Xavid (kihou) wrote,

On Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’d had Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recommended to me years and years ago, when I really liked Writing Down the Bones. I’m… really not sure at this point why that makes sense. But I'm glad to have read it and have lots of thoughts, some of which I’ll relate here. (Spoilers for a decades-old weird book.)

To make a point in an overly ridiculous fashion, in some ways it reminded me the most of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: high-concept with some good ideas but some major problems including unconsidered casual sexism and a feeling that I fundamentally don’t agree with the author’s interpretation of their work.

But let me take a step back. I’m reading the 25th edition, which has a spoilery introduction (which I fortunately did not read until afterwards) and also formatting changes that paint the author as the “Phaedrus” character and the narrator as being fundamentally/functionally dead at time of writing. My impression is the original ending left the impression that Phaedrus and the narrator came to some sort of accord and merged, which seems a better fit for the story. (As someone DID-spectrum, I’m not generally enthusiastic about “alters merge, solving everything”, but it seems better here.) But the way this version paints it, it acts like Phaedrus’s insanity was entirely due to the people around him having different views and not being open to his ideas about “Quality”, ignoring his self-destructive half-remembered vendettas and the self-care breakdown that actually lead to Phaedrus’s shock treatment. While we can agree that shock treatment is bad, the author acting like Phaedrus was treated as insane just or mainly due to his philosophical ideas is not supported by the text.

There’s also some narrative conceit that just bugs me. If the author’s actually Phaedrus, then all the stuff from the narrator about not remembering stuff but guessing at it from Phaedrus’s notes seems artificial and pointless. The new introduction is harshly critical of the narrator, but given that all we learn of Phaedrus’s views is via this dead “dissembling narrator”, if we are supposed to distrust the narrator then what are we supposed to take from any of this? Should we trust the stuff about gumption traps and travel, or is that also something the author would reject? Who knows? And the introduction claims the narrator paints Phaedrus as evil far more than the narrator actually does. It leaves the impression of an author with fundamental miscomprehensions about his own book. (Perhaps the author 25 years later is not the original author. Of course, this is fundamentally true.)

Which is too bad, because I feel like there’s some good stuff here. Gumption traps and ways of building understanding at a sub-logical level! Quality as a shared but undefinable concept! Mu! (Which feels a bit culturally appropriative to this point, but I don’t know what to do about that.) I think the biggest thing is, especially in conjunction with Gödel Escher Bach, that the reality we construct and the values we assign things (Quality, if you will) aren’t really either objective (quantifiable with science) or subjective (conscious opinions) but on a deeper subconscious level that it’s easy to underestimate and we have little ability to directly probe into. This level is shaped by our experiences, those around us, and our conscious thoughts, but they’re not really under direct control of any of that nor directly explainable in those terms. I think it’s especially interesting to me given that our recent “AI” developments seem to be building systems that work remarkably well but we also can’t easily understand. (And is it surprising that we build racists RNNs when we ourselves have racist (etc.) unconscious brainware?)

All in all, I’m glad I read it, but like HPMoR it leaves me skeptical that I’d like the author’s other work. It does make me sad that its invocations of non-Western philosophy seem superficial despite its wide-ranging contentions about Western philosophy; it seems like stuff about skandhas and the illusory nature of existence are relevant, at least. But I enjoyed its nontraditional prose style, with an almost Hitherby-like at times gradual presentation of background and details, and some of the ideas are quite good even if I might not see eye-to-eye with the author on them.
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