Obscured originals

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a fairly learned colleague that touched on Zen philosophy, and I wanted to reference a particular book. I started to say “Zen in the Art” … and my colleague finished “… of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

“No,” I said, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” whereupon he looked confused. It turns out he had never heard of it. I briefly described Eugen Herrigel’s classic memoir of his experience as a Westerner attempting to learn Zen under Japanese master Awa KenzĂ´. I also pointed out that Herrigel’s book was quite likely the inspiration for the title of Robert Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

This led to a discussion of a curious phenomenon: The homage which becomes more famous than the original. For example, a number of years ago I mentioned Jean-Luc Godard in one of my classes, and the only association in my students’s minds was Jean-Luc Picard, the starship captain. Of course the latter’s name was an homage to the great nouvelle vague filmmaker, but none of my students knew that.

Similarly, a lot of people know about Bob Dylan, yet have no idea where he got his adopted last name. And think of all those kids who grew up hearing the voice of Stimpy, yet have never heard of Peter Lorre.

I suspect one could compile a long list of such “obscured originals”: Once ubiquitous cultural references that have been displaced in the collective consciousness by something else that had been intended as an homage to the original.

2 thoughts on “Obscured originals”

  1. There’s a funny story in Chuck Jones’ autobiography (“Chuck Amuck”) about how the voice and character of Daffy Duck was directly inspired by the cartoon studio’s producer. Amazingly, he never caught on.

  2. In Japan, Meijinden by Nakajima Atushi is a famous story. If one mastered archery, who doesn’t use it. That is based on the old Chinese story. If one uses archery, it is called “Sha no Sha”, which means shoot of shoot, that is just an ordinary skill. If one master the archery, the master can do “Fusha no sha”, which means “shoot without shoot”. These idea is quite common, but I struggle to explain to my friends as well as Zen.’s Koan. (I like Motorcycle Maintenance book. Quality.)

    I once try to explain this using math, math is started natural numbers, but if you try to mastere it, it goes to the next level. You don’t use the numbers anymore, mainly you goes to operator’s property, groups, matrix, eigenanalysis, or something more. When you master the numbers, you don’t use the numbers. I heard some chess master can play chess without chess board, but I think this is not the next level. To make a strong chess program, you might not thinking about chess itself, but search method or something like that. I just suspect, maybe some level of artificial intelligence needs this level shift. To master intelligence, it is something else should be mastered. But maybe it is not applicable to this kind of idea (which is more than 2000 years old) to AI. It’s just a random idea….

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