essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Right now I’m reading Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Morrow 1975, 1999), and watching all the episodes of Columbo (1970-78) I can get my hands on. Both these discoveries are works of the 1970s, and perhaps they have some special relevance for me. At any rate I am enjoying both of them a lot. What could they have in common?
Pursuit of quality
Let’s start with Zen and the motorbike. The book takes the form of an account of a trip the author made with his young son and two close friends, on bikes, from Minnesota to California in 1970. The bikes are important to both men, the author and his friend John Sutherland, because they perceive them in radically different ways, what Pirsig calls classical and romantic perceptions. It’s a point of non contact between them.
The two terms have a long history in philosophy. They are prominent in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and serve to denote for him a distinction between analytical, rational and balanced examination of reality (personified by Apollo) and intuitive, irrational, emotional responses (personified by Dionysios). Or order and chaos. For Pirsig the difference is between examination of function and form, between what we call analysis or technical expertise, and immediate realisation of the nature and even the texture of an experience, or cool. Or the proper way to approach a motorcycle, on the one hand, and the way of Zen, on the other.
This dichotomy, if that’s what it is, of ways of perception, goes right back to early Greek philosophy, to the distinction between being and becoming. Or substance and process. Are they a dichotomy, two separate things? Is Demokritos, who thought the world composed of atoms which could be measured, at odds with Heraklitos, who felt you couldn’t step into the same river twice? Are Nature and Nurture two different things? Has your personality been conditioned by your environment? Where does “you” start for purposes of examination? The trouble with analysis is that it’s part of a process, but often used as an end in itself. Analyse, and you end up between a rock and a hard place. Between religion and science, to take one example.
Pirsig thinks that both “classical” and “romantic” are ways of perception the human mind uses, and so can be obtained in one vision. He remembers a time in his past when he strove to do so through an examination, then a non examination, of the concept “quality”. The good. What’s the point of living if we don’t seek out the good? How do we know it when we find it? We just know it. Later Pirsig removes the value judgement “just” from that statement. His enquiry then was rigorous, not understood in the small college where he taught English composition, and led to dysfunction, electroshock therapy, and the removal of a schizophrenic personality he calls Phaedrus (Phaedrus is remembered from Plato’s Symposium, where he attempts to define “love”).
The enquiry into what fragments of the personality component “Phaedrus” Pirsig can remember, largely through his former enquiry into “quality”, or the good, stand for Pirsig’s attempt at integration, classical with romantic, analytical with intuitive, rational with dysfunctional mental process. He seeks, not a knowledge, but a way. Along with him on his trip he takes a copy of Walden , Thoreau’s 1854 classic, and reads it one sentence at a time to his son Chris, and then discusses that sentence with him. That’s how to read Walden, he thinks.
The how and the why
In the classic detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is excessively analytical when on a case. He both sees and observes, and when he has gathered enough data, he deducts. His procedure is contrasted with his police colleague Inspector Lestrade, who jumps to conclusions, arrests likely suspects and is motivated by perceptions formed by prejudice. Holmes’ friend Doctor Watson sees but doesn’t observe. He’s perceptive, but doesn’t remark the pertinent detail in what he sees. He doesn’t deduce, perhaps because he’s a doctor used to being directed by an account of his patients’ symptoms. Holmes distrusts emotion, and can seem machine like. Who else would bother to write a monograph on differences in cigar ash?
When I first saw Columbo I thought at first the detective must be derived from Lestrade. Here was a policeman who was absent minded and forgetful, badly dressed and dishevelled, indirect and confused, prone to thinking aloud. Obviously not a rational thinking machine. But he is! Columbo is a union of rational and intuitive, and that’s rare in detective fiction. Maigret is intuitive, Hecule Poiret is analytical. But is anyone really just one of these? Don’t we use both our intuition and our reason to find out about things? Columbo does. That makes him closer to a human being than most sleuths.
Detective fiction is a strange genre. It’s about police work, but really it’s about justice. The criminal is caught and must be and is, punished. But the police and legal system isn’t like that in reality. It preserves a separation of powers, in the interest of justice, that is also seen in government itself. Legislature is separate from executive, separate from the courts. In apprehending a criminal, the detective detects. He doesn’t judge. In court the lawyers present divergent ways of looking at the case. They don’t judge. Only after hearing what police have detected and what lawyers have presented does an official called a judge do what his name suggests, judge. At every stage there is right of objection and right of appeal. Even in the case of someone who commits a crime in front of witnesses this is true, and somehow it’s important.
This detective story concern with justice is post-Holmes. Holmes rarely dealt with criminal cases. He was more concerned with observational logic. But by the time of Columbo it was revolutionary for a detective to say, as he does, “I just detect, I don’t judge”. A whole genre of fast shooting PIs had come and gone, and the idea had gained ground that if you can’t convict them, it’s OK to shoot them. In other words, the crime story had come to be about the vendetta, about nailing the criminal, who deserved what he got. Jail, at the very least. Some policeman today seem to think it OK to shoot or intimidate suspects (specially blacks, Indians and Muslims). We read detective stories to satisfy our feelings of revenge.
Columbo is as deductive and analytical as Holmes. He can see that a match in an ashtray has been used to light a cigar, and then suspects those cigar smokers with a motive for the murder (and there’s only one). He sees there are no fingerprints on the gun but thinks it worthwhile checking the bullets unloaded from that gun. Why is there shoe polish shoulder height on the door? But the core of each movie is Columbo’s confrontation with the murderer. The movies start with the murder being committed, so we know the killer’s identity, and usually the motive. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes a revolting act of cruelty. Usually the criminal lays intricate and misleading clues which stop Columbo for a while. But he knows he’s being misled. Because he uses his intuition.
But finally comes the moment when Columbo knows the killer, and the killer knows he knows. It’s a standoff between the forces of law and order and the person who wants to take the law into their own hands. Slowly Columbo detects the classic proofs: motive, opportunity, means. Because the part of the killer was usually played by prominent actors who usually gave powerful performances, the standoff was often intensely dramatic. I remember an episode with William Shatner, another one with Ruth Gordon, for instance, that were quite memorable, tour de force acting on both parts, because Peter Falk always put in a superb performance. Columbo is both classical and romantic, and so achieves quality, to use Pirsig’s terms, and so does the show.
All in the mind folks
That’s what Spike Milligan of the Goons used to say, and it’s true. Or rather, as Pirsig notes, philosophers have disputed whether the world exists, with its comprehensible qualities, and can be defined by the mind, or whether the mind creates the world, which is unreal, by a process of imposing order on chaos. This is the same division into classical and romantic, but seen from the vantage of something called “reality”. Is reality real? Or an illusion? Do you expect to see what you see, or see what you expect?
Both Plato and Hegel needed dialectic because their method was analytical. To examine you have to dissect. This is the process we think of as “scientific”. When we apply analysis to art we are often forced to restrict our examination to technique, as the spiritual component of art, and of science, doesn’t lend itself very well to analysis. But, as in vivisection, we might comprehend, but are left with a corpse. In Plato’s case, the “ideals” existed somewhere undefined, solely so the “real” could be analysed. This was definitely a creation of Plato’s mind.
When Hegel saw a trio of processes, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, he was right, but looking at the process as though it were a substance. A dead body. Analysis is followed by synthesis, which is followed by integration, the art or soul of our activity. Many of the examples of this synthesis seem to come from Chinese or Japanese culture. It’s the way of a calligrapher in Chinese tradition, a master who can create a masterpiece in a second because he has spent his whole life getting ready for it. It’s like another tradition, in martial arts. The swordsman or the archer always hits his target exactly, not because he’s an expert, but because he’s spiritually aware. He is above life and death, and his enemies don’t matter to him. He has grace, and is part of the arrow and the target. He acts, not militarily but religiously.
To follow this further: it’s the mind that creates meaning. Meaning is a quality of mind. Even objective measurements such as time or space. Both are subjective. The space of creation of a solar system or a planet is not any space we know. The time on a fundamental journey, the one we all take through our mother’s womb and vaginal passage, is one we can’t conceive. We use analogues, metaphors, symbols. One of them is quality, or the good. And one component it has is to be both being and becoming, intuitive and rational. Only in the mind can unity be achieved, as it was achieved at our birth. We need, as Pirsig says, to achieve peace of mind.
Heart and soul
Pirsig rightly thought it profitless to deal in abstractions. Some scientists can have conversations in mathematics, but not the rest of us. Even so, we know that science, because it is exact, leads to anomalies. You can measure the speed of a subatomic particle in particle physics experiments, and you can observe it, but you can’t do both. At the heart of exactitude lies uncertainty. Is it reality that’s uncertain, or your brain?
For a lot of Pirsig’s book the motorbikes are important as a way of focusing his exploration on events and things of everyday life. It’s an exploration we all make, Pirsig thinks. We all seek the good. But we don’t deal in abstractions, but physical objects or short term goals. For Pirsig, his motorbike was poetry in motion, and he learnt how to keep it that way. For his friend John it was a tool, a convenience that gave him a valuable experience, and it was that experience John valued, not the tool. Why not have both these kinds of awareness at the same time?
The criminal gives himself away. It’s an axiom of crime fiction. Even though most murders in real life are not planned assassinations scattered with misleading clues to put the police off the scent, it’s still true that a crime is an illness, and is accompanied by aberrant behaviour. Usually the criminal is under confident, because they are lying. In Colombo’s case the criminals are overconfident, even arrogant. Confronted with a real bumbler, they condescend to him, even order him about. But I think if you were continually exposed to criminals, you could tell when something was wrong. Not what, but who. Columbo does. He always has too many clues, too many alibis. Most police officers don’t, but they can spot nervous liars. Columbo instead entertains us by unravelling the clues and reconstructing the crime.
Columbo always understands the crime, and the criminal. He’s part of the whole phenomenon of crime. He’s not just a fixer. Crime is like an infection of the social group, and Columbo is like a white corpuscle that negates the germ. His concern is the health of the body, but he doesn’t even think that way. He just does what he does. He detects. It’s because he’s integrated. He pays attention to both heart and soul.
If we do good to another, it’s part of that good to be estimated well by those we know. It’s even better to think well of ourselves afterwards. Best of all is to do what we do instinctively and find out later it was good for others. After doing that for a while we discover more of what the good really is. We need this more than we need saints.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.