April 18, 2020
For the first time since quarantine began, we had a Chautauqua at the house, our 6th Annual Chautauqua, in fact. Up until all this quarantingus fuss started up, we were having weekly meetings in our living room. With the gas fire ignited, we would light cheap, sour incense and douse all the artificial lights in the house. Once comfy, we share different lectures about psychology and philosophy and recycling etiquette; we read poetry and diaries and share our self-experiments; we unveil where techno really came from, explain how accents relate to the space in your mouth, and summarize the juiciest bits of the Book of Numbers.
Meaning “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” the word “Chautauqua” was introduced to me by Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and denotes an adult education and education institution that was popular in late 19th and early 20th century America. I have chosen to continue the tradition of borrowing a cool word with a vaguely connected reason, mostly to celebrate the aforementioned book.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book I would recommend for anyone with a mental illness or eccentricity, a curiosity as to the nature of truth and its relation to the world, and a willingness to furrow one’s brow and risk feeling pretentious. Robert Pirsig is a writer, professor, and father from Minneapolis, Minnesota; the novel follows him on a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to Montana with his son. He uses the geography of the West and the dynamics of the trip, and the motorcycle, as metaphorical grounds on which he establishes a luminous philosophy and a beautiful memoir which explores the tenuous boundaries between inspiration, delusion, rationality, and joy.
It is one of the few books that I plan to read more than once over these next few years. I have the same intentions towards Beyond Good and Evil and Man’s Search for Meaning, the latter being an astonishing book which opens as the memoir of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s imprisonment at four different concentration camps during The Holocaust, and concludes with an advocation for his own therapeutic practice, logotherapy, the school of psychology which places primary importance on the development of a life purpose or meaning.
My pastor, the Reverend T Michael Rock, said that his mentor told him to read Man’s Search for Meaning every summer for five years after he turned eighteen. Not having a father, I now like to fantasize that all adult men are my mentor daddies, so I have decided to also take five goes at the book, and have just finished my second of five readings. These books are therapeutic in the logotherapeutic sense: they are helping me flourish and follow a purpose and meaning in my life. Spiritual texts and philosophy aid me in making a more coherent metaphysics — a way of understanding the world and what it’s like — and in doing so they allow me a refreshment of equanimity, spiritual rest, some structure around which to integrate and develop my raw life experiences and test my dinky theories about human existence.
These books also serve as checkpoints, mile posts, terminals through which I can view myself at the last reading. Television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 are other portals to a previous me, a much younger viewer, one who was happy to watch tv with his father in the basement, eating spaghetti and drifting off to sleep after rhubarb pie.
If you need a break from these hard and monotonous times, try this: call to mind the most precious object of all those in your possession, dig it out, and give yourself some time to simply stare into the window of the past which it paints for you. It feels good to remember sometimes.