Friday, December 14, 2007

Apocalyptic Quality - in Fiction and Fact

The two senses of the word, Quality, comprise one of the difficult aspects of the Metaphysics of Quality. The phrase "biological quality," for example, refers to the biological character of something acting in accordance with that character. In the sense that it does what it must do to maintain or enhance its biological life, it is good in those terms, that is, it has "biological quality." Eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest, law of the jungle, might equals right – all of these phrases refer to "biological quality" and should not be taken as purely Good in an abstract or general sense. They might be, but on the other hand, they might not be.

We have first to clarify what level we are speaking on. If we are speaking of the social level, biological quality cannot be taken as determinative of social quality. Social quality might be very much in opposition to biological quality. In fact many novels in our English literary tradition deal with the conflicts between biological and social quality. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was attractive and had many admirers of the opposite sex. But her biological charms were put to a severe test when the Yankees came and she had to learn to direct her natural egotism to the more social goal of helping to preserve the lives of her family and friends. Biological Quality was not enough. She had to acquire Social Quality - to learn how to get along and help others.

The novels of Jane Austen show this more clearly than this somewhat second-rate novel from our American South. One can contrast the purely biological quality of Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice with the more social and intellectual virtues of her elder sisters, Jane and Elizabeth -–who also married much better. But my favorite of the Austen novels, Persuasion, deals with a young woman who is navigating the difficult passage from social to intellectual quality, and having to do it very much alone and in the midst of great opposition. The social pressures are enormous against the acquisition of an independent relation to intellectual quality – that is, of free choice of the highest intellectual good. Of course, this "free choice" was cast in terms of biological-social quality, i.e., choice of a mate. But that was because of the time the novel was written and the requirements of the story. The point is that the freely-chosen intellectual quality was both more interior and ultimately integrative of the other levels.

Ideally, of course, intellectual quality, being more interior, should possess this integrative capacity, though it doesn’t always turn out that way. In fact in modern storytelling it almost never turns out that way. The intellectual quality is held to be aloof from the biological and social quality if not in actual conflict or opposition to them. And this is Pirsig’s point. In America the opposition of intellectual to biological-social quality is made unutterably tense and conflictual because of the factor of race.

A few months ago someone told me a little story about a couple I slightly knew which, it seems, had just been recently divorced. The daughter of this couple had taken up with an inner-city black youth and had a child by him. The grandchild ended up being deposited with the grandparents – I don’t know if the daughter was there as well -- and this new ménàge was proving to be quite a stress to the couple, which had probably had the full set of liberal views typical of their suburb and class. But what, in essence, was the cause of the stress? Was it because of the mixed-race grandchild, the city-suburb tension, the unmarried and evidently irresponsible status of the parents of the child, or some other combination of factors? It seems to me that race was ultimately of less importance than the fact that no-one, in this little parable of modern times, seemed to have the slightest clue about social quality or social values. Instead of confronting the young couple, getting them married, insisting that their child was their responsibility and not that of the grandparents – the older couple simply threw in the towel and divorced. They ran away from the problem. Insistence on the importance of static social values would have sent a strong message that civilized behavior does not stop at the borders of race. Since our society seems to be incapable of stating this message, perhaps we should not wonder that this couple failed to do so as well.

The importance of Pirsig’s four-fold structure of Quality is that it helps to build a structure of thought in which such issues can be discussed entirely apart from their racial elements. Without clarity of thought no action is possible. And "no action" always in the end means "a loss of the good," that is, it means deterioration. For Good - that is, Quality in its original sense of excellence or virtue, does not impose itself upon human beings. That is the essential meaning of freedom of the will. Human beings must choose the Good, decide on its behalf, make the decision of participating in it and fostering it. [Note below.]

It is in this sense that the Metaphysics of Quality is apocalyptic. For it has to do with the revealing of the will of man, and in this way it is a great deal more, or possibly somewhat less, but at any rate, different from, the traditional metaphysics -- "traditional," that is, since the rise of rationalism and modernity. The old subject-object metaphysics of rationalism enjoyed a certain independence from the problems of society because religious habits and sentiments were more or less still in force, at least until the 20th century. The fading of religious consciousness has exposed the weaknesses of rationalism, and it is really those weaknesses of rationalism that is what we mean by the "liberalism," or the "moral confusion," or "weakness of the will," of that couple I described. What these conditions signify is the absence of a structure of thinking adequate to meet the problems of real life. And it is just that "structure of thinking" which Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality can so much help to provide.

Note: Simone Weil -- "To be possessed by the bad, it is not necessary to have consented to it; but the good never possesses the soul until she has said yes…" See my essay, "The Virginity Monologues" where I discuss Weil's astonishing letter to Joe Bosquet - which I think has deep resonances with the Metaphysics of Quality.