Beyond the Observable World

The world is full of both horrors and beauties. Dillard explores both in relatively equal measure. For example, the narrator describes how the conenose bug “bites the lips of sleeping people, sucking blood and injecting an excruciating toxin” (Dillard 235). Such descriptions obtain pretty high scores on my personal undesirability scale. Beauty, however, is just as natural as horror, as shown through the narrator’s experience with and continual references to a specific tree. She says, “I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water” (Dillard 34).

In her afterward, Dillard explains these differing views as representing two ways to God. There is the via positiva, which stresses that God possesses all positive attributes. Then, there is the via negativa, which stresses the unknowability of God and does not focus on only the good (Dillard 279). As a religious individual, I would agree that it is not possible for mortals to fully understand the ways of God. However, I want to go further; I want to talk about the questions that extend beyond the horrors and beauty of our observable, mortal world and talk about how they matter in writing.

The narrator explains that “Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac” (Dillard 275). A person who clings to the world as a thing to be measured and believes in only what he sees would indeed find this focus on the spiritual foolish. He may ask what the spiritual matters when there is death, suffering, despair, and hopelessness all around. “Fix this,” he may say to God, “and I might consider following you. Otherwise, you can’t be fair or humane or love everyone. Otherwise, you are nothing to me.”

I have met a staggering number of people who think in this way, but it is just this variety of spiritual bankruptcy that religion counteracts. When you see mortal life as a lesser stage of existence, you may recognize that God deals in spiritual fulfillment that matters after death as well as in life. Faith is about recognizing that you don’t necessarily have to see in order to believe. It tells us that we must act to make the world a place more aligned with God’s will because these actions will help all of us reach a higher plain of being than exists within the coils of horror and beauty encircling the mortal world. Recognize that both horror and beauty exist, and then do what you can to create more beauty and less horror. As a popular prayer goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The same spiritual nature that matters in life is also important in many kinds of writing. Of course, it’s of little use in dictionaries, recipes, and other texts that do not include humans as actors. When humans are part of a text, however, things other than the visible and entirely understandable matter. Interactions beyond the physical matter. When I read, I don’t just want to know that one character traded with another because it was useful and helped them both survive. I want to know what they were both thinking and feeling while the interaction took place. I want to discover their essence, what makes them who they are. I want the author to reveal the souls of his or her characters to me.

Without the spiritual, characters are nothing more than objects. Readers don’t want texts about unfeeling objects; they want texts about humans like those they meet and befriend in the mortal world. If we can understand that audiences are desirous of the spiritual, then perhaps it is time that we put more emphasis on what such interests mean. Perhaps it is time to embrace the spiritual and recognize that the horrors of this world are passing things that may test us but should not decimate us. We have things to embrace that can make even the great intricacies of the mortal world feel small. We have each other. We have the spiritual. We have God, if only we can generate the will to accept Him.

 

An Abundance of Complexity

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book of details and intricacies. The further I have delved into the book, the more overwhelming the sheer number of details has become. Instead of simplifying the world for readers, the narrator makes readers confront the sheer complexity of their surroundings. Our narrator explains to us that “creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (Dillard 133). Although these details are so overwhelming that no man or woman could ever hope to comprehend even a respectable portion of them, the narrator also expresses a respect for their cumulative beauty. She explains that “the texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek” (Dillard 141).

I think the narrator’s description of details and intricacies in the world can also be applied to writing, and not just because writers are often attempting to describe some of the complexities of the world. I see similar complexity in language and the act of writing. Grammar rules within the English language are exceptionally extensive, and then there are all of the individual cases for which the normal rules are disregarded. But grammar is only the beginning. There is pragmatics to consider, and the number of ways in which context can affect both speaking and writing are so numerous as to be beyond the bounds of my comprehension. What of sarcasm, irony, overstatement, and all the other devices that can cause a difference between the locutionary act and the illocutionary act? What of rhyme, alliteration, and the multitude of other strategies utilized by speakers and writers to affect the sound and meaning of words or text? How about the many differences between languages and how they affect meaning and comprehension? The list of intricacies in language and the act of writing could go on and on, and they can seem beautiful for all the options they give a speaker or writer.

What does all this complexity mean for writers? I think the answer will be slightly different for each individual. However, I think the will that many writers possess to understand the language that allows their craft to exist may make many of them at least a little curious about the details of how language works. Perhaps this interest is what separates dedicated writers from the majority of the population just as the narrator in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is different because of her interest in the details of the world around her. The narrator divulges that “I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, ‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?’ The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life” (Dillard 134). I sometimes have a similar tendency to speak at length about rhetoric and writing techniques to an uninterested audience, and I have a feeling that only manners keep many of them from fleeing. And like the narrator, I usually have the impression that the details I espouse could change the way others view the world if they would only listen. Just as the knowledge of others can change me if I accept it, the knowledge I possess can change others.

Supposing that a writer does possess an interest in the details of his or her craft, the question of how they apply directly to the way he studies writing seems more difficult to understand. Should we, like the narrator of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, limit our explorations to a more easily manageable area so that we may become experts about what resides within that limited area? Is it more valuable to let many of the details go and explore more areas of writing? These are questions I just can’t answer.

I also don’t fully understand how knowledge about the details of writing and language translate into greater writing skills. I do stop in my writing to consider the use of alliteration, irony, and other more uncommon devices. However, I normally don’t stop to think about my use of grammatical forms and other more commonly used tools of the craft of writing. Does what I know about the details of these tools translate automatically into my writing? How much of what I know about language and writing is simply ignored while I am engaged in writing? Should we be careful to avoid thinking too much about the details of writing to prevent a loss of productivity? In short, how productive is it for a writer to understand the complexity of his craft? These are more questions that, for me at least, have not been answered.

Breaking a Dichotomy

Two world views exist in a state of constant conflict and turmoil. The first is the view of objectivism. Those who embrace it believe that “science provides us with a methodology that allows us to rise above our subjective limitations and to achieve understanding from a universally valid and unbiased point of view” (Lakoff and Johnson 187). The competing view is subjectivism. Those who favor the subjectivist viewpoint support that which “denies the possibility of any scientific ‘lawlike’ account of human realities” (Lakoff and Johnson 223). This view is one of an unfixed and amorphous world that is wholly unpredictable. In some circles of society, a strong dichotomy is created between objectivity and subjectivity. In the words of Lakoff and Johnson, “if you’re not being objective, you’re being subjective, and there is no third choice” (185).

It has long been my common practice to rail against dichotomies like the one manufactured between objectivism and subjectivism. I find them to be distasteful and limited foundations from which to build; I have long believed that they oversimplify and generalize the scope of human understanding, forcing it into categories that strictly limit exploration. In this case, my unflattering perspective of dichotomies is easily validated. A person trying to be objective fails to consider that which he or she believes cannot be considered universally valid, strictly limiting his or her knowledge. For example, an objective person would not consider why an anthropomorphized domestic cat could consider himself a lion. He or she would just say that a domestic cat is not a lion. One attached to subjectivism is so intent on an unfixed reality that he or she can fail to heed realities that are supported by the experiences of many, considering such finding to be little better than speculation. A hardcore subjectivist might say that, in the domestic cat’s reality, he may be a lion. The subjectivist may believe that there is no way to invalidate the reality of the domestic cat, so his view is as valuable as any other. I believe both the subjective and objective perspectives fail to encompass the complexities of a situation.

Luckily, Lakoff and Johnson get down to business to break the absurd (at least in my view) dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. They offer a third way of viewing the world, called experientialism, in which a perspective between the objective and subjective is sought. Lakoff and Johnson say that “we see the experientialist myth as capable of satisfying the real and reasonable concerns that have motivated the myths of both subjectivism and objectivism but without either the objectivist obsession with absolute truth or the subjectivist insistence that imagination is totally unrestricted” (228). This is what I have sought! Experientialism is a perspective that is inclusive of the helpful characteristics of objectivism and subjectivism but seeks to eradicate the extremism that can characterize both. An experientialist examining our anthropomorphized domestic cat would not ignore the fact that our interactions with cats tell us that there is a difference between a domestic cat and a lion. However, he or she may also say that an anthropomorphized domestic cat could metaphorically view himself as a lion due to experiences that have made him feel like a grand predator. After all, experientialism’s “emphasis on interaction and interactional properties shows how meaning always is meaning to a person” (Lakoff and Johnson 228). Or, in this case, a cat.

For some, a shift to the experientialist view may come as a bit of a shock. Some scientists may not be particularly pleased with the idea of a view of reality that is not objective. In their afterward, Lakoff and Johnson observe that “our basic claims have nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agendas they still pursue” (273). For many, however, I contend that the experientialist view has long been commonplace in thought even if it has not been identified as such. I have met few people who are unwilling to consider any ideas that are not considered universally valid. I have also met few people who ignore all the findings of science because they think all views are equal. Social psychology is an example of a discipline that uses the scientific method but is deeply devoted to studying the effects of human interaction. The experientialist view was present even before Metaphors We Live By discussed it, just as the history of social psychology suggests.

The implications of the experientialist view are broad and far-reaching. The closer we get to exterminating the disturbing dualisms of objectivity and subjectivity, the closer our society will be able to get toward a shared understanding of truth and reason that does not seek to devalue art (like objectivity) or science (like subjectivity). Writers and thinkers could then have a superior chance to reach a wider range of others through their chosen means of communication. Lakoff and Johnson note that “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision. With enough flexibility in bending your world view and with luck and skill and charity, you may achieve some mutual understanding” (231-232). What could a writer desire more than a world where meaning is more easily negotiated and more understanding is reached?

It would take me a great deal of in-depth study to devote myself entirely to the experientialist view. I still don’t fully grasp how it accounts for language and understanding outside of prior experience like insight learning can potentially produce. However, I think that experientialism is at least a step in the right direction. It is a step away from unyielding extremism and a step toward integrated theories of meaning.

Instruction on Metaphors

As I have progressed through Metaphors We Live By, I have been continuously considering how what I learn will influence my writing. To put it simply, it has been a struggle. Lakoff and Johnson bring up many interesting points, but I think most of them are meant to inform readers about what they are doing instead of trying to convince them of what they should do in the future. Yes, metaphors are a part of the English language that is formative to how we all think, feel, and live. However, Lakoff and Johnson also stress that metaphors are ordinary. They are normal parts of the language that we already use. In this way, learning about metaphors is like learning how to diagram sentences. It’s great to know what an adjective is and where it will most likely appear, but it’s not like a writer wouldn’t use one if he couldn’t state the definition of an adjective or point one out in a sentence.

In spite of these observations, my intention is not to devalue the discussion about metaphor use. It can be academically fulfilling to learn about what something is instead of just how to do something. As a writer, however, I am currently primarily interested in improving my skills instead of being told what I am already doing without conscious consideration. My search for instruction among the observations has yielded two main results thus far: an understanding of how certain metaphors can strengthen or weaken impressions and an understanding of the power of creating new embedded metaphors.

Lakoff and Johnson describe the CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT metaphor as a powerful tool that can strengthen and weaken meaning in language. One of their examples is the difference between saying someone is “not happy” and describing someone as “unhappy.” Unhappy clearly means that the person described is sad, while not happy could just mean that the person is not particularly pleased but not sad either (Lakoff and Johnson 130). Through a variety of other complex and diverse examples, the point is made. When words are closer together, like the use of a prefix instead of a different word to indicate negation, a stronger and more meaningful connection is made. Therefore, a writer can intentionally manipulate the structure of a sentence to create the desired results. I am sure I was already utilizing this tool to some extent, but its more intentional use may still have a subtle impact on my writing.

A far more difficult way to use knowledge of metaphors to great effect would be to craft new metaphors to be subsumed into the use of the English language. Lakoff and Johnson write that “Many of our activities (arguing, solving problems, budgeting time, etc.) are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality” (145). Popularizing a new metaphor to the extent that it would be adopted into common usage is very unlikely. Nevertheless, the thought that it is possible to integrate new metaphors into a written work and in doing so alter reality is a very interesting one. A writer capable of such a feat would be in a position to glean a lot from learning about the use of metaphor.

The few practical writing lessons that I have managed to retain from Metaphors We Live By thus far have been useful and interesting, but I remain unsatisfied. The half of the book I have read thus far seems more akin to a dry grammar textbook than an engaging nonfiction book to aid writers. I can’t decide if I am missing something engaging and particularly helpful, if the beginning of the book is providing an extended amount of background information, or if the entirety of Metaphors We Live By will be equally dense and observational. My hope is that my readers can offer a different perspective on the content seen thus far or identify with my own interpretation so that I may have a better grasp of the utility that others have found in the book.

 

The Myth of the Original Author

When I was in high school, delusions of grandeur had an immense influence on my conception of writing. I thought that legendary authors like Poe, Hawthorne, and Rowling were examples of the truly original. Why not? They wrote alone, didn’t they? The greatest realization that my college experience has produced has been that no author, no matter how legendary, ever writes alone. I believe Metaphors We Live By provides excellent fodder for an examination of what it really means to be a writer. It portrays exactly how much borrowing a writer really does.

Metaphors We Live By postulates that metaphors are everywhere. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson assert that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (3). But wait, our kind authors tell us later. That was just the warm up act. The pair write, “In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (Lakoff and Johnson 19). Since metaphors are everywhere and they cannot be utilized realistically without an experiential basis, both metaphor and experience are everywhere. This seems rather reasonable; after all, every action we do or do not take results in an experience. Still, that is not all. Lakoff and Johnson proceed to inform us that “it would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our ‘world’ in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself” (57). Now our authors insist that there is no experience without cultural influence. Since metaphor always requires an experiential basis to be effective and every experience in culturally influenced, culture is everywhere just like metaphors and experiences are. If cultural influences have an extremely notable impact on our thoughts and words, it seems preposterous to me to think of any writing as truly original.

Since Lakoff and Johnson write about metaphors, I will use a painfully extended figurative metaphor to illustrate how I now feel about the writer’s role in the process of a composition’s creation. A man is trying to construct a brick wall. Before he can begin, he will need the mortar, bricks, and other assorted equipment vital to his task. He cannot proceed without them, and he does not work in a quarry, a factory, or any of the other places that play a large or small role in providing him with the necessary equipment for his task. He does not even have the equipment needed to transport the building equipment to him. If he does have the necessary building equipment, what he can do with it is limited. The wall has to be built to fulfill certain parameters or it will have to be torn down and reproduced by a more competent builder. The worker still makes choices; he determines how much mortar to put between the bricks and the pattern that the brickwork follows. Some choices will result in a better looking product and some will result in a more lasting product. If the builder is particularly accomplished, his wall might be both attractive and long lasting.

Like the builder constructing a brick wall, writers start with a large supply of equipment. We have letters and the vocabulary of our languages, work of other authors, memory of experiences, metaphorical frameworks, ingrained cultural teachings on a nearly endless number of subjects, and demands from readers and relevant discourse communities to guide and control us. If we don’t have this equipment transported to us through education and experience, then the writing task will be difficult or even impossible to do well. The product has to meet expectations when completed as well. If my blog post reads like it should be in an instruction manual from the 19th century, no will bother to read it and readers will find a better writer to entertain them. Writers still have some choices; they get to decide how all the materials they have been provided with should be put together. They can have priorities about whether to write to elicit positive responses from modern audiences or to create a composition that they will take academic pride in when it is completed. Talented writers may be able to simultaneously satisfy both objectives.

Nevertheless, a writer who is bound to the conventions and influences of the day is not original. He or she merely puts what already exists together in a new way. As a writer, I don’t find this reality particularly flattering. It would seem a lot more heroic to be a lone writer standing as the distinguished creator of a new kind of discourse and rhetoric. However, such a view is not a realistic one. That is not to say that writers are not important or valuable; after all, no one wants to live in a house whose walls were constructed by an untrained and uninterested novice. However, writers are still just workers like a great many others who struggle to produce something of worth for themselves and others.

Finding Quality

The latter part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great cascade of opinions and philosophical abstractions, but I felt it was all bound together by one question: the question of Quality. Quality drives Phaedrus to madness and permeates the very fabric of existence. The narrator/Phaedrus explains that “Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects” (Pirsig 247). It is what unites the world. Saying this about Quality, however, may be construed as an act of definition. Perhaps it’s an intellectual’s way of attempting to define what, according to the narrator/Phaedrus, should never be defined. According to him, “Any attempt to develop an organized reason around an undefined quality defeats its own purpose. The organization of the reason itself defeats the quality” (Pirsig 395). This exhortation not to create a structure of reason in an attempt to understand Quality is an interesting one. It suggests that we limit and cripple Quality when we attempt to encapsulate its meaning in our words. But how can one lecture on Quality or teach its ways to others if describing it is impossible? How can writers be taught to write with Quality?

A professor can teach his or her students about grammar. Students’ writing can be graded to indicate whether a professor believes that a certain creation is of Quality. Comments can be offered for the improvement of certain uses of language. But can one teach Quality? The narrator/Phaedrus argues that teachers cannot directly instill Quality in their students and attempts of establishing principles of Quality are ineffective. He says, ” Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries-the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason” (Pirsig 360). Some professors attempt to teach using principles and methods, and some take a less methodical approach. I don’t think either group can directly teach Quality as it is discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That Quality isn’t one thing, and it can’t be given a definition. Even the greatest professors aren’t capable of imparting such an amorphous and complex concept to others.

Perhaps a professor is better described as a mentor. The narrator/Phaedrus describes the true search for Quality as one that must be undertaken alone (Pirsig 396). Although I agree that we have to support our own weight and forge our own trails, I do not think that means a writer can’t be urged on by the guidance of his fellows. Maybe a professor can be a mentor who seeks to motivate a writer to search for Quality and helps him to see through the mist of his self-involvement to recognize when he has found it.

However, I don’t think a mentor has to be a professor. Writing students pay tens of thousands of dollars for the specialized mentors known as professors, but couldn’t they receive motivation and guidance from less expensive mentors who may be willing to invest more time in them than the average professor? There is certainly an argument to be made that college is only one of many ways to be successful. So why do we go to college? For me, the answer is that employers care whether you have a college degree and I need a graduate degree to be given a chance in my chosen field. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about learning or my education. I care about both deeply. However, I could read much of what my professors tell me in books or learn it through personal experience. In fact, most of what I learn in school seems to be through personal experience anyway. If I didn’t need accreditation to gain employment and the respect of my peers, I think it’s unlikely I would choose mentors who cost $10,000 a year to assist me. Professors are great mentors, but a good supervisor in an employment situation can be as well. Also, people get paid when they work hard for an employer or supervisor. People have to pay for the honor of working hard for professors.

Since we can find mentors everywhere, I don’t think it’s an institution that makes someone a good writer. Luckily, the narrator/Phaedrus offers another explanation for what can help people succeed. He suggests, “We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (Pirsig 358). Different variations of this sentiment are echoed on nearly every site that offers advice about ideal employees. Even if I somehow fail to succeed in my chosen career, I still think such ideals are what will help me find my own Quality as a writer. I think seeking to embody these ideals is a very worthy goal and essential to maximizing my potential.

If integrity, self-reliance, and old-fashioned gumption are really as vital as I believe them to be, I think they also reveal one possible method of passing on ideas about Quality that all the best mentors use. They display it. I have always found the best mentors to be the ones that are walking displays of their own versions of Quality. These people have traveled through my life and left impressions like enormous craters that I will never forget. One is a grandfather who never attended high school but, through sheer gumption and self-reliance, financially supported a wife and three children who all became college graduates. Another is a friend who gave two years of his life to be a missionary for his religious community in a country he had never visited and whose inhabitants speak a language he was not even familiar with because he felt it was his calling. I can’t define such people’s Quality, and I think it would be doing them a disservice to try. What I can say is that they make me want to find my Quality in writing and elsewhere each and every day. If I don’t, I have no business counting myself as an equal with those who do.

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.