connected, his wife’s brother is one of the dons of the Glasgow underworld and he insists on finding the killer, before the police. Characters from the first Laidlaw novel bleed into the second. And Laidlaw applies the same detective methods, he solves crimes by osmosis. One clue lies in the deranged idealism of a potential murderer, with connections of a different kind, into Scotland’s elite society. Tony Veitch like Laidlaw has dropped out of the University of Glasgow because he believes it cannot give him the education he requires. None of these things, in isolation matter, but for McIlvanney and Laidlaw nothing ever happens in isolation.

In Strange Loyalties Laidlaw’s brother Scott is killed in a car accident. Nothing is ever an accident in Laidlaw-land. McIlvanney and Laidlaw’s strength is in documenting the social nuances between people. Here, for example, he goes to meet Scott’s father-in-law and his mother-in-law, Martin and Alice.

Their togetherness looked as cosy as an advertisement for an endowment policy…Martin had been a building contractor and a friend of many local councillors. The word was that the two aspects of his life hadn’t been always kept effectively apart…Martin was one of the smiling ruthless. Self-interest and callousness had been so effectively subsumed in his nature that they emerged as a form of politeness. He never raised his voice because he hadn’t enough self-doubt to make it necessary. He could listen calmly to opinions violently opposed to his own because he never took them seriously. He offered the conventional forms of sympathy effortlessly because there was no personal content to mean they might not fit…How long does it take to analyse a vacuum?

Alice, Martin’s wife, is beautiful enough to think the world is beautiful too, but that allows her to be empathetic, in the way that Martin is pathetic.  In Laidlaw-land the perpetrators aren’t all locked safely behind bars. They are pillars of society. Everybody is in some ways culpable and knows something, even if they don’t understand what it means. Neither does Laidlaw, but by the end of his book the reader might. That’s why McIlvanney is a great writer.