Final Comments on ZAMM

There are whole sites devoted to ZAMM,and this site is not one of them, even though it may seem that way to recent visitors. In fact, if it hadn’t been unseasonably overcast the last week, there would have been a lot more outdoor pictures than ZAMM commentary, but I’ve been spoiled by recent sunshine and am waiting for the clouds to disappear before going out camera in hand.

Since I’ve also been playing grandpa and driving Gavin to soccer lessons this week, I’ve even managed to read the first 100 pages of Pirsig’s Lila. Commentary on that book will follow, but this will be my last entry on ZAMM, despite the fact that I still have an awful lot of strong opinions about the book, scattered ones, at that, running through my head.

Though I still remain unconvinced by Pirsig’s main point that Quality is the ultimate reality, I identify with most of what he writes about. I certainly agree that

You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.

But if you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six. What I’m trying to come up with on these gumption traps, I guess, is shortcuts to living right.

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called Yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

I’ve tried to live my whole life this way, and I’ve even had ulcers to prove it. I had great parents who wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, but always expected me to do my best at whatever I did, just as they did everyday, a point I emphasized in my earlier discussion of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Hopefully this blog is a testament to the fact that I’m still working on a cycle called Myself.

Though this idea of “living right” is shown throughout the novel, I think it’s best exemplified through Pirsig’s idea of areté, or excellence

“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism,” Kitto comments, “is not a sense of duty as we understand it-duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek areté, ‘excellence’ …… shall have much to say about aretê. It runs through Greek life.”

There, Phaedrus thinks, is a definition of Quality that had existed a thousand years before the dialecticians ever thought to put it to word-traps. Anyone who cannot understand this meaning without logic definiens and definendum and differentia is either lying or so out of touch with the common lot of humanity to be unworthy of receiving any reply whatsoever. Phaedrus is fascinated too by the description of the motive of “duty toward self’ which is an almost exact translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, sometime described as the “one” of the Hindus. Can the dharma of the Hindus and the “virtue” of the ancient Greeks be identical?

Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then … what’s this?!

“That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘exellence.’”

Lightning hits!

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue.” But aretê. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.

Kitto had more to say about this aretê of the ancient Greeks. “When we meet aretê in Plato,” he said, “we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavour of it. ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; aretê, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.”

I’m tempted to say that Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea conveys this same idea more succinctly, even more convincingly, but I doubt that Old Man and the Sea is as effective in making the reader think about the concept of Quality, and why so much of modern life seems to lack it.

I must admit, though, that I was more than a little put off by Phaedrus’ attempts to prove that there was a conspiracy by ancient, and not-so-ancient of philosophers, to discredit the importance of Quality:

Plato hadn’t tried to destroy aretê. He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed Idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal Truth. He made aretê the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself, in a synthesis of all that had gone before.

That was why the Quality that Phaedrus had arrived at in the classroom had seemed so close to Plato’s Good. Plato’s Good was taken from the rhetoricians. Phaedrus searched, but could find no previous cosmologists who had talked about the Good. That was from the Sophists. The difference was that Plato’s Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.

First, I have no real way of verifying that this is historically accurate, since I’ve never had access to the pre-Socratic philosophers he refers to. In the end, though, I began to see this as a red-herring. Who really cares if ancient philosophers conspired to make Quality seem less important than earlier philosophers had made it seem? Isn’t the important thing to prove that Quality is the ultimate reality?

I’ll also have to admit that Pirsig’s preface where he seems to reject the narrator and emphasize that Phaedrus is the real hero of the novel, — a little strange since they are one and the same — also caused some problems for me since I preferred the narrator who seemed to live a more zen-like existence than Phaedrus, who seemed anything but Zen-like, obsessed with ideas, obsessed with proving that everyone else was wrong.

In fact, when I first read the novel I tended to see the climactic description of Phaedrus wandering the streets

The city closes in on him now, and in his strange perspective it becomes the antithesis of what he believes. The citadel not of Quality, the citadel of form and substance. … Form and substance without Quality. … Blind, huge, sinister, and inhuman …

as Phaedrus’s “dark night of the soul,” the final moment preceding enlightenment if only one can pass through it. In my novel, it is the narrator, once he finally becomes one with himself, that is enlightened, not Phaedrus.

One thought on “Final Comments on ZAMM

  1. I appreciate the time and thought you’ve given to ZAMM, Loren.

    My recent reading of ZAMM wasn’t a reading at all but a “listening” to a CD while I was painting my recent series and so was a different experience entirely from reading of the book in the mid 1970s. I’m not sure what happened to my original copy of ZAMM, but I am curious as to what I would have underlined and what comments I would have made in the margins.

    It has been good to read your quotes from the book, many of which are fresh in my mind from having heard them read recently. It wasn’t Robert Pirsig who was reading on the CD, and at many times during my listening I was startled by the tone of voice because when I read the book so many years ago, that wasn’t the tone of voice I heard.

    I found it fascinating to hear Robert Pirsig speak in interviews in the NPR archives that I found recently. There is a quality to his voice that is lacking in the voice of the reader of the CD. Pirsig laughs frequently. There is a wryness, a delight, a heartiness, a liveliness and a youthfulness in his voice that is engaging.

    What I came away with this time, especially now that I have read WILLIAM JAMES: IN THE MAELSTROM OF AMERICAN MODERNISM, is that Quality is nothing if not an experience. Quality is not a theory that can be proven. One doesn’t “believe” in Quality. One experiences Quality in a dynamic rather than static manner. As you quoted today:

    The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.

    And I came away with the word “gumption,” which Pirsig used frequently in ZAMM.

    gumption, n. Informal. 1. initiative; aggressiveness;resourcefulness: With his gumption he’ll make a success of himself. 2. courage; spunk; guts: It takes gumption to quit a good paying job. [orig. Scot]

    And that it was Pirsig’s son’s quality remarks that woke/enlightened Pirsig at the end of the book.

What do you think?