Robert Pirsig, you are PURE GOLD!

I found the second part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance nothing short of astounding in its messages and their implications. I have read quite a few things during my college education and throughout the rest of my life that I have found impactful, but very few have been as influential as Pirsig’s work. Do I agree with every point that Pirsig makes? Of course not. For example, I dislike the way he sets boundaries by grouping things in ways that I believe they do not need to be grouped. Nevertheless, his narrator unflinchingly brings a parade of complex subjects before readers in a volume I have never seen before. Whether I agree with him or not, he forces me to confront topics I usually avoid and to consider the validity of enduring assumptions. I like it. It also helps that many of the subjects discussed apply directly to the craft of writers, and nowhere is this application as direct as in his discussion of rhetoric and quality.

The narrator summarizes the thoughts Phaedrus had concerning rhetoric in a few sentences. He says, “The crushing teaching load was bad enough, but what for him was far worse was that he understood in his precise analytic way that the subject he was teaching was undoubtedly the most unprecise, unanalytic, amorphous area in the entire Church of Reason. That’s why he was thinking so hard. To a methodical, laboratory-trained mind, rhetoric is just completely hopeless. It’s like a huge Sargasso Sea of stagnated logic” (Pirsig 175-176).

First, the sheer power of these lines must be acknowledged. The description is powerful and followed by one of the best metaphors I have ever encountered. The narrator compares rhetoric to the only sea without a land border; its borders are instead formed by dynamic boundary currents. However, the sea also sustains a great variety of life forms. Rhetoric is just as undefined and significant. That is why I share many of the views of Phaedrus and the narrator concerning rhetoric. I think it is amorphous and always changing. No two writers respond to a rhetorical situation in exactly the same way, and no two situations are exactly alike. There is no equation to memorize when it comes to rhetoric. Just as the narrator’s words suggest, all I can do as a writer is use my experience to determine which of the endless number of rhetorical strategies to use in a given situation. However, I differ slightly with the narrator in thoughts on analytics and precision. Without careful (though often rapid) analysis, how can someone employing rhetoric determine an effective strategy to follow in the rhetorical situation ahead? I think a writer or speaker must also be careful to present a powerful and precise rhetorical argument or his chances of being persuasive diminish rapidly. Without the narrator’s prompting, however, I would not be forced to describe the source of our conflicting views. I learn from the narrator even while disagreeing with him.

I think the narrator’s discussion of quality in writing is just as thought provoking. He says, “Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about” (Pirsig 184). He follows up these observations by asking the question that so often circulates in my mind when I think of quality. He asks, “What the hell is quality? What is it?” (Pirsig 184)

Ah, one of the unanswerable questions of writing. What is quality? Sometimes I think I have found an element of writing that makes some of it superior, such as ample citing in academic papers. Then, I promptly find an example of writing that contradicts my earlier thoughts about quality. In this case, it could be a paper that uses about the same amount of sourcing but seems to grossly overwhelm readers. I feel as impotent while attempting to define quality writing as Justice Stewart was in the famous pornography case of Jacobellis v. Ohio when he could not come up with a definition for pornography and therefore was forced to find an alternative method to explain his feelings. He said, “I know it when I see it.” When evaluating literature, I think I know quality when I see it. However, I am about as near to discovering a theory of universal writing quality as the narrator. Like rhetoric, writing quality standards are amorphous and shifting. What is beautiful and of great quality in one context can be inappropriate and disastrous in another.

These short examinations of rhetoric and quality only serve as abbreviated versions of what is offered by Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a veritable mine of information about philosophy, writing, science, rhetoric, and more. Sometimes Pirsig and his narrator offer answers, but more often than not they leave their audience with questions. That is why I think Robert Pirsig is pure gold. Even while registering his confusion about rhetoric and writing quality, he produces a work of art that brings questions to mind and focuses to bear. As a reader, I do not feel as though I could ask for more.


One thought on “Robert Pirsig, you are PURE GOLD!

  1. Carla Hutson says:

    I also thought the narrator’s analogy concerning rhetoric was pretty great–it’s a very good description about how I feel about it. I think it’s the science-y part of me coming out, but it drives me nuts because I still can’t put a finger on what the thing actually is. In some ways it is similar to the rabbit hole I fall into with quality–I know what it is when I see it, but please don’t ask me why.

    That said, I admire how the narrator struggles with these questions, but still continues to think about them (although this seems to be leading cause to his breakdown). Rhetoric in some ways seems to be a measure of quality…..but we don’t have a definitive definition (ha, slightly redundant) for rhetoric, so it makes finding one for quality also impossible. Although I wonder if we really actually need to have a cut-and-dried definition of what is ‘quality’. After all, we use ‘quantitative’ to describe hard data, and ‘qualitative’ to describe observational data. And both are considered equally valid (although certain fields favor one over the other). If we view quality and rhetoric as qualitative observations and conclusions, can we come to any conclusions working within a more fluid definition?

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