Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – subtitled ‘An inquiry into values’ – was published in 1974. Robert M. Pirsig, the author, stated that the book took him four years to write. In the book, the author venture in a long motorcycle trip, with his son Chris and two friends (John and Sylvia), using the road trip as a prolonged exploration of the world of ideas about life and how best to live it. Along with the record of the trip itself come the narrator’s philosophical reflections.
The narrative is constructed with a light hand, even though, at times, the book can dive deeply into philosophy. By traditional standards, this is more a popular philosophy book in structure than a serious philosophical treatise. The philosophy is introduced slowly and idiosyncratically, it is mixed in with memoir and biography, and it’s presented with deeply personal arguments rather than objective appeals.
Narrated in the first person, the book uses a long philosophical discourse – a chatauquah – told through an individual narrative. The story treads through an ocean of events, along with a parallel presentation of trip details and an ongoing retrospective concerning dramatic events from the Narrator’s past, creating rich symbolism and including numerous analogies reinforcing the overall theme of coming to terms with the mysteries of why we exist and how best to live.
The central theme of the book is Pirsig’s search for something that falls outside of the traditional philosophical sphere. Pirsig tells us the story of his former self, a philosophical system builder – his alter ego – Phaedrus – named after the character in Plato’s dialogue of that name. Phaedrus was a lecturer at a university in Bozeman, Montana, deeply consumed with the concept of “Quality” who went into a deep cavern of philosophical thought in search of what it meant. Phaedrus went insane and was treated with electroshock therapy erasing his troubled and destructive personality. So, we can say that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about a man who has another man inside him. Not much about Zen, though.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is told at three levels, two-thirds memoir and one-third philosophy. The philosophy is told as internal musings intermixed with the biography of Phaedrus, the person who originally developed the ideas put forth in the book.
In an interview, Pirsig suggested that the main idea presented in the book goes back to his childhood as a disaffected prodigy. He said that ever since he could think he had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that explained everything. As a young man – he was at university at 15 studying chemistry – he thought the answer might lie in science, but he quickly lost that faith. ‘Science could not teach me how to understand girls sitting in my class, even.’
After the army, he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry. It was when he picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching, that Phaedrus and his desire for truth overtook Pirsig once more. Pirsig himself had some mental problems, and much of Phaedrus character and story is based on Pirsig’s mental disturbances.
– Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.
– The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.
– The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain.
– Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and no food.
– The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance appears in Guinness Book of Records as the bestselling book rejected by the largest number of publishers (121). It was sold over 5 million copies worldwide. George Steiner in the New Yorker likened it to Moby Dick. Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused).
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