On Man’s Search for Meaning: Zen and the Art of Failure

I was reminded of the marvelous book of that title, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, although I only stumbled upon it by accident.  It has been some time since I read it, but I will find a copy and re-read it soon.

I Googled “human search for meaning” in trying to find the proper word to describe that pursuit.  I shy from calling it philosophy or religion, as I feel that those are contained within this search, but do not adequately define it.  At times like this I am also reminded of  the horrible, screeching brick of tripe Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (don’t buy it, don’t read it), by Robert M. Pirsig.  I thought it read like a guy who had too many ideas about the meaning of life and too little skill at expressing them went about to wrap a bunch of weighty lectures in a contrived novel and you know what?  I was right.

Here’s a little quote from EditorEric for which I now have great and newfound respect:

As a novel, Zen> is terrible. Virtually no narrative, cardboard characters, and generally incompetent writing. But, as the reader very quickly discovers, this really isn’t meant to be a piece of fiction in the traditional sense. Rather the novel form is used as an excuse to present philosophical ideas. Much as Plato presented his arguments through dialogues. Except Robert Pirsig’s argument in Zen is almost exclusively with himself. In every chapter the central character (himself) stops the story of his motorcycle trip through the American Midwest with his son, usually only after a page or so, to talk directly to the reader at great length about how he developed his philosophy of Quality.

So much for the book. Here’s another fellow doing for Pirsig himself, the big jackass:

Pirsig writes:

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious as our own.” (41–42)

Again, Pirsig mistakes the law of gravity for a thing. Of course the law of gravity could not have existed before there was anything because without matter then objects would not be attracted to each other because there would be no objects. If we define the “law of gravity” as a description of real-world phenomena, in the same way that the word “rock” is used to describe a slab of granite, then no, the law of gravity did not exist before Newton. However, if we describe the law of gravity as the attraction that objects, depending on weight, have for each other then of course it existed — just as sound waves came from the falling tree even if no ears were around to hear it.

I first read this book upon the oft-repeated recommendation of a very good friend, and I assure you it will be the last.  The book did not grab me in the beginning, and it did not get better as I went. It was a labor of loathe.  Instantly, I knew that the book was not actually a novel, was a series of sections of ham-fisted, mush-mouthed, hare-brained pompous lectures wrapped in a dubious and tiresome plot with no characters, a little scenery, then right back to the flipping chautauqua, which is apparently an Native American word for I am going to kill you if you don’t shut your god-damned mouth this instant.

Chautauqua is also apparently the name of a town in New York state (or somewhere just like it), which if it knows what is good for it will never grace my front bumper.

Hostile?  I’m just getting started.  This book is a tower of conceit, except made of horseshit.  This is a book written by a mental patient on the topic of quality.  It purports to be a book about a mental patient, a journey, and a relationship all to illustrate quality, except that even the author’s third-party Socratic self-references take a back seat to the incessant booming, that ceaseless pounding of waves of manure against the rocks of our own bespattered sanity, the unending chain of logical fallacies and linguistic substitutions which take the place of arguments in this awful, put you on the suicide watch list if you scan this at a bookstore, burn the book and rend your garment show up for work in a gorilla suit and an assault rifle climb a clock tower and BLOW THIS BOOK FULL OF HOLES before leaping to your sweet sweet release from the memory of having read the first page.

Then there’s the second page.

Here is a piece of a discussion on the Pirsig website where the debate is all pinheads, no angels.   Let this guy clear it up for you:

The negative tetralemma is a hard-nosed formulation of the inexpressibility of Dynamic Quality. An example would be its treatment of the proposition that “Dynamic Quality exists in time.”

“Dynamic Quality exists in time” should not be asserted.

“Dynamic Quality does not exist in time” should not be asserted.

“Dynamic Quality both does and does not exist in time” should not be asserted

“Dynamic Quality neither does nor does not exist in time” should not be asserted

The negative tetralemma is purely about what can’t be said about Dynamic Quality and, ultimately, nothing can be said. But even one who is aware of that may make mistakes. I think the fourth lemma is the most common mistake that even the most dedicated mystic may make but is avoided by a thoroughgoing application of the negative tetralemma. In this case the fourth lemma implies the independent existence of time to which Dynamic Quality can be propositionally related.

What is this moron smoking?  Dynamic Quality is one of the concepts (ahem) from the book.  It is one of two core concepts.  Except that this guy says that the one thing that is true is that you can’t talk about it, although some do, and it’s a mistake, which may be avoided by shutting up in general.  Oh, and time exists.  I don’t bring this up just to insult Pirsig and his incontinent followers, although I am thoroughly enjoying this, all red-faced and wrinkle-browed as I am, but this is the sort of nonsense which fills the book.  At least this, however, may be valid discourse in a more philosophy-jargon-enriched atmosphere; I have no idea and neither do you.  But in the wild, it’s gibberish.

Pirsig is in trouble when he does not hide behind jargon like this, and instead invents his own mumbo-jumbo which is also not true or meaningful, but suffers as well from the flaw of having been quite poorly thought out.  Nothing is orthogonal, no set of things can be cleanly divided into this subset and that.  A transcribed “Law of Gravity” is not in fact the same as the physical force (or space-time curvature) which hold things close to one another.  Whenever you hear an author prove that reality is all imaginary, walk on by, or you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself for what happens next.

It is a good thing that Pirsig was stunned into submission when he was presumably more  dangerous than when he wrote this book.    Jared Loughner is another of these very intelligent people who get all tripped up in langauge, composing syllogisms which prove things that are plainly not true, and then acting upon them


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