Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Parsig
Some things can be said about Phaedrus as an individual:
He was a knower of logic, the classical system-of-the-system which describes the rules and procedures of systematic thought by which analytic knowledge may be structured and interrelated. He was so swift at this his Stanford-Binet IQ, which is essentially a record of skill at analytic manipulation, was recorded at 170, a figure that occurs in only one person in fifty thousand.
He was systematic, but to say he thought and acted like a machine would be to misunderstand the nature of his thought. It was not like pistons and wheels and gears all moving at once, massive and coordinated. The image of a laser beam comes to mind instead; a single pencil of light of such terrific energy in such extreme concentration it can be shot at the moon and its reflection seen back on earth. Phaedrus did not try to use his brilliance for general illumination. He sought one specific distant target and aimed for it and hit it. And that was all. General illumination of that target he hit now seems to be left for me.
In proportion to his intelligence he was extremely isolated. There’s no record of his having had close friends. He traveled alone. Always. Even in the presence of others he was completely alone. People sometimes felt this and felt rejected by it, and so did not like him, but their dislike was not important to him.
His wife and family seem to have suffered the most. His wife says those who tried to go beyond the barriers of his reserve found themselves facing a blank. My impression is that they were starved for some kind of affection which he never gave.
No one really knew him. That is evidently the way he wanted it, and that’s the way it was. Perhaps his aloneness was the result of his intelligence. Perhaps it was the cause. But the two were always together. An uncanny solitary intelligence.
This still doesn’t do it though, because this and the image of a laser beam convey the idea that he was completely cold and unemotional, and that is not so. In his pursuit of what I have called the ghost of rationality he was a fanatic hunter.
One fragment becomes especially vivid now of a scene in the mountains where the sun was behind the mountain half an hour and an early twilight had changed the trees and even the rocks to almost blackened shades of blue and grey and brown. Phaedrus had been there three days without food. His food had run out but he was thinking deeply and seeing things and was reluctant to leave. He was not far away from where he knew there was a road and was in no hurry.
In the dusk coming down the trail he saw a movement and then what seemed to be a dog approaching on the trail, a very large sheep dog, or an animal more like a husky, and he wondered what would bring a dog to this obscure place at this time of evening. He disliked dogs, but this animal moved in a way that forestalled these feelings. It seemed to be watching him, judging him. Phaedrus stared into the animal’s eyes for a long time, and for a moment felt some kind of recognition. Then the dog disappeared.
He realized much later it was a timber wolf, and the memory of this incident stayed with him a long time. I think it stayed with him because he had seen a kind of image of himself.
A photograph can show a physical image in which time is static, and a mirror can show a physical image in which time is dynamic, but I think what he saw on the mountain was another kind of image altogether which was not physical and did not exist in time at all. It was an image nevertheless and that is why he felt recognition. It comes to me vividly now because I saw it again last night as the visage of Phaedrus himself.
Like that timber wolf on the mountain he had a kind of animal courage. He went his own way with unconcern for consequences that sometimes stunned people, and stuns me now to hear about it. He did not often swerve to right or to left. I’ve discovered that. But this courage didn’t arise from any idealistic idea of self-sacrifice, only from the intensity of his pursuit, and there was nothing noble about it.
I think his pursuit of the ghost of rationality occurred because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it. He wanted to free himself from his own image. He wanted to destroy it because the ghost was what he was and he wanted to be free from the bondage of his own identity. In a strange way, this freedom was achieved.
This account of him must sound unworldly, but the most unworldly part of it all is yet to come. This is my own relationship to him. This has been forestalled and obscured until now, but nevertheless must be known.
I first discovered him by inference from a strange series of events many years ago. One Friday I had gone to work and gotten quite a lot done before the weekend and was happy about that and later that day drove to a party where, after talking to everybody too long and too loudly and drinking way too much, went into a back room to lie down for a while.
When I awoke I saw that I’d slept the whole night, because now it was daylight, and I thought, “My God, I don’t even know the name of the hosts!” and wondered what kind of embarrassment this was going to lead to. The room didn’t look like the room I had lain down in, but it had been dark when I came in and I must have been blind drunk anyway.
I got up and saw that my clothes were changed. These were not the clothes I had worn the night before. I walked out the door, but to my surprise the doorway led not to rooms of a house but into a long corridor.
As I walked down the corridor I got the impression that everyone was looking at me. Three different times a stranger stopped me and asked how I felt. Thinking they were referring to my drunken condition I replied that I didn’t even have a hangover, which caused one of them to start to laugh, but then catch himself.
At a room at the end of the corridor I saw a table where there was activity of some sort going on. I sat down nearby, hoping to remain unnoticed until I got all this figured out. But a woman dressed in white came up to me and asked if I knew her name. I read the little name clip on her blouse. She didn’t see that I was doing this and seemed amazed, and walked off in a hurry.
When she came back there was a man with her, and he was looking right at me. He sat down next to me and asked me if I knew his name. I told him what it was, and was as surprised as they were that I knew it.
“It’s very early for this to be happening,” he said.
“This looks like a hospital,” I said.
“How did I get here?” I asked, thinking about the drunken party. The man said nothing and the woman looked down. Very little was explained.
It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?
It was explained to me finally that “You have a new personality now.” But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any “old” personality. If they had said, “You are a new personality,” it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.
But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?
This was my first inkling of the existence of Phaedrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I’ve learned much more.
He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at duration of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as “Annihilation ECS.” A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will.
And yet strange wisps of his memory suddenly match and fit this road and desert bluffs and white-hot sand all around us and there is a bizarre concurrence and then I know he has seen all of this. He was here, otherwise I would not know it. He had to be. And in seeing these sudden coalescences of vision and in recall of some strange fragment of thought whose origin I have no idea of, I’m like a clairvoyant, a spirit medium receiving messages from another world. That is how it is. I see things with my own eyes, and I see things with his eyes too. He once owned them.
These EYES! That is the terror of it. These gloved hands I now look at, steering the motorcycle down the road, were once his! And if you can understand the feeling that comes from that, then you can understand real fear—the fear that comes from knowing there is nowhere you can possibly run.