Yesterday I received a text from my wife Siva just after leaving my office: “Apparently Pirsig died today.”
I stopped in my tracks and noticed that the space created by sadness was filling up with joy. There was solidarity with the man himself, knowing his struggles with grief and mental afflictions. There was gratitude for the many hours of reflective inspiration, intellectual companionship and panoramic insight he offered. But above all I felt touched that Siva knew I would want to know.
We have known each other for almost twenty years now. In the very early stages she came to visit me in Edinburgh, on a train from Oxford. I saw her alighting with Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in her hand. She saw that I saw, with an expression of gentle exasperation that that I have never forgotten. The book is brilliant and singular, but it is not easy.
This is my 1989 edition of his first book which was published in 1974, three years before I was born. I first tried to read it while I was an undergraduate at Oxford, but despite studying Philosophy and doing well in exams I didn’t understand it. Later when I was travelling as a professional chess player I read it again and the confluence of lived experience, intellectual analysis and what he beautifully calls ‘lateral drift’ began to cohere. I ‘got it’.
Pirsig offers many ideas that are still relevant and resonant. The idea of ‘gumption traps’, the limitations of academic understanding, the indefinability of ‘quality’ and much more. His distinction between classical and romantic understanding — broadly how things work and how things feel— feels particularly pertinent because it speaks to the pervasiveness of technology that we don’t understand. There are connections to Matthew Crawford’s work on our need for an ‘attentional commons’ and some fertile overlaps with Iain McGilchrist’s emphasis on our two main forms of perception — discriminating focus and broader contextual awareness.
I read his second book, Lila, and also enjoyed it. I remember he presented a version of the great chain of being, and ended with a beautiful summary of what his ‘metaphysics of quality’ was about. For Pirsig, ‘quality’ is the fundamental feature of the world, and something beyond the subject/object distinction we tend to build our ideas of reality around. The following extract from right at the end of Pirsig’s second book captures the main idea; goodness, quality or value is something we can intuit directly when we unlearn our cultural conditioning:
…They were all walking down the road … when one of those raggedy nondescript dogs that call Indian reservations home came onto the road and walked pleasantly in front of them … [the woman] asked John ‘What kind of dog is that?’. John thought about it and said, ‘That’s a good dog.’… The woman …wanted to know what genetic, substantive pigeonhole of canine classification this object walking before them could be placed in. But John Wooden Leg never understood the question. He wasn’t joking when he said ‘That’s a good dog’. He probably thought she was worried the dog might bite her … John had distinguished the dog according to it’s Quality, rather than according to its substance. That indicated he considered Quality more important…
Good is a noun. That was it. That was what Phaedrus had been looking for. That was the homer, over the fence, that ended the ball game. Good as a noun rather than as an adjective is all the Metaphysics of Quality is about. Of course, the ultimate Quality isn’t a noun or an adjective or anything else definable, but if you had to reduce the whole Metaphysics of Quality to a single sentence, that would be it.
“That’s a good dog”. Whenever I see a dog, I think of the depth of that line.
Lila, however, didn’t have quite the same narrative charm as the first book. I think that’s because it was intellectually rather than existentially driven. It was ideas with a narrative tacked on rather than Pirsig working through ideas to make sense of the experiences he felt he needed to share with the reader. It was as if he had to write the first book, but merely chose to write the second.
In the year 2000 I joined an online Pirsig discussion group and used to pay £1 for 15 minutes to access the internet in a cafe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I was told to leave the online group because I was merely reading and wasn’t contributing enough! Curiously I remember feeling completely ok about that — social media was not yet a thing, so I didn’t feel the social effects at all — it was just something happening on a screen.
I kept coming back to his books, especially his first, and wrote out his quotations on large pieces of paper to stick to my wall. There’s one on page 104 that I still quote when speaking about Perspectiva’s relationship to systems:
The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
That point really matters! It’s a subtle claim, but it highlights why so much talk about systems change is frankly bogus. Until you can see that systems have emotions and epistemologies, there is little hope of really changing them. That’s partly why my new organisation Perspectiva refers to ‘systems, souls and society’ as a way of inviting everybody to the party.
One final thing to share to mark Pirsig’s death is a prior spiritual death he alludes to in the climax of the first book. You really need the intellectual and emotional build up to feel the full effect of it, but in chapter 20 there is a compellingly ambiguous description of an experience that sounds both like liberation and enlightenment but also a complete existential and emotional collapse:
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. 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 the slippage that Phædrus 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 of awareness began to grow and grow into in avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosening hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and then 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.
“It all gave way from under him”. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of reading that passage over and over — that darkly fascinating sense of a mind capable of writing about watching itself implode.
And what a mind, and what a contribution.
Farewell and thank you Robert Pirsig.
@Jonathan_Rowson is Founding Director of Perspectiva.