Sunday, 8 November 2009

That funny time of year


I love this time of year. Well, it’s October that I truly love, but things seem to have been brought forward a little bit this year. The leaves are only just beginning to fall, and there is nothing that brings more childish triumph than stomping through them all, hearing them crackle and crunch. 

Of course, soon the leaves will break down and turn to mulch, before they evaporate completely. Then all we’ll be left again with is chunks of grey pavement and sticks for trees. Bleak, windswept landscape, often muddied through with rain. A world where nothing much seems to grow. When everything seems to be holding its breath, suspended. Waiting.

But, for now, the world through my eyes looks pretty beautiful. Sunlight dapples all the colours: russets, oranges, reds and yellows. I think there is something beautiful about Autumn because it signifies the adage ‘going out in a blaze of glory’. It speaks to us of a dying man’s final moment of courage. It speaks to us of 'it ain't over 'till it's over'; that even in those last few days, before the leaves suicidially hurtle and die for the year, that they can glisten and glow more beautiful than ever. That there is always hope as long as you’re still clinging on. 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

This week, I’ve been finishing the above book, by Robert M. Pirsig. Not so much a beautiful book, that appeals to the senses, as one that stokes the mind. And the reason I’m mentioning it is that it coincidentally seems to allude to a definition of something similar to beauty (with a few differences). Although, rather than define beauty, Pirsig was trying to define Quality – a term the author never really defined, as he said to define it was to confine it.

It got me thinking though.

Pirsig links Quality with the Tao. That Quality is the fundamental force in the universe, which stimulates everything, from atoms to animals, to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality.

Pirsig thinks that everyone has an instinctive awareness of Quality. That, if you show a class two essays, there will be a significant consensus of which one is deemed'best'. So, does this apply to beauty too? However, I can't help but find fault with Pirsig's assumption. For, surely, a lot of this is down to culture? Perhaps I am too much of a relativist but I can't help but think societal norms influence a consensus on Quality, and the same goes for beauty. Then again, I liked the idea that there might be inherent value in something beyond the observer.

Pirsig also mentions the Sanskrit doctrine of 'Tat tvam asi' - 'thou art that'. That everything you think you are (subjective) and everything you think you perceive (objective) is undivided. Quality is neither subject nor object but a "third entity". He also wrote, in a 1995 paper: "Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event as which the subject becomes aware of the object... The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!" Do we have the emphasis all wrong?

It’s funny how often you think about reading a book, but don’t. And then there comes a time when it suddenly seems right to read it, and when you do it, it speaks to you, intuitively, at a level that befits you in that time and space. So it has been with this book, which although has many faults (which I won’t list here), managed to massage my brain and lure out something latent. 


And it’s funny how the radio 4 programme In Our Time did the same thing. I can’t recommend Melvyn Bragg’s show enough. It often goes way over my head but it forces me to think about wide-ranging issues and it challenges me. Anyone stuck in a repetitive job cannot help but coo over that.

I have been ill lately, with the usual seasonal germ that makes you cough and splutter and flit inbetween sleep and wakefulness. Listening to this programme helped me from collapsing into brain death. Especially the one on Schopenhauer. It seemed to have some links to Pirsig’s book. 

For if we are striving for ever greater Quality, then we are destined to keep striving, deluded, for ever. Schopenhauer posited that life was just oscillation between desire and boredom. There is no ultimate perfection in history's forward momentum. There can be no happiness because desire is never fulfilled. Once we obtain a goal, we fixate on another.

I know you may be thinking that none of this sounds very beautiful, but bear with me. Schopenhauer's philosophy got me thinking and back to wondering to why many people find autumn so majestic.

Perhaps autumn is beautiful because it is a pre-state:  striving, inbetweeness. When we get to the winter, we have already made the transition. Beauty is the journey but not the destination. Beauty is transient, dealt out in small doses - but always with the hope of something more. 

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