At 78, Robert Pirsig, probably the most widely read philosopher alive, can look back on many ideas of himself. There is the nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ of 170, trying to work out how to connect with his classmates in Minnesota. There is the young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism while helping the locals with their English. There is the radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat over a definition of 'quality'. There is the homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment designed to remove all traces of his past. There is the broken-down father trying to bond with his son on a road trip. There is the best-selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, offering solutions to the anxieties of a generation. And there is, for a good many years, the reclusive yachtsman, trying to steer a course away from cultish fame. 2006 The Guardian.
In starting this piece, I remembered the amazement I felt at meeting my classmate, Julio Tuma (who went on to do a PhD in the philosophy of biology), in the first week of graduate school in Hyde Park at The University of Chicago in the sweltering Midwestern heat. Julio was an ex banker, who didn't just ride an old motorcycle, but also repaired it. At the time I decided to interpret it as a kind of providential sign (except that I did not believe in providence) that I had made the right decision going to graduate school at Chicago in philosophy.* (My original, intention, thwarted by fateful comedy of life, had been to study game theory in international relations.)
Let me explain, by way of diversion: a few years ago, an excellent and philosophically subtle, mathematical economist confided to me in a letter that "it dawned on my yesterday that my (very little) knowledge of philosophy is heavily influenced by one of my favourite books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig."
In response I wrote (this is in 2013), I went to The university of Chicago, sent their by the enthusiasm of my English professor (Michael Fixler), who made me read Pirsig alongside Milton and Derrida (and a smattering of Shannon's information theory). Professional philosophers do not tend to admit to liking the book, although I did once write a blog-post about it in homage to Fixler (see here).
Fixler was a Milton expert, who showed more than a passing likeness to the main character of Bellow's Herzog (Fixler and Bellow met at Chicago so it's not impossible). Fixler's very fine book, Milton and the Kingdoms of God, got overshadowed by the more influential work of Christopher Hill and Stanley Fish. When I met him in the early 1990s, the frail Fixler, who had suffered a bad traffic accident a few years before, was obsessed with a species of structuralism. He was convinced that certain literary structures were not merely robust cultural features, but that they were embedded in biological features of our brain reinforced by constraints of information theory. After being drafted into a course on the metaphysical poets with him my junior year, I took the senior seminar (which turned into a directed reading course) on the afterlife of the fourfold ascent starting with the Phaedrus through Shannon. (I think the idea occurred to him in the mid 70s judging by this publication.) I have no idea what the course was called, but I do remember that Fixler was pleased I discovered the Four Quartets in preparing my term paper, and I always think of Fixler fondly when I stumble across further allusions to the Phaedrus and the fourfold (even when crossed out).
Fixler was not my introduction to Pirsig (although he did introduce me to Lila). I am pretty sure that I devoured Zen as a trusted companion while traveling alone (by train not motorcycle) in Sweden the Summer before I went to college.+ But by the time I met Fixler, I had taken enough undergraduate courses in philosophy to recognize that Pirsig was not taken seriously by professional philosophers -- unlike, say one of my other teen favorites, Doug Hofdstadter, who was clearly a buddy of Dennett --; I knew it was best to keep his influence on me quiet.
The fact that autobiographical narrator of Zen loathed professional/academic philosophers -- he creates a memorable portrait of a bullying professor (often taken to be the now, otherwise forgotten [although that's not entirely fair, but about that some other time more] Richard McKeon) at The University of Chicago, who generates acolytes who can parrot empty philosophical phrases -- did not deter me from being excited about going there. (I did not take up riding motorcycles, but did visit Bozeman on a road trip once!)
Because I do no have photographic memory, I adore re-reading books (recall David Heller's wisdom [here] and Zadie Smith's [here]; I love being surprised by new features in an otherwise familiar text. Even so, I do not re-read many except by teaching them. (This is compensated by another habit of reading books for the first time when I teach them.) The main reason for this is practical: time is limited, and the books I wish to read for the first time growing at a discontinuous rate. However, there are some books I do not re-read because they belong, like a time-stamp, to a particular period of my life (e.g., Sheltering Sky belongs to my teenage years; Anna Karenina and War & Peace are part of my year as an employed office worker 1994/5).
For a long time, I did not re-read Pirsig's Zen because I worried I could not engage it except as a critic. After all, odds were high that as a trained philosopher, I would find the book annoying. I worried that its musings on quality and truth would strike me as sophomoric; that my professional self would laugh at my teenage self for being taken in by Pirsig's (ahh) sophistry. But in writing these lines, I recognize a potentially, more cowardly truth: I did not need Pirsig to remind that there is a non-trivial connection between the post-Platonic institutionalization of philosophy and a a certain kind of aggression (Pirsig does not hide his fierce aggressiveness in encountering it) that moves the university based practice of philosophy inexorably away from excellence.