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.

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