On Quality

On Quality

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance passed away Monday at his home in southern Maine, at the age of 88. Pirsig was the author of only two books, Zen and Lila. The two volumes were a diptych of sorts; the subtitle of Zen was, “An inquiry into values,” while the subtitle to his later volume was, “An inquiry into morals.” For me, in my life, the former was a pressing question, while the latter, less so.

For those who haven’t read it, Zen takes on a sweeping question with huge implications. “What is quality?” he asks. He spends much of the book setting up the challenge of answering that question by contrasting two modes of thought which he terms classical and romantic. One sees the big picture, the nature of things, while the other takes the thing as it is. One more mechanistic, the other more artful. He poses them as two opposites, irreconcilable.

He does this while on a motorcycle trip with his son and two friends, plus a ghost. This is no horror story ghost; the ghost is his former self, a man who descended into mental illness and was subjected to electro-shock therapy, wiping out his past, if not his intellect. It’s an ugly reminder of how poorly we have understood and treated mental illness. On the journey he explores these two schools of thought—classical and romantic—and uses them to pose the question, “What is quality?” So a philosophic treatise is overlaid on a journey and into the framework of fatherhood, implying that it’s not enough to answer a question, the answer to that question must be internalized, lived and taught to be passed on to future generations.

The book was a formative one for me when I first read it in undergraduate school, one I returned to in graduate school as I contemplated the question of what I value—and why. Just weeks ago I pulled it from a shelf to take with me as I toured Japan, visiting Buddhist temples.

I’ve never been troubled by the definition of quality. It, like so many things, is identifiable on contact. The question I struggled to resolve in my head is why my emotional connection to anything that is made with passion is so strong. My head and my heart split the world cleanly between quality and not. Some things pass the threshold, other things not. Today’s homogenized and auto-tuned pop music? Not. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Absolutely. As much as I love my Subaru, and while I would refer to it as a quality product, I don’t care about it the way I care about my bike from Seven.

I’ve always preferred objects infused with the passion of their creators, works meant to convey the artist’s or craftsman’s views of their work, their relationship to the world around them. I’d rather buy one good thing than purchase three cheap ones and replace them every two or three years. Even if buying the cheaper item saved me money in the long run, though it never does, I’d still rather invest in something made with conviction.

But there’s another ephemeral word: conviction. We hear it so often in conjunction with jurisprudence, we often fail to remember that it carries the weight of belief, of values, that when I do something with conviction, I do so with the understanding that I’m doing it with the best of my ability, with the certitude that the outcome will be good, will appeal to others.

There came a point for me when I realized that anything created with that hazy honorific of “quality” appealed to me precisely because they gave me some sense of the creator’s passion; they allowed me, an introvert slow to connect with people, to feel an emotional bond with people I might never meet. Of course, I’d never have reached this understanding, this resolution, had Pirsig never asked the question, had never made it okay for me to rabbit hole with questions of my own.

For that, I’ll always be grateful.


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  1. Shawn

    I, too am drawn to quality. It’s strange to be guided, to some extent, by an unexplainable affinity for an undefinable characteristic (of workmanship, materials, appliances, people, etc.). But I don’t think that’s the kind of quality Pirsig was writing about.

    Anyway, I had the oposite experience that you had with ZATAOMM. I thought it was clumsy and strained, making it a frustrating read. I think my undergrad prof assigned it as some kind of suffer test. lol. RIP Mr. Pirsig.

    1. Jeff Dieffenbach

      Shawn, I’m with you, albeit with a bit of a different take. I always assumed ZATAOMM to be profound, just beyond my ability to Grok. Perhaps I read it too young. Perhaps it’s beyond my ability to Grok. Or perhaps it’s clumsy and strained and frustrating to read.

      Lila was much better.

      Patrick, you write with quality AND passion. Invincible combination.

  2. Les.B.

    Went shopping for dishwashers today. I opened the doors of ones in my price range. Just for kicks I opened the door of a too-expensive model. Mistake!

    Just the feel of the solid door, opening so smoothly, hinges with no play, spoke of quality. Then back to the crappy ones I could afford. Before trying the expensive one I didn’t think of these crappy things as crappy.

    But, hell, it’s just a damn dishwasher.

    An appreciation of quality might be encoded in our human DNA. The pre-European Native American fabricating a bow of one type of wood laminated with another type of wood wrapped in leather, of a length specific to its intended use is assuring the survival of his tribe by the quality of his work.

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