Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Question of Character (a MoQ post)

Something written for the MoQ discussion group a few years ago.

In 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (ZMM) the Narrator writes:

"I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of *this* American resource - individual worth. There are political reactionaries who've been saying something close to this for years. I'm not one of them, but to the extent they're talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they're right. We *do* need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do."

The Narrator is here giving the notion of individual worth a clear degree of Quality, ie it is a good thing, it is something which should be nurtured and affirmed. The question I’d like to explore is: where does this fit in with the MoQ? Or is it something to be left behind?

Consider the literary structure of Lila. We have a correspondence between the four static levels of the MoQ with four characters (so the boat is inorganic, Lila is biological, Rigel is social and Phaedrus is intellectual) and a correspondence between DQ and the river on which the static levels float. Moreover, the way in which the character Phaedrus fails to engage constructively with the character Lila seems to be an acting out of Pirsig’s point that the intellectual level cannot engage directly with the biological level, but must rely upon the social level (Rigel – equals ritual?) in order to cope.

Now this structure is hierarchical. The higher levels are more moral than the lower levels, so that, where there is a conflict between levels, the higher level must be supported (eg intellectuals must support the police). At which level does individual worth fit? Or is it a product of a combination of levels (the forest of static patterns)?

A tension arises for me because if the characters in the novel represent the levels, and the levels are hierarchical, then to accept the MoQ would seem to imply that we should make ourselves more like Phaedrus in terms of our static patterns (which certainly seems to be the aim amongst some members of the community). Yet Pirsig, in Lila’s Child, talks about his displeasure at being identified with the character Phaedrus: "Yes, Phædrus is overwhelmingly intellectual. He is not a mask, really, just a literary character who is easy for me to write about because I share many of his static values a lot of the time. I don't think big self and small self are involved here. My editor wanted me to make him a warmer person in order to increase reader appeal. But making him warmer would have made him more social and weakened the contrasts between himself and Rigel and Lila that were intended to give strength to the story. The fact that everyone seemed to think that Phædrus was me came as an unpleasant surprise after the book was published. I had assumed that everyone would of course know that an author and a character in his book cannot possibly be the same person." Clearly we must distinguish Pirsig the author from Phaedrus the character, and where Phaedrus is an isolated, asocial, possibly amoral metaphysician, Pirsig the author, in his presentation of Phaedrus, is distancing himself from those very things. Elsewhere in Lila’s Child Pirsig quotes a response to an interview: “One interviewer asked me, "Are you really Phaedrus?" The answer was, "Yes I really am Phaedrus. I also really am Richard Rigel. I also really am Lila. I also really am the boat".” In other words, the ‘I’ of Robert Pirsig is composed of all the different levels in greater or lesser patterns of harmony.

This all suggests to me that individual worth in the sense that the Narrator praises in ZMM is not to be identified with one level, but is the product of a combination. However, another strand in Pirsig’s writing tends against that, and might suggest that character is a wholly third level pattern. In the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of ZMM Pirsig comments that the Narrator is dominated by social values – and, of course, the passage from ZMM that I quoted at the beginning of this post are the words of the Narrator.

First a question: is it legitimate to take the views of the Narrator as being the views of Pirsig? Or is the Narrator another character, in the way that the characters of Lila are, and not to be identified with the author? I don’t know what the answer to that question is.

Second, there is clearly a sense in which the Narrator IS dominated by social values. The Narrator’s personality is one that was constructed whilst in hospital in order to satisfy the doctors that he was not insane, and was therefore at liberty to leave the hospital. And in that sense the eclipse of the Narrator is a positive development within the story.

But this leaves me with a question. If the Narrator is dominated by social patterns, does this mean that all the things he says within ZMM – such as the comments about individual worth – are compromised? This would seem truly bizarre, in that the Narrator is clearly operating intellectually throughout the book (he is manipulating symbols). And just as clearly the Narrator is analysing society (think of overlooking the freeway and describing the expressions on the faces of drivers). So….?

I would tie this in with two elements, one relating to the story in ZMM, and one relating to metaphysics. In ZMM the Narrator chooses not to go up the mountain; that is, he chooses not to track to the source of a particular philosophical problem, presumably from fear that Phaedrus would then return. Whereas in Lila, Phaedrus has returned, and is content to ‘climb the mountain’, ie explore metaphysics. So you could say that the relative status of metaphysics has changed between the character of the Narrator in ZMM and the character of Phaedrus in Lila. The Narrator is very pragmatic – if it helps in daily life, it’s fine, otherwise forget it (reminds me of Wittgenstein: “What is the use of studying philosophy if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?”). Whereas Phaedrus is quite clearly not pragmatic, is quite unworldly in fact, and pursues the metaphysical questions with abandon. I can’t imagine the Narrator being quite so socially incompetent with respect to Lila, for example.

The second element relates to the differing status of Socrates, the founding father of metaphysics. In ZMM the Narrator describes his rediscovery of Phaedrus' intellectual explorations. The climax of this movement comes when Phaedrus realises that Socrates is, in fact, one of the bad guys: "Socrates had been one of Phaedrus' childhood heroes and it shocked and angered him to see this dialogue taking place.. Socrates is not using dialectic to understand rhetoric, he is using it to destroy it. Phaedrus' mind races on and on and then on further, seeing now at last a kind of evil thing, an evil deeply entrenched in himself, which pretends to try to understand love and beauty and truth and wisdom but whose real purpose is never to understand them, whose real purpose is always to usurp them and enthrone itself. Dialectic - the usurper. That is what he sees. The parvenu, muscling in on all that is Good and seeking to contain and control it. Evil."

The Narrator then goes on to describe what Plato does with regard to arete (excellence, aka individual worth): "Why destroy arete? And no sooner had he asked the question than the answer came to him. Plato hadn't tried to destroy arete. He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed Idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal Truth. He made arete the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself, in a synthesis of all that has gone before."

This is a rejection of traditional metaphysics, the history of western thought. The Narrator is objecting to the raising of dialectic over rhetoric – and it is THIS which underlies the maxim at the beginning of the book, ‘and what is good…’, because the point is that you don’t need a definition of the good in order to know what the good is. (Another echo from Wittgenstein: “It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn't satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.”)

But in Lila, the status of Socrates has been changed. Now he is once more the martyr to the independence of intellectual patterns from the social level, that ‘truth stands independently of social opinion’. Instead of being an instrument of evil, he has become an instrument of a higher evolutionary level, and therefore more moral than those who oppose him.

This is why I think there is a problem with the structure of the MoQ. In ZMM the Narrator quotes Kitto saying: “Arete implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies a contempt for efficiency – or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself”.

Yet Phaedrus – emblem of the intellectual level, fan of Socrates – is clearly a specialist, moreover an intellectual specialist, a master of the art of dialectic.

So what is the problem? The problem is the question that I began with: where does individual worth, arete, fit in with the MoQ? Or is it something to be left behind?

If Phaedrus is the emblem of the higher level, and that higher level is the realm of abstract thought, manipulation of symbols etc, and Socrates is the martyr to the independence of the intellectual level from the social level – is arete the social level? (That would seem to relapse into equating arete with virtue, which the Narrator unpicks as a mistake in ZMM). Yet if arete does not belong to the social level, how does it relate to the intellect? The argument of ZMM is that the intellect (dialectic) is the parvenu, overthrowing rhetoric which is the proper means for teaching Quality, the best, arete. Or is arete the equivalent of DQ, that which can’t be defined? Possibly – but clearly it can be taught, and there were settled ways of teaching it, through rhetoric, which are static patterns. So the question comes – what is the proper classification of those static patterns?

What lies behind all these questions is the notion of philosophical ascent, our pursuit of Quality. It has always seemed to me that the Narrator is a voice of wisdom, and he resembles Wittgenstein in many ways, whom I also revere as a deeply human guide. In terms of what I wish to pursue in my life, it is precisely that pursuit of Quality, the ‘wholeness of life’, which corresponds to arete, or individual worth, or (as I put it in my essay on the eudaimonia which I find to be of high Quality, both static and dynamic. Whereas the intellectualism of Phaedrus, and the construal of the fourth level as represented by that character, I find to be sterile, of little interest.

I suspect that Pirsig himself pursues a broad and rich understanding of arete. This is why he didn’t wish to be identified with Phaedrus, the character in Lila. Yet somehow, the structure of the MoQ has elevated dialectic above arete, and there is this consistent tendency, especially in MD, to glamorise Socrates, and to dismiss the social level as contemptible, which has always seemed profoundly unwise to me.

Is the arete that we are to pursue an intellectual one? No. Is it to be identified with DQ – partly, surely, but does that mean that there are no accumulated static latches that can be absorbed to gain insight and develop our individual worth? If so – what about ZMM itself?

Surely we are to pursue individual worth, precisely the ‘individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption’ that the Narrator praises, the ‘duty towards self’ which is the good translation of dharma, the ‘wholeness of life’ which Kitto refers to. That, it seems to me, is what the highest level of the MoQ should be about. Individual worth is not to be left behind, it is, in fact, right at the heart of all that has Quality. It just seems that the way the MoQ is dominantly interpreted pushes it to one side, in favour of dialectic and that parvenu called Socrates. We must return to the rhetoric of the Sophists.

Anyone who has reached this far and remains interested is referred to my essay called ‘The Eudaimonic MoQ’.

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