I read this in college when I had yet to begin understanding what good writing was all about. I remember being highly intrigued but also mystified --I read this in college when I had yet to begin understanding what good writing was all about. I remember being highly intrigued but also mystified -- the I Ching references and metaphysical asides generally lost me at the time. Upon re-reading it I still found it intriguing -- one of the most original and fascinating stories I've ever read -- but the writing interfered with my full enjoyment.
Anyone reading this review will know enough of the premise to preclude me from restating it here. I'll just say I've never read anything like it, not just for its strangeness but also for the impeccable precision with which it was executed. Dick clearly thought through and researched most of the implications of his scenario, and his thoroughness creates a vivid world that horrifies with its proximity; you can't help but think (and shiver about) how close we might have been to a reality like the one depicted here.
The other factor elevating this to four-star status is the meta-story, for a couple different reasons. There's the chilling story-within-the-story The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which enthralls both because of its eerie reflection of our actual reality as well as the several ways it failed to predict that reality. This gives it an authenticity that a lesser writer would have lost by having it show the "real" world exactly as it is. I love how it reinforces the theme of our world's inherent unpredictability.
The other reason is the way, in a brilliant last few pages, that Dick has our reality bleed into this alternate reality via the "Oracle." It's beautifully mystifying, and though ambiguous it's actually one of Dick's more satisfying conclusions (perhaps faint praise given that one of his hallmarks is not being able to figure out an ending for an otherwise brilliant premise).
That's a lot to like right there, but there's plenty to dislike as well, and I have a feeling that how people respond to this book will depend mostly on how heavily they weigh ideas v. writing. First of all, the biggest discrepancy with my memory of reading this over a decade ago was that not much really happens. There's little plot until about halfway through, and even then most of it revolves around people waiting for something. To be sure, there's a lot going on just by virtue of having an alternate reality to expound upon, but that doesn't make for much action.
Secondly, there's not a real protagonist. Sure Juliana becomes one by the end, but she is present for a quarter of the book at most, and most of that toward the end. Other sympathetic characters like Baynes/Wegener and Frink are essentially shelved after the first act. Those that take their place -- Togami and Childan -- are interesting in how they reveal pernicious cultural indoctrination, yet unsympathetic and largely unsatisfying as protagonists. The narrative flips back and forth between them all far too frequently for you to develop a relationship with any of them.
Those are the main issues, though there are other minor problems that are mostly symptoms of immature writing -- shallow characterization, clumsy dialogue, obscurity masquerading as subtlety, etc. It's a lot to ask for to have such bold ideas presented in flawless writing, and it's no surprise that Dick doesn't fully succeed here.
But he succeeds enough to make this still my second favorite Dick novel after VALIS. He's a writer I recommend to pretty much everyone just because of how off the wall he got. He definitely went down some rabbit holes in his day, and you should go along with him whenever you get the chance.
I got a strange urge to re-read this book as I've been delving into some interesting social criticism of late (Chomsky's Necessary IllRe-read 3/11/13:
I got a strange urge to re-read this book as I've been delving into some interesting social criticism of late (Chomsky's Necessary Illusions being the most mind-blowing). In picking it up again, I realize just how much of my present-day outlook was shaped by Pirsig's ideas. Granted, I was very impressionable toward the close of my college career, but it's alternately shocking, worrying and reassuring to remember just how much I assimilated his fascinating Metaphysics of Quality as presented here. That said, I changed my original 5-star rating to 4 stars because I was able to read it with a more critical eye almost 10 years later, and I found the writing occasionally stilted and self-congratulatory, more often the latter than the former.
Pirsig's first major philosophical step in this book is to separate his Quality (as sort of not-defined in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) into two types of Quality: static and dynamic. With this basic division of reality he aims to supplant the more-traditional-though now-fairly-outdated separation of reality into subject and object (or mind and matter). Thus his two forms of Quality either take the shape of static, traditional patterns of moral value or of dynamic, immediate, nirvana-like perception of pure Reality.
One of the best illustrations he uses to explain this division is in listening to a great new song. The first time you hear it you are blown away by the newness, every note seems earth-shattering, and you can't get enough of it. Gradually, however, that feeling wears away, and though you still recognize the song as "good" it's not likely to make you drop everything just to listen to it, to hang on every note. Dynamic is new and exciting, static is oldie-but-goodie. Pirsig eventually explains how each type of Quality depends on the other, and how one of them without the other will quickly lead to disaster -- wild degeneracy in the case of the former, and stale, suffocating rot in the case of the latter.
Besides this interesting and useful division, the two main ideas I took away when I originally read it (and the two that continue to seem to be the most important ideas of his MoQ) are difficult to separate from one another. First you have the idea of purpose- or goal-driven evolution, which is anathema to most biologists. Coupled very closely with this idea of intentional evolution is Pirsig's separation of levels of organization into four different systems: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual.
What this means essentially is that when inorganic particles and elements originally combined to make organic compounds, this was an evolution toward Value or Quality, or in other words a moral movement. Eventually these inorganic compounds, through the initiative of Dynamic Quality, organized to a higher level of evolution and formed a biological organism. Eventually biological organisms, likewise inspired by Dynamic Quality or "moral" movement toward higher Quality, organized to form societies. And similarly, societies eventually evolved in the direction of Dynamic Quality and created intellectual patterns of thought, reason, and logic, by which we can analyze and govern our lives.
This idea really gets interesting when Pirsig discusses how all of these levels of Quality are actually in conflict with each other. This is because once a new level of organization is created on top of an old one, that new level, while dependent on the effective aspiration toward Quality of the level beneath it, will have its own goals and aims that are not necessarily in line with its foundation. In this way, a virus will have conflicting motives with a biological organism, and an organism can be in conflict with the greater good of society. Perhaps most applicably, an individual's ideas can be in conflict with society pressures.
Here, Pirsig proposes and (IMO) pulls off a neat trick by looking at these conflicts through the lens of morality. Because he has already proposed the division of Quality and because he has already explained how Quality has evolved from a very low level to a very high level, and continues to evolve, he can now say that any time the lower levels of Quality impinge on the higher levels of Quality, that is an immoral act. Thus he can philosophically explain why it is immoral that someone abuses drugs to the point that they must steal from or injure others in society, and why it was immoral for society to persecute Galileo and Copernicus.
This system also explains why laws that inhibit individuals from indulging in their unfettered biological impulses are moral. If you look at those impulses from the perspective of biology, they are completely moral because they feel good. However, from the perspective of society they are dangerous and degenerate. . . it is moral for a higher evolutionary system to judge that those impulses must be kept in check. Of course, a still-higher evolutionary system (that of the intellect) can then later develop and notice that, "Hey, society is unreasonably and unfairly suppressing certain biological values (for example, premarital sex and marijuana use), and we should really rethink that." That's when you will get a battle between the intellectual and societal notion of value. That is the stage that we have been struggling with for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.
There's a lot of different ways you can go with this, and Pirsig goes in a lot of them. That's part of the drawback to the writing, how disperse it is and how daunting the entire system ends up seeming (although it is quite easy to understand in the way he explains it). Around this part of the book it seemed to me that the system he had developed begged the question of what sort of level of organization may lie beyond the intellectual pattern of value. This question never seems to occur to Pirsig, who sticks with his four levels plus the highest good of all: Dynamic Quality.
I haven't studied enough philosophy to know how new these ideas are. Pirsig seems to give a lot of credit to William James for developing a similar framework. When I explained it to my philosopher wife she said it sounded like Hegel and didn't sound too impressed. She also cautioned that any time you have someone setting up an absolute morality or objective Truth or Value, you encounter a dangerous arrogance that threatens to overwhelm any culture that doesn't buy into the paradigm. Specifically in this case, despite Pirsig's cautioning against the over-reliance on rationality and science, his system is still one that is very much grounded in the Western paradigm of reason/logic/rationality. He admits as much.
Without being a cultural relativist, you can acknowledge how dangerous it might be to invalidate any non-rational way of perceiving truth. . . mysticism, for example, or the shamanistic rites of certain non-Westernized tribes. I could be wrong, but it seems like Pirsig would have to say that those societies are less moral because they don't perceive Truth intellectually. . . they still operate completely in the social level of value. I actually argued about this with my wife, because I happen to agree with that statement. In my own view of the evolution of consciousness, or enlightenment, or whatever, I think it is necessary to pass through rational thought and analysis -- to know the extreme, as it were -- before you can truly know what it's like to reject that extreme and embrace the mystical nature of the universe. My wife, on the other hand, pretty much thinks I'm a chauvinist.
Anyway, this is getting way too long. I will say that Pirsig's book has greatly informed my own outlook on life. Additionally, this go-round I was really able to appreciate how he weaved his philosophy into the narrative. The first time I read it I didn't notice the meta-book in here, how Pirsig explains to us how he's struggling to organize these thoughts and then divulges the thoughts at the same time he's looking at the "slips" that he's trying to organize. Another example occurs in the end, when he talks about how he must remember to tie his book back into the Native-Americans (of course just by mentioning them in the reminder he is doing that). It's pretty ingenious.
Additionally, the creation of the character of Lila and Rigel was a nifty way to illustrate several of the more obscure ideas in his metaphysics. The way he describes Lila's detour into insanity is captivating and totally organic. If you think about it you will perhaps find yourself in the strange position of feeling lucky that Pirsig himself went crazy so that he is able to explain it so authentically. The fact that the narrative drags at points as he tries to cram a lot of tangential information into the story does not detract from the overall seamless way that he weaves it all together.
It's an impressive achievement, and I wish Pirsig had more mainstream recognition. Despite the book not being as perfect as I remember, I am glad to say that most of the impressive points he makes still seem to hold up. My opinion of Pirsig as one of the most refreshing and innovative thinkers in recent history is corroborated. I highly recommend both this and Zen.
Toward the end of college a new acquaintance lent me Still the Mind, by a certain Alan Watts. I had never heard of the guy and was still pretty convenToward the end of college a new acquaintance lent me Still the Mind, by a certain Alan Watts. I had never heard of the guy and was still pretty conventional (and thus alienated by a book with "meditation" in the title), but hey, I was in college so I gave it a try. It's not exaggeration to say that reading it significantly altered the trajectory of my life.
In the years after, I devoured every Watts book I could find, probably eight or nine of them. They got repetitive after a while, but still, sitting down with Watts was like having a wine- (or weed-) fueled fireside chat that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. His style is beautifully comfortable, and his insights both familiar and astonishing. Even when one book sounds disappointingly like another, there are always at least a few new points that make it worth your time.
Out of those books, none surpass Still the Mind in my heart, in terms of revelatory ideas and intuitive ease; it's essentially a beginner's guide to Eastern thought, and I was in the right time of my life to be wide open to it. Two others have also lingered with me over the years: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and this one.
Re-reading it almost ten years later, it doesn't feel quite as ground-breaking and it suffers from being repetitive. But still it is timeless, rather impressive considering it was written 60-some years ago. And I have never seen a more thorough or convincing argument for the "Here and Now" tenet of Eastern thought. You can read many books about why this is a good way to live, or why it will make you happy, but Watts takes a different approach -- he patiently explains why it is absurd and ultimately impossible to attempt to live any other way.
One of Watts's greatest talents is his use of analogy to explain his point. Here the metaphors, similes and images are in plentiful supply. One of my favorites comes early, when he talks about pleasure and pain, and how too much pleasure actually leads to pain (by desensitizing the taste buds, for example, or by rubbing with too much friction). His comparison of the pleasure of listening to music is also illustrative. If you try to arrest the flow of music, it loses the power to please you. You can't hold onto pleasure, you can only appreciate it while it lasts.
One of the powerful points of the book is Watts's idea that people who live for the future, eagerly awaiting what is to come, or live in the past, dwelling on fond memories, can never appreciate the present. By doing so, for example by being really excited about an upcoming vacation, you condition yourself to not be able to fully appreciate it when the time comes, because by that time you are so used to anticipation that you lose your ability to sit in the present.
There are many other important points in the book: us forgetting that words are merely conventions and not the actual thing they represent; the price of our consciousness being anxiety about our future; and the negligence of listening to our brains over our bodies. In one of the more important discussions, Watts elucidates how we are the same as our experiences -- there is no "I" experiencing, there is only the experience. This is a strange concept to us Westerners, and one that would be popularized a couple of decades later by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (though he called it "Quality," not "experience").
I'll stop summarizing. If you have read Alan Watts before, you more or less know what you're in for here, though I will say this is one of the essential works of his canon, and one that is still timeless over 60 years later. If you haven't read him, this is a pretty swell place to start. Though the concepts are esoteric, his style is accessible and it's only 150 pages. If you're unfamiliar with any Eastern thought, however, I wholeheartedly recommend you start as I did, with Still the Mind.
I re-read this after first reading it about 12 years ago in high school. I remembered it as a slow burner, taking a while to build momentum but havingI re-read this after first reading it about 12 years ago in high school. I remembered it as a slow burner, taking a while to build momentum but having an unforgettable ending, and I was pleased to find that I like it more on the 2nd read. I'm now in a position to appreciate the more subtle literary flourishes that Dickens employed -- all of the wonderful foreshadowing, and social commentary through satire and irony. It's an intensely satisfying read, with a wonderful story and memorable characters, less cartoonish than any of his previous works. Sydney Carton is the tragic hero of modern times, and his devotion to Lucie is a beautiful thing to witness. The characters help make the emotional impact of the story stronger than almost any other book I've ever read. Sure it's cheesy, and very contrived in all of the coincidental meetings among characters, but it's toned down as far as Dickens go. The last two pages equal those of 100 Years of Solitude as my favorite all-time endings.
I'm almost done with reading all of Dickens' later works. And of Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and this, Tale is my favorite, followed closely by Bleak. List subject to change, as I still have Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend to go....more