Saturday, November 3, 2007

Robert M. Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Now that Ulysses is out of the way, it’s time to start on another mammoth book. Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance is a pretty well known 70’s counterculture novel, and by the author’s own admission, doesn’t have all that much to do with either Zen or motorcycles. What it does have to do with is, on the one hand, a personal quest for peace and serenity, and on the other, a metaphysical journey into the human understanding of art and technology. The subtitle is significant – decided on after much discussion between author and publisher, as “An Inquiry into Values”. What these values are, is fundamental to understanding Pirsig’s work; basic, metaphysical and firmly absent of conventional moralising. And it is the ‘inquiry’ which defines the peculiarly incisive character of the book.

ZMM takes the narrative form of a father-son motorcycle road trip, combined with a ‘Chautauqua’, which is the author’s term for philosophical and intellectual discussion. In this way – and this is what makes the book so thick – he weaves together a literary tale with an incisive philosophical one. The theme of motorcycle maintenance is a link between the two – as is the Zen attitude to life – and serves as a metaphor for a lot of his philosophical and metaphysical ideas. In addition to all this, the road trip turns – and without me giving anything away – into a major psychological drama.

Briefly, the philosophical element of ZMM is a reappraisal of western ‘subject-object’ metaphysics, which recognises a fundamental division between the self and the world around it, towards the author’s own ‘metaphysics of quality’. Quality is described as the interface between the subject and the object, the former concepts of which are seen as misguiding and redundant. A lot of this is taken from Zen and other Eastern philosophic traditions, with their rejection of dualities and the emphasis on the immersion into the effervescence of being. The motorcycle maintenance comes in here as a kind of Taoistic attention to the act of work – the melding of the machine and the mechanic, to crudely and rather falsely describe it.

This philosophic system only emerges gradually throughout the book, and on the way the author brings in different strands of his intellectual experiences, which are wide and very varied. There is a stress on being analytical – the action of which is brilliantly described as that of a surgeon wielding a knife, the analogy being the cutting and transferring of ideas rather than tissue – as he develops his system of relating to reality.

The counterculture element to the book is brought up quite frequently, as a reason for creating a new theory of metaphysics. Pirsig is dissatisfied with the industrialised, materialist society which he seeks to escape from on his journey. At the same time, this is past the high water mark of the 60's (I think that's a line from Hunter S. Thompson, actually) and he is critical of the idealism of the hippy movement. Here, too, the fundamentally questioning spirit of Zen emerges, alongside the deep humanism of the author. Although politics are only discussed tangentially, he has a deep concern for the people and the land he is travelling through. The appreciation of natural beauty, too, has a sense of ecology or environmentalism about it. Most basically, however, it is the everyday practicalities of his motorcycle trip through which Pirsig grounds the philosophical questing of the novel.

As ZMM continues, and the intellectual discussion becomes more and more sophisticated, the personal elements of the narrative take on a more disturbing tone. In many ways, the book is no longer the book you started reading. The text shifts between real events of the narrative, abstract discussions and an increasingly pressurising reminiscing of the author’s past. The novel takes on a almost Gothic quality towards the end, full of dark drama and fractured personalities, while the metaphysical-intellectual thought reaches its stratospheric conclusions. Not only are the philosophical elements truly intriguing and credible, but ZMM is a masterly dramatic literary novel.

Here's the start of the very first chapter...

"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. 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 it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

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 towards 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.

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 whack Chris’s knee and point to it.

“What!” he hollers.


He says something I don’t hear. “What?” I holler back.

He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, “I’ve seen lots of those, Dad!”

“Oh!” I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.

You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed up 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 hip boots while we were getting into 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 see 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 out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.

You see that 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.

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."


blend77 said...

i think one of the most amazing things about this book for me, was that i had just read Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson, published years later, and then i read this, cuz i saw it on the street for $1 and i needed a book to read, and the parallels between Quantum Psychology and this book were STAGGERING!.

i would go so far as to sugest that people read the two books as companions pieces... granted, in my case, it was timing, but i dont think i can separate the two at this point...

great, great post..

gabbagabbahey said...


I should really read The Illuminatus Trilogy, I guess. It does sound awesome. Apparently they take something from Flann O'Brien - the mad scientist de Selby - which is pretty cool.

Unfortunately I don't think I've ever seen it, for a dollar or otherwise. There aren't many books sold on the street in Dublin, either.

blend77 said...

if you dont read Illuminatus! then youre missing out on one of the best books of the last century. and possibly this century...

really an amazing read. the only book ive read thrice.