So to go back to the question: why does the revolution matter? Because of what was right about it, and what went wrong. It matters because it shows the necessity not only of hope but of appropriate pessimism, and the interrelation of the two. Without hope, that millennial drive, there’s no drive to overturn an ugly world. Without pessimism, a frank evaluation of the scale of difficulties, necessities can all too easily be recast as virtues.
The revolution also matters because it was, quite properly, millennial. Its opponents regularly charge socialism with being a religion. The claim, of course, is hypocritical: anti-communism is just as often infused with the cultish fervour of the exorcist. And more importantly, it’s no weakness that alongside and informing their analysis, the partisans of 1917 were driven by a utopian urge, the hunger for a new and better world, to become people capable of inhabiting it.
To my great shame, I don’t recall the name of the school librarian who suggested I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hiding out in school libraries was a habit I developed at boarding school, because it was a space of last resort. The habit persisted into my years at a (comparatively) normal grammar in the Home Counties, where the loose timetables of A-level study left plenty of hours to kill; quiet time away from people was still a thing I needed fairly frequently, and the library was almost always empty but for the librarian, who always seemed just as happy about that emptiness as I was. She would largely leave me to sit on the beanbags in the kiddies corner, hunched over some Weiss & Hickman extruded fantasy product, or perhaps a borrowed White Wolf sourcebook, or perhaps hunched over nothing at all.
I’m going to guess it was one of the latter sessions of hunching that provoked her intervention, though I may well be retrospectively imposing a better shape on the narrative by saying so; memory is very plastic, and all of writing’s strategies for deluding the reader work just as well on the writer themselves, if not better. She waited until I was leaving, showed me a copy of Zen…, and asked whether I’d read it.
“No,” I told her. “I’m not really interested in motorbikes.”
“But you’re interested in the world, aren’t you?” she replied — this bit I remember very clearly. “In why it is the way it is?”
“Yeah,” I allowed, cautiously. Not because I wasn’t sure — it was perhaps the only thing I was sure of at the time — but because no adult had ever asked me that question in a way that made it sound like it might be a good thing, or at least a not-bad thing.
“Well then, you should try reading this. I think you’ll like it.”
“It’ll tell me why the world is the way it is, will it?” I asked her, letting in a little of that cynical teenager’s sneer. I’d been offered plenty of books with that promise in the past, and they had all revealed themselves to be far worse than fictional.
Her reply was one of those bearings upon which a whole life can suddenly pivot.
“No, it won’t. But it’ll tell you you’re not the only one who wants to know.”
And so I took it, and I read it; it was the first non-genre novel for adults that I ever completed, I think. It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve really come to understand quite why it was that I identified so strongly with that weird and disturbing book — which is ironic, given it took that librarian maybe six months of seeing me twice a week to spot it.
I wish I could remember her name — I moved home and school so many times in my childhood that my memories right up to leaving home in 1994 are largely a parade of faces and voices without any labels at all, only roles and relationships. I do remember her son, who would have been in the same year as me had he not left after his GCSEs: he was one of those loud, slightly manic and careless young men, unlike me in most ways as you can imagine; he did like motorbikes, and as I recall was intending to join the armed forces. I seem to recall his father being absent — or at least I don’t recall his father ever being present — and I also seem to recall his mother had been a nurse before she was a librarian. But again, these latter facts feel too right to be true, like they fit with the story too neatly.
And that, one might say, is what Zen… is about — about the poor fit between our descriptions of reality and our experience of it, and what can happen to those of us who can’t just file that contradiction in the box marked “problems too big for one person to solve”. It’s not a book I’ve praised in public very much, for cowardly reasons — on those occasions I did mention it, I’d hear it written off as second-wave hippy claptrap, or (inexplicably) as stoner philosophy, a naive relic of a naive time; not a title to hold up as formative of your own thinking, unless you were content to be labelled crazy.
Perhaps your death will prompt a re-evaluation, but somehow I doubt it; if anything, the world seems to be rushing back toward what you were running from. The hollowing-out that you saw happening to the concept of quality has spread to countless other vital words, the Janus jaws of marketing and politics, chewing away at the language like maggots in a windfall peach, until there remains nothing to sell but selling itself, a mall of anxious narcissism wherein the only fungible currency is our overburdened and fragmented attention.
Things may swing back the other way. I hope they do. But for now, there’s some small comfort in knowing that someone else came through something similar — far from unbroken, but just about whole.
And for sharing that journey, Robert Pirsig, I want to thank you.
Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown. I made this point when I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so – a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognisable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.
Every utopia contains a dystopia. Every dystopia contains a utopia. The conclusion I’ve come to through extensive speculative fiction voyaging is that the best we can hope for, probably, is to create a society that tries hard not to leave people out. And to be vigilantly alert to the people we are leaving out, whoever they are. To listen. To try to make it right as often as we can. To imagine how it could be different.
… when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might, that is as “the land” now presents itself, you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit acceptance of that.
M John Harrison sneaks up behind the social/natural dichotomy and kicks it in the junk.