A Look at Pirsig's Quality :: September 2001

Subject: In the Margins: Quality and the Artifice of ZAMM
Date: Mon, Jan 5, 1998 17:42

17:45  Abbotsford, British Columbia - Canada :: 05 JAN 98

I have this dog-eared and tuckered out copy of Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Quality.  It's appropriately dog-eared because it's been dogging me for years.  There's something fundamentally important-and funamentally flawed-in Pirsig's analysis, something I would have missed entirely were it not for a chance encounter with the book's sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.  Problems were apparent from the first read of Zen but until Lila these seemed largely cosmetic, quibbles about definitions and different opinions concerning the hearts of science and art.  These problems nonetheless left Pirsig's mystical musings on his central theme, Quality--what is good--intact.

In Zen, Pirsig railed against "The Church of Reason," which demanded that the quantity he had identified, Quality, must be defined in order to be reasonably employed in academic arguments and papers.  This he resolutely refused to do.

And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good-
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
The way we know Quality is simple: Quality is what we like. But in Lila the author buckles under the pressure of being an academic.  He chooses to tackle the spectre of a definition he himself spent all of the first novel establishing as inexpressible.  In the process, he strips whatever beauty and universality exists in the concept of Quality-and there is much-leaving only the pedestal upon which he erects his own Church of Reason: Quality becomes What Robert M. Pirsig Likes.

There is no way for readers of Zen to see this coming.  Lila represents a complete about face.  This about face-the result of it-is my primary target, but to get there we're going to have to get all the way through Zen first, to develop the full geneology of Quality.  Thus armed, we can easily look back to Zen for additional insights while tackling the larger problem presented by Lila.

Oh, in Zen Pirsig identifies two primary modes of perceiving and thinking about the world: Classicism and Romanticism.  He differentiates these by observing that Romantics identify with the surface appearance of the world and its objects while Classicists study the underlying structure  Pirsig counts himself among the Classicists and so, predictably, fails in his characterisation of the Romantic point of view.  A Romantic would describe the difference in this way:  it is Classicists who identify with the surface appearance of the world and its objects while Romantics study the underlying meanings.  To put it differently, Classicists say interesting things about the objective world while Romantics say interesting things about the subjective world.

I place myself squarely in neither camp, being something of an integrator. However, I'm likely to advocate the Romantic point of view often, if only to provide the balance and basis for integration Pirsig is too single-minded to appreciate.



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