My marvelous cousin, Rick Castaneda, is a filmmaker in Los Angeles. He is also a hell of a writer, runs his own production company and has a very big and open heart. After reading the entries in this blog, he sent me this and it’s very beautiful. Rick sent me the Afterword of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Have you read it? It’s a very beautiful book about a trip that the main character takes (by motorcycle) with his son Chris from Minnesota to California. Along the way, the main character’s past self, Phaedrus, an ancient Greek philospher (who was driven away by electro-shock therapy), begins to reemerge as the main character reconciles to his past. Thanks for this Rick. You’re a pal, cous.
This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their 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.
When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?
Ten years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Ancient Greek perspective is certainly appropriate. What sort of future is coming up from behind I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.
Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.
That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail…week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.
There really hasn’t been any “all” to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all. But as time recedes ahead and the perspective surrounding the book grows larger, a somewhat more detailed answer becomes possible.
There is a Swedish word, kulturbärer, which can be translated as “culture-bearer” but still doesn’t mean much. It’s not a concept that has much American use, although it should have.
A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down to write one deliberately. Culture-bearing books occur almost accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are an part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren’t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that’s the standard cultural attitude. But they don’t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy.
Culture-bearing books challenge cultural value assumptions and often do so at a time when the culture is changing in favor of their challenge. The books are not necessarily of high quality. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was no literary masterpiece but it was a culture-bearing book. It came at a time when the entire culture was about to reject slavery. People seized upon it as a portrayal of their own new values and it became an overwhelming success.
The success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems the result of this culture-bearing phenomenon. The involuntary shock treatment described here is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed.
The book also appeared at a time of cultural upheaval on the matter of material success. Hippies were having none of it. Conservatives were baffled. Material success was the American dream. Millions of European peasants had longed for it all their lives and come to America to find it…a world in which they and their descendants would at last have enough. Now their spoiled descendants were throwing that whole dream in their faces, saying it wasn’t any good. What did they want?
The hippies had in mind something that they wanted, and were calling it “freedom,” but in the final analysis “freedom” is a purely negative goal. It just says something is bad. Hippies weren’t really offering any alternatives other than colorful short-term ones, and some of these were looking more and more like pure degeneracy. Degeneracy can be fun but it’s hard to keep up as a serious lifetime occupation.
This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer. That is the sense in which it is a culture-bearer.
The receding Ancient Greek perspective of the past ten years has a very dark side: Chris is dead.
He was murdered. At about 8:00 P.M. on Saturday, November 17, 1979, in San Francisco, he left the Zen Center, where he was a student, to visit a friend’s house a block away on Haight Street.
According to witnesses, a car stopped on the street beside him and two men, black, jumped out. One came from behind him so that Chris couldn’t escape, and grabbed his arms. The one in front of him emptied his pockets and found nothing and became angry. He threatened Chris with a large kitchen knife. Chris said something which the witnesses could not hear. His assailant became angrier. Chris then said something that made him even more furious. He jammed the knife into Chris’s chest. Then the two jumped into their car and left.
Chris leaned for a time on a parked car, trying to keep from collapsing. After a time he staggered across the street to a lamp at the corner of Haight and Octavia. Then, with his right lung filled with blood from a severed pulmonary artery, he fell to the sidewalk and died.
I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else. At his funeral we learned that he had bought a ticket that morning for England, where my second wife and I lived aboard a sailboat. Then a letter from him arrived which said, strangely, “I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday.”
His twenty-third birthday would have been in two weeks.
After his funeral we packed all his things, including a secondhand motorcycle he had just bought, into an old pickup truck and headed back across some of the western mountain and desert roads described in this book. At this time of year the mountain forests and prairies were snow-covered and alone and beautiful. By the time we reached his grandfather’s house in Minnesota we were feeling more peaceful. There in his grandfather’s attic, his things are still stored.
I tend to become taken with philosophic questions, going over them and over them and over them again in loops that go round and round and round until they either produce an answer or become so repetitively locked on they become psychiatrically dangerous, and now the question became obsessive: “Where did he go?”
Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense.
It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn’t just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go?
The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked “Where did he go?” it must be asked “What is the `he’ that is gone?” There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris’s flesh and blood did, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren’t Chris.
What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.
Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn’t find anything. That’s probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon.
Some time later it became clearer that these thoughts were something very close to statements found in many “primitive” cultures. If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh and bones of Chris and call it the “spirit” of Chris or the “ghost” of Chris, then you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter. When we hear accounts of “primitives” talking this way, we dismiss them as superstition because we interpret ghost or spirit as some sort of material ectoplasm, when in fact they may not mean any such thing at all.
In any event, it was not many months later that my wife conceived, unexpectedly. After careful discussion we decided it was not something that should continue. I’m in my fifties. I didn’t want to go through any more child-raising experiences. I’d seen enough. So we came to our conclusion and made the necessary medical appointment.
Then something very strange happened. I’ll never forget it. As we went over the whole decision in detail one last time, there was a kind of dissociation, as though my wife started to recede while we sat there talking. We were looking at each other, talking normally, but it was like those photographs of a rocket just after launching where you see two stages start to separate from each other in space. You think you’re together and then suddenly you see that you’re not together anymore.
I said, “Wait. Stop. Something’s wrong.” What it was, was unknown, but it was intense and I didn’t want it to continue. It was a really frightening thing, which has since become clearer. It was the larger pattern of Chris, making itself known at last. We reversed our decision, and now realize what a catastrophe it would have been for us if we hadn’t.
So I guess you could say, in this primitive way of looking at things, that Chris got his airplane ticket after all. This time he’s little girl named Nell and our life is back in perspective again. The hole in the pattern is being mended. A thousand memories of Chris will always be at hand, of course, but not a destructive clinging to some material entity that can never be here again. We’re in Sweden now, the home of my mother’s ancestors, and I’m working on a second book which is a sequel to this one.
Nell teaches aspects of parenthood never understood before. If she cries or makes a mess or decides to be contrary (and these are relatively rare), it doesn’t bother. There is always Chris’s silence to compare it to. What is seen now so much more clearly is that although the names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on. In terms of this larger pattern the lines at the end of this book still stand. We have won it. Things are better now. You can sort of tell these things.
(This last line is by Nell. She reached around the corner of the machine and banged on the keys and then watched with the same gleam Chris used to have. If the editors preserve it, it will be her first published work.)
…Robert M. Pirsig