A list is perhaps the most fundamental method to record or document an inquiry into values.
- In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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The word “list” is most commonly used to refer to a catalog, inventory or written collection of items or things. Usually, when we think of a list, we think of a vertically-oriented, written column of words. This column-like image of a list suggests its origins.
The contemporary English word appears to derive from an Old-French version of the word “liste” which referred to a border, edge or strip. There’s also an Old-Italian, Old-Norse and Old-Germanic versions of the word. All of these suggest a Proto-Indo-European root-word such as “leizd”, which meant a border or band.
A secondary meaning of the word list is to “to tilt, lean, incline to one side.” This sense of the word is most frequently observed via depictions of boats or ships. This sense of the word appears to derive from the idea of leaning toward something; if this leaning toward were to be something of desire – the related word is lust. A Middle-English version of the word was lysten (lustjan) and meant to “please, desire, wish or like”. The Old-English “y” in lysten is pronounced as the “u” bury , blush or church. So perhaps it should be spelled as lusten…and reveal that connection to the word lust.
It seems inevitable that there is a relationship between lysten (lustjan) and our modern word listen – which is to attend or focus one’s (auditory) attention. When we listen to someone, we are inclining our attention to them. This too, seems to have a Proto-Indo-Eurpoean root (las -to be eager or wanton).
Hlystan and hlysnan were Old-English variants of listen where “kleu” seems to have been the Proto-Indo-European root-word – meaning to hear.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Today I want to talk about what a list is and the role that it plays in our lives.
In the previous Zensylvania Episode (Ghosts and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), we reviewed a few features of Chapters Three and Five of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. During that episode, we skipped over Chapter Four as it really didn’t have much to offer for that episode. But this time, we’ll be able to explore the chapter to see what it may offer.
As always, I will do my best to provide a reasonable quantity of information from the chapter to support exploration of the ideas without resorting to reading the entire chapter…and also without revealing too much about future chapters in the book. Also as usual, you may wish to review other episodes of the podcast (or the original essays on the website) for further explorations of what I call motorcycle zen.
Chapter Four of ZAMM opens with the narrator waking up early in the morning on the second day of the family and friends motorcycle trip from Minneapolis to California. The first day of the trip had started fine and included a number of the narrator’s memories and thoughts. Eventually a storm caught up with the riders and the day’s ride ended at a motel in an un-named town somewhere between Breckinridge, Minnesota and Ellendale, North Dakota. The riders ended the day sitting in metal courtyard chairs and drinking down a pint of whiskey over conversation about ghosts and the Pirsig family’s current mental health concerns.
After such a gloomy and disconcerting chapter, Pirsig has inserted a chapter which seems like much more homely and familiar territory. The narrator is the first of the group to rise and before waking the others, shares his list of items use for motorcycle trips like this.
Before we go too much further, I have to admit that I am not camper. There have been time when I thought that I ought to take-up camping. Certainly I have known lots of people who love the exploration and adventure that it provides them. But it has never really been my thing. As an adult, I’ve only camped once – it was a summer weekend trip to Mont Tremblant National Park. Kelly and I had rented a little white Pontiac LeMans in Ottawa and puttered over to Mont Tremblant with a pup-tent and woefully little else and spent the night. To paraphrase Pirsig’s comments from an earlier chapter, we were overloaded with enthusiasm and underloaded with the gear to properly enjoy the trip. I suppose the point is that we could probably have benefitted from a better list.
A list is perhaps the most fundamental method to record or document an inquiry into values. A list is a statement of what is important or even considerable in a given situation or context. The list presented at the beginning of Chapter Four is the narrator’s statement of what is important or considerable for a motorcycle trip across a vast territory of the United States of America.
Pirsig’s list may stand in for any list you may wish to consider. We humans readily fall into the habit of making lists, whether written out or merely in our thoughts. Lists probably make up one of the most common features of our daily conversation and yet we rarely talk about these lists. Grocery store lists…is there anything we need or would like to have from the store? In our employment we may be responsible for product inventory, enumerating the features of a product or organizing the dollar spent in the annual budget. Perhaps we evaluate the quality of products or services or we write (or follow) technical procedures for something to be done. Maybe we list of our “top ten” favorite…….whatever…..These are lists…they are statements of value, preference and priority.
In the Zensylvania episode title Footnotes to Minimalism: A Grey and Colourless Philosophy, we examined minimalism and I observed that many people will create a minimalism inventory list as a tool to guide the scaling-down of their personal stuff to some arbitrary and magical quantity. Pirsig’s camping trip list is akin to the minimalist’s inventory as it attempt to establish the barest priorities for (in Pirsig’s case) a specified period of camping life or for the minimalist, a commitment to an idealized life. You may wish to review that episode for some exploration of that, particularly as it relates to minimalism driven by need and minimalism driven by aesthetics – which it seems to me are potentially quite different.
Pirsig’s camping trip list is an interesting mix of necessity and aesthetics. Pirsig is not, as far as I can tell, the member of a nomadic tribe. A motorcycle trip is a form of luxury. His bodily survival does not depend upon it the way a nomadic or impoverished person’s might. Emotionally and spiritually, there may be a slightly different matter.
The mundane and boring items on Pirsig’s list seem to address bodily survival. Clothing, bedding, tools, and other so-called gear. Most, though not all, of these kinds of items receive very little commentary. It is the second category of gear – or said differently, the category of gear which Pirsig imbues with more emotional, spiritual and intellectual weight which receive extra commentary in the book.
Within the list, Pirsig is fulfilling the subtitle of the book. It is an Inquiry Into Values. Items that do not fulfill an immediate bodily survival need seem to require explanation…or where an item fulfills both a bodily survival and a secondary level of meaning carry a higher value.
The narrator extols the virtues of his motorcycle gloves but not (for example) his boots, scarf or long underwear. Which does seem to have been something of a missed opportunity considering how cold the second-days rides begins and how much value is placed on warmth and long underwear in particular by John and Sylvia, the narrator’s co-riders.
There is also an extended justification and explanation of the value that the narrator places on carrying three books: Thoreau’s Walden along with two motorcycle maintenance books.
As you might expect, I am especially interested in the comments about Thoreau’s Walden.
First, I have to admit that at least two decades and perhaps three have passed since I read Walden: Life in the Woods (to call the book by it’s full name). When I purchased the book, I had expected to be impressed by unexpected insights and profound observations. After all, it is a book which has always been regaled as a fundamental American (and on this occasion, I am not omitting Canada from the term) book of philosophy. At the time, I was somewhat underwhelmed and more than a little bored by the book. While there may be a variety of reasons for my reaction at that time, today my estimation is that I had been reading the book out of context on several fronts.
First, I read the Walden without any consideration of the times that Thoreau lived. The concerns and conundrums of a nineteenth-century New Englander were not on my radar at the latter moments of the twentieth-century. For the same reason, I was not deeply impressed when I read Susanna’s Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush – despite Moodie (and her sister, Catherine Parr Traill) having lived in the city of my birth almost a hundred years earlier. I’ve already admitted that camping, Life in the Woods and Roughing It In the Bush are not ideals that I have lived by.
That is not to suggest that I have not had a significant relationship to nature and forests. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a considerable time, I lived with my wife and daughter in boreal forest communities of Northern Ontario. Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Elliott Lake. And even later, when living in the Ottawa Valley or here in the Carolinian forest communities of SW Ontario, hiking among the trees remains one of our favorite activities. But, living in smaller cities and communities, I’ve never felt the special drive to sleep among the trees when a comfortable bed and home was close at hand.
While very little of all my opinion of camping in the woods provides insight into ZAMM – what it does is to shed light on the way that Pirsig invites us to engage with the topics he addresses. Pirsig invites us to bring our individual and subjective experience to bear on the matters he addresses. In fact, when explaining why he brought Thoreau’s Walden along for the ride, he is recommending a way to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycles..and perhaps how to read the events of our own lives. The passage goes like this.
Pirsig emphasized that shoelaces are not on his list to differentiate (and defend) his list as a value-set from the kind of list (or perhaps the absence of a list) of his companions. Narratively, this emphasis may seem like a snarky put-down but I don’t think it is intended this way. I think it is merely a way to emphasize to the reader that the list of values and priorities is or can be a necessary thing to be prepared and self reliant.
Waking everyone to get riding before they’re ready – the narrator says ” I talked about caring. I care about these moldy old riding gloves.” This is a statement of values. It is also rather revealing that he got all of this companions up and moving much earlier than they were prepared for on a cold morning and then wrote off their annoyance as “small differences in temperament” rather than having been a kind of root cause of discomfort for his travel companions. The narrator obviously didn’t care much about these people concurrent to loving a pair of moldy gloves.
I think that I am not being gratuitously or un-necessarily critical of the narrator. This bit of insensitivity isn’t the worst of the narrator that is displayed. And perhaps it isn’t the worst of all of us. In our own way, from time to time, we do care more about our own equivalent of a pair of musty gloves than we do about the people in our lives.
Since his riding companions are clearly irritated with the narrator and have made it plain that they do not intend to head back onto the motorcycles in the frigid morning air, the narrator decides to take a walk and ponder the disconnection between the Rxx and technology. Rather than pondering his direct role in getting everyone moving hours earlier than comfortable (and strictly speaking, necessary)…he concludes that his companions are simply ungrateful for technology.
Despite the profound arrogance and lack of self-awareness that seems to be on display, Pirsig takes the opportunity to include one of the book’s most valuable and insights, “Blind alley, though. If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.”
This focus on solutions rather than name calling endears Pirsig (if not the narrator) to me. It reminds me of the best parts of pragmatism and stoicism that I have often tried to keep close to my self-possession.
There is, of course the ironic double-entendre opener, “blind alley” – as the narrator was just as blind in his reasoning about the situation as would be the person who undertakes name-calling. There is an inherent awareness of the observer-thinker (the narrator) in this situation. He is not separate from the matters he is pondering…he demonstrates a blindness to his own influence on the events that sent him strolling in the cold and unable to remain in the warmth with his friends.
And on this walk, the narrator has not solved anything.
Pirsig’s observation that calling someone a name doesn’t actually solve anything seems to be well worth observing in an age when name-calling of one-sort or another appears to be a common-place occurrence. I’m not going to suggest that I haven’t been susceptible to the kinds of anger, resentment and frustration that leads to name-calling in the first place. Indeed, it may even be necessary from time-to-time to give a thing it’s proper name in order to proceed. By the same token, from time-to-time, the application of manners and a bit of practical wisdom suggests that it’s often, if not usually, quicker and more efficient to take a different route. Of course, none of that gives consideration (as Pirsig’s scene allows us to) to consider our own role in manufacturing the name-calling event in the first place. Pirsig’s scene reminds us that we are probably not the pristine, scientific, disinterested objective observers that we might like to believe that we are. The very act of name-calling is, a kind of values-declaration. The names that we may find ourselves in the habit of calling may well say as much about us as those we direct the force of our name-calling at.
At the risk of overstating what is eminently obvious with ZAMM, motorcycle maintenance is Pirsig’s metaphorical way of referring to caretaking of the self. A part of that caretaking includes awareness of our full engagement with our world.
When we write a list of our priorities, whether that list takes the form of a list of physical items that we need to survive or whether it is a list of names that we call those in our lives, we are setting out our values. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve solved any problems. These lists of of ours are not the things they describe. The cutting edge of reality still awaits us.
- Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part 1
- Ghost (Including consideration of Chapters 3 & 5 of ZAMM)
- Motorcycle Zen
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
References & Notes
- Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1925.
- Granger, David A. John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education. Palgrave Macmillan. New York. 2006.
- James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. The Macmillan Company. New York. 1898.
- James, William. The Meaning of Truth. 1909.
- Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Free Press. 2004.
- Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. William Morrow Company (Harper Collins). New York City. 1974.
- Price, Neil. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books. New York City. 2020.
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. London. 1818.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. Ticknor & Fields. Boston. 1854.
This page was last edited on 11 Febuary 2023.
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