How can I rate this book? I love it and hate it. Like many people, I read 'Zen and the Art' many years ago and was fascinated by it. Persig seemed perhaps to be on to something, but what? I didn't have the knowledge back then, or the time, to get to the bottom of it. In 1980 I could even be seen alongside my partner on our exhibition stand in London, with the slogan 'zen and the art of audio maintenance' in big red letters on the wall behind us! Success in our business, making instruments that measure audio quality, and growing dissatisfaction with 'normal' life led me to devote more and more time to studies and writing over the last two decades, to understanding life, and perhaps 'Zen' played a part in that shift. That's the problem - Pirsig goes where other's don't and he makes you think, but he also leaves you confused - good and bad. My search took me into Psychology, and Genetics, and Sociology, not philosophy, and I now understand. Understanding came particularly from the field of Evolutionary Psychology.
A 'one star' reviewer here says that Pirsig has 'mental health issues'. Yes, I'd say he has 'borderline psychosis' if such a thing existed! But I'd also say that I've been frustrated all my life by an awareness that most of the population have this to some degree - hence the appeal of the books and the cult following. It all comes down to two different ways of thinking. Pirsig thinks in words and facts. He takes the facts and re-arranges them using language to try to make sense - early in the book his troubled character writes things on cards in a huge filing system and then tries to correlate everything. You might call it 'top down thinking' and Religious people do it, going over and over texts trying in vain to extract more meaning; and I'm afraid our schools encourage thinking along those lines too (thank goodness for my good science teachers). Since the 'Scientific Enlightenment', which changed Europe in the 1700s, some of us have have cultivated a different way of thinking; systematic thinking, using 'reductionism'. It works amazingly - witness all the things around you made possible by engineers and scientists that are part of modern life, but because, in it's early days, it didn't seem able to explain many aspects of life, especially feelings, there was a backlash from 'arty types' which was called 'postmodernism' - and it got things wrong and helped bring 'enlightenment' to a standstill.
But back to Pirsig's thinking. Persig is obsessed with what he calls 'quality', and he gets into futile debates with himself about it. But his difficulty all comes down to the fact that he is using a word to represent something which it doesn't represent. My products measured audio quality, meaning that they measured how close the sound from a system came to the original (they also came with excellent instruction manuals which Persig's Phaedrus would have approved of!). Persig says, 'does Lila have quality,' but what sort of a question is that. There is no original to compare her with. We also talk of the quality of a product of course, meaning how well it is made; does it have rough edges, will it last, does it show craftsmanship? This is a different use, though we could say we are asking 'how close is it to what we imagine an ideal version of the product would be', an extension of the first use. If we talk of a painting though, we enter a minefield because we cannot really talk of the quality of a painting without defining which aspects of the painting we are judging - the technical excellence, it's ability to convey emotion, or perhaps it's closeness to reality. The same goes for a person. Most people know this instinctively - they sense that quality is a word that needs further qualification. It's just a word, not a real thing. And language is a very strange thing because the words we use are only the basic level; their interpretation in our brains uses another level; roughly speaking, context, but it's cleverer than that. Persig and his characters seem to lack this other level, as psychotics do. He tries to find answers at the level of words alone. Where does this other level come from? I think that, like language, it is probably acquired early in life, and is not genetically determined. Readers should be aware that in real life Persig did have a breakdown, spent time in a mental hospital, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and 'Zen' is very much based on his real life. Though he started out studying biochemistry, he dropped out, obsessed with the fact that there are an infinite number of hypothesese about a scientific process. So what, there are an infinite number of things I could do next, it doesn't stop me choosing. He later studied eastern philosophy (a long way from science), became a professor and taught creative writing.
To understand Lila, or any of Persig's problems, we have to understand that there are facts and there are feelings. Feelings are evolution's way of steering us away from things that threaten us and towards things that enable us, and they are based on subconscious memories of earlier events. Facts are absolute. If a tree falls in a forest it really does fall, whether anyone it watching or not. A scientist could produce evidence to that effect - a prior photograph, a sound captured far away, even a seismic record etc. Persig though lives in a world that confuses facts and 'internal facts'. Facts have no meaning, they just are. Facts only acquire meaning when our brain imposes feelings on them. Feelings from the subconscious mind which bias us according to earlier things that happened in a similar context.
I reviewed an excellent book recently, 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind', by Gregory Bateson, which contains an article on 'The Double Bind' which became a key idea in Psychiatrist R D Laing's theories of mental illness in the 60s, in particular Schizophrenia. Bateson is not easy to follow, but he has the real answers, and he talks of the higher level processing necessary to our understanding of language. A simple example would be the misunderstanding in the sentence, 'a cat is an animal', a dog is an animal, 'so a dog is a cat'. There is nothing in the words, or any rules taught in school, or even capable of being expressed by most people, to tell us that this is not a proper deduction, yet most people do know. Languages are crude tools, and in this case we could well invent a word to replace 'is' and say the dog beinclass animal. But we don't, though it's interesting that some languages do contain words and tenses that convey things that English can't. Bateson explains the hidden rules with words like 'a member of a class is not the class, and a class cannot be a member of itself'. Were you taught this at school? No! The rules are internalised from experience and context, and applied automatically by our brain. Bateson's book also gives a very credible theory of schizophrenia based on the idea of the 'double bind'. A double bind typically occurs when a child is told one thing in words, but the apparent meaning of the words is contradicted by context. Something along the lines of 'if you loved me you wouldn't say that', which puts the child in the position of having to give up rational thought or risk losing the love of the parent! This happens a lot! I can't fully explain here how this theory explains Persig's character's dilemma; it could be the topic for an interesting thesis thesis, analysing the book word by word, but I hope I give you some idea. Bateson also has interesting ideas on humour. He says that humour arises when we become aware of a deliberate incompatibility between literal and contextual meanings, or something like that! It makes sense, and poetry ventures into this area too.
So does Lila have quality? Sorry, does not compute! Lila has a personality, which is governed by her subconscious memories of past experiences and causes her to act in the way she does to facts and events - an internal transform. This internal process is in all of us to help us to survive. In some of us it 'make sense' in that it is consistent, but it can be inconsistent, and inconsistency creates problems when people come together - sometimes we call them mad. Don't be fooled by Persig. His books make you think, but they lack consistent thought. I recommend reading some evolutionary psychology, or Bateson, or Laing.