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.

Caring about Quality

For me, Pirsig is most interesting not when he is trying to justify his philosophical argument that Quality is the ultimate reality but, rather, when he suggests ways to bring Quality into our everyday lives and argues that doing so will begin to repair the rift between technologists and antitechnologists (terms I much prefer to classical and romantic, as suggested earlier).

I think he’s right on when he argues:

There has been a haze, a backup problem in this Chautauqua so far; I talked about caring the first day and then realized I couldn't say anything meaningful about caring until its inverse side, Quality, is understood. I think it's important now to tie care to Quality by pointing out that care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who's bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Thus, if the problem of technological hopelessness is caused by absence of care, both by technologists and antitechnologists; and if care and Quality are external and internal aspects of the same thing, then it follows logically that what really causes technological hopelessness is absence of the perception of Quality in technology by both technologists and antitechnologists. Phaedrus' mad pursuit of the rational, analytic and therefore technological meaning of the word "Quality" was really a pursuit of the answer to the whole problem of technological hopelessness. So it seems to me, anyway.

Both those who produce crap and those who consume it because they get it cheaper and can buy more of it ultimately suffer from the lack of caring and the lack of quality. Craftsmen who were forced to compete with factories that massfactured furniture rather than making them by hand (manu-facture) bemoaned the loss of quality, while those who took their job by working in the factory complained of the deadly boredom from mindlessly reproducing a single part. Buyers usually get an inferior product that looks cheaper and doesn’t last as long.

Quality was sacrificed in the name of cost, a tradeoff that probably made sense when most people squatted or sat on the ground because they could not afford furniture, but makes little sense today when people repeatedly replace their furniture because it falls apart or, worse yet, because it is out of style. In the end, both the consumer and those consumed by massfacturing lose.

Looking back, way back to junior high, I strongly felt quality was more important than quantity. I earned the only “D” I ever got in grades 1-12 in Woodshop because I wanted to produce something I could be proud of and the teacher rewarded quantity rather than quality. The more projects students turned out in the quarter, the higher their grade. I threw more projects away than some students made, but I wasn’t about to give my parents something I wasn’t proud of. The shop teacher, seemed more interested in producing students to work in a factory than craftsmen who could make a good piece of furniture.

I’d also like to believe that Pirsig’s correct when he says that

Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use.

Phaedrus felt that at the moment of pure Quality perception, or not even perception, at the moment of pure Quality, there is no subject and there is no object. There is only a sense of Quality that produces a later awareness of subjects and objects. At the moment of pure quality, subject and object are identical. This is the Tat tvam asi truth of the Upanishads, but it's also reflected in modern street argot. "Getting with it," "digging it," "grooving on it" are all slang reflections of this identity. It is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator of it feels no particular sense of identity. with it. The owner of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. The user of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by Phaedrus' definition, it has no Quality.

Making a good piece of furniture is an awful lot like playing a good game of basketball where things just fall into place without ever really thinking about them. Of course, that only happens once you’ve practiced enough to reach a certain skill level. People used to ask me why I didn’t make furniture to sell, and I might have if I’d needed the money, but I felt a real closeness to the best pieces I made, and, the more I live with them the more they are a part of me. I think that’s the reason that traditional craftsmen took pride in their work, it was a part of them.

I agree with when Pirsig when he says that

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology That's impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is — "not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.

I do know that most of the artistic things I’ve done have been made possible because of advances in technology. Working full time as a high school teacher, I didn’t have time to learn skills the way traditional craftsmen did. If I had had to use just hand tools, I could never have made the furniture that I did. I envied Vietnamese carpenters who could create handsome pieces of furniture from packing crates using only the hand tools they carried with them, but it takes a lifetime to learn how to do that and I didn’t have a lifetime.

Nor could I have produced the photos that I post here without a digital camera and Photoshop. I’ve studied watercolors in a junior college, but I didn’t have the time to maintain those skills while teaching and raising kids. Without my computer, not to mention my digital camera, I’d be pretty much limited to snapshots as my parents were.

The Tao of Motorcycle Maintenance

The main reason it’s so hard to understand Pirsigs Metaphysics of Quality is because he uses a shotgun approach in his attempts to prove that “It is Quality, not dialectic, which is the generator of everything we know.” While this method seems to fit quite well with the narrator’s gradual revealing of Phaedrus’s arguments as he gradually recalls his own past, it’s less convincing as a philosophical argument, even when the reader is sympathetic, as I certainly am, to Pirsig’s argument that quality is largely what is missing in much of modern life and offers the possibility of reconciling those who see life primarily from a technological viewpoint and those who see it from an aesthetic viewpoint.

Simply put, while I’m still convinced ZAMM is an important 20th century novel, even though technically it’s no longer a “novel” because it’s largely biographical, I’m not ready to discard my largely Platonic, archetypal, view of the world for Pirsig’s view. Nor am I convinced that they are really that different, in ways I’ll try to point out later.

On a first reading, Pirsig offers some convincing arguments as to the importance of Quality in our lives. And I rather enjoyed one method of thinking that I hadn’t encountered before:

I was talking about the first wave of crystallization outside of rhetoric that resulted from Phaedrus' refusal to define Quality. He had to answer the question, If you can't define it, what makes you think it exists?

His answer was an old one belonging to a philosophic school that called itself realism. "A thing exists' he said, "if a world without it can't function normally. If we can show that a world without Quality functions abnormally, then we have shown that Quality exists, whether it's defined or not." He thereupon proceeded to subtract Quality from a description of the world as we know it. Phaedrus found this last to be extremely interesting. The purely intellectual pursuits were the least affected by the subtraction of Quality. If Quality were dropped. only rationality would remain unchanged. That was odd. Why would that be?
He didn't know, but he did know that by subtracting Quality from a picture of the world as we know it, he'd revealed a magnitude of importance of this term he didn't known was there. The world can function without it, but life would be so dull as to be hardly worth having In fact it wouldn't be worth living. The term worth is a Quality term. Life would just be living without any values or purpose at all.

This seems to me to be valid way of deciding how important something is to our lives, and it seems to prove that Quality is an important component of our lives.

Of course, proving that something is an important quality in life is rather different than proving that it is the essential element in life, which is exactly what Pirsig tries to prove a little later in this argument

"In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.

which reminds me a little of Wallace Steven’s concept of Imagination, another theory I find impossible to accept as the ultimate arbitrator of what is real. Of course, I have enough of my life invested in the idea of the importance of Quality to my life, that I’d like to believe this, but wanting to believe something is rather different than actually believing in. In fact, it reminds me a lot of an Emily Dickinson poem that equates Truth and Beauty:

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
 
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

The artist in me wants to believe that, and you can certainly make some convincing arguments that they are equivalent, at least on a Platonic level, but too much of my own experience tells me that it ain’t so, that, in fact, the very opposite might be a more accurate description of the mess we’ve made of our world.

Having spent considerable time studying the Tao Té Ching in recent years, I nearly broke out in laughter when I read this passage:

He answered himself that the difference was one of definition. Metaphysical entities are defined. Mystical Ones are not. That made Quality mystical. No. It was really both. Although he'd thought of it purely in Philosophical terms up to now as metaphysical, he had all along refused to define it. That made it mystic too its indefinability freed it from the rules of metaphysics.

Then, on impulse, Phaedrus went over to his book shelf and picked out a small, blue, cardboard-bound book. He'd hand-copied this book and bound it himself years before, when he couldn't find a copy for sale anywhere. It was the 2,400-year-old Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. He began to read through the lines he had read many times before, but this time he studied it to see if a certain substitution would work. He began to read and interpret it at the same time.

He read:
The quality that can be defined is not the
Absolute Quality.
That was what he had said.
The names that can be given it are not Absolute names.
It is the origin of heaven and earth.
When named it is the mother of all things.
Phaedrus read on through line after line, verse after verse of this, watched them match, fit, slip into place. Exactly. This was what he meant. This was what he'd been saying all along, only poorly, mechanistically. There was nothing vague or inexact about this book. It was as precise and definite as it could be. It was what he had been saying, only in a different language with different roots and origins by strangers but as a part of the valley he was from. He was seeing it all.

He had broken the code.

He read on. Line after line. Page after page. Not a discrepancy. What he had been talking about all the time as Quality was here the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions, Oriental and Occidental past and present, all knowledge, everything.

Now I must admit that I’ve sometimes thought that the Tao offers a pretty good description of The Force often referred to in the Star Wars series, but I’d never seriously thought of trying to substitute any concept but the Taoist one in the poem, though like many religious works it’s vague enough that it can take on many different interpretations.

What stopped me from laughing, though, was this passage that concludes the passage just quoted:

Then his mind's eye looked up and caught his own image and realized where he was and what he was seeing and... I don't know what really happened... but now the slippage that Phaedrus had felt earlier, the internal parting of his mind, suddenly gathered momentum, as do the rocks at the top of a mountain. Before he could stop it, the sudden accumulated mass awareness began to grow and grow into an avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosing hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and the hundreds of times that; on and on, wider and broader until there was nothing left to stand.

No more anything. It all gave way from under him.

The narrator seems to suggest that with this insight that Phaedrus had slipped into insanity. But of course, Pirsig has told us in the prologue that Phaedrus was never insane, that the narrator is a conformist who has chosen to conform to society’s views rather than to remain committed. Does that mean, then, that Pirsig is offering this as an accurate description of his ideas? To me it’s an overreaching that tends to undercut his argument rather than to forward it. In fact, it makes me want to reexamine earlier arguments rather than bolstering them.

Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

Though I suspect much of ZAMM’s early audience was garnered because of his attack on the Establishment — his attack on reason, science, and, not least of all, educational institutions — if the novel is to be remembered it will be for Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, because the attack on science and reason is simply a prelude to his introduction of the Metaphysics of Quality, which the last half of the book focuses on.

He suggests that there must be a way of reconciling the split between “romantics” and “classicists,” a way to reconcile “reason and feeling:”

“Well, it isn’t just art and technology. It’s a kind of a noncoalescence between reason and feeling. What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven’t paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these.

“But now where these are assured, the ugliness is being noticed more and more and people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and esthetically in order to satisfy material needs. Lately it’s become almost a national crisis — antipollution drives, antitechnological communes and styles of life, and all that.”

Both DeWeese and Gennie have understood all this for so long there’s no need for comment, so I add, “What’s emerging from the pattern of my own life is the belief that the crisis is being caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought to cope with the situation. It can’t be solved by rational means because the rationality itself is the source of the problem. The only ones who’re solving it are solving it at a personal level by abandoning ‘square’ rationality altogether and going by feelings alone. Like John and Sylvia here. And millions of others like them. And that seems like a wrong direction too. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the solution to the problem isn’t that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it’s capable of coming up with a solution.” [emphasis added]

This reaction against the ugliness of technology certainly isn’t new. 19th Century Romantic poets wrote many of their poems as a reaction against early factories and the accompanying smog and filth that came with the burning of soft coal. In this sense, at least, Pirsig could be dismissed as just another Romantic writer. But unlike many Romantics, Pirsig doesn’t reject technology, but, rather, looks for ways to make it appealing to those who are concerned more with the quality of life than with acquiring the latest technology.

I like this practical, pragmatic, definition of quality:

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”

They just look at me, thinking about this.

“It’s an unconventional concept,” I say, “but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

Anyone who’s worked a poorly designed software knows exactly what Pirsig is saying here. If you’ve ever found yourself totally frustrated or incapable of completing an important job because of poorly defined software, you know exactly what Pirsig is talking about here.

Who hasn’t been alienated by companies that employ badly designed phone systems that have you listening to long lists of directories, hold the line while muzak plays endlessly, only to be dropped while being put on hold? Who hasn’t tried to accomplish something that you know software is perfectly capable of doing only to quit in frustration. Is there any doubt why many simply avoid the latest technology? Who’s willing to sacrifice peace of mind for anything short of an absolute necessity, like health care?

Pirsig’s biggest hurdle, though, is trying to define Quality in a way that most people would agree upon:

Quality.. . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

I don’t totally understand Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, MOQ, but I still find his attempts to define Quality and to use it reconcile reason and esthetics fascinating.

Of course, I’ve always been sympathetic to his main argument that quality is the defining characteristic of a product. Even though I think not needing something is better than actually having it, I want those things I do buy to be the best quality possible and luckily that’s possible if you don’t need to much.