Alter ego

I’m currently re-reading Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those unfamiliar with the work, Persig is driving across America on a motorbike with his son, Chris, and a couple of friends, calling in at places that hold resonances for him. He is accompanied by a ghost, Phaedrus, who turns out to be his alter ego. As the story unfolds fragments from Phaedrus’ memory and writings surface. Phaedrus was Persig as a young man who strove to align what he called “classical” and “romantic” methods of thought and tried to define ‘Quality’. The struggle drove him to depression, a nervous breakdown, hospitalization and electric shock treatment.

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come to it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.

This journey is not just a physical and metaphorical one, it is also a journey into the heart of philosophy and rational thought, and into the mind of the man who struggled to make sense of it.

To the Persig riding the motorcycle, Phaedrus is a ghost, someone who haunts his thoughts and dreams, someone he wants to bury forever. But in order to do so he has to return to the places where it all happened, to look at things with new eyes and to understand where it all went wrong. It’s a compelling read, even for someone like me who’s one of the “romantic” school, who sees things emotionally rather than rationally. It is also beautifully written.

The gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semi-sleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken… And then it reappears.

When I picked this book up again last week all I could remember about it was that it was a story of a journey and parts of it looked at why you need to understand and keep the workings of machines well serviced. Nothing about philosophy. I remembered I’d loved the writing style and that he had explained things that made sense at the time but my brain hadn’t retained any. Inside the front cover is a note from the writer that includes this:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.

It was time to read it again.

Like Persig, I have a Phaedrus. My alter ego doesn’t have a name but she pops up at times to undermine me, telling me I’m not good enough, of course I’ll never be a success and why do I think anyone is remotely interested in anything I have to say? She’s been my companion for years, a shadow dogging my steps. Peter Pan lost his shadow and was searching for it to stitch back on, but I’m trying to find a way to do the opposite, to cut her off and leave her in a drawer. Permanently. Yet I have tremendous compassion for her and therein lies a problem. How do you eliminate something that has been part of who you are? She’s born of other people’s qualitative judgements so perhaps Persig’s book will help peel away any acceptance of those judgements because they are just someone else’s ideas and the quality or worth of a person doesn’t adhere to any agreed universal definition. We’ll see.

Phaedrus had once called metaphysics “the high country of the mind”–an analogy to the high country of mountain climbing. It takes a lot of effort to get there and more effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.

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