All Roads Lead to Pirsig: a review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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There’s a strange phenomenon that happens when you let on in conversation that you ride. Soon after you casually drop a reference to “the bike,” the conversation starts to steer toward Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s like how all roads lead to Rome; all conversations eventually lead to Pirsig.

First published in 1974, Zen has become a classic, selling over 5 million copies. It possesses that rare quality of being both popular and academic. It’s the one book everyone has heard of that contains the word “motorcycle” in its title, so naturally, once it’s known that you ride, you will have to give your opinion of it. Ironically, the book isn’t about motorcycling at all. It’s about technology and mental illness and the Cartesian Duality and the Romantic and Classical traditions of Western thought and fatherhood and a host of other things but not motorcycling. The riding is really just a trope, the frame narrative to contain the philosophical musings in the Eastern tradition Pirsig calls “Chautauquas.” It’s these Chautauquas that are the real journey in the book, a deepening exploration of the Metaphysics of Quality. They occur during a 17-day road trip from Minnesota to Northern California with Robert Pirsig’s 12-year-old son, Chris, riding pillion.

Much of the book is highly abstract, and when I want to torture my wife, I read a passage from the book’s middle section:

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is , they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

“Stop, stop!” she screams, and I do, before Public Security shows up at my door.

I had been warned inadvertently about the middle section. I happened to overhear a conversation involving a colleague who had decided to teach the book for the first time. He was lamenting that middle section, wondering how he was going to keep 18-year-olds, whose attention span is limited to 500 words of celebrity gossip, to keep wading through that philosophical muck. So when I got to it, I started to skim the abstract stuff, which isn’t really necessary to understand the discoveries at the end. It helps to have some context, but you don’t have to touch every stone on the Yellow Brick Road to get to the Emerald City. And in the end, when Pirsig finally comes to the much anticipated answers to his questions, he does so in a paragraph that doesn’t require all the contextual trappings for us to understand. This is a major flaw in the book. Despite it being a classic, it very much needs some serious editing. No wonder it was rejected by 121 publishers before being picked up, more than any other best-selling book, according to the Guiness Book of Records.

Fortunately, there are some passages that bring us back to the concrete world, literally: “We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles. . . . There’s a red-winged blackbird.” And at other times, Pirsig provides another level of abstraction with insights about the concrete world and our experience of it. Here he describes, better than anyone I’ve read, why we ride:

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. 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. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”

This is Pirsig at his best, when he gets outside his mind and provides description of physical detail and insights glimpsed during the ride. I found myself invested more in the frame narrative and the lives of these “characters,” and became annoyed each time I was dragged away from this narrative to the philosophical musings.

At the heart of this book is the relationship between Pirsig and his son Chris, a relationship strained by some violent rupture in its past, and one gets the sense that the bike trip is in part an attempt to heal this wound. Pirsig’s relationship with his son is very different from mine with my son, and  I longed for Pirsig to find a way to speak more openly to his son about his feelings and fears. He never does, and this is another disappointment in the book. The most touching moment of writing comes in the afterword, if you have the Harper edition.

With so much going against it, what, you must be asking, makes this book so popular? Well, it was one of the first popular books to examine our relationship with technology. I remember a roommate in first year undergrad talking about it excitedly, mentioning the contrast between Pirsig and John and Sylvia Sutherland, the couple they ride with through the first 9 days of the trip. Pirsig is able to repair his bike when things go wrong; John and Sylvia cannot, but rather fear and avoid maintenance on the bike, a relationship that extends to technology in general. In an era dominated by technology, Zen is an opportunity to reflect on our own feelings about the world as we’ve made it. Pirsig’s position is clear: we must embrace technology or risk becoming enslaved by it, victims of third-rate motorcycle mechanics and their inflated costs. There’s a moral obligation, according to Pirsig, to learn how to fix your bike.

And while I’m not a philosopher, I think Zen was one of the first philosophical treatises to bring Eastern thought into the stream of the Western dialectic. Pirsig’s goal is ambitious: nothing less than to bridge the Cartesian subject/object divide that underlies Western thought. It was probably also ahead of its time in casting a spotlight on mental illness, a subject that only now, over 40 years later, we as a society are starting to acknowledge and discuss more openly.

Yes, the bike is you, and you must work on yourself like the bike. I’m a strong believer that everyone has to do some serious personal work at some time in his or her life; otherwise your shit catches up to you, like the skunk stripe of mud that gets flicked up your back. It can be a divorce, a series of failed relationships, or a deep depression. I spent the bulk of my 20’s reading Carl Jung and Robert Bly, journaling, and doing dream analysis. Pirsig has opened a conversation about mental illness as much as presented an inquiry into values. He folds Buddhist spirituality into social critique, and I believe it’s this combination of personal and social inquiry that has given the book its wide appeal through the decades. Despite my misgivings, I believe it’s an important read. Just skim the middle sections.

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3 thoughts on “All Roads Lead to Pirsig: a review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. I read this book first in college. It was hard for me to absorb, one of those books that I had to try and try again to find the real meaning of it. To this day, that meaning has not totally been interpreted in my brain. What I did learn from this book, is that writing does not have to be just about telling a story and for that I am grateful.

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