We’ve just finished the cult-philosophy-classic novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, an excellent read, and one of the big thoughts standing out afterward is this: that without a larger philosophical, metaphysical or spiritual frame of mind supported by or mostly based in the right brain hemisphere, the left hemisphere will gradually try to construct something on its own premises – which it is in no way capable of doing – and in Pirsig’s case this led to obsessions, mental illness and eventually years of hospitalized madness and electroshocks.
It’s somewhat unsettling to follow Pirsig’s mind journey into his deeper probing of the transcendent value questions but seemingly slowly drawn into a linguistic trap of using the LH’s compulsion for analysis and precise definitions in the process. It creates an inwards spin that consumes him. And by habit or perhaps long term cultural conditioning and pressures, even when he briefly discovers that an idea of “Quality” should not be defined, it soon glides over into the LH and becomes literalised and loses its depth, even as he is fully conscious of this process and tries to resist this change. Which might suggest an involuntary strength of his LH, that has over time grown and become beyond his control. But this is where a balanced culture might have helped with overall structures, stories, little reminders in our environment, norms, an ethos that promotes RH conditions and apprehensions of the world, and a more balanced understanding of one self and one’s mind. To some extent the ZMM sounds like a cry out of a culture where the LH has already too much control, and where this is reflected in Pirsig’s own journey and struggles through life.
This also points to a much larger historical scale, about modernity in the last 500 years, and arguably from the roots of the LH’s march towards control and dominance in the old Nominalist debates at the University of Paris in the 11- and 12-hundreds. When an insistence on literalism gradually eroded a part of the world of the RH, where concepts and ideas and intimations of the mystery and the Beyond had been referred to with metaphors and allegorical words. When this was gradually blocked through a LH dominance over words, something deep and valuable and important, if not essential, might have been lost for centuries to come.
Pirsig’s quest and endeavour for balance and unity of the two worlds of technology and humanities, or the “classic” and “romantic” worlds, seems to partly become blocked by this lack of framework or ability to include both a part that is certain and firm, and a part that is uncertain, unknown and ambiguous. Which is something that the RH is naturally very comfortable with. And the RH could also easily unite the three areas he is expressing a wish to unify: that of the Arts, the Sciences and Religion. This was already done in historical periods when the LH was not dominant. It was there before Nominalism, and it is there in an endless abundance in earlier poetic works like the Divine Comedy by Dante. But it will not be accessible through a literal LH reading of it. And it could take years to change the mind and the brain, to gradually rebalance the hemispheres and rediscover the wealth and beauty of the knowledge and wisdom we have to some degree lost, but which is still there, all along.
Pirsig’s book is a fascinating story but could also be seen as a warning about the limitations of the LH, and at the same time point to our natural inclination to try to establish a deeper understanding of the world, but in the domain of the RH. And for that, we need to elevate and learn to use the RH more. Reading Dante or learning from Iain McGilchrist could be an excellent start in that journey – both for oneself, and for the wider culture as well. It’s how a rebirth can happen.