Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Zen and the Art of Publishing

- For my brother, Marek.

Marek passed me his copy of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), which has absorbed me fully over the past two weeks. On the cover, it says 'This book will change the way you think and feel about your life' - rather a massive claim to make. And yet this is one of those influential books that did indeed change - directly or indirectly - the thinking of an entire generation.

The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius - the New Age - an age that rejects both the rational/ technological and the irrationality of established belief systems - is only hinted to in the book. As my brother said, its flavour is bow-ties, crew-cuts and plaid sports coats rather than long hair, bell-bottom jeans and embroidered kaftans. Written in 1968, eventually published in 1974, there's no mention of the Vietnam War, pop culture, love-ins, be-ins or psychedelia.

This is a book about ideas. It is a road novel, interspersed by lectures about Ancient Greek philosophy, and how it has impinged upon the way Modern Man sees the world. Important concepts are mulled over; the split between Romantic and Classic, the logos and the mythos, moving inexorably from Dualism ('the mind and the body are separate') to the Monism (or holism - we are all One, the universe is One) of the New Age. Pirsig seeks that oneness through an exploration of the concept of 'quality', a search that had once driven him mad.

For this is also a book about mental illness.

Robert M. Pirsig was a boy genius, whose IQ of 170 got him into university at the age of 15. Of course he didn't fit in; today, he'd be described as a savant with high-functioning autism. Then, at the age of 20 he enlisted in the US Army, to serve in Korea (two years before the war broke out there). This exposed him to Eastern philosophy, an entirely new way of seeing the world. He studied in India, then went back to college in America, lectured, got married, had two sons - and a major mental breakdown that ended up with him receiving electroconvulsive shock therapy. Part of his brain was destroyed. Was he 'cured'? We know little more about the human brain today than we did in the 1960s, but even that's far more that was known then.

The book is set in 1968; Pirsig, his son Chris (then 11) and family friends, the Sutherlands, set off for a cross-country motorbike ride from Minnesota to Montana. There, the Sutherlands return home, while Robert and Chris stay on in Montana with Pirsig's friends from college days; after a hike in the mountains, Robert and Chris ride off towards San Francisco. All the while, Pirsig is reliving his pre-breakdown life, referring to his past self in the third person as 'Phaedrus', and analysing the way American universities teach.



Pre-digital, pre-smartphone, pre-social media apps, Pirsig's world seems technologically innocent. The cross-country ride is punctuated by meditations upon the maintenance of his motorcycle, and his friend John's lack of maintenance thereof. Whether it be 'motorcycle', 'automobile', 'lawnmower' or 'dishwasher', we are surrounded by things that need Maintenance. Although of course, the less Maintenance required the better. It's not an activity we like doing...

Pirsig's approach is analytical, analysing not only the object that needs maintenance, but the subject - and what you need to get it done - gumption. He identifies the 'gumption traps' - the things that stop us from getting a maintenance job done, be it internal (mood, adverse reaction to setbacks) or external (lack of the right tool) etc.

Yet since the 1960s, the things that surround us require less and less maintenance. Take the internal combustion engine. The change from carburetor to fuel injection means that instead of one, simple, yet prone to misfunction, yet easy-to-fix carburetor, we have the far more reliable yet impossible to fix fuel injector. Should it break, replace. Several of the mechanical problems encountered on Pirsig's route were carburetor-related; these days should your fuel injector break - you're stuffed - but the chances of this happening are thousands of times more remote than the likelihood of a carburetor malfunction. Since the automotive industry makes hundreds of millions units a year, the price of a fuel injector is lower than the cost of a mechanic's time to fix it. And Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Kaizen and other manufacturing practices ensure that hardly any faulty components leave the factory. The competitive market means that year on year, the need for maintenance of the technology that surrounds us is far less than it was just 40 years ago. [Incidentally, Polish lacks a good word for 'maintenance'... 'konserwacja'? Konserwuje się ogórki...]

Pirsig, steeped in Eastern as well as Western philosophical tradition, is in pursuit of 'quality' as a value, as the value; from zen to the Greek concept of Arete, he is looking for wholeness, oneness, unity. The book's title is a reference to Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, which contends that bow, bow-string, arrow, archer and target must be one. Pirsig by analogy contends that motorcycle and rider must be one. For this to be, the rider must be in tune with his machine, sensing its foibles and early symptoms of an impending breakdown.

Pirsig's observations of academic life in American universities in the 1960s - before the liberals got hold of the educational establishment and swung the pendulum the other way - offers extremely good insights. Universities taught you to imitate, he wrote, not to innovate. Certainly this is no longer the case in the best US universities today, where the great inventions tend to flow from. And this passage - about the writings of a certain professor at the University of Chicago - still rings true when Polish professors are considered today... "one of the most ambiguous, inscrutable writing styles [I] had ever read. Here were encyclopaedic sentences that left subject and predicate completely out of shouting distance of one another. Parenthetic elements were inexplicably inserted within other parenthetic sentences, equally unexplainably inserted into sentences whose relevance to the preceding sentence in the reader's mind was dead and buried and decayed long before the arrival of the [full stop]". Remember, this is America half a century ago - things have moved on.

Why the title of this post? Well, there's little doubt that Robert Pirsig wrote a hugely influential book. Yet it's in the Guinness Book of Records as the book that was rejected by the highest number of publishers (121 in total), before going on to being a best-seller, with more than five million copies sold. JK Rawlings' 12 rejections before Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published by Bloomsbury look like a trivial setback in comparison. And then there was John Kennedy Toole, who wrote one of the funniest American novels of the 20th Century - A Confederacy of Dunces, which was also rejected by publishers, leading to the author's suicide. In the end, his mother, verging on insanity, obsessively touted his manuscript around until a publisher finally recognised its genius - and got the Pulitzer-prize winning novel published in 1980.

When reading ZAMM, I can from time to time see why 121 publishers rejected it. The book often rambles, goes off on tangents, is incredibly self-indulgent and introspective; it's no great travelogue (Pirsig's descriptions of America, as seen through the eyes of a witness suffering from depressive episodes, does not make me want to re-trace his route - all seems dull, tired, listless, lonely). But its not the travel writing that makes the book great - it is about ideas, it is about thinking, it is about the way you, me, them, everybody - perceive our lives.

Pirsig's unique voice bridges reductionist, classicist Science and subjective, romantic Art and shows us a mind striving for unity. For the time it was written, ZAMM was a magnificently significant and paradigm-changing book. I remember it being passed around our sixth-form common room by the brighter boys in my year - I doubt they took away from it too much at that reading. But reading it today, I can appreciate its place in the Canon of Cult Books, along with Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and of course John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.

Thinking about those publisher rejections, I can't help wondering how many works of similar greatness lie unpublished because the author did not have the gumption to carry on submitting their work after being turned down time and again.

This time last year:
On being rich in Poland

This time two years ago:
Wrocław, another Polish city of neon

This time three years ago:
Ronald Reagan remembered

This time four years ago:
Accident of birth

This time five years ago:
Under the Liberator

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki on old maps

4 comments:

AndrzejK said...

Re last paragraph thank goodness for self publishing on the internet.

I also recently re read ZAMM and interestingly I recall the travel bits as well as the motorcycle maintenance elements (and the unity of rider and machine) the other philosophical bits I do not recall at all.

In terms of knowledge of the workings of the brain in fact knowledge has increased exponentially thanks to MRI scans etc. It is beceoming more and more clear how much of the workings of the brain and much of mental health is now recognised as being chemical and electrical based rather than the old "lack of character" bias. Not that treatment is as yet much better as the pharmacological solutions are still rather blunt instruments. However thank goodness that lobotomy and EST belong to a distant past and that the brains ability to self generate dopamine and serotonin for example are much better understood.

meika said...

I read it as a 19 year old 30 years ago. Might have to go back and re-read. I have an electronic copy somewhere...

Gave the original away.

I read it shortly after reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter and its chapter prefacing dialogues heavily influenced my reading of Phaedrus.

And then I dropped out of Uni.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ AndrzejK: Amazing to think how much more we'll know about the brain in another 40 years. We could still be around to benefit from the advances in knowledge!

@meika: Godel, Escher, Bach - another cult classic (in most lists of cult classics along with ZAMM and the others I listed).

Anonymous said...

BBC Radio recently did an adaptation of ZAMM which was actually rather good. It caused all kind of deep meditative interpretations and reactions in the listener; internal conversations that opened infinite doors - you have articulated the essence of this great book here on your blog.

I also concur with your Pynchon and Bulgakov. They radiate a deep thoughtful and philsophical grandeur and elusive mastery.

Frater Concordius Outlier III