Saturday, November 10, 2007

Phaedrus vs. Omar Khayyám (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, revisited)

(Now with Pt.III)

I’m a great believer in intertextuality… I love making comparisons; or rather, connections. As the quote goes, “Only connect”.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance although physically not that large a book, nevertheless contains so much that it was difficult to treat it anyway comprehensively in the one post. A second problem was that it’s a hard book to quote from: although it’s immensely readable and definitely at times quite lyrical, it doesn’t lend itself to outstanding extracts, which are after all only literary soundbites. That is not a comment on the quality of the writing, which is superb, but more on the method of the book, which is to layer thought upon thought (both intellectually and emotionally) until a beautiful structure of ideas is built up.

That is why I feel the need to add a little more around the bare bones of the original post. I’ve already put up some pictures of a certain other motorcycle road trip on my other (music) blog: Bouncing Souls vs. Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here, obviously, I’m going to look at books: specifically, books that are mentioned in ZMM.


"Books. I don’t know any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take up a lot of space, but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing. These are:

a. The shop manual for this cycle.

b. A general troubleshooting guide containing all the technical information I can never keep in my head. This is Chilton’s Motorcycle Troubshooting Guide written by Ocee Rich and sold by Sears, Roebuck.

c. A copy of Thoreau’s Walden which Chris has never heard and which can be read a hundred times without exhaustion. I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It’s a form of reading done a century ago… when Chautauquas were popular. Unless you’ve tried it you can’t imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way."


"The sunlight just touches the top of the bluff high above the draw we’re in. A wisp of fog has appeared above the creek. That means it’ll warm up.

I get out of the sleeping bag, put shoes on, pack everything I can without waking Chris, and then go over to the picnic table and give him a shake to wake him up.

He doesn’t respond. I look around and see that there are no jobs left to do but wake him up, and hesitate, but feeling manic and jumpy from the brisk morning air holler, “WAKE!” and he sits up suddenly, eyes wide open.

I do my best to follow this with the opening Quatrain of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It looks like some desert cliff in Persia above us. But Chris doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about. He looks up at the top of the bluff and then just sits there squinting at me. You have to be in a certain mood to accept bad recitations of poetry. Particularly that one.

Soon we’re on the road again, which twists and turns. We stem down into an enormous canyon with high white bluffs on either side. The wind freezes. The road comes into some sunlight which seems to warm me right through the jacket and sweater, but soon we ride into the shade of the canyon wall again where again the wind freezes. This dry desert air doesn’t hold heat. My lips, with the wind blowing into them, feel dry and cracked.

Farther on we cross a dam and leave the canyon into some high semidesert country. This is Oregon now. The road winds through a landscape that reminds me of northern Rajasthan, in India, where it’s not quite desert, much piñon, junipers and grass, but not agricultural either, except where a draw or valley provides a little extra water.

Those crazy Rubáiyat Quatrain keep rumbling through my head.

…something, something along some Strip of Herbage strown,

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,

And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne…

That conjures up a glimpse of the ruins of an ancient Mogul palace near the desert where out of the corner of his eye he saw a wild rosebush…

…And this first summer Month that brings the Rose

… How did that go? I don’t know. I don’t even like the poem. I’ve noticed since this trip has started and particularly since Bozeman that these fragments seem less and less a part of his memory and more and more a part of mine. I’m not sure what that means… I think… I just don’t know.

I think there’s a name for this kind of semidesert, but I can’t think of what it is. No one can be seen anywhere on the road but us.

Chris hollers that he has diarrhea again. We ride until I see a stream below and pull of the road and stop. His face is full of embarrassment again but I tell him we’re in no hurry and get out a change of underwear and roll of toilet paper and bar of soap and tell him to wash his hands thoroughly and carefully after he’s done.

I sit on an Omar Khayyám rock contemplating the semidesert and feel not bad.

…And this first Summer month that brings the Rose… oh… now it comes back…

Each Morn a thousand Roses bring, you say,

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

And this first Summer month that brings the Rose,

Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

… And so on and so forth….

Let’s get off Omar and onto the Chautauqua. Omar’s solution is just to sit around and guzzle the wine and fell so bad that time is passing and the Chautauqua looks good to me by comparison. Particularly today’s Chautauqua, which is about gumption…"


Walden I bought about a year ago, and it is really rather good. In fact, it’s kind of similar to ZMM, in that it combines the practical story of Thoreau’s seclusion in the wood cabin of Walden Pond and his intellectual and political thoughts about American civilisation (Thoreau is famed as a committed 19th-century proponent of civil disobedience). So Walden is in effect another counterculture novel.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám I just picked up today. Blend mentioned below that he picked up his copy of ZMM for a dollar on the street. Unfortunately, we don’t have much of that going on in Dublin. We do have a little place called ‘The Secret Book and Record Store’, at the end of a corridor off a busy street - incidentally a few doors down from Tower Records, which we do still have here – where I found the copy of the Rubaiyat you see above, for €5.

Particularly at these current exchange rates, that’s a lot more than one dollar, but it’s very good value nonetheless. I found some other good stuff – Paul Auster’s City of Glass in graphic novel form drawn by Karasik and Mazzucchelli and with an introduction by Art Spiegelman (€7.95), Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W. Bush’s America (€7.95) and Bernard-Henri Levy’s War, Evil and the End of History (€4.95; some French philosopher dude combining his war journalism with his refléxions on politics and the ’68 student rising – it had a cool black cover and the price was right, wasn’t it?). When I was paying for all this I saw a Hamsun at the top of the several piles of second-hand books yet to be priced; asked how much it was; the cashier went to the back of the store to consult with the owner, typed away at his computer for a while; repeated the process; and then told me €40! Apparently it was a first edition. I’m not even sure if it was any good (one of his later works), so obviously I left it.

So that’s my story of cheap/second-hand book-buying in Dublin. The whole twenty-quid extravaganza was partly in celebration of the fact that this blog has been going for about three months this weekend. It’s time to take stock, so any suggestions, requests or ideas for improvement are more than welcome – just leave a comment!

In any case, I’ve got a great book coming up – Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is currently vying with City of Glass as one of the coolest books about New York there is to read. Stick around…


blend77 said...

another great post.

I wont mention it again, for fear of beating a dead horse, but I came across the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through the Illuminatus Trilogy. With these last few posts, including Ulysses, youve been skirting the territory of that magnificent book. I think you should be getting close to reading it by now.

Trust me, its worth the price to pay for a new copy.

gabbagabbahey said...

ok... I've found a source... sell through amazon, I've bought a bunch of Kerouac books from them before and they have this, so... yeah.

this reminds me of a friend who convinced me at some length to read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. That worked out well, so I should deffo give this a shot!