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I have run into two classes of people regarding ZAMM, those who read it and find that it is one of those watershed experiences of their lives, and those who read it (usually as a college lit assignment) and regard it as a complete waste of time. I am in the former category.
I read this during my mid-life crises years, instead of buying a red sports car and making an ass of myself. I read ZAMM and dreamed of telling my boss to go f--- himself, jump in the car, and go to Montana. Fortunately enough common sense remained through the dropping testosterone levels, and middle aged angst, that the question THEN WHAT? was asked not only by myself but by my loving wife, a realist who fought menopause with far more aplomb than I battled mid-life crisis. My wife saved me from making a bigger ass of myself. I owe my life to her.
ZAMM was a story within a story within a story. On the surface was a guy and his kid on motorcycle trip. Then within that frame work was Pirsig telling Chautauquas about Quality. Within that was Phaedrus, Pirsig's brilliant philosophic internal demon, whose victory over the chairman cost Pirsig his sanity and his family. I suspect that within Phaedrus there may be even deeper embedded stories that are too deep for the likes of me--rhetoric and dialectic. One thing I learned from ZAMM and some of my other readings in life...one can have intellectual pursuits and interests, mount them on your ego like a veneer on cheap furniture, but unless there is some IQ horse power embedded in one's skull, understanding evades one. Such it was with the philosophical battle of Phaedrus and the chairman. I doubt that the analogy of the two horsed chariot will ever sufficiently explain the difference of rhetoric and dialectic to me. I had to be pretty much satisfied with Phaedrus catching the Chairman, the guy who writes articles in Britannica about dialectic, pompously bullshitting the class.
"Were he a real Truth-seeker and not a propagandist for a particular point of view he would not."
Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 383). HarperTorch. Kindle Edition.
Rather than getting some huge overlying philosophy of life from ZAMM, I picked up bits and pieces. I loved the concept of the Chautauqua, a dialogue to not only edify but to entertain. I love the idea of Quality, don't know what the hell it is, but you can recognize it...some mysterious property that defies explanation yet is obvious. Then there was the idea that problems were opportunities for growth. Don't despair at intractable difficulties, do the work to solve them, and learn from it. Problems then become Chautauqaus in the pursuit of Quality. Beware of the gods, the bullshitters in life like the chairman who use power, influence, and position to bullshit their way past Truth and Quality.
Or from the bumper sticker:
Trust those who seek the Truth. Doubt those who find it.
Learn to learn...in the beginning of the book, the narrator makes a big production about the advantages of the motorcycle trip for bonding with his son...horsepower, wind in your face, one with the road and the natural beauty flying by. At the end of the book Pirsig realizes the trip would have been far better in a car. He and Chris were isolated by the noise and the wind...they became prisoners to the motorcycle, conversation and bonding being impossible on the bike, and nights around the campfire spent in exhaustion from having the shit beat out of them by hundreds of miles on the bike.
The final lesson of the book for me was in the afterward. In real life Chris was murdered in 1979. Pirsig then asks:
Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud?
Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . HarperTorch. Kindle Edition.
I read ZAMM during my mid-life crises, perhaps I should read it again now that I am on the threshold of the "golden years." Perhaps I could gain further insights. I had hoped for such an understanding from John Jerome. His Stone Work: Reflections on Serious Play and Other Aspects of Country Life was another book that greatly affected my life. Zen and the art of rock wall building. Jerome and Pirsig said many of the same things, but Jerome was far easier to understand. I was delighted to find Jerome had written On Turning Sixty-Five: Notes from the Field. Just the thing I needed on the eve of an impending retirement that I was pretty sure I didn't want. Stay and go crazy and die before you are 65, leave and go crazy and die before you are 65. So Jerome was putting this into context. About half way through the book, I thought "gee I wonder what Jerome is doing now?" A quick google search and I was shocked to find out that Jerome, a fitness buff, died two years after the book was published of lung cancer. I tried to go back to the book, upon reading of plans for his future together with his wife, trips and intellectual pursuits designed to stave off mental decline, I couldn't do it. I could not sit and read of optimistic hopes for he and his wife when they were in their 80's knowing full well that he never saw 70.
Some dear internet friends have suffered the losses of loved ones as of late, and another is probably about to lose her mother. You look at the pictures they post, you see wonderful loving human beings. Indeed where do they go? I looked at one photo yesterday and unbidden tears rolled down my cheek. You see love in the photo.
Roland Barthes spoke of there being two qualities of a photograph. Studium and punctum. Studium is the physical facts of the photo. There is a couple, they dressed a certain way, have certain hair styles, wear glasses or not...etc. Then there is the punctum, that which pierces the heart. It was the love in that photo that pierced my heart and brought the tears coursing down my cheeks. It is just an ordinary photograph of an ordinary couple, yet love like Pirsig's Quality just exudes from the photo--we may not know what it is but we recognize it. Where will that love go? Where did he go? Will the love continue to exist in half transmissions from the remaining spouse and silence from the parted one? How do you look at a photo of people in love, realize that half is gone, where we don't know, and then write something meaningful to her? There is a whole body of work of dimwitted cliches that you can utter but beyond that what can you say to comfort people? Do they really want to hear cliches? Does some well worn trite phrase do anything to help the blackness of pure grief in their hearts? Perhaps I should write my friend and tell her that with her photograph, she gave us a gift...see our love, don't waste a precious second.
I am not sure that ZAMM will do for me at 64 what it did at 39. It is a middle aged book. Perhaps I should dust off Jerome and pretend that the golden years will be golden. I think of that photo, and think how much there is to lose. The golden years are a cruelty.