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.