Monday, 4 June 2012

The Careful Driving Trilogy: Journeys through Space, Time and Mind

Three return journeys from Kidderminster to the former Soviet Union allow a truck driver to ruminate upon what philosophy and history inform us about the human condition. Each return journey is linked to a period in European history. Particular emphasis is placed upon the rise and fall of Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union's transformation from inter-war isolation to a post-war colossus that occupied half of Europe - until a series of bloodless revolutions liberated the Warsaw Pact countries and led to the fall of the Soviet Union itself.

A few months ago I added a paragraph to the first chapter of the first book of the trilogy, Karl Marx and Careful Driving. The narrator has been lamenting the intrusion of the Drivers' Hours Regulations:

Regulations that are applied to human beings make no concessions to one's humanity. So what is it to be human? A team of alien anthropologists visiting the earth after the extinction of the human civilisation would have discovered evidence of an industrious and inventive species capable of stupendous feats of civil and mechanical engineering. It sent rockets into outer space and invented the microchip. We are laid bare by our creative genius - the great works of architecture, engineering, art, literature and music; and yet we have devised equally ingenious methods to destroy each other. Why, the visiting aliens would ask themselves (having discovered remains of warships, nuclear submarines, missile factories, tanks and jet fighters and bombers), had these intelligent creatures evidently been incapable of solving the relatively simple problem of how to live together in harmony? Only an investigation into the arcane machinations of the human soul would provide answers. There'd be no better place than to begin this ambitious project than with a reading (let us assume that the aliens were eventually able to discover a way of decoding human languages) of the works of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Sartre; and following it with an investigation into how their good intentions shaped (for better or worse) the turbulent course of human history.

What is it to be human? (And what is it to be inhuman?) Presented as a stream of consciousness from behind the wheel, The Careful Driving Trilogy  describes a search for answers that takes a truck driver on parallel journeys through European history and philosophy during two return trips to Kazakhstan and one to Moscow and Lithuania. The road is seen as a microcosm of damaged society as a whole, what Karl Marx called 'a mutual conflict of all individuals who are no longer distinguished by anything but their individuality'.

When the ideas are coming thick and fast I feel absurdly excited by the project and convinced of its ultimate success. At other times, overwhelmed by structural complexities in the manuscript, I feel that I have bitten off far more than I can chew and that failure is inevitable. This emotional roller-coaster will probably be all too familiar to fellow authors. I have invested six years and thousands of pounds in a hugely ambitious project and it is a long way from being finished. Failure will be hard to take.

I have just finished re-reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The 25th anniversary edition of the book includes an interview with the author and some fascinating samples of the correspondence that took place between Pirsig and his editor during the writing of the book. These insights have provided some comfort because it is clear that in writing ZAMM Pirsig had to overcome many of the problems confronting me in my efforts to complete Karl Marx and Careful Driving.

On 5 January1969, in a letter to his editor, Pirsig wrote: In a sense, at this point, it's all over but the writing. The outlining, which was done on about 3,000 4 x 6" slips, was completed in December with a thoroughness that extends all the way to the paragraph level. Actually five separate outlines were made, entitled 'Events', 'People', 'Maintenance Broad Fabric', 'Zen Broad Fabric', and 'Heights'. These five were rather carefully interwoven for mutual reinforcement and unity throughout the book.

Perhaps it isn't so very surprising that I have resorted to similar tactics owing to the structural complexity of KM&CD. The manuscript consists of no less than eight 'strands', colour coded in the manuscript for ease of identification, as follows:

1. Strand Black: A return journey from the UK to Kazakhstan by truck (July 1993)
2. Strand Dark Green: The author's journey from academic to international truck driver
3. Strand Light Green: Plato and Ancient-Greek philosophy
4. Strand Light Blue: European history and philosophy from AD 0 to AD 1789 (French Revolution)
5. Strand Dark Blue: European history from AD 1789 to AD 1993
6. Strand Red: European philosophy from AD 1789 to AD 1993
7. Strand Orange: Fransen Transport as an example of twentieth-century capitalism
8 Strand Purple: Careful driving and careful government

The concept that  Perfect Understanding exists, and that access to it is restricted to a minority, has been the pretext for the centralisation of power since time immemorial. Plato's Republic may not be the first written endorsement of this type of government, but it is arguably the most famous. The exploration of history from AD 0 to AD 1789 demonstrates that government has invariably followed the Platonic model of the concentration of power in the hands of a minority that uses a Magnificent Myth to justify its right to rule the majority. Karl Marx stood for the decentralisation of power and the 'withering away' of the state, but the preservation of power at all costs by ruling elites has meant that genuine decentralisation of power has never seriously been attempted, least of all in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The fallacy that parliamentary democracy is 'rule by the people' is just the latest Magnificent Myth to have fooled the majority into acquiescing to the unequal distribution of power.

On 3 March 1970, Pirsig wrote: The first draft is finished. It's hard to believe, but it is. It's still plenty ugly, mawkish, digressive, disconnected, ill-proportioned... nothing anyone could read without disgust... but it's done, all 120,000 words of it, and it contains a story that with patience and luck can be worked into something of real power.

I have reached a similar stage with KM&CD. The research into European philosophy and history is more or less complete. All(!) that remains for me to do is weave the threads of the strands together, providing what I hope will be a coherent and absorbing tapestry - and perhaps even 'something of real power'. To this end I am currently separating out each colour-coded strand of the manuscript so that I can begin the process of reassembly with a 'blank slate'. Unfortunately the process has become a race against time because I was made redundant from my part-time job in January and I want to have the manuscript ready to submit to literary agents before my savings run out early next year and I will have to return to some form of employment.

No less than 121 publishers rejected Pirsig's proposal for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He was asked what made him so determined to get ZAMM published when many writers would have given hope. His answer was as follows: It wasn't so difficult. The 122 submissions were all made simultaneously using an electric typewriter that operated from punched paper tape. Twenty-two publishers were interested at first, but during the four years it took to get the book written that number dropped down to six. After those six read the manuscript, only one wanted it. But, of course, one is all you need.

One is all I need.

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