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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ZAMM Meditation, Part III: My Conclusions

This is my third and final post on an intense re-reading of an old book from decades past. Posts one and two will show you where I began and some of the country I traveled through. I must say that in some ways I feel as if I’ve been away from my present life for a while and am only now returning.

The one section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I thought I remembered from my first reading fourteen years ago did not come until so near the end of the story that I had started to wonder if I’d been confused, thinking of some other book. But then, at last, there I was in the “dreary room ... where the late-afternoon sun ... hardly penetrated the window dirt and polluted city air beyond,” the room with its close atmosphere, “[w]an and pale and depressing,” the round table cracked and allowed to remain unrepaired for years—and yes, most importantly, the professor’s attack on a student who had nothing at all to do with his, the professor’s, own unhappiness and fear. After the attack in the book, the faces of the other students become “carefully composed in defense against more of this sort of questioning.” Ah, yes, how well I remember!

The table in the seminar room I knew was not round, and the atmosphere in the room I knew varied from one professor to another (with some it was intellectually pleasurable even when philosophically frightening), but one day, with one professor, I knew the room in the way the narrator of ZAMM describes the room he knew. My experience is another story, not part of the book, but it explains why this brief literary episode engraved itself on my memory while all the rest slipped away.
In the next sessions the shamed student is no longer present. No surprise. The class is completely frozen, as is inevitable when an incident like that has taken place. Each session, just one person does all the talking, the Professor of Philosophy, and he talks and talks and talks to faces that have turned into masks of neutrality.

In my seminar, not the seminar in the book, I was the “shamed student,” but I did not disappear for the remainder of the class sessions. Immediately following “the Incident,” at the close of that particular class, I did retreat to my graduate student office and send concerned friends away from the closed, locked door while I sat alone in the darkness, in near-shock. Later, however, after one friend asked, “Why did he attack you like that?” I finally worked out the why of it and realized it had nothing to do with me. I even called the professor to arrange an appointment in his office, my purpose to give him an opportunity to apologize to me--but of course I could not say that outright. “What did you think of how our last class went?” I asked, making the question very general and open-ended, not wanting to begin by complaining. “I hope you didn’t take my response to your presentation as an attack,” he said. Clever move! If I had seen him as attacking me, he implied, I was misinterpreting the situation; if he hadn’t attacked me, he had no reason to apologize. I told him that other people in the class also had seen his response as an attack. Well, we were wrong, he said, and he was sorry we had gotten that false impression. For that, our error, he was sorry, in the sense that one is sorry to hear of any unfortunate event, such as the death of a friend’s cat, a death one had no part in bringing about. He hoped, he said, that I would continue to participate in the extracurricular study group that met at his apartment on Sunday afternoons, he said. No, I would not, I told him. And that was all. Case closed. Life went on, and so did the class. The one first-year student who had rashly come to my defense transferred to another school, but the rest of us soldiered on, battle-scarred and wary comrades-in-arms.

The experience of Phaedrus in the “dreary room” is a critical turning point in Pirsig's book. It was a crisis in the development and course of the character’s thought, and the course and development of his thought is part of what is allegorized in the road trip. The journey narrated in the book in ZAMM is geographical, intellectual and spiritual. That is my thesis.

Beginning my re-reading with a question about the narrator’s identity and veracity, the question of whether to see the book as memoir or fiction, I began very soon to recognize ghosts as a major theme. When I started realizing how many references there were to ghosts, I turned back to the beginning and found the first reference in the introduction, where the author harks back to a creative writing seminar he had with poet and literary critic Allen Tate and class discussions on The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.
. . . I was completely convinced that this was just a straightforward ghost story, but Tate said no, Henry James is up to more than that. The governess is not the heroine of this story. She is the villain. It is not the ghost who kills the children but the governess’s hysterical belief that a ghost exists.

In Pirsig’s book, his son, Chris, asks one evening if his father believes in ghosts. His father, the narrator, says no, because ghosts are unscientific, but soon he takes a new position, saying “Modern man has his ghosts and spirits, too, you know.” The laws of science, he explains, are only in our minds, nowhere out in the world, and thus they are ghosts. This theme is developed later in the book.

Another ghost appears when the narrator recalls an old poem by Goethe, in which a father is riding [a horse?] along a beach, holding his son in his arms. The son cries out that he sees a ghost. The father reassures him that there is none. When asked how the poem ends, the narrator says that the boy dies. As he puts it, “The ghost wins.” The reader feels a chill.

When the narrator and his son revisit the college building where the father used to teach, both feel an alien, frightening presence, and the boy flees. The narrator goes on to find his old classroom but notes, “In this place he is the reality and I am the ghost.” He is not talking about his son. Here, as he does throughout the story, the narrator is referring to his former self in the third person. The implication is that normally the former self is the ghost. What would it mean for Chris if that ghost were to win?

We have ghosts in literature (the James story and the Goethe poem), scientific laws as ghosts, a former self as a ghost but that former ghost sometimes becoming reality, making the narrator himself the ghost, but we are not done yet. The former self, to whom the narrator gives the name Phaedrus, went back into the history of philosophy in search of ghosts, specifically, “in pursuit of the ghost of reason.” When and how, he wonders, did thought and truth become channeled into a narrowly logical, analytic path? And what happened along the way to what he calls Quality, something he sees as the source of all, prior to divisions and definitions? It is his relentless pursuit of the “ghost of reason” that leads Phaedrus to the “dreary room,” and it is only a short trip from there to the mental hospital.

Finally, near the end of the road trip the narrator describes himself as
. . . a heretic who’s recanted and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out [of the mental hospital]. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they’re convinced, you get out. If I hadn’t turned on him [Phaedrus, the former self] I’d still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That’s the difference between us, and Chris knows it. And that’s the reason why sometimes I feel he’s the reality and I’m the ghost.

More than one reader has taken the passage above as the final truth of the book, the author’s avowal that the only way to survive in the world of other people is to become a hypocrite, to abandon one’s authentic self. This would be such an un-Zen conclusion that it cannot be correct. I believe the key to understanding the journey’s end, insofar as an “end” is contained in the book, is to look at the narrator and Phaedrus and all the ghosts one encounters through the lens of the father-son relationship.

Because Chris sees ghosts, too. He hears them in his father’s nightmare cries and sees them in his father’s eyes when they stare off into the distance. Which father frightens Chris more, Phaedrus or the narrator? The narrator remembers Chris as being very afraid in an episode from their life immediately prior to his hospitalization, but toward the end of the book Chris says that that episode was “fun.” This trip together, by contrast, is no fun at all. Why isn’t it?

Phaedrus, the narrator tells us, “was true to what he believed right to the end.” In pursuing the idea of Quality, however, he abandoned quality in his life. Obsessed with his truth, he was determined to vanquish his foes and “win," and his studies became the marshalling of an arsenal. He made the "dreary room" his personal battleground. Next to this philosophical war and what he felt was at stake in it, his family counted for nothing, and when he realized he could not win, Phaedrus disintegrated. Hospitalization and electroshock treatments followed. The patient released from the hospital is the narrator of the story of Phaedrus, someone who has cobbled together a new self at the expense of the man he was. His concern now is to hold things together, to be safe, in part by distancing himself from his past, including his own son. As much as a "mind divided against itself," what we see in the narrator is a heart in hiding.

The first destination in this book is geographical. It is the end of the journey for the four people who began the trip together. They arrive at the home of friends the narrator knew in his former life, and the couple returns from there to Minnesota, while the father and son continue their trip. The second destination is intellectual, symbolized by the mountain peak, the story of Phaedrus and his search for Quality, told along with the mountain climbing section of the father-son trip, a real part of a real trip but also serving as allegory for the father’s relentless and solitary intellectual search.

If Chris had agreed to be put on a bus for home when the two of them realize that the trip is not working, if the author had recounted only the geographical and intellectual journey, perhaps the “survive by pleasing others” passage would be his final words of wisdom and all he had to offer. But there is another trip and another destination. The surprise is that the third destination turns out not to be the Pacific Ocean, after all. I think this surprises even the narrator.
We round a sharp turn up an overhanging cliff. The ocean stretches forever, cold and blue out there, and produces a strange sense of despair. Coastal people never really know what the ocean symbolizes to land-locked inland people—what a great distant dream it is, present but unseen in the deepest levels of subconsciousness, and when they arrive at the ocean and the conscious images are compared with the subconscious dream there is a sense of defeat at having come so far to be so stopped by a mystery that can never be fathomed. The source of it all.

The narrator recognizes the ocean as the source of life, the allegorical equivalent to Quality as Phaedrus dreamed it, but he also realizes that this source is an unfathomable and cold mystery, with nothing more to give him than what he already has. To reach the spiritual destination the narrator must stop seeing himself as two different people, one real and one a ghost. He must stop referring to his “former self” in the third person and using the passive voice to recount that life. Can he do this? Finally, their trip apparently a failure, his son in tears of desperation, a cliff beckoning, with nothing left to lose, the father and son have a real conversation at last. The father’s recurring nightmare is explained by his son’s memory of a very real incident, and when he realizes that he has not been holding his son together all this time but that the boy has been holding him together the father finds himself and is at last able to be with his son.

I’m not going to give an excerpt from the book’s climactic scene. To do so would be to cheat you of your own arrival when you read the book, but following it the father and son ride without helmets for the first time. They can talk to each other without shouting. The boy stands up on the pedals and can see the road ahead, over his father’s shoulders, for the first time. As earlier they left the mountain peak behind, they now turn away from the cold, inhuman ocean and begin to travel together toward the warmth of a human relationship. This is the real spiritual destination, this reintegration of self and the father-son reunion it makes possible, although this destination could not even be glimpsed until it was reached. And it is “destination” without being an end of the journey.
Rich air and strange perfumes from the flowers of the trees and shrubs enshroud us. Inland now the chill is gone and the heat is upon us again. . . .It seems like I’ve been bone-chilled by the ocean damp for so long I’ve forgotten what heat is like.

The author says in his introduction that he has changed a few facts to shape his narrative, but it no longer matters to me how much is memoir and how much fiction. It matters very little to me (but a little bit, I admit) that Aristotle hardly receives fair treatment. The fact that the author mistranslated the name Phaedrus, as he admits in the introduction, troubles me not at all. It isn’t important. The most important story is the allegory.

In retrospect, I can see that in the seminar room I knew I was not the target. The flak just happened to hit me, although it looked as intentional to my fellow students as it felt to me. That kind of thing happens a lot between human beings. Thinking of that professor of ours and of the final pages of ZAMM while mowing the lawn later in the day, I wondered if there is any hate that is not at bottom a hurt or a fleeing from hurt or fear of being hurt. This was a very rich re-reading for me.


Jerry Dennis said...

Thank you for this sensitive, intelligent and insightful reading of a wonderful and wonderfully complex book.

And anyone who has ever been shamed by a thoughtless or cruel or egotistical teacher thanks you, too.

Porter said...

Ditto, Pamela. It is a wonderful book to think with, which is the function of the best books. What I was trying to get at with my comment (did it appear or did I screw up somehow?) was to indicate one way the book shimmers, and that is between our sense of an actual account of events that actually occurred and something that is largely constructed, a big issue in autobiography. Pirsig seeks a kind of deniability when he writes in his author's note "although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact." My problem with the misdefinition of Phaedrus as "the wolf" is not that Pirsig misdefines it but the claim that the eminent Greek authority agrees with the misdefinition. That's not possible. The giant intellects (and they were) in the "Chicago school" could be awfully pompous, but they wouldn't make this kind of a mistake. So, it makes me wonder where all this action is taking place. It's a good thing to wonder about.

Regarding Goethe's poem Der Erlkonig, one sad coda (I believe) to Pirzig's memoir is that his son Chris was killed about 10 years ago in a mugging in San Francisco.


P. J. Grath said...

Porter, I'm glad I read the book the first time without knowing that Chris had been killed. When I found out, it was a shock.

Don't you think the author must have invented the Phaedrus incident at UC to fit the larger story he was telling? I see what you are saying about the professor's ignorance, this egregious error, and how it detracts from the autobiographical quality of the book. The Aristotle stuff bothered me a lot (although that is more a question of interpretation, I suppose), but in the end I accepted the entire narrative as independent of all this.

Jerry, thanks for reading and validating my own story. That said, I have often in my life been more thin-skinned than is good for me. Slowly learning....

Kathy said...

It is such a strange synchronicty that you just re-read this book, Pamela. Last week I thought--out of the blue--"I must re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance." And here you've just re-read it and provided a synopsis.

How awful that you had such a shaming experiencing by that professor--and that he turned it around without honoring your feelings.

P. J. Grath said...

Graduate departments can be very strange and insular, somewhat paranoia-producing. This seems to be true for faculty as well as for students. I'm glad I did it but am glad to be through, also.

It IS a surprising coincidence that you've been thinking of re-reading the book, too, Kathy. I just received the reflections paper of one of our other group members, and her focus is completely different from mine. Where I looked at the story through the theme of ghosts, she explored Pirsig's rejection of duality, noting that even asking "Fiction or memoir?" is posing a dualism! I love getting my teeth into a rich book like this with a group of other people and hearing all the different perspectives that come out. Might you have a few friends who would want to read ZAMM, too? Just a thought.