Monday, August 9, 2010

Sewing Up Pirsig: My Own Inquiry Into Values

VINCENT You don't be givin' Marsellus Wallace's new bride a foot massage.
JULES You don't think he overreacted?
VINCENT Antwan probably didn't expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction.
JULES It was a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing, I give my mother a foot massage.
VINCENT It's laying hands on Marsellus Wallace's new wife in a familiar way.  Is it as bad as eatin' her out -- no, but you're in the same fuckin' ballpark.
JULES Whoa...whoa...whoa...stop right there.  Eatin' a bitch out, and givin' a bitch a foot massage ain't even the same fuckin' thing.
VINCENT Not the same thing, the same ballpark.
JULES It ain't no ballpark either.  Look maybe your method of massage differs from mine, but touchin' his lady's feet, and stickin' your tongue in her holiest of holyies, ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same fuckin' sport.  Foot massages don't mean shit.
VINCENT Have you ever given a foot massage?
JULES Don't be tellin' me about foot massages -- I'm the fuckin' foot master.
VINCENT Given a lot of 'em?
JULES Shit yeah.  I got my technique down man, I don't tickle or nothin'.
VINCENT Have you ever given a guy a foot massage?
JULES Fuck you.
Clearly, there are different paths to approaching a subject. Often, they end up in competition with each other rather than in harmony. Robert Pirsig asserts that there are two basic understandings that encompass them all: classic and romantic.
 In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes, “A classical understanding  sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.”
 This explanation is the most basic that he gives, but there is more associated with it. What are the symptoms of classic and romantic understandings? Pirsig first elaborates on romantic: “[it] is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate . . . It does not proceed by reason or laws.”
 It is shallow. On the other extreme, classic “proceeds by reason and laws,” facts rather than feelings predominate, and it is primarily deconstructive, logical, and rational.
 It is deep.

In concept, these two approaches are mutually exclusive. However, in actuality they are connected, for they are manifested in relation to each other. Pirsig explores the connection in several passages, and he states it most succinctly in this reflection: “The difference is that the classic reality is primarily theoretic but has its own esthetics too. The romantic reality is primarily esthetic, but has its theory too. The theoretic and esthetic split is between components of a single world. The classic and romantic split is between two separate worlds.”
Since many of the ideals held by our society are based on dualism - good versus evil, men versus women, nature versus technology, etc. - Pirsig’s dichotomized approach is very relatable to our everyday experience. When Pirsig first mentioned this divide in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I immediately recalled the conversation between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. As that thought passed, I found myself reflecting on which approach I ascribe to. After I progressed to the next paragraph, however, my focus turned away from self-reflection and focused more on the conflict itself.   I saw that Pirsig was trying to tie the two concepts together, but as I read the book I found much more writing about separation rather than connection.  Finding the connection became my mission, and my book’s thickness increased with each Post-it note detailing a way to stitch up what Pirsig and Phaedrus had cut apart with their knife.
 As he writes, “Its [classical thinking] purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known,”
 my Post-it note refutes, “inspiration is a form of knowledge, providing clarity from the murky.” 

As I delve into reading course material - any course material - I approach it armed with Post-it notes and with analysis in mind. Stay objective and find a focus by which to write a grade-A paper. However, I was thrown a curve ball when I was given the actual assignment: a response paper driven by a thesis. What?!

When it comes to academic writing, I have been trained to keep personal response out of my thesis papers, and I have also been trained to keep theses out of my personal responses. According to my training, they are mutually exclusive and belong to completely different disciplines. I sat for hours doing free writes, but each time they turned out to be either literary analyses with no connection to my response to Pirsig or book reviews with no connection to driving a thesis. Finally, I went to my dad for advice and he put it simply, “just write about an ‘ah-ha’ moment you had while reading the book.” My inner response shouts, “this does not help me; personal response writing is shallow and emotional; whereas thesis writing is analytical and concerned with underlying form!”


Stitching up what Pirsig cut was not difficult, which seemed bizarre to me. Upon being assigned a paper, I realized it was because I had the benefit of having objective distance from his writing. I do not have the life experiences that informed his approach; as the reader, I float beside him in his journey, and I am not burdened by the baggage that comes with it as he does. However, I was asked to write a thesis-driven responsive paper in reaction to the book. Immediately, I was burdened by a load of baggage. In order to appreciate the complexity of Pirsig’s dilemma, I have to encounter it both objectively and intimately; cutting and sewing are both necessary to solve our mutual problem. Within the text, Pirsig has done the cutting; within the attached Post-it notes, I have done the sewing. However, in order to fully experience the mending process one must know how the sewing comes about. Hence, a paper.

Extremes exist because of each other; to be aware of something one needs to be aware of the opposite. Each of the dilemmas mentioned have two points on the same spectrum: classical and romantic are two points on the spectrum of thinking, just as thesis-driven and responsive are on the spectrum of writing, and just as foot massages and sex are on the spectrum of intimacy. Therein, in the most simple terms possible, are their connections.

Now that the connection has been established, it is necessary to understand how that connection comes about. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claims that it is because “to go further and further means to revert again.”
 Author Fung Yu-Lan explains this statement in his book, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy:
So far as human activities are concerned, the limit for the advancement of a man remains relative to his subjective feelings and objective circumstances. . . . If a student having just finished his textbook on physics, thinks that he knows all there is to know about science, he certainly cannot make further advancement in his learning, and will as certainly “revert back.”
This is apparent in the scene from Pulp Fiction previously mentioned. Jules was taking a very classic approach; he divided foot massage and sex. He cut the two apart based on mechanics and implications, foot massage is on the surface and more innocent whereas sex is deeper and more risque. However, he rationalized the issue so much that he neglected the bigger picture -- both actions are forms of intimacy. In neglecting that part, his perspective was shallow, and thus had become Pirsig’s definition of romantic.

How does this all relate back to writing a paper with both responsive and thesis-driven elements? The paper begins with giving an example of how Pirsig’s dilemma can present itself, followed by my understanding of what Pirsig’s dilemma is. Building upon my understanding, I document how society generally approaches the same issue and my immediate reaction to it. This is followed by being presented with my own dilemma: to unite my response with a thesis.  Upon finally realizing that my dilemma was another version of Pirsig’s I was able to formulate the following thesis:  “In order to appreciate the complexity of Pirsig’s dilemma, I have to encounter it both objectively and intimately; cutting and sewing are both necessary in order to solve our mutual problem.” This way I was able to argue a way to unite the dichotomy by providing evidence that it can be united: the nature of the dichotomy’s connection and how to follow that connection. According to the empirical rules of writing a thesis paper, the writer always needs a conclusion summarizing what the paper went over.

 Hence this paragraph, and the unification of responsive and thesis-driven writing.

My Name is Oedipus, and My Life Sucks

The Father: . . . one is born to life in many forms, in many shapes, as tree, or as stone, as water, as butterfly, or as woman. So one may also be born a character in a play. (Pirandello 217)

My name is Oedipus, and my life sucks.

I’m sure you’ve heard the most famous part of my story. Oh, Freud made sure that every amateur psychologist and lit major knew about it. Yep. According to him, I’m a “complex.” I’ve got a one up on Riff from West Side Story: I don’t just have a social disease, I am a social disease.

I’m the guy who killed my father then married my mother. Oh and that’s not all -- we had kids together. Then I gouged my eyes out with her dress pins after I found she had hung herself. Your lady Oprah whom you people today love so much would love to have me on her show. My life is a timeless tale of twistedness, and Sophocles made sure everyone remembered that when he wrote Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. I should have never sought him out.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering something: this guy is from ancient Greece, how does he know about 20th Century things like West Side Story and Oprah? Well, that’s the great thing about being a character: I’m immortal.

“That sounds great!” I bet you’re thinking. Well it’s not. I could call over Albus Dumbledore and he will back me up. (Yeah, I know him. Us characters tend to know each other because a lot of our existence is in people’s minds. Why do you think people dream about going bowling with as C-3PO, Gandalf, and Snow White?) Any person who has not been living under a rock for the last decade and a half will know that the man is a genius, so I’m sure you’ll listen to him. It was he after all who said, “the [Philosopher’s] Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all -- the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” (Rowling 297) I suppose, though, that the Philosopher’s Stone metaphor doesn’t work very well. Being a character only provides the Elixir of Life, not infinite gold. I get no royalties from productions of Oedpius Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, or any of the pop songs or snide comments in sitcoms made at my expense. Sophocles doesn’t even get anything because he’s dead -- and he died before the invention of copyright laws. I am a public domain character. But that’s beside the point.

Now why am I even bothering to express all this? Well it just so happens that I fell into the mind of a student who recently read Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of An Author. It made her think of me. God only knows why it did. But she thought of me, nonetheless. Having got that signal, I approached her so that she could give me the opportunity to rant, and she agreed to it. It’s pretty obvious that I need it. 

The Father: We want to live.
The Manager: [ironically] For Eternity?
The Father: No, sir, only for a moment . . . in you.

I realize that her documentation of my thoughts will not change much of my existence, as her writing will not reach a huge number of people. Unlike the six characters, my authorship is settled and I have books that solidify my story. I am already eternal, and I have moments of life on stage and in mind. In other words: I’m still going to live through my lovely cycle of murder, incest, and self-mutilation. But now I have a moment to live differently: to not speak in verse, to take a break from discovering what I had done and freaking out about it, to just lie back and reflect like a psych patient. (Freud would love that last part -- that bastard.) You have no idea what a relief it is to have a small outlet for these frustrations.

You may wonder why I bothered approaching Sophocles in the first place if I’m so unhappy with my situation. Frankly it’s hard to recall. Being stuck in that limbo of creation before being written into a play or book is a very confusing time. The Father in Six Characters rambles on a lot for a reason: when you’re in that limbo, your story is much more ambiguous and unsettled. It’s all there inside you, but you have no way to actually know it is real.

The Manager: And where is the “book”?
The Father: It is in us! . . . The drama is in us, and we are the drama. We are impatient to play it. Our inner passion drives us on to this.

Your reality seems illusory. You know you are there, and you know you have a story. The story burns inside you. But you have no words on the page to confirm it. You see no people reenacting it. There are no articles analyzing or criticizing you. There aren’t even any bastard “psychologists” naming social diseases after you. You don’t see any of yourself reflected anywhere. You may feel your swollen feet and the blood squirting out of your eyes, but nobody notices. If you look in a mirror, you don’t see anything. 

It’s nice to have left that part of my existence behind. I say “nice” though because life is not “good.” I don’t take it for granted, but I know life could be better. My reality has gone from illusory to elusive. I get some hints of it, but I don’t know where I belong. I exist on page. I exist in people’s minds. But my shadow only appears on stage. I am a part of your world, yet apart from it at the same time. I appear in it every so often, but I don’t get to interact or communicate outside my story. There is plenty to extrapolate from my story, mind you. Thousands of years of literary criticism and analysis have shown that. But everything that is said about me, in the end, goes back to my story. I am incomplete. 

To the source of the problem: my immortality. The Father in Six Characters sums it up nicely:

The Father: . . . he who has had the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of creation will die, but his creation does not die. And to live for ever, it does not need to have extraordinary gifts or to be able to work wonders. Who was Sancho Paza? Who was Don Abbondio? Yet they live eternally because -- live germs as they were -- they had such fortune to find a fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could raise and nourish them: make them live forever.

Please keep in mind that being a person who is immortal and a character who is immortal are two very different things. A person’s life is a continuing story: it begins with birth and ends with death. Or if you are an immortal person, at least your life constantly moves forward. You don’t have to repeat anything over again. You get to learn from your mistakes. When you wake up, you are in a new day. The moment you live is is fleeting. You are confronted with new things every day. Characters are much more finite. The events we live are made up of what we do in the stories that we appear in. In other words: I get to discover I killed my father and slept with my mother, have a nervous breakdown, and then go gouge out my eyes over and over again into infinity. It gets old.

Now here’s a place where I disagree with The Father. He claims that because we characters have a set, unchanging reality, we are more real. Let me tell you something: that’s crap. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but here is his justification:

The Father: . . . Our reality doesn’t change: it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed forever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow... who knows how?

This is where he reveals himself to not have his story written down yet -- he clearly has a bad case of “the grass is greener on the other side.” If you have been set as long as I have, and have witnessed the world change around your unchanging self for as long as I have, then you know that reality is not fixed. The Father only thinks that it should be because he’s waiting to have his reality set for him. Once the story is written and lives outside of him as well as inside of him, then he can settle in. But once he is settled for a certain period of time, he will see that reality itself, rather than a character’s reality, is constantly changing. That does not make it an illusion. That makes it dynamic. That makes it infinite. That makes it sublime. We characters have no ability to be dynamic unless we change somehow in our story. Even then, we return to what we were before when the story starts over again. No infinity or sublimity for us.

The Father is in denial. I can’t really blame the guy, though. He’s clearly pretty new to all this. The fact is: we are the illusion. We are only fragments of people. Any person can tell you that a person is made up of more than one stand-out event in his or her life. The Father admits this himself when he asks not to be judged for lusting after The Step-Daughter:

The Father: Then we perceive that all of us was not in that act, and that it would be an atrocious injustice to judge us by that action alone, as if all our existence were summed up in that one deed.

Once again, this is how I can tell that he has not has his story written down. There is so much more that goes in to what makes a person who they are. Frankly, I say that people can know that they are real because they change along with the world. In that sense, they are very constant. The fact that their lives are fleeting are what make them real. For characters, this is not so. After the story is written, a character’s existence is summed up in their deeds from that story. How else do you think I became a social disease? I have nothing else besides my story to identify myself. I am the guy who killed his father, married his mother, and gouged his eyes out. That is how the vast majority of the world knows me.

Why, then, would I seek out an author again? If being a character is so lousy, why would I seek to add more narrative crap on my plate? Well, that shows that there is some relief for us: sequels. Now, I will never propose that this vomit of thoughts would qualify as a sequel to Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. However, if we are able to add more to our story in some way, we can add to ourselves. As such, we can piece together new fragments of self and get a little closer to becoming a whole person. We will never get there, of course, but it is a relief for some people to think of me as more than just a social disease. Why else do you think Elphaba approached Gregory Maguire to write Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of the West? She wanted to be more than the evil green woman with a lust for shiny shoes who screeched, “Fly, my pretties! Fly!” and threatened little girls from Kansas and their puppies. Why do you think Harry Potter managed to get J. K. Rowling to write seven books about him? The more that our stories depict, the less lost we are.

So that was your glimpse into a life of a character. I’m not asking for pity like I do at the end Oedipus Rex. I’ve outgrown that. But please keep all this in mind when you encounter us in books, plays, movies, or pictures. Just know that we want to be more. And know that you can make us more.

My name is Oedipus, and now my life sucks a little less.