Books hung out with

The following are some books that I have read more times than I can remember. I list them in order of publication, though my first readings of them came in the opposite order:

  1. R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938);
  2. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944);
  3. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

I want to say some things about all of these books, and their writers. I intend especially to address the last book, which I shall call ZAMM. I shall not talk about Pirsig’s more recent book, Lila, except to recall the author’s habit, described therein, of keeping notes on slips of paper, then arranging and rearranging them, in hopes that he might finally produce a book out of them. The present article might be considered as a collection of such notes, not necessarily forming a coherent whole. There are more notes that I might add in future.

In high school, for the price of three dollars and thirty-three cents (plus tax), I bought the peculiar purple book in square format called Be Here Now. I suppose the title can be taken as a summation of the spiritual advice contained in the book. This advice is apparently derived mainly from Hinduism, though it is given to us by an American once called Richard Alpert, who spent a lot of time taking LSD with Timothy Leary. When I went to read Great Books at St John’s College in Santa Fe, I learned that the Director of Laboratories there had lived at a sort of monastery or commune, elsewhere in New Mexico, that had been supported by sales of Be Here Now.

The book ends with a list of recommended reading, though the list is headed with the warning, Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger. The list is divided into three sections:

  1. books to hang out with,
  2. books to visit with now and then,
  3. books it’s useful to have met.

The books to hang out with are thirty-five authors and teachers and scriptures. Those that I have on my own shelves are the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, and the poems of Hafiz. I have not really hung out with any of these, except maybe parts of the Bible and the Tao Te Ching (the latter in the 1972 translation of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, illustrated with Chinese calligraphy of the former on lovely spare nature photographs by the latter).

From Be Here Now‘s longer list of books to visit with now and then, I have read only some of the poetry of Rumi and William Blake, along with Hesse’s Siddhartha, Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, Reps’s Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and Thoreau’s Walden. From the final, longest section, of books it’s useful to have met, the works that I have read are a curious mix of mostly science fiction and St John’s College Program books, by Asimov, Bradbury, Castaneda, Dante, Descartes, Heinlein, Milton, Pascal, Plotinus, Plato, Saint-Exupéry, Salinger, and Tolkien.

The three books that I listed at the beginning are among the books that I have hung out with. Let me record here a flaw in my memory concerning one of them. Before checking the lists in Be Here Now, I thought I remembered that The Razor’s Edge was there somewhere, if only among the books it’s useful to have met. But it is not there. Since it seems to fit the theme of spiritual journeys, I wonder if its absence is due to ignorance or oversight. Possibly Maugham was judged to be a spiritual lightweight. But because on a web page I said The Razor’s Edge was one of my favorite books, I used to get emails from a fellow, calling himself the Wanderling, who claimed that Maugham’s character Larry Darrell had been based on his own (the Wanderling’s) mentor, and not a fellow called Guy Hague.

Some people never read a book more than once. Some people cannot even conceive of doing this. Jerry Seinfeld would appear to be one of them. In an early episode of his eponymous television series, Jerry ridicules George for wanting to retrieve some already-read books from the girlfriend with whom he has just broken up.

Presumably Seinfeld could conceive of watching a television show more than once. It is only because I have watched Seinfeld episodes more than once that I am able to recall and mention Jerry’s foolishness about books in the first place.

Recently I increased by one the unknown number of my readings of ZAMM. Earlier in this month of June, 2013, above the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the gorgeous hilltop setting of Ravello, where I was attending a mathematics conference, in the early mornings I would rise, sit outside, and either work on mathematics or read ZAMM.

photo of terrace in Ravello

ZAMM in the morning in Ravello

When in high school I found ZAMM on a library shelf, it was among travel books. It can also be classified as a novel, or as philosophy. Indeed, I think it provides a model for philosophical exposition, like the Dialogues of Plato.

In An Autobiography (1938), Collingwood observes that we are not going to be able to understand what a man means, just by studying his statements. We have to know what questions he is answering. Truth is a property, not of a proposition or a complex of propositions, but of a complex of questions and answers. ZAMM presents a theory of something called Quality, which is not exactly Plato’s Good. I am not sure how valuable the theory is (though others are). But Pirsig also shows us how he was driven to develop the theory. He gives us the questions he was trying to answer. He wonders why, when he was a teacher, he had the most fellow feeling for the students who were failing. He wonders why his motorcycling friend John is so appalled by the idea of shimming out the loose handlebar on his fancy BMW with a piece of beer can. This makes Pirsig’s book valuable.

Collingwood distinguishes between truth and rightness in a complex of questions and answers. He refers us to Book I of the Republic (333b). Socrates asks Polemarchus whether, in playing chess (that is, πεσσεία, as in pessary), he would rather have the assistance of a just man or a chess-player. Polemarchus says he would prefer the chess-player. This answer is not true, because it implicitly accepts the false assumption that justice and chess-playing are comparable skills. But Polemarchus’s answer is right, because it carries the dialogue forward and allows the false assumption to be discovered—by Collingwood at least, if not exactly by Polemarchus himself.

Such is Collingwood’s argument, as I understand it. It sounds as if Polemarchus’s answer is right in a literary sense. If Polemarchus had just pointed out the false assumption, he would have been telling the truth; but the reader might not have understood it so well, and so the answer would have been wrong for Plato’s purposes.

ZAMM comes with an Author’s Note, a disclaimer that reads,

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.

In Collingwood’s terminology, some parts or aspects of the book may not be true, but they are intended to be right.

Pirsig warns in ZAMM (ch. 9) about asking the wrong questions:

It is much better to enter a statement Solve Problem: Why doesn’t cycle work? which sounds dumb but is correct, than it is to enter a statement Solve problem: What is wrong with the electrical system? when you don’t absolutely know the trouble is in the electrical system. What you should state is Solve Problem: What is wrong with cycle? and then state as the first entry of Part Two: Hypothesis Number One: The trouble is in the electrical system. You think of as many hypotheses as you can, then you design experiments to test them to see which are true and which are false.

Pirsig is describing the scientific method. He will later have to face the problem of where hypotheses come from. Hypotheses are not just lying around, offering themselves up; or if they are, there are so many of them that it is not clear how one of them can be chosen to test first.

This is also a theme of Collingwood, who in The Principles of Art objects to the term sense-datum, because a datum is something given, and it is not at all clear that something sensed is simply given to us. In An Autobiography (pp. 25 f.) he complains:

The Oxford realists talked as if knowing were a simple intuiting or a simple apprehending of some reality […] This doctrine, which was rendered plausible by choosing as examples of knowledge statements like this is a red rose, my hand is resting on the table, where familiarity with the mental operations involved has bred not so much contempt as oblivion, was quite incompatible with what I had learned in my laboratory of historical thought. The questioning activity, as I called it, was not an activity of achieving compresence with, or apprehension of, something; it was one half (the other half being answering the question) of an act which in its totality was knowing.

Collingwood was an archeologist, but also, like Pirsig, a mechanic. Another passage from An Autobiography (pp. 31 f.) complements Pirsig’s above on the need to ask the right questions:

It must be understood that question and answer, as I conceived them, were strictly correlative. A proposition was not an answer, or at any rate could not be the right answer, to any question which might have been asked otherwise. A highly detailed and particularized proposition must be the answer, not to a vague and generalized question, but to a question as detailed and particularized as itself. For example, if my car will not go, I may spend an hour searching for the cause of its failure. If, during this hour, I take out number one plug, lay it on the engine, turn the starting-handle, and watch for a spark, my observation number one plug is all right is an answer not to the question, Why won’t my car go? but to the question, Is it because number one plug is not sparking that my car won’t go? Any one of the various experiments I make during the hour will be the finding of an answer to some such detailed and particular question.

Collingwood and Pirsig are not saying the same thing; but I think they are both showing that speculations about epistemology are not worth much if they do not consider difficult instances of coming to know.

There are three Pirsigs:

  1. the writer of ZAMM;
  2. his persona, the character of the novel whose activities are described in the first person;
  3. this character’s former self, called Phaedrus in the novel.

I believe we are to understand the persona’s thoughts about Quality as Pirsig’s own thoughts. This is a reason why ZAMM can be classified as philosophy. It is not a necessary reason though. A work of philosophy need not give us the author’s thoughts openly: Plato’s Dialogues would again be the classical example.

Pirsig works out his thoughts during a motorcyle trip from Minnesota to California. After the first night on the road, Pirsig tells us,

I’ve been awake since dawn. Chris is still sound asleep in the other bed. I started to roll over for more sleep but heard a rooster crowing and then became aware that we are on vacation and there is no point in sleeping.

I wonder how many people do not find this attitude bizarre or even inhuman. Pirsig wakes up his son Chris, and then his friends John and Sylvia, having told us, I’m afraid these other characters will sleep all day if I let them. So he gets them all on the road, on motorcycles, at six thirty in the morning, when the temperature is in the forties (Fahrenheit).

Only later does Pirsig remember that he has never been riding with John and Sylvia before one or two in the afternoon. Meanwhile he has told us how much he cares about—his gloves.

Pirsig has some issues in dealing with other people. This is a theme of the novel. I wonder to what extent Pirsig the author is aware of this theme. He may in fact be so aware that he has exaggerated his persona’s cluelessness.

A source of information about the real Pirsig is Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York & Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). I take from this the information that the real Sylvia did not like her portrayal in ZAMM. Myself, I do not see anything wrong with the book’s Sylvia. But there is a lot wrong with Pirsig.

I say this as somebody who agrees with Pirsig: There is no point wasting a beautiful morning by sleeping through it. This is why I would be up at dawn, reading ZAMM on a terrace in Ravello, looking out on the village of Scala on the hillside opposite. However, I did not drag my spouse out of bed for this.

I also read a bit of Thoreau’s Walden on that terrace. In fact this was going to be the only book I took on the trip to Italy. I usually travel with several books, even though I know there will be time for only a small fraction of their combined pages. I want to be ready to read what I feel like reading. Here I am inspired by Maugham’s 1931 story The Book-Bag. The story has thirty-five pages, but the first ten of these are a kind of preamble, in which the writer recalls (among other things) the three months he spent ill in Java, with nothing left to read but some French and German classics.

I have the greatest admiration for Racine [writes Maugham], but I admit that to read his plays one after the other requires a certain effort in a person who is suffering from colitis. Since then I have made a point of travelling with the largest sack made for carrying soiled linen and filling it to the brim with books to suit every possible occasion and every mood. It weighs a ton and strong porters reel under its weight. Custom-house officials look at it askance, but recoil from it with consternation when I give them my word that it contains nothing but books.

I had something like the latter experience, when passing through customs at the Ankara airport with large Rubbermaid Roughneck storage boxes. The boxes went unopened when it was explained that I was a professor, and the boxes held my books.

I had not exactly been travelling with the books, but only moving them from where I used to live. My travels are not so elaborate as Maugham’s, and I do not hire porters. I am willing to carry quite a few books in the external-frame backpack that I have had since eighth grade. But I do this only for bus or train trips within Turkey. For trips involving airplanes, the big pack seems too unwieldy.

I am aware that the words of the books that once filled Maugham’s bag will now fit on a small device that is as light as a feather. I possess such devices, flash drives, but did not take one to Italy. Actually reading the words on the flash drive would require another device, which however need not be much heavier than the drive itself.

In some sense of the word, I am still too materialistic to pursue the contemporary lightweight method of reading. I am already bothered that the paperback copy of ZAMM that I carried to Italy is not the same one that I bought in high school, around 1980. I lent that copy to a friend in 1997, but she lost it and replaced it with another used copy.

The replacement is not the same as the original. The words are the same, but the feel is different. This is actually a theme of ZAMM itself, as when Pirsig talks about the gloves I mentioned above.

I talked yesterday about caring, I care about these moldy old riding gloves. I smile at them flying through the breeze beside me because they have been there so many years and are so old and so tired and so rotten there is something kind of humorous about them. They have become filled with oil and sweat and dirt and spattered bugs and now when I set them down flat on a table, even when they’re not cold, they won’t stay flat. They’ve got a memory of their own. They cost only three dollars and have been restitched so many times it is getting impossible to repair them, yet I take a lot of time and pains to do it anyway because I can’t imagine any new pair taking their place. That is impractical, but practicality isn’t the whole thing with gloves or anything else.

Carrying books in lieu of an electronic reader is not very practical. But what bothers me more is that the creases on the cover and spine of my replacement paperback ZAMM have been put there not just by me, but also by some unknown former reader who was not moved to keep the book. And I am bothered that, in my friend’s view, the book I lent her was interchangeable with another copy.

Maybe this being bothered is a problem of mine. As I suggested, Pirsig’s problem is having better relations with inanimate objects than with the people around him, especially his own eleven-year-old son. In number 18 of the 32 chapters of ZAMM, after John and Sylvia have returned to Minnesota, Chris tells his father, I like camping with you better than with the Sutherlands. What does Pirsig say in reply? I’m happy to hear that; I like camping with you? No, he just says The circumstances are different.

Certainly I can appreciate the words of Pirsig through whatever medium is convenient. In fact I possess too the 25th-anniversary (1999) hardback edition of ZAMM. This is what I started reading at home, before switching to the lighter paperback when we set out for Italy. But the paperback is useful not only for its lightness. Its pagination is used in the Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.D., and Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.D. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990; I give the credentials of the authors as their book does). I used the guidebook to find the quoted passage on Pirsig’s gloves: it is listed under the “master motif” of care found in the guidebook’s Analytical Index. However, to find the exchange with Chris about camping, I had to leaf through ZAMM itself.

In preparing to fly to Italy, I wanted to travel light, and I thought Walden might be well suited to reading in the snatches of time available on a trip. I had read the first chapter of Thoreau’s book countless times, but the whole thing only once, in eighth grade. The book had been mentioned recently, at an international dinner party of mathematicians (the countries represented being Turkey, the US, Germany, and France). I may have been the one to bring Thoreau into the conversation, but I cannot recall why. I do recall that another American of the party felt free to opine about Thoreau, while admitting to not having read him. This put me in mind to read him again myself.

Before waking up everybody to be on the road by six thirty, Pirsig tells us that Walden is on the list of things taken on the trip. He will read the book slowly with Chris, a sentence or two at a time. Before leaving Istanbul for our own trip to Italy, I did not want to start reading Thoreau, but I did pick up Pirsig, if only to enjoy the pleasant opening scenes of marshes and redwing blackbirds in Minnesota. When it was time to go to the airport, I did not want to leave ZAMM behind.

Thoreau and Pirsig are loners. So are Maugham and Collingwood. In The Summing Up (1938), Maugham observes that he has never had requited love. In An Autobiography, Collingwood declines to discuss his love life, except to mention how his wife [the first of two] once annoyed him, albeit with justification on her part; but he says at one point (pp. 53 f.),

So far as my philosophical ideas were concerned, I was now cut off not only from the realist school to which most of my colleagues [at Oxford] belonged, but from every other school of thought in England, I might almost say in the world. This did not imply social isolation […] I used to meet a dozen or so of my colleagues every week in order to discuss a topic or a view propounded by one of us […] But these discussions serve no philosophical purpose.

Pirsig’s alter ego Phaedrus felt himself to be at war with the whole of Western civilization since Aristotle:

Aristotelian ethics, Aristotelian definitions, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian forms, Aristotelian substances, Aristotelian rhetoric, Aristotelian laughter…ha-ha, ha-ha.

And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them and the dust was buried under the rubble of declining Athens through its fall and Macedonia through its decline and fall. Through the decline and death of ancient Rome and Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire and the modern states—buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman [namely Phaedrus] centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done…

Pirsig himself, or at least his persona, is asked by his son what he thinks about all the time. Pirsig is detached.

As I continued reading Pirsig in Italy, I started taking notes. I noted points in common with Collingwood. A theme of both writers is the quest for unity, or reunification. For Collingwood, in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis (1924), the Renaissance was a loss of Medieval unity:

[M]edieval life was altogether governed by the idea of institutions. The individual counted for nothing except as a member of his guild, his church, his monastic order, his feudal hierarchy […] The medieval man acquiesced in his institutionalism because he had firm hold on a principle which we may call the unity of mind. No mental activity, for him, existed in its own right and for itself. Art was always working hand in hand with religion, religion hand in hand with philosophy […] This was in its way a happy state of things, especially by contrast with our modern world. But it was only possible by reason of what we have called the childishness of medieval man. Art, religion, and philosophy are not really the same thing […] In our own history we call this separation the Renaissance.

Pirsig’s concern is a more recent loss of unity: the alienation that has become impossible to ignore, now that technology has satisfied our gross material needs, but is used to churn out ugly garbage. However, as suggested in the quotation above, Pirsig (ch. 29) traces the problem to the Greeks,

whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is reasonable even when it isn’t any good. That was the root of the whole thing.

A more subtle theme of Pirsig’s is the reunification of himself with Phaedrus, his past self, a self that was supposedly destroyed by electroshock therapy.

Will Maugham fit in here? In The Razor’s Edge, his character counsels Isabel, who is distraught that her old love Larry is going to marry a worthless drunken slut who used to be a common friend of theirs. I say it is Maugham’s character, not persona, that counsels Isabel, because I do not think there are important differences between Maugham himself and the first person of the novel. With Maugham, everything is on the surface. There is not more than meets the eye. But what meets the eye is figures in the round: they are not flat, any more than a Rembrandt portrait is flat.

Maugham suggests to Isabel that Larry has succumbed to the same temptation as Christ, a temptation that Saint Matthew omitted from his account of Christ’s trials in the desert:

The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer […] I only wanted to suggest to you that self-sacrifice is a passion so overwhelming that beside it even lust and hunger are trifling […] When he sacrifices himself man for a moment is greater than God, for how can God, infinite and omnipotent, sacrifice himself? At best he can only sacrifice his only begotten son.

Elsewhere in the novel, as well as in stories such as Virtue (1931) and The Judgment Seat (1934), Maugham ridicules Puritanical self-sacrifice or self-restraint, even though this self-restraint might be considered reasonable in Pirsig’s sense above.

Collingwood questions Puritanism in the one book of his that I have not read [until later in 2013], except for the one chapter reprinted posthumously in Essays in Political Philosophy. The book is The First Mate’s Log, an account of a Mediterranean sailing trip with students. Being good Protestants, Collingwood’s companions condemn the wasted lives of the monks of the island of Santorini. Collingwood observes that the people of the island are proud of the monks and believe they do useful work; therefore there is no basis for condemnation. What is the point of travelling, says Collingwood, if one is not open to appreciating other ways of life besides one’s own?

Maugham’s travels are the inspiration for most of his work. ZAMM is a road novel. Pirsig’s earlier travels, to India as a student of Hindu philosophy and then to Korea as a soldier, are part of what put Zen in his title.

That is what I have to say for now. I originally thought of expanding here on the notes that I filled a little book with in Ravello. In fact I have used those notes only vaguely in what I have written above.


4 Trackbacks

  1. By The Tradition of Western Philosophy | Polytropy on September 10, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    […] The 1937 “Bulletin” of the College announced the New Program. Because of this Program, I chose to attend the College in 1983. Looking back from thirty years later, I would articulate my reason for attending the College as follows. I was living in a tradition, whether I liked it or not, and I wanted to know what it meant. I wanted to know what it really was. I thought the tradition needed questioning: here I was fired up by Robert Pirsig’s philosophical travel book, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. (I recently wrote about this book and others in another blog article, Books hung out with.) […]

  2. By NL VI: “Language,” again « Polytropy on March 31, 2014 at 11:33 am

    […] think of being in Ravello, Italy, last June, and hearing the chimes of the clock in Scala on the next hill over. I might not […]

  3. By Şirince 2014 « Polytropy on July 19, 2014 at 7:02 am

    […] twice. (The last time, last year, some nonmathematical reading turned into a blog article: Books hung out with.) Ravello sits on a hilltop, from which you can descend by stairs to the sea; but the stairs will […]

  4. By What I loath about Facebook « Polytropy on February 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    […] I was living in a tradition, whether I liked it or not, and I wanted to know what it meant. I wanted to know what it really was. I thought the tradition needed questioning: here I was fired up by Robert Pirsig’s philosophical travel book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Main­tenance. (I recently wrote about this book and others in another blog article, Books hung out with.) […]

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