Remembering Robert Pirsig’s ’Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

I’ve read Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values several times — once during each decade since it was published in in the 1970s.

Each time I read the book at a different level. And each time I am reminded of the defining feature of a great book: You can reread it for decades without exhausting it.

My original copy of ZMM (as Pirsig abbreviated the title) is defaced and nearly destroyed.

The pages in that battered paperback are splattered with underlines, circles, exclamation points, question marks, and numbered lists.

I read the text passionately, almost aggressively, arguing with the author paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Great books invite that kind of engagement. Each time we return to such works we see them fresh and whole, discovering layers of meaning that previously eluded us.

Reviewing our annotations and remembering who we were when we first turned those pages, we index ourselves.

Pirsig’s craft

People ask what ZMM is about.

Don’t get me started.

A topical index would include everything from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism — with references to welding, abstract painting, rhetoric, and non-Euclidian geometry tossed in for good measure.

It would be easier to say what ZMM is not about.

On one level, ZMM is the story of Pirsig’s cross-country motorcycle trip with his son.

It’s also the story Pirsig’s attempt to reform Western civilization.

And the story of Pirsig’s obsession with abstract questions.

And his gradual descent into insanity. And his recovery.

And, it works. Against all odds, the book hangs together — a miracle of writing craft.

To achieve this, Pirsig invented a genre that blends narration and exposition, storytelling and explanation. Chapters are divided into sections — scenes of action and dialogue alternating with essays that are dense with ideas.

This simple device keeps you oriented while Pirsig steers his bike from freeways to back roads and the conversation shifts from Plato to industrial solvents.

In terms of craft, ZMM is as close to a perfect book as anything I’ve ever read.

Pirsig’s enemy

My first encounter with ZMM took place in 1975. Barely out of adolescence, I immediately tuned in to Pirsig’s sense of rebellion and desire to do battle with the “System.”

I wasn’t alone. ZMM immediately became associated with the last waves of the counter culture movements that flowered during the 1960s.

What some readers missed, however, was the radical depth of Pirsig’s assault.

He wasn’t out to simply burn draft cards, picket factories, march on Washington, or protest the military-industrial complex. He knew that would never be enough.

No, he wanted to dismantle the whole desiccated and dying thing in the only way he thought possible — by a full-frontal assault on its metaphysical roots.

Pirsig’s strategy

Pirsig’s ultimate foe was dualism — divorcing science from spirituality, technology from art, business from compassion, reason from emotion, and actions from consequences.

You can tear down a factory that pollutes rivers, Pirsig wrote. But if the dualistic system of thought that created the factory remains intact, then you’ve gained nothing.

For that reason, most of Pirsig’s battles took place not on the streets but in what he called “the high country of the mind.”

He became a militant philosopher, something that was not uncommon in those days. Pirsig believed that if we purged our thinking of delusions, then we could act ethically — in ways that no longer harmed people or the planet.

Ultimately Pirsig aimed his metaphysical firearms at a core distinction in Western thought — the distinction between subject (I, me) and object (you, it, them). It was attachment to this distinction, he believed, that led people to do evil things to each other.

Unfortunately, the subject-object distinction is hard to remove. Without it, you’d be hard pressed to walk through a parking lot let alone drive the freeway during rush hour.

Survival in such circumstances hinges on protecting ourselves as subjects as while navigating an environment filled with large and potentially lethal objects.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to speak a single sentence in the English language that’s not predicated on the distinction between subject and object.

Linguistic constraints didn’t stop Pirsig, though. He kept trying to articulate a way of seeing the world that merges reason with emotion, us with them, you with I — and saves us all from destruction.

Pirsig’s solution

Pirsig found his solution in the realm of values — specifically, in the concept of Quality (a word that he capitalized throughout the book).

Quality, he thought, could be experienced directly and defined precisely. Quality is both objective and subjective. In terms of world view, it is Romantic and Classic.

If you truly understood Quality, Pirsig wrote, you would live each moment of your life differently. You would handle the material details of your life with exquisite care. You would think, speak, and act impeccably, ever mindful of karma — your actions and their consequences.

You would even repair your motorcycle in a way that benefits all living beings.

Mindful of Quality, you would never intentionally do violence to another being. By loosening the tight grip of the subject-object distinction, you’d know in your gut that harming others is the same as harming yourself.

Pirsig’s failure

Interestingly, Pirsig’s metaphysics of Quality probably failed. He in effect acknowledges this in his sequel to ZMM — Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

Lila opens with a character who offers a detailed and withering critique of the ideas in ZMM. In response, Pirsig presents yet another metaphysics — a rewrite of ZMM. This time Pirsig’s fundamental distinction is not between subjective and objective Quality: It’s between static and dynamic Quality.

But I’m not convinced by this, either. Pirsig ultimately missed one of the core insights of Zen Buddhism — that reality is too messy to capture in any grand philosophical system.

In fact, Zen practice takes us to the Mind before thinking, the world before words. We can experience this world, but anything we say about it is inaccurate.

This is why the Buddha himself refused to teach metaphysics. He confined himself merely to the fact of suffering and the path beyond it. The older I get, the more wisdom I see in this.

Pirsig’s price

Pirsig’s insights came at a horrific price. He became so obsessed with task of defining Quality that he did little else.

Eventually he lost interest in relating to people, working, and handling the tasks of daily life. For a time he sacrificed everything to his philosophical quest — his job, his family, and his sanity.

ZMM includes a plot line based on Pirsig’s stay in a mental ward and ego-death through court-ordered electroshock therapy. This account is complex, heart-breaking, and exquisite.

I won’t even attempt to summarize it. All I will say is that every time I read ZMM, I emerge almost gasping for air and glad to be alive.

“It’s going to get better now”

Fortunately, Pirsig survived unspeakable horrors and returned to our consensual reality with a serenity that approaches Enlightenment.

Pirsig hints at this in ZMM’s closing paragraphs, recalling a day near the end of that motorcycle trip with his son Chris, passenger at his back:

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and it is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

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