Motorcycle Zen is a philosophical stance and state of mind that originated and was developed on the Zensylvania website and podcast.
References & Notes
The term Motorcycle Zen first appeared on the Zensylvania website and podcast on September 22, 2021 at 19:21. Eric Adriaans used the term to describe several concepts and rhetorical methods observed in Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Motorcycle Zen is an abbreviation of Pirsig’s iconic book title but is not intended to be a faithful mirroring of its ideas.
The term Motorcycle Zen is derived from the words motorcycle and zen.
The word Zen is from the term assigned to a specific set of philosophical positions, aesthetic practices and daily-living techniques which were formalized in Japan from the seventh century through to the present.
The word Motorcycle is a compound word denoting a two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicle. The root-word motor indicates a rotating mechanism or machine that imparts motion by converting energy from one form (eg. electricity, fuel) to another (eg. mechanical energy, experience) . The root-word cycle is derived from bicycle or tricycle, which more typically refers to two- or three-wheeled vehicles where a human serves as the motor, converting energy into motion via pedals, a chain and gears.
In Zensylvania, motorcycle is intended to be interpreted as a metaphor and potential avatar of the self in consideration of the human condition. In usage as a metaphor, the term may include a range of motorized and non-motorized vehicles in addition to the two-wheeled variety.
Motorcycle Zen, as used in Zensylvania, is an open-minded, contemplative inquiry into formulation of a coherent, logical, necessary personal philosophy which offers the opportunity to individually reconcile twenty-first century human experience and allows every element of our experience to be interpreted.
The stance surveys and incorporates elements of alternate philosophies, perspectives and fields such as stoicism, pragmatism, Zen, process philosophy, biosemiotics, mathematics, machine learning and logic on a contingent (provisional, limited-extent) and instrumental basis.
By continuing to access, link to, or use this website and/or podcast, you accept the Zensylvania.com Terms of Service in full. If you disagree with the terms of service in whole or in part, you must not use the website, podcast or other material.
I wanted to start this essay with a reasonably brief and straight-forward definition of the word “quality”. As it turns out, I couldn’t find a practical definition that I was satisfied with. It may be a peculiar trait of mine that I prefer a word’s or concept’s definition not to contain words or concepts that merely point straight back to place I started. Like some semantic Ouroboros eating its own tail. Unfortunately, definitions for the word “quality” often circle back on themselves.
For example, Merriam-Webster’s definition says that quality is “a degree of excellence”. Follow-through on this information and you find that excellence is “an excellent or valuable quality” and that “excellent is very good of its kind : eminently good.“. Of course something that is “eminently good” means that it is observably good. Next we find that good is something that is “of a favourable character” or “conforming to a standard” among other things. Finally, something that is of a favourable character is something we favour or prefer while a standard is of course “something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality“.
It’s like that with all of the definitions that I’ve looked at so far – a somewhat fuzzy realm of subjective preferability and objective standardization.
The extraordinary fuzziness and variability of what may be contained within the term “quality” is somewhat surprising but hardly a new matter. Every one of us has some degree of self-assuredness that we know what is or is not of good quality. So certain are we that Pirsig quoted Plato as a kind of heading to ZAMM with And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good – Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? We’ve always known what is or is not good….we have our own fuzzy logic system to determine what meets our individual and ever-changing mix of subjective preferences and objective standards.
Regular visitors to Zensylvania will probably be familiar with Zensyalvania’s ongoing preoccupation with Robert Pirsig’s books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I have readily used Pirsig’s books as touchstones within several investigations and inquiries. These two books are categorized by some people as works of philosophical fiction. This categorization describes a situation where a story is used as the setting, context or framing for some particular philosophical material to be conveyed.
While it is tempting to spend time quibbling over the extent to which the categorization of any book or work as philosophical fiction is meaningful, and indeed the extent to which the term reasonably applies to Pirsig’s books, I’m going to avoid doing that for now. It may be something to examine at some later time. Instead, I’m going to go along with this particular application of the analytical knife because it is clear that Pirsig’s books are intended to communicate some particular philosophical content and that they are fictionalized versions of Pirsig’s life, if not entirely fiction.
The particular philosophical content that the books convey has come to be known as the Metaphysics of Quality. And that is where we’re going to start in this essay.
‘Start” may not be exactly the correct term since that really began in Episode 15, when I spent some time in review of a book titled On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence. This is a posthumously published collection of Pirsig’s comments and insights into the Metaphysics of Quality which was released in March of 2022. For this essay, I want to begin by returning to some of my comments from that Zensylvania episode. If you’ve previously reviewed that episode, this may be slightly repetitive, I hope to mitigate any sense of redundancy by expanding on the initial reactions I had.
All of this will be in an effort to pin down a few basic questions when it comes to the Metaphysics of Quality.
Quality Undefined: MovingTowards an Initial Definition
Throughout ZAMM and much of Lila, Pirsig avoided providing a definition of “Quality”. On page 97 of On Quality, there is an excerpt from his 1974 lecture at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where he said that, “One of the advantage of keeping Quality undefined – which is central to [Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]…as long as you keep it undefined, then it becomes an instrument of change, and you can grow, because the things that you find Quality in are going to change as you grow.“
Despite his early motivation to avoid providing a definition of Quality, Pirsig eventually used the term as a direct or indirect referent to a variety of other concepts which I am listing here:
the phoneme “rta” from the Proto-Indo-European language
the essence of experience
the pure thing (Hindu traditions); the pure non-thing (Buddhist traditions)
“what holds together”
the stable condition which gives man perfect satisfaction
duty toward self
virtue of the ancient Greeks
the Cosmic order of things
Metaphysics of Quality is Metaphysics of Spirituality
This is probably an incomplete list as Pirsig admitted to a preparedness to talk about Quality for hours on end without establishing a firm meaning. Initially, I’d like to focus on the third item in this list, “the essence of experience” as it introduces two underlying connections that should be examined.
In David Grainger‘s 2006 book, John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education, Grainger suggests that Pirsig’s idea of Quality is equivalent to Dewey’s idea of “Experience“. For those who may be interested to verify for themselves whether Grainger’s comparison is correct, he seems to rely upon Dewey’s Art as Experience and Experience and Education. You can be sure that these are on my acquisition list for 2023.
In the meantime, here are a few ideas from Dewey. Ordinary experience has no structure. It is a continuous stream. The subject (i.e. person) goes through the experience of living but does not experience everything in a way that composes an experience. Meanwhile an aesthetic experience is a kind of event which stands out from the ordinary or general experience. While I don’t pretend to any kind of authority to correct or alter Dewey’s terminology…it occurs to me that Dewey was establishing that Aesthetic Experience is at least partially comprised of definable events while Ordinary Experience is not. Experiences are structured situations over time – however fuzzy may be the definition of the experience’s actual beginning or end.
Dewey’s ideas do seem to echo Pirsig’s notions of Static and Dynamic Quality where Static Quality seems to share some attributes with Dewey’s Aesthetic Experience and Dynamic Quality with Ordinary Experience.
In FSC Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West (that is the book which Pirsig credits with closing his youthful period of drifting and lending direction to his life, there is a passage about “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” and “experience”.
Later in this essay I will look at A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality but for now let me suggest that if there are parallels between Pirsig’s “Quality” and Dewey’s “Experience”, these may also be aligned with Whitehead’s “Process”: “The process is nothing else than the experiencing subject itself. In this explanation, it is presumed that an experiencing subject is an occasion of sensitive reaction to an actual world.”
Granger references’ Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy and says something that links these things together, “all existences, material and ideational, are best viewed as events rather than substances.“
And this leads me to the observation that
Quality is an event.
What is Quality?: Toward a Second Definition
In order that we may get at what Pirsig may have been trying to convey in the Metaphysics of Quality, it seems essential to get at the individual terms in the phrase. I’m going to set aside the term metaphysics for now except to accept a kind of common-knowledge definition of metaphysics as the part(s) of philosophy which deal(s) with the fundamental nature of reality and existence and, by extension, those parts of reality and existence which don’t (at least superficially) appear to have a source or cause in physical, objective sources.
Provisionally I am interpreting the phrase “Metaphysics of Quality” such that the word “of” is a function word indicating origin or derivation. So the phrase, “metaphysics of quality” means: an explanation of the fundamental nature of reality and existence where quality is the original source or cause. Another way to phrase it might be that reality and existence is derived from a primordial Quality.
And now we have the question…what is “Quality“?
Since the Metphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s notion, it seems only fair to begin with explanations that he’s provided. But we will get to some other explanations that I’ve found interesting during that time I’ve been examining the idea….and, of course, also to some of my own observations.
In On Quality, there is an excerpt from a letter dated September 11, 1994 and it includes this brief section:
“Quality can be equated with God, but I don’t like to do so, “God” to most people is a set of static intellectual and social patterns. Only true religious mystics can correctly equate God with Dynamic Quality. In the West, particularly around universities, these people are quite rare. The others, who go around saying, “God wants this,” or “God will answer your prayers,” are, according to the Metaphysics of Quality, engaging in a minor form of evil. Such statements are a lower form of evolution, intellectual patterns, attempting to contain a higher one….” (pg. 81)
This seems to be a good place to start because it establishes and gives shape to a few specific traits that Pirsig posited about Quality. So I want to parse the various phrases here in an attempt to determine what he may have intended.
First he says that “Quality can be equated with God“. I want to take notice that Pirsig did not say “Quality is God“, only that “Quality can be equated with God”. Philosophy can readily be an exercise in splitting and re-splitting of conceptual hairs, but this is one that does seem to need to be split. The difference between the phrase “Quality is God” and “Quality can be equated with God” is meaningful because the concept of equivalence (as represented by the words “equated with“) is not that of sameness (As represented by the word “is“).
By saying “Quality can be equated with God“, Pirsig seems to be suggesting a comparison of two separate concepts based upon a function. The specific function being described is, as established in the brief definition above, that of an original source or cause.
In other words, Pirsig’s Quality functions in his metaphysical system as a monism in a similar fashion to how God functions as a monism in some other metaphysical systems.
The balance of Pirsig’s passage is an attempt to steer examination of “Quality” away from theology. Undoubtedly, there are a number of very good reasons to do that. But it is also very difficult to establish an existential origin story without having to engage the argument for a primordial entity or agent of creation. A deity. When I read Pirsig, I have the sense that he tries to do so.
Of course trying to posit an existential origin story without a deity causes some people a great deal of difficulty. And that maybe one of the reasons that Pirsig phrased things the way that he did. The Metaphysics of Quality is an explanation of existence and reality where the concept of “Quality” functions as the concept of “God” in separate and distinct existential origin stories. Discussion of “Quality” is not, therefore, a theological discussion on the nature of a deity.
Quality vs quality vs qualities: Towards a Third Definition
Now that we’ve established, to a limited extent, what Robert Pirsig had in mind in his Metaphysics of Quality, I’d like to get back to some more practical and familiar conceptions of quality.
In the day to day usage of the term, we may be quite comfortable with referring to any given thing or experience as being of high or low quality or perhaps alternately good quality or poor quality. In other words, we are readily able to assign a value to a thing or experience based upon some collection of subjective (personally perceived) traits and objective (empirically measurable) characteristics.
If we are, for example, visiting an auto-parts store to purchase a bolt to replace one that has broken during a repair on our motorcycle, we might say that a particular store-clerk’s dismissive attitude or lack of knowledge regarding engine bolts was a low quality service; similarly we might feel that the purchased bolt was of excellent quality as its metallurgy and machining met the specifications for the bolt’s purpose. Our subjective and objective criteria either were or were not met.
Often these criteria are considered to be “qualities” of the item or experience. A store clerk’s attentiveness is one quality while their product knowledge is another quality. Similarly, the bolt’s metallurgy and machining are sometimes referred-to as qualities.
This use of the term quality in day-to-day use is actually problematic as these ought more accurately to be referred to as: properties, factors, components, elements, constituents, items (a variety of other terms might easily be added) of the artifact’s or experience’s overall quality.
In this way, quality (and even qualities) are a set of subjective and objective measurements of an artifact’s or experience’s ability to fulfill its defined or expected purpose.
It would be correct, albeit slightly absurd, to argue that a banana makes a very poor quality engine bolt nor that an engine bolt is a low quality snack. Clearly, banana’s are not intended to be engine bolts and engine bolts are not machined for human nutrition. This means that defined purpose is an important and meaningful consideration. Defined purpose is another way to say that quality is relational and that the quality of an artifact or experience is normally assessed in context of an expected or defined purpose.
Fuzzy Standards: Synthesis of the Definitions
This is where the title of this essay considers what I’m calling “fuzzy standards”. While I am not completely aware whether this term that I’ve used is completely novel, I will say that it derives from my Incomplete Exploration(s) of Fuzzy Logic and concepts therein.
Within Fuzzy Logic, there are so-called Fuzzy Sets which comprise a predetermined set of conditions to inform an input-output decision making model. In this situation, the Fuzzy Set attempts to allow for a nearly infinite range of possibilities between 0 and 1 (the ultimately reductive binary either/or). In a binary-digital world, engine oil might be called either “hot” (denoted by 1) or “cold” (denoted by 0). Clearly this is not correct as temperature is almost infinitely variable and could be assigned a nearly infinite range of temperatures based on the extent to which more (or less) heat is present.
I mention this as an indication that “Fuzzy Standards” begins to consider the matter of the phrase ” the extent to which” in setting of standards within a Dynamic Quality world.
I’ve borrowed Pirsig’s term Dynamic Quality and the fact that a perpetually changing world fundamentally establishes that any standard (eg. a specific oil temperature, a particular metallurgical composition of a bolt, a depth of knowledge of a clerk) must necessarily be fuzzy (situationally-defined) and relational.
The Metaphysics of Quality and The Philosophy of Organism
In Episode 15, I commented that I felt this passage maintains Pirsig’s inquiries in alignment with humanist enlightenment ideas and also some ideas that Alfred North Whitehead expressed in Process and Reality.
In that book, Whitehead provided what he called the “Philosophy of Organism“. In my opinion, Pirsig’s philosophy is well-aligned with many of Whitehead’s ideas.
Whitehead opened Process and Reality with the declaration that “This course of lectures is designed as an essay in Speculative Philosophy.” and then goes on to define and defend speculative philosophy. Well Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality is also an exercise in Speculative Philosophy. Here is Whitehead’s definition “Speculative Philosophy:
Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to form a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.
Since Whitehead was a thorough-going philosopher, he proceeded to provide definitions for most of the terms used in the definition. I’m not going to chase that all down at present. I’m including it here in our consideration of Quality to help set the setting for Pirsig’s definitions (since there have been many) of Quality as a concept within a Speculative Philosophy system as presented by Whitehead.
In Whitehead’s preface to Process and Reality, he explained his approach in contrast to others when he wrote that “The positive doctrine of these lectures is concerned with the becoming, the being, and the relatedness of ‘actual entities’. An ‘actual entity’ is a res vera in the Cartesian sense of that term; it is a Cartesian ‘substance’, and not an Aristotelian ‘primary substance’. But Descartes retained in his metaphysical doctrine the Aristotelian dominance of the category of ‘quality’ over that of ‘relatedness’. In these lectures ‘relatedness’ is dominant over ‘quality’.”
Whitehead goes on to give a brief summary of relatedness but again I’m going to defer examination of this to focus on the similarity in approach between Pirsig and Whitehead, specifically that the positioning of quality within a metaphysical system is a meaningful part of that system.
Returning to the earlier passage by Robert Pirsig that Quality can be equated to God, I am grateful that Wendy Pirsig and the editors of the book didn’t shy away from including this passage as it does positively establish the kind of metaphysical positioning of Quality that Pirsig reached.
All of that is to say that Pirsig’s capital-Q “Quality” term may be readily separated from common day-to-day usage of the term since the underlying position of the term is different than a subject-object-relational metaphysics as found in Rene Descarte’s outlook.
I say separate – but that may not be the right term as Pirsig did further divide Quality into “Dynamic Quality” and “Static Quality”.
A Provisional Definition of Quality
While it is certainly tempting to continue running down various rabbit-holes… I think we’ve actually reached a good point to finalize and summarize a provisional definition of Quality.
Quality is an event which a subjective experiencer (an actual entity) has a relationship-to within an actual (objectively real) world; in static form, quality is the aggregation (or fuzzy set) of subjective and objective measurements of an artifact’s or experience’s ability to fulfill its defined or expected purpose(s) and is consistent with a delimited Aesthetic Experience within an ongoing Undifferentiated Aesthetic Continuum. In dynamic form, Quality is that which mediates relations between an undifferentiated aesthetic continuum and actual entities. Quality is an idea and term which allows every element of our experience to be interpreted. It functions as a monism and may be best described via the metaphor of a field.
(Editorial Note: the above definition is a second revision circa December 2022).
I hope this jumble of metaphysical jargon is as clear to you as it is me. I will admit that I find it extremely satisfying that this definition has not yet resulted in an Ouroboros–like circle where I end up staying that quality is quality and we all know what it is.
Strangely, I also find that this definition has both practical daily applications which may be just as useful as any metaphysical implications that there may be.
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During the course of reading and considering Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, I had occasion to reflect that the act of sitting under a shady tree, both literally and metaphorically, is a fundamental human experience that very nearly every human being has access to. This notion seems to offer an interesting place to explore what exactly all of that means. It seems like intriguing new Zensylvania territory. So here we have an exploration of the meanings and benefits of shadetrees.
Fundamental Human Experience
For convenience, let’s start this examination with the Phaedrus dialogue. The dialogue begins with the characters Phaedrus and Socrates heading out of the city for a conversation. Eventually they take up a place to sit by a river under a shady tree. In their case, it was a plane (or sycamore) tree. On face value, this is an interesting and relatively benign detail. Plato presents a couple of intellectuals heading off to a pleasant spot to chat.
I’ve already suggested that sitting und a shady tree is a fundamental human experience and this could be enough. The dialogue is merely showing what any two friends have had opportunity to do throughout human existence: take shelter together and commune. I wouldn’t want to suggest that this simplicity should be mistaken for banality. Instead, and even before any other considerations, I want to suggest that the simplicity is relatively profound. Taking shelter in the natural world to commune and learn from one another is perhaps one of the most fundamental indicators of productive civilization that we have. What could have been more essential to human progress, at any time, than taking a bit of time to figure a few things out together?
For Socrates and Phaedrus, the tree was a platanus orientalis. That is the scientific term. As most of us are aware, standardized scientific terminology (in our contemporary western culture) is most often rendered-in or derived from Latin, Greek and, to a certain extent, Arabic (see my Incomplete Exploration of Fuzzy Logic). The vocabulary preferences displayed in scientific jargon are an interesting tangent which still managers to be firmly connected to this exploration. The reasons that scientists continue to use these languages for their jargon are dominated by the Academy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Sure, there are many other variables and events involved, but western academia (and therefore, science) is rooted with those influential individuals.
So let’s get back to the platanus orientalis. Those two words mean Eastern Plane tree. Orientalis indicates eastern. There is also a platanus occidentalis, or Western Plane tree species as well. Occidentalis indicates western. The eastern variety may also be referred to as the Old World Sycamore while the western variety may be called the American Sycamore. Here again, there is an interesting tangent. In writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig was clearly interested in the synthesis of many different ideas, not least being the values of Eastern and Western culture. This was an underlying attitude that he held in his approach to the University of Chicago which is detailed in the book.
Pirsig’s interest in these issues are displayed via a number of events of his life and perhaps not insignificantly influenced by a book he referenced reading after having been exposed to Eastern cultures during a period of military service. In ZAMM, Pirsig references having read The Meeting of East and West by F.S.C. Northop. That book was published shortly after the second world war and was deeply concerned with a need to reconcile eastern and western cultures . Northrop recognized that human civilization had entered a period of global interactions which made communication among differing cultures and values existentially necessary.
So the fact of a platanus orientalis and a platanus occidentalis – an eastern and a western shade tree – is not entirely banal.
The plane tree is closely connected with the Athenian Academy which had a grove of trees where the peripatetic (walking) scholars interacted with their students. There was also the Tree of Hippocrates, which was a plane tree. All of this is to say that academics and learning has, for at least 2500 years, been closely associated with the fundamental experience of taking shelter under a shady tree t commune.
Well…let’s continue to play with words a bit and take note that the plan tree is also known by the name ‘sycamore’. Sycamore (sicamour) is a word derived from the root words of sykos (fig) and moron (mulberry). So a sycamore is a fig-mulberry. The sycamore leaf resembles the mulberry leaf while the fruit resembles the fig. Indeed, sycamore is a Biblical word used for a wide-spreading shady tree with fig-like fruit; it should be no surprise that fig-trees are often cited in the Abrahamic religions. Those trees were a valued presence for their fruit and shade – in essence for their community-nurturing properties.
In Buddhism, Guatama Buddha is described as sitting under a ‘Bodhi tree‘ when enlightenment was attained. Bodhi tree means tree of awakening. One of the archetypal images of Buddhism is a person seated in a lotus-position under the canopy of a tree. This is the tree of awakening. The original bodhi tree was a fig tree with the latin name Ficus Religiosa. It seems entirely likely that the fig tree was a central figure of the Buddha story/myth for the same reasons that it appear in the Abahamic stories/myths: community-nurturing properties.
Buddhist literature formally recognizes twenty-nine individuals as having achieved the status of enlightenment or wisdom – thereby attaining the term ‘Buddha’ and each one has a particular species of tree associated with the achievement. Clearly, there is something that is both fundamental and universal in sitting under a shade tree that seemed worth documenting within that tradition.
The image of a single person meditating under a shady tree is not precisely the same as that of two (or more) folks gathered under a tree in community. But it isn’t terribly far from it. In fact, the image of a person meditating under a tree feels far more like an invitation to community than (for example) the image of a hermit in a cave, a sage at the top of a mountain or a variety of other archetypal depictions that one cares to call to mind.
In the final chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is an extended revelatory scene where Chris, the narrator’s son, is finally freed-up from his sheltered and limiting position behind his father on the back of the motorcycle. At that moment, Chris is finally able to see the trees and the road itself: “The road continues to twist and wind through the trees..some of these branches over the road are hanging so low they’re going to konk him on the head if he’s not careful….the sunlight makes strange and beautiful designs through the tree branches on the road.”
This is the culmination and enlightenment moment for the motorcycle-ride-as-meditation. Pirsig names the tress along this ride on the California coast as being coastal manzanita. The scene clearly sets this species as a kind of Bodhi tree for Chris and/or the narrator.
There had been may scenes in the book prior to this offering trees as vital elements of Pirsig’s intellectual, spiritual and philosophical journey, but let’s focus on the manzanita. Manzanita is derived from the Spanish word for apple, manzana. Manzanita means little apple. It can hardly be a coincidence that the apple is, like the fruit tree, a tree commonly associated with its fruit. And that the apple fruit is frequently referenced as the specific fruit depicted in the Abrahamic (Biblical) story of the Tree of Knowledge which Adam and Eve consumed.
A very early scene in ZAMM has the narrator consuming big Washington apples after his discharge from the military. At the time, he seems to have been reading F.S.C. Northrop’s book about Eastern and Western cultures. In North America, there is a phrase, “American as apple pie” which attempts to establish a thing as genuinely connected to American values. So, Pirsig eating Washington apples while reading and learning is a thorough-going metaphor and the use of the manzanita trees at the close of the book is a particular contemporary (relatively speaking) American version of a temple or shrine tree in the tradition of the figs and sycamores.
Ash and Elm
In 2020, Neil Price published a book titled Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings; it’s an interesting book for anyone who may be interested to learn what contemporary historians have to say about Viking culture. Clearly, my purpose in mentioning the book is that tree-based title.
In Norse mythology, an immense Ash tree is the primordial element of existence. It is Yggdrasil, the tree of life. It is interesting to consider the ordering of those words and recall that old Germanic languages were not all that fussy about word order in their sentences. At least, not as fussy a modern English is. It may well be just as accurate and correct to say instead ‘life which is a tree’. And that offers some different connotations to the mythology.
This notion of Yggdrasil, the tree of life is common enough in our culture that most people are probably familiar with it. But fewer, I expect, consider the specific species of tree that the Viking mind envisioned when invoking this element of the culture. Clearly, the mythology of these northern people pointed to the ash.
These cultures also involved the concept of a warden tree (a kind of protecting spirit) and these trees were commonly ash, elm and linden species. Interestingly, the word “warden” is cognate with vordr..a kind of wraith or spirit.
I can’t help but observe that Robert Pirsig was of Swedish and German descent and would certainly have been familiar with Norse mythology. Certainly an early passage in ZAMM has the narrator recite a short passage from a poem by Wolfgang von Goethe – the Erlkonig. I take this to be a link to Pirsig’s observation that the book is a link to his personal and cultural mythologies.
The species of trees which serve as the focal-point are clearly not the fig trees observed in the more southern cultural seats of the other cultures considered. That seems reasonable and perhaps an indication of a clearly different relationship to trees and forests. One might consider that the northern people considered themselves, as the title of Price’s book indicates, to be children of the forest, a sylvan culture.
Ash, elm and linden trees are certainly in keeping with shade trees and further demonstrates the fundamental connection humanity has with tree and with the act of taking shelter and community in their shade.
Regardless of the many other culture that may be similarly – and the perhaps diminishing probability that I would be able to weave some connection to the established themes of Zensylvania – the underlying point here is that the relationship between us as individual and collective folk and the act of being among trees is fundamental. It is older than history.
The fact that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people live in vast municipal infrastructures where the ability to connect with that relationship is a rare, limited or non-existent situation is a travesty. Certainly there are other pressing travesties. But this one seems to be uniquely indicative of the crisis humanity is experiencing. The simple and profound act of being under and among the trees is vanished for vast portions of the human population. It is a sobering and saddening thought.
Crimson King Norway Maple
At my present home, the front porch of the house sits under the canopy of what is most likely a thirty- to fifty-year-old Crimson King Norway Maple tree (Acer Platanoides). The tree is presently taller than our 2.5-story, century-old home. It is one of the most comfortable and relaxing places of our home to be. And indeed, the tree lends a welcoming coziness to the entire block that we live on. People want to park their cars under our tree, whether they are neighbours or visitors to the area.
Our home is not significantly different than the ones that line the several blocks of our street. They’re all, more or less, the same kind of thing. But the tree establishes a particular community welcome that simply isn’t present elsewhere on the block or street. While we didn’t plant the tree (it may well be as old as I am) – but its presence certainly played a role in the affection we had for the property when moving to the community.
Being Canadian, I can’t help but observe that maple trees have been a symbol of shared community throughout our history. There are ten varieties of maple native to Canada and six of those are native to Ontario: Moosewood Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Freeman Maple, the Sugar Maple and the Manitoba Maple. Maple leaves have appeared on Canadian flags dating to the Red Ensign naval flag of the 1890s. The current flag with two vivid red stripes and a matching maple leaf was designed in the 1960s. Ontario’s flag has borne maple leaves since that same period when many people in Ontario wished to retain some reminiscence of the Red Ensign.
Most, if not all, of the homes I can recall living in had a maple tree somewhere on the property. They have always been a part of the community.
The Shade Tree Mechanic
Shadetree mechanic is a term used to describe a particular kind of person. It’s someone who sits under the shade of a tree to maintain and repair their own equipment. Usually on their own property and at their leisure. It’s a term that an interesting connotative weight of pride, self-reliance, pragmatism and even some sense of mockery or derision.
The shade-tree mechanic is a generalist who overcomes obstacles to the best of their ability and resources. These are virtues.
Some of that is by jerry-rigging the equipment or circumstances they need to accomplish their goals or needs. Consider the archetypal concept/image of an engine being lifted from a car using a chain slung over a tree branch. On the one hand, there is evidence of resource-scarcity, otherwise the expensive specialized equipment and environment would be present. On the other hand, the shade-tree mechanic does not allow this scarcity to be a ‘gumption trap’ that prevents work from being done.
Shadetree mechanics can be hobbyists, as in the hotrod culture where increasing a vehicle’s performance is a matter of entertainment, or it can be a matter of necessity for the person who needs their equipment to be in running order and does not have access to a specialist to do it for them. (we don’t need to exclusively focus on vehicles, despite Zensylvania drawing on automobiles as a primary reference point). Anybody who maintains and repairs their own equipment and technology is a shadetree mechanic.
They are a person who keeps the infrastructure of their own lives operating not (necessarily) as a profession, but as a matter of principle, need or preference.
The fact that a shady tree is a involved also makes this situation a matter that is related to other community-building and self-shaping matters examined in this essay. The shade-tree mechanic is often accompanied by friends, family and neighbours. Peers. Folk. Kin.
It is a time and place where practical wisdom and social connection may be shared. Where values may be exchanged.
The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. Country road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Chapter One
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 Three” and is part of an as-yet indeterminate series of explorations of this book. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to listen to the earlier parts, you may wish to go back 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 ZAMM 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.
What I’m going to do in this third part of the series is proceed from the narrator’s observation of the duck hunting sloughs that he and his riding companions are passing on their Motorcycles. I’ll continue for the next several pages of the first chapter. In my editions of the book, that’s roughly pages four through six of the white-covered Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition or pages twelve through fourteen of the green-covered edition. You may find photos of both editions on www.zensylvania.com or simply follow-along in whatever version you happen to have.
I’m going to overlap my current reading with a segment that was discussed in the previous part of this series since I think this provides some valuable insight into the author’s style, particularly in the pacing used when shifting topics or perspectives from one paragraph to the next.
These paragraphs involved in this current reading contain several observations and passages that are very near and dear to the aesthetically-oriented hearts and imaginations of motorcycle riders. In part two of this footnotes series, I commented that observations of temperature and weather play a significant role in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I also said that this was a particular consideration for motorcycle riders compared to car drivers and that 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. I would be surprised if any motorcycle-riding fans of the book weren’t immediately reminded of the first paragraph:
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.”
I have driven just about every form of road-going vehicle that a person can drive: car, convertible, SUV, hatchback, sedan, pickup truck, van, cargo van, even 18-wheeler tractor trailer and yes, motorcycle. This observation, that sitting in the compartment of a car is comparable to watching TV is relatively true when compared to riding a motorcycle.
A car’s cabin is, primarily, a place of comfort, convenience and protection. The earliest road-going vehicles began as open carriages not very different from a horse-and-buggy carriage. As time past, a protective bubble grew around passengers -one that increasingly protected, comforted and separated them from the road. Currently that protective bubble has grown a vast and complicated array of technologies and systems that have done nothing other than to fulfill Pirsig’s claim. Not only do we have windscreens and roofs to keep weather out, heating and air-conditioning to control the temperature and cabin-air filters to keep the air we breathe free of the character of the air outside the vehicle….we also have seat belts, gps systems, cameras and sensors to help navigation; satellite and cellular telephone/communication systems to communicate around the planet, but most new vehicles now include small television screens which include significant entertainment…and self-driving vehicles. Now we don’t even need to watch the TV outside the car’s windscreen, we have one or more than one inside the car.
If a motorcycle is a metaphor for the self, the weather a metaphor for the events and times of or lives, the road a metaphor for the way we choose to live and riding the act of living….riding in a protective bubble where we are isolated from the weather and mostly ignorant of the road may well be one of the most apt metaphors of all. Just as our vehicles are becoming faster and more isolated….so, it sometimes seems, are our lives moving along faster and more isolated from living. Life seems to have become “just more TV.
Riding a motorcycle is never “just more TV”.
For a contemporary reader of Zen and the Art – that is to say, someone reading the book in this 2020’s, the narrator’s reference to the world moving by boringly in a frame has a special connotation which I’m not entirely certain was fully mature at the time of the book’s publication in 1974. Almost certainly, it was nowhere near as common as it is today.
While I think that I’ve made clear that I’m not an expert in anything at all, I think I have enough generalist ability to describe what framing is about. So here it goes. In the social sciences this idea of framing is a set of theories and perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality. It basically states that a frame can be put around a topic, issue or event which sets the context and guides the perceptions of a viewer. In other words, it is a tool of rhetoric. Well given Pirsig’s interest in rhetoric, the inclusion of that descriptive word in this particular observation is wonderfully meaningful. The fact that the narrator describes things going by boringly in a frame is, perhaps something we all need to consider more deeply. It is just possible that anything that goes by within a frame, however novel it may be at first, will ultimately be un-engaging and boring. It is also just possible that frames are, by nature of their design, contrary to everything that we actually need and aspire to.
This reference to frames may readily be reviewed, or meditated upon if you prefer that language, in context of Zen. Framing is a kind of dualism. Framing is necessarily oriented to a subject-object relationship among things. That orientation is, perhaps, fundamentally flawed and problematic. For my own part, I’ve done just that meditating or reflecting upon what I see as a problem that arises from rhetorical framing of things and found that framing separates me from my direct experience of things. In my experience, framing tends to be an arbitrary and external imposition of values – usually, but not always, someone else’s values based on their priorities. What I’m saying is that framing usually gets in the way of direct living and I usually object to it for that reason.
The narrator features the issue of framing when he goes on in the subsequent paragraph. It is a paragraph that is so direct and complete that it is tempting to simply conclude that there isn’t anything more to be said. But I think it is necessary to point out how continuous, how much momentum or forward progress there is in the writing. Each paragraph picks up from it’s predecessor to take the reader further down the conceptual roads they travel.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
The paragraph is almost as concrete as the concrete it mentions. The events of our lives seem always to be whizzing by. In part two, I argued that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle begins in media res as a way to emphasize that we are always right there living in the middle of or lives. Usually, we’re 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. 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. It seems to me the narrator is saying something similar when he says ,
That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
Next in our selected passage we come upon some of the explanation of the motorcycle-journey in the first three sentences of the next paragraph. We’re told that…
Chris and I are travelling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing.
These sentences tell us where the riders are going and that there are some other companions along for a part of the ride. These sentences let us know that the ride is intended to be relaxed and care-free…there’s no definite schedule or itinerary. The riders are “just vacationing.”
This phrase, “just vacationing” is ironic. Later in the book, the narrator recounts a person’s struggle to develop a definition for the word “quality”. You can find the passage I’m referring to in Chapter 19. The person struggled with the difference in meaning between “Quality is just what you like” and “Quality is what you like” concluding that inclusion of the word “just” is a pejorative. While we can leave exploration of the concerns to Chapter 19, I wanted to draw attention to the use of “just” in this early sentence. “We are just vacationing.”, in context of that later concern over the word “just”….is precisely the same.
For those of us who must recognize a differentiation of our time between when we are “vacationing” and when we are not, it seems to me that the vacationing time is more highly prized and valued. So using a pejorative “We are just vacationing.” Is completely wrong. We’re not making plans, we’re just vacationing….viewed from a certain angle, diminishes the importance of the time and of the approach. But it is important that he wrote it that way…if had a written “We are vacationing. Because we value our vacation time so much, we are avoiding detailed schedules and itineraries because that is the only way we can properly relax and live each moment…” it would have more directly explained the value. But the way it was phrased is, indeed often the way we view our vacations and relaxation…it’s unimportant time…time not demanded of others and therefore, shamefacedly describe our most valued commodities as something less than they are.
The paragraph then continues….
Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.
When the narrator emphasizes that the riders’ focus is on good, rather than time…we immediately recognize the vacation mindset where one is focussed on enjoyment and satisfaction of the miles that they’re travelling rather than in racking up large numbers of miles.
Of course, these comments should also be taken as a statement of intent relative to reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – a book whose subtitle is An Inquiry into Values. The emphasis of the book should be one exploring the good rather than the plot that unfolds. It can be taken as a kind of statement that you shouldn’t be entering ZAMM for the story. Honestly, there isn’t all that much story to keep track of.
The depiction of the types of roads is a symbolic expression of the different paths in life that a person may choose to take. What is a billboard – it is the intrusion of some other entity’s priorities into the landscape of one’s life.
What is a porch – well the stoics take their name from a painted porch but that is probably a fortunate, though not meaningless coincidence. Porches are areas where people rest and for most people, probably come closest to a state of meditation. It is a place where people just sit.
The passage that follows establishes a relationship to the kind of road, both metaphorical and literal…..
It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious, these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
This passage contains a sentence that contributes to the sense of irony or amusement that some modern readers approach the book…”The hereness and nowness of things is something they all know al about.”. Expressed as it is, the sentence does seem like something from the groovy seventies. Clearly the sentence could have been written differently….such as “The immediacy of things is something they know all about.” Or “The immediacy of things is something they fully understand.” While such a rendering may strike a contemporary reader as more serious….it also doesn’t separate and identity the time and space elements. When you try, it’s not all that easy to put the sentiments a different way without losing something.
It also contains a very difficult sentence being “. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it.” It should be understood that the narrator can only include himself and his family as being part of the ones who moved to the cities…after all, they only discovered these alternatives and explore them as tourists. So his own children are among the “lost offspring.” This reference, as close as it is t the limited narrative of the book shouldn’t be overlooked as the narrator (and Pirsig) seems to be saying something about the character of Chris in the book but more broadly about anyone born into contemporary society. In a sense anyone growing up in contemporary urban settings – the ways of life that are available – are lost children.
What is a “lost child”…well so far Pirsig has only stated that lost children have all but forgotten the hereness and nowness of things.
It is a big statement and as such, should be recognized as a kind of sign-post which requires the reader to look around and see what is coming.
I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
The narrator demonstrates what being a lost child means. It means not catching on…not seeing things…being trained not to see things….being trained to believe the metropolitan (in our own age, the digital) is the real thing and reality is a boring hinterland.
And Pirsig provides one of his most often repeated observations and one that many readers have great affection for, “The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth.” And so it goes away.
These observations seem to be more and more true with the advent and proliferation of digital technologies on the one hand and biological technologies on the other which seem to be “real action”….while the reality of living in the actual moment, of sitting on the porch, are boring hinterland.
In the next passage, Pirsig emphasizes that he and his family visit the better part of life..when they can…and for most of us this is reality. We visit alternate paths on a part time basis. As non-experts…because that’s what we can do…or all that we are willing to do. On the Zensylvania podcast, I’ve said that I’m a non-expert….I’ve never really found it in myself to be a specialist..putting all my time into motorcycles, philosophy, zen, meditation, tai chi or what have you. I go to these things as often as I can, though…
But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us off these roads, weekends, evenings, vacations. We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs and found there are things you learn as you go.
We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that’s good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that’s bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker. If you are going northeast from a large town you never go straight out of town for any long distance. You go out and then start jogging north, then east, then north again, and soon you are on a secondary route that only the local people use.
Connect nowhere to nowhere is a valuable repetition of his earlier “a kind of nowhere famous for nothing at all..” which we examined in part two of this series; it’s a recommendation of conceptual hinterlands as the valuable areas.
Secondary routes that only the local people use can be considered to be the esoteric practices of particular communities of thought and doctrine…maybe it’s a particular kind of rite or methodology….it’s a particular way of living and navigating certain kinds of life.
The next passage is an explanation that if a person follows some ideological, philosophical roads, they do in fact lead to empty fields with nothing and nobody in them….but contains an important idea for the book….
The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. Country road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. Moreover, you discover that the highway maps are often inaccurate about country roads. And from time to time you find your “country road’ takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it take you into some farmer’s backyard.
The narrator’s comment that county-road sign makers seldom tell you twice should be taken as a caution about reading the book. Pirsig is the country-road signmaker. He isn’t often going to tell you twice when to look for a crossing in the road. You, the reader, need to be paying attention unless you’re already familiar with the territory. Pirsig is telling you that if you don’t “get it”, that’s you’re problem and not his.
Whether it’s Zen, rhetoric, his metaphysics of quality or what have you…it’s up to you to navigate.
Highway maps are often inaccurate…harkens to the author’s note where Pirsig talks about the book providing little in the way of motorcycle maintenance and not being authoritative about Zen either….it’s a bit of fun. An extension of the koan….the book is inaccurate and in some places may lead to a pasture…..where there is famously little to be found other than cow manure.
So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning and deduction from what clues we find. I keep a compass in one pocket for overcast days when the sun doesn’t show directions and have the map mounted in a special carrier on top of the gas tank where I can keep track of miles from the last junction and know what to look for. With those tools and a lack of pressure to “get somewhere” it works out fine and we just about have America all to ourselves.
Dead reckoning is an interesting thing…it’s “the process of calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods.
It’s the ability to know where you are and where things are based on that and that alone….some people do not have any dead reckoning at all.
A compass…is a powerful metaphor but doesn’t actually get used in the book…
Having America to ourselves is a statement of freedom…….it’s a sentiment whose value can be readily felt during the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and 2021…there are times and places when the sentiment was very much absent.
As a person…do you feel that you have autonomy to go into the world and be who you want to be…to know where you are and have the freedom to get there from here?
The final passage is a a contrast from dead reckoning your way into life and what most people do…they are stuck on the highway and unable to proceeed…
In the final passage that we’re going to look at, the narrator talks about long weekends…a time when lots of people get on the highway with a focus on time rather than good…they want to get away (and back) but ultimately they can’t. They’re stuck not enjoying the here and now because they aren’t willing to get off the main ideological roads….and spend time in the nowhere. They want to be somewhere.
On Labour Day and Memorial Day weekends we travel for miles on these roads without seeing another vehicle, then cross a federal highway and look at cars strung bumper to bumper to the horizon. Scowling faces inside. Kids crying in the back seat. I keep wishing there were some way to tell them something but they scowl and appear to be in a hurry, and there isn’t….
There isn’t because the people in the cars are “lost children” who are stuck on a highspeed highway that isn’t going anywhere….and that is an incredibly powerful metaphor and explanation.
It’s not a particularly hopeful way to end this Zensylvania exploration but it may be an important one…because the answers to some questions might be deeply, fundamentally important to what you do next.
Is much of your life…just more tv?
Are there significant portions of your life where the frame is gone?
Are you focused on good or are you focused on the time?
Do you tell truth to go away when it knocks on the door?
Is the course of contemporary society producing lost children?
Do you think you are a lost child?
Do you have the ability and the courage to dead reckon a way forward?
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
References & Notes
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.
Wellin 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.
Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part 1
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2021/12/07Notes (and one apology) about this article:I began this inquiry as a response to a book that I found at the local public library in my community. I read the book over the course of a few days, expecting to find little other than a standard, light-reading, member of the trendy “wellness” self-help genre. My expectations were mostly fulfilled. But the book managed to extend slightly beyond those expectations, occasionally, to include some ideas that seemed to be worth deeper consideration. The original essay was titled “Footnotes to Niksen: An inquiry into Doing Nothing” but has been expanded to include ideas from other sources. There is an audio version (somehwat varied from what you may see here) of the essay available on the Zensylvania Podcast. As the topic seems to be rather timeless, I expect to update this article in near future. As for the apology – admittedly, at this moment, this essay is a bit of a mess as I’ve been updating the draft from three different original sources.
While I may not be a particularly devout individual, I have a kind of practical ongoing interest in literature which attempts to systemically explore and define how certain core ideas and practices may be useful for living one’s life. I can trace this interest back to a chance reading of Moses Hadas‘ Essential Works of Stoicism (1961). That book offered-up several very practical ideas that I have always found to be particularly useful to navigating life. It is no small coincidence, therefore, that I might begin an essay about focusing on comfort and contentment as life goals by referencing stoicism in general and that book in particular. A focus on contentment was certainly one of the things advocated by the stoics. Thank you Moses Hadas. Thank you Epictetus. Thank you Marcus Aurelius…and all the countless others who ensured that stoic ideas and principles have been communicated forward through the millennia.
The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking is exactly one of the bits of literature that I’m interested in. It takes a core idea and explores how that idea can be applied to enrich people’s lives. I learned about Wiking’s book and exposition on hygge earlier this year when I read Olga Mecking’s Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing (2021). So I’m featuring both of these books in a common exploration.
I am not entirely certain whether these were lifestyle fads that had previously escaped my attention or if I’m commenting while the fad is still growing. Not that it matters all that much. A good and valuable idea for living life ought not to have a best-by date.
Based almost entirely on the books, “hygge” seems to be the term used in Denmark for particular forms and presentations of low-keyed and cozy comfort which brings happiness. Niksen, on the other hand, is billed as a Dutch form of idleness, which also contributes to happiness.
The Dutch-themed book seems to focus on occupational or dynamic details of life while the Danish-themed book focuses on static or environmental aspects. In this way, the two books and their attendant concepts seem to situationally complement each other. Viewed as an outsider, neither concept seems genuinely complete without the other.
A few days after reading Mecking’s book, I learned via a search of Goodreads that no fewer than eight books dedicated to the matter of niksen have been published in recent years. At this time, I have no clear idea of how many popular or academic articles on the topic may exist. Neither can I determine whether Mecking’s book achieves anything more (or less) than the others that have been published. For now, my exposure to niksen is limited to Mecking’s version and a very small sampling of online articles; similarly, I almost entirely reliant on Wiking for my understanding of hygge.
As with my other Footnotes essays…(such as my Footnotes to Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee)… the following notes and comments are not intended to be a formal book review of these books. There won’t be a detailed summary or regurgitation of the books’ contents. I won’t comment on the font, binding, writing style nor any other aesthetic features of the artifacts and documents. I won’t even suggest that my comments will reflect on all that the authors may have to offer. Instead, I am merely taking note of certain ideas and themes as they relate to my own particular pre-occupations and interests. This isn’t a criticism environment.
On this occasion, I am curious about what it means to…do nothing; and, to focus on coziness and comfort. You’ll note that I haven’t adopted the term “happiness” despite the fact that both of the books feature happiness as a kind of goal or end-point. In other words, it appears to be Wiking and Mecking’s views that one utilizes niksen and hygge in order to be happy. For me, that premise is problematic.
It is currently my perspective that use of the term “happiness” as an over-arching life-objective would be a misunderstanding, or at the very least a misapplication, of one of the most essential concepts that the word “happiness” invokes. From my perspective, happiness is a kind of engaged, activated or excited state. During states of happiness, neurons are actively firing based on agreeable, pleasurable inputs. Particular neurochemicals have been activated. As such and activated state, happiness seems like something one ought to pursue on a discontinuous basis.
Certainly, I will have more to say about that a little later on. But I think it is appropriate to note that this difference in focus is my reaction to reading these two books and is not intended as a reflection of any sentiments that either Mecking or Wiking may have.
Mecking spends considerable effort in praise of the Netherlands and makes the argument that Dutch people are “happy”, to some un-specified extent, due to the presence of niksen in the Dutch culture.
Meanwhile, Wiking explains in his book that he is a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen; clearly much of the book is based-upon insights gleaned through that organization’s work – set as it seems to be within a Danish setting.
How do these claims stack up to independent evaluations? The 2021 iteration of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report places Denmark in second and the Netherlands in fifth place among nations – snugly amid several other Nordic countries.
Mecking doesn’t provide much verifiable evidence that it is the niksen which produces all this Dutch happiness. And for all of Wikings depictions of hygge comforts, I finished his book without much clarity whether the hygge is a cause of happiness or whether it’s presence is a kind of correlated manifestation of the happiness that is documented in Denmark.
According to the UN’s report, the top twenty “happiest” countries are Finland; Demark; Switzerland; Iceland; The Netherlands; Norway; Sweden; Luxembourg; New Zealand; Austria; Australia; Israel; Germany; Canada; Ireland; Costa Rica; United Kingdom; The Czech Republic; United States; and Belgium.
Given how many of these countries are so-called Nordic countries..and being a Canadian who has spent more than a few winters in the chillier regions of my home province of Ontario, it is tempting to suggest the cause of all this happiness may well be the snow and cold. Although that clearly can’t be the case with Russia currently sitting in 68th position on that United Nations report. But the focus on “happiness”, whether I agree with it or not, brings forward more than one area of examination.
To what extent is the focus on happiness and these attendant explorations of niksen (disengaged nothingness, idle relaxation) and hygge (cozy comforts) a “first world problem”? Or more accurately, a wealthy person, community or nation’s problem? That seems to be a relevant question. The person who has leisure to spend a considerable portion of their day figuring out basic survival may not have quite as much time to worry about the “wellness” benefits that may accrue via acting on distinctions between “niksen”, “hanging out with friends”, or any other form of idleness one may wish to consider. Nor with whether or not a room’s lighting is just the right colour temperature to support comfort and coziness.
These things could be viewed as a kind of extreme luxury of spending resources not required to meet basic needs and, perhaps indeed focused on achieving the engaged, activated or excited state of mind known as happiness that I described earlier. This also may serve as some perspective on Russia’s ranking of 68, despite all the snow that Russia sees every year. But it might also quite simply be a demonstration of different cultural approaches or interpretations of “happiness” versus “comfort” and “contentment”…and approaches to these things.
It’s not that I’m against happiness. Clearly we tend to prefer to be happy over many of the alternative states of mind that one may experience. Happiness, however, seems to me to be a dynamic (active and engaged) state of mind that is not continuously maintainable. It is my opinion that human biology isn’t set up for ongoing and continuous happiness.
As something that cannot be maintained, it is an unreliable goal.
Idleness, comfort and contentment, however seem to be reliable goals as they are more static and un-engaged, perhaps even dis-engaged states of mind. Comfort and contentment are not the opposite of happiness…they are a baseline from which we rise to happiness and other positively excited states or fall to unhappiness and other negatively excited states.
It seems to me that the “nothingness” which zen meditation stives toward is strongly aligned with this notion of “comfort and contentment” which I am advocating. Comfort and contentment is not a state of excited enjoyment from which there is an inevitable decline and it is not a state of agitated anguish or depression from which there is a requisite struggle to arise from. It is an emotional and biological baseline position from which the highs of enjoyment and the lows of suffering can be observed and judged.
This “comfort and contentment” that I advocate for as a goal seems sensible to me as it seems to me that it is a recipe for frustration to be constantly on the hunt for a state of stimulated happiness and probably disastrous to live life constantly on the defensive from hurts of various kinds.
The terminology of these books and the subject matter they cover seem to be adjacent, if not fairly thoroughly overlapping. As indicated earlier, the Dutch-themed book seems to focus more on occupational or dynamic aspects while the Danish-themed book focuses on more static or environmental aspects.
The word “hygge” is cited in many places as a Danish and Norwegian term for a mood of coziness and comfort. Interestingly, “hygge” seems to be cognate with or derive its origin from a variety of Old Norse terms that referred to comfort…and ultimately with “thinking and consideration”. All of this etymology and background provides a kingdof linguistic and cultural setting for the book. To project forward into the language of Zensylvania, let us also add the terms meditation and meditative.
In the meantime, Mecking has presented the word “niksen” as the Dutch term for a particular form of idleness. Mecking’s book and, by extension – the wider trend of niksen-oriented writing is based on a principle or argument that there are distinct kinds of idleness. And further that this particular version of doing nothing is beneficial to people. Perhaps even uniquely beneficial to people. A problem of approaching an idea like this is establishing a clear and precise description of this form of idleness and how it may be differentiated from other forms of idleness. Perhaps forms that may not be beneficial to people. In other words, what makes niksen qualitatively unique or different from: laziness, sleeping, watching TV, meditating or even in engaging in non-productive recreation?
This may seem to be a superficial and unimportant distinction on a superficial and unimportant topic. But I don’t think it is. Particularly as this distinction relates to that second component of Mecking’s argument – that “niksen” may be beneficial to those who engage in it. Niksen may well be a particular kind of idleness…but is that particular kind of idleness actually beneficial. And is it any more or less beneficial than other forms of idleness. This line of inquiry may provide valuable insights into contemporary life. Even if the insights turn out not to be staggeringly fresh, consideration of the role of rest in the maintenance of a healthy life is not unimportant.
Whether the Netherlands’ version of idle relaxation is any more or less of an art form is also a matter for consideration. But first things first.
Mecking acknowledges that she has critics who accuse her of attempting to capitalize on a trendy subject. And it may well be that that the current proliferation of niksen-themed lifestyle literature is all a matter of sustaining a trend out of nothing. Pun intended.
I’m not entirely certain that whether Mecking or Wiking have proved that their niksen or hygge elements are the golden keys to the city of happiness. It seems to me that these things are probably complementary factors with a correlational relationship rather than a causal one. I think Mecking and Wiking are really leaning heavily on one or two happiness indicators that have some cultural cache in a few specific nations.
Indeed, Mecking cites several similar trends that have present similar or adjacent social phenomena: Wellness, Mindfulness, Zen, Hygge/Koselig/Gemutlichkeit, Konmari, Dostadning (Swedish Death Cleaning), Ikigai, Nunchi. These are all examples of trendy social and lifestyle practices that have been documented and promoted across various media.
While I intended to avoid literary criticism, the title of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing carries a faint echo of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as it attempts to establish how a central daily practice or ritual, and its underlying principles, may be perceived as an “art”. I can’t refrain, therefore from observing a particular use of language.
Mecking’s use of “art” and Pirsig’s definition of “art” would be different. I expect Mecking’s definition to hove-to contemporary usage of art as defining a primarily aesthetic and appreciative practice rather than art as Pirsig intended the term. Pirsig used art as a term for the craftsperson’s creative procedures and practices. It is valuable to explore these types of distinctions as advocating a distinction is what the book attempts to do…a distinction in forms of idleness.
On page 28, Mecking explains that “niks” is Dutch for “nothing” and that niksen is a verb form of the same word. Niksen is therefore “to do nothing”. Mecking provides explnations of how niksen may be interpreted and provides connections to other concepts. Included in Meckig’s list of related concepts and conceptualists is the english world “idle” and the British movement of “idlers”. This is aa term I’ve already used in this essay and which has particular cultural and literary roots that I enjoy. As a sidebar, a few glances at the eighteenth-century The Idler essays may convince you that Samuel Johnson and essayists throughout the ages would have been thrilled with the blogging format.
What is Niksen?
In the first chapter of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, I can’t find any place where Mecking has provided a specific and concise definition of niksen. I was only able to locate that at the end of the book where Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.”
There are some problems here that don’t actually help Mecking’s argument that her presentation of niksen is more than a merely a capitalization on a trendy lifestyle term. Maybe that’s why the definition was held back so long in the book. But I’m going to set that judgement aside in consideration of the potential value of the niksen activity itself.
From my own day-to-day life, niksen seems to be the term which would apply to… (particularly solitary)… time spent sitting on the porch. For me, that is a time when I do not actively engage in anything either internally…. (within myself)… nor externally (outside of myself). It is like meditation, but without the struggle of attempting to avoid actively engaging in my thoughts and without attempting to direct my attention as an observer of my own resting mental activity.
Is There Ever A Time When We Do Nothing?
Mecking spends some time in capitulation to the fact that there is never a time in one’s life when NOTHING occurs. There are always physiological processes occurring. However, there are times when an individual is not engaged in doing things. To present an alternate definition of niksen that establishes the activity in context of conscious activity, I suggest that niksen is “idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness.”
The closest we seem to come to doing nothing is when sleeping. Clearly our bodies are extremely busy with necessary functions and maintenance even while we’re sleeping – but that’s not really in the spirt of the discussion.
Perhaps the definition of niksen ought to be ““idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness while remaining awake.”
It seems to me that the definition brings us inevitably to meditation… excepting that my definition might have to be re-arranged to say ”idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingnesswhile remaining awake and observing of the activity of one’s own mind.”
In this way, it is clear that niksen is adjacent to meditation and some principles of zen.
Very early in my adult life, I spent some time working in a retail store which specialized in the sales and installation of lighting fixtures and materials of all kinds. We sold and serviced everything from table lamps and shades to commercial lighting and installed fixtures. It was a very instructive and in many regards, formative, period in my career. In fact, purchasing lightbulbs or (more rarely) lighting fixtures is still something I draw particular satisfaction from. Wiking’s book offers some reminders of the importance of lighting to establish comfort and contentment.
In recent decades, and particularly in response to the proliferation of various screen-based technologies like smart-phones and tablets, the impact of light on our physical and mental health has been the subject of more and more study. Indeed, it is now rather commonplace for people to be aware of, if not entirely concerned with such things as colour temperatures that they expose themselves to – and when they expose themselves to them.
Wiking includes a significant focus on lighting and candles. There is a suggestion that lower colour temperatures for lighting, let’s say around 1500K-2000k, temperature/colour is important to cultivate a cozy feeling. While colour temperature is somewhat cumbersome to navigate, a short version is that reds, oranges and even gold/yellow are relatively low temperatures while greens and blues are relatively high. Bright sunny daylight is in the 5000 to 6500K…and fluorescent bulbs you’ll find in office settings are around 4000K.
When I have needed to work under the glare of flourescent tubes, I have often found it to be a painful experience. Throughout my adult life, I have always preferred instead to use table-lamps. At one time, my office was referred to as a cave as I used only a single table-lamp. I have also used amber coloured glasses to bring the glare of office environments down. Currently, I used a moderately high temperature mini-led flood which reflects off the walls and ceiling and supplements outdoor natural light as needed. I don’t need more light.
In my Hallowe’en story (visit the Zensylvania podcast episode released October 2021), I contrasted the low-pressure sodium lights that dominated in the 1970s to 1990s…they were around 2200K while modern LEDs are 3000k to 4000k. Our city streets are less cozy than they used to be.
Eric’s plan to do…include more candles and revisit coal oil lamp; much of my first book of poetry was written by the light of an old-fashioned oil lamp. House in Thunder Bay we consciously employed lower light levels. Current 100-year old house, I have begun to convert the old fireplace into a candle area and re-organized furniture to focus on this and it has made the room cozier. The colour temperature of a candle is in the 1600-2000k range that I mentioned earlier.
Wiking suggests creating pools of light rather than focus on overall lighting. In other words, focus on indirect sources of light rather than a central overhead fixture. Switching bulbs to colour temperatures that are more suitable doesn’t need to be an expensive endeavour…and positioning a lamp so that it creates a pool of light also seems fairly achievable.
In their respective books, both Mecking and Wiking provide what they call a “manifesto” of their area of focus…for Mecking, that is niksen; for Wiking, hygge. A manifesto is a kind of formal declaration of intentions, attrributions and goals. In the corporate world, the term “mission statement” would be roughly equivalent. I’m not certain how seriously one ought to take a manifesto for a life practice. Particularly for a life practice aimed at comfort and contentment. There is something a bit too rigid and, well, formal about assigning formality to something like that.
I’m not certain how seriously they take it either….
Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.” According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happiness c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.
Similarly Wiking provides a manifesto via a list of requisite ingredients…with those being: atmosphere, presence, pleasure, equality; gratitude, harmony, comfort, truce, togetherness, shelter
So neither seem to approach the idea of a manifesto as an overly serious affair- still, they included the concept which means there is at least an element of earnestness about what they’ve each offered. It reminds me of the literature I’ve read of zen and it is a matter that I think requires some consideration. To what extent should doctrine of any sort – even a campy manifesto for kicking back – be considered to be anything more than a finger pointing at the moon? Are the static ideas in the manifesto of importance or is the dynamic experience of comfort and contentment the true measure?
Dutch Prescription According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happines c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.
Is Calvinism to Blame?
The most interesting feature of the third Chapter is Mecking’s interest to pin the responsibility for the modern pre-occupation with being busy on Calvinism.
Mecking also enumerates the emergence of something called “New Thought” in the 19th century. She suggests this new thought allowed a move away from Calvinism and that one result of this break was the development of the wellness industry. Mecking further references Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption and eventually gets around to the irony of contemporary digital technology which promises individual liberty but actually undermines it.
This is interesting as a tracing of the philosophical tensions that arise as a result of considering “doing nothing for no reason at all.”
In The Meeting of East and West by FSC Northrop, there is a contrast of values between what Northrop describes as the colour-rich culture of Mexico (set within a kind of medieval Catholicism) and the colour-thin culture of protestant cultures…particularly Anglophones. Describes protestant churches as largely grey/white….no colour, little statuary…etc. There seems to be an interesting link here to minimalism trends…no reason that minimalism must be white or grey except that this conceptually aligns with an aesthetic of omission.
It may well be critical to examine the ideas that underpin our choices. If Mecking and Northorp are correct that that certain theological and philosophical ideals have directed individual and collective choices….it seems to be a valuable exercise to consider whether “happiness” is a reasonable goal or whether “comfort and contentment” may be better…to consider whether in fact my own assertion that one may be comfortable and content without being happy but one cannot be happy without first having access to comfort and contentment…is a valid observation.
These observations may well inform our approach to things like:
How we behave from day to day
How we interact with others and what we expect from them
What we seek in our day
The food we choose to eat
Our approach to health
Our approach to consumerism
Our approach to life
Chapter four is largely an argument in favour of disengaging and allowing the brain to continue to work on a problem while you’re attention is disengaged. Mecking makes an argument that idle relaxation works with a person’s brain.
There is also an appeal to intuition which is a growing and somewhat troubling trend as it can lead people to the conclusion that “doing nothing” (intellectually) has a high probability of an intuitive process producing a valid and reliable (ie. correct) insight or solution. This is problematic for those who may in fact be intellectually lazy and therefore fail to ensure that their intuitive processes have reliable information in the first place. Garbage in, Garbage out. This appears to intuition also indicates nothing about alternate biological drivers (determinants) that may produce intuitive outcomes that have less relation to a given problem than some other matter that the subconscious sees value-in.
As with Shannon Lee’s book, Mecking leans on Czikmentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It is a popular concept. There isn’t that much science in Mecking’s book and mentioning flow is an easy way to connect with other trends.
Mecking acknowledges that some concepts from other cultures won’t work because the necessary support is not there for the transplant. What may work for some people in the Netherlands may not work for a different group of people in your town.
Wellness books are targeted to individual action not a broad social structure.
Mecking’s conclusion is focused on busy-ness…overall the book is an argument that busy-ness is a problem to be solved. The origin of the busy-ness problem is (at least partially) pinned on Calvinism. Mecking also suggests that ambition and flawlessness as ideals are growing in the Netherlands. Mecking argues that niksen has arisen as a tool to manage the complexity and stress of a busy life. Managing the complexity of contemporary life is one of many significant pre-occupations (or motivators) of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Mecking’s version of niksen is an appeal for periods of reduced busy-ness…more idle time that is focussed on leisure. Mecking also argues that worth/value is not connected to the number of hours that a person expends on an activity nor what is produced. Interestingly, Mecking has not recommended that stress and complexity be eliminated. Only managed.
It would have been poignant if Mecking had concluded, “If anything I’ve described here makes sense, then do nothing.” Instead, Mecking asks for people to join her social media group. Life in the 2020’s has its ironies.
In Surfing with Sartre (2017), Aaron James suggested that individuals would be better off, and that the the world would be better off – if more people were surfers who spent large chunks of time sitting on or near the water doing nothing much. Not being productive. While there are extremely reasonable objections to James’ opinion, the underlying notion is that disengaged nothingness is a valuable feature of human existence and possibly an essential one in the twenty-first century.
For Mecking, James and others, doing nothing is a necessary human process.
And yet, there are features of human existence which conflict with disengaged nothingness. Survival. Earning a living. Social structures, institutions and circumstances with their own requirements and agendas.
Disengaged nothingness (as exemplified by niksen) is different from engaged nothingness (as exemplified by meditation). One wonders if disengaged nothingness is actually a goal of engaged nothingness.
Sitting on a shady porch on a spring or summer day. Staring into a crackling fire on a winter’s day. Lying on the beach.
Niksen is a kind of rest. It is disengagement from urgent and non-urgent demands of life and living. It is freedom-from. I suspect we all need more freedom-from.
Early in the essay, I indicated that I was unwilling to align with “happiness” as an end goal. In part this is because happiness as a goal seems unreliable. A foundation principle of the US “the pursuit of happiness” is ultimately unreliable because the bar always moves and it is fundamentally unmaintainable. A pursuit of contentment would probably result in more actual happiness…more peace of mind. A pursuit of comfort is not all that bad because it isn’t an all or nothing proposition. It is reasoned. Comfort and contentment are calm states where happiness is an excited or activated state.
In Zen, the goal or practice of “just sitting” known as “zazen” seems to be a closely aligned doctrine. Kodo Sawaki said “Zen is good for nothing”. So zazen is a process to achieve niksen.
If you’re interested to learn more about hygge, niksen or the sources that I used while researching this topic, you may wish to visit the sources page on https://zensylvania.com/contact/sources/ and search for this article.
Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a series of essay examinations (also available as an audio podcast) of Robert Pirsig’s famous 1974 book.
References & Notes
I’m no longer completely certain when or how I first became aware of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceBy 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 toZAMM. 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 Artbecause 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’sGuidebook 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 isZen 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.
Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part 2
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A footnote is abrief reference, explanation, or comment which is usually placed below the text on a printed page or a subordinate part of an occurrence, work, or field of interest.
References & Notes
Every now and then in Zensylvania, we get a bit meta and referential about things. You’ll notice that many of the essays and inquiries are titled as “Footnotes to”….something. Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Footnotes to Niksen. Footnotes to Being Water. Etcetera. While all of this footnoting may seem a bit overdone and repetitive, it isn’t without much consideration and, I hope, good reason.
In philosophical, religious and broader academic studies, it is fairly common for works to be titled or subtitled as “inquiries”, “studies” or “meditations”. While these are all valuable terms within their academic traditions, in Zensylvania, we have some reluctance to imply that our non-expert and generalist musings are a part of any kind of expert studies. Neither are essays in Zensylvania necessarily intended to be criticisms, reviews or polemics. If you’re looking for expert opinions, they aren’t to be found here. What you’ll find here are footnotes.
So, what exactly is a “footnote” and why are there footnotes (dare I stay, footprints?) all over Zensylvania?
Merriam-Webster defines a footnote as… “a note of reference, explanation, or comment…usually placed below the text on a printed page“. A secondary definition says that a footnote is something “that is a relatively subordinate or minor part of an event, work, or fieldof interest.“
In Zensylvania, inquiries and contemplations about living a life are not considered to be the life itself. Whether we’re exploring zen, tai chi, motorcycle, literature or any other matter of life, these musings are really only footnotes and minor parts of the real thing. Life is the real thing.
Designating the collection of observations, musings and insights as footnotes was inspired by two disparate and, at least for me, inextricably linked areas of investigation. More particularly, I am citing specific comments by two very different thinkers from the early twentieth century. Alfred North Whitehead and (Homeless) Kodo Sawaki.
Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. While Whitehead’s name may not be overly familiar today, in 1929 Whitehead published one of the twentieth century’s most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy…Process and Reality.
In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote that…”The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Wow! What a line. For a philosopher, that was a collection of sharp words indeed. And, it was not Whitehead’s only insightful comment in the book.
The second inspiration for placing so much emphasis on footnoting comes from Japanese thinker, Kodo Sawaki.
(Homeless) Kodo Sawaki Roshi was one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded contemporary(ish) teachers. Sawaki has been widely attributed with the comment that…”All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.” Like Whitehead…that wasn’t Sawaki’s only profoundly insightful comment.
I have no information about whether Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives. What strikes me is….the similarity between the two comments. It can’t be ignored.
Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, the two thinkers appear to me as if they were contemporaries. This perception is probably almost wholly incorrect. Whitehead worked as a philosopher and mathematician in England and Sawaki was a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan. But they both used that metaphor of a footnote to convey something about their work.
Their comments were directed to utterly different genres of thought and philosophical traditions. Still, it is entertaining to think that Sawaki and Whitehead might have appreciated each other’s outlook – if only they’d been aware of each other’s work. Indeed, based upon the modest exposure I’ve had to their respective writings, I expect they would have found agreement on several other matters as well.
The sameness of their comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist…and perhaps more broadly, Eastern…. philosophy and the European…and again, perhaps more broadly, Western… philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east. The emphasis on theory and words in the west.
“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what Zensylvania articles are all about. They are explanations and explorations. They are references. They are comments. They are subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover. They are documentary footprints to living a life.
For all of that, I hope that they are have some interest and value for visitors to Zensylvania.
By continuing to access, link to, or use this website and/or podcast, you accept the Zensylvania.com Terms of Service in full. If you disagree with the terms of service in whole or in part, you must not use the website, podcast or other material.