Kaspa writes: Did you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Looking around our new house I can’t see my copy on any of our bookshelves. I guess it is still living in the library in the Buddhist community where I used to live, alongside several other copies, from the copy with the 70s psychedelia on the front, to the copy with someone else’s hand written notes in the margin.
I was thinking of it today because I have been editing the new small stones anthology and thinking about what creates quality. A concept that Pirsig explores in his book in some depth.
The first time I read his book I was in my late teens or early twenties and I only really understood the narrative parts. I didn’t ride motorcycles (I still don’t), and had just started practicing Zen. I read the tracts on philosophy but couldn’t make sense of them. I remember at university a lecturer asked if any of us students had read it. I was the only one in the class who put up my hand – but I felt like a fraud – I couldn’t have told you what the book was about.
The second time I read the book I thought the whole thing was very good, and the third time I was less impressed. I remember making copious notes the fourth time I read it, in Delhi, and I’m wondering what a fifth reading might be like…
What has stayed with me is Pirsig’s insistence on the indefinability of quality and that quality is the “’knife-edge’ of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to us all” (thanks Wikipedia).
Pirsig’s philosophy seems to be that our experience of quality comes before thought, and resists analysis. Which is heartening (not), given that I’ve been trying to write about what makes a good, or quality, small stone in the introduction to the new book…
I had written about how culture moves forward inch by inch, each piece of writing or art building on or rebelling against what has gone before. T. S. Eliot imagines tradition like this – even if one is not consciously aware of the history of the tradition one is working in, it is absorbed somehow and the work happens within the context of that history. I was thinking that something good – something of quality – is a piece of work that brings something new to the picture: the creative spark that takes the work beyond cliché and pushes the edge of tradition forwards.
Then Fiona asked me about pieces of writing that we return to over and over again. I thought of the Shakespeare pieces I love and wondered how they fitted into my looking for that element of newness…
These timeless pieces poked a hole in my ideas, and in my introduction to the anthology. I don’t mind having holes poked in my ideas, it forced me to look again, and think a little more, and it brought to mind Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality.
I don’t want to say too much more here. I don’t want to spoil the introduction for you all, and I want to put this fresh impulse of thought into re-drafting that piece. But I’ll leave you with this question – is beauty ungraspable? Does quality resist definition? I suspect that we can go some way towards understanding and then – an element – an essence – always remains out of reach.
The old tree by ~jjjohn~