I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig when I was in college. At the time, it had a big impact of my thinking. I think that, even today, I'm able to see solutions to problems that others get hung up on because of attitudes I found in this book. In a key scene, a friend's handle bars are slipping and the author offers to shim them tight with a sliver of old beer can. The friend is appalled; he's driving an expensive motorcycle, and the author is proposing to "fix" it with a piece of discarded trash. The key lesson of the scene is not to get hung up on the labels attached to things, but to look beyond to see the underlying forms and functions. His friend saw a piece of trash, but the discarded beer can was actually a sheet of thin aluminum, oxidized to resist further corrosion, of exactly the right thickness, and soft enough to be cut to the right shape with a pocket knife. It was the perfect solution, once you could see the thing for what it was, not merely as what it was called.
I've had plenty of chances to put this way of looking at things to the test. Once, my radiator hose burst right where it joined with the radiator. I had no tools but a screwdriver, and this was in the days before cell phones, and I was fifty miles from the nearest person I knew.
Fortunately, there was a broken beer bottle on the side of the road. And, one inch down, the radiator hose was still intact. It was only where it clamped on that it had ruptured. So, I used the broken bottle to cut off the last inch of busted hose, used the screwdriver to clamp it back on, filled up the radiator with water I was lucky enough to have on hand and drove back home.
At work, I'm well known as a troubleshooter, willing to try new things, to see outside the "correct" channels of doing stuff in order to see the path that will actually get the job done. I don't know that the book gets full credit for this. I had a tinkering nature even from childhood. But, Zen and the Art did resonate with me, made me feel that my way of looking at the world was worth nurturing.
The last few weeks, I've been rereading the book. Alas, from my perspective as a 50 year old, the philosophy no longer looks quite as clever as it did when I was 20. In the book, the narrator argues that quality is the primary generator of reality, existing both outside the object and the observer. He states that quality can't be defined, but everyone knows what it is, at least if they have eyes to see it. He laments that too often we get fooled into thinking that style is quality. Cars are built with attractive curves and fancy features, but are mechanically lemons, for instance. He goes on to argue that quality can't be defined because it's all encompassing. It's almost like God. Any attempt to describe it must by definition fail, since the concept is just to big and omnipresent to ever be contained in mere words.
To quote Orwell, some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.
Pirsig's failure to define quality is based mainly on his unwillingness to accept that quality is completely subjective. Also, while insisting quality can't be defined, he continually attempts to define it as one big concept that covers everything.
He completely overlooks the following possibilities.
First, there is no universal standard of quality that applies equally to writing, motorcycles, and architecture. The things that make a book good have pretty much nothing to do with what makes a good hamburger. Instead of a universal ideal, we have a zillion ideals based on the things being judged.
Second, Pirsig rejects the notion that quality is purely subjective. As evidence, he has his class judge writing samples. As a group, they tend to agree on which writing samples are best. He takes this as evidence that there's a universal standard they're keyed into, even if they can't define it.
He overlooks that he's in a class of people very close in age, ethnicity, and educational background. He's teaching a college class, after all. By the time this class has got to him, they've had years to be taught what's good writing and what's bad writing. The class is also connected by the culture of their era. Pirsig is a child of the 50s, and uses quite a bit of "beat" vocabulary, like calling some people "square." While he doesn't state it, he probably admires the writing of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Indeed, he's writing a novel about being On the Road, full of observations about the people and towns he sees. It's difficult for me not to think that he didn't regard Jack Kerouac's writing as being high in quality. But, if so, I think he's mistaking quality for fashion. Kerouac's writing had its moment, but if the same novel first appeared today, would it have any kind of cultural impact at all? The good writing of 1950 isn't quite like the good writing of 1850, and the writing of 2150 will be judged by factors we can't even guess at. Quality changes with cultural context.
Think of food. I ate lunch at a Thai restaurant today. The primary condiment of Thai cuisine is a fermented fish sauce. To most American tongues, the stuff is foul. Who the hell wants to eat the run off juice of fermented fish? Or think about kim chi in Korean cooking. It's spoiled cabbage spiced to the point that many people find it inedible. Yet, in their own cultures, in the right context, these foods are of the highest quality.
Does that mean that quality is completely subjective? Not necessarily. From an evolutionary perspective, we probably all have built in receptors to find certain things attractive. Most of us like fatty, sweet foods because they are high in calories. In today's world of abundance, this leads to obesity, but in our ancestors world of scarcity these taste receptors helped us survive. Similarly, while our distant ancestors weren't expressing themselves as much in writing as we do today, I'm guessing there was a sexual selection bias that made people who could express themselves clearly and confidently attractive to the opposite sex. A gift for eloquence was a clue that the mate had good intelligence and could pass on good genes. That's why us writers get all the action.
My point is that there can be underlying biological urges driving us toward finding certain objects, actions, and appearances pleasing. These get overlaid with culture; if your Dad liked country music, you have a better chance of liking country music. If he listened to opera, you have better odds of liking opera. What's considered quality varies from socio-economic class and geography. At the risk of stereotyping my own state, many men from my neck of the woods and from my economic strata probably find NASCAR racing to be an art form. Give them tickets to a Broadway musical, however, and they'd feel a deep, deep dread at the thought that they might actually have to go.
Back to Zen: Strip away this core concept of universal quality, and it would seem like the book should fall apart. It doesn't. It's still an excellent narrative about a long road trip, and a touching story about a father trying to save his son from mental illness.
That's one of the weird things about quality literature. It doesn't have to make a damn bit of sense to still be good.