Monday, October 24, 2005

A classic hat

In Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance there is a wonderful description of a debate between the narrator and a friend about 'shim', which leads to a long philosophical discussion of the difference between 'classic' and 'romantic' outlooks upon life.

The friend is riding a shiny new BMW motorbike, but the handlebars are slipping. The narrator offers to fix the handlebars with a 'shim', ie a piece of metal to be inserted into the handlebar socket. The qualities needed for a 'shim' to work are that it should be soft enough to enable the handlebars to be gripped more consistently, without causing rust to build up over time. The narrator has the perfect material to hand - the aluminium from a Coke can. However the friend takes one look at the Coke can and reels with shock - there is no way that a piece of junk is going to be applied to the nice new BMW, so the friend simply 'copes' with wobbly handlebars for the rest of the journey.

The narrator draws a distinction from this: he was looking at the underlying properties of the material, ignoring their origin as part of a coke can - this he calls a 'classic' perspective. Whereas his friend was going on the surface qualities and 'feel' of the Coke can - a 'romantic' perspective. It's not that one is better than the other, both are needed, but it means that sometimes there is a conflict between them, whereby something works wonderfully, but looks bad, or just silly.

Which brings me to my classic hat (which I was reminded of by the Seven Samurai)...

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