I remembered it this morning while I was in the shower. I must do a lot of thinking in the shower; that’s probably why I can never remember if I washed my hair. In the last web post – the one on Heroes – an Anonymous blogger gave a quote in support of Odysseus’ excellence. I knew when I read it that I knew it – but from where? I looked through Cahill and Hamilton, a friend’s Western Culture anthology; nothing. But this morning in the shower I remembered; Pirsig’s *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance*, page 341 to be exact.
It is only reasonable that Anonymous, as an A. P. English Teacher and bookstore loiterer, (both honorable occupations) would be familiar with Pirsig. I first heard of *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance* the second time I went to University. Pirsig was all the buzz in the College of Education, but I was too busy jumping through hoops to read. Besides I wasn’t interested in “Eastern Religions”.
It was not until after I had achieved my life’s dream and become a high school History teacher, that I was reminded of Zen and Motorcycles.
People often ask me why I chose to teach high school; after the “Those who can do, those who can’t teach, and those who can’t teach – teach teachers" joke, (the last “can’t teach, teach teachers” line is my own; crafted the hard way in years of Education classes and in-service training) I quip that I chose an occupation which allows me to get paid for reading and talking, my favorite things. I do not say more to most. Who could understand? It’s like explaining why one spends every summer at Boy Scout Camp.
Soon after I began teaching high school, one of my colleagues mentioned that *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”* was her favorite book. In those days I was in ah of high school teachers with more experienced than myself. I read the book, twice; cover to cover then back and again. I loved it, still do, and was eager to discuss the ideas of Classical and Romantic understanding, the absolute and the relative, with my “peer”. The first opportunity came and I charged in. I began with some pithy point, perhaps on Odysseus and Arête; her face was blank. I tried to broach Pirsig’s masterful analogy on the two types of motorcycle drivers; she had no clue. Then it became clear to me – she had never read her favorite book! What were we paying her for?????
Come to find out that Ms. _____’s experience with Pirsig was limited to an Education Class discussion on his experiment with teaching without standards. She did not even know that Pirsig comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t work. She lamented that we have to “grade our students”.
This was the second time a woman had done this to me. As a boy I had read *All Creatures Great and Small* so I could share the experience with an "aspiring veterinarian" who said she love the book. I soon found out she only loved the cover.
Since reading “Zen” (which, by the way, has very little to do with Eastern religion and every thing to do with Western thought), I have often contemplated – played out in my mind as if it were my own memory - the “seed crystal” moment in Pirsig’s book. It reads:
“Sara! Now it comes down! She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.
Seed crystal. A powerful fragment of memory comes back now. The laboratory. Organic chemistry. He [Pirsig’s former self called Phaedurs] was working with an extremely supersaturated solution when something similar had happened.
A supersaturated solution is one in which the saturation point, at which no more material will dissolve, has been exceeded. This can occur because the saturation point becomes higher as the temperature of the solution is increased. When you dissolve the material at a high temperature and then cool the solution, the material sometimes doesn’t crystallize out because the molecules don’t know how. They require something to get them started, a seed crystal, or a grain of dust or even a sudden scratch or tap on the surrounding glass.
He walked to the water tap to cool the solution but never got there. Before his eyes, as he walked, he saw a star on crystalline material in the solution appear and then grow suddenly and radiantly until it filled the entire vessel. He saw it grow. Where before was only clear liquid there was now a mass of solid; he could turn the vessel upside down and nothing would come out.
The one sentence “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students” was said to him, and within a matter of a few months, growing so fast you could almost see it grow, came an enormous, intricate, highly structured mass of thought, formed as if by magic.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, pgs 161-162)
The wonder and the maddness begins here. In a suite of crowed offices in some old Montana college. However, it isn’t until Pirsig's Aristotelian mind and his Romantic heart super saturate his soul; and then touched by Plato’s attack on the Sophists, his championing of Socrates; that Phaedrus has his epiphany. We read on:
“The halo around the heads of Plato and Socrates is now gone. [But only for a moment, only in the supersaturating heat of Pirsig’s mind.] He sees that they consistently are doing exactly that which they accuse the Sophists of doing – using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for the dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn most in others, he thought, that we most fear in ourselves. But why? Phaedurs wondered. Why destroy arête? And no sooner had he asked the question than the answer came to him. Plato hadn’t tried to destroy arête. He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed Idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal Truth. He made arête the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself, in a synthesis of all that had gone before.”
Then came madness!!!!
It is telling that Phaedurs (Pirsig) ignores Achilles in his discussion of Arête. He was looking in the wrong place for Quality.
He looked to the life of Odysseus, the phony all rounder, “seeking the safety of his home”, and missed Achilles, whose rage at injustice and sorrow at the murder of his friend, drove him to a sacred sacrifice.
In the modern myth, we have Superman – who will never lie and gives his “God like power” in the service of man. The choice is clear; will it be the eternal Good or shifting opinion hiding out at home, or is it in the Bat Cave.
6 months ago