I have experienced this story twice. And both times they effected me.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a journey written by Robert M. Pirsig. It was released in 1974 after facing rejection from over 100 publishers. And now it a cultural milestone and modern philosophical classic that have spawned a sequel and multiple guidebooks. My first discovery of this book was over 20 years ago and it still resides in me. The adventure never really ended.
The Chautauqua, as the author calls it, of this story is a simple motorcycle trip across America. He and his son are trying to sort out the father’s issues. And there are many. Being a lifelong philosopher, Pirsig has spent insurmountable time pondering the question of Quality. What is Quality? How do you define it? His family and his life take a backseat to this quest, causing disruptions to his psyche. A nervous breakdown and time in a mental institution follow, coupled with slight memory loss. Now, on this motorcycle trip with his younger son Chris, he is desperately trying to recover his lost past and reconnect with his child. It does not go well.
Veering between three strands, all parts of the story accelerate to a scary ending. You will fear for them both in the last chapter.
One part of the tapestry is the motorcycle trip itself. Where they go and with whom. The places they visit and the people they meet. All contribute to Pirsig’s musings on Quality. You feel this is simply the backdrop, a collage with which to hang the other threads on. This person reminds Pirsig of this idea, so now he will expound on it. Whether the events of ride are completely accurate is left for the reader to decide. Pirsig makes no claim of 100 percent veracity of the trip, of zen, or even motorcycle maintenance. This is clearly laid out in the authors note at the beginning on the book. The general guideline of the trip is all that matters. Here is where it started, here is where it ended. And he maybe met this person on tuesday, in Montanna, and he had a beard. I made that example up, but you understand my sentiment. Frankly, this doesn’t bother me. This is really about father and son.
The next thread of the tapestry is Pirsig’s voyage into his fractured past. Memory fragments surface from years gone by, all tied to his thoughts on Quality. His quest on this idea becomes all consuming, all burning, and very scary. What began with a thought trip when a young man translates into terror at this later age. Everything must be sacrificed to reach this goal, to define the undefinable. As these memory fragments bob and weave up through the murk, Pirsig is desperately trying to piece them together, to find out what happened to him and to continue his work. Even if it costs him his sanity again. Pirsig calls his other, younger, pre-shock therapy identity Phaedrus. It is a personage that is sometimes treated as a separate being, someone he used to know, and whom might now be coming back. The chronicles of Phaedrus and his descent into pain becomes more and more pervasive, leading you to wonder why his wife did not get Pirsig/Phaedrus committed earlier. The tale of the car trip that never seemed to end is excruciating to read. Multiple flashbacks to being put in the mental asylum are scaring. Phaedrus doesn’t want to “die.” And Pirsig wants him back.
The final tread of the tapestry is the meditation on Quality Pirsig, and in flashback Phaedrus, are actively involved in. The endless question of Quality and how it can described, framed, pictured or illuminated become fodder throughout the volume. Reaching back to ancient Greek philosophers and continuing with Zen mysticism, Pirsig tries to quantify the world and all it’s passengers into some category or other. The sense that Quality can be felt, that you can sense it’s presence, is an idea Pirsig adheres to. This ethereal notion will simply touch you when it is beheld. But what seems so simple is not. Is Quality only in the eye of the beholder? And does being graced with Quality before you bring you closer to God? And who invented Quality? A significant crux of the story involves a flashback to a classroom debate about the finer points of Quality. Pirsig tells this part like it was a philosophical trap laid by his professor and fellow students to discredit his dissertations. The overwhelming sense That This Matters to Pirisg, the definition has to be filled, and filled now, and properly, becomes obsessive sometimes in the story. What starts as a very touching intellectual trigger to get you thinking about Quality and your life, relationships and existence becomes an enslaving psychological campaign. If it was revealed today that Pirsig suffered from a mental condition it would not surprise me. I am also sure Pirsig would disagree with almost everything I have said here about Quality, since he has come out several times over the years disputing people whom he believes misrepresent his philosophies.
Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ends with enough pieces of Phaedrus resurfacing to allow Pirsig to reassemble much of his Quality thoughts. This impacts the now of the motorcycle trip with Chris. Pirsig is slowly starting to surrender to Phaedrus. He knows this is bad, and tries to warn his son away, but the final revelation is made. Chris liked Phaedrus better. He was nicer, more fun. The car ride from hell was viewed by the child as being an interesting adventure. Chris thought Phaedrus had left intentionally and never come back. Pirsig had become so pre-occupied with rebuilding Phaedrus, the pain he was inflicting on Chris by ignoring him was never noticed. The catharsis of this discovery brings Pirsig and Phaedrus together for the love of their son. Together, they take Chris on a joyous motorcycle ride. As they write, things are better now, they can sort of just tell. Quality when you behold it.
The story became a media sensation for awhile, with Pirsig doing many interviews. Very little mention is made of Pirsig’s wife or older son. However, the afterward written in the tenth anniversary edition, reveals that Chris was murdered in his 20’s outside a Zen Center. The impact of the passing pains Pirsig greatly, and shortly after he and his second wife have a daughter. In some ways Pirsig views the daughter as a re-incarnation of Chris. The reader can decide for themselves.
Some years later Pirsig followed up Zen with a sequel called Lila. The journey this time was on a sailboat along the eastern seaboard with a mentally disturbed woman. The timeframe is not entirely clear, but it seems to occur between wives. Many fans think Lila was written under pressure from the publisher, and it was not widely received as being very good. I do not remember much of the philosophy of Lila, just that the ending was strange and somewhat downtrodden.
Two volumes that I know of were written about Zen. The Guidebook To Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance came out in the early 1990’s and is an excellent reference piece. Maps of the trip, a complete timeline, listings of philosophers mentioned are all included. A fascinating snapshot of the book and the time period it was released. Zen and Now came out a couple of years ago and I unfortunately have not had a chance to read it yet (NOW READ). Glancing through the book, it looks to be an excellent companion volume.
The title of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is something Pirsig lifted from earlier books. Zen and the Art of Archery was a hit in the 1950’s and was written by a German philosopher learning archery in Japan. I have a copy and it is an excellent read. His wife also wrote a book called Zen and the Art of Flower Arranging, which I have not been able to find anywhere. Hopefully someday soon.
I have written twice before about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In high school, my grade 13 OAC Independent Studies Unit was about the book and how it related to the 1960’s. And in college, I wrote a major magazine article about it as well. Neither version was read again when I set out to do this. I wanted every one of my takes to be new, each one a blank state not related to what has come before. Maybe new Quality will be witnessed?
The story of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have caused ripples over thirty years after it was unleashed. Many people have been positively affected by this journey, myself included. A new clarity entered my life because of Pirsig and his ideas. Also, his example of a mental breakdown helped to remind me to relax and have more fun. These concepts are not new, they have been around for time immortal, and have been expounded on in numerous places from the Bible to Chicken Soup for the Soul books. But, for some reason, many people have gravitated towards Pirsig over the decades. The enduring appeal continues on.
One hundred and twenty one publishers said no to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That many said no to Quality. But one editor said it made him wonder what he was in publishing for.
And you will wonder why you never read it before.
P.S. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is 380 pages in paperback and was published in 1974. The current publisher is Bantam books. Covers copyright 2011 Bantam books and Corgi books respectively. It was written by Robert M. Pirsig.
P.P.S. Lila is 409 pages in hardcover and was published in 1991, by Bantam books. Cover copyright 2011 Bantam books. It was written by Robert M. Pirsig.
P.P.S. Guidebook To Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is 403 pages in trade paperback and was published in 1990, by William Morrow books. Cover copyright 2011 William Morrow books. It was written by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.D and Thomas J. Steele, Ph. D.
P.P.P.S. Zen and Now is 274 pages in hardcover and was published in 2008, by Alfred A. Knopf books. Cover copyright 2011 Alfred A. Knopf books. It was written by Mark Richardson.
P.P.P.P.S. Zen In The Art Of Archery is 109 pages in paperback and was published in 1953, by Pantheon Books Inc. Cover copyright 2011 Pantheon Books Inc. It was written by Eugen Herrigal.
P.P.P.P.P.S. A Chautauqua is a traveling show from earlier last century.