Asia Online (TAO)
Robert M. Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
It's about ten o'clock in the morning and I'm sitting alongside the machine on a cool, shady curbstone back of a hotel we have found in Miles City, Montana. Sylvia is with Chris at a Laundromat doing the laundry for all of us. John is off looking for a duckbill to put on his helmet. He thought he saw one at a cycle shop when we came into town yesterday. And I'm about to sharpen up the engine a little.
Feeling good now. We got in here in the afternoon and made up for a lot of sleep. It was a good thing we stopped. We were so stupid with exhaustion we didn't know how tired we were. When John tried to register rooms he couldn't even remember my name. The desk girl asked us if we owned those "groovy, dreamy motorcycles'' outside the window and we both laughed so hard she wondered what she had said wrong. It was just numbskull laughter from too much fatigue. We've been more than glad to leave them parked and walk for a change.
And baths. In a beautiful old enameled cast-iron bathtub that crouched on lion's paws in the middle of a marble floor, just waiting for us. The water was so soft it felt as if I would never get the soap off. Afterward we walked up and down the main streets and felt like a family -- .
On this machine I've done the tuning so many times it's become a ritual. I don't have to think much about how to do it anymore. Just mainly look for anything unusual. The engine has picked up a noise that sounds like a loose tappet but could be something worse, so I'm going to tune it now and see if it goes away. Tappet adjustment has to be done with the engine cold, which means wherever you park it for the night is where you work on it the next morning, which is why I'm on a shady curbstone back of a hotel in Miles City, Montana. Right now the air is cool in the shade and will be for an hour or so until the sun gets around the tree branches, which is good for working on cycles. It's important not to tune these machines in the direct sun or late in the day when your brain gets muddy because even if you've been through it a hundred times you should be alert and looking for things.
Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it's some kind of a "knack'' or some kind of "affinity for machines'' in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason, and most of the troubles are caused by what old time radio men called a "short between the earphones,'' failures to use the head properly. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. I said yesterday that the ghost of rationality was what Phædrus pursued and what led to his insanity, but to get into that it's vital to stay with down-to-earth examples of rationality, so as not to get lost in generalities no one else can understand. Talk about rationality can get very confusing unless the things with which rationality deals are also included.
We are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately...and this is an important way of seeing it...and where on the other side we can begin to see it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form...and this is an important way of seeing things too. These tools for example...this wrench...has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It's designed to change the underlying form of the machine.
The porcelain inside this first plug is very dark. That is classically as well as romantically ugly because it means the cylinder is getting too much gas and not enough air. The carbon molecules in the gasoline aren't finding enough oxygen to combine with and they're just sitting here loading up the plug. Coming into town yesterday the idle was loping a little, which is a symptom of the same thing.
Just to see if it's just the one cylinder that's rich I check the other one. They're both the same. I get out a pocket knife, grab a stick lying in the gutter and whittle down the end to clean out the plugs, wondering what could be the cause of the richness. That wouldn't have anything to do with rods or valves. And carbs rarely go out of adjustment. The main jets are oversized, which causes richness at high speeds but the plugs were a lot cleaner than this before with the same jets. Mystery. You're always surrounded by them. But if you tried to solve them all, you'd never get the machine fixed. There's no immediate answer so I just leave it as a hanging question.
The first tappet is right on, no adjustment required, so I move on to the next. Still plenty of time before the sun gets past those trees -- I always feel like I'm in church when I do this -- .The gage is some kind of religious icon and I'm performing a holy rite with it. It is a member of a set called "precision measuring instruments'' which in a classic sense has a profound meaning.
In a motorcycle this precision isn't maintained for any romantic or perfectionist reasons. It's simply that the enormous forces of heat and explosive pressure inside this engine can only be controlled through the kind of precision these instruments give. When each explosion takes place it drives a connecting rod onto the crankshaft with a surface pressure of many tons per square inch. If the fit of the rod to the crankshaft is precise the explosion force will be transferred smoothly and the metal will be able to stand it. But if the fit is loose by a distance of only a few thousandths of an inch the force will be delivered suddenly, like a hammer blow, and the rod, bearing and crankshaft surface will soon be pounded flat, creating a noise which at first sounds a lot like loose tappets. That's the reason I'm checking it now. If it is a loose rod and I try to make it to the mountains without an overhaul, it will soon get louder and louder until the rod tears itself free, slams into the spinning crankshaft and destroys the engine. Sometimes broken rods will pile right down through the crankcase and dump all the oil onto the road. All you can do then is start walking.
But all this can be prevented by a few thousandths of an inch fit which precision measuring instruments give, and this is their classical beauty...not what you see, but what they mean...what they are capable of in terms of control of underlying form.
The second tappet's fine. I swing over to the street side of the machine and start on the other cylinder.
Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It's the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that's fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I'm working on parts.I 'm working on concepts.
I was talking about these concepts yesterday when I said that a motorcycle can be divided according to its components and according to its functions. When I said that suddenly I created a set of boxes with the following arrangement:
And when I said the components may be subdivided into a power assembly and a running assembly, suddenly appear some more little boxes:
And you see that every time I made a further division, up came more boxes based on these divisions until I had a huge pyramid of boxes. Finally you see that while I was splitting the cycle up into finer and finer pieces, I was also building a structure.
This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge. Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured...so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.
The box "motorcycle'' contains the boxes "components'' and "functions.'' The box "components'' contains the boxes "power assembly'' and "running assembly,'' and so on. There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as "causes'' which produce long chain structures of the form, "A causes B which causes C which causes D,'' and so on. A functional description of the motorcycle uses this structure. The operator's "exists,'' "equals,'' and "implies'' produce still other structures. These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and structure of causation are just species, is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as "the system'' is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There's no villain, no "mean guy'' who wants them to live meaningless lives, it's just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There's no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone's mind -- number three tappet is right on too. One more to go. This had better be it -- .I've noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this...that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes...pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts...all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees "steel'' as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone's mind. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's "potential''? That's also in someone's mind! -- Ghosts.
That's really what Phædrus was talking about when he said it's all in the mind. It sounds insane when you just jump up and say it without reference to anything specific like an engine. But when you tie it down to something specific and concrete, the insane sound tends to disappear and you see he could have been saying something of importance.
The fourth tappet is too loose, which is what I had hoped. I adjust it. I check the timing and see that it is still right on and the points are not pitted, so I leave them alone, screw on the valve covers, replace the plugs and start it up.
The tappet noise is gone, but that doesn't mean much yet while the oil is still cold. I let it idle while I pack the tools away, then climb on and head for a cycle shop a cyclist on the street told us about last night where they may have a chain adjuster link, and a new foot-peg rubber. Chris must have nervous feet. His foot pegs keep wearing out.
I go a couple blocks and still no tappet noise. It's beginning to sound good, I think it's gone. I won't come to any conclusions until we've gone about thirty miles though. But until then, and right now, the sun is bright, the air is cool, my head is clear, there's a whole day ahead of us, we're almost to the mountains, it's a good day to be alive. It's this thinner air that does it. You always feel like this when you start getting into higher altitudes.
The altitude! That's why the engine's running rich. Sure, that's got to be the reason. We're at twenty-five hundred feet now. I'd better switch to standard jets. They take only a few minutes to put in. And lean out the idle adjustment a little. We'll be getting up a lot higher than this.
Under some shady trees I find Bill's Cycle Shop but no Bill.
A passerby says he has "maybe gone fishing somewhere,'' leaving his shop wide open. We really are in the West. No one would leave a shop like this open in Chicago or New York.
Inside I see that Bill is a mechanic of the "photographic mind'' school. Everything lying around everywhere. Wrenches, screwdrivers, old parts, old motorcycles, new parts, new motorcycles, sales literature, inner tubes, all scattered so thickly and clutteredly you can't even see the workbenches under them. I couldn't work in conditions like this but that's just because I'm not a photographic-mind mechanic. Bill can probably turn around and put his hand on any tool in this mess without having to think about where it is. I've seen mechanics like that. Drive you crazy to watch them, but they get the job done just as well and sometimes faster. Move one tool three inches to the left though, and he'll have to spend days looking for it.
Bill arrives with a grin about something. Sure, he's got some jets for my machine and knows right where they are. I'll have to wait a second though. He's got to close a deal out in back on some Harley parts. I go with him out in a shed in back and see he is selling a whole Harley machine in used parts, except for the frame, which the customer already has. He is selling them all for $125. Not a bad price at all.
Coming back I comment, "He'll know something about motorcycles before he gets those together.''
Bill laughs. "And that's the best way to learn, too.''
He has the jets and foot-peg rubber but no chain adjuster link. I get the rubber and jets installed, take the lump out of the idle and ride back to the hotel.
Sylvia and John and Chris are just coming down the stairs with their stuff as I arrive. Their faces indicate they're in the same good mood I'm in. We head down the main street, find a restaurant and order steaks for lunch.
"This is a great town,'' John says, "really great. Surprised there were any like this left. I was looking all over this morning. They've got stockmen's bars, high-top boots, silver-dollar belt buckles, Levis, Stetsons, the whole thing -- and it's real. It isn't just Chamber of Commerce stuff -- .In the bar down the block this morning they just started talking to me like I'd lived here all my life.''
We order a round of beers. I see by a horseshoe sign on the wall we're into Olympia beer territory now, and order that.
"They must have thought I was off a ranch or something,'' John continues. "And this one old guy was talking away about how he wasn't going to give a thing to the goddam boys, and I really enjoyed that. The ranch was going to go to the girls, cause the goddam boys spend every cent they got down at Suzie's.'' John breaks up with laughter. "Sorry he ever raised 'em, and so on. I thought all that stuff disappeared thirty years ago, but it's still here.''
The waitress comes with the steaks and we knife right into them. That work on the cycle has given me an appetite.
"Something else that ought to interest you,'' John says. "They were talking in the bar about Bozeman, where we're going. They said the governor of Montana had a list of fifty radical college professors at the college in Bozeman he was going to fire. Then he got killed in a plane crash.''
"That was a long time ago,'' I answer. These steaks really are good.
"I didn't know they had a lot of radicals in this state.''
"They've got all kinds of people in this state,'' I say. "But that was just right-wing politics.''
John helps himself to some more salt. He says, "A Washington newspaper columnist came through and put it in his column yesterday, and that's why they were all talking about it. The president of the college confirmed it.''
"Did they print the list?''
"I don't know. Did you know any of them?''
"If they had fifty names,'' I say, "mine must have been one.'' They both look at me with some surprise. I don't know much about it, actually. It was him, of course, and with some feeling of falseness because of this I explain that a "radical'' in Gallatin County, Montana, is a little different from a radical somewhere else.
"This was a college,'' I tell them, "where the wife of the president of the United States was actually banned because she was `too controversial.' ''
"Oh my God,'' John laughs, "that must have been wild.''
They want to hear more but it's hard to say anything. Then I remember one thing: "In a situation like that a real radical's actually got a perfect setup. He can do almost anything and get away with it because his opposition have already made asses out of themselves. They'll make him look good no matter what he says.''
On the way out we pass a city park which I noticed last night, and which produced a memory concurrence. Just a vision of looking up into some trees. He had slept on that park bench one night on his way through to Bozeman. That's why I didn't recognize that forest yesterday. He'd come through at night, on his way to the college at Bozeman.
Now we follow the Yellowstone Valley right across Montana. It changes from Western sagebrush to Midwestern cornfields and back again, depending on whether it's under irrigation from the river. Sometimes we cross over bluffs that take us out of the irrigated area, but usually we stay close to the river. We pass by a marker saying something about Lewis and Clark. One of them came up this way on a side excursion from the Northwest Passage.
Nice sound. Fits the Chautauqua. We're really on a kind of Northwest Passage too. We pass through more fields and desert and the day wears on.
I want to pursue further now that same ghost that Phædrus pursued...rationality itself, that dull, complex, classical ghost of underlying form.
This morning I talked about hierarchies of thought...the system. Now I want to talk about methods of finding one's way through these hierarchies...logic.
Two kinds of logic are used, inductive and deductive. Inductive inferences start with observations of the machine and arrive at general conclusions. For example, if the cycle goes over a bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over another bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over another bump and the engine misfires, and then goes over a long smooth stretch of road and there is no misfiring, and then goes over a fourth bump and the engine misfires again, one can logically conclude that the misfiring is caused by the bumps. That is induction: reasoning from particular experiences to general truths.
Deductive inferences do the reverse. They start with general knowledge and predict a specific observation. For example, if, from reading the hierarchy of facts about the machine, the mechanic knows the horn of the cycle is powered exclusively by electricity from the battery, then he can logically infer that if the battery is dead the horn will not work. That is deduction.
Solution of problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as scientific method.
Actually I've never seen a cycle-maintenance problem complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard. When I think of formal scientific method an image sometimes comes to mind of an enormous juggernaut, a huge bulldozer...slow, tedious lumbering, laborious, but invincible. It takes twice as long, five times as long, maybe a dozen times as long as informal mechanic's techniques, but you know in the end you're going to get it. There's no fault isolation problem in motorcycle maintenance that can stand up to it. When you've hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works, and you know that this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say, "Okay, Nature, that's the end of the nice guy,'' and you crank up the formal scientific method.
For this you keep a lab notebook. Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you've been, where you're going and where you want to get. In scientific work and electronics technology this is necessary because otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don't know and have to give up. In cycle maintenance things are not that involved, but when confusion starts it's a good idea to hold it down by making everything formal and exact. Sometimes just the act of writing down the problems straightens out your head as to what they really are.
The logical statements entered into the notebook are broken down into six categories: (1) statement of the problem, (2) hypotheses as to the cause of the problem, (3) experiments designed to test each hypothesis, (4) predicted results of the experiments, (5) observed results of the experiments and (6) conclusions from the results of the experiments. This is not different from the formal arrangement of many college and high-school lab notebooks but the purpose here is no longer just busywork. The purpose now is precise guidance of thoughts that will fail if they are not accurate.
The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know. There's not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn't suffered from that one so much that he's not instinctively on guard. That's the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don't give it opportunities. One must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with Nature: one logical slip and an entire scientific edifice comes tumbling down. One false deduction about the machine and you can get hung up indefinitely.
In Part One of formal scientific method, which is the statement of the problem, the main skill is in stating absolutely no more than you are positive you know. It is much better to enter a statement "Solve Problem: Why doesn't cycle work?'' which sounds dumb but is correct, than it is to enter a statement "Solve Problem: What is wrong with the electrical system?'' when you don't absolutely know the trouble is in the electrical system. What you should state is "Solve Problem: What is wrong with cycle?'' and then state as the first entry of Part Two: "Hypothesis Number One: The trouble is in the electrical system.'' You think of as many hypotheses as you can, then you design experiments to test them to see which are true and which are false.
This careful approach to the beginning questions keeps you from taking a major wrong turn which might cause you weeks of extra work or can even hang you up completely. Scientific questions often have a surface appearance of dumbness for this reason. They are asked in order to prevent dumb mistakes later on.
Part Three, that part of formal scientific method called experimentation, is sometimes thought of by romantics as all of science itself because that's the only part with much visual surface. They see lots of test tubes and bizarre equipment and people running around making discoveries. They do not see the experiment as part of a larger intellectual process and so they often confuse experiments with demonstrations, which look the same. A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars' worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be. A motorcycle mechanic, on the other hand, who honks the horn to see if the battery works is informally conducting a true scientific experiment. He is testing a hypothesis by putting the question to nature. The TV scientist who mutters sadly, "The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for,'' is suffering mainly from a bad scriptwriter. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don't prove anything one way or another.
Skill at this point consists of using experiments that test only the hypothesis in question, nothing less, nothing more. If the horn honks, and the mechanic concludes that the whole electrical system is working, he is in deep trouble. He has reached an illogical conclusion. The honking horn only tells him that the battery and horn are working. To design an experiment properly he has to think very rigidly in terms of what directly causes what. This you know from the hierarchy. The horn doesn't make the cycle go. Neither does the battery, except in a very indirect way. The point at which the electrical system directly causes the engine to fire is at the spark plugs, and if you don't test here, at the output of the electrical system, you will never really know whether the failure is electrical or not.
To test properly the mechanic removes the plug and lays it against the engine so that the base around the plug is electrically grounded, kicks the starter lever and watches the spark plug gap for a blue spark. If there isn't any he can conclude one of two things: (a) there is an electrical failure or (b) his experiment is sloppy. If he is experienced he will try it a few more times, checking connections, trying every way he can think of to get that plug to fire. Then, if he can't get it to fire, he finally concludes that a is correct, there's an electrical failure, and the experiment is over. He has proved that his hypothesis is correct.
In the final category, conclusions, skill comes in stating no more than the experiment has proved. It hasn't proved that when he fixes the electrical system the motorcycle will start. There may be other things wrong. But he does know that the motorcycle isn't going to run until the electrical system is working and he sets up the next formal question: "Solve problem: what is wrong with the electrical system?''
He then sets up hypotheses for these and tests them. By asking the right questions and choosing the right tests and drawing the right conclusions the mechanic works his way down the echelons of the motorcycle hierarchy until he has found the exact specific cause or causes of the engine failure, and then he changes them so that they no longer cause the failure.
An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don't like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.
A car with a trailer coming our way is passing and having trouble getting back into his lane. I flash my headlight to make sure he sees us. He sees us but he can't get back in. The shoulder is narrow and bumpy. It'll spill us if we take it. I'm braking, honking, flashing. Christ Almighty, he panics and heads for our shoulder! I hold steady to the edge of the road. Here he COMES! At the last moment he goes back and misses us by inches.
A cardboard carton flaps and rolls on the road ahead of us, and we watch it for a long time before we come to it. Fallen off somebody's truck evidently.
Now the shakes come. If we'd been in a car that would've been a head-on. Or a roll in the ditch.
We pull off into a little town that could be in the middle of Iowa. The corn is growing high all around and the smell of fertilizer is heavy in the air. We retreat from the parked cycles into an enormous, high-ceilinged old place. To go with the beer this time I order every kind of snack they've got, and we have a late lunch on peanuts, popcorn, pretzels, potato chips, dried anchovies, dried smoked fish of some other kind with a lot of fine little bones in it, Slim Jims, Long Johns, pepperoni, Fritos, Beer Nuts, ham-sausage spread, fried pork rind and some sesame crackers with an extra taste I'm unable to identify.
Sylvia says, "I'm still feeling weak.'' She somehow thought that cardboard box was our motorcycle rolling over and over again on the highway.
Outside in the valley again the sky is still limited by the bluffs on either side of the river, but they are closer together and closer to us than they were this morning. The valley is narrowing as we move toward the river's source.
We're also at a kind of beginning point in the things I'm discussing at which one can at last start to talk about Phædrus' break from the mainstream of rational thought in pursuit of the ghost of rationality itself.
There was a passage he had read and repeated to himself so many times it survives intact. It begins:
In the temple of science are many mansions -- and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them there.
Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, it would be noticeably emptier but there would still be some men of both present and past times left inside -- . If the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have existed any more than one can have a wood consisting of nothing but creepers -- those who have found favor with the angel -- are somewhat odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, really less like each other than the hosts of the rejected.
What has brought them to the temple -- no single answer will cover -- escape from everyday life, with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the high mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.
The passage is from a 1918 speech by a young German scientist named Albert Einstein.
Phædrus had finished his first year of University science at the age of fifteen. His field was already biochemistry, and he intended to specialize at the interface between the organic and inorganic worlds now known as molecular biology. He didn't think of this as a career for his own personal advancement. He was very young and it was a kind of noble idealistic goal.
The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.
If Phædrus had entered science for ambitious or utilitarian purposes it might never have occurred to him to ask questions about the nature of a scientific hypothesis as an entity in itself. But he did ask them, and was unsatisfied with the answers.
The formation of hypotheses is the most mysterious of all the categories of scientific method. Where they come from, no one knows. A person is sitting somewhere, minding his own business, and suddenly...flash!...he understands something he didn't understand before. Until it's tested the hypothesis isn't truth. For the tests aren't its source. Its source is somewhere else.
Einstein had said:
Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it -- .He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience -- .The supreme task -- is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them -- .
Intuition? Sympathy? Strange words for the origin of scientific knowledge.
A lesser scientist than Einstein might have said, "But scientific knowledge comes from nature. Nature provides the hypotheses.'' But Einstein understood that nature does not. Nature provides only experimental data.
A lesser mind might then have said, "Well then, man provides the hypotheses.'' But Einstein denied this too. "Nobody,'' he said, "who has really gone into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no theoretical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles.''
Phædrus' break occurred when, as a result of laboratory experience, he became interested in hypotheses as entities in themselves. He had noticed again and again in his lab work that what might seem
to be the hardest part of scientific work, thinking up the hypotheses, was invariably the easiest. The act of formally writing everything down precisely and clearly seemed to suggest them. As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind, and as he was testing these, some more came to mind, and as he was testing these, still more came to mind until it became painfully evident that as he continued testing hypotheses and eliminating them or confirming them their number did not decrease. It actually increased as he went along.
At first he found it amusing. He coined a law intended to have the humor of a Parkinson's law that "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.'' It pleased him never to run out of hypotheses. Even when his experimental work seemed dead-end in every conceivable way, he knew that if he just sat down and muddled about it long enough, sure enough, another hypothesis would come along. And it always did. It was only months after he had coined the law that he began to have some doubts about the humor or benefits of it.
If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!
If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.
About this Einstein had said, "Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest,'' and let it go at that. But to Phædrus that was an incredibly weak answer. The phrase "at any given moment'' really shook him. Did Einstein really mean to state that truth was a function of time? To state that would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science!
But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.
He studied scientific truths, then became upset even more by the apparent cause of their temporal condition. It looked as though the time spans of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort. Thus the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater. If, in the next century, scientific activity increases tenfold, then the life expectancy of any scientific truth can be expected to drop to perhaps one-tenth as long as now. What shortens the life-span of the existing truth is the volume of hypotheses offered to replace it; the more the hypotheses, the shorter the time span of the truth. And what seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!
What Phædrus observed on a personal level was a phenomenon, profoundly characteristic of the history of science, which has been swept under the carpet for years. The predicted results of scientific enquiry and the actual results of scientific enquiry are diametrically opposed here, and no one seems to pay too much attention to the fact. The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself. And what Phædrus saw in the isolation of his own laboratory work years ago is now seen everywhere in the technological world today. Scientifically produced antiscience...chaos.
It's possible now to look back a little and see why it's important to talk about this person in relation to everything that's been said before concerning the division between classic and romantic realities and the irreconcilability of the two. Unlike the multitude of romantics who are disturbed about the chaotic changes science and technology force upon the human spirit, Phædrus, with his scientifically trained classic mind, was able to do more than just wring his hands with dismay, or run away, or condemn the whole situation broadside without offering any solutions.
As I've said, he did in the end offer a number of solutions, but the problem was so deep and so formidable and complex that no one really understood the gravity of what he was resolving, and so failed to understand or misunderstood what he said.
The cause of our current social crises, he would have said, is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is...emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.
I've a vision of an angry continuing social crisis that no one really understands the depth of, let alone has solutions to. I see people like John and Sylvia living lost and alienated from the whole rational structure of civilized life, looking for solutions outside that structure, but finding none that are really satisfactory for long. And then I've a vision of Phædrus and his lone isolated abstractions in the laboratory...actually concerned with the same crisis but starting from another point, moving in the opposite direction...and what I'm trying to do here is put it all together. It's so big...that's why I seem to wander sometimes.
No one that Phædrus talked to seemed really concerned about this phenomenon that so baffled him. They seemed to say, "We know scientific method is valid, so why ask about it?''
Phædrus didn't understand this attitude, didn't know what to do about it, and because he wasn't a student of science for personal or utilitarian reasons, it just stopped him completely. It was as if he were contemplating that serene mountain landscape Einstein had described, and suddenly between the mountains had appeared a fissure, a gap of pure nothing. And slowly, and agonizingly, to explain this gap, he had to admit that the mountains, which had seemed built for eternity, might possibly be something else -- perhaps just figments of his own imagination. It stopped him.
And so Phædrus, who at the age of fifteen had finished his freshman year of science, was at the age of seventeen expelled from the University for failing grades. Immaturity and inattention to studies were given as official causes.
There was nothing anyone could have done about it; either to prevent it or correct it. The University couldn't have kept him on without abandoning standards completely.
In a stunned state Phædrus began a long series of lateral drifts that led him into a far orbit of the mind, but he eventually returned along a route we are now following, to the doors of the University itself. Tomorrow I'll try to start on that route.
At Laurel, in sight of the mountains at last, we stop for the night. The evening breeze is cool now. It comes down off the snow. Although the sun must have disappeared behind the mountains an hour ago, there's still good light in the sky from behind the range.
Sylvia and John and Chris and I walk up the long main street in the gathering dusk and feel the presence of the mountains even though we talk about other things. I feel happy to be here, and still a little sad to be here too. Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive.
I wake up wondering if we're near mountains because of memory or because of something in the air. We're in a beautiful old wooden room of a hotel. The sun is shining on the dark wood through the window shade, but even with the shade drawn I can sense that we're near mountains. There's mountain air in this room. It's cool and moist and almost fragrant. One deep breath makes me ready for the next one and then the next one and with each deep breath I feel a little readier until I jump out of bed and pull up the shade and let all that sunlight in...brilliant, cool, bright, sharp and clear.
An urge grows to go over and push Chris up and down to bounce him awake to see all this, but out of kindness, or respect maybe, he is allowed to sleep a while longer, and so with razor and soap I go to a common washroom at the other end of a long corridor of the same dark wood, floorboards creaking all the way. In the washroom the hot water is steaming and perking in the pipes, too hot at first for shaving, but fine after I mix it with cold water.
Through the window beyond the mirror I see there is a porch out in back, and when done go out and stand on it. It's at a level with the tops of the trees surrounding the hotel which seem to respond to this morning air the same way I do. The branches and leaves move with each light breeze as if it were expected, were what had been waited for all this time.
Chris is soon up and Sylvia comes out of her room saying she and John have already eaten breakfast and he is out walking somewhere, but she will go with Chris and me and walk down with us to breakfast
We are in love with everything this morning and talk about good things all the way down a sunlit morning street to a restaurant. The eggs and hot cakes and coffee are from heaven. Sylvia and Chris talk intimately about his school and friends and personal things, while I listen and gaze through the large restaurant window at the storefront across the road. So different now from that lonely night in South Dakota. Beyond those buildings are mountains and snowfields.
Sylvia says John has talked to someone in town about another route to Bozeman, south through Yellowstone Park.
"South?'' I say. "You mean Red Lodge?''
"I guess so.''
A memory comes to me of snowfields in June. "That road goes way up above the timberline.''
"Is that bad?'' Sylvia asks.
"It'll be cold.'' In the middle of the snowfields in my mind appear the cycles and us riding on them. "But just tremendous.''
We meet John again and it's settled. Soon, beyond a railroad underpass, we are on a twisting blacktop through fields toward the mountains up ahead. This
is a road Phædrus used all the time, and flashes of his memory coincide everywhere. The high, dark Absaroka Range looms directly ahead.
We are following a creek to its source. It contains water that was probably snow less than an hour ago. The stream and the road pass through green and stony fields each a little higher than before. Everything is so intense in this sunlight. Dark shadows, bright light. Dark blue sky. The sun is bright and hot when we're in it, but when we pass under trees along the road, it's suddenly cold.
We play tag with a little blue Porsche along the way, passing it with a beep and being passed by it with a beep and doing this several times through fields of dark aspen and bright greens of grass and mountain shrubs. All this is remembered.
He would use this route to get into the high country, then backpack in from the road for three or four or five days, then come back out for more food and head back in again, needing these mountains in an almost physio- logical way. The train of his abstractions became so long and so involved he had to have the surroundings of silence and space here to hold it straight. It was as though hours of constructions would have been shattered by the least distraction of other thought or other duty. It wasn't like other people's thinking, even then, before his insanity. It was at a level at which everything shifts and changes, at which institutional values and verities are gone and there is nothing but one's own spirit to keep one going. His early failure had released him from any felt obligation to think along institutional lines and his thoughts were already independent to a degree few people are familiar with. He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions. He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very trap-wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time. He didn't see these things and think this way at first, however, only later on. I'm getting way out of sequence here. This all came much later.
At first the truths Phædrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory situation, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can't make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That's a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn't move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull's eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that's from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that's not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one's existing system of getting at truth.
To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He couldn't follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do.
The drift took him into the Army, which sent him to Korea. From his memory there's a fragment, a picture of a wall, seen from a prow of a ship, shining radiantly, like a gate of heaven, across a misty harbor. He must have valued the fragment greatly and thought about it many times because although it doesn't fit anything else it is intense, so intense I've returned to it myself many times. It seems to symbolize something very important, a turning point.
His letters from Korea are radically different from his earlier writing, indicating this same turning point. They just explode with emotion. He writes page after page about tiny details of things he sees: marketplaces, shops with sliding glass doors, slate roofs, roads, thatched huts, everything. Sometimes full of wild enthusiasm, sometimes depressed, sometimes angry, sometimes even humorous, he is like someone or some creature that has found an exit from a cage he did not even know was around him, and is wildly roaming over the countryside visually devouring everything in sight.
Later he made friends with Korean laborers who spoke some English but wanted to learn more so that they could qualify as translators. He spent time with them after working hours and in return they took him on long weekend hikes through the hills to see their homes and friends and translate for him the way of life and thought of another culture.
He is sitting by a footpath on a beautiful windswept hillside overlooking the Yellow Sea. The rice in the terrace below the footpath is full-grown and brown. His friends look down at the sea with him seeing islands far out from shore. They eat a picnic lunch and talk to one another and to him and the subject is ideographs and their relation to the world. He comments on how amazing it is that everything in the universe can be described by the twenty-six written characters with which they have been working. His friends nod and smile and eat the food they've taken from tins and say no pleasantly. He is confused by the nod yes and the answer no and so repeats the statement. Again comes the nod meaning yes and the answer no. That is the end of the fragment, but like the wall it's one he thinks about many times.
The final strong fragment from that part of the world is of a compartment of a troopship. He is on his way home. The compartment is empty and unused. He is alone on a bunk made of canvas laced to a steel frame, like a trampoline. There are five of these to a tier, tier after tier of them, completely filling the empty troop compartment.
This is the foremost compartment of the ship and
the canvas in the adjoining frames rises and falls, accompanied by elevator feelings in his stomach. He contemplates these things and a deep booming on the steel plates all around him and realizes that except for these signs there is no indication whatsoever that this entire compartment is rising massively high up into the air and then plunging down, over and over again. He wonders if it is that which is making it difficult to concentrate on the book before him, but realizes that no, the book is just hard. It's a text on Oriental philosophy and it's the most difficult book he's ever read. He's glad to be alone and bored in this empty troop compartment, otherwise he'd never get through it.
The book states that there's a theoretic component of man's existence which is primarily Western (and this corresponded to Phædrus' laboratory past) and an esthetic component of man's existence which is seen more strongly in the Orient (and this corresponded to Phædrus' Korean past) and that these never seem to meet. These terms "theoretic'' and "esthetic'' correspond to what Phædrus later called classic and romantic modes of reality and probably shaped these terms in his mind more than he ever knew. The difference is that the classic reality is primarily theoretic but has its own esthetics too. The romantic reality is primarily esthetic, but has its theory too. The theoretic and esthetic split is between components of a single world. The classic and romantic split is between two separate worlds. The philosophy book, which is called The Meeting of East and West, by F. S. C. Northrop, suggests that greater cognizance be made of the "undifferentiated aesthetic continuum'' from which the theoretic arises.
Phædrus didn't understand this, but after arriving in Seattle, and his discharge from the Army, he sat in his hotel room for two whole weeks, eating enormous Washington apples, and thinking, and eating more apples, and thinking some more, and then as a result of all these fragments, and thinking, returned to the University to study philosophy. His lateral drift was ended. He was actively in pursuit of something now.
A sudden cross-gust of cold air comes heavy with the smell of pines, and soon another and another, and as we approach Red Lodge I'm shivering.
At Red Lodge the road's almost joined to the base of the mountain. The dark ominous mass beyond dominates even the roofs of the buildings on either side of the main street. We park the cycles and unpack them to remove warm clothing. We walk past ski shops into a restaurant where we see on the walls huge photographs of the route we will take up. And up and up, over one of the highest paved roads in the world. I feel some anxiety about this, which I realize is irrational and try to get rid of by talking about the road to the others. There's no way to fall off. No danger to the motorcycle. Just a memory of places where you could throw a stone and it would drop thousands of feet before coming to rest and somehow associating that stone with the cycle and rider.
When coffee is finished we put on the heavy clothing, repack and have soon traveled to the first of many switchback turns across the face of the mountain.
The asphalt of the road is much wider and safer than it occurred in memory. On a cycle you have all sorts of extra room. John and Sylvia take the hairpin turns up ahead and then come back above us, facing us, and have smiles. Soon we take the turn and see their backs again. Then another turn for them and we meet them again, laughing. It's so hard when contemplated in advance, and so easy when you do it.
I talked about Phædrus' lateral drift, which ended with entry into the discipline of philosophy. He saw philosophy as the highest echelon of the entire hierarchy of knowledge. Among philosophers this is so widely believed it's almost a platitude, but for him it's a revelation. He discovered that the science he'd once thought of as the whole world of knowledge is only a branch of philosophy, which is far broader and far more general. The questions he had asked about infinite hypotheses hadn't been of interest to science because they weren't scientific questions. Science cannot study scientific method without getting into a bootstrap problem that destroys the validity of its answers. The questions he'd asked were at a higher level than science goes. And so Phædrus found in philosophy a natural continuation of the question that brought him to science in the first place, What does it all mean? What's the purpose of all this?
At a turnout on the road we stop, take some record photographs to show we have been here and then walk to a little path that takes us out to the edge of a cliff. A motorcycle on the road almost straight down beneath us could hardly be seen from up here. We bundle up more tightly against the cold and continue upward.
The broad-leafed trees are all gone. Only small pines are left. Many of these have twisted and stunted shapes.
Soon stunted pines disappear entirely and we're in alpine meadows. There's not a tree anywhere, only grass everywhere filled with little pink and blue and white dots of intense color. Wildflowers, everywhere! These and grasses and mosses and lichens are all that can live here, now. We've reached the high country, above the timberline.
I look over my shoulder for one last view of the gorge. Like looking down at the bottom of the ocean. People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists.
The road turns inward, away from the gorge and into snowfields.
The engine backfires fiercely from lack of oxygen and threatens to stop but never does. Soon we are between banks of old snow, the way snow looks in early spring after a thaw. Little streams of water run everywhere into mossy mud, and then below this into week-old grass and then small wildflowers, the tiny pink and blue and yellow and white ones which seem to pop out, sun-brilliant, from black shadows. Everywhere it's like this! Little pins of colored light shoot forth to me from a background of somber dark green and black. Dark sky now and cold. Except where the sun hits. On the sun side my arm and leg and jacket are hot, but the dark side, in deep shadows now, is very cold.
The snowfields become heavy and show steep banks where snowplows have been. The banks become four feet high, then six feet, then twelve feet high. We move through twin walls, almost a tunnel of snow. Then the tunnel opens onto dark sky again and when we emerge we see we're at the summit.
Beyond is another country. Mountain lakes and pines and snowfields are below. Above and beyond them as far as we can see are farther mountain ranges covered with snow. The high country.
We stop and park at a turnoff where a number of tourists take pictures and look around at the view and at one other. At the back of his cycle John removes his camera from the saddlebag. From my own machine I remove the tool kit and spread it out on the seat, then take the screwdriver, start the engine and with the screwdriver adjust the carburetors until the idling sound changes from a really bad loping to just slightly bad. I'm surprised at how all the way up it backfired and sputtered and kicked and gave every indication it was going to quit but never did. I didn't adjust them, out of curiosity to see what eleven thousand feet of altitude would do. Now I'm leaving them rich and sounding just bad because we'll be going down some now toward Yellowstone Park and if they aren't slightly rich now they'll get too lean later on, which is dangerous because it overheats the engine.
The backfiring is still fairly heavy on the way down from the summit with the engine dragging in second gear, but then the noise diminishes as we reach lower altitudes. The forests return. We move among rocks and lakes and trees now, taking beautiful turns and curves of the road.
I want to talk about another kind of high country now in the world of thought, which in some ways, for me at least, seems to parallel or produce feelings similar to this, and call it the high country of the mind.
If all of human knowledge, everything that's known, is believed to be an enormous hierarchic structure, then the high country of the mind is found at the uppermost reaches of this structure in the most general, the most abstract considerations of all.
Few people travel here. There's no real profit to be made from wandering through it, yet like this high country of the material world all around us, it has its own austere beauty that to some people makes the hardships of traveling through it seem worthwhile.
In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one's way out.
What is the truth and how do you know it when you have it? -- How do we really know anything? Is there an "I,'' a "soul,'' which knows, or is this soul merely cells coordinating senses? -- Is reality basically changing, or is it fixed and permanent? -- When it's said that something means something, what's meant by that?
Many trails through these high ranges have been made and forgotten since the beginning of time, and although the answers brought back from these trails have claimed permanence and universality for themselves, civilizations have varied in the trails they have chosen and we have many different answers to the same question, all of which can be thought of as true within their own context. Even within a single civilization old trails are constantly closed and new ones opened up.
It's sometimes argued that there's no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times. But this argument, though romantically appealing, doesn't hold up. The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive life...the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay alive. From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress is quite clearly reason itself.
One can see how both the informal and formal processes of hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, century after century, repeated with new material, have built up the hierarchies of thought which have eliminated most of the enemies of primitive man. To some extent the romantic condemnation of rationality stems from the very effectiveness of rationality in uplifting men from primitive conditions. It's such a powerful, all-dominating agent of civilized man it's all but shut out everything else and now dominates man himself. That's the source of the complaint.
Phædrus wandered through this high country, aimlessly at first, following every path, every trail where someone had been before, seeing occasionally with small hindsights that he was apparently making some progress, but seeing nothing ahead of him that told him which way to go.
Through the mountainous questions of reality and knowledge had passed great figures of civilization, some of whom, like Socrates and Aristotle and Newton and Einstein, were known to almost everyone, but most of whom were far more obscure. Names he had never heard of before. And he became fascinated with their thought and their whole way of thinking. He followed their trails carefully until they seemed to grow cold, then dropped them. His work was just barely passing by academic standards at this time, but this wasn't because he wasn't working or thinking. He was thinking too hard, and the harder you think in this high country of the mind the slower you go. Phædrus read in a scientific way rather than a literary way, testing each sentence as he went along, noting doubts and questions to be resolved later, and I'm fortunate in having a whole trunkful of volumes of these notations.
What is most astonishing about them is that almost everything he said years later is contained in them. It's frustrating to see how completely unaware he is at the time of the significance of what he is saying. It's like seeing someone handling, one by one, all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whose solution you know, and you want to tell him, "Look, this fits here, and this fits here,'' but you can't tell him. And so he wanders blindly along one trail after another gathering one piece after another and wondering what to do with them, and you grit your teeth when he goes off on a false trail and are relieved when he comes back again, even though he is discouraged himself. "Don't worry,'' you want to tell him. "Keep going!''
But he's such an abominable scholar it must be through the kindness of his instructors that he passes at all. He prejudges every philosopher he studies. He always intrudes and imposes his own views upon the material he is studying. He is never fair. He's always partial. He wants each philosopher to go a certain way and becomes infuriated when he does not.
A fragment of memory is preserved of him sitting in a room at three and four in the morning with Immanuel Kant's famous Critique of Pure Reason, studying it as a chess player studies the openings of the tournament masters, trying to test the line of development against his own judgment and skill, looking for contradictions and incongruities.
Phædrus is a bizarre person when contrasted to the twentieth-century Midwestern Americans who surround him, but when he is seen studying Kant he is less strange. For this eighteenth-century German philosopher he feels a respect that rises not out of agreement but out of appreciation for Kant's formidable logical fortification of his position. Kant is always superbly methodical, persistent, regular and meticulous as he scales that great snowy mountain of thought concerning what is in the mind and what is outside the mind. It is, for modern climbers, one of the highest peaks of all, and I want now to magnify this picture of Kant and show a little about how he thought and how Phædrus thought about him in order to give a clearer picture of what the high country of the mind is like and also to prepare the way for an understanding of Phædrus' thoughts.
Phædrus' resolution of the entire problem of classic and romantic understanding occurred at first in this high country of the mind, and unless one understands the relation of this country to the rest of existence, the meaning and the importance of lower levels of what he said here will be underestimated or misunderstood.
To follow Kant one must also understand something about the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume had previously submitted that if one follows the strictest rules of logical induction and deduction from experience to determine the true nature of the world, one must arrive at certain conclusions. His reasoning followed lines that would result from answers to this question: Suppose a child is born devoid of all senses; he has no sight, no hearing, no touch, no smell, no taste...nothing. There's no way whatsoever for him to receive any sensations from the outside world. And suppose this child is fed intravenously and otherwise attended to and kept alive for eighteen years in this state of existence. The question is then asked: Does this eighteen-year-old person have a thought in his head? If so, where does it come from? How does he get it?
Hume would have answered that the eighteen-year-old had no thoughts whatsoever, and in giving this answer would have defined himself as an empiricist, one who believes all knowledge is derived exclusively from the senses. The scientific method of experimentation is carefully controlled empiricism. Common sense today is empiricism, since an overwhelming majority would agree with Hume, even though in other cultures and other times a majority might have differed.
The first problem of empiricism, if empiricism is believed, concerns the nature of "substance.'' If all our knowledge comes from sensory data, what exactly is this substance which is supposed to give off the sensory data itself? If you try to imagine what this substance is, apart from what is sensed, you'll find yourself thinking about nothing whatsoever.
Since all knowledge comes from sensory impressions and since there's no sensory impression of substance itself, it follows logically that there is no knowledge of substance. It's just something we imagine. It's entirely within our own minds. The idea that there's something out there giving off the properties we perceive is just another of those common-sense notions similar to the common-sense notion children have that the earth is flat and parallel lines never meet.
Secondly, if one starts with the premise that all our knowledge comes to us through our senses, one must ask, From what sense data is our knowledge of causation received? In other words, what is the scientific empirical basis of causation itself?
Hume's answer is "None.'' There's no evidence for causation in our sensations. Like substance, it's just something we imagine when one thing repeatedly follows another. It has no real existence in the world we observe. If one accepts the premise that all knowledge comes to us through our senses, Hume says, then one must logically conclude that both "Nature'' and "Nature's laws'' are creations of our own imagination.
This idea that the entire world is within one's own mind could be dismissed as absurd if Hume had just thrown it out for speculation. But he was making it an airtight case.
To throw out Hume's conclusions was necessary, but unfortunately he had arrived at them in such a way that it was seemingly impossible to throw them out without abandoning empirical reason itself and retiring into some medieval predecessor of empirical reason. This Kant would not do. Thus it was Hume, Kant said, who "aroused me from my dogmatic slumbers'' and caused him to write what is now regarded as one of the greatest philosophical treatises ever written, the Critique of Pure Reason, often the subject of an entire University course.
Kant is trying to save scientific empiricism from the consequences of its own self-devouring logic. He starts out at first along the path that Hume has set before him. "That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt,'' he says, but he soon departs from the path by denying that all components of knowledge come from the senses at the moment the sense data are received. "But though all knowledge begins with experience it doesn't follow that it arises out of experience.''
This seems, at first, as though he is picking nits, but he isn't. As a result of this difference, Kant skirts right around the abyss of solipsism that Hume's path leads to and proceeds on an entirely new and different path of his own.
Kant says there are aspects of reality which are not supplied immediately by the senses. These he calls a priori. An example of a priori knowledge is "time.'' You don't see time. Neither do you hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it. It isn't present in the sense data as they are received. Time is what Kant calls an "intuition,'' which the mind must supply as it receives the sense data.
The same is true of space. Unless we apply the concepts of space and time to the impressions we receive, the world is unintelligible, just a kaleidoscopic jumble of colors and patterns and noises and smells and pain and tastes without meaning. We sense objects in a certain way because of our application of a priori intuitions such as space and time, but we do not create these objects out of our imagination, as pure philosophical idealists would maintain. The forms of space and time are applied to data as they are received from the object producing them. The a priori concepts have their origins in human nature so that they're neither caused by the sensed object nor bring it into being, but provide a kind of screening function for what sense data we will accept. When our eyes blink, for example, our sense data tell us that the world has disappeared. But this is screened out and never gets to our consciousness because we have in our minds an a priori concept that the world has continuity. What we think of as reality is a continuous synthesis of elements from a fixed hierarchy of a priori concepts and the ever changing data of the senses. Now stop and apply some of the concepts Kant has put forth to this strange machine, this creation that's been bearing us along through time and space. See our relation to it now, as Kant reveals it to us.
Hume has been saying, in effect, that everything I know about this motorcycle comes to me through my senses. It has to be. There's no other way. If I say it's made of metal and other substances, he asks, What's metal? If I answer that metal's hard and shiny and cold to the touch and deforms without breaking under blows from a harder material, Hume says those are all sights and sounds and touch. There's no substance. Tell me what metal is apart from these sensations. Then, of course, I'm stuck.
But if there's no substance, what can we say about the sense data we receive? If I hold my head to the left and look down at the handle grips and front wheel and map carrier and gas tank I get one pattern of sense data. If I move my head to the right I get another slightly different pattern of sense data. The two views are different. The angles of the planes and curves of the metal are different. The sunlight strikes them differently. If there's no logical basis for substance then there's no logical basis for concluding that what's produced these two views is the same motorcycle.
Now we've a real intellectual impasse. Our reason, which is supposed to make things more intelligible, seems to be making them less intelligible, and when reason thus defeats its own purpose something has to be changed in the structure of our reason itself.
Kant comes to our rescue. He says that the fact that there's no way of immediately sensing a "motorcycle,'' as distinguished from the colors and shapes a motorcycle produces, is no proof at all that there's no motorcycle there. We have in our minds an a priori motorcycle which has continuity in time and space and is capable of changing appearance as one moves one's head and is therefore not contradicted by the sense data one is receiving.
Hume's motorcycle, the one that makes no sense at all, will occur if our previous hypothetical bed patient, the one who has no senses at all, is suddenly, for one second only, exposed to the sense data of a motorcycle, then deprived of his senses again. Now, I think, in his mind he would have a Hume motorcycle, which provides him with no evidence whatsoever for such concepts as causation.
But, as Kant says, we are not that person. We have in our minds a very real a priori motorcycle whose existence we have no reason to doubt, whose reality can be confirmed anytime.
This a priori motorcycle has been built up in our minds over many years from enormous amounts of sense data and it is constantly changing as new sense data come in. Some of the changes in this specific a priori motorcycle I'm riding are very quick and transitory, such as its relationship to the road. This I'm monitoring and correcting all the time as we take these curves and bends in the road. As soon as the information's of no more value I forget it because there's more coming in that must be monitored. Other changes in this a priori are slower: Disappearance of gasoline from the tank. Disappearance of rubber from the tires. Loosening of bolts and nuts. Change of gap between brake shoes and drums. Other aspects of the motorcycle change so slowly they seem permanent...the paint job, the wheel bearings, the control cables...yet these are constantly changing too. Finally, if one thinks in terms of really large amounts of time even the frame is changing slightly from the road shocks and thermal changes and forces of internal fatigue common to all metals.
It's quite a machine, this a priori motorcycle. If you stop to think about it long enough you'll see that it's the main thing. The sense data confirm it but the sense data aren't it. The motorcycle that I believe in an a priori way to be outside of myself is like the money I believe I have in the bank. If I were to go down to the bank and ask to see my money they would look at me a little peculiarly. They don't have "my money'' in any little drawer that they can pull open to show me. "My money'' is nothing but some east-west and north-south magnetic domains in some iron oxide resting on a roll of tape in a computer storage bin. But I'm satisfied with this because I've faith that if I need the things that money enables, the bank will provide the means, through their checking system, of getting it. Similarly, even though my sense data have never brought up anything that could be called "substance'' I'm satisfied that there's a capability within the sense data of achieving the things that substance is supposed to do, and that the sense data will continue to match the a priori motorcycle of my mind. I say for the sake of convenience that I've money in the bank and say for the sake of convenience that substances compose the cycle I'm riding on. The bulk of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is concerned with how this a priori knowledge is acquired and how it is employed.
Kant called his thesis that our a priori thoughts are independent of sense data and screen what we see a "Copernican revolution.'' By this he referred to Copernicus' statement that the earth moves around the sun. Nothing changed as a result of this revolution, and yet everything changed. Or, to put it in Kantian terms, the objective world producing our sense data did not change, but our a priori concept of it was turned inside out. The effect was overwhelming. It was the acceptance of the Copernican revolution that distinguishes modern man from his medieval predecessors.
What Copernicus did was take the existing a priori concept of the world, the notion that it was flat and fixed in space, and pose an alternative a priori concept of the world, that it's spherical and moves around the sun; and showed that both of the a priori concepts fitted the existing sensory data.
Kant felt he had done the same thing in metaphysics. If you presume that the a priori concepts in our heads are independent of what we see and actually screen what we see, this means that you are taking the old Aristotelian concept of scientific man as a passive observer, a "blank tablet,'' and truly turning this concept inside out. Kant and his millions of followers have maintained that as a result of this inversion you get a much more satisfying understanding of how we know things.
I've gone into this example in some detail, partly to show some of the high country in close perspective, but more to prepare for what Phædrus did later. He too performed a Copernican inversion and as a result of this inversion produced a resolution of the separate worlds of classical and romantic understanding. And it seems to me that as a result it is possible to again get a much more satisfying understanding of what the world is all about.
Kant's metaphysics thrilled Phædrus at first, but later it dragged and he didn't know exactly why. He thought about it and decided that maybe it was the Oriental experience. He had had the feeling of escape from a prison of intellect, and now this was just more of the prison again. He read Kant's esthetics with disappointment and then anger. The ideas expressed about the "beautiful'' were themselves ugly to him, and the ugliness was so deep and pervasive he hadn't a clue as to where to begin to attack it or try to get around it. It seemed woven right into the whole fabric of Kant's world so deeply there was no escape from it. It wasn't just eighteenth-century ugliness or "technical'' ugliness. All of the philosophers he was reading showed it. The whole university he was attending smelled of the same ugliness. It was everywhere, in the classroom, in the textbooks. It was in himself and he didn't know how or why. It was reason itself that was ugly and there seemed no way to get free.
At Cooke City John and Sylvia look and sound happier than I have seen them in years, and we whack into our hot beef sandwiches with great whacks. I'm happy to hear and see all their high-country exuberance but don't comment much, just keep eating.
Outside the picture window across the road are huge pines. Many cars pass beneath them on their way to the park. We're a long way down from the timberline now. Warmer here but covered over with an occasional low cloud ready to drop rain.
I suppose if I were a novelist rather than a Chautauqua orator I'd try to "develop the characters'' of John and Sylvia and Chris with action-packed scenes that would also reveal "inner meanings'' of Zen and maybe Art and maybe even Motorcycle Maintenance. That would be quite a novel, but for some reason I don't feel quite up to it. They're friends, not characters, and as Sylvia herself once said, "I don't like being an object!'' So a lot of things we know about one another I'm simply not going into. Nothing bad, but not really relevant to the Chautauqua. That's the way it should be with friends.
At the same time I think you can understand from the Chautauqua why I must always seem so reserved and remote to them. Once in a while they ask questions that seem to call for a statement of what the hell I'm always thinking about, but if I were to babble what's really on my mind about, say, the a priori presumption of the continuity of a motorcycle from second to second and do this without benefit of the entire edifice of the Chautauqua, they'd just be startled and wonder what's wrong. I really am interested in this continuity and the way we talk and think about it and so tend to get removed from the usual lunchtime situation and this gives an appearance of remoteness. It's a problem.
It's a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we're all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him. The lunchtime here-and-now stuff is a specialty too.
Chris seems to understand my remoteness better than they do, perhaps because he's more used to it and his relationship to me is such that he has to be more concerned. In his face I sometimes see a look of worry, or at least anxiety, and wonder why, and then discover that I'm angry. If I hadn't seen his expression, I might not have known it. Other times he's running and jumping all over the place and I wonder why and discover that it's because I'm in a good mood. Now I see he's a little nervous and answering a question that John had evidently directed at me. It's about the people we'll be staying with tomorrow, the DeWeeses.
I'm not sure what the question was but add, "He's a painter. He teaches fine arts at the college there, an abstract impressionist.''
They ask how I came to know him and I have to answer that I don't remember which is a little evasive. I don't remember anything about him except fragments. He and his wife were evidently friends of Phædrus' friends, and he came to know them that way.
They wonder what an engineering writer like myself would have in common with an abstract painter and I have to say again that I don't know. I mentally file through the fragments for an answer but none comes.
Their personalities were certainly different. Whereas photographs of Phædrus' face during this period show alienation and aggression...a member of his department had half jokingly called it a "subversive'' look...some photographs of DeWeese from the same period show a face that is quite passive, almost serene, except for a mild questioning expression.
In my memory is a movie about a World War I spy who studied the behavior of a captured German officer (who looked exactly like him) by means of a one-way mirror. He studied him for months until he could imitate every gesture and nuance of speech. Then he pretended to be the escaped officer in order to infiltrate the German Army command. I remember the tension and excitement as he faced his first test with the officer's old friends to learn if they would see through his imposture. Now I've some of the same feeling about DeWeese, who'll naturally presume I'm the person he once knew.
Outside a light mist has made the motorcycles wet. I take out the plastic bubble from the saddlebag and attach it to the helmet. We'll be entering Yellowstone Park soon.
The road ahead is foggy. It seems like a cloud has drifted into the valley, which isn't really a valley at all but more of a mountain pass.
I don't know how well DeWeese knew him, and what memories he'll expect me to share. I've gone through this before with others and have usually been able to gloss over awkward moments. The reward each time has been an expansion of knowledge about Phædrus that has greatly aided further impersonation, and which over the years has supplied the bulk of the information I've been presenting here.
From what fragments of memory I have, Phædrus had a high regard for DeWeese because he didn't understand him. For Phædrus, failure to understand something created tremendous interest and DeWeese's attitudes were fascinating. They seemed all haywire. Phædrus would say something he thought was pretty funny and DeWeese would look at him in a puzzled way or else take him seriously. Other times Phædrus would say something that was very serious and of deep concern, and DeWeese would break up laughing, as though he had cracked the cleverest joke he had ever heard.
For example, there is the fragment of memory about a dining-room table whose edge veneer had come loose and which Phædrus had reglued. He held the veneer in place while the glue set by wrapping a whole ball of string around the table, round and round and round.
DeWeese saw the string and wondered what that was all about.
"That's my latest sculpture,'' Phædrus had said. "Don't you think it kind of builds?''
Instead of laughing, DeWeese looked at him with amazement, studied it for a long time and finally said, "Where did you learn all this?'' For a second Phædrus thought he was continuing the joke, but he was serious.
Another time Phædrus was upset about some failing students. Walking home with DeWeese under some trees he had commented on it and DeWeese had wondered why he took it so personally.
"I've wondered too,'' Phædrus had said, and in a puzzled voice had added, "I think maybe it's because every teacher tends to grade up students who resemble him the most. If your own writing shows neat penmanship you regard that more important in a student than if it doesn't. If you use big words you're going to like students who write with big words.''
"Sure. What's wrong with that?'' DeWeese had said.
"Well, there's something whacky here,'' Phædrus had said, "because the students I like the most, the ones I really feel a sense of identity with, are all failing!''
DeWeese had completely broken up with laughter at this and left Phædrus feeling miffed. He had seen it as a kind of scientific phenomenon that might offer clues leading to new understanding, and DeWeese had just laughed.
At first he thought DeWeese was just laughing at his unintended insult to himself. But that didn't fit because DeWeese wasn't a derogatory kind of person at all. Later he saw it was a kind of supertruth laugh. The best students always are flunking. Every good teacher knows that. It was a kind of laughter that destroys tensions produced by impossible situations and Phædrus could have used some of it because at this time he was taking things way too seriously.
These enigmatic responses of DeWeese gave Phædrus the idea that DeWeese had access to a huge terrain of hidden understanding. DeWeese always seemed to be concealing something. He was hiding something from him, and Phædrus couldn't figure out what it was.
Then comes a strong fragment, the day when he discovered DeWeese seemed to have the same puzzled feeling about him.
A light switch in DeWeese's studio didn't work and he asked Phædrus if he knew what was wrong with it. He had a slightly embarrassed, slightly puzzled smile on his face, like the smile of an art patron talking to a painter. The patron is embarrassed to reveal how little he knows but is smiling with the expectation of learning more. Unlike the Sutherlands, who hate technology, DeWeese was so far removed from it he didn't feel it any particular menace. DeWeese was actually a technology buff, a patron of the technologies. He didn't understand them, but he knew what he liked, and he always enjoyed learning more.
He had the illusion the trouble was in the wire near the bulb because immediately upon toggling the switch the light went out. If the trouble had been in the switch, he felt, there would have been a lapse of time before the trouble showed up in the bulb. Phædrus did not argue with this, but went across the street to the hardware store, bought a switch and in a few minutes had it installed. It worked immediately, of course, leaving DeWeese puzzled and frustrated. "How did you know the trouble was in the switch?'' he asked.
"Because it worked intermittently when I jiggled the switch.''
"Well...couldn't it jiggle the wire?''
"No.'' Phædrus' cocksure attitude angered DeWeese and he started to argue. "How do you know all that?'' he said.
"Well then, why didn't I see it?''
"You have to have some familiarity.''
"Then it's not obvious, is it?''
DeWeese always argued from this strange perspective that made it impossible to answer him. This was the perspective that gave Phædrus the idea DeWeese was concealing something from him. It wasn't until the very end of his stay in Bozeman that he thought he saw, in his own analytic and methodical way, what that perspective was.
At the park entrance we stop and pay a man in a Smokey Bear hat. He hands us a one-day pass in return. Ahead I see an elderly tourist take a movie of us, then smile. From under his shorts protrude white legs into street stockings and shoes. His wife, who watches approvingly, has identical legs. I wave to them as we go by and they wave back. It's a moment that will be preserved on film for years.
Phædrus despised this park without knowing exactly why...because he hadn't discovered it himself, perhaps, but probably not. Something else. The guided-tour attitude of the rangers angered him. The Bronx Zoo attitudes of the tourists disgusted him even more. Such a difference from the high country all around. It seemed an enormous museum with exhibits carefully manicured to give the illusion of reality, but nicely chained off so that children would not injure them. People entered the park and became polite and cozy and fakey to each other because the atmosphere of the park made them that way. In the entire time he had lived within a hundred miles of it he had visited it only once or twice.
But this is getting out of sequence. There's a span of about ten years missing. He didn't jump from Immanuel Kant to Bozeman, Montana. During this span of ten years he lived in India for a long time studying Oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University.
As far as I know he didn't learn any occult secrets there. Nothing much happened at all except exposures. He listened to philosophers, visited religious persons, absorbed and thought and then absorbed and thought some more, and that was about all. All his letters show is an enormous confusion of contradictions and incongruities and divergences and exceptions to any rule he formulated about the things he observed. He'd entered India an empirical scientist, and he left India an empirical scientist, not much wiser than he had been when he'd come. However, he'd been exposed to a lot and had acquired a kind of latent image that appeared in conjunction with many other latent images later on.
Some of these latencies should be summarized because they become important later on. He became aware that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself.
In all of the Oriental religions great value is placed on the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi, "Thou art that,'' which asserts that everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided. To realize fully this lack of division is to become enlightened.
Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyna, mispronounced in Chinese as "Chan'' and again mispronounced in Japanese as "Zen.'' Phædrus never got involved in meditation because it made no sense to him. In his entire time in India "sense'' was always logical consistency and he couldn't find any honest way to abandon this belief. That, I think, was creditable on his part.
But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phædrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.
Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phædrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.
He returned to his Midwest, picked up a practical degree in journalism, married, lived in Nevada and Mexico, did odd jobs, worked as a journalist, a science writer and an industrial-advertising writer. He fathered two children, bought a farm and a riding horse and two cars and was starting to put on middle-aged weight. His pursuit of what has been called the ghost of reason had been given up. That's extremely important to understand. He had given up.
Because he'd given up, the surface of life was comfortable for him. He worked reasonably hard, was easy to get along with and, except for an occasional glimpse of inner emptiness shown in some short stories he wrote at the time, his days passed quite usually.
What started him up here into these mountains isn't certain. His wife seems not to know, but I'd guess it was perhaps some of those inner feelings of failure and the hope that somehow this might take him back on the track again. He had become much more mature, as if the abandonment of his inner goals had caused him somehow to age more quickly.
We exit from the park at Gardiner, where not much rain seems to fall, because the mountainsides show only grass and sage in the twilight. We decide to stay here for the night.
The town is on high banks on either side of a bridge over a river which rushes over smooth and clean boulders. Across the bridge they've already turned the lights on at the motel where we check in, but even in the artificial light coming from the windows I can see each cabin has been carefully surrounded by planted flowers, and so I step carefully to avoid them.
I notice things about the cabin too, which I point out to Chris. The windows are all double-hung and sash-weighted. The doors click shut without looseness. All the moldings are perfectly mitered. There's nothing arty about all this, it's just well done and, something tells me, is all done by one person.
When we return to the motel from the restaurant an elderly couple are sitting in a small garden outside the office enjoying the evening breeze. The man confirms that he's made all these cabins himself, and is so pleased it's been noticed that his wife, who sees this, invites us all to sit down.
We talk with no need to hurry. This is the oldest entrance to the park. It was used before there were any automobiles. They talk about changes that have taken place over the years, adding a dimension to what we see around us, and it builds to a kind of beautiful thing...this town, this couple and the years that have gone by here. Sylvia puts her hand on John's arm. I am conscious of the sounds of the river rushing past boulders below and a fragrance in the night wind. The woman, who knows all fragrances, says it is honeysuckle, and we are quiet for a while and I become pleasantly drowsy. Chris is almost asleep when we decide to turn in.
John and Sylvia eat their breakfast hot cakes and drink their coffee, still caught up in the mood of last night, but I'm finding it hard to get food down.
Today we should arrive at the school, the place where an enormous coalescence of things occurred, and I'm already feeling tense.
I remember reading once about an archeological excavation in the Near East, learning about the archeologist's feelings when he opened the forgotten tombs for the first time in thousands of years. Now I feel like some archeologist myself.
The sagebrush down the canyon now toward Livingston is like sagebrush you see all the way from here into Mexico.
This morning sunlight is the same as yesterday's except warmer and softer now that we're at a lower altitude again.
There is nothing unusual. It's just this archeological feeling that the calmness of the surroundings conceals things. A haunted place.
I really don't want to go there. I'd just as soon turn around and go back.
Just tension, I guess.
It fits one of the fragments of this memory, in which many mornings the tension was so intense he would throw up everything before he got to his first classroom. He loathed appearing before classrooms of students and talking. It was a complete violation of his whole lone, isolated way of life, and what he experienced was intense stage fright, except that it never showed on him as stage fright, but rather as a terrific intensity about everything he did. Students had told his wife it was just like electricity in the air. The moment he entered the classroom all eyes turned on him and followed him as he walked to the front of the room. All conversation died to a hush and remained at a hush even though it was several minutes, often, before the class started. Throughout the hour the eyes never strayed from him.
He became much talked about, a controversial figure. The majority of students avoided his sections like the Black Death. They had heard too many stories.
The school was what could euphemistically be called a "teaching college.'' At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community. The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.
Yet despite this he called the school by a name that didn't make much sense, in fact sounded a little ludicrous in view of its actual nature. But the name had great meaning to him, and he stuck to it and he felt, before he left, that he had rammed it into a few minds sufficiently hard to make it stick. He called it a "Church of Reason,'' and much of the puzzlement people had about him could have ended if they'd understood what he meant by this.
The state of Montana at this time was undergoing an outbreak of ultra-right-wing politics like that which occurred in Dallas, Texas, just prior to President Kennedy's assassination. A nationally known professor from the University of Montana at Missoula was prohibited from speaking on campus on the grounds that it would "stir up trouble.'' Professors were told that all public statements must be cleared through the college public-relations office before they could be made.
Academic standards were demolished. The legislature had previously prohibited the school from refusing entry to any student over twenty-one whether he had a high-school diploma or not. Now the legislature had passed a law fining the college eight thousand dollars for every student who failed, virtually an order to pass every student.
The newly elected governor was trying to fire the college president for both personal and political reasons. The college president was not only a personal enemy, he was a Democrat, and the governor was no ordinary Republican. His campaign manager doubled as state coordinator for the John Birch Society. This was the same governor who supplied the list of fifty subversives we heard about a few days ago.
Now, as part of this vendetta, funds to the college were being cut. The college president had passed on an unusually large part of the cut to the English department, of which Phædrus was a member, and whose members had been quite vocal on issues of academic freedom.
Phædrus had given up, was exchanging letters with the Northwest Regional Accrediting Association to see if they could help prevent these violations of accreditation requirements. In addition to this private correspondence he had publicly called for an investigation of the entire school situation.
At this point some students in one of his classes had asked Phædrus, bitterly, if his efforts to stop accred- itation meant he was trying to prevent them from getting an education.
Phædrus said no.
Then one student, apparently a partisan of the governor, said angrily that the legislature would prevent the school from losing its accreditation.
Phædrus asked how.
The student said they would post police to prevent it.
Phædrus pondered this for a while, then realized the enormity of the student's misconception of what accreditation was all about.
That night, for the next day's lecture, he wrote out his defense of what he was doing. This was the Church of Reason lecture, which, in contrast to his usual sketchy lecture notes, was very long and very carefully elaborated.
It began with reference to a newspaper article about a country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar. One can guess that some classroom laughter started at this point. The college was well known for drunken partying and the image vaguely fit. The article said a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. The building in question was not holy ground. It had been desanctified. That was the end of it. The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn't tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.
Phædrus said the same confusion existed about the University and that was why loss of accreditation was hard to understand. The real University is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police. He explained that when a college lost its accreditation, nobody came and shut down the school. There were no legal penalties, no fines, no jail sentences. Classes did not stop. Everything went on just as before. Students got the same education they would if the school didn't lose its accreditation. All that would happen, Phædrus said, would simply be an official recognition of a condition that already existed. It would be similar to excommunication. What would happen is that the real University, which no legislature can dictate to and which can never be identified by any location of bricks or boards or glass, would simply declare that this place was no longer "holy ground.'' The real University would vanish from it, and all that would be left was the bricks and the books and the material manifestation.
It must have been a strange concept to all of the students, and I can imagine him waiting for a long time for it to sink in, and perhaps then waiting for the question, What do you think the real University is?
His notes, in response to this question, state the following:
The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.
In addition to this state of mind, "reason,'' there's a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.
But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.
Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference, he said, and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church. They see professors as employees of the second university who should abandon reason when told to and take orders with no backtalk, the same way employees do in other corporations.
They see the second university, but fail to see the first.
I remember reading this for the first time and remarking about the analytic craftsmanship displayed. He avoided splitting the University into fields or departments and dealing with the results of that analysis. He also avoided the traditional split into students, faculty and administration.
When you split it either of those ways you get a lot of dull stuff that doesn't really tell you much you can't get out of the official school bulletin. But Phædrus split it between "the church'' and "the location,'' and once this cleavage is made the same rather dull and imponderable institution seen in the bulletin suddenly is seen with a degree of clarity that wasn't previously available. On the basis of this cleavage he provided explanations for a number of puzzling but normal aspects of University life.
After these explanations he returned to the analogy of the religious church. The citizens who build such a church and pay for it probably have in mind that they're doing this for the community. A good sermon can put the parishioners in a right frame of mind for the coming week. Sunday school will help the children grow up right. The minister who delivers the sermon and directs the Sunday school understands these goals and normally goes along with them, but he also knows that his primary goals are not to serve the community. His primary goal is always to serve God. Normally there's no conflict but occasionally one creeps in when trustees oppose the minister's sermons and threaten reduction of funds. That happens.
A true minister, in such situations, must act as though he'd never heard the threats. His primary goal isn't to serve the members of the community, but always God.
The primary goal of the Church of Reason, Phædrus said, is always Socrates' old goal of truth, in its ever-changing forms, as it's revealed by the process of rationality. Everything else is subordinate to that. Normally this goal is in no conflict with the location goal of improving the citizenry, but on occasion some conflict arises, as in the case of Socrates himself. It arises when trustees and legislators who've contributed large amounts of time and money to the location take points of view in opposition to the professors' lectures or public statements. They can then lean on the administration by threatening to cut off funds if the professors don't say what they want to hear. That happens too.
True churchmen in such situations must act as though they had never heard these threats. Their primary goal never is to serve the community ahead of everything else. Their primary goal is to serve, through reason, the goal of truth.
That was what he meant by the Church of Reason. There was no question but that it was a concept that was deeply felt by him. He was regarded as something of a troublemaker but was never censured for it in any proportion to the amount of trouble he made. What saved him from the wrath of everyone around him was partly an unwillingness to give any support to the enemies of the college, but also partly a begrudging understanding that all of his troublemaking was ultimately motivated by a mandate they were never free from themselves: the mandate to speak the rational truth.
The lecture notes explain almost all of why he acted the way he did, but leave one thing unexplained...his fanatic intensity. One can believe in the truth and in the process of reason to discover it and in resistance to state legislatures, but why burn one's self out, day after day, over it?
The psychological explanations that have been made to me seem inadequate. Stage fright can't sustain that kind of effort month after month. Neither does another explanation sound right, that he was trying to redeem himself for his earlier failure. There is no evidence anywhere that he ever thought of his expulsion from the university as a failure, just an enigma. The explanation I've come to arises from the discrepancy between his lack of faith in scientific reason in the laboratory and his fanatic faith expressed in the Church of Reason lecture. I was thinking about the discrepancy one day and it suddenly came to me that it wasn't a discrepancy at all. His lack of faith in reason was why he was so fanatically dedicated to it.
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
The militancy of the Jesuits he somewhat resembled is a case in point. Historically their zeal stems not from the strength of the Catholic Church but from its weakness in the face of the Reformation. It was Phædrus' lack of faith in reason that made him such a fanatic teacher. That makes more sense. And it makes a lot of sense out of the things that followed.
That's probably why he felt such a deep kinship with so many failing students in the back rows of his classrooms. The contemptuous looks on their faces reflected the same feelings he had toward the whole rational, intellectual process. The only difference was that they were contemptuous because they didn't understand it. He was contemptuous because he did. Because they didn't understand it they had no solution but to fail and for the rest of their lives remember the experience with bitterness. He on the other hand felt fanatically obliged to do something about it. That was why his Church of Reason lecture was so carefully prepared. He was telling them you have to have faith in reason because there isn't anything else. But it was a faith he didn't have himself.
It must always be remembered that this was the nineteen-fifties, not the nineteen-seventies. There were rumblings from the beatniks and early hippies at this time about "the system'' and the square intellectualism that supported it, but hardly anyone guessed how deeply the whole edifice would be brought into doubt. So here was Phædrus, fanatically defending an institution, the Church of Reason, that no one, no one certainly in Bozeman, Montana, had any cause to doubt. A pre-Reformation Loyola. A militant reassuring everyone the sun would rise tomorrow, when no one was worried. They just wondered about him.
But now, with the most tumultuous decade of the century between him and ourselves, a decade in which reason has been assailed and assaulted beyond the wildest beliefs of the fifties, I think that in this Chautauqua based on his discoveries we can understand a little better what he was talking about -- a solution for it all -- if only that were true -- so much of it's lost there's no way of knowing.
Maybe that's why I feel like an archeologist. And have such a tension about it. I have only these fragments of memory, and pieces of things people tell me, and I keep wondering as we get closer if some tombs are better left shut.
Chris, sitting behind me, suddenly comes to mind, and I wonder how much he knows, how much he remembers.
We reach an intersection where the road from the park joins the main east-west highway, stop and turn on to it.
From here we go over a low pass and into Bozeman itself. The road goes up now, heading west, and suddenly I'm looking forward to what's ahead.
We ride down out of the pass onto a small green plain. To the immediate south we can see pine-forested mountains that still have last winter's snow on the peaks. In all other directions appear lower mountains, more in the distance, but just as clear and sharp. This picture-postcard scenery vaguely fits memory but not definitely. This interstate freeway we are on must not have existed then.
The statement "To travel is better than to arrive'' comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one. In a day or two John and Sylvia must go back and Chris and I must decide what we want to do next. Everything has to be reorganized.
The main street of the town seems vaguely familiar but there's a feeling of being a tourist now and I see the shop signs are for me, the tourist, and not for people who live here. This isn't really a small town. People are moving too fast and too independently of one another. It's one of these population fifteen-to-thirty-thousand towns that isn't exactly a town, not exactly a city...not exactly anything really.
We eat lunch in a glass-and-chrome restaurant that brings no recall at all. It looks as though it's been built since he lived here and shows the same lack of self-identity seen on the main street.
I go to a phone book and look for Robert DeWeese's number but don't find it. I dial the operator but she's never heard of the party and can't tell me the number. I don't believe it! Were they just in his imagination? Her statement produces a panicky feeling that lasts for a moment, but then I remember their answer to my letter telling them we were coming and calm down. Imaginary people don't use the mails.
John suggests I try to call the art department or some friends. I smoke for a while and drink coffee, and when I'm relaxed again I do this and learn how to get there. It's not the technology that's scary. It's what it does to the relations between people, like callers and operators, that's scary.
From the town to the mountains across the valley floor must be less than ten miles, and we cross that distance now on dirt roads through rich green high alfalfa ready for cutting, so thick it looks difficult to walk through. The fields sweep outward and slightly upward to the base of the mountains where a much darker green of the pines rises suddenly up. That will be where the DeWeeses live. Where the light green and the dark green meet. The wind is full of the lightgreen new-
mown-hay smells and livestock smells. At one point we pass through a cold bank of air where the smell changes to pine, but then are back in the warmth again. Sunlight and meadows and the close-looming mountain.
Just as we get to the pines, the gravel in the road becomes very deep. We slow down to first gear and ten miles an hour and I keep both feet off the pegs to kick the cycle upright again if it should mush into the gravel and start to go down. We round a corner and suddenly enter the pines and a very steep V canyon in the mountain, and there right beside the road is a large grey house with an enormous abstract iron sculpture attached to one side and beneath it sitting in a chair tipped back against the house surrounded by company is the living image of DeWeese himself with a can of beer in his hand, which waves to us. Right out of the old photographs.
I'm so busy keeping the machine up I can't take my hands off the grips and I wave a leg back instead. The living image of DeWeese himself grins as we pull up.
"You found it,'' he says. Relaxed smile. Happy eyes.
"It's been a long time,'' I say. I feel happy too, though strange at suddenly seeing the image move and talk.
We dismount and take off our riding gear and I see that the open porch deck he and his guests are on is unfinished and unweathered. DeWeese looks down from where it is only a few feet above the road on our side, but the V of the canyon slants so steeply that on the far side the ground descends fifteen feet below the deck. The stream itself appears another fifty feet down and away from the house, among trees and deep grass where a horse, partially hidden by the trees, grazes without looking up. Now we have to look high to see the sky. Surrounding us is the dark-green forest we watched as we approached.
"This is just beautiful!'' Sylvia says.
The living image of DeWeese smiles down at her. "Thank you,'' he says, "I'm glad you like it.'' His tone is all here and now, completely relaxed. I realize that although this is the authentic image of DeWeese himself, it's also a brand-new person who's been renewing himself continually and I'm going to have to get to know him all over again.
We step up onto the deck. Between the floorboards it has spaces, like a grate. I can see the ground through them. With a "Well, I'm not quite sure how to do this'' tone and smile, DeWeese makes introductions all around, but they're in one ear and out the other. I can never remember names. His guests are an art instructor from the school who has horn-rimmed glasses, and his wife, who smiles self-consciously. They must be new.
We talk for a while, DeWeese mainly explaining to them who I am, and then, from where the deck disappears around the corner of the house, suddenly comes Gennie DeWeese with a tray of beer cans. She is a painter too and, I'm suddenly aware, a quick comprehender and already there's a shared smile over the artistic economy of grabbing a can of beer instead of her hand, while she says, "Some neighbors just came over with a mess of trout for dinner. I'm so pleased.'' I try to think of something appropriate to say, but just nod.
We sit down, I in the sunlight, where it's difficult to distinguish details of the other side of the deck in the shade.
DeWeese looks at me, seems about to comment on my appearance, which is undoubtedly much different from what he remembers, but something deflects this and he turns to John instead and asks about the trip.
John explains that it's been just great, something he and Sylvia have needed for years.
Sylvia seconds this. "Just to be out in the open in all this space,'' she says.
"Lots of space in Montana,'' DeWeese says, a little wistfully. He and John and the art instructor become involved in get-acquainted talk about differences between Montana and Minnesota.
The horse grazes peacefully below us, and just beyond it the water sparkles in the creek. The talk has shifted to DeWeese's land here in the canyon, how long DeWeese has lived here and what art instruction at the college is like. John has a real gift for casual conversation like this that I've never had, so I just listen.
After a while the heat from the sun is so great I take off my sweater and open my shirt. Also to stop squinting I bring out some sunglasses and put them on. That's better, but it blanks out the shade so completely I can hardly see faces at all and leaves me feeling sort of visually detached from everything but the sun and the sunlit slopes of the canyon. I think to myself about unpacking but decide not to mention it. They know we're staying but just intuitively allow first things to happen first. First we relax, then we unpack. What's the hurry? The beer and sun begin to toast my head like a marshmallow. Very nice.
I don't know how much later I hear some comments about "the movie star here'' come from John and I realize he is talking about me and my sunglasses. I look over the tops of them into the shade and make out that DeWeese and John and the art instructor are smiling at me. They must want me in the conversation, something about problems on the trip.
"They want to know what happens if something goes bad mechanically,'' John says.
I relate the whole story of the time Chris and I were in the rainstorm and the engine quit, which is a good story, but somewhat pointless, I realize as I'm telling it, as an answer to his question. The final line about being out of gas brings the expected groan.
"And I even told him to look,'' Chris says. Both DeWeese and Gennie comment on Chris's size. He becomes self-conscious and glows a little. They ask about his mother and his brother and we both answer these questions as best we can.
The heat of the sun finally becomes too much for me and I shift my chair into the shade. The marshmallow feeling leaves in the sudden chill and after a few minutes I have to button up. Gennie notices and says, "As soon as the sun goes over the ridge up there it gets really cold.''
The distance between the sun and the ridge is narrow. I'd judge that although it's only the middle of the afternoon, less than half an hour of direct sun remains. John asks about the mountains in the winter and he and DeWeese and the art instructor talk about this and about snowshoeing in the mountains. I could just sit here forever.
Sylvia and Gennie and the art instructor's wife talk about the house and soon Gennie invites them inside.
My thoughts drift to the statement about Chris growing so fast and suddenly the feeling of the tomb comes on. I've heard only indirectly of the time Chris lived here, and yet to them it seems that he's hardly been gone. We live in entirely different time structures.
The conversation shifts onto what is current in art and music and theater and I'm surprised at how well John keeps up his end of the conversation. I'm not basically interested in what's new in these areas and he probably knows it and for that reason never talks about it to me. Just the reverse of the motorcycle maintenance situation. I wonder if I look as glassy-eyed now as he does when I talk about rods and pistons.
But what he and DeWeese really have in common is Chris and me, and a funny stickiness is developing here, ever since the movie-star comment. John's good-natured sarcasm toward his old drinking and cycling companion is chilling DeWeese slightly, causing resultant respectful tones toward me from DeWeese. These seem to increase John's sarcasm in a self-stoking way and they both sense this and so they kind of veer away from me onto some subject of agreement and then come back again but this stickiness develops and they veer away again onto another agreeable subject.
"Anyway,'' John says, "this character here told us we were in for a letdown when we came here, and we still haven't gotten over this `letdown.'''
I laugh. I hadn't wanted to build him up to it. DeWeese smiles too. But then John turns to me and says, "Geez, you must have been really crazy, I mean really nuts to leave this place. I don't care what the college is like.''
I see DeWeese look at him, shocked. Then angry. DeWeese looks at me and I wave it off. Some kind of impasse has developed but I don't know how to get around it. "It's a beautiful place,'' I say weakly.
DeWeese says defensively, "If you were here for a while you'd see another side to it.'' The instructor nods in agreement.
The impasse now produces its silence. It's an impossible one to reconcile. What John said wasn't unkind. He's kinder than anyone. What he knows and I know but DeWeese doesn't know is that the person they're both referring to isn't much these days. Just another middle-class, middle-aged person getting along. Worried mainly about Chris, but beyond that nothing special.
But what DeWeese and I know and the Sutherlands don't know is that there was someone, a person who lived here once, who was creatively on fire with a set
of ideas no one had ever heard of before, but then something unexplained and wrong happened and DeWeese doesn't know how or why and neither do I. The reason for the impasse, the bad feeling, is that DeWeese thinks that person is here now. And there's no way I can tell him otherwise.
For a brief moment, way up at the top of the ridge, the sun diffuses through the trees and a halation of the light comes down to us. The halo expands, capturing every-
thing in a sudden flash, and suddenly it catches me too.
"He saw too much,'' I say, still thinking about the impasse, but DeWeese looks puzzled and John doesn't register at all, and I realize the non sequitur too late. In the distance a single bird cries plaintively.
Now suddenly the sun is gone behind the mountain and the whole canyon is in dull shadow.
To myself I think how uncalled for that was. You don't make statements like that. You leave the hospital with the understanding that you don't.
Gennie appears with Sylvia and suggests we unpack. We agree and she shows us to our rooms. I see that my bed has a heavy quilt on it against the cold of the night. Beautiful room.
In three trips to the cycle and back I have everything transferred. Then I go to Chris's room to see what needs to be unpacked but he's cheerful and being grown-up and doesn't need help.
I look at him. "How do you like it here?''
He says, "Fine, but it isn't anything like the way you told about it last night.''
"Just before we went to sleep. In the cabin.''
I don't know what he's referring to.
He adds, "You said it was lonely here.''
"Why would I say that?''
"I don't know.'' My question frustrates him, so I leave it. He must have been dreaming.
When we come down to the living room I can smell the aroma from the frying trout in the kitchen. At one end of the room DeWeese is bent over the fireplace holding a match to some newspaper under the kindling. We watch him for a while.
"We use this fireplace all summer long,'' he says.
I reply, "I'm surprised it's this cold.''
Chris says he's cold too. I send him back up for his sweater and mine as well.
"It's the evening wind,'' DeWeese says. "It sweeps down the canyon from up high where it's really cold.''
The fire flares suddenly and then dies and then flares again from an uneven draft. It must be windy, I think, and look through the huge windows that line one wall of the living room. Across the canyon in the dusk I see the sharp movement of the trees.
"But that's right,'' DeWeese says. "You know how cold it is up there. You used to spend all your time up there.''
"It brings back memories,'' I say.
A single fragment comes to mind now of night winds all around a campfire, smaller than this one before us now, sheltered in the rock against the high wind because there are no trees. Next to the fire are cooking gear and backpacks to help give wind shelter, and a canteen filled with water gathered from the melting snow. The water had to be collected early because above the timberline the snow stops melting when the sun goes down.
DeWeese says, "You've changed a lot.'' He is looking at me searchingly. His expression seems to ask whether this is a forbidden topic or not, and he gathers from looking at me that it is. He adds, "I guess we all have.''
I reply, "I'm not the same person at all,'' and this seems to put him a little more at ease. Were he aware of the literal truth of that, he'd be a lot less at ease. "A lot has happened,'' I say, "and some things have come up that have made it important to try to untangle them a little, in my own mind at least, and that's partly why I'm here.''
He looks at me, expecting something more, but the art instructor and his wife appear by the fireside and we drop it.
"The wind sounds like there'll be a storm tonight,'' the instructor says.
"I don't think so,'' DeWeese says.
Chris returns with the sweaters and asks if there are any ghosts up in the canyon.
DeWeese looks at him with amusement. "No, but there are wolves,'' he says.
Chris thinks about this and asks, "What do they do?''
DeWeese says, "They make trouble for the ranchers.'' He frowns. "They kill the young calves and lambs.''
"Do they chase people?''
"l've never heard of it,'' DeWeese says and then, seeing that this disappoints Chris, adds, "but they could.''
At dinner the brook trout is accompanied by glasses of Bay county Chablis. We sit separately in chairs and sofas around the living room. One entire side of this room has the windows which would overlook the canyon, except that now it's dark outside and the glass reflects the light from the fireplace. The glow of the fire is matched by an inner glow from the wine and fish and we don't say much except murmurs of appreciation.
Sylvia murmurs to John to notice the large pots and vases around the room.
"I was noticing those,'' John says. "Fantastic.''
"Those were made by Peter Voulkas,'' Sylvia says.
"Is that right?''
"He was a student of Mr. DeWeese.''
"Oh, for Christ's sake! I almost kicked one of those over.''
Later John mumbles something a few times, looks up and announces, "This does it -- this just does the whole thing for us -- .Now we can go back for another eight years on Twenty-six-forty-nine Colfax Avenue.''
Sylvia says mournfully, "Let's not talk about that.''
John looks at me for a moment. "I suppose anybody with friends who can provide an evening like this can't be all bad.'' He nods gravely. "I'm going to have to take back all those things I thought about you.''
"All of them?'' I ask.
DeWeese and the instructor smile and some of the impasse goes away.
After dinner Jack and Wylla Barsness arrive. More living images. Jack is recorded in the tomb fragments as a good person who writes and teaches English at the college. Their arrival is followed by that of a sculptor from northern Montana who herds sheep for his income. I gather from the way DeWeese introduces him that I'm not supposed to have met him before.
DeWeese says he is trying to persuade the sculptor to join the faculty and I say, "I'll try to talk him out of it,'' and sit down next to him, but conversation is very sticky because the sculptor is extremely serious and suspicious, evidently because I'm not an artist. He acts like I'm a detective trying to get something on him, and it isn't until he discovers I do a lot of welding that I become okay. Motorcycle maintenance opens strange doors. He says he welds for some of the same reasons I do. After you pick up skill, welding gives a tremendous feeling of power and control over the metal. You can do anything. He brings out some photographs of things he has welded and these show beautiful birds and animals with flowing metal surface textures that are not like anything else.
Later I move over and talk with Jack and Wylla. Jack is leaving to head an English department down in Boise, Idaho. His attitudes toward the department here seem guarded, but negative. They would be negative, of course, or he wouldn't be leaving. I seem to remember now he was a fiction writer mainly, who taught English, rather than a systematic scholar who taught English. There was a continuing split in the department along these lines which in part gave rise to, or at least accelerated the growth of, Phædrus' wild set of ideas which no one else had ever heard of, and Jack was supportive of Phædrus because, although he wasn't sure he knew what Phædrus was talking about, he saw it was something a fiction writer could work with better than linguistic analysis. It's an old split. Like the one between art and art history. One does it and the other talks about how it's done and the talk about how it's done never seems to match how one does it.
DeWeese brings over some instructions for assembly of an outdoor barbecue rotisserie which he wants me to evaluate as a professional technical writer. He's spent a whole afternoon trying to get the thing together and he wants to see these instructions totally damned.
But as I read them they look like ordinary instructions to me and I'm at a loss to find anything wrong with them. I don't want to say this, of course, so I hunt hard for something to pick on. You can't really tell whether a set of instructions is all right until you check it against the device or procedure it describes, but I see a page separation that prevents reading without flipping back and forth between the text and illustration...always a poor practice. I jump on this very hard and DeWeese encourages every jump. Chris takes the instructions to see what I mean.
But while I'm jumping on this and describing some of the agonies of misinterpretation that bad cross- referencing can produce, I've a feeling that this isn't why DeWeese found them so hard to understand. It's just the lack of smoothness and continuity which threw him off. He's unable to comprehend things when they appear in the ugly, chopped-up, grotesque sentence style common to engineering and technical writing. Science works with chunks and bits and pieces of things with the continuity presumed, and DeWeese works only with the continuities of things with the chunks and bits and pieces presumed. What he really wants me to damn is the lack of artistic continuity, something an engineer couldn't care less about. It hangs up, really, on the classic-romantic split, like everything else about technology.
But Chris, meanwhile, takes the instructions and folds them around in a way I hadn't thought of so that the illustration sits there right next to the text. I double-take this, then triple-take it and feel like a movie cartoon character who has just walked beyond the edge of a cliff but hasn't fallen yet because he hasn't realized his predicament. I nod, and there's silence, and then I realize my predicament, then a long laughter as I pound Chris on the top of the head all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. When the laughter subsides, I say, "Well, anyway -- '' but the laughter starts all over again.
"What I wanted to say,'' I finally get in, "is that I've a set of instructions at home which open up great realms for the improvement of technical writing. They begin, `Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.' ''
This produces more laughter, but Sylvia and Gennie and the sculptor give sharp looks of recognition.
"That's a good instruction,'' the sculptor says. Gennie nods too.
"That's kind of why I saved it,'' I say. "At first I laughed because of memories of bicycles I'd put together and, of course, the unintended slur on Japanese manufacture. But there's a lot of wisdom in that statement.''
John looks at me apprehensively. I look at him with equal apprehension. We both laugh. He says, "The professor will now expound.''
"Peace of mind isn't at all superficial, really,'' I expound. "It's the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test's always your own serenity. If you don't have this when you start and maintain it while you're working you're likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.''
They just look at me, thinking about this.
"It's an unconventional concept,'' I say, "but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can't be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don't have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine's always your own mind. There isn't any other test.''
DeWeese asks, "What if the machine is wrong and I feel peaceful about it?''
I reply, "That's self-contradictory. If you really don't care you aren't going to know it's wrong. The thought'll never occur to you. The act of pronouncing it wrong's a form of caring.''
I add, "What's more common is that you feel unpeaceful even if it's right, and I think that's the actual case here. In this case, if you're worried, it isn't right. That means it isn't checked out thoroughly enough. In any industrial situation a machine that isn't checked out is a `down' machine and can't be used even though it may work perfectly. Your worry about the rotisserie is the same thing. You haven't completed the ultimate requirement of achieving peace of mind, because you feel these instructions were too complicated and you may not have understood them correctly.''
DeWeese asks, "Well, how would you change them so I would get this peace of mind?''
"That would require a lot more study than I've just given them now. The whole thing goes very deep. These rotisserie instructions begin and end exclusively with the machine. But the kind of approach I'm thinking about doesn't cut it off so narrowly. What's really angering about instructions of this sort is that they imply there's only one way to put this rotisserie together...their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity. Actually there are hundreds of ways to put the rotisserie together and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem the instructions become hard to follow in such a way as not to make mistakes. You lose feeling for the work. And not only that, it's very unlikely that they've told you the best way.''
"But they're from the factory,'' John says.
"I'm from the factory too,'' I say "and I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he's got, and whatever he tells you...that's the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he's too busy.'' They all look surprised. "I might have known,'' DeWeese says.
"It's the format,'' I say. "No writer can buck it. Technology presumes there's just one right way to do things and there never is. And when you presume there's just one right way to do things, of course the instructions begin and end exclusively with the rotisserie. But if you have to choose among an infinite number of ways to put it together then the relation of the machine to you, and the relation of the machine and you to the rest of the world, has to be considered, because the selection from many choices, the art of the work is just as dependent upon your own mind and spirit as it is upon the material of the machine. That's why you need the peace of mind.''
"Actually this idea isn't so strange,'' I continue. "Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you'll see the difference. The craftsman isn't ever following a single line of instruction. He's making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he'll be absorbed and attentive to what he's doing even though he doesn't deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn't following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind's at rest at the same time the material's right.''
"Sounds like art,'' the instructor says.
"Well, it is art,'' I say. "This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It's just that it's gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.''
They're not sure whether I'm kidding or not.
"You mean,'' DeWeese asks, "that when I was putting this rotisserie together I was actually sculpting it?''
He goes over this in his mind, smiling more and more. "I wish I'd known that,'' he says. Laughter follows.
Chris says he doesn't understand what I'm saying. "That's all right, Chris,'' Jack Barsness says. "We don't either.'' More laughter.
"I think I'll just stay with ordinary sculpture,'' the sculptor says.
"I think I'll just stick to painting,'' DeWeese says.
"I think I'll just stick to drumming,'' John says.
Chris asks, "What are you going to stick to?''
"Mah guns, boy, mah guns,'' I tell him. "That's the Code of the West.''
They all laugh hard at this, and my speechifying seems forgiven. When you've got a Chautauqua in your head, it's extremely hard not to inflict it on innocent people.
The conversation breaks up into groups and I spend the rest of the party talking to Jack and Wylla about developments in the English department.
After the party is over and the Sutherlands and Chris have gone to bed, DeWeese recalls my lecture, however. He says seriously, "What you said about the rotisserie instructions was interesting.''
Gennie adds, also seriously, "It sounded like you had been thinking about it for a long time.''
"I've been thinking about concepts that underlie it for twenty years,'' I say.
Beyond the chair in front of me, sparks fly up the chimney, drawn by the wind outside, now stronger than before.
I add, almost to myself, "You look at where you're going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you've been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.
"All that talk about technology and art is part of a pattern that seems to have emerged from my own life. It represents a transcendence from something I think a lot of others may be trying to transcend.''
"Well, it isn't just art and technology. It's a kind of a noncoalescence between reason and feeling. What's wrong with technology is that it's not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven't paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these.
"But now where these are assured, the ugliness is being noticed more and more and people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and esthetically in order to satisfy material needs. Lately it's become almost a national crisis...antipollution drives, antitechnological communes and styles of life, and all that.''
Both DeWeese and Gennie have understood all this for so long there's no need for comment, so I add, "What's emerging from the pattern of my own life is the for belief that the crisis is being caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought to cope with the situation. It can't be solved by rational means because the rationality itself is the source of the problem. The only ones who're solving it are solving it at a personal level by abandoning `square' rationality altogether and going by feelings alone. Like John and Sylvia here. And millions of others like them. And that seems like a wrong direction too. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the solution to the problem isn't that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it's capable of coming up with a solution.''
"I guess I don't know what you mean,'' Gennie says.
"Well, it's quite a bootstrap operation. It's analogous to the kind of hang-up Sir Isaac Newton had when he wanted to solve problems of instantaneous rates of change. It was unreasonable in his time to think of anything changing within a zero amount of time. Yet it's almost necessary mathematically to work with other zero quantities, such as points in space and time that no one thought were unreasonable at all, although there was no real difference. So what Newton did was say, in effect, `We're going to presume there's such a thing as instantaneous change, and see if we can find ways of determining what it is in various applications.' The result of this presumption is the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, which every engineer uses today. Newton invented a new form of reason. He expanded reason to handle infinitesimal changes and I think what is needed now is a similar expansion of reason to handle technological ugliness. The trouble is that the expansion has to be made at the roots, not at the branches, and that's what makes it hard to see.
"We're living in topsy-turvy times, and I think that what causes the topsy-turvy feeling is inadequacy of old forms of thought to deal with new experiences. I've heard it said that the only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know. Everyone's familiar with that. I think the same thing occurs with whole civilizations when expansion's needed at the roots.
"You look back at the last three thousand years and with hindsight you think you see neat patterns and chains of cause and effect that have made things the way they are. But if you go back to original sources, the literature of any particular era, you find that these causes were never apparent at the time they were supposed to be operating. During periods of root expansion things have always looked as confused and topsy-turvy and purposeless as they do now. The whole Renaissance is supposed to have resulted from the topsy-turvy feeling caused by Columbus' discovery of a new world. It just shook people up. The topsy-turviness of that time is recorded everywhere. There was nothing in the flat-earth views of the Old and New Testaments that predicted it. Yet people couldn't deny it. The only way they could assimilate it was to abandon the entire medieval outlook and enter into a new expansion of reason.
"Columbus has become such a schoolbook stereotype it's almost impossible to imagine him as a living human being anymore. But if you really try to hold back your present knowledge about the consequences of his trip and project yourself into his situation, then sometimes you can begin to see that our present moon exploration must be like a tea party compared to what he went through. Moon exploration doesn't involve real root expansions of thought. We've no reason to doubt that existing forms of thought are adequate to handle it. It's really just a branch extension of what Columbus did. A really new exploration, one that would look to us today the way the world looked to Columbus, would have to be in an entirely new direction.''
"Like into realms beyond reason. I think present-day reason is an analogue of the flat earth of the medieval period. If you go too far beyond it you're presumed to fall off, into insanity. And people are very much afraid of that. I think this fear of insanity is comparable to the fear people once had of falling off the edge of the world. Or the fear of heretics. There's a very close analogue there.
"But what's happening is that each year our old flat earth of conventional reason becomes less and less adequate to handle the experiences we have and this is creating widespread feelings of topsy-turviness. As a result we're getting more and more people in irrational areas of thought...occultism, mysticism, drug changes and the like...because they feel the inadequacy of classical reason to handle what they know are real experiences.''
"I'm not sure what you mean by classical reason.''
"Analytic reason, dialectic reason. Reason which at the University is sometimes considered to be the whole of understanding. You've never had to understand it really. It's always been completely bankrupt with regard to abstract art. Nonrepresentative art is one of the root experiences I'm talking about. Some people still condemn it because it doesn't make `sense.' But what's really wrong is not the art but the `sense,' the classical reason, which can't grasp it. People keep looking for branch extensions of reason that will cover art's more recent occurrences, but the answers aren't in the branches, they're at the roots.''
A rush of wind comes furiously now, down from the mountaintop. "The ancient Greeks,'' I say, "who were the inventors of classical reason, knew better than to use it exclusively to foretell the future. They listened to the wind and predicted the future from that. That sounds insane now. But why should the inventors of reason sound insane?''
DeWeese squints. "How could they tell the future from the wind?''
"I don't know, maybe the same way a painter can tell the future of his painting by staring at the canvas. Our whole system of knowledge stems from their results. We've yet to understand the methods that produced these results.''
I think for a while, then say, "When I was last here, did I talk much about the Church of Reason?''
"Yes, you talked a lot about that.''
"Did I ever talk about an individual named Phædrus?''
"Who was he?'' Gennie asks.
"He was an ancient Greek -- a rhetorician -- a `composition major' of his time. He was one of those present when reason was being invented.''
"You never talked about that, I don't think.''
"That must have come later. The rhetoricians of ancient Greece were the first teachers in the history of the Western world. Plato vilified them in all his works to grind an axe of his own and since what we know about them is almost entirely from Plato they're unique in that they've stood condemned throughout history without ever having their side of the story told. The Church of Reason that I talked about was founded on their graves. It's supported today by their graves. And when you dig deep into its foundations you come across ghosts.''
I look at my watch. It's after two. "It's a long story,'' I say.
"You should write all this down,'' Gennie says.
I nod in agreement. "I'm thinking about a series of lecture-essays...a sort of Chautauqua. I've been trying to work them out in my mind as we rode out here -- which is probably why I sound so primed on all this stuff. It's all so huge and difficult. Like trying to travel through these mountains on foot.
"The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn't the way it ever is. People should see that it's never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It's never been anything else, ever, but you can't get that across in an essay.''
"You should do it anyway,'' Gennie says. "Without trying to get it perfect.''
"I suppose,'' I say.
DeWeese asks, "Does this tie in with what you were doing on `Quality'?''
"It's the direct result of it,'' I say.
I remember something and look at DeWeese. "Didn't you advise me to drop it?''
"I said no one had ever succeeded in doing what you were trying to do.''
"Do you think it's possible?''
"I don't know. Who knows?'' His expression is really concerned. "A lot of people are listening better these days. Particularly the kids. They're really listening -- and not just at you...to you -- to you. It makes all the difference.''
The wind coming down from the snowfields up above sounds for a long time throughout the house. It grows loud and high as if in hope of sweeping the whole house, all of us, away into nothing, leaving the canyon as it once was, but the house stands and the wind dies away again, defeated. Then it comes back, feinting a light blow from the far side, then suddenly a heavy gust from our side.
"I keep listening to the wind,'' I say. I add, "I think when the Sutherlands have left, Chris and I should do some climbing up to where that wind starts. I think it's time he got a better look at that land.''
"You can start from right here,'' DeWeese says, "and head back up the canyon. There's no road for seventy-five miles.''
"Then this is where we'll start,'' I say.
Upstairs I'm glad to see the bed's heavy quilt again. It's become quite cold now and it'll be needed. I undress quickly and get way down deep under the quilt where it is warm, very warm, and think for a long time about snowfields and winds and Christopher Columbus.
For two days John and Sylvia and Chris and I loaf and talk and ride up to an old mining town and back, and then it's time for John and Sylvia to turn back home. We ride into Bozeman from the canyon now, together for the last time.
Up ahead Sylvia's turned around for the third time, evidently to see if we're all right. She's been very quiet the last two days. A glance from her yesterday seemed apprehensive, almost frightened. She worries too much about Chris and me.
At a bar in Bozeman we have one last round of beer, and I discuss routes back with John. Then we say perfunctory things about how good it's all been and how we'll see each other soon, and this is suddenly very sad to have to talk like this...like casual acquaintances.
Out in the street again Sylvia turns to me and Chris, pauses, and then says, "It'll be all right with you. There's nothing to worry about.''
"Of course,'' I say.
Again that same frightened glance.
John has the motorcycle started and waits for her. "I believe you,'' I say.
She turns, gets on and with John watches oncoming traffic for an opportunity to pull out. "I'll see you,'' I say.
She looks at us again, expressionless this time. John finds his opportunity and enters into the traffic lane. Then Sylvia waves, as if in a movie. Chris and I wave back. Their motorcycle disappears in the heavy traffic of out-of-state cars, which I watch for a long time.
I look at Chris and he looks at me. He says nothing.
We spend the morning sitting at first on a park bench marked SENIOR CITIZENS ONLY, then get food and at a filling station change the tire and replace the chain adjuster link. The link has to be remachined to fit and so we wait and walk for a while, back away from the main street. We come to a church and sit down on the lawn in front of it. Chris lies back on the grass and covers his eyes with his jacket.
"You tired?'' I ask him.
Between here and the edge of the mountains to the north, heat waves shimmer the air. A transparent-winged bug sets down from the heat on a stalk of grass by Chris's foot. I watch it flex its wings, feeling lazier every minute. I lie back to go to sleep, but don't. Instead a restless feeling hits. I get up.
"Let's walk for a while,'' I say.
"Toward the school.''
We walk under shady trees on very neat sidewalks past neat houses. The avenues provide many small surprises of recognition. Heavy recall. He's walked through these streets many times. Lectures. He prepared his lectures in the peripatetic manner, using these streets as his academy.
The subject he'd been brought here to teach was rhetoric, writing, the second of the three R's. He was to teach some advanced courses in technical writing and some sections of freshman English.
"Do you remember this street?'' I ask Chris.
He looks around and says, "We used to ride in the car to look for you.'' He points across the street. "I remember that house with the funny roof -- .Whoever saw you first would get a nickel. And then we'd stop and let you in the back of the car and you wouldn't even talk to us.''
"I was thinking hard then.''
"That's what Mom said.''
He was thinking hard. The crushing teaching load was bad enough, but what for him was far worse was that he understood in his precise analytic way that the subject he was teaching was undoubtedly the most unprecise, unanalytic, amorphous area in the entire Church of Reason. That's why he was thinking so hard. To a methodical, laboratory-trained mind, rhetoric is just completely hopeless. It's like a huge Sargasso Sea of stagnated logic.
What you're supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the models he'd given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as though every rule he honestly tried to discover with them and learn with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he'd never come across the rule in the first place.
A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phædrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to the writing after the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn't. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation because that's the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had a certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn't pour. But how're you to teach something that isn't premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn't satisfactory.
There it is up ahead. Tension hits, the same stomach feeling, as we walk toward it.
"Do you remember that building?''
"That's where you used to teach -- why are we going here?''
"I don't know. I just wanted to see it.''
Not many people seem to be around. There wouldn't be, of course. Summer session is on now. Huge and strange gables over old dark-brown brick. A beautiful building, really. The only one that really seems to belong here. Old stone stairway up to the doors. Stairs cupped by wear from millions of footsteps.
"Why are we going inside?''
"Shh. Just don't say anything now.''
I open the great heavy outside door and enter. Inside are more stairs, worn and wooden. They creak underfoot and smell of a hundred years of sweeping and waxing. Halfway up I stop and listen. There's no sound at all.
Chris whispers, "Why are we here?''
I just shake my head. I hear a car go by outside.
Chris whispers, "I don't like it here. It's scary in here.''
"Go outside then,'' I say.
"You come too.''
"No, now.'' He looks at me and sees I'm staying. His look is so frightened I'm about to change my mind, but then suddenly his expression breaks and he turns and runs down the stairs and out the door before I can follow him.
The big heavy door closes down below, and I'm all alone here now. I listen for some sound -- .Of whom? -- Of him? -- I listen for a long time -- .
The floorboards have an eerie creek as I move down the corridor and they are accompanied by an eerie thought that it is him. In this place he is the reality and I am the ghost. On one of the classroom doorknobs I see his hand rest for a moment, then slowly turn the knob, then push the door open.
The room inside is waiting, exactly as remembered, as if he were here now. He is here now. He's aware of everything I see. Everything jumps forth and vibrates with recall.
The long dark-green chalkboards on either side are flaked and in need of repair, just as they were. The chalk, never any chalk except little stubs in the trough, is still here. Beyond the blackboard are the windows and through them are the mountains he watched, meditatively, on days when the students were writing. He would sit by the radiator with a stub of chalk in one hand and stare out the window at the mountains, interrupted, occasionally, by a student who asked, "Do we have to do -- ?'' And he would turn and answer whatever thing it was and there was a oneness he had never known before. This was a place where he was received...as himself. Not as what he could be or should be but as himself. A place all receptive...listening. He gave everything to it. This wasn't one room, this was a thousand rooms, changing each day with the storms and snows and patterns of clouds on the mountains, with each class, and even with each student. No two hours were ever alike, and it was always a mystery to him what the next one would bring -- .
My sense of time has been lost when I hear a creaking of steps in the hall. It becomes louder, then stops at the entrance to this classroom. The knob turns. The door opens. A woman looks in.
She has an aggressive face, as if she intended to catch someone here. She appears to be in her late twenties, is not very pretty. "I thought I saw someone,'' she says. "I thought -- '' She looks puzzled.
She comes inside the room and walks toward me. She looks at me more closely. Now the aggressive look vanishes, slowly changing to wonder. She looks astonished.
"Oh, my God,'' she says. "Is it you?''
I don't recognize her at all. Nothing.
She calls my name and I nod, Yes, it's me.
"You've come back.''
I shake my head. "Just for these few minutes.''
She continues to look until it becomes embarrassing. Now she becomes aware of this herself, and asks, "May I sit down for a moment?'' The timid way she asks this indicates she may have been a student of his.
She sits down on one of the front-row chairs. Her hand, which bears no wedding ring, is trembling. I really am a ghost.
Now she becomes embarrassed herself. "How long are you staying? -- No, I asked you that -- ''
I fill in, "I'm staying with Bob DeWeese for a few days and then heading West. I had some time to spend in town and thought I'd see how the college looked.''
"Oh,'' she says, "I'm glad you did -- . It's changed -- we've all changed -- so much since you left -- .''
There's another embarrassing pause.
"We heard you were in the hospital -- .''
"Yes,'' I say.
There is more embarrassed silence. That she doesn't pursue it means she probably knows why. She hesitates some more, searches for something to say. This is getting hard to bear.
"Where are you teaching?'' she finally asks.
"I'm not teaching anymore,'' I say. "I've stopped.''
She looks incredulous. "You've stopped?'' She frowns and looks at me again, as if to verify that she is really talking to the right person. "You can't do that.''
"Yes, you can.''
She shakes her head in disbelief. "Not you!''
"That's all over for me now. I'm doing other things.''
I keep wondering who she is, and her expression looks equally baffled. "But that's just -- '' The sentence drops off. She tries again. "You're just being completely -- '' but this sentence fails too.
The next word is "crazy.'' But she has caught herself both times. She realizes something, bites her lip and looks mortified I'd say something if I could, but there's no place to start. I'm about to tell her I don't know her but she stands up and says, "I must go now.'' I think she sees I don't know her. She goes to the door, says good-bye quickly and perfunctorily, and as it closes her footsteps go quickly, almost at a run, down the hall.
The outer door of the building closes and the classroom is as silent as before, except for a kind of psychic eddy current she has left behind. The room is completely modified by it. Now it contains only the backwash of her presence, and what it was I came here to see has vanished.
Good, I think, standing up again, I'm glad to have visited this room but I don't think I'll ever want to see it again. I'd rather fix motorcycles, and one's waiting.
On the way out I open one more door, compulsively. There on the wall I see something which sends a spine-tingling feeling along my neck.
It's a painting. I've had no recollection of it but now I know he bought it and put it there. And suddenly I know it's not a painting, it's a print of a painting he ordered from New York and which DeWeese had frowned at because it was a print and prints are of art and not art themselves, a distinction he didn't recognize at the time. But the print, Feininger's "Church of the Minorites,'' had an appeal to him that was irrelevant to the art in that its subject, a kind of Gothic cathedral, created from semiabstract lines and planes and colors and shades, seemed to reflect his mind's vision of the Church of Reason and that was why he'd put it here. All this comes back now. This was his office. A find. This is the room I am looking for!
I step inside and an avalanche of memory, loosened by the jolt of the print, begins to come down. The light on the print comes from a miserable cramped window in the adjacent wall through which he looked out onto and across the valley onto the Madison Range and watched the storms come in and while watching this valley before me now through this window here, now -- started the whole thing, the whole madness, right here! This is the exact spot!
And that door leads to Sarah's office. Sarah! Now it comes down! She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.'' This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.
Seed crystal. A powerful fragment of memory comes back now. The laboratory. Organic chemistry. He was working with an extremely supersaturated solution when something similar had happened.
A supersaturated solution is one in which the saturation point, at which no more material will dissolve, has been exceeded. This can occur because the saturation point becomes higher as the temperature of the solution is increased. When you dissolve the material at a high temperature and then cool the solution, the material sometimes doesn't crystallize out because the molecules don't know how. They require something to get them started, a seed crystal, or a grain of dust or even a sudden scratch or tap on the surrounding glass.
He walked to the water tap to cool the solution but never got there. Before his eyes, as he walked, he saw a star of crystalline material in the solution appear and then grow suddenly and radiantly until it filled the entire vessel. He saw it grow. Where before was only clear liquid there was now a mass so solid he could turn the vessel upside down and nothing would come out.
The one sentence "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students'' was said to him, and within a matter of a few months, growing so fast you could almost see it grow, came an enormous, intricate, highly structured mass of thought, formed as if by magic.
I don't know what he replied to her when she said this. Probably nothing. She would be back and forth behind his chair many times each day to get to and from her office. Sometimes she stopped with a word or two of apology about the interruption, sometimes with a fragment of news, and he was accustomed to this as a part of office life. I know that she came by a second time and asked, "Are you really teaching Quality this quarter?'' and he nodded and looked back from his chair for a second and said, "Definitely!'' and she trotted on. He was working on lecture notes at the time and was in a state of complete depression about them.
What was depressing was that the text was one of the most rational texts available on the subject of rhetoric and it still didn't seem right. Moreover he had access to the authors, who were members of the department. He had asked and listened and talked and agreed with their answers in a rational way but somehow still wasn't satisfied with them.
The text started with the premise that if rhetoric is to be taught at all at a University level it should be taught as a branch of reason, not as a mystic art. Therefore it emphasized a mastery of the rational foundations of communication in order to understand rhetoric. Elementary logic was introduced, elementary stimulus-response theory was brought in, and from these a progression was made to an understanding of how to develop an essay.
For the first year of teaching Phædrus had been fairly content with this framework. He felt there was something wrong with it, but that the wrongness was not in this application of reason to rhetoric. The wrongness was in the old ghost of his dreams...rationality itself. He recognized it as the same wrongness that had been troubling him for years, and for which he had no solutions. He just felt that no writer ever learned to write by this squarish, by-the-numbers, objective, methodical approach. Yet that was all rationality offered and there was nothing to do about it without being irrational And if there was one thing he had a clear mandate to do in this Church of Reason it was to be rational, so he had to let it go at that.
A few days later when Sarah trotted by again she stopped and said, "I'm so happy you're teaching Quality this quarter. Hardly anybody is these days.''
"Well, I am,'' he said. "I'm definitely making a point of it.''
"Good!'' she said, and trotted on.
He returned to his notes but it wasn't long before thought about them was interrupted by a recall of her strange remark. What the hell was she talking about? Quality? Of course he was teaching Quality. Who wasn't? He continued with the notes.
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which supposedly had been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers- if-your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies. Gentlemen and ladies had good table manners and spoke and wrote grammatically. It was what identified one with the upper classes. In Montana, however, it didn't have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass. There was a minimum prescriptive-rhetoric requirement in the department, but like the other teachers he scrupulously avoided any defense of prescriptive rhetoric other than as a "requirement of the college.''
Soon the thought interrupted again. Quality? There was something irritating, even angering about that question. He thought about it, and then thought some more, and then looked out the window, and then thought about it some more. Quality?
Four hours later he still sat there with his feet on the window ledge and stared out into what had become a dark sky. The phone rang, and it was his wife calling to find out what had happened. He told her he would be home soon, but then forgot about this and everything else. It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue as to what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home.
Most people would have forgotten about Quality at this point, or just left it hanging suspended because they were getting nowhere and had other things to do. But he was so despondent about his own inability to teach what he believed, he really didn't give a damn about whatever else it was he was supposed to do, and when he woke up the next morning there was Quality staring him in the face. Three hours of sleep and he was so tired he knew he wouldn't be up to giving a lecture that day, and besides, his notes had never been completed, so he wrote on the blackboard: "Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement?'' Then he sat by the radiator while they wrote and thought about quality himself.
At the end of the hour no one seemed to have finished, so he allowed the students to take their papers home. This class didn't meet again for two days, and that gave him some time to think about the question some more too. During that interim he saw some of the students walking between classes, nodded to them and got looks of anger and fear in return. He guessed they were having the same trouble he was.
Quality -- you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others -- but what's the "betterness''? -- So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?