Tuesday, November 02, 2004
me me me
So I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was reading 'Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. There are a load of reviews on Amazon that can fill you on the many angles this book covers, but the one I liked the most was the philosophical side.
Pirsig starts by noticing that there is a big difference between Eastern and Western modes of thought. The East expresses the fundamental metaphysical unity of the universe, while the Western philosophy is based on the separation of subject and object, as per Greek philosophy, giving us our rational scientific mindset and language.
The main idea of the book is the concept of 'Quality'. Bear with me now, this gets a bit tricky. Pirsig says that "Quality is a direct experience prior to intellectual abstractions... [it] is indivisible, undefinable and unknowable in the sense that there is a knower and a known...".
This leads to a re-evaluation of the way we look at the world. Pirsig's basic contention is that we ourselves impose the division of the world into subject and object. It is a division that does not really exist. What exists is Quality, from which we are undivided.
Now I'm not going to go into trying to explain what Pirsig perceives Quality to be. That's the subject of his second book, Lila, which I would like to read because I'm fascinated by this idea that objects and subjects are, outside our perception, undifferentiated. If objects and subjects are undifferentiated, then how does that effect the object that I call 'me'. Apparently I am not what I think I am. I am actually not a 'me' at all.
This sounds crazy of course. It's clear from looking at my hands tapping on this keyboard that there is something very differentiated about this lump of molecules. But on the other hand, the ideas feel good. So many of the world's problems are caused by our insistence on ourselves. You don't have to look as far as today's politics in America to see that. It is plainly right under our noses, at home, at work, in the street and on the roads.
What is it about that annoying colleague who is constantly trying to get a promotion? It's his ideas about himself, in relation to a social hierarchy. What is it that is so funny about comedies like 'The Office' or 'Little Britain'? It's their ridicule of people's ideas about themselves. Wherever there is an 'I am' or a 'we are', we see stupidity, we get conflict.
A bit more than 3 years back, I had a seriously difficult time. I'd previously been in Japan for 2 years and during that time I was very isolated for the most part of the day, free to wander in my mind. When I wasn't isolated, I was standing in front of classes of 14 year olds being paraded like a celebrity chimp, repeating Japanese stereotypes of English people as if I was a human tape recorder.
Experiencing this bizarre contrast of drudgery and local celebrity had an intense effect on my self-image, with my ego clinging to images of a successful future profession, and simultaneously lapping up the elevated status of privileged guest. Being so far from the normalising influences of home, and pushed further into fantasy by painful doses of daily prejudice, this cancer of conciousness grew beyond me.
While I was in Japan, this fantasy world could exist. When I got back to England though, reality made itself felt.
I can remember episodes of life's confrontation of this walking imaginary person, and I can remember the lies I told myself to protect the fantasies. I can remember life getting gradually more insistent, starting with gentle knocks and getting harder and harder, until finally the whole edifice of my life crumpled and I was left in a trembling personal void where I knew that nothing I thought about myself was true. A concealed layer of previously subconcious motivations had opened up before me.
Since that time I have been unravelling this layer, peeling it back to find other layers, following the trail and going deeper and deeper until... until this idea that 'my' life isn't quite what it seems. Here, what I am calling 'life' is what Pirsig calls 'Quality'. It's the best explanation I have found so far for what happened and where the remedy seems to be.
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