Remembering Robert M. Pirsig

“Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88.” – New York Times

I’m not a philosopher, so I’ll leave it to the philosophers to put Pirsig’s philosophy of Quality into perspective. I never met Pirsig, so I’ll leave it to those who knew him to talk about what they talked about and what it meant to them.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Nonetheless, my memories were personal because–even though I didn’t subscribe to Pirsig’s passion for Quality (as he saw it)–I felt like all of his sentiments surrounding it were things I was then in the process of discovering; or, as the sages who believe we know everything before each earthly incarnation suggest, remembering.

As I looked out the windows at the landscape from my coach seat in the Empire Builder and saw Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana flying past, I had to smile because this was the route Pirsig took on his motorcycle. Except that he said seeing such sites through a car window was pretty much just more TV. The train window views weren’t real because I wasn’t inside those views.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

He believed the journey was more important than the destination. So did I. I still do. I loved the train, but I also preferred the experience from my motorcycle trip in the Rockies or perhaps from my 6,000 miles in an open-topped Triumph TR3. Mountain climbing and walking were even better. So, I believed that experience trumped books and sages and presumed logic.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

Today we’re even in more of a hurry. Perhaps TV dinners and instant coffee were the first omens of the world to come. Hurry up and wait: we said that in the navy. Now we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the waiting thanks to satellite TV and the Internet. By any real definition of the term, quality has suffered.

Pirsig’s work had a profound influence on my thinking. It still does. There was a time when my ideas were called “New Age.” I disliked the term because the ideas it included were very old, presented in today’s terms. One might say the same thing about many of Pirsig’s ideas; though he presented them in such a monumentally different way, they had more impact than the dusty manuscripts in the forgotten section of the library.

“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”

That sounds very parental, doesn’t it? So, I expect many of today’s young people would say, “hell that’s the kind of crap my father and grandfather tried to get me to swallow.” Perhaps they did, but you didn’t understand what they were talking about.

I used to work at a place where my sarcastic comment about the general work ethic was that “a half-assed job saves time.” Just get the work out the door. If it doesn’t last, it’s somebody else’s problem down the road.  I think a lot of places consider that work ethic to be the guiding force of business and industry and, hell, maybe even literature. If so, they need to get a copy if Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and repair themselves.

–Malcolm

How does your worldview influence your writing?

When you read a hard-as-nails police or espionage novel, do you wonder about the worldview of the author? Do you assume s/he’s politically conservative, possibly career law enforcement or military, and/or heavily interested in weapons, military strategy, law and order issues and personal and national security?

When you read a novel about people coming of age, discovering themselves in hero’s journey styled stories, or finding love among the ruins, do you wonder if the author is writing out of his or her own philosophy of life and “the big picture”? Do you assume s/he is politically liberal, possibly a teacher or a psychologist, and/or heavily interested in social programs, personal and religious freedom and a lifetime of learning?

I’m not sure we should make these assumptions. If we do, we might be surprised how often an author writes “against typecasting.”

worldviewOn the other hand, many of us write short stories and novels that are heavily influenced by our “philosophy of life” or our view of the universe and an individual’s place within it. When I read a page-turning espionage novel and marvel at the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics, I see quite clearly that I could never write such a book. I have no experience with military weapons and have never been drawn to study them, much less to form a clear picture about their technical differences or what it would be like to use them in a real world situation.

On the other hand, when I read a magical realism novel I assume that the author has an affinity for the magic and the stories generally associated with the time and place in which the story is set. A good researcher can find out what myths and legends might apply to a town or a region. But blending those into a story probably requires a sense of magic just as a spy novel often requires its author to have a sense of weapons and combat situations.

Perhaps somebody has written a doctoral dissertation or a definitive book about stories and the authors who tell them. Perhaps there’s research out there that shows the connections (or lack of connections) between authors’ books and authors’ political/philosophical/religious beliefs.

Personally, I see writing within–or somewhat within–one’s worldview as another way of writing what you know. Expediently, it’s a practical approach because in general terms, our worldview is our comfort zone. We know more about how situations within that view might unfold and how characters embracing our attacking that worldview might develop, react and think. Some (perhaps many) authors might refute this idea by showing how they have been a chameleon–so to speak–by writing books that contrast so greatly with each other that readers could only conclude that they have no worldview at all, have multiple worldviews, or changed their worldviews over time.

That said, perhaps my musings on this subject boil down to this opinion: If you’re an emerging writer, writing from within your worldview gives you a greater chance of “getting it right” than writing about characters and events you don’t grok in your daily life.

That’s my experience. What’s your experience?

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of fantasy (“The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande”), paranormal (“Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Cora’s Crossing), and magical realism (“Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Emily’s Stories,” “Willing Spirits”) novels and stories.