Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I Think I'm Going Back(wards)

Everyone knows that you should "never go back", just as everyone knows you can never step into the same pop-psychological cliché twice. But re-reading is a special sort of going back that is thought, by and large, to be a good thing, if only because it gives you a chance to adjust your rear-view mirror.

For example, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals was recently dramatised on BBC Radio 4. I was given a copy of that book as a school prize in 1965, and read it many, many times, cover to cover, at bedtime for years. As a keen collector of moths, fossils and any natural historical debris that came to hand I was Gerald Durrell, in my dreams, at least. When they were of a suitable age, I gave copies to my children, fondly anticipating having to retrieve the book at night from across their sleeping faces, as my parents had.

But: they found it unreadable. Hearing it again on the radio, I can now understand why. The archness of Durrell's writing belongs to another era; what was once a model of imaginative writing handed out as school prizes has become irretrievably class-bound, its voice toe-curlingly patrician and smug. Just like the real Gerald Durrell, in fact. I am glad my kids didn't pretend to like it just because I thrust it at them, and I have adjusted my rear-view mirror accordingly.

This last week, I have been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I first read at university in 1974 and hadn't read since. No, it wasn't a set text. It was one of those cult books that everyone read and which, now I come to think of it, did form a sort of alternative reading list.

Setting aside weighty off-piste items like Feyerabend's Against Method, I'm thinking of books like Alfred Watkins' The Old Straight Track, Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- that sort of thing. I also had a soft spot for popular nonsense like Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods -- that mix of pseudo-scholarship and far-out speculation was very much to my taste. I suppose you could say there was a strong anti-rationalist (or at least anti-positivist) streak running through the early 70s. Plus an awful lot of dope was getting smoked.

I saw the best minds of my generation...
Destroyed by reading Erich von Daniken

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (let's call it ZAMM) caught the mood of the time, and seemed to point to a constructive alternative to that idiotic anti-materialist reflex that loathes the positivist certainties of the school chemistry lab, but still demands paracetamol for hangovers. There was -- is -- a general unease that, somehow, scientists had got science wrong and, left unchecked, would accidentally freeze and rigidify the wider culture, like Vonnegut's "ice nine". Science was too important to leave to the scientists.

But it was my turn to find a book unreadable. I hardly recognised the ZAMM I thought I knew. In its place, I found a poorly-written, turgid, plot-free essay describing a mental breakdown and a bizarre case of child cruelty, that could have been usefully condensed into about 40 pages, but instead sprawled over 400 (actually, here it is, digested by John Crace into rather less). It was as if I had never really read the thing; perhaps I hadn't.

This was particularly frustrating as I had just taken delivery of my brand new, super improved Kindle, but -- as ZAMM is not available for the Kindle -- was reading it on my old CyBook. In a classic case of neurotically-deferred gratification, I made myself finish the book before starting another. It was tough going, but in the end I did finish it, though not without thinking, "Well, what was that all about?" I have rarely put a book down with such a sense of release. Rear-view mirror radically re-adjusted.

One thing I did take away from the book, however, was Pirsig's description of the ancient Greek view of time: "They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes". I don't know whether from a scholarly point of view this is accurate, but it resonated with me. It generally does feel like life goes backward or, rather, that we go forward with the past spread out patchily before us. Then I remembered that famous passage where Walter Benjamin describes the "angel of history":
"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Of course, Benjamin's Illuminations was one of the few of those "alternative" bookshelf items that did eventually make it onto the official curriculum. Obvious, really, with hindsight; Walter Benjamin's speculations clearly have depth and pedigree and insight, where Erich von Daniken's clearly do not. Pirsig is situated somewhere wobbly in between.

But, at the time -- especially when we were young and impressionable and breaking free of the received wisdom of a previous generation -- it was quite hard to tell the difference between the "rich and strange" and the simply strange, between the nutritious and the meretricious. As they say: only time will tell. Not, as I begin to realise, because we are passing through time, but because time is passing through us, like the view passing through a rear-view mirror.


Adam Long said...

I've read ZAMM twice too, and found it very different second time round; though I still thought it brilliant. The first time, like you, was in student days, and whilst fascinating I found it rather dark and brooding. The second time round, ten years or so later, I found it a far lighter, more positive read. A friend described a similarly different impression on second read, though his impressions themselves were different to mine, so perhaps it is a quirk of the book.

I think it makes a great primer to pique interest in philosophy, and encourage an inquiring approach to life. Perhaps that makes it redundant if you're in need of neither. I did always wonder what a philosophy 'expert' would make of it. Rather facile and frequently wrong, I suspect. But catch it at the right time, and you'll find its reputation well deserved.

Having been considering reading it again, I'm now not so sure. Or perhaps I should before its too late...

Mike C. said...


Thinking about it, I suspect the main thing that has changed (for me) is that I have been a father for nearly 20 years.

Aspects of the book which one either glosses over or simply doesn't notice as a young man -- primarily, the miserable time had by his son, upset by the weird self-obsessed manic-depressive emotional world his father inhabits, but also the strange relationship with the other biking couple -- were starkly foregrounded for me.

The ideas are interesting (though not as interesting as Pirsig seems to think) but the world enclosing them I found repellent and depressing on re-reading. I simply hadn't noticed this before.

But that's the point of re-reading -- you always see the things that you missed the first time. Cult books are particularly vulnerable -- I dread to think what I'd make of "The Dice Man" or "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" now!


Anonymous said...

Speaking as the person not reading a book in the picture photoshopped by the mists of time and decaying emulsion, I too owned ZAMM, in hardback forbye. Spare a thought, please, for those like me, for whom certain volumes remain the Great Unread. ZAMM is still there, on the shelf, dipped into I am sure -- maybe even 100 pages in -- but never finished. And yet, I feel undiminished. Perhaps, using the powers vested in me then by Carlos Castaneda, I had already intuited the truth about it that Mike now reveals. Or maybe I was a lazy so and so.

Mike C. said...

It may be some comfort, my dear old anonymous friend, to check the prices on abebooks of the 1974 Bodley Head hardback 1st edition, if that's what you have.

Castaneda post coming up soon, btw (was it you who actually tried out the "gait of power"... ? Makes me smile whenever I think of it)


Adam Long said...

'Gait of power' haha, hilarious! I have a friend who was obsessed with Casteneda for a while - the books were a feature of the 1970's Yosemite climbing scene - so I read one, I forget which. What a load of tripe! I forced myself through it with a rising sense of incredulity - at the poor writing, the ludicrous subject matter and, most of all, the fact that huge numbers of people believed it was based on fact!

Mike C. said...


Castaneda -- whom I haven't read since devouring the first three in the 70s -- will be the acid test (so to speak) of this whole re-reading experience. I approach the task with some trepidation, as ZAMM got me off so badly on the wrong foot.

If you've not read it, the first one is very convincing -- published by a university press with all the bells and whistles of anthropological scholarship.

Neil Whitehead, a mutual friend (?) of me and my anonymous friend above is a bona fide anthropologist now working in the US, studying "assault shamanism" in South America. How far he was influenced by Castaneda I have no idea, but such things do go in this world -- whether you share the belief system that sustains them is another matter.

I think what made Castaneda so popular was giving a conceptual framework to a lot of the otherwise unstructured experiences people taking hallucinogens outside of any supporting traditional cultural context tend to have.

I can feel another post coming on...


Adam Long said...

No, it wasn't the first one, perhaps Journey to Ixtlan? I remember the gait of power though. It reminded me of a schoolfriend who reckoned he'd figured out a trick to win sportsday's most risible event - the 2km walk - by walking upright but low so as to lengthen his stride. Suffice to say he didn't win but his attempt was hilarious, more than a little reminiscent of John Cleese.

Good luck with the re-read anyway... look forward to hearing about it!