Sunday, December 2, 2012

Brujo Encadenado

Robert M. Pirsig. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam, 1992.  ISBN: 0553299611.

This book is as interesting (to me) as Pirsig's other one, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Where the earlier book sees reality existing outside our ability to understand it, this one talks about different ways that we respond to our historical inability to grasp reality wholly.  The earlier book sees an indefinite (and humanly undefinable) quality as the foundation of reality: the word quality points toward the reality that is too big to understand, too irregular and dynamic to be contained by our limited intelligence.  The second book talks about different manifestations of this quality in human life.

According to Pirsig, quality as we experience it comes in two kinds: (1) static quality and (2) dynamic quality.  Lila is an extended portrait of these two different kinds of quality. 

(1) Static quality comes in four kinds: (i) inorganic static quality; (ii) biological static quality; (iii) social quality; (iv) intellectual quality.  Life exists as different patterns of these kinds of quality that are related.  Inorganic molecules exist in static patterns that enable static patterns of biological life, which rely on them without being determined by them (the same way computer languages rely on electronic circuits: the circuits make the languages possible, but you could not predict the particular historical development of the languages from the existence of the circuits).  Biological patterns exist in static patterns that enable static patterns of social life, which rely on biology without being determined by it (the same way computer software applications rely on programming languages: the languages make the applications possible, but you could not predict the particular historical developments of the applications from the languages).  Finally, social patterns exist in static patterns that enable static intellectual patterns, which rely on society without being determined by it (the same way a novel in a word-processing application relies on that software to exist without being deducible from it: my knowledge that OpenOffice exists does not tell me what novel you may be using it to write right now).

(2) Dynamic quality is the wildcard, the irregularity that makes quality impossible for us to understand (i.e. the simple quality that Pirsig talks about in his first book).  Dynamic quality is rebellious: for some reason, inorganic molecules decide to work against forces of natural decay in the universe; they join together in ways that allow biological life to exist (against expectations).  Then, for some reason, biological life works against the restrictions of physical reality, fighting against forces of decay to create more and more complex organisms that challenge physical laws (like gravity: all organisms move--crawling, walking, or flying in defiance of the forces pulling them down).  On top of this, organisms come together (for some unknown reason) and create social conventions, taking the biological value known as sex (for example) and overlaying it with rules known as marriage.  Finally, human beings (and maybe other living things too) reflect rationally on the existence of social norms (like marriage) and try to make these rational (e.g. extending the benefits of marriage to different kinds of people who merit them, say homosexuals or people of a different race or creed than the dominant one in a particular culture).  Dynamic quality always bucks the regular systems of static quality, challenging the norms that hold these systems together.  It occasions the transformation of static order, altering the nature of a static system radically and unpredictably.

At one point in the book, the author recounts an anecdote from the modern history of the Zuni people in North America.  In a particular Zuni community, there was an odd man who flouted social norms, peeping in windows without talking to his fellow tribesmen.  The Zuni call such people witches (brujos in Spanish: Pirsig prefers the Spanish term because it carries less problematic baggage than the English witch).  One day, he got drunk and told the local authorities (priests) that they would never control him.  They arrested him and hung him up by his thumbs.  He sent for local Western authorities (off the reservation), who rescued him (and took him to the hospital).  Afterwards, the priests who had disciplined him resigned their authority in the community, and the witch became the community leader.  He ended up leading the Zuni into a new kind of social order, one in which relations with the Westerners was more cordial and open (in part because he made a point of meeting regularly with outsiders and sharing Zuni stories with them).  Western anthropologists had a hard time explaining this event because they wanted to make the brujo a conventional leader in his society.  They tried to understand his rise to prominence in Zuni terms, seeing it as a natural event inside the traditional Zuni culture.  From Pirsig's point of view, this is the wrong approach, precisely because the brujo's power came from outside the Zuni.  He was not traditional.  He was dynamic, innovative, a wild card.  This is why the priests, guardians of traditional Zuni culture, attempted to suppress him.  He represented a dynamic threat to the static quality of their society.

Every social order produces outcasts, people on the fringes who don't exactly belong.  These people can be dangerous.  They represent a challenge to the stability of static quality (which provides some benefits: order, predictability, regularity).  But they are not always dangerous.  No static state is ever perfect.  Each lacks something.  Each is maladapted in some respect.  The outsiders can help here.  Given the chance, they can transform the static quality of an established community so that it survives as circumstances around it alter.  The old Zuni priests were less adept in preserving their society from outside influence.  The brujo became a leader because he was better at dealing with people and culture outside Zuni.  He used his position as an outsider to make the position of the Zuni people safer than it was, insuring the survival of Zuni better than the priests could by changing the nature of the community (in ways that the priests found utterly abhorrent).

I confess I sometimes feel like a Mormon brujo.  While I have no intention of being a leader, I do value certain things in Mormon culture (the focus on friends and family, the commandment that every man seek his or her own divine revelation, the drive for a community that is something more than just abstract economics seeking to amass the most material wealth possible).  I have always valued these things.  I thought the institutional church valued them the same way I did.  Even when my personal position on certain matters differed from positions held by institutional leaders, I thought we were on the same team, interested in pursuing the same overarching goals.  To some extent, I think we still are.  But I think that many Mormon priesthood leaders have much less sympathy for me than I once believed.  I think they are barely willing that people such as I exist, provided we keep our mouths shut and defer to their judgment without protest (however rational or respectful).  I don't think they should give in to us.  I don't think the church would be better led if they all abdicated and handed power over to folk of the fringe, such as I have been most of my life.  But I wish there was a place for us in Mormon culture, a place for modern backsliders like Sterling McMurrin, who believe in the gospel even if they insist on misunderstanding it (from the point of view of someone like Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie).  If that place had existed, then I might still be an active Mormon today.  But I am not really the Zuni brujo.  I am not willing to be hung by the thumbs to save the community.  Forced to choose between saving myself and saving Mormonism, I admit I picked me.  No hard feelings, I hope.

In Pirsig's book, he talks about the twentieth century as a war between social quality (the Victorianism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the West, especially the USA) and intellectual quality (the drive to make society rational).  He takes the side of intellectual quality against social, arguing that it is more moral for an idea to destroy society than for society to destroy an idea.  I confess I am not convinced he is right.  To me, it seems that ideas are too unpredictable and dangerous to merit that kind of respect.  But I do wish that we could find better ways in the USA of accommodating outsiders (including intellectuals) who want to participate in society in a positive way without crucifying themselves in the process.  While I do not fight with Pirsig in the war, I do think that the war is there, and I do not think we are fighting it in the best manner possible.  There are better ways to deal with me than forcing me to become a liar (heretic) or an apostate (outcast).  Or maybe I just wish there were.  Sometimes, life is just really tough (a problem without happy solution). 

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