Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.
The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.
It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.
But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.
Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.
Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.
Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.
Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.
And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.
The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.
These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.
A day will eventually dawn, though.
As, indeed, it must.
I never quite know what to say when people comment on how amusing or ironic or perplexing it is that I have, supposedly, turned into a Tory. Actually, they don’t comment as such. They merely note. With resignation. How very… well, disappointing, they imply. Or sad.
This on the basis that I had a long history of voting Liberal; yet, in recent Elections, have tended to vote Conservative. Unashamedly.
Because it is hardly a secret that my Liberal heritage runs deep. Deepish. My only overtly political act arrived in the early chapters of my story, about a hundred years ago, when I campaigned on behalf of one of my classmates standing on a Liberal ticket in a mock General Election. I was even issued with a schoolboy Liberal Party membership card. I’m not sure how “real” this was. It was probably run up ad hoc by our history teacher to make the whole business seem even more authentic and immediate.
We won, by the way. I have a 100 per cent hit rate as a political campaigner. Who can match that, I wonder?
But anyway… I was once a card-carrying Liberal. So. How could I even contemplate letting the side down? I stand accused, if that is the right word, of betraying my former self. All I once held dear.
And yet, my critics infer, how terribly predictable. This sort of thing happens to the weakest and weariest among us. They succumb to the tired, disappointed, intolerant pessimism of middle age. In other words, something in me has clearly died. A vitality, a sensitivity, an appetite for life’s possibilities.
Shame on me for losing the courage, the energy, the vision to be a Progressive.
Ah, yes, the P word. This is the point at which you can expect a tart reply.
I hate the P word. I loathe it with all my being. Self-proclaimed Progressives almost never are. In my experience, they are rarely, de jure or de facto, in theory or in practice, unambiguously on the side of the angels. Often they are cynical or narcissistic or both.
But enough of what I don’t like. Here it is. My political testament.
I am still a liberal. In fact, I am more liberal than most members of the Liberal Democrats. Including its leader. Make that especially its leader. I have nothing but contempt for the pinched sort of Christianity he represents.
A liberal still. Indeed I am (count them) once, twice, three times a liberal.
I am, number one, an economic liberal. I believe that the joint stock company is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, bringing, as it does, the Rule of Law into our general economic activities. The things, in short, we do to keep the wolf from the door. It is the engine of prosperity and of technological innovation. And let’s not forget (though goodness knows, comrades, it’s so easy to do) that the joint stock company is the one and only source of funding for the welfare state. Attack one and you attack the other.
Which brings me to item number two: I am a welfare liberal. I believe that the NHS should be the best we can afford and that the benefits system should be as generous as it is enlightened. I believe that the strong should help the weak. (Always and ever, because, whatever Occult Socialists may have you believe, both will always be with us.) I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe in education and the power of books.
But I also believe that the welfare system must be paid for using real money (see above). There is absolutely nothing Progressive about bankrupting the public finances.
Lastly (for now), I am a social liberal. I believe that what people do within the privacy of their own four walls is their own business, providing they’re causing no harm to the vulnerable. More broadly, I believe in public tolerance. Utterly.
None of this matters much to those who, by a process I can’t say I fully understand, maintain a visceral hatred of the party they call The Tories. Among the more “creative” and “intellectual” (apologies for the quote marks but in many cases they are well-and-truly earned) of my contemporaries there’s often a sly insinuation that if you vote Conservative you’re really, whatever you say, voting for the Powell-ite wing of the party, circa 1968. That there’s really something rather monstrous in play here.
Well… I’ll keep buggering on regardless. The party that’s closest to being liberal three-times-over is the one most likely to get my vote.
If that means you think I’m rabidly right wing and an enemy of the people, then so be it.
So, bless your cotton socks, be it.