We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than “time”….and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Chapter 1
I’d like to begin by commenting that my Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance essays are probably best appreciated by those who’ve read the book once or twice already. Clearly, some prior familiarity with the text will make my comments and observations more readily accessible. But I am going to try to take an approach that will render the analysis of value or interest even if you haven’t or don’t intend to read the book. Or for that matter, even to those who may not actually be particularly interested in either Zen or motorcycles. Though I suspect relatively few people who may take time to listen to these ramblings will fit that description.
As you may have noticed, this episode is titled “Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part Two” and is the second installment in an as-yet indeterminate series of explorations of this book. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to listen to Part One, you may wish to go back to that episode, wherein I consider the book’s Title and the Author’s Note, before proceeding on to the things I have to say here. Backtracking like that isn’t in any way obligatory, but there may be some comments and insights from that earlier analysis that may be helpful in this ongoing study.
Otherwise, I hope you’ll stay with me for a ride into the ideas, values and aesthetics this book has to offer.
The first chapter of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM or sometimes Zen and the Art) is perhaps the most approachable in a book that can be a rather off-putting and alienating read. For that reason and also since I think its important to point-out how densely-packed the book is right from its beginning, I’m going to take a slow ride through the first chapter. I’ll be exploring and considering the many insights and layered meanings or messages that may be found along the way.
So let’s start with a brief reading of the first few paragraphs of chapter one. I have two copies of the book that I work from. There’s my very marked-up William Morrow Paperbacks Edition published in 2005 (ISBN 9780060839871). You can see a photo of this edition at left. I purchased my copy in 2016 with the specific purpose of having a copy that I would be able to mark up with pens and highlighters. I rarely mark books up this way, but wanted the freedom to dig into the text but still have my earlier copy left undamaged.
I purchased my Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ISBN 9780061908033) in February or March of 2014 but it was published in 2008. The font is a little larger and my copy remains in excellent condition. I use this copy for readings on the podcast. There’s a photo of this edition below right.
As the page numbering for the two editions is different, I have to assume that page numbering for all editions will vary slightly. For This essay, I’ve selected a relatively brief passage from the beginning of Chapter One through to the paragraph that ends with the narrator’s observation that the marsh is at it’s “alivest”.
As a starter to exploration of the chapter and to the story conveyed by the text, I want to suggest that this beginning is just as significant as any beginning you’re likely to encounter in literature. In my opinion it ranks with Leo Tolstoy’s opener to Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Or with Charles Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities : “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity….”
What I’m saying is that, like these other masterpieces of literature, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance opens memorably and immediately upon key themes that are explored throughout the text. The opening paragraphs should not, and indeed cannot, be considered as throw-away lines. They immediately put you on a motorcycle and on the specific journey that Pirsig has designed.
In literature this opening is called “in media res” or in the middle of things. With your first approach of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the characters have already begun their day’s riding. The action is happening. All of the explanations, the Chautauquas ( these are Pirsig’s versions of meditations or lectures). The reason(s) for the trip. The preparations. The life that led to the trip. We must wait for all of these things to be revealed. We start with riding.
This placement of the riding immediately before the reader is an assertion of riding as the primary concern. Why is that important? For starters, the book’s cover promises that the book will, in some way, be about motorcycles. There isn’t a more sure way to deliver on that promise than to have the books’ first sentence moving sixty miles per hour on a bike. That’s an immediate connection. Within the context of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a motorcycle is a metaphor for the self. Pirsig made this clear in a later passage that states, “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
With a motorcycle as the metaphor of the self – riding, clearly is the metaphor for the self living life.
I can’t help but mention that I am inevitably reminded of “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki’s rather dense and strangely worded explanation of zen meditation as being “the self selfing the self”. To be frank, Sawaki’s comment is not particularly helpful to the unprepared. How exactly is a person supposed to be enlightened by a comment like that. As a contrast, Pirsig’s use of motorcycle-based metaphorical language is so much more poetic and relatable. Pirsig’s approach is to give the reader a hands-on-grips metaphor through which it is just possible to catch glimpse of Kodo Sawaki in your peripheral vision, so to speak
The idea of motorcycle-as-self and riding-as-living ought to remind even non-riders of the motto “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” often associated with “bikers” – particularly Harley Davidson, cruiser style, bikers. This sense that living and riding go together….that they are metaphors for each other. There is a synthesis here. So next time you see that catch-phrase emblazoned across a bumper sticker, t-shirt or some such thing, you may want to consider whether the motto may be more than just a blustery declaration of someone’s favorite recreational pastime. Maybe it’s a deeply-considered existential insight.
Let’s say, however, that motorcyles aren’t your thing – that they don’t inspire any kind of eagerness or excitement. Well that’s ok because the specific metaphor isn’t the key consideration….it is, in a manner of speaking, only the finger pointing at the moon….if you prefer a different metaphor….whether that is gardening, horseback riding, swimming, a martial art, or something altogether different…well go ahead and substitute that metaphor while recognizing that the metaphor is there to reveal truths about yourself and living in your world.
This in media res introduction to the chapter, like those by Tolstoy and Dickens that I already referenced are a kind of summary of the book’s ideological and aesthetic principles: that is, that living life is the primary consideration.
Even though we’ve only just cracked the first moments of the book, I want to, metaphorically speaking, halt our progress through Zen and the Art and observe that “in media res” is exactly where we find ourselves at every moment in our lives. Usually, we’ve been so caught up in the thick of things that we don’t recognize this fact. But every now and then, it does catch up to us. Maybe during the commute to work or to complete some errand; maybe while sitting on the porch or patio, a moment or two of clarity arrives and we recognize that all of the hustle and activity that led up to that moment and all of the hustle and activity that we are yet to experience is all around and we’ve been dropped into the middle of it. Those moments aren’t really different or separate from the rest of our lives except for our recognition that we are always in the middle of things. Perhaps we may even find that living that present moment, living all of our present moments, rather than being caught up and swept away by the distraction of daily events, that this is what we need to focus on.
That is riding a motorcycle. Or, for those who may prefer a different metaphor for living and being – that is your self simply living. As Sawaki would have it the self selfing the self.
In the first paragraph of the book, beyond dropping the reader right into the synthesis of riding and living….Pirsig has also launched a theme that will be explored later in the book. And this is an exploration of truth and rhetoric. If you have a look at the chapter’s first sentence again, the narrator says “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight thirty in the morning.” If this does not yet seem to be an exploration of truth and rhetoric, let’s examine the situation further. While the book never explicitly states that the narrator is Robert Pirsig, most readers consider this to be the case. If that is so, then most readers also consider the motorcycle that the narrator is riding to be Pirsig’s Honda CB77 Superhawk. There’s a photograph readily available on the internet showing Pirsig and his son, Chris, sitting on the bike. Chris is showing what seems to be a fairly good-natured smile to the camera while Pirsig has his hands on the motorcycles grips, seemingly ready to head off on the dirt road in the background. Then there’s another publicity photo of Pirsig in an improbable pose leaning over the back of the bike with a wrench held to the tail-light, one foot on a chair or stool, glasses sliding down his nose and a watch poking slightly from his sleeve. In considering the two photos, it seems extremely improbable to me that anyone could see the time of their watch without taking their hand from the grip. And almost certainly not at the secondary highway speeds (sixty miles per hour) the narrator would have been riding…even if he was only wearing a long-sleeved shirt rather than a protective leather jacket of the day.
The statement can’t be taken as very probable. It is a rhetorical statement and a rhetorical truth.
Later in the book, Pirsig makes clear that he places great value in rhetoric and the sophists that Plato, Aristotle and any number of other philosophers did not respect. So this deployment of a rhetorical statement sets up practical consistency with his later assertions in support of rhetorical techniques and perspectives. And that is a consideration that a reader of Zen and the Art should return to frequently while reading.
Clearly, it is entirely possible to read the rest of the chapter and book without giving consideration to whether that first sentence is likely to be factually correct or not. On face value, all the narrator has indicated is that they’re on a morning ride. It’s a setting of the scene. Taken as something more than scene setting, however, there’s a priority on the sentence’s implications more than on its verifiable content. What is important is that the rider and the reader both observe that this is in fact a morning ride (living a life, as we’ve already established) at a particular time. Whenever Pirsig sets out some particular fact for notice, it is the reader’s job to investigate what precisely he may be gesturing to.
The time, 8:30 is close-upon a Catholic Canonical Time – 9am. This is the Terce, or third hour which establishes “a brief respite from the day’s activities. It’s recognized as a time for prayer. Nine a.m. is associated with the descent of the Christian “Holy Spirit” upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost…therefore it isa time when invocation of that “Holy Spirit” for strength in dealing with the conflicts of the day is most appropriate.
By selection of 8:30 am, Pirsig is indicating a kind of rhetorical invocation. The subtlety of this invocation is wonderful. But I don’t want to suggest that Pirsig was taking a Catholic nor necessarily even a Christian position in the book. Instead, I feel certain that Pirsig merely opened the ability to discuss certain theological concepts. Pirsig is suggesting that a holy spirit is due to be visited. So Pirsig has also begun to unveil some exploration of spiritualism, religion and particularly of messianic presence.
Invocation of the gods and muses for assistance is, of course, an ancient tradition within epic poetry. What comes to mind for me are works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In epic poetry, the hero of the epic must undergo a literal or metaphorical trip through hell. The narrator’s journey can therefore be contemplated in comparison to the journeys of other epic heroes.
It may seem as though I’m making more of that first sentence than Pirsig may have intended. But I really don’t think so. In Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, Pirsig describes a bizarre and exhaustive writing process whereby every sentence and statement of a final work is individually documented and filed in a kind of card system – then sorted in and out of the whole text in relation to other statements and sentences. It is a kind of truth process. Given that Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art before word-processors were available, it seems unlikely that this process was actually used in the writing…but it does give a perspective on the scrutiny that Pirsig is willing to have his writing undergo. Based on all of this I think it is fair to argue that the first sentence of Zen and the art:
- Is intended to fulfill the book’s title’s promise that motorycles -literal and metaphorical are the central concern;
- Is itself a rhetorical rather than a factual sentence;
- Is intended to support Pirsig’s later arguments on behalf of rhetoric;
- Is a subtle invocation of divine support of this venture – in the spirit of the epic poetry and Catholic canonical tradition;
- Is a foreshadowing of exploration of messianic religion – and a promise of visitation within the book of a divine spirit; and,
- Is intended to present an in media res perspective on living life – a perspective that is not inconsistent with zen philosophy that is also promised on the book’s cover.
In the second half of the opening paragraph of the chapter, the narrator says, “The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what is going to be like in the afternoon.”
This description brings forward an ongoing concern with temperature and weather that occurs throughout the story. Certainly for a motorcycle rider, these are significant matters that a car driver (for example) doesn’t usually need to give much attention to. Even the worst or most extreme weather conditions are not directly experienced inside a protective climate controlled cabin. But a motorcycle rider always experiences weather and is therefore far more aware of and sensitive to it.
As an extension of the metaphors…motorcycle as the self; riding as living….weather is the events and times within which we live. Pirsig is asking if the beginning of an uncomfortable warmth are present so early in the ride, how unpleasant, how difficult will the times be later. If living is difficult now, what about later when we may expect things to be even more so? Pirsig and the narrator are amplifying just how in media res the opening is. Things are already “hot”.
At eight thirty – this time when we have respite and grace…what about when that respite and grace is gone? There is a potential for reverence here that one may not expect or even be looking for. This potential reverence is present throughout the book.
Pirsig’s use of the term “Sixty miles per hour” is another phrase were different thing are being communicated simultaneously. Sixty miles an hour is another way to say – a mile a minute. It is an old phrase for someone talking or thinking fast. That they have a lot going on.
In 1974 the American federal government passed a law which set the National Maximum Speed Limit at 55 mph in response to the 1973 oil crisis…ZAMM was published in 1974. While it may be a coincidence, it isn’t a meaningless one. Within the story, Pirsig’s narrator is already exceeding the speed limit and has a lot going on – arguably overwhelmingly too much.
Following that initial invocation passage, we have a bit more scene-setting.
“In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck-hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.”
Certainly an initial preoccupation with temperature is emphasized but there is also this rather odd reference to duck-hunting sloughs.
So what’s up with ducks? Well there’s a whole lot to be navigated when it comes to ducks. Do a bit of searching and you’ll find that the duck has a variety of symbolic meanings in different cultures. It can symbolize clarity, family, love, vigilance, intuition, nurturing, protection, emotioin, self-expression, balance, adaptation, grace, and strength. Duck symbolism is closely connected to water symbolism, which is about mystery, magic, and inspiration.
In China, the mandarin duck symbolizes love
In Christianity,…The way a duck preens itself to become waterproof is linked to anointing in Christianity, a symbol of blessing, protection, and enlightenment.
Then there’s the extension of that waterproofing – water off a duck’s back or not letting things bother you.
In Greek mythology Penelope is a character in Homer’s Odyssey known for her loyalty to Odysseus. The name Penelope contains the root for a particular species of duck. Penelope avoided marrying other suitors during Odysseus’ absence.
With all of this potential symbolism that Pirsig has drawn upon, it’s no small task to consider what he might have been driving at. Significantly, it is important to point out that, regardless of which specific symbol he may be playing with or if indeed the whole collection of meanings has been targeted, the ducks are subject to hunting. From an ideological point of view, Pirsig has established that symbols and meanings are targets.
The duck hunting image recurs a few paragraphs later and then again in the next-to-final chapter when the narrator confronts his young son and makes a mental comparison to snapping the neck of a duck that he had shot but not killed during a hunting trip. It is a rather ugly and problematic scene
Since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is also a book of Zen, let’s consider how ducks may be an important part of teaching that tradition.
Following is the koan, Master Ma’s Wild Duck. There are a variety of versions of this story available online. Master Ma refers to Mazu Daoyi who was an influential Chan Buddhism teacher during the Tan Dynasty of China. He lived 709-788. Master Ma’s teaching style of “strange words and extraordinary actions” are a kind of paradigm and staple of Zen teaching.
Once, when Great Master Ma and Pai Chang were walking together, they saw some wild ducks fly by. The Great Master asked, “What is that?” Chang said, “Wild ducks.” The Great Master said, “Where have they gone?” Chang said, “They’ve flown away.” The Great Master then twisted Pai Chang’s nose. Chang cried out in pain. The Great Master said, “When have they ever flown away?”
Now a koan is brief story that is intended to teach a zen lesson. Based on this story, Master Ma’s teaching style seems to be more abusive than instructive. In Zen the idea is that the abuse is intended to awaken a student from their ignorance. And perhaps that is what Pirsig intends by juxtaposing the uncomprehending look in a duck’s eyes just before its neck is snapped with the uncomprehending look in his eleven year old son’s eyes when confronted with the idea that both he and his father are, clinically speaking mentally incompetent.
Well in zen, a koan is intended to be a story or value that the zen practitioner is to become one with rather than intellectualize. If inhabiting the values of a story are intended, then Pirsig’s story of shocking his son into enlightenment of his true nature is consistent with a paradigm of zen teaching.
Even if these connotations are correct, we again must recall that Pirsig’s reference is to hunting ducks and it seems equally likely that he’s hunting this zen teaching paradigm as much as any of the other symbols, traditions or ideologies in the book.
So we’ve arrived at the third paragraph of the first chapter of Zen and the Art. If you’re still with me, I’m grateful that you’re been patient with what I promised was going to be a slow ride. Soon, things are going to move along a little more quickly…though perhaps not a mile a minute.
“I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles…There’s a red-winged blackbird.”
I think this passage is particularly attractive. It reads like a traditional Japanese painting with the simple images of cattails and marsh grass…it is also a fairly direct comparison of meditation with the “nowhere famous for nothing”. The road is literally and metaphorically an old path…not the newer one that had been built and presumably goes, very nearly to similar destinations.
A very significant theme of Zen and the Art is coping with modern society, the paths – these two and four lane roads that our travellers have access to and choice between can be thought-of as different modes of life that we may choose. Cycle is self, riding is living, weather are events and conditions of our lives and the path is the way we choose to reach our destination. Clearly by contrasting a new 4-lane highway that the riders are not actually on (but that we may all readily imagine) with this older highway that is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all is a symbolic contrast of these different paths or values.
Most two lane highways area actually a single unified road while modern 4-lane highways are often two roads separated by a median. It’s another double-meaning image where the single-lane highway represents the monism of zen while the four-laner represents dualistic approaches.
Pirsig reinforces the duck imagery but also invokes turtles…establishing a connection to the spirituality of native north American cultures…and then there is a strange emphasis of seeing a blackbird. The paragraph is, of course, a long form haiku…where the cut line occurs between turtles and the mention of the blackbird.
Why blackbird? Again, with a wide variety of cultures to draw upon, the Blackbird may be viewed as a messenger of good or bad news. It is sent to bring a message that one is to learn from.
The narrator then “whacks” his son’s knee to bring his attention to the blackbird and his son lets him know he’s already seen blackbirds….we then come to the the unsettling passage where the narrator recalls duck hunting
“You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed with memories that he doesn’t have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred-up by the hip boots while we were getting in position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and seen nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they’re back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping, a whole community of millions of living things living our their lives in a kind of benign continuum.”
Pirsig’s use of language of this passage always reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner…a kind of epic in its own right – an impression that catches me frequently in the book. This connotation is another one of those situations that may not have been intended by Pirsig yet carries a variety of valuable parallels. Arguably, Pirsig’s narrator is not so very distant from the ancient mariner character in Coleridge’s poem – after all, he is a figure that hunted a bird he really ought to have left alone.
Perhaps unique to my study of Coleridge, the associations here also remind me of Coleridge’s collaboration with William Wordsworth on the 1798 book of poetry called Lyrical Ballads and thereby also to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and by long extension the old English poem title Beowulf. While I’m not gong to delve that now, I wanted to mention these works now as I expect to reference them in future evaluation of Zen and the Art.
Well we’ve only covered a few hundred words of a book that’s over 400 pages long…but I feel that it is important to travel some of these early passages slowly and with care. Not only is it interesting to identify and engage with the wide variety of potential meanings and sources that Pisig may have been gesturing to, it is valuable to consider how these themes may relate to any integrated world view that a person may consciously decide to embody during their lives.
Do we prefer to stick to some form of traditional two laner of something like Zen or do we go along with the four-laner? Do we hunt down the ideologies that guide our decisions and, metaphorically speaking, snap their necks or do we travel along without even knowing they’re there? Is living each moment our central concern or do we find ourselves overwhelmed by the in media res nature of living between our memories of the past and anticipations of the future?
Robert Pirsig was proud that his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a genuine attempt to create a new metaphysical philosophy. Whether that is completely accurate or not is certainly open for question, as is the question of whether the specific system he attempted to work out (the Metaphysics of Quality) is entirely reliable. I agree with Pirsig’s pride in attempting to work things out and in writing which provides such a wide range of possible sources and meanings to engage.
I think that the use of a motorcycle as a metaphor of the self was an inspired and effective choice. It is a metaphor that allows us to consider ourselves by considering the metaphor. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about the motorcycle as metaphor, about this introduction to Robert Pirsig’s book or any other matter that may have come to mind. For now, I can see by my watch, without lifting my fingers from the keyboard, that it’s six pm and its time to bring this installment of Zensylvania to a close.