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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Vroom, vroom!

The real University ... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salary and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries.... – Robert M. Pirsig, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE

Life has been very busy lately, with the season heating up. That’s metaphorically speaking. We did have a couple of beautifully summery days when young people shed shoes on downtown streets before the temperature plunged again, getting down into the 30s at night. Not, I'm happy to say, before my morel bonanza or before I finally this year, for the first time, got the wild asparagus before it went to seed, but it's been hard to be cold again after being warm. (Spring, that fickle young thing!) My straw bale gardening project is coming along, too, and I’ll be posting something about that soon; for today, however, it’s a philosophical road trip. Hop on! Don’t be scared! Philosophy will not hurt you!

One of the several reading groups I’m in is a kind of support group for a young man in difficult circumstances (to say the least) who is making a herculean effort to finish his high school work from far off-campus. Four or five of us are reading books “with” him for his last elective credit, sharing our impressions after he has written up his. Our current book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read for the first time only 14 years ago, having stayed away from it for years out of some kind of overly fastidious feeling that anything that popular couldn’t be that good. Surprise—it was. I'm currently halfway through for my second reading and realize I hardly remember anything from my first. (The one part I do remember I haven't gotten to yet.) I am really glad to be rediscovering this book.

The narrator gives the name Phaedrus to the self he was before his hospitalization and shock treatment for mental illness. He, the narrator, refers to Phaedrus in the third person because he himself is "not that person any more." In what ways not? Well, a big way is that he has lost most of his memories of that earlier life. The narrator also describes the way Phaedrus dealt with other people, implying that he, the narrator, is different, but already I’m wondering if this is true.

ZAMM is a road trip novel as well as a philosophical novel. The narrator and his son travel cross-country with a married couple, through prairie, plains and mountains, with moments high and low along the way. Here is my strongest praise for the book: It is so well written that I do not skip the sections on motorcycle maintenance. When the four travelers reach their destination, the town where Phaedrus taught in the English department, Chris, the narrator’s son, remembers some of the streets and the school where his father taught and fills in some memories of that past for his father. We get the picture that this was not a happy time for the family.

For me the orienting theme of this book is ghosts. From the first time Chris brings up the subject of ghosts as the travelers are sitting around the campfire, the narrator uses it for his philosophical musings. The imagination conjures up phantoms of all kinds, whether former selves, other souls or forms of ideas through which we see the world. Are they "real"? If they are not, is anything?

The part of the book that has stayed with me, a part still ahead in my re-reading, is the seminar room. Ha! Seminar room--or torture chamber? I remember it well. I knew that room myself. I was there. How will it be revisiting it this time around? I’ll get back to you on this.

P.S. I take it back. This is a scary book.

P.P.S. The seminar room was not always a torture chamber. It depended on which professor was giving the seminar.

8 comments:

Gerry said...

I have avoided that book, too. Maybe I will have another look. I will be interested to know whether you decide that the narrator has/hasn't become a different person.

P. J. Grath said...

If you hate philosophy, you will probably hate this book, but it isn't didactic. It really feels like someone working through original thought for himself. More anon.

Dawn said...

I never read it either. Maybe I'm old enough with enough life experiences to enjoy it now.

dmarks said...

I read it in university, and it did not impress me a lot. Maybe I need to try again.

P. J. Grath said...

It's as much an odyssey of thought as a geographical or spiritual odyssey. Maybe more. If you have interest in and patience for philosophy, it will repay your time well. If you have spent any time in academic philosophy (or academia in any field), you will feel the shock of recognition. Then there is the mystery of the narrator, which is revealed only bit by bit....

Dawn said...

Ok ok...you've got me hooked....I'll see if the library has it! :)

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn is very brave! Nothing I said scared her off! Dawn, don't forget interlibrary loan, too, if your local library doesn't have a copy--although they should. It's an American classic.

P. J. Grath said...

Correction: They weren't sitting around a campfire but outside their motel rooms. Chris asked because he'd been at camp where ghost stories were told around the fire.