Long ago I read Robert M Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". It was quite a slog - at times I sunk to indolently scanning one word at a time ... word, word, word, blah, blah, blah - so claiming to have read it is a bit iffy.
I do remember the story of Phaedrus, and being interested in his discourse on quality and the nature thereof - so perhaps some of it sunk in. The details of the argument have disappeared from memory some time ago - I have a feeling that it was a bit like a middle aged man saying "young people are contemptibly stupid, and everything is turning to shit." I have a tendency say this myself - knowing full well that what it really means is that "I miss my youth and I don't much care for change".
I digress - back to Digested Reads. John Crace writes a column in the Guardian in which he satirises pop literature by savagely summarising books in 500 or so words. I find them funny - here is "Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" given the Digested Read treatment:
Even at 60 miles an hour, the wind is warm as I weave the bike along the roads less travelled towards the Dakota mountains. I am channelling the universe, at one with my megalomania, as my 12-year-old son, Chris, hangs on for grim death.
"Why are we doing this?" he asks later that evening at the campsite.
"To showcase my brilliance," I reply.
"I'd rather go to Disneyworld."
"That's because you are driven by your ego."
I read a few pages of Thoreau out loud because it is so much more important for Chris to hear something he does not understand, before checking through my rucksack for the 17th time that day and tinkering with the spark-plugs. John and Sylvia, who arrived ahead of us, come over for a chat.
"My bike is making an odd noise," he says.
"You need to adjust the tappets, novice," I declare.
I am wasting my valuable breath, so I began the first of what I grandiosely call my Chautauqua - my philosophical digressions. John and Sylvia are romantics, terrified by modern technology and unwilling to engage with the dualism of the carburettor-points split. While I tend towards the more rational classical position, I have also learned to view the world through my all-seeing Middle Eye of the Buddha.
Sylvia nudges John awake and suggests we get something to eat.
"I don't feel well," Chris says.
"You will never feel well until you subsume your egotism to mine," I snap. "Now sod off while I amaze myself with my genius."
After he had made his way snivelling to his tent, I launch into yet another fascinating Chautauqua on the a priori presumption of a motorcycle before explaining to John that the doctor had diagnosed Chris with a severe mental illness.
"I'm not surprised with you as a Dad," John mutters.
"That's the typical response of the Unenlightened Romantic," I reply, levitating with the self-congratulation of the logic of my Oneness. My Chautauquas accelerate with increasing intensity and depth as I expose the internal fallacies of Newtonian physics and pour scorn on the solipsistic abyss of the ramblings of Hegel and Hume.
I adjust the fuel-flow to harmonise the bike with the altitude and, as we pull into Bozeman, John and Sylvia inexplicably decide to head off on their own. I realise later I could have done more to flesh out their characters, but to have done so would have been to give them an existence independent of my own which, dialectically speaking, would have negated their reality as I alone am the Maker.
The ghost of Phaedrus hangs heavy but I take refuge in Mu, where existence and non-existence meet in Japanese Nothingness. I take Chris to meet DeWeese, a former colleague at the Bozeman campus where I taught.
"I'm bored," Chris yawns.
"I'm doing this for the benefit of your ego," I snap tetchily.
Who is Phaedrus? I hear you ask. He is my alter ego, the Searcher I once was before I was crushed by a world that was not ready for my IQ and was forced to undergo electro-convulsive therapy. The Spirit of Chautauqua strengthens as Aquarius aligns with Mars amid the acid casualties Imagined Enlightenment and Phaedrus addresses his students.
"How can we know the Meaning of Quality?" he enquires rhetorically. "Quality is of itself, something we all intuitively know. So I'm going to stop marking your essays."
"Isn't that a peculiarly narrow, US-centric view?" no one says. "For is not the idea of Quality culturally relative?"
"You are too clever to teach at Bozeman," the Dean declares. "Grow a beard and go to Chicago."
Exhausted by the originality of my latest Chautauqua, I race Chris to the summit of a desolate Montana peak.
"I'm scared," he says.
"It's your ego that makes you such a wuss."
Phaedrus distils the canon of western philosophical thought, showing up Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Nietzsche, Poincaré and the rest of them for the brainless halfwits they undoubtedly are as he tap-dances through the conundra of the substantive and methodological fields to emerge in the Elysian fields of Zen, where Quality is undefinable, yet self-evident.
"But surely for something to be self-evident yet undefinable is a logical contradiction in terms," Chris says, scratching his head, searching hopelessly for some self-evident Quality in the book.
"Your ego is still blinding you to the truth," I say. "Do you not realise that Phaedrus is Greek for Wolf?"
"Um, no it isn't," he answers.
"It is if I say it is. OK, buddy?"
I change the oil and tinker with the chain for several days before we complete our journey to the Pacific coast. I sense that memories of Phaedrus are tormenting Chris in his sleep and I long to merge our three selves in a Monist Trinity. We symbolically remove our helmets for the first time, high on the cliff overlooking the Ocean.
The voice of Phaedrus weakens, the Socratic dialectic finally resolved in a half-arsed, pseudo-intellectual mish-mash of western and eastern philosophy.
I take Chris in my arms. "Close your eyes, my son, and soar with me beyond the world of Kant."
"You'll always be a Kant to me, Dad."