“I really would like to have the film rights to this book,” Robert Redford said to the book’s author. “You’ve got them,” Robert Pirsig replied. “I wouldn’t have gotten this involved if I hadn’t intended to give it to you.” As you may have inferred already, Redford is asking for the film rights to Pirsig’s autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Their conversation, as it’s reported in Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991), took place far above the ground in hotel room overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. Two famous guys talking in a famous city about making a famous book into a famous Hollywood movie. The celebrity factor is so thick in this scene that you could cut it with a knife, preferably a famous knife with jewels set into gold.
Pirsig devotes a brief, six-page chapter to this scene (chapter 19) and then uses the occasion to ponder the larger meaning of celebrity (chapter 20). His meeting with Redford begins with the same sort of existential weirdness that Mark Linsenmayer experienced in his interactions with our favorite warrior princess, Lucy Lawless. Pirsig describes what it was like to open the hotel room door and find himself looking at the Sundance Kid. The 19th chapter could be titled, “the phenomenology of being star struck”.
Pirsig describes his star-struck reaction as a momentary “goon-out”. There was some weird Chaplinesque bumbling with Redford’s coat and his first attempts at conversation with Redford were equally awkward. After some small talk the star’s brilliance began to fade and they finally got down to discussing business. Apparently, it’s not easy to talk to a movie star (without sounding like an idiot) until one goes through a disorienting adjustment period wherein all the previous impressions, almost always false impressions, have to give way to the actual person. It was like Woody Allen’s 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo, Pirsig explains, wherein a black and white film character walks out of the movie screen and into the life of a viewer. (In 1997 I bumped into Jennifer Lopez – quite literally – immediately following a screening of Oliver Stone’s “U Turn“, a movie in which she starred.) If you think it’s weird for the fans, imagine what it means to the celebrities themselves. If Pirsig is right, it’s hell to be famous.
“You would think that fame and fortune would bring a sense of closeness to other people, but quite the opposite happens. You split into two people, who they think you are and who you really are, and that produces the Zen hell. It’s like a hall of mirrors at a carnival where some mirrors distort you one way and some distort you another. …this celebrity could get to be like some sort of narcosis of mirrors where you have to have more and more supportive reflections just to stay satisfied. The mirrors take over your life and soon you don’t know who you are. ..And there you are, in the Zen hell of celebrity.” (Lila 254)
The idea that wisdom is more valuable than fame and fortune is as old as Plato’s dialogues, at least, but Pirsig frames them in an evolutionary hierarchy and otherwise turbo-charges the idea. Celebrity is to society as sex is to biology, he says. Celebrity is the central organizing principle that shapes and directs the culture, he says, a fundamental force in social evolution. We can’t know how far back the celebrity factor goes, maybe all the way back to the early Pleistocene era, but it is conspicuously on display already in some of the world’s oldest writing, in the first cuneiform tablets of ancient Babylon. Of all the things that could be written at the dawn civilization, what do these ancient clay tablets actually say? It’s mostly audacious bragging. I can almost hear it preformed as a rap song.
“I, Hammurabi, am the big wheel here. I have this many horses and this many concubines and his many slaves and this many oxen, and I am one of the greatest of the greatest kings there ever was, and you better believe it.” (Lila 256)
Same as it ever was, it’s all about me and my bling. “That’s what writing was invented for,” Pirsig says. All the gods, kings, heroes and villains, and legendary warriors are celebrities too, not very different from today’s sports stars, rock stars, film characters and the actors who portray them. As Pirsig tells it, our culture is filled with all kinds of “celebrity devices”. These devices include things like awards, trophies and blue ribbons, titles, gossip and ass-kissing, as well as the badges, uniforms and robes of authority. Even monumental architecture like the pyramids of Egypt or Trump Tower would count as celebrity devices. This celebrity force is like a never-ending and all-consuming popularity contest. It’s just like high school, except with lots of lawyers, guns, and money.
“High school was really the place for celebrity. That’s what had those jocks out playing football every afternoon. That’s what the pom-pom girls were all about. It was celebrity. …In fact you can measure the quality of a university by comparing the relative strengths of the celebrity patterns and the intellectual patterns. You never get rid of the celebrities, even at the best universities, but there the intellectuals could ignore them and be in a class by themselves.” (Lila 257)
Please notice that Pirsig doesn’t just make a distinction between “social” and “intellectual” values, he sets them into a ranked order wherein the celebrity factor is supposed to decrease in importance as we mature or develop. He makes a case, well beyond the topic of fame and fortune, that social and intellectual values are not only distinctly different from each other, they are sometimes even opposed to each other. The unflattering idea of “selling-out” serves as a handy example of their opposition. It’s a shameful thing for a person to abandon their principles for the sake of cash, popularity, nookie, or otherwise bend to expedience. The artists, scientists and philosophers aren’t supposed to be in it for the money or the fame. They’re supposed to care about beauty, truth, and wisdom.
On this view, trading such things for cash isn’t like prostitution. It is prostitution. It feels degenerate, sleazy and wrong, Pirsig says, because it is. He explains his decision not to sell his book to Redford in these terms. He shouldn’t give up the rights because books of philosophy are intellectual and movies are social, Pirisg thought. That’s what everyone was telling him anyway. One of Pirsig’s earliest and most enthusiastic fans, the New Yorker critic George Steiner told him not to. You’ll be sorry if you do, he warned. Pirsig’s Manhattan attorney told him the same thing. “Look, if you love your book my advice is don’t sell it to Hollywood,” he said. Even Redford warned him not to do it. Hollywood movies are about good guys and bad guys, about drama, conflict and action. There’s no chance that they won’t wreck it, Pirsig thought, not even with a stand-up dude like Robert Redford at the helm. That’s why Pirsig’s book still hasn’t been turned into movie. It probably won’t get made unless and until somebody figures out how to do it without abandoning the philosophical content of Zen and the Art.
Pirsig has a few words about his own celebrity, about the weirdness of suddenly becoming famous himself. He was world-class nerd for most of his life and certainly not the type of guy that would be of any interest to the pom-pom girls. But after his first book was published ladies at parties would come over to rub up against him, teenage girls would squeal with delight at the sight of him, and powerful woman felt that they had to have him. There is the darker side too, with stalkers and psychotic fans. Those distorting mirrors can mess with a person’s head in all kinds of ways – so Pirsig quietly spends his time at home. These chapters on the nature of celebrity are titillating and slightly obscene but they are interesting – if not genuinely illuminating – and Pirsig finishes the topic with a thought-provoking question.
“Money and celebrity are fame and fortune, traditionally paired as twin forces in the dynamic generation of social values. Both fame and fortune are huge dynamic parameters that give society its shape and meaning.We have whole departments of universities, in fact, whole colleges, devoted to the study of economics, that is fortune, but what do we have that is similarly devoted to the study of fame?” (Lila 258)