Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Part Five)

You may have noticed that this essay (or episode if you’re listening) is titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part Five. It’s part of an as-yet-indeterminate series of examinations of Robert Pirsig’s books. You may wish to go back to earlier parts of the series before taking this one in, but it isn’t obligatory in any way. You may also want to listen to take in the “On Footnotes” essay which is available on the website in print and is included in the first episode of this series. Just to get a sense of why I’ve titled so many essays in this way. But as I’ve indicated previously, it isn’t necessary to backtrack if you’re not inclined to.

Right now we’re going to take a look at Chapter Two of Pirsig’s book. At about nine pages, it’s a relatively brief chapter but it contains two of the books most memorable motorcycle-themed scenes and a number of interesting passages which reinforce Pirsig’s messages about self-reliance.

The chapter begins with a reminder that Pirsig and his companions have only just begun their motorcycle vacation. Similarly, the reader has only just begun exploration of Pirsig’s journey and philosophy as well. The first paragraph of the chapter says, “The road winds on and on….we stop for rests and lunch, exchange small talk and settle down to the long ride. The beginning fatigue of afternoon balances the excitement of the first day and we move steadily not fast, not slow.

I interpret this as a kind of prescription by Pirsig for approaching both the reading of this book and for approaching life – remembering that the motorcycle journey is a metaphor for living life. It isn’t a terrible prescription to take breaks out from the business of life’s journey to stop for rest, meals and the small and inconsequential talk that doesn’t carry immediacy and import. To move steadily through life. neither fast nor slow is probably a good thing.

From the chapter sample that I opened this episode with, we can see that this thesis of steadily, neither fast nor slow is something Pirsig repeated near the end of the chapter. I appreciate how internally consistent Pirsig’s writing is. It isn’t merely repetition, it is reinforcement.

Typical of Pirsig, the next paragraph seems to continue about the motorcycle riding but actually introduces an ominous element…”Lately, there’s been a sense of something, as is we were being watched or followed…” If you haven’t read the book, my next comments may be something of a spoiler…but my presumption is that anyone following this series is either already familiar with the book or will appreciate that I’m trying to unpack Pirsig’s design as we go….this brief passage is a very early hint of a ghostly presence inside the narrator’s mind.

It’s a terrific bit of foreshadowing and reinforces one of my arguments that ZAMM may fairly be called a gothic story or ghost story. This is the introduction of a theme of ghosts and ghastly elements that will come up many times in the book.

In the third paragraph, Pirsig seems to break away again and takes time to talk about the flue flax blossoms in a nicely phrased, poetic line talking about the fields along the road, “Some of them are blue with flax blossoms moving in long waves like the surface of the ocean.” This mention of the ocean is also a bit of foreshadowing as Chris and the narrator do eventually arrive at the Pacific Ocean.

Photo Courtesy: Flickr

With the hint of ghostly presence and mention of the ocean, I am reminded of S.T. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I don’t think this is a far stretch….Pirsig is clearly conjuring maritime imagery in the next paragraph describing the plains ” as if you were siailing out from a choppy coastal harbor, noticed that the waves had taken on a deep swell, and turned back to see that you were out of sight of land.”

The ominous tone that Pirsig introduced is very effectively reinforced and then she says “I have a feeling none of us fully understands what four days on this prairie in July will be like.”

It’s quite a threatening statement which he moderately softens with memories of other trips and with discussion of the group’s planning. But the suspense and hint of tortures and trials to come is absolutely there.

And here I want to mention that ZAMM often recalls to mind the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno. It’s a kind of invocation, isn’t it? Four Days on the prairie in the July Heat..a road that winds on an on…just as Dante and Virgil wound their way into Hell’s circles?

Dante’s Inferno Circles of Hell

ZAMM is absolutely in line with epic poetry traditions and it should be reinforced that Pirsig was absolely able to bring this imagery in without feeling the need to explain that this is what he was doing. ZAMM is Pirsig’s Divine Comedy…It is a story of his mid-life’s journey.

The narrator says of the trip through hell that he felt Sylvia should go along to maintain harmony among the riders…”to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a promised land..”

There is a break in the chapter and then Pirsig takes time to talk about some storm clouds on the horizon (another foreshadowing)..air temperature and weather play an ongoing role throughout the book..the inteplay between hot and cool..physical discomfort. “on a cycle you’re in the scene, not just watching it, and storms are definitely a part of it.

The narrator’s comments about Sylvia being along for the ride through a hellish prairie may be a reminder of Dante’s goal to be united with Beatrice. But clearly Pirsig is taking a different tack and while Sylvia may be a kind of analog of Beatrice, clearly they are not the same. Suffice it to say, it is valuable to ponder who the narrator’s companions in this epic journey are and what function they may serve in Pirsig’s design.

Next comes an is an interlude wherein the narrator provides a kind of amusing anecdote of a father-son trip from Minnesota to Canada. This is interesting to me as my family and I spent several years living in Thunder Bay Ontario, the area that is immediately north of Minnesota and could have been a kind of destination of the trip. I’m certainly very familiar with the geography. While this is personally interesting, I think the reference to Canada is another one of Pirsig’s reinforcements. In American literature and popular culture, Canada is often presented as a kind of wilderness garden of eden…a promised land. A serene place to escape to. Perhaps this observation of American culture of mine is oversimplified. Be that as it may, The accuracy of this picture of Canada is highly questionable.

The anecdote is filled with rain, mishaps and misery…ultimately leading to an end of the trip when the narrator failed to diagnose an empty fuel tank. The story fulfills a number of tasks. These are storms of Rime of the Ancient Mariner or the horrible stations along Dante’s path.

It shows the narrator, and Pirsig as someone not unlike everyone else. He’s had failures and times when he was unprepared for the storms of life. To the point of being on the side of the road without gas and without even knowing he didn’t have gas.

To one extent or another, we all start out as a younger version of ourselves and without all of the knowledge and preparation to deal with the storms we will have to face. Literal and metaphorical.

I’ve found myself on the side of the road in a vehicle with no gas on a couple of occasions…once in the middle of a cold winter day…I’ve also found occasions to be on the side of the road variously lacking oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid and engine coolant. My point is that life can be complicated and as it gets more complicated, there are more things that can shut you down. Whatever the cause, being shut down can bring about a deep and genuine dejection.

Being shut down with no clue why you’re shut down is particularly awful. But it is the helplessness, whether you know why you’re shut down or not, that takes the toll…and this is what Pirsig describes…his son’s tearful questions of why the fun is all over are your tears….why am I shut down? Why can’t things move ahead.?

But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.” This is the emotional wilderness. No help from specialists who know what to do. No shelter from the storm. Just storm.

Pirsig said the machine they were on (no brand mentioned) was a “six-and-one half horsepower cycle, way over-loaded with luggage and way underloaded with common sense”.

Clearly the motorcycle trip into Canada is a metaphorical depiction of progressing through life. And its also a call to self-reliance and education…we have to learn how to live…how to make it through the storms, how to equip ourselves and be prepared.

The story is summed up with “Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.” As life’s stakes are greater, we owe it to ourselves to take things a bit more seriously.

Right now, as you are living your life – whether you’re, metaphorically speaking, operating an 8-and-a-half-horsepower machine, a 28 horsepower-power machine, or the latest 125-horsepower high tech delight, I wonder how seriously you have taken the maintenance of that machine. And if that machine is not a motorcycle at all, but is in fact your own self, what has been your attitude to these things?

I wonder how seriously I’ve taken these things myself. There seems to be something in the world that doesn’t give much encouragement to giving serious consideration to maintenance. It’s either assumed to be irrelevant or presumed to be taken-care-of without effort or forethought on our part. But I’m not sure trouble-free-motoring has been a real thing for anyone. Ever.

Still, we seem to live in a world and a society that is predisposed to using things up rather than engaging with them as things to be conserved. This seems to be a fundamental feature of contemporary attitudes. And it does seem to be a genuine problem.

In the chapter, suddenly John cuts in (the character from the first chapter who we know doesn’t even want to think about maintenance…John who is heading into Hell’s circles ignorant and unprepared…to tell the narrator that they’d ridden past a sign for their turnoff…telling the narrator (and us?) that it was as big as a barn door.

Well it is big as a barn door isn’t it? Are you prepared for life’s storms? Have you been taking things seriously enough? Will you be able to diagnose when you’re gas tank, radiator, oil pan, brake fluid or power-steering fluid reservoir – or the complicated contemporary-life-reservoirs for which they are metaphors are empty?

The narrator’s realization of his inattention to the road…having missed the big as a barn door sign while pursuing his memories of the past trip set the narrator to checking his engine temperature. The narrator is shaken out of focusing on the past and tries to put his attention back in the moment. The here and now.

I want to take a moment to recall Pirsig’s mention in chapter one that country road sign makers don’t tell you twice…one may assume that this is true when the sign is as big as a barn door.

Soon however, a second set of memories takes hold of the narrator’s attention and a new lesson is investigated. It’s another of the most memorable motorcycle-themed scenes. It pertains to anyone who has needed to deal with mechanics. Mechanics, of course are the specialists who fit the motorcycle metaphor… the narrator’s story ought to be applied to all of the various specialists and professionals upon whom we give our dependence.

And we do give our dependence don’t we? Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, bankers, financial planners, plumbers, university professors, politicians,….all the contemporary specialists who we allow to to fix and perhaps sometimes even design our problems for us. These specialists and the problems they correspond to often set us on particular paths, don’t they? And rather like Pirsig’s narrator, it isn’t unusual to find ourselves lost in the memories of yesterday or the dreams for tomorrow rather than focussing on the road we’re riding on right now.

Well…anyone who has dealt with any professional, particularly a professional who clearly does not seem to know what they are doing will share the narrator’s frustration and concern. It’s one of the most valuable scenes in the book.

It talks about care;

about professionalism;

about people being engaged in what they are doing;

about being competent.

Right now, we are living the times that Pirsig is talking about. Do we give over our lives, that is to say place ourselves in a position of dependence upon these incompetent, uninvolved chimpanzees when there are big as a barn door signs that they’ve simply wandered in and been handed a wrench? After all, it is your motorcycle going home with you after you’ve paid the fees.

Pirsig runs through the clues and decides it is the expressions, “Good-natured, friendly, easy-going – and uninvolved…..you had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job”

These are the big as a barn door cues he ought to have noticed.

Pirsig then explains he is a technical writer and found the spectator attitude in the manuals…the separation…” And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant, or taken for granted.

It bears repeating that the mechanics that Pirsig’s narrator recalled stand-in for all of the specialists who we give our dependence to. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, social workers, politicians. I think you take my meaning.

You may have noticed that I have emphasized that I think it would be a mistake for me to claim to be an expert in anything at all. It isn’t that I necessarily view expertise as problematic…however, our relationships to experts seems, in my experience, to be very problematic indeed.

This caring about life, by ourselves about our own lives…or alternately by the specialists and professionals when we choose to be spectators rather than the primary agents of our lives, this caring is the central concern. And we need to approach this caring steadily, neither fast nor slow.

Spectator should remind you that the narrator mentioned that he felt someone was watching….a spectator. So the spectator theme arrives with two distinct, though not necessarily unrelated purposes….the ominous spectator that seems to be monitoring the narrator’s journey and being a spectator of one one’s own life. Naturally enough, in zen meditation there is a concept of observing your own thoughts.

I suddenly notice the land her has flattened into a Euclidian plan. …we have entered the Red River Valley….In the Zensylvania episode containing an incomplete examination of Fuzzy Logic, I spent some time connecting dots between Pirsig as a technical writer and the field of formal logic. Here is a big as a barn door sign that Pirsig’s writing is involved in logic and mathematics. Euclidian Plane1?

This just isn’t the kind of reference that one would normally associate with riding a motorcyle. This single sentence is, at least for me, validation of my argument that Pirsig has incorporated the language of mathematics and formal logic into the structure of Zen and the Art.

In mathematics, a plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface that extends indefinitely in all directions. The fact that the narrator describes the Red River Valley as a Euclidian Plane is very unusual and a very clear reference to Euclid, the ancient thinker and mathematician. We have to stop to think what Pirsig might be up to? It’s not an indiscrete reference. In fact it is big as a barn door. But its up to us to consider what that sign may be pointing at.

For me, I’m reminded of navigation and the first chapter of ZAMM when the narrator talks about dead reckoning. In the earlier Footnotes episodes, I’ve spoken about my opinion that the book that uses motorcycles as a metaphor for the self and a motorcycle journey as a metaphor for living life – and also that the idea of dead reckoning one’s way through life is quite an interesting way to think about how we navigate our way from one point to another of our human existence.

Earlier in this essay, we’ve seen how Pirsig continues to use these established themes to place the storms of life as a real presence in living a life. I’ve also said that Zen and the Art is Robert Pirsig’s analog to Dante Alighieri’s mid-life journey – the Divine Comedy. For Dante, his trip through the inferno was a series of descending circles. For Pirsig, the inferno seems to be a Euclidian plane – a flat, two-dimensional surface that extends unbroken in all directions. A featureless place devoid even of the sparse cover that a few cutover pine trees had offered during past trips. The fact that Pirsig used the language of mathematics to describe his inferno is not unimportant. It is, in fact, a part of Pirsig’s overall design. How indeed, does one navigate an unbroken, featureless wasteland which extends in all directions. Dead reckoning may well be a reasonable answer.

And with this very unusual and reference, the narrator – and of course Robert Pirsig, ends the rather ominous second Chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.