In looking for other podcasts on Pirsig, I ran across The Digested Read podcast by John Crace, which is sort of a literary humor thing, where Crace retells the gist of famous books using snarky oversimplifications.
In his episode on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he’s none too sympathetic towards Pirsig’s philosophy, which he seems to see as a not-very-well-thought-out mishmash, but anyone who’s listened to our episode will likely have gotten more out of it than that already, so let’s not worry about that aspect.
I’ll admit that Crace’s comments about how jerky the narrator treats his son in the book set the tone for some of what I was saying on the podcast. One interesting tidbit: Pirsig goes on a bit about his adopted philosopher name “Phaedrus.” His discussion of the name in the context of Plato’s dialogues (you can read about that here) seemed uncontroversial, but he also mentions that it’s the Greek word for wolf, as in “I’m a lone wolf philosopher, so I’ll call myself Wolf.” With a bit of Googling you can confirm Crace’s claim that that’s not the meaning of the Greek word (which actually means “bright”). Hardly a fatal flaw in the book, but a strange thing to fictionalize for dramatic effect on Pirsig’s part.
Being new to the Digested Read podcast, I downloaded a few other episodes (they’re all very very short; that’s the point) to get a more general impression and determined:
1. If you’re not familiar with the book, don’t bother: you won’t get the jokes, and you certainly won’t learn anything about the book.
2. If you read the book at some distant point in the past (I chose some Joyce) and so remember basically what happened and the style but not much else, you also won’t get much out of it.
3. If you are familiar with the book (I chose Tom Wolfe) and are just tuning for a laugh, well, it’s a little funny, but not really worth bothering with.
4. If you’re trying to get Crace’s take on a book you’re familiar with, looking at him as you would a reviewer (I chose Karen Armstrong), well, he does express some definite opinions. It is digested, after all, and they’re not without insight, but they beg for argument, which of course, you can’t give. (He writes off her entire account of the history of religion as irrelevant to arguing for God, which willfully misses her point; I’ve written some about that book here.) Since he was nice enough to give the text in his post, here’s an excerpt:
Our ancestors, who were obviously right, would have been surprised by the crude empiricism that reduces faith to fundamentalism or atheism. I have no intention of rubbishing anyone’s beliefs, so help me God, but Dawkins’s critique of God is unbelievably shallow. God is transcendent, clever clogs. So we obviously can’t understand him. Duh!
I’m going to spend the next 250 pages on a quick trawl of comparative religion from the pre-modern to the present day. It won’t help make the case for God, but it will make me look clever and keep the publishers happy, so let’s hope no one notices!
The desire to explain the unknowable has always been with us and the most cursory glance at the cave paintings at Lascaux makes it clear these early Frenchies didn’t intend us to take their drawings literally. Their representations of God are symbolic; their religion a therapy, a sublimation of the self. Something that fat bastard Hitchens should think about.
Much the same is true of the Bible. Astonishingly, the Eden story is not a historical account, nor is everything else in the Bible true. The Deuteronomists were quick to shift the goalposts of the meaning of the Divine when problems of interpretation and meaning were revealed. So should we be. Rationalism is not antagonistic to religion. Baby Jesus didn’t want us to believe in his divinity. That is a misrepresentation of the Greek pistis. He wanted everyone to give God their best shot and have a singalong Kumbaya.
In sum, it may be worth the 5 minute listening time for select books that you want to joke about, but probably not one minute more.