[Editor’s Note: Here’s the first full-on blog post by our Pirsig guest Dave Buchanan, though he’s been a long-time, productive commenter to our posts here. Oh, and this image is by Allison Moore, snatched from here.]
L’esprit de l’escalier or “staircase wit” is a name for the clever reply that comes too late, for the witty comeback that comes to you only after you’ve left the party. As we were wrapping up the conversation Seth expressed some frustration about the complexity of the narrative. Pirsig’s story is a strange kind of autobiography in which he splits himself in two and the tale of Phaedrus’ quest is told only from the narrator’s perspective, from a somewhat hostile and unreliable point of view. Why complicate it this way? Why not just say it? Why be so tricky? I thought it might help to walk up and down the stairs but no clever or witty answer has arrived, and now I just have leg cramps.
One could make a case that this divided self is meant to express the problem of alienation, the problem of being alienated from one’s self. It also supports the larger ghost story, adds dramatic tension, etc., but splitting himself in two was also the solution to a very basic writing problem. At one point Pirsig looked his unfinished manuscript and was disturbed by the number of times he’d used the pronoun “I”. It was tedious, annoying, and just plain bad. Splitting himself in two solved that little pronoun problem.
My favorite answer is a bit speculative. I think Pirsig uses the relatively cautious narrator to soften the blow, to ease the reader’s way. Phaedrus’ claims are likely to shock to the common sense reader. The narrator’s warnings against his frightening madness are likely to strike the reader as entirely plausible. It’s easy to believe that Phaedrus went too far, that he slipped over the edge into the “terra incognita of the insane”.
When the unreliability of the narrator is realized, however, an ironic reversal of meaning occurs and the slandered villain suddenly becomes the hero. From Phaedrus’ point of view, the narrator is a coward who refuses to go far enough. Unlike Phaedrus, he is motivated by the desire to appear normal, to avoid any return visits to the psychiatric hospital. The narrator’s preference for social acceptance over the truth, as Phaedrus sees it, is a sad case of selling out. Some of his claims might seem to defy common sense but, he says, weirdness is not the test of truth or falsity.
“I spook very easily these days, and am not ashamed to admit it. He never spooked at anything. Never. That’s the difference between us. That’s why I’m alive and he’s not.”