Thursday, January 24, 2008

Saudade, Punctum, and Shifts in Generational Values

With my Internet connection down and out for a couple days, I took advantage of the time to work through some old media--namely, books. One of the books I plowed through was Michael Perry's Truck, a nonfiction account of a year-plus of the author's life. I usually don't read book jackets, but for some reason I happened to read this one prior to finishing the book. On the one hand, this proved to be regrettable since it spoiled a key development in the author's life. On the other hand, I did find it interesting that the jacket proclaimed the book as similar to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'm not sure I would have picked up on this comparison on my own, even though both books combine vehicular repair with philosophy, and both books use pictures of wrenches to separate chapters. Both authors were originally Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent. Pirsig is 40 in his narrative, while Perry is 38 in his chronicle. Their names even have similar resonance off the tongue.

What these similarities serve to do, though, is to better accentuate the differences. And I think the differences can be used to exemplify large generational shifts. Pirsig was born in 1928. He probably sold more books to the baby boom generation than to his own, perhaps because the former teacher takes on an instructive tone. And though the Boomers were famous for the "never trust anyone over 30" edict, it should be noted that the Maharishi was born in 1918. By positioning himself as a bit of a counter-cultural figure, Pirsig was able to portray himself as a trustworthy mentor figure. Perry, born in 1966, takes a different approach in appealing to youth. On his website homepage, there is a childhood picture of him picking his nose.

The first notable difference is stylistic. While Pirsig uses a single motorcycle journey as a launching pad for a number of digressions and flashbacks to earlier instances in his life, these transitions are meticulously planned to be a seamless as possible (in fact, he spent years on the manuscript). Perry, on the other hand, uses the months of the year as an organizing principle, but the events depicted are strikingly disconnected. Whereas you could follow Pirsig's stream of consciousness, Perry simply divides his chapters with disjointed section breaks. That's not to say that Perry's narrative is boring. Quite the opposite, actually, as his music video pacing makes sure that you are onto the next thing before you have had a chance to get bogged down (except in the case of his long-winded descriptions of gardening, though I'm guessing these sections are interesting for gardeners).

Pirisg makes a point, early in the narrative, of acclimating readers to a leisurely pace:

"We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don't get swung from side to side in any compartment."

This can be contrasted with Perry's descriptions of wild rides, such as reminisces in which his brother rode along under the hood of his truck in order to diagnose a problem that occurred only at 50 miles per hour, and the time he drove on for a couple miles without realizing that a girlfriend had fallen off his snowmobile. Of course, I'm more interested in the metaphorical significance of these descriptions than these particular individuals' driving habits.

Also notable is the difference in the author's personal lives. Both men are in a state of becoming, still striving to better themselves and still working toward discovering self-identity. The main difference is that Pirsig brings his family along for the ride, quite literally. He is married with a son, who makes the journey through the book with him. The knowledge of his responsibility as a father is always either central or subtextual to his philosophical musings. If Pirsig had been single at the time of the book's composition, he most likely would have had to give his audience an explanation as to why. Perry, as a 38-year-old single man, feels no compulsion to make apologies for his status as a bachelor. He does reveal that he's had failed relationships in the past, and he happens to strike up a romance with a single mother in the course of the narrative, but there is always a sense that the journey of discovery he is making starts with himself, and he has to figure out if others fit the identity he is constructing, rather than the other way around.

The most striking point to compare and contrast is the way that each author approaches the past. Pirsig by turns dwells on the past and seeks to escape from it. He romanticizes the past, and posits that modern society has forgotten time-honored values. For all that, though, the past is only of interest to Pirsig in the way that it can be channeled into the future. Optimism for humanity and its future informs his philosophy (and perhaps this optimism helped account for some of the book's popularity, as it came out just as Watergate was blowing up people's confidence in their government). Perry's book has many feel-good elements, and it celebrates the decency of that cliche of the "common man" so skillfully that it makes you forget that it is a cliche, yet when the author looks at macro-issues, he can't help but be pessimistic, even as he tries to soften it with humor:

Perhaps the clones of our toenail clippings will view grainy holographs composed of images from Gulf War III: Google Invaders...The nation is daily at at an accelerated rate devouring its own tail. Derrida is dead and we're all deconstructionists now. In further troubling news, Spam is lately available in a single-serving pouch. In the saddlebags of the four horsemen of the apocalypse are sandwiches made of this.

And it seems that the root of Perry's pessimism is his inability to apply the past to the future. Although he doesn't go into detail, he hints that one of the biggest obstacles in his ability to form relationships is his ever present past. But this concept takes on more abstraction and more power when he describes his visit to an art museum in New York and his visceral reaction to an Edward Hopper painting called 7 A.M. It depicts a small-town diner at that time of day. He searches for foreign words to describe his reaction to the painting. He throws out the Portuguese word "saudade," which he defines as "beyond nostalgia...a sense of life irretrievably lost." He uses the French words "punctum" to describe how the painting completely captures life, but that we are cruelly barred from entering the world depicted therein.

I wonder if this sentiment is felt by some people who pick up Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I have to confess I didn't read the whole thing but I'm going to say something slightly stupid: I have no internet right now either! Or TV, actually. I know that should probably shift my priorities and make me realize there is more to life, but all it's doing is making me realize how much I miss Facebook and Gossip Girl.

2:16 PM  

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