Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M. Pirsig
First published in 1974, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went on to be described in The London Telegraph as ‘the most widely read philosophy book ever.’ What helped elevate it to a cult-like status was that it came at a time when authority, in all forms, was being challenged everywhere; when the debate on whether technological advancements were good or bad were being waged worldwide.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, this book was simultaneously “an inquiry into values” – it basically captured the essence of 20th century philosophy, thereby catapulting it to a cult classic.
Although it is deep and complicated and takes a lot of focus to read, it dwells upon some pertinent questions about life and Quality (yes, with a capital Q) in particular. Interlaced with stories from an across-the-west motorcycle trip with his son and some friends, Pirsig tells the story of his past in an almost former life before being admitted to a mental institution after going crazy in his pursuit of Quality. He often uses the motorcycle as an analogy.
Being a student of philosophy and a Professor of rhetoric, he is an authority on the subject by itself. But he goes further to explore the ideas of rhetoric, quality, the scientific method, technology and many ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers.
This book in fact has three narrative threads:
1) A road-trip on a motorcycle across the United States by a father and son
2) A philosophical mediation
3) A story of a man who is being pursued by the ghost of his former self (Phaedrus)
Let me explain.
Robert M. Pirsig was a Professor of Rhetoric and Creative Writing who was well known as an excellent analytical thinker. While teaching the rules of good writing to his students he came to an understanding – knowing rules of good writing, only resulted in bad writing. So, in fact he says, there are no rules as such, but we can differentiate between good and bad writing. However, this undermines the tenets of philosophy, if you can’t formalize Quality and can’t define it. His attempts to deal with this deceptively simple question – What is Quality? – leads him into a frantic search into philosophies of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel…)
Unfortunately , this feverish attempt on his part only leads him to a complete breakdown for which he is institutionalized and given electroshock therapy. ‘Phaedrus’ is the name the narrator gives to that former self of his, before the electroshock therapy created a schism in his personality.
|Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on the 1968 road trip that inspired this book|
So that’s one part of the book. This flashback is slowly revealed to the readers as he travels across the United States on his motorcycle along with his eleven year old son, Chris. Their experiences on the road , what they see and do are also a part of this book. In these parts we come across some real classic lines which will instil a lifelong love for motorcycle riding.
“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
During their travel, there are many digressions on several topics including a very important one for the author – the two attitudes towards life. He uses the motorcycle as an analogy. According to him there are these two viewpoints: classical and romantic. And he explains this through the way we interact with a motorcycle.
If you are a romantic, you would be thrilled with the act of riding a motorcycle, feeling the wind rushing past , happy to be riding a bike , and being “in the moment.”
But, if you are a classicist this would not be enough since you would insist on familiarizing yourself with the working parts of the machine, developing a feel for how tight to secure the bolts etc. Basically you not only enjoy riding the bike, but also knowing everything possible on how to maintain the bike.
This is a major difference in attitude that underlies our interactions with the world around us, according to Pirsig. Slowly, we begin to see how his past inquiry into Quality dominates his current bike trip with his son, and seemingly jeopardizes his identity again. The ghost of his former self, Phaedrus, seems to be an ever-present shadow that challenges his current mental stability.
However, the only way he can seem to come to terms with all this is by explaining what he went through in his past philosophical inquiry and that is what forms a major part of the book.
His thoughts on the educational system and the method of grading in universities are quite revolutionary and still may be read that way. But we can’t deny his passionate exploration into what truly is relevant and meaningful in our lives and in improving the Quality of our lives.
So why the title – why Zen? And why ‘Motorcycle Maintenance’? Zen being a practical form of Buddhism believes in a non-dualistic way of life and incorporates silence and meditation into daily practice. Essentially, we will realize that the author intends the motorcycle to be a symbol of the soul itself. We need to maintain a balanced peace with who we are first and foremost. Just like a motorcycle that can give you wings to freedom, but you must also know how to maintain it.
Roberst Pirsig’s book was rejected by 121 publishers he sent it to, except one. But like he says, “one is all you need.” This book probably will become clearer only with some re-readings, but it certainly has a lot of intriguing points and can be said to belong to the category of books that can change the way you think. But then, this is just my opinion.
[P.S. if you would like to try reading a book on philosophy and find it confusing where to begin, I would strongly recommend Sophie’s World by Jostein Gardner – take a pen and notebook, lots of notes are sure to ensue! ]