Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, New York: Bantam Books, 1975, 406 pp., $2.25.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an ambitious, multi-faceted novel which attempts to depict in dramatic form the troubled soul of modern man. Structurally, it is an interesting, if at times unbalanced, interlacing of narrative and essay. The narrative centers on a cross-country motorcycle trip of a father and his son, accompanied, in the first half of the novel, by a young couple who serve as launching pads for the protagonist's speculative flights into sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The reader follows the riders through a colorful panorama of scenery from the marshes of the Central Plains to the traffic-jammed freeways of the West Coast. It is clear from the beginning that we are to be engaged primarily in soul searching, secondarily in sightseeing, primarily in hard thinking, secondarily in story reading.
The novel begins with a brief exposition on how to get the best out of a motorcycle trip and what such trips are all about. Soon enough we find ourselves on another journey, with Pirsig at the wheel, steering through familiar intellectual terrain, but by a scarcely travelled route. Pirsig's strategy is to move from the narrative to informal essay (called "Chautauquas"—"an old time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer"), then back to narrative again.
As the story develops, we discover an uneasiness in the father's relationship to his son, an uneasiness rooted in the father's need to come to terms with himself, to resurrect a dormant aspect of his personality, a figure known as Phaedrus, and reconcile Phaedrus with his other half. The narrator is clear-thinking, objective scientific, methodical, a technical writer of computer manuals and a first rate motorcycle mechanic. Phaedrus is a teacher of rhetoric, gone mad, denier of Aristotle and the dualistic intellectual tradition of the West. He is a solitary mystic type, given to fits of abstraction, and destined, like Nietzsche, to be misunderstood, feared, and ultimately declared insane.
With the introduction of Phaedrus a third structural element of the novel appears in the form of lengthy flashbacks which provide links between the narrative and the Chautauquas. By the end of the novel, Pirsig is no longer moving from narrative to essay (sometimes to the frustration of the reader) but has accomplished a synthesis of sorts, bringing all the elements together in the closing chapters as the central character begins to integrate himself.
Pirsig's concerns cover a wide variety of topics. He discusses the structure of motorcycles and the strategies of maintaining a machine, which allows him to speak more broadly and boldly about the structure of thought and the failure of technology—or, better put, our failure in the age of technology. He comments on the virtues of self-reliance and the traps that drain us of energy and prevent our solving problems, the result of which is a growing bitterness toward the machine, or "the system". It is as though we have forgotten the mechanic, the psychologist, the politician.
Throughout the book Pirsig has interesting, clever, and colorful things to say about art, science, education, and the development of Western philosophy. Sometimes his observations are sharp-edged and critical; at other times, almost fluid, written with the pen of a poet. Here is a sampling:
Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man…Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know. (p. 32)
John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I'm working on parts. I'm working on concepts. (p. 92)
It's not the technology that's scary. It's what it does to the relations between people, like callers and operators, that's scary. (p. 148)
You look back at the last three thousand years and with hindsight you think you see neat patterns and chains of cause and effect that have made things the way they are. But if you go back to original sources, the literature of any particular era, you find that these causes were never apparent at the time they were supposed to be operating. During periods of root expansion things have always looked as confused and topsy-turvy and purposeless as they do now. (p. 164)
What is essential to understand at this point is that until now there was no such thing as mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later. The modern mind sometimes tends to balk at the thought of these dichotomies being inventions and says, "Well, the divisions were there for the Greeks to discover," and you have to say, "Where were they? Point to them!" And the modern mind gets a little confused and wonders what this is all about anyway, and still believes the divisions were there. (p. 367)
Although the problems that Pirsig discusses involve all of us to some degree, his protagonist is clearly not an Everyman. He is considerably more complex and troubled, heavily intellectual. The reader will definitely be challenged, particularly by the philosophical twists and turns that haunt Phaedrus, who does his best to overturn what he takes to be our greatest intellectual obstacle—the dualistic world view bequeathed by Aristotle. Readers may disagree as to the extent to which Phaedrus succeeds, or even makes sense. No doubt Pirsig believes there is a little of Phaedrus in each of us, though the Phaedrus we meet in his book is clearly a caricature of a type of personality.
As often as not, Pirsig's comments and observations are disguised pieces of advice, which no doubt the reader has had his fill of. Nonetheless, in an era of quick solutions, where we are advised to "let go", "hang loose", and "groove", (whatever that means) it is refreshing to hear someone say, Think. Not that Pirsig denies the value of grooving:
It's here to stay because it's a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. (p. 53)
Perhaps this is as good a statement of Pirsig's theme as any. He is concerned to demonstrate that we are in a better position to groove if we know how to think, that what we are to let go of, when we let go, is not Reason, but a cheap imposter—sloppy thinking, false beliefs, and unfounded assumptions. These are the source of that resistance which Zen tells us to avoid when it says to follow the way of least resistance.
Everything considered, this book is not, I think, a great one. It is good, worth reading, and sprinkled throughout with gems. Its flaws are as patent as its occasional brilliance. For instance, Pirsig is much too long on essay in comparison to his narrative, which deserves fuller and earlier development. Further, a considerable portion of the novel follows Phaedrus through an interpretation of the history of Western philosophy, with comments and criticisms, arguments and conclusions which are philosophically questionable and artistically beside the point. Aristotle is simply not the ogre that Phaedrus makes him out to be, and Pirsig admits as much after subjecting the reader to what seems like endless and unnecessary detail designed to prove otherwise.
Pirsig is at his best when his observations arise naturally from his narrative, rather than when he breaks abruptly from the story to comment on life. For this reason his opening and closing chapters are more effective than the rest, from a literary point of view. His problem as an author interestingly parallels that of his protagonist, who is struggling to integrate apparently conflicting personalities. This is not surprising, given the intensely personal character of the novel. On reflection, and keeping in mind the ambitious task which Pirsig takes on, it is a wonder that he did so well.
James Cheshire received his B.A. in English from San Jose State College and his M.A. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".