Dog is Life/”Hell Hound”/”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/More on Authenticity


I got a dog a few months ago, and she’s taken a bit of my focus and attention. She’s also brought with her a bit more of a regular structure to things. Dogs are strange, in that they are creatures of routine, but also creatures who very much seem to live in the moment. My dog gets me up at 6 every morning to be fed and walked, but each walk appears (to my eyes) to be this astounding adventure of smells and sights and noises. It’s a joy to behold, and I genuinely look forward to seeing her as we explore New Orleans in the early hours. 

And New Orleans in the early hours is a uniquely interesting place. I see people heading to their morning jobs, mixed with people ending their evenings, entirely too late and too drunk. I see unhoused people still asleep in doorways before they’re told to move along. After a few months you become attuned to the energy of the place. Some days more than others. I listen to podcasts a fair bit while walking, but sometimes I take advantage of the time and ‘just listen’ to things. Even more infrequently, I wander around and contemplate things, while periodically reminding the dog that eating that week-old-ant-coated-chicken-drumstick is probably not good for her. 

I’d love to tell you that these contemplative episodes have resulted in me coming to some great philosophical concluding, but they haven’t. At least thus far. I end up contemplating, by and large, kind of random things. It’s in my nature; in my last entry I described my brain as a ‘cocaine addled rat in charge of a radio dial’, and that’s fairly accurate. What *can* happen is that a topic will make the radio dial stick for a time, and in an attempt to get it spinning again, I’ll turn it over in my head, and sometimes they will mash together with the rat’s normal spinning in some way I haven’t thought of, and I’ll glue them together here. 

For example, this above intro was originally meant to segue into a review of “Hell Hound”, a book about a murderous dog I read shortly before adopting one of my own. I started it a few times. The most interesting part about “Hell Hound” is that alternating chapters from the book are from the dog’s perspective. The dog, Baxter, thinks in English, with some interesting gaps. He’s a sociopath, who holds humans and their emotions in contempt. It’s actually a good book— a kind of odd mashup of the song “Jesse” by 90s grunge band Paw and the story “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King. But this review coincided with the slump I was going through I wrote about briefly in the previous entry. 

And said previous entry lead me to pick up a book I had been meaning to re-read and moved to the top of the list— “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It’s an interesting thing: a book which was a genuine phenomenon, and is likely the single most widely read book of philosophical investigations of all time, unless you count Ayn Rand. I do not. “Fuck you, got mine” is fundamentally not a philosophy, and Rand was a shitheel.

It’s sometimes perceived as a product of its time. Robert Pirsig, the author, wrote one other book, “Lila”, which almost no one talks about, rarely gave interviews, and died in 2017. “Zen” is a largely autobiographical novel— Pirsig did take the trip described in the book, was a motorcycle enthusiast, and had undergone a course of Electroconvulsive Therapy for schizophrenia. And it’s the trip that makes for the most interesting parts of the book— Pirsig’s descriptions of life on a motorcycle are detailed and profound. A lot of them were the things that I remembered as I re-read— the idea of being ‘in the frame’ on a motorcycle, the heat of the road, the exposure to the elements. It is generally these sections that propel the work along, allowing the philosophical sections to ‘breathe’. 

And those philosophical sections? Well, I *believe* I understand them, I do. Pirsig somewhat irritatingly calls them “Chautauquas”, which is an archaic term in the same vein as “Salon”. As the book progresses, they become more and more disconnected from the main narrative. I’m not certain that is meant to be reflective of the state of mind of the narrator, but it worked for me that way, and it’s the reading I chose. They also can be read in a way that divides up things the way Pirsig does– into ‘romantic’ and ‘classical’ modes. But they’re not what I focused on. I find it interesting that there appears to have been fairly scant academic criticism of Pirsig’s philosophy; at least from what I could dig up on yon internet. 

Ultimately, however, I found the whole thing difficult to engage with. In some sense, Pirsig thought he had *solved* a lot of problems with his philosophy. In practice, it’s tough to imagine applying these notions of ‘gumption traps’ and ‘hang ups’ into the modern world. I read somewhere that a lot of this book, even at the time (1974) seemed to pine for an age that was disappearing. That’s even more the case now; the freeways and diners and places described are gone, or less interesting than they were. And its discussions of rhetoric seem ancient; I’m aware that universities offer classes in rhetoric, but am really uncertain who takes them or how they are conducted. Pirsig seems to regard academia with some disdain, and when Phaedrus is involved in it, he comes across as a bit of a Mary-Sue. 

And fundamentally, I found a lot of Pirsig’s philosophy, well, kind of annoying. He defines Quality in a way that makes it broad enough to fit anywhere, while also refusing to define it. He’s ‘figured it out’ but in a way that would make dealing with him irritating, and, funnily enough, the sections where he talks to his son reflect this. It’s interesting, and I was reminded in several sections of “The Snow Leopard”, in which the narrator is also a jerk to his family, and both also seem to want the reader to see the world as it is, and not what we might want it to be. Pirsig, at least as he presents himself here, was profoundly happy when doing a thing, and thinking about things seemed to be a method of justifying doing a thing. But doing a thing doesn’t need justification: “chop wood, carry water”. 

I’ve read this book twice now, which is one more time than I read a lot of things: once when I was probably too young to parse it all, and now when I am too old. But I don’t know when the right time for it would be. I’ve engaged with the work in the best way I know how, and I’ll have to leave it at that. 


Since I’ve mentioned the last entry a few times, I’ll refer to it again, briefly. I concerned myself a bit with engaging with something ‘authentically’. A few people responded, mostly in a Slack I hang out on. One of them said using the word ‘authentically’ is a bit of a problem, as authenticity is a kind of mental construct that doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, and that ‘engage’ is the key part of the sentence. I’d argue against that notion. While authenticity may be near-impossible to define, engaging with something ‘with authenticity’ is a thing we can do, or not do. But there are probably better terms, and I will seek them out. 

Funnily enough, I think I engaged with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” with a kind of authenticity I haven’t felt in a while. I went into it half-remembering it, and found myself reading it closely, if only because it asks that you do so. Pirsig does a good job of describing the frisson that can occur when you uncover some given truth, and a not so great job of uncovering those truths. But, it did encourage me to do some thinking, and further encouraged me to do some writing. 

Maybe it was more of a success than I thought it was. 

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