I’m no longer completely certain when or how I first became aware of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance By Robert Pirsig. I do know that it was never on the reading list for any high-school or university courses that I took during my academic days in the 1980’s and early 90’s. It seems probable that I came across references to it in some of the car and motorcycle magazines that I seemed to be continuously buying during early decades of my life. It is my certain memory that my first attempt to read the book occurred in that same period. The first copy that I picked-up had a pink cover with the wrench-as-lotus flower logo perched atop the book’s title which was printed in a bold black font. I recall that as clearly as I recall that I abandoned the book part-way through as a waste of time and energy. I had no use for whatever the guy was on about. It took perhaps another six to ten years to pass before I was ready to try it a second time.
What I want to do now is try to share some of the reasons that I enjoy the book so much as well as the ways that I think Zen and the Art is a much more sophisticated and accomplished book than it is often given credit for. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book “of Zen”, “of philosophy” and “of motorcycling”. And in this essay, I’m going to start right at the beginning with the title to demonstrate some of my points.
Over the course of several readings since March 2014, the date of my second attempt to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it has become one of my favorite books. It has also been the launching-point for several personally-meaningful literary and philosophical inquiries. Before we go any further, let’s give the book its complete title and deal with the matter of repeating that title. The full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. In this essay and other places, I expect to contract that rather large mouthful to ZAMM. That contraction is not my creation but it is extremely convenient. Upon occasion. I may also say simply Zen and the Art.
Why do I enjoy this book so much? Perhaps, its arrival in my attention on that second go-round was ideally timed to my needs and to issues that seemed to be playing a big part in my life. Some might argue that I was just looking for the opportunity to indulge in some faux intellectualization and lifestyle-posing. I’m not going to quibble over the extent that such an argument might true. Let the critics have their fun. That’s the pose that they prefer to strike.
Instead, after considerable self-examination, I’m going to say that I think I enjoy Zen and the Art because of how accomplished the book is in its design and intent. And also how effective and evocative the book’s metaphors are. As a piece of literature, Zen and the Art seems capable of being linked to and celebrated with many of the English language’s literary classics. But I’m already leaping far ahead of where I really want to be. It’s also pretty fun to explore motorcycles, zen and philosophy.
Given how frequently the book has been ignored, rejected and scorned by critics of various types; and, given the significant amount of time that has passed since its publication – an admission of affection for the book could be considered something of a sidelining move. Does anybody take the book seriously? Almost certainly not in academia. I am aware of only a tiny handful of efforts to address Pirsig’s work by serious academics in the decades since it was first published. Most of those have focussed on the philosophical content and nature of the book rather than any literary merits it may have. When I say this, I’m referring almost wholly to Dr. Anthony McWatt’s academic thesis work and to Ronald DiSanto and Thomas J. Steele’s Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorycle Maintenance and the online MOQ.org pages devoted to developing Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig is just about as completely ignored by serious academic philosophy departments as he is by serious literature departments. I really have no idea whether serious Zen scholars or practitioners may be similarly disinterested.
And yet, there’s never seemed to be a shortage of people who are interested in the book and its ideas. Search the internet and there seems to be a substantial and growing number of articles, reviews, videos and indeed podcasts which engage with the book, the author and the philosophy.
That Pirsig’s philosophy is largely ignored or dismissed was not only anticipated by Pirsig, he covered it within the book. In fact, academic scorn (and, by the way, scorn for academia) are central considerations of Zen And The Art (ZAMM), so maybe this is all entirely appropriate to my state of affairs in deciding to devote so much time to it.
So what is ZAMM? There are plenty of resources that provide a brief plot summary or philosophical synopsis of the book. These resources will advise that ZAMM is a semi-fictional narrative about a cross-country father/son motorcycle vacation; that it is a critique of the human condition contemporary to the second half of the twentieth century. Some will suggest that it is a cultural exploration and a work of philosophy. Not manyof these sources will will suggest that it is actually a book of Zen nor that it is an attempt by a serious intellectual to develop an original metaphysical philosophy. Fewer still will mention that ZAMM is a critique of both Eastern and European Philosophy and Academia. Almost nobody talks about ZAMM as a critique of religion – particularly messianic religion. I haven’t seen anyone call ZAMM an epic monster story or supernatural thriller. It is rarely, if ever, declared a tightly-connected literary work. I would content that it is all of these things.
Many first-time readers find the book frustrating, challenging, annoying, offensive, dated or boring and the narrator to be frequently un-appealing. Perspectives of this type are likely to increase as time passes and we get further from the times in which Pirsig lived.
While many first time readers (myself included) are alienated by the book, many others have found it uniquely compelling. Millions of copies of the book have been sold since it was first published in 1974. Brand new copies may still be purchased at most bookstores on any day you may visit. More than forty -five years later. Pirsig and others will claim that there isn’t another book of philosophy that has been published in larger numbers. I’m not sure that this claim entirely holds-up. It seems to be a kind of superlative that suits marketing purposes. But then again, I haven’t yet seen anybody demonstrate the claim to be false.
Another thing that causes first-time readers concern (particularly reader in the twenty-first century) is the relative un-likeability of the book’s central character. ZAMM’s central character seems to be Robert Pirsig. The book seems to be a personal memoir of a particular motorcycle journey that Pirsig took with his son, Chris. Simultaneously it appears to be a memoir of Pirsig’s intellectual development over the first couple of decades of his adult life. But those perspectives may only be partially true. There’s every reason to believe its a bad idea to over-simplify what the book is.
It is probably more accurate to say that Pirsig used ZAMM to float a mythologized version of himself at different stages of live as a depiction of some ideas the wanted to showcase. I think of the book this way: Robert Pirsig was the actual author who cast an un-named narrator to tell the story of a mythologized earlier self. The mythologized earlier self is named Phaedrus – a name borrowed from the writings of Plato.
It should not go un-noticed or un-mentioned that the story’s narrator is never directly named. It is the narrator who takes pains to identify the earlier self as “Phaedrus”. It seems entirely likely that Pirsig was demonstrating some very Zen-consistent notions about the concept of “self” while also signaling that the narrator is not quite Robert Pirsig.
The narrator that conveys the story via a series of what he calls Chautauqua meditations. In contemporary internet-based culture, you can find any number of people that post “video blogs” (VLOGs) of their own Chautauqua’s as they ride their motorcycles.
The narrator remains un-named throughout the story and may be considered to be significantly closer to non-existence. It is an interesting entrée to Pirsig’s approach to consider what Pirsig may have been attempting to convey in this method of presenting and portraying identity. Which bring us back to the relative unlike-ability of the central character. It seems extremely unlikely that Pirsig, the real life author, was unaware of how off-putting the character is. Let’s pack that away for another day’s deeper consideration – but I want to suggest that there’s more to it than a lack of self-awareness on Pirsig’s part; let me also suggest that when a reader gets stuck on whether they “like’ a book’s narrator or for that matter, the earlier Phaedrus persona, this may result in a failure to proceed to a demonstrated point about the nature of persona. Perhaps also a demonstrated point about whether likability is a valid pre-requisite to insight or wisdom.
Despite anything nay-sayers may argue about ZAMM, it is an extraordinarily subtle and integrated creation from cover to cover. I would argue that it is too subtle to fully catch everything the book has to offer the first time through. At least, that has been my experience.
So let us begin before the beginning of the story with the title and author’s note of the book. It seems to me that, before the Chautauqua’s have even begun, this small collection of words provides a kind of lens or filter for approaching the book.
The full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Immediately, the juxtaposition of two different and disconnected themes is set out. These are “Zen’ on the one side and “motorcycle maintenance” on the other. But it is important to note that Pirsig did not put the two terms in opposition to each other. He joined them by using the word “and”. It is Zen AND the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In needs to be clear that Pirsig’s use of the word “and” is not solely a bit of connect grammar. Certainly the word “and” is a necessary linguistic feature. It is a conjunction which helps us to understand that “Zen” is somehow distinct from “The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.
But the word “and” is also a logical term. An “AND gate” is a basic digital logic feature which allows that a specific output is only allowed when multiple specific inputs are provided. In other words, Pirsig’s title allows placement of “Zen” as one input and “the art of motorcycle maintenance” as another at the front end of logic gate. The two are brought together for an output. They are synthesized.
By viewing the words, “Zen AND the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in mathematical terms, there is an interesting and elegant demonstration of the kind of inquiry that takes place in the book. A central theme of Zen philosophy is a rejection of dualism. It is reasonable in Zen to argue that “Zen” and “The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” are not separate and distinct from each other. Viewing the title as an “AND gate”, as a synthesis makes this point explicitly. You just have to be familiar with the language and be open to reconsidering your perspective.
This type of layered language carries on throughout the book. It is fundamental to Pirsig’s philosophical and rhetorical approach. For readers who are not comfortable with juggling a variety of conceptual notions while following a narrative process, this ought to be taken as a warning that things may be more complex than they may initially seem.
But let’s take a step back from logic gates and get back to those two initial themes.
In 19874, when the book was published, Zen was still a very new and mysterious topic in North America. Consider that Bruce Lee, who did so much to familiarize North America with Kung Fu and some basic Eastern Philosophy concepts had died in 1973. Similarly the book Zen Mind Beginners Mind, a collection of teachings of Shunryu Suzuki had been published in 1970. Zen Mind Beginners Mind is one of the earliest books published about Zen for the American market and is considered a classic.
In using “zen” in the title of his book, Pirsig was, essentially, an avant garde writer who was citing trends and information that was, too his initial audience, still foreign and rather mysterious.
Even now, some (rounded) fifty years later, mentioning Zen is marginally less exotic to a great many people on the American continents. In North America, perhaps 1% of the population may be identified as Buddhist and certainly not all of those are “Zen” Buddhists. While Zen may now be more familiar to Western culture than it was in the middle of the last century, if you mention Zen to most people, several stereotypical connotations may come up in conversation. Nature and peaceful, relaxed environments, such as Zen gardens. Perhaps minimalist home design, meditation and strangely paradoxical puzzle-stories. Contemplation. Further conversation may yield the question “Is Zen a religion or a practice?” (Yes.) And the Zen enthusiast? Maybe someone wearing pajamas or a robe sitting in meditation or telling paradox puzzle-stories with gnomish humour. Pristine, clean and sipping green tea.
As we’ve already noted, juxtaposed to the Zen is motorcycle maintenance. Chemicals, wrenches, oil & grease, noisy machines, stinky exhaust. A motorcyclist? OK let’s re-phrase that….a “biker”? Wild. Unpredictable. Violent. The most likely interaction scenario probably involves a fear of physical or verbal assault. Unkempt and barbarian-like, a biker will probably be described as wearing some combination of denim and leather; the biker, so the stereotype will go, guzzles beer (at least). While they may not be real any longer, these conceptions do need to be noted. Not long ago, one of North American televisions most popular shows exploited exactly these stereotypes.
The commonplace ideas of Zen and the commonplace ideas of motorcycles seem to be opposites to each other. They don’t seem to be the kind of things that one would require as simultaneous inputs to an “AND gate” philosophy.
But then again, Pirsig took pains to show off his Honda CB77 Super Hawk in publicity photos, even though the specific model of his bike wasn’t actually mentioned in the story. It’s a nice-looking bike. The CB77 was manufactured from 1961 through to 1967 with a 305cc parallel twin engine which produced just under thirty horsepower. Pirsig’s was all chrome and black and he considered it a highway machine. It was, compared to other Japanese bikes of the day, relatively small. Today, the bike would be considered rather small. The choice of a chrome and black bike Japanese bike doesn’t seem like an uncalculated decision.
In 1966 Honda had a popular advertising campaign built around the slogan “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda”. This wasn’t the veterans of World War II who established the biker image with Harley Davidsons and Indians. This was a shiny little Japanese bike. A friendly and engaging bike. To extend the point I’m trying to make in literary terms, Robert Pirsig’s generation and ethos should not b confused with Jack Kerouac and the bohemian hedonism of the beat generation…though they may have, metaphorically speaking, travelled some similar roads. At the time the book was presented, Pirsig was a 40-something year old father with a job and short vacation. He presents himself as a former academic and a middle-aged man with the challenges and pre-occupations that this implies. He presents himself as an educated everyman.
It also doesn’t hurt that his bike, like his Zen comes from Japan.
This difference is as essential to placing Pirsig in North American literation as is Pirsig’s AND gate juxtapositioning of seemingly separate things. To read ZAMM, you must be prepared to attempt to reconcile and synthesize concepts which you may have previously considered mutually exclusive. The book is anti-dogmatic, in its own way. Already in the title, there is a lesson in its philosophy. The title warns that the reader should be thinking about and through a Zen-like perspective. But also about and through a modern scientific, technological perspective.
However, even in the simple matter of the book ‘s title Pirsig is still not quite done. Right in the middle of the title, Pirsig used the term “art” to foreshadow investigation of concepts from European Philosophy. Particularly Plato and Aristotle. He uses the word “art” as we might currently use the word “craft”. Art in this title and the book is not a throw-away word. It is a functioning and significant philosophical term. It establishes that the book will consider the matter of craftsmanship and aesthetics in a philosophical and practical context.
Considering Pirsig’s use of the word “art” brings to mind Alexander Langlands’ book Craeft: On How Traditional Crafts Are About More than Just Making, which explores several related concepts and reaches many similar conclusions. For that matter, ZAMM also came decades before a number of other books which either follow it’s formula or several of its themes. To list a few: RIchard Sennet’s The Craftsman, Matthew Crawford‘s Shop Class as Soul Craft, Alexander Langlands Craeft, Aaron James Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into the Meaning of Life, John Kaag’s Hiking with Neitzche: On Becoming Who You Are.
But we’re not done exploring the layers of the book’s title.
The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values”. This subtitle’s use of the term “Inquiry” establishes ZAMM as a philosophical exploration while “values” sets the book within a particular area of philosophy dealing with ethics and aesthetics. So what is ZAMM? According to the title, it is a philosophical inquiry into values.
This is an important observation of the inclusion of the explanatory subtitle. Pirsig and the publishers did not set the book as a work of narrative fiction. Nor as an adventure travel book. Nor as a memoir. It was to be taken primarily as a work of philosophy.
With all of this happening on title page, the first thing one finds inside the book is an Author’s Note:
Author’s Note: What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.
As with the title page, every sentence and phrase here requires attention that can help the diligent reader to understand and follow the book. I contend that this author’s note is a kind of Zen koan (those paradoxical puzzles) for the reader.
That this passage is called the “author’s note” hints at one of the challenging features of the book: identity. Over the course of ZAMM, the main character of the book is never explicitly named or referenced as “Robert Pirsig”. In most discussions of ZAMM, there is reference to “the narrator” and to “Pheadrus”. Through the course of the book, Phaedrus is revealed as younger and different version of the narrator. Generally, it is presumed that Robert Pirsig (the author) is both the narrator and Phaedrus. However, with the book’s inherent emphasis of separate identities, it cannot be assumed that the characters in the book are genuine depictions of Robert Pirsig and his friends and family.
The author’s note states that the events of the book are based on actual occurrences. So we can be reasonably confident that Robert Pirsig took a motorcycle trip with his son, Chris and a few friends. Indeed there are readily-available photographs of the trips as well as external interviews of people upon-whom characters in the book are based. Interestingly and tellingly, the term “actual occurrences” is strikingly similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s term“actual entities” from a book that is widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dense books of twentieth-centurty European philosophy, Process and Reality. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” (what resulted in at least one recognized philosophical offshoot called Process Theology) is deeply embedded in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig mentions Whitehead in ZAMM, though the reference is brief and may not at first be noted as a significant clue to Pirsig’s philosophy.
The author’s note states that the events have been altered for rhetorical purposes, but are basically true. Pirsig spends considerable time defending rhetoric in ZAMM. In reading ZAMM, it isn’t unreasonable to consider it a work of rhetorical argument. That this term is included in the author’s note is another hint of things to expect in the book.
Pirsig then ends by commenting that the book is not to be confused with an explanation of Zen or Motorcycles. Pirsig is playing a bit of a game here. ZAMM does not spend much time in explaining or analyze these things. Instead ZAMM demonstrates them in action. If meditation is Buddhism in practice, Pirsig presents motorcycling as an alternate practical form of Zen.
When discussing ZAMM it is difficult to avoid talking about one part of the book without also talking about other parts, as I have been trying to do. But I will break with my attempt to mention that Pirsig has used the idea of a “motorcycle” as a metaphor of the self. So when you read just about any passage that talks about motorcycles, you need to be simultaneously thinking about how those concepts relate to the self. So “the art of motorcycle maintenance” may be literally true about motorcycles but Pirsig is also exploring how the concepts and realities are also true of “the art of self maintenance.” With that bit of information, the title, “Zen and the Art of Self Care” might seem to be a more direct way to convey the subject. But that wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of Zen…and it wouldn’t have been as iconic as a title. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is memorable. Zen and the art of Self Care is forgettable.
Pirsig positioned ZAMM such that it should not be considered as fiction nor as non-fiction. As occurs frequently in ZAMM, Pirsig demonstrates a rejection of dualism in preference to synthesis. The book is neither fiction nor is it non-fiction. Like any mythology, it is both. He placed the book as a book of philosophy that depicts, rather than explains its philosophy.
At the beginning of this article, I argued that ZAMM is a book “of philosophy” and “of Zen”. I used that phrasing to indicate that the book is a product of those traditions and perspective. It is an outcome. It is a rhetorical depiction. It is an effect of those causes. It is the other side of the “AND gate”.
Even if I am correct about my interpretations of ZAMM as a book, none of that gives any good reason to take it seriously some fifty years after its publication. Certainly there has been much change in society that could displace any relevance that it might have had. But I think that ZAMM still has something to teach about our current times, even if those teachings are not always wholly correct or reliable. But then, isn’t that reasonably true about any philosophy or perspective that you care to mention? Primarily, I think the world needs much more ” AND gate”, synthesis-oriented thinking. I think Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality and its connection to Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism have insights that are needed by the world today. And, though it may not be very factual about them…the bits about Zen and motorcycles are fun too.
In many ways, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a much better book than many of its academic and non-academic critics, whether literary or philosophic give it credit for. If you haven’t read it – and if anything in this brief introduction tweaks your interest, maybe you should give it a try. Maybe you’ll find some unexpected insights that help you to live the kind of life you want to live and be the kind of person you want to be.