Four Books: Prison Diary

My Prison Diarhy

Four Books: Prison Diary

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Comments on Robert Pirsig:  The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jared Diamond:  Guns, Germs, and Steel, Virginia Woolf:  Mrs. Dalloway, and a bit more on Henry James:  The Turn of the Screw.  Lots of quotes.

Plus, some thoughts on thinking and writing after reading.

{4/12/08} Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Perennial Classics, Harpercollins Publishers, New York, 2000.

“What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Now that we do have some time, and I know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.” p. 7 Though the conversation of most people most of the time lacks depth, eh?

“‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt [in “the stream of national consciousness”] of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question of ‘what is best?’…” p. 8

“All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land.” p. 16

“…a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.” p. 82

I don’t know of anyone that claims that the ultimate purpose of life is to live as long as possible. Certainly many would say that life has no ultimate purpose. [10/1/18 I certainly would say that any purpose in life is created by us.]

“…a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” p. 94

“The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many |41B| hypothetical truths.” p. 113-114 Pirsig’s understanding of the philosophy of science is weak. He needs to read Popper, Kuhn perhaps (whom I haven’t read).

“The cause of our search current social crises…is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself.” p. 114 “Genetic” defect? And he figured out this “defect” using some tool other than reason? Much loose talk in this book.

{4/13/08} Finished reading Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway last night. I can’t say I liked it much, and if I hadn’t seen the movie (The Hours) and didn’t love her Orlando, I probably would not have liked it at all. The eponymous character seems quite shallow, with hardly an interesting thought in her head, and very little to recommend her. She seemingly makes a great impression on those around her, seemingly mostly for her looks, and perhaps, charm? The people who love her—Dalloway and Peter Walsh—are little more interesting than she is. Walsh is a bit quirky and at least has a checkered past. The most interesting characters are Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. He was shattered by the war, she loves him desperately, and they get no help from the “great” doctor they visit. The contrast between their desperation and the trivial and petty concerns of the rich crowd around Mrs. D. is probably the most interesting part of the matter of the novel. (The “theme,” perhaps?)

The manner, however, is also of interest. The point of view shifts from character to character, mind to mind, very fluidly. Each mind is presented in a stream of consciousness mixing observations of this setting and memories of the past at will. There is not much—indeed, maybe nothing—in the narrative that is not filtered through some character’s consciousness. The rich crowd’s thoughts all seem rather alike, mostly vague and benevolent; the underclass is more varied and more interesting. The climax of the plot comes during the party, when the death of Smith is discussed. Mrs. D.’s thoughts here are the most interesting she’s had all day—she’s distressed that the revelation will dampen the mood of her guests, but she also feels envious of the victim. She sees his death as some kind of grand gesture; to the reader it seems more of a pathetic tragedy. The quote from Othello that comes in several times points up the irony: “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy.” (approximately). Smith dies virtually in a panic of desperation.

It is a subtle and interesting novel, a good one for the aspiring writer to know.

|42| I wrote the above on the morning after finishing the book, and I am somewhat surprised at how well I remember it. The more I wrote the more I remembered and understood; if I had not written, my opinion would have remained more negative than it is now. I recall feeling the same way after writing about The Turn of the Screw. I think this is important. Feeling that you haven’t understood a book (or anything) practically forces you to feel negative about it; increasing your understanding and insight also increases your appreciation. Which seems obvious and superficial now that I’ve said it. But if you’re going to spend ten or twenty hours in reading a book, it seems essential to then go on to spend half an hour or an hour to think about it. Otherwise one’s reading must be much less valuable. Quickly the details will fade from memory, and little more will be retained than a vague sense of liking or disliking. Time for digestion! And summarize any important lessons, to reread as often as necessary.

Yesterday I also finished Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. A very valuable look at the conditions and forces affecting the fates of the peoples of the world. The level of detail was a bit excessive, and the writing was generally repetitive, but I liked it and felt and feel that I learned a lot. It would be worthwhile to review here some of its lessons.

Domestication of plants and animals requires wild species that are suitable. It was a lack of many suitable wild species that put the Americas and Africa and Southeast Asia behind the Fertile Crescent and China. Without this domestication, people are limited to a hunter-gatherer way of life. These domestications are more easily spread east-west than north-south because of the natural respective similarity-dissimilarity of environment. So domestication spread easily to western Europe and not so easily out of Mesoamerica (Aztecs).

Once domestication (farming) is in hand, technology naturally follows because of increased food production making it possible for some specialization of roles, i.e., scribes, bureaucrats, rulers, artisans—which can hardly happen in a hunter-gatherer society. In addition, living with animals results in increased exposure to diseases—plague, smallpox, typhus, etc., came to humans from animals. These germs acted like weapons of conquest, e.g., in the Americas.

|42B| China fell behind in technology because of their general isolation and unification; a few rulers rejected and prohibited some technologies—notably boat building. The Fertile Crescent languished because of climate change (or limited rainfall?) and depletion of resources (overgrazing, use of trees).

Western Europe adopted technologies that originated elsewhere until ~1500 (China, Fertile Crescent, Islamic peoples). Lack of unification avoided China’s problem, so the technology continued to improve, leading to a decisive advantage in guns & steel; with horses & ships, world conquest followed.

The rest is mostly additional detail. This is something I should share with Oliver. Also, I think it puts some of Thoreau’s comments, especially about oxen, in a different light. One more point: the level geography, smooth coastline, and superior rivers for transport in China aided unification compared to Europe. So overall, geography and species distribution were decisive in causing some areas to flourish while others languished.

Pirsig: “It’s not the technology that’s scary. It’s what it does to the relations between people like callers and operators, that’s scary.” p. 154 Well, I find atomic bombs scary. And GMOs.

Finally, something worth hearing from Pirsig: “Reason was no longer to be ‘value free’ [this change is what “Phaedrus” wanted]. Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality [sic], and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good.” p. 368 This brings to mind the introduction of the efficient Cyklon-B into the Nazi gas chambers, and the development of the hydrogen bomb because the atom bomb wasn’t big enough or—I think more correctly—because it offered “more bang for the buck.”

Even better, in some ways: “What I find in Aristotle is mainly a quite dull collection of generalizations, many of which seem impossible to justify in the light of modern knowledge…” p. 369 I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one to reject the worth of Aristotle.  [10/2/18 afterthought:  This is entirely too dismissive of one of the most important writers ever (though I understand that his “writings” are actually lecture notes taken by his students–don’t quote me).  My opinion of Aristotle really is that he’s not important for ME to read RIGHT NOW.  In fact, I sorta want to read his Poetics and Nicomachean (sp?) Ethics, er, someday.]

I finished the book, finally, and must say I didn’t enjoy it much. The personality of the narrator is unappealing, though I didn’t realize that he’s supposed to be “unreliable” and Phaedrus is the “good guy.” That doesn’t really |43| change anything for me.  The road trip story was often quite dull.  The philosophy was mostly unpersuasive and frequently too metaphysical and vague, but it improved greatly when he finally got to the Greeks.  The father-son relationship was for me the most interesting part of the book but it never really developed much and ended up feeling quite unsatisfactory, which, given the unreliable narrator-father, it was doomed to be.


 Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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