Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)


I’ve heard about this book for years, but never found the prospect of reading it appealing. The hardcover from William Morrow and Company sat on my shelves for years, collecting dust and staving off inferiority complexes against its oft-picked neighbors. What do I know or care of motorcycles? Why do I need to read another book about a practice (Zen) that prides itself on being ineffable? A few Zen koans and some of D. T. Suzuki’s treatises and that’s enough for me to get the gist. Anyway, the title, the unremarkable blackboard binding, the lack of public representation (today), and, well, my own circumscribed thinking kept the book from my mind. Until the recent news of Pirsig’s death.

Knowing nothing about the book other than the presumptions I attached to the title (which is not to know anything about the book, really) and that it was possibly a sort of Sophie’s World, I jumped in and started toeing the waters. But in that first foray, I went from towing to wading, then neck deep, getting lost in the waters. The thrill of the ride and the buzz of the metaphor Pirsig was weaving gave me a head rush. Then, with a clever back-and-forth of the analytical knife, Pirsig dissected and re-organized my personality, particularly in relation to technology, in a deft Aristotelian fashion that left me dazed (I mean this literally: I was in a heady stupor for days). The dichotomy of the narrator and the Sutherlands is still the quintessence of our cultural divide.

After pegging so utterly this classical-romantic bifurcation in humanity, Pirsig moves into the meat of the book: a fragmented mosaic of Phaedrus’s intellectual work on Quality. This is where things gets dense and one must slow down. (Apparently, according to the author introduction in my 25th anniversary edition, Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality is further explicated in the sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which I will be reading soon. [Update: I have now read Lila and will be reviewing it at some point.]) This portion was, by far, the most stimulating and rewarding. The way the narrator stretches his mind (back) in time to grasp at the free-floating strips of thought in his pre-breakdown mind and the analogue to Tao Te Ching is a master class in engaging cerebral writing for the masses. Everything emanates from Quality and what we experience as the Real is our Response to Quality. Our Responses to Quality become the Mythos in which we live. There is a brilliant structure to a systematic metaphysics, but I want more explication (hence, my interest in the sequel and visits to http://moq.org/).

Another strong point of the book’s content is the meditation on harmonizing the classical (rational) mind and the romantic (aesthetic) mind. This endeavor always interests me, ever since reading E. O. Wilson’s book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which purported to seek this harmony. I have a BA in Computer Science and an MA in Literature; I have a day job in IT and I moonlight as a writer; I’ve always been a voracious reader across many genres—so I am sensitive to the need for harmonizing the two and the potential for doing so (there are many parallels between the two). The thoughts around this were such that it literally changed my daily behavior, my thinking, and I’ve been evangelizing to others about this embracing of what seems opposed.

I recently participated in a missions trip to Haiti, and, while there, one of our people had a life-changing experience. Upon return, although we were happy for the changed minds, we also had to question why it took a trip to a so-called fourth-world country to trigger the transformation. This implies a fundamental breakdown in our culture, our way of thinking, and, ultimately, living. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said (in “Self-Reliance,” I believe), we should never have to travel to discover who we really are. Similarly, I have learned that ZAMM is quite autobiographical, and its author went insane on the heels of obsessively thinking out his metaphysical system and ended up admitted, diagnosed, and torn apart from his colleagues, friends, and family. It saddens me that this is what happens when a person pushes hard for Truth. I believe we are so conditioned to be sheep that, when we attempt to become shepherds, pioneers, it pushes our feeble minds to the brink.

Robert M. Pirsig sacrificed himself physically and mentally and (unintentionally) left humanity with another piece of great literature—literature that has the potential to elevate the hungry and persistent reader. There is much, much fruit in these pages. I look forward to excavating the apparently misunderstood sequel.

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