Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The subtitle of Robert M Pirsig’s 1974 novel is ‘An Inquiry into Values‘. The book is an autobiography of a road trip taken with son Chris and friends John and Sylvia Sutherland across the north west of the USA on motorcycles in the late 60s. The road trip sets a frame for Pirsig’s philosophical soliloquies exploring the nature of ‘quality.’

It has since it’s publication become one of the most popular books of philosophy of all time.

The first person narrative retelling the road trip, at times in rather photographic detail, is punctuated throughout with what Pirsig calls ‘Chautauquas’, or philosophical soliloquys. His Chautauquas are largely narrated to himself but occasionally to others via a fireside chat. They explore what Pirsig observes to be a false dichotomy between ‘romantic’ and classic’ thinking. This dichotomy is introduced in the first chapters when friend Sylvia Sutherland observes as they head into the country that people living there seem freer and happier than the dull-faced drones heading into the city. This ‘romantic’ train of thought is advanced when husband John Sutherland refuses to learn to maintain his own motorcycle, choosing to defer to professional mechanics even if procedures are particularly simple. Pirsig, a rational and ‘classical’ thinker cannot understand this refusal, however comes to realise it his own bias that means he is inclined to enjoy repairing his old bike himself.

Pirsig’s Chautauquas wend their way forward as the roadtrip follows its own course. He explores a generalised fear of science caused by the classic-romantic divide and the consequential prevalence of modern dissatisfaction with living. He also meditates on his own inadequacies as a ‘classical’ and introverted rational thinker, more at home with his bike and philosophy than with people. Strained relationships with others is exemplified in his interaction with his son Chris, a pre-teen at the time of writing, and a sensitive young boy who shows sadness and growing anger with his father who frequently misunderstands him.

For Pirsig the romantic-classic divide is epitomised by the divide between science and religion and in between theory and intuition. He explores how they can be re-integrated into life and thought. This means a reversal of Greek dualism which has pervaded western thinking for centuries and entails a turn to ancient unitarian thought, the obliteration of the subject/ object divide as epitomised by Zen philosophy.

As the journey progresses, Pirsig and Chris are increasingly haunted by the presence of Phaedrus, a ghostly figure of Pirsig’s own past, revealed in flashes of memory and nightmares. Phaedrus is Pirsig’s own past self who was obliterated by electroshock therapy some years earlier following a mental breakdown. Phaedrus is now a stranger to the clear minded Pirsig and a haunting demon of his past. Chris fears the return of Phaedrus and Pirsig has to come to terms with this haunting memory and integrate him into his now more rational self.

Despite receiving 126 rejections from publishers before finally being accepted for publication, the book as been featured on best-seller lists for decades and at least 5 million copies worldwide. 

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