Swans Commentary » swans.com August 11, 2008  



Zen Rides Again
Robert Pirsig's Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Pirsig, Robert M.: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry Into Values, Vintage, London, 1974, ISBN-0-09-978640-0, 424 pages.


(Swans - August 11, 2008)   The year 2008 is the 40th anniversary Robert M. Pirsig's memorable journey. Published in 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would sell five million copies in twenty-three languages. Ten years afterward its author tried to explain its popularity. He said it wasn't a literary gem of the culture but a book that bore that culture forward. It appeared at a time of "cultural upheaval." Material plenty was being called into question; hippies threw it back in their parents' faces. ZAMM offered a "more serious" alternative to the acquisition of goods.

Pirsig's explanation is both naïve and modest. Cultural upheaval was the name of the game in the U.S. since WWI, not to look back further. Moreover, there was never a year since then that self-help books didn't fill the bookshops. ZAMM is essentially a do-it-yourself book. It purports to show how to achieve peace of mind while getting closer to the superior things of the mind.

The author doesn't mention what looms as big as a house in all his thinking, the American propensity to see open space and scarcity of people as the key to happiness. It's no surprise that the book his alter ego brings on his travels to read with his eleven-year-old son is Thoreau's Walden. No surprise either to anyone but Pirsig that the book doesn't set the boy's mind aflame. With his taste for the big empty goes Pirsig's loner's mindset and its accompanying megalomania. He actually attempted "to outflank the whole body of Western academic thought at the University of Chicago." It was a bite too big to chew and drove him insane, a condition that didn't put off readers in the years of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nor should we forget the appeal of the go-it-alone hero not only for 1970s' hippies but for the guy in the funny hat at the church barbeque. Deep down every Rotarian hankers to be the lone rider into the sunset and developer of the vacant real estate beyond.

Pirsig's modesty appears in the way he excludes himself, except for his reasoning input, from ZAMM's success. But today's reader or re-reader sees his one-off personality and not his philosophical argument as his trump card. Or rather sees his human predicament as the reason we lend an ear to his often repetitive philosophizing. A man of science himself, Pirsig quotes Einstein with approval to the effect that the scientist arrives at "universal elementary laws" by escaping "the narrow whirlpool of personal experience." But without Pirsig's own deep and individual pool, his book would have been just another collection of high-minded tips for self-improvement.

The water whirled around Pirsig early. At nine his IQ was measured at 170, a 1 in 50,000 result. At fifteen he completed his first year of biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. At seventeen they threw him out for laziness and running off at the mouth. He joined the Army and served in Korea, much intrigued by local culture. He went to study Hindu philosophy in Benares. Then, on the strength of degrees from Minnesota, he taught a college course in English composition at Bozeman, Montana. At that point, he had a wife and two children.

Ever marching scarily to his own drummer, Pirsig didn't bring serenity to the English Department of Montana State College. He became obsessed with the problem of Quality -- with a very capital q -- in relation to rhetoric, a connection which he soon came to see as central to philosophy and life. To continue university teaching he needed a Ph.D. The University of Chicago offered the only program that would allow him to do a thesis on his new passion. He moved his family to that city and found a teaching job. The university authorities soon regretted having enrolled him. They had enough trouble in the wake of President Hutchens's attempt to remold humanist education around the Great Books and the primacy of Aristotle. Now they had a loose canon going off in their sleepy seminars.

But not for long. The burden of giving Western thought a new orientation and straightening out his startled teachers soon crushed Pirsig. His wife found him staring at a wall, his clothes full of urine, a cigarette burning into his fingers. He was judged dangerously insane, incarcerated, and subjected to shock therapy. A divorce followed. His cure left him apparently harmless but without much memory of the person he had been. He worked editing technical manuals, a job he did with his usual zeal and scathing criticism.

On the side he began to write ZAMM. Pirsig never believed that it was a novel, but no other term suits what is essentially a road trip story. Pirsig and his 11-year-old son set out on one bike and a young couple joins them on another. They go west from Minnesota via the Dakotas to Bozeman, Montana. The reader gathers that the Pirsig character intends to strengthen the bond with his son after tumultuous times in the family. The sparring between father and son, plus the inevitable differences that arise in a camping trip for four, sustain a constant dramatic tension. Pirsig as narrator cuts in regularly to present his thinking in what he calls his Chautauquas -- he's an inveterate teacher -- unfolding his ideas to us as he bends to the handlebars.

But as generous as he is with his reasoning on how technology has been wrongly separated from our emotional lives, Pirsig plays his cards close to his chest in personal matters. The couple knows little of his past except for his breakdown. When the young woman shows concern for the boy's stomachache, his father tells her that it's been diagnosed as incipient mental illness. It's typical of Pirsig that while he interlards events with slabs of abstract argument this tragedy comes across in an off-hand remark. Here is a child that witnessed his father's mental collapse and a few years later is found to be headed the same way. The sort of bonding possible in such a situation adds another twist to the drama.

Even more ominously, the narrator's amnesia about his pre-electric shock self slowly yields, and he begins to remember something of Phaedrus, the person he used to be. A new character thus enters the story and the narrator's mind. As the group moves toward Bozeman, where he lived and worked, Phaedrus's outline fills in and his menace grows. The boy Chris is naturally on edge, and Pirsig himself has every reason to fear the return of the forceful personality that defied all control and brought him low.

What's the gist of the Chautauqua lessons that Pirsig repeats to us and himself as he bikes westward? It's a homespun recipe inspired by the Orient to heal the evils of our civilization. Characteristically, Pirsig never got into meditation in Benares, "because it made no sense to him." When he asked his Hindu professor if the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory and was told yes, Pirsig left the classroom and India. What he did take from the East was the conviction that subject and object are undivided. This became the basis for his vision of his motorcycle, which doesn't merely provide a clever title but a presence that informs his whole book. In brief, Pirsig wants to bridge the emotional/technical divide that he believes torments us. For him the Buddha resides in machines as well as everywhere else. Maintaining his two-wheeled conveyance with loving care is his way to re-order our general disarray. He takes pains, admires intelligent workmanship and abhors negligence.

We can accept that "the study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself" or we can see it as a personal program concocted to meet the author's own psychic needs: The ritual cleaning of spark plugs or checking the fit of the rods in his crankshaft brings calm to nerves that were burnt out by a wildfire of abstract thought. If he finds solace in petting his internal combustion engine like a beloved dog or cat, why shouldn't he?

There's unconscious humor in the way Pirsig sets out only to teach us and incidentally writes a powerful novel: "I suppose if I were a novelist rather than a Chautauqua orator..." Lila, his other novel, bears out that ZAMM is a magnificent fluke. His leaden lessons in the later book never get airborne and drone on in self-indulgence, overwhelming the characters and their doings. No happy conjuncture of dramatic incident raises it above the flat lands of Chautauqua.

The foursome's arrival in Bozeman shifts the dramatic interest. Pirsig must confront people that Phaedrus worked with. He's still hazy about what actually happened in those years, but Phaedrus and his doings gradually take on substance. Chris's fear increases. Who exactly is his father, Phaedrus or the narrator? For, of course, Chris has memories too:

"Do you remember this street?" I ask Chris. He looks around and says, "We used to ride in the car to look for you." He points across the street. "I remember that house with the funny roof. Whoever saw you first would get a nickel. And then we'd stop and let you into the back of the car and you wouldn't even talk to us." "I was thinking hard then." "That's what Mom said." (Page 178.)

His father, Pirsig-narrator, is busy reconstructing how Phaedrus, teacher of composition, struggled to discover Quality and how it could be put across to his disgruntled and fearful students. His innovations and abrupt changes in method, including periods of absolute silence and refusal to give grades, rendered some of them suicidal. The period of intense concentration had begun that would lead to his therapy by 800 mills of amperage transmitted through his brain lobes on twenty-eight occasions.

Restlessness is what Pirsig's America is all about. The Coast beckons. Father and son are soon mounted again on the pampered 1964 CB77 Honda SuperHawk. Jack Kerouac's On The Road had appeared in 1957. Pirsig read and seemed to appreciate it. But he began ZAMM at the end of the 1960s when he already judged the hippies to be irrelevant. Degeneracy could be fun, he said, but not a very serious day job for a lifetime.

It's easy enough to believe, however, that ZAMM's road-trip framework was suggested by Kerouac's book. Pirsig's taste for innovation didn't extend to narrative fiction. His personal destiny and his bike created ZAMM's form. A road story was a handy way to organize his material.

When Pirsig notes the difference between travel by bike and travel by car, he may have been thinking of Kerouac and buddies. He said that on a bike he was "in the scene," in direct contact with places and the elements. Looking through a car window was like looking at a picture.

But Kerouac's travelers didn't even look out the car window that often. They were mainly interested in themselves. They saw places generically with romantic frosting on top. People outside had their cliché existence perfumed with a zest of Eros.

Pirsig, for all his talking to himself, delights in space, panoramic views, and distant horizons. Going west he's constantly registering the alteration in the landscape. He's acutely aware of the people he sees, but it's an awareness of their thingness. He doesn't empathize into their skin and dress them up poetically like Kerouac.

Perhaps the difference in the two books and trips originate in each author's past. Kerouac seemed fatherless, at one with his mother. Pirsig never mentions his mother. But his father was a relentless achiever, top of his law class, dean of the law school, professor emeritus, and a force till his death at 95. He signed the court order that put his son in line for Electro-Convulsive Shock Therapy. Pirsig, through all his mental unrest and physical displacements, never relaxed his drive to acquire university degrees, the badges of merit. He was a striver with a merciless work ethic.

The two road books differed in their making. Kerouac worked off the top of his head with a romantic impetus he thought of as jazz improvisation. He revised little and amassed pages as if quantity were the prize. Pirsig thought of his book as a project and from the first had a sense of it as a whole. He wrote systematically over years like a careful researcher.

Oriental philosophy in American heads tends to make for political and social inaction. Pirsig in these years of civil turmoil remains comfortably above the fray, just like the Beatniks who preceded him: "The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and heads and hands, and then work outward from there." By 1999 he's saying complacently, "The country's mood is much more settled now."

Pirsig and Chris's trip west from Bozeman, Montana, to the coast certainly had none of the exuberance of Kerouac's adolescent capers. After the visit to his old stamping grounds, memories of Phaedrus crowded in. He had become the third man on the bike. The narrator notes more often his feelings of depression. Chris moves towards some sort of crisis of discontent.

But the Chautauquas continue. Only now they cease to be lectures and the narrator relates Phaedrus's dramatic encounter with Greek thought and its representatives at the University of Chicago. It's the drama of the crackup.

In sight of the Pacific, as the weary riders veer south to their goal, Chris becomes difficult. He gets down on the ground with his face in his hands and rocks in fetal isolation. Pirsig realizes with horror that it's what he saw patients do on the floor of his mental hospital. The two struggle on in their dialogue of the deaf until Pirsig finally sees the truth. He's been so busy fearing Phaedrus's return that he hasn't understood Chris is unhappy because he longs for the father destroyed by twenty-eight electric shocks. A resolution of sorts occurs: The boy asks, "Were you really insane?" And his father, who is really not that certain, answers, "No." He's coming to feel that he died being cured, and is only playacting sanity like the rest of the actors in the world around him. (In an Afterward we learn that Chris at 23 was stabbed to death in a mugging.)

Thirty-four years after its publication, ZAMM no longer needs be presented as merely a culture-bearing book. It's an authentic gem of American writing, though not because it's about Zen or about motorcycles. The novel's power comes from being about the personal predicament of a man bedeviled by intensity and a too-high IQ.


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Published August 11, 2008