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Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Morning Train of Thought

The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.
– Robert M. Pirsig, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE

I’ve already posted about my re-reading of this book and how glad I am to be discovering it again. Three paragraphs before the one quoted above, I put down the book and wrote in my notes “362 – Bergson!” The parallel with my philosophical “main man” was striking, and it made me happy and excited.

Bergson’s thought is often misunderstood,. He did not oppose analysis and was not anti-intellectual. The function of the intellect, he argued, is to analyze and solve problems, not to reveal ultimate reality. What Bergson and the narrator of ZAMM say, then, is that an exclusively analytical focus will miss reality. The narrator goes further than Bergson in one respect and claims that problem-solving must go beyond analysis, too, because (and here is the core of Bergsonian thought) reality does not hold still. Life is fluid and creative and always moving forward, The narrator first gives us an analogy of knowledge as a train, with Classical Knowledge as the engine and boxcars and Romantic Knowledge in none of the parts—because
Romantic Quality ... isn’t any “part” of the train. It’s the leading edge of the engine, a two-dimensional surface of no real significance unless you understand that the train isn’t a static entity at all. A train really isn’t a train if it can’t go anywhere. In the process of examining the train and subdividing it into parts we’ve inadvertently stopped it, so that it really isn’t a train we’re examining. That’s why we get stuck.

The real train of knowledge isn’t a static entity that can be stopped and subdivided. It’s always going somewhere. On a track called Quality. And that engine and all those 120 boxcars are never gong anywhere except where the track of Quality takes them; and romantic Quality, the leading edge of the engine, takes them along that track.

Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been. At the leading edge there are no subjects, no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of acknowledging this Quality, then the entire train has no way of knowing where to go. You don’t have pure reason—you have pure confusion. The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could they be contained?

(Following what I've just quoted comes the short paragraph quoted at the top of this post.)

For Bergson, if you’ll permit me this little side trip, all of life (not only human) is in motion. He called the leading edge Creative Evolution, but he would object to ZAMM’s analogy because it posits a track already laid down ahead of the train, while that seemingly simple phrase “all the infinite possibilities of the future” should be our clue that the leading edge, as it moves forward, generates the very track on which it runs.

Literary questions that have been in my mind as I’ve been reading remain there as questions (roughly 130 pages from the end at present), but one thing that I’m realizing more and more as I go along is the allegorical nature of this story. The high and low places, the long, grueling stretches, the underbrush through which one must hack and chop one’s way, the loneliness, the promise of the sparkling sea at the end of the road—all these aspects of the physical road trip and the mountain climbing adventure mirror the narrator’s philosophical struggle. Yet the descriptions of natural beauty, of roads and towns, are so detailed that it’s easy to read ZAMM as a travel book and feel the philosophy as an add-on, which it is not at all, and right there is the richness of this book. In the course of a lifetime one can read and re-read it, appreciating it from the different perspectives that increasing age and experience allow until finally one reads it as several books at once, the story unfolding on multiple levels.

Pirsig's narrator talks about getting "stuck" and how good it is. I always told my students that confusion was a good sign: it meant they were really thinking. Mistakes are learning opportunities. I love this stuff!

By the end of the weekend I hope to have reached the end of the book and hope to be able to write something intelligent and intelligible about the nature of the narrator and about the recurring theme of ghosts. Will I have anything to say about bookselling or gardening or the holiday weekend or events around Northport? Who knows? I’m laying my track as my train moves forward.

8 comments:

Gerry said...

As I read the excerpt from ZAMM I thought, "There writes a man who has no idea how a railroad comes to be," but you had it covered. I do think that everything is always in motion. Real leadership consists of being able to move forward anyway.

P. J. Grath said...

Henri Bergson covered it, Gerry, in his 1889 doctoral dissertation, the title of which would translate directly as "The Immediate Givens of Consciousness" but which was published in English under the title TIME AND FREE WILL.

Jordan Lindberg said...

This whole business is a nice prompt ... my copy of ZAMM is sitting on my shelf waiting for a revisit. I'll admit that the first time I read it (many years ago now) I didn't get much out of it, but even then I thought it was likely circumstantial and that it deserved a re-read.

I "almost" picked it up again about three years ago. I was staying at the Blue Winged Olive B&B just south of Livingston, MT and found out that the owner was Joan Watts. Joan is the daughter of Alan Watts, and talking with her turned me on to "The Way of Zen" and the -- really quite good -- "The Book -- On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are."

Anyway, after my spin with Watts, I was going to re-read ZAMM, but for whatever reason that plan stalled ... I think, though, that I'll grab it again on Monday and read it.

You're an inspiration!

pabbott said...

ZAMM is indeed an amazing, very American, combo of self-writing and philosophy, like Thoreau, with its clear, unadorned, yet somehow elegant style. And, yes, the part on stuckness is a favorite of mine, too, and one I kept producing for my students when they were groaning about getting nowhere in their essays. The one puzzle for me is the scene at the University of Chicago where he says that the meaning of Phaedrus is "The Wolf" when in fact it is not. Phaedrus is best translated as "bright and shining one," which is almost the opposite. And, as I recall, the distinguished professor, who should know better, agrees with him. So, it can't be factually accurate nor it can't work as a plausible fiction either. Very strange and curious.

P. J. Grath said...

Jordan, I'm happy to have inspired another philosopher to revisit this American classic. I am loving the experience myself.

Porter, my paperback edition has the author admitting in his introduction that he had translated the name Phaedrus incorrectly, and in fact he gives exactly what you suggest.

Nearing the end, I have reached the only section of the book I recalled from my reading 14 years ago, the horrid torture chamber of the seminar room. I can vouch for the truth, if not the biographical fact, of this section, as it captures a similar experience of my own.

One thing that's driving me crazy in these last few chapters is the response of Phaedrus to the "style" of Aristotle. What style? The style of his students' lecture notes? Completely unfair. But there speaks my own prejudice in favor of Aristotle.

Back to the book....

Matthew of the Cornfields said...

Your discussion is bringing back painful memories of qualia in my philosophy of mind class. It's interesting to me how divided people are over this issue. I fall on the side of the romantics, et al. and I'm having a harder and harder time understanding or dealing with people who don't share my sympathies. I'm working on THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV now, so far I definitely recommend it.

P. J. Grath said...

It’s embarrassing to admit how many books leave only one scene or fragment of dialogue in my mind years later. With BROTHERS KARAMAZOV the bit I remember is the story of St. Peter, the old woman and the little onion. Have you gotten to that part yet? There are echoes of it later, as I recall—though I recall little else.

Philosophy of mind brings back painful memories for me, too. The word ‘qualia,’ on the other hand, makes me think of the medieval philosophers and how much I enjoyed their wrangles. Perhaps because they were far removed from my own time, no longer serious contenders? And remember, Matthew, that it is the “romantic” motorcycle friend who has no clue how to do anything mechanical and no interest in learning how to maintain his bike. The romantic flees rules and method, while the classical practitioner can’t see beyond them. I am very much looking forward (this will sound like a change of subject, but it isn’t) to reading Evelyn Fox Keller’s new book on the Nature vs. Nurture debate. From what I’ve read about it, she advocates a synthetic approach to science and at the same time acknowledges that it can’t answer all the questions we are capable of posing.

I will have one more post on ZAMM, and it will be a long one, which reminds me of one of my sister’s boyfriends (this sister was your mother, Matthew) many years ago who replied to one of her letters with the opening line, “Your letter was long but I enjoyed it.” My sister was incredulous. “BUT?” she kept saying. “BUT he enjoyed it?” In formal logic there is no difference between BUT and AND, but in human discourse? Ah, yeah!

Matthew of the Cornfields said...

Ha. I can certainly see my mother reacting like that! Oh Lord, I know where I get my dramatic streak from... Yes and the logic is pertinent as well, as I'm studying for the LSAT and I'm wondering how anyone without a background in logic or math could ever do well on this test.