Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Re-reading after 45 years

Zen and motorcycles stoked the imaginations of many people in the 1970s. Transcendental meditation and eastern religions were growing in popularity in the West in the 1970s and images of Peter Fonda riding a Harley Davidson in the movie Easy Rider released in 1969 were still fresh. Add “art” to the words Zen and motorcycles and the lure of a title like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was almost irresistible. The book, published in 1974, became a best seller after getting rejected by over 100 publishers. But unlike many bestsellers which were popular with adults, this book resonated with teens as well. I was one of them.

I remember picking up and putting down the thick paperback again and again, trying to get through the dense sections on philosophy. The small subtitle of the book is after all An Inquiry Into Values. And I remember talking about the book with friends in high school, everyone claiming to have read it through. Now after close to 45 years and finally reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from front to back including author Robert Pirsig’s forward written for the book’s 25th anniversary and an updated afterward, I now question exactly how many of my peers really read the entire tome back in high school. Yet, even what I did read back then was enough to have an impact on me so much so that I copied a famous line from the book and pinned it on the cork bulletin board that hung above my desk in my red carpeted bedroom. I stared at it interminably while trying to do homework: “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good-Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

Two other quotes were pinned on either side of this one: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know’ from the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and from midway through Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air’.

I was a wannabe romantic, apparently, and a double wannabe philosopher but not enough to get through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the first time. Though as Vladimir Nabokov has written, “One cannot read a book, one can only reread it”. I didn’t fully read it the first time and therefore did not completely reread it the second time either. But, I definitely had the experience of wrestling with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on two occasions and ultimately confronted the author’s challenge both times -How can we embrace ‘quality’ in the quotidien tasks that glue together our everyday lives and ultimately, how can we live a “quality” life? It was a heavy question when I was a teenager and it remains a heavy question today.

Pirsig attempts to answer this question by showing how his thorough qualitative understanding of the nuances of maintaining and repairing his motorcycle allow him to not only maintain his cycle in superior condition but enjoy the process since he understands why he is doing what he is doing. In contrast, his friend and travel partner recounted in the first section of the book is not interested in motorcycle maintenance and as Pirsig sees it, is not only missing out on a quality experience but is also compromising the care of his bike.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is many books in one and the sections about motorcycle maintenance are only one portion sprinkled throughout. It is also a travelogue about the narrator, really the author himself, and the motorcycle trip he took with his 11 year old son Chris sitting in back of him riding from the Midwest to Bozeman, Montana and on to California. He describes the scenery, the sensation of being on a motorcycle with no separation between you and where you are. He describes the people they meet and the places where they stop. The most important destination for the narrator was his return to Bozeman, Montana where he taught rhetoric and tried to teach about ‘quality’ and his visit with a former colleague with whom he shared his tortured early academic career as he began his struggle with his inquiry into values.

It is a story of a father trying to connect with his son through an adventure, something I relate to with my own sons. In Pirsig’s case however, Chris as a young child had seen the beginning of his father’s mental breakdown, the worsening of it and his father’s subsequent hospitalization. During this trip the narrator tries to repair the rip in Chris’s memory of his father by riding together, revisiting places of their family’s life together in Bozeman although many of the memories are tinged with sadness.

It is also a story of the author performing a post mortem analysis of the self he believes he buried after his psychiatric in-patient treatment which began while he was a graduate student. It is apparent throughout the book however that the narrator’s former self who he refers to in the third person as Phaedrus, is alive and well. The name Phaedrus is taken from Plato’s dialogue of the same name about rhetoric and other topics between Socrates and Phaedrus.

At its core, however, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a philosophical treatise on ‘quality’ and ‘value’ as they inform a well lived life. Ironically however, the narrator maintains that quality can not be defined, can not be easily described, yet to live without it is to live without meaning. But quality can be apprehended almost everywhere he implies repeatedly including, for example, in a metal screw that is now stuck and holding up a motorcycle repair. A seemingly low value screw is now worth the entire value of the bike, he explains. Until he understands how the screw functions and how to remove it he is grounded. And he is grounded until he better understands and truly appreciates this sheet metal screw. The key is to focus on the moment regardless of how small the moment seems:

“The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less that the totality of everything there is”.

I still do not claim to understand the long sections on philosophy that occupy especially the fourth and final section of the book but I do understand and empathize with the narrator’s struggle for meaning even in the day to day. Ultimately ‘quality’ is connected to ‘virtue’ and ‘excellence’ as a triumvirate of ideals that all necessarily must co-exist:

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue”. But arete. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality…The rain lifted enough so that we can see the horizon now, a sharp line demarking the light grey of the sky and the darker grey of the water.”

Pirsig intersperses his discussions of philosophy, what he calls his “Chattaquas,” with his narrative, describing the cross country trip on motorcycle, or, as the story progresses, with his reminisces on his time as a graduate student of philosophy getting closer and closer to his psychiatric crisis fueled by his relentless pursuit of how to understand the meaning of a quality life and how to live one. And he brings the reader along as he moves toward a resolution not only with his former self and his son but with his own philosophical quest which reaches back to antiquity and extends forward into the final pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There are very few books I have reread from my youth. And if Nabokov is correct, than by his definition, there are very few books that I have indeed read. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a literary touchstone in the 1970s. I did not fully understand it then, though aspects of it spoke to me even as a teen. Upon re-reading however, the philosophical questions the book poses feel more familiar though still challenging to fully comprehend. The elements that weave throughout Pirsig’s novel written so many decades ago, however, of Zen, of the implied freedom of a motorcycle trip, the notion of a healing cross country trip with a son, the thought of a multi year intellectual journey to more fully apprehend how to live the best life-these ideas resonate with me now in ways my teenager self could never have imagined. Perhaps I should follow Nabokov’s advice and find more books to re-read, but, of course, only books of quality.

Howard E. Friedman

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