by liberal japonicus
Immediately after I made my previous post, I saw in my FB feed that Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, had passed away. At the risk of having everyone think that we are going to have more regular postings here, I'm posting something I wrote on Facebook
Pirsig connected to my life path in so many ways large and small. That book, read on a summer family vacation in high school, was a seed that keeps showing up in my life. That book and a poetry reading by Tony Church of Lough's War Music had me studying Greek and going into linguistics. After my first stint in Japan, ended up in Oregon and taking a trip through Modoc country where Pirsig and his son had their reconciliation. I ended up at this university which has an exchange program with Montana, where Pirsig taught. My mom worked for an orthopedic surgeon, so any talk of getting a motorcycle was short-circuited by filial piety, and my wife has taken mom's role in that.
Passages and ideas from the book always jangle around in my head. Strangely enough, I picked up a used copy around the time my mother passed away and learned that his son Christopher had been killed in a mugging. What he said about that was useful to me. He wrote:
I tend to become taken with philosophic questions, going over them and over them and over them again in loops that go round and round and round until they either produce an answer or become so repetitively locked on they become psychiatrically dangerous, and now the question became obsessive: "Where did he go?" Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense.
It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn't just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go?
The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked "Where did he go?" it must be asked "What is the `he' that is gone?" There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris's flesh and blood did, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren't Chris.
What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.
Now Chris's body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn't find anything. That's probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon.
Some time later it became clearer that these thoughts were something very close to statements found in many "primitive" cultures. If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh and bones of Chris and call it the "spirit" of Chris or the "ghost" of Chris, then you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter. When we hear accounts of "primitives" talking this way, we dismiss them as superstition because we interpret ghost or spirit as some sort of material ectoplasm, when in fact they may not mean any such thing at all.