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Published on September 16th, 2012 | by Thompson


Retain Some Insanity for Your Sanity’s Sake

If, as Alan Gross says in “Rhetorical Analysis,” “Rhetorically, the creation of knowledge is a task beginning with self-persuasion and ending with the persuasion of others” (568), then insanity, as conveyed by Robert Pirsig and displayed by Pirsig’s Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance must be the inability of self-persuasion.  Though Pirsig’s “inquiry into values” brings him to the brink of destruction, Phaedrus battles back to save him and his sanity.

I say Phaedrus helps rescue Pirsig because without Phaedrus, Chris would have suffered, and if Chris suffers, Pirsig suffers.  Had Pirsig realized as Stanley Fish does in his “Rhetoric” that “something is always happening to the way we think, and that it is always the same something, a tug-of-war between two views of human life and its possibilities, no one of which can ever gain complete and lasting ascendancy because in the very moment of its triumphant articulation each turns back in the direction of the other” (139), perhaps Pirsig could have saved himself before Phaedrus turned back in the direction of Pirsig, but it wouldn’t have made for much of a book (and I do believe this to be “much” of a book…very much so, in fact).  I think why I like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance so much is because our hero, Pirsig, had to hold onto part of the villain, Phaedrus, in order to be the hero we all hoped – a loving, caring, Quality father.

If we review Phaedrus’ inquiry into Quality while at the University of Chicago, we’ll find Phaedrus becoming a “living Sophist,” camping on the banks of Rhetoric on the river of argument.  “A good student seeks knowledge fairly and impartially.  Phaedrus did not.  He had an axe to grind and all he sought were those things that helped him grind it, and the means of knocking down anything which prevented him from grinding it.  He had no time for or interested in other people’s Great Books.  He was there solely to write a Great Book of his own.  His attitude toward Aristotle was grossly unfair for the same reason Aristotle was unfair to his predecessors.  They fouled up what he wanted to say” (Pirsig, 468).  Phaedrus’ attitude towards history and the history of philosophy take a violent turn and it’s because he’s searching for rhetoric to attack and/or include in his own argument, and the fact that he’s so wrapped up in this inquiry into Quality makes this whole thing a personal vendetta for Phaedrus, and he plans to take no prisoners.

When given the opportunity, Phaedrus proves the inevitability of Polanyi’s statement in his “Scientific Controversy”: “In a clash of intellectual passions each side must inevitably attack the opponent’s person” (196).  Instead of answering a question posed by the Chairman honestly and in good faith, he suggests the Chairman may have been “too tired” to discover the answer, attacking the Chairman’s old age and fragility rather than submit himself to the evil dialectical method.  “Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it.  Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful” (Lanham as qtd by Fish, 127), and Phaedrus has become that rhetorical man.  “Plato’s hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man.  Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than the other” (Pirsig, 477).

In the case of Phaedrus, Truth did win, but not entirely.  Though Phaedrus was electro-shocked out of Pirsig, there is a renaissance of “Good” that overcomes Pirsig at the end of the book, and it’s the presence of Phaedrus that Chris begs to see again.  The Rhetoric of Pirsig returns at his son’s request because the “man with the knife” wasn’t cutting it as a father, but that’s not what makes him an insane man.

I don’t find our hero to be all that insane, just a bit too focused on an end.  Phaedrus, near the end of his inquiry, may be unsound of mind, but I think we all go a little insane at times because, as James Berlin states in his “Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the Composition Classroom:…”, “each of us is heterogeneously made up of various competing discourses, conflicted and contradictory scripts, that make our consciousness anything by unified, coherent, and autonomous” (18).  Pirsig/Phaedrus is no different from any other human consisting of competing discourses and conflicted and contradictory scripts except that he is unable to make up his mind whether to be Pirsig or Phaedrus, and “it will not do to say, ‘Be yourself,’ since all of us possess multiple selves, not all of which are appropriate for the particular discourse situation” (21).  Phaedrus, immediately following his demise, was certainly not appropriate for the “Chris” discourse situation, but Pirsig minus Phaedrus wasn’t enough to handle the “Chris” discourse situation.

I think we’d all agree that we are different people in front of our parents or children than away from them.  In the presence of my parents I’m a progressive Democrat.  In the presence of my mother’s parents I’m a left-leaning libertarian.  In the presence of my friends I’m a democratic socialist, and all this to avoid an argument that could shatter their particular image of me, and unfortunately, one me can’t please everyone.  “I survive mainly by pleasing others.  You do that to get out.  To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they’re convinced, you get out.”  Pirsig says of his son,  “If I hadn’t turned on him I’d still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end.  That’s the difference between us, and Chris knows it.  And that’s the reason why sometimes I feel he’s the reality and I’m the ghost” (518).  Pirsig was certainly a different person in front of Chris after a doctor told him Phaedrus was insane, but Chris didn’t like that particular self.  He was having fun getting lost with his father, and that little bit of insanity was what was missing in their relationship.

I guess in a sense, Pirsig was right: “You point to something as having Quality and the Quality tends to go away” (438-39).  Pirsig lost his Quality without a piece of Phaedrus, and Phaedrus was equally hopeless without Pirsig.  In the case of Rhetoric, it lost its Quality when Phaedrus used it deceptively against the Chairman and in attempting to prove Aristotle wrong, and the dialectical method lost its Quality as soon as Phaedrus realized it was producing more questions (or hypotheses) than it was answers and it too is rhetorical, as Gross states: “The objectivity of scientific prose is a carefully crafted rhetorical invention, a nonrational appeal to the authority of reason; scientific reports are the product of verbal choices designed to capitalize on the attractiveness of an enterprise that embodies a convenient myth, a myth in which, apparently, reason has subjugated the passions” (574).  If this were Mythbusters, we could say the “convenient myth” has been busted, because “the choice is never between ideology and absolute truth, but between different ideologies.  Some are finally judged better (‘truer’) than others on the basis of their ability to fulfill the promises of democracy at all levels of experience – the economic, social, political, and cultural – providing an equal share of authority in decision-making and a tolerance for difference” (Berlin, 23).

So Persig ended up “truer” than Phaedrus, but without Phaedrus, Pirsig would not have been as true as he could be to Chris.  I found the Afterword to be most helpful because I got to see our hero continue on his journey, and though the death of Chris must have rocked Pirsig’s world, there was no indication that Phaedrus had made a violent comeback and Pirsig fortuitously got another shot at being a Quality father – giving the Quality parts of Phaedrus and the Quality parts of Pirsig to his daughter, Nell.  It seems Stanley Fish summed it up best, “It is the difference between serious and rhetorical man.  It is the difference that remains” (140).  Pirsig is a perfect representation of that difference, and without the difference, we are neither sane nor insane.  We are simply simple.  So retain some insanity for your sanity’s sake.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

6 Responses to Retain Some Insanity for Your Sanity’s Sake

  1. Bret says:

    I’m starting more and more to think that maybe it’s that, getting caught in dichotomies that is the real insanity. It’s a charmingly intellectual attempt at Bumper Sticker for Rhetoric if I’ve ever heard one… but it is definitely not as simple and cut-and-dry as I make it sound. I think that the problem might be thinking that one knowledge/self/etc. is always and forever correct. To think a person can find a truth that is currently right, will continue to be right, and that a person can say retrospectively has ALWAYS been right that’s where I’m thinking Pirsig’s crazy was (for now, anyway).

    I mean, the right way presumably seems to be realizing that “the right way” is purely contextual… realizing that one is always using Phaedrus’s knife differently (from both oneself in that moment and anyone else in any moment). It’s always a little bit different, I guess.

    Suddenly, I’m thinking that we should be realizing that we are continually using the knife of Phaedrus to carve an idea out of a bit of knowledge that the tree can spare (and we should keep doing this from time to time for fun)… whereas somewhere along the line some people decided that instead of continually carving something new to be of interest and reexamined, they would just carve one thing and stab anyone else who tried to make something else to death.

    The act of carving is maybe the rhetoric… things might have gotten away from me here. It all seems so clear, but I know that soon someone will say or write something that completely changes this for me… and that sounds really exciting.

  2. Siyeh says:

    You should put together a reading list on the site. It would help those of us who are not English majors…

  3. jenny thornburg says:

    When I read your comment about the Afterword, I realized I had not even read it. So I promptly returned to it, and was very glad I did. But dang, Chris murdered? Shocker. Makes the book even more poignant.
    It’s an interesting leap you take in your first paragraph: that insanity is the inability to persuade oneself. Pirsig almost hinted at that in the beginning. He said something like, “the more we try to convince someone of something, the less sure we actually are.” I think this is often true, but not always. I have certain convictions that are grounded not in thought, but in belief and a core ‘knowing,’ which does not mean I am unsure of them.
    But is it fair to say that sanity is equal to the creation of knowledge? If I read your logic right, that is what I think you are extrapolating.
    I found your assessment of Phaedrus as savior fascinating. At first glance, it would seem that Persig’s problems were all due to Phaedrus. But maybe in a way you are right. It was the connection that Phaedrus had with Chris that saves them all. They were alike enough, that it pulled Pirsig back from the edge. “When you live in the shadows of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event”(260). Turns out, the similar mind is his son’s. And of course the entire challenge in this, is the challenge to societal definitions of normalcy. Who gets to say what’s crazy?
    That varies from culture to culture, age to age. Your Lanham quote about reality applies to sanity, somewhat too. Sanity is what is accepted as sanity, what is useful.

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