What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter One
The brief passage from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that we’ve opened this episode is a particularly relevant sentiment to what the Zensylvania podcast and website is all about – this awful experience where time just keeps passing in a monotonous and wasteful blur that never seems to give us a chance to just think and talk. Zensylvania is taking the time to talk before all the time is gone.
You may have noticed that this essay (or episode if you’re listening) is titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part Four. It’s part of an as-yet-indeterminate series of examinations of Robert Pirsig’s books. For now, I’m still looking at the book’s first chapter. 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 continue to look at the first chapter beginning immediately after the narrator comments on the the impossibility of trying to communicate to the lost children he often sees trapped on bumper-to-bumper highways. In my highly marked-up white-covered edition, I’m picking up on page seven and plan in this inquiry to finish up examination of the first chapter. There are still several foundational passages in this eleven or twelve pages of the book that are important to cover and I think we can hit the big highlights and let much of the text speak for itself. However, for the sake of brevity, I’m also setting aside comment on some passages as they seem to be mostly reinforcing of themes already established. In the earlier parts of this series, I’ve commented on these things and, rather like Pirsig’s country-road-signmaker, I’m going to avoid pointing out the same features twice.
Given the frankly devastating assessment of contemporary society that the narrator offered in the earlier passage (contemplated in Part Two of these explorations), Pirsig opted for the next passage to be an echo of some imagery shared earlier in the chapter. It’s a kind of respite to see the beauty of some red-winged blackbirds and marshes after being exposed to the going-nowhere superhighway that is the narrator’s contemporary society. In this passage, the narrator corrects his earlier assertion that marshes are benign and states that they are also cruel. This correction brings his depiction of marshes in-line with a balanced Zen perspective – neither positive nor negative. This is the source of the comment that the “reality of them overwhelms halfway concepts.” It is through comments and phrases like this, worked into the texts but not especially emphasized as doctrinal comments, that Pirsig has included zen influence.
There’s also a repetition of the interaction between the father and the son. In the face of being unable to communicate to the lost children on the superhighway, the narrator, almost reflexively attempts to communicate to the person closest to him.
Then there’s an interesting and brief paragraph which explains that “unless you’re fond of hollering, you don’t make great conversation on a running cycle.” Its interesting for several reasons. First, we’re about to learn that most of the book is a kind of monologue preached by the narrator from the seat of the motorcycle. Texts of various sorts, whether they are printed on a page or shown on a screen of some kind are not dialogues. They are monologues. We may be entering a time when texts may become dialectic in nature. That will be interesting and technology such as podcasting, social media and artificial intelligence suggests how that may evolve – but for now, we are mostly limited to monologues. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a monologue.
Second, inspected from the notion that the cycle is a metaphor of the self – there is a question of what Pirsig may be suggesting about the act of talking about the self and talking about maintaining the self? This comment, that one doesn’t make great dialogue on a running cycle, seems to be consistent with his more general comment about there not being opportunity to talk that I opened this essay with. Living our lives we are, metaphorically speaking, overwhelmed by noise of our own running cycles, we’re all two busy and bombarded by the noise and activity of life to talk. For my own part, this observation recalls the title of William Faulkner‘s 1929 stream-of-consciousness novel titled The Sound and the Fury and thereby William Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth ” Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.“
While we haven’t yet reached the point when we talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a kind of gothic ghost-and-monster story…this passage is certainly supportive of the theme I expect to eventually explore. Pirsig’s book carries, in it’s own rights a kind of stream-of-consciousness inspired narrative and Faulkner would not have been a writer unfamiliar to Pirsig, so I feel relatively safe in these observations. The paragraph can and should be read for its metaphorical value and weighed in context of these metaphorical and referential settings.
I wonder how rare it is for people to have an opportunity to engage in dialogue not only about living their lives, the engine, wind and road noise that make up our lives, but also about the maintenance that makes living endurable and even joyful, enabling us to take note of the flocks of red-winged blackbirds that sometimes rise up? This question is one that Pirsig takes up later in the book and it is valuable to take note of the matter now.
Over the decades, I have frequently commented to others who I felt might value the observation that I have found Stoic philosophy to be a valuable tool in managing the noise of life. While I don’t intend to attempt to describe any overlap between Zen and Stoicism at this time, it seems clear that Pirsig sets Zen forward as a tool for managing the noise and business of life. It is difficult to talk about these tools and how they work while undertaking the regular business of life. They are perspectives that we sometimes need to administer to self-correct when we have been in error. Rather like the narrator’s self-correction about the nature of the marshes.
The paragraph that follows is an exposition of this theme and an explanation of what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is going to be.
“What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.“
It’s a wonderful and direct passage. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve encountered the idea that people are genuinely and overwhelmingly busy, often with things that they may find contain little to no meaning for them six days later, let alone sixty years. Life in the 2020’s seems to be far more busy, far more filled-up and distracted by a kind of empty technology-fueled activity and commotion. The screens and phones are a kind of external symptom or avatar for transitory emptiness.
The narrator then goes on to explain that it is his intention to share his thoughts in a series of Chautauquas. The narrator says that he doesn’t have another word for this, but I’m going to go ahead and share some now: meditations, studies, sermons, inquiries, essays, ruminations and indeed….closest to home here in Zensylvania is the word footnotes.
Pirsig used the term Chautauquas as a nostalgic link to a social movement that had been popular at the turn-of-the-18th-century. These were travelling tent shows that brought insightful ideas and educational recreation to average, non-academic people. I think he’s done this to distance Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from formal Academia (what he later calls the Church of Reason) and organized religion (which Pirsig does not need even to term the various Churches of Faith). Buried in this metaphor is a significant differentiation. The Chautauqua movement featured tents – they were itinerant in nature. The Churches of Reason and Faith more typically emphasize bricks-and-mortar. This distinction is explored in later chapters of the book.
It is a kind of populist strategy but it is also a strategy which put Pirsig in the camp of the sophists. The sophists were the chosen intellectual bad guys targeted by Plato and those that followed in Academia. They were advocates of rhetoric and a variety of itinerant educators of their day. Most institutions of civilization have developed in ways that oppose anything that is not rooted or stabilized in some way. Nomadism is mostly, if not wholly distrusted and rejected. And yet, vacations are a highly valued feature or part of most people’s lives. For brief periods of their lives people are pilgrims and nomads. Exploring geography, culture, recreation and other things that they value. It is rather interesting thing that the things we value most are so often the thing we have the least of.
Pirsig and his companions are on vacation and during their vacation, some of their time is indeed under canvas.
To understand the significance of this Pirsig’s evident siding with the Sophists, we have to recall that Plato and Aristotle may be considered the founders of formalized European, or more broadly western, intellectual pursuit that we call Academia or Academics. The Academy was theirs. Pirsig is establishing ZAMM as essentially a non-Academic and perhaps anti-Academic endeavour.
You may find it interesting to know that there is a Chautauqua Institution located in, Chautauqua New York. The organization began in 1874 and was the inspiration for the Tent Chautauquas that Pirsig cited. It is an extremely interesting co-incidence that the organization was founded exactly 100 years before Pirsig’s book was published and almost exactly one hundred years after the founding of the United States as a country. Although these details are not discussed in Zen and the Art, it seems unlikely that Pirsig would not have been aware where his work was situated relative to these facts and events.
I also think that a visit to the Chautauqua Institution would be a sensible pin to put in the map for anyone who might want to consider an ideological road-trip of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There are many people who attempt to travel the same roads that the journey describes. The book and route has its own pilgrim-based-industry. Canadian automotive journalist, Mark Richardson published “Zen and Now: On The Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in 2008. The book is a personal telling of Richardson’s experience of the motorcycle journey that Pirsig described in his book. While Richardson’s book is clearly less of a work of Zen or philosophy than Pirsig’s, it is an interesting homage and worth reading for the nicely-researched journalism that he includes. For those who may be interested in a different kind of pilgrimage, there are some alternate Pirsig-inspired routes that might be just as fascinating and meaningful to explore.
The narrator talks about his personal Chautauquas as a kind of channel-deepening and uses the metaphor to contrast perspectives on fast-running, shallow and wide modern rivers of thought versus deeper and slower streams. The metaphor is consistent with the “streams of consciousness” terminology I mentioned earlier. The passage is vivid and Pirsig does make use of bodies of water throughout Zen and the Art as well as more prominently in the follow-up Lila; the earliest reference to bodies of water was the marshes and duck-hunting sloughs, later the riders will come upon other bodies of water as well with the ultimate geographical destination in the motorcycle journey is the Pacific Ocean. Pirsig uses water. We will want to observe how and when these references occur because they are unlikely to be mere settings.
Then comes a break in the sermonized philosophy when the group of riders takes a break at a rest-stop. At the stop, the narrator introduces John and Sylvia Sutherland. Consistent with the in media res beginning of the book, the introduction of the Sutherlands jumps into the established and ongoing relationships that the narrator has to the Sutherlands as individuals and as a couple.
During the events of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Sutherland’s ride a BMW R60/2. Interestingly, Pirsig does eventually mention the bike by brand, model-name and country of origin. This is a significant difference from how he references his own bike. Superficially, this seems like it could be an irrelevant detail. But I don’t think so. The narrator’s motorcycle is a metaphor of his self. It is an avatar. Were Pirsig to spend significant time talking about the brand, model-name and country of manufacture, this would erode the unity of the character and the bike. It would introduce a duality that Pirsig is careful to minimize. Specifying these things for the Sutherlands, however is consistent with a separation of the rider from the machine- consistent even with the alienation from technology that the narrator later describes.
BMW produced the R60/2 model from1965 to 1969. It had a 30-horsepower 600cc boxer twin engine with shaft drive. It weighed about 430 pounds. Pirsig’s Honda SuperHawk had a 28-horsepower, 305cc parallel-twin engine and weighed about 350 pounds. Pirsig’s bike had chain-drive. Considered from 2020, they’re both nice-looking classic bikes. The BMW was all black. There are short and engaging videos of these kinds of bikes where you can hear the terrific mellow sound of the BMW or the chattery “nickels and dimes” (as Pirsig calls it) sound of the Honda. In the book, it is eventually explained that Sutherland chose the bike for reliability, to avoid having to do maintenance. Something not explained in the book is that the BMW was designed with side-car use in mind. This makes the R60, to a certain extent, akin to cars.
It would have been entirely possible for Pirsig to alter the details of some things in the story. It is striking, however, how conveniently some facts, such as the characteristics of the specific make and model of his friends’ motorcycle, support and reinforce Pirsig’s rhetorical intent. It’s a detail of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that is so unusually, and sometimes disturbingly, compelling.
Metaphorically what does the choice of a BMW R60 mean.? It is a contemporary preference to let “experts” design and maintain your motorcycle rather than taking direct and personal responsibility for these things. Later in the chapter, the narrator depicts a kind of paranoid helplessness that the approach leaves a person vulnerable to when Sutherland admits thinking that the motorcycle dealership sold him a lemon. Sutherland does not understand the technology he engages with, does not really want to understand it and this is a foundation of his relationship to it.
Always with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we must recall that motorcycles are metaphorical stand-ins or avatars of our selves. How often do we find that we do not genuinely understand our own workings. The working of our minds and bodies…and don’t want to understand them. But feel that we are vulnerable to forces outside of our control and prefer to hand over responsibility for maintenance to a professional of some kind. Oh yes, this issue will be coming up in the book.
It is rather odd and interesting that the rest-stop the riders are at includes a reference to grassy knoll. There is something jarring and out of place about this. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was too recent in American history for this particular turn of phrase to be random. The terminology and the reference conjures….suspicion, conspiracy and cover up. Kennedy’s assassination was a kind of turning point in American history. It may be reasonable to assume that Pirsig is acknowledging suspicion and distrust as fundamental elements of the contemporary American experience. In 2020, we can only reflect upon whether that turning point in American history, whether the inclusion of suspicion and distrust in daily life, has continued and grown in any way.
Soon after the diversions of the rest-stop, the narrator states the idea for the book stemmed from a conversation with John Sutherland about “how much one should maintain one’s own motorcycle.” It is clearly a discussion where Sutherland preferred to leave maintenance to specialists while the narrator favored self-reliance…bearing the labour and responsibility himself. He says that he prefers to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets…if we return to the ongoing metaphorical patterns…motorcycle maintenance is caring-for or stewarding the self. While I hope that my reminders haven’t yet become tedious, it is essential to keep in mind how these ideas apply to self-maintenance. So the narrator is referring to a kind of spiritual maintenance. Being literal, a person might say that they don’t recall getting a tool kit or instruction booklet as a guide to this spiritual maintenance. I think, however, that most people can work with a metaphor of this type and expect such a tool kit and instruction booklet to be comprised of something other than forged metal on the one hand and printed paper on the other.
The narrator explains that he and Sutherland rode together and spent time talking and drinking beer. The frequent references to alcohol consumption amid motorcycling is one of frankly several details that makes some contemporary readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uncomfortable. I don’t think it needs to. My attitude on this is that I expect Robert Pirsig’s 1974 self to occupy 1974 – not 2024. If the story is fifty years out of place on some things, that’s OK by me. Frankly the book and its ideas aren’t particularly more or less interesting if these kinds of quibble-factors are set aside.
Earlier the narrator lamented that there wasn’t enough time to talk; the focus on the talking is a necessary repetition or reinforcement that the book, the Chautauquas arise from interactions with the Sutherlands. During their conversations, when they talk about external and circumstantial things, everything is pleasant but when their conversation touches on things closer to home. Specifically motorcycle maintenance, the conversation is awkward or stopped. Pirsig compares the conversational blockage as being similar to doctrinal disagreements between Protestant and Catholic attitudes. The underlying point is that there are different values systems at play. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an inquiry into values, so these comments shouldn’t be taken as casual. Pirsigis moving attention the question of he source of the “the good” . Is it divine or something else.
There’s a memorable passage where the narrator describes Sutherland’s struggles with his motorcycle – all stemming from his lack of understanding of how the bike operates. These uncomfortable and yet amusing scenes occurred near Savage, Minnesota.
Since Zen and the Art of Motorycles does touch on motorcycles…I have to comment on that word Savage.
One of the earliest motorcycles models to catch my attention and interest was the Suzuki Savage. It’s a 650cc single cylinder, belt-driven bike which Suzuki later called the S40. I think the name change was disappointing, so I still think of the model as the Suzuki Savage. These bikes were Manufactured since 1986. While I’m not sure whether new models are still sold in Canada, I believe they’re still manufactured and sold in various other markets. The bike is about 381 pounds and about 30 horsepower. Comparing it’s specifications to the R60 and SuperHawk that Pirsig and Sutherland rode, it seems like a contemporary bike well-suited to representing a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance homage. For anyone who might be looking for a place to start, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to think about finding one of these.
Shortly after the scene, Sutherland tells the narrator that the frustration of the motorcycle not starting “really turns me into a monster inside.” and goes on to describe paranoia….suspicion, anger and frustration…..these are important observations as our contemporary world seems to have more and more things which turn us into monsters inside…things that dehumanize us and leave us acting out like a savage…prone to suspicion, anger and frustration.
Via a lengthy depiction of a leaky faucet in the Sutherland’s home – a faucet which seems to act on Sylvia Sutherland the way John Sutherland reacted to his motorcycle, the narrator names technology as the root cause of their frustration, alienation, resentment and anger. Similar to a motorcycle, a home is a wonderful metaphor to capture human experience and endeavor. Anybody who has pretended to ignore a leaky faucet or some other inconvenience out of fear and dread can relate to the anecdote and readily think about the metaphor’s meaning to human experience. There are things in our lives that we accept, tolerate or pretend to ignore based on fear, dread to not make things worse. Often for want of understanding some underlying design issue and perhaps some training and tools to fix it.
The narrator blamed technology…perhaps in my own contemporary language, I suggest it is ill-preparedness to manage ever-escalating and ever-more incomprehensible complexity. Much of the world is a kind of black box that we don’t really understand….“it is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster a death force.“
Then also …”their monster keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it and hardly any way to escape it.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has elements of a gothic ghost and monster story. As with Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, the concept of monster is closely tied to technology and humanity. Pirsig locates the monsters within our own nature.
There’s an interesting passage where the narrator returns to the theme of lost children and states that the Sutherlands are not alone in their alienation. “If this is so, they are not alone.…so that when you look at them collectively, as journalists do, you get the illusion of a mass movement, an anti-technological mass movement, an entire political anti-technological left emerging, looming up from apparently nowhere saying…Stop the technology….but one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term.”
This passage in the book carries some interesting insights into issues of the 2020’s and it might be well for heed Pirsig’s comment that “one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term“. Name-calling really is a waste of time, isn’t it?
It is hear, near the end of the first chapter, that Pirsig delivers the most memorable and often-cited lines in the book:
“I just think that their flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself. That is what I want to talk about in this Chautauqua.”
In the theory of writing short and long fiction, it is often taught that a writer should build to climax point and then provide a denouement, or falling off. Imagining a graph of reader excitement and interest, one sees a line sloping up and to the right, perhaps with a few stock-market-esque peaks and valleys. Well that line is the chapter’s climax point. Everything else has been leading to this particular statement. And it is the thing that the book is most remembered for.
That sentence does hold the scope and aesthetic intent of the book if you know what to look for. Buddhism is there. Philosophy is there. A position on contemporary technology is there. The motorcycle as metaphor is there. A position on academia is there. A statement of values is there. The sentence is like a central nerve with tendrils strung into all parts of the book.
As for the denouement…
then we’re out of the marshes….The farmhouses are clean and white and fresh. And there’s no smoke or smog. In its own way, this is a hopeful ending to a chapter that had a lot of dark and complicated imagery. We’re out of the relatively stagnant water of the marshes. Things are looking clean and white and fresh.
A few questions from this section of the book
- Do you find that there isn’t enough time to talk? Does the noise and business of running your own cycle prevent dialogue?
- How much time do you think that you have lost to meaningless technology-fueled commotion?
- Do you think that suspicion and paranoia are inescapable features of contemporary society?
- To what extent do you take personal responsibility for the maintenance of the motorcycle that is your self?
- What motorbike would make a great contemporary homage to the original Zen-bikes?
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