Over the course of several readings since 2014, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig has become one of my favorite books. Also the launching-point for several personally-meaningful literary and philosophical inquiries.
Given how frequently the book has been ignored, rejected or scorned by critics of various types and the significant amount of time that has passed since its publication – an admission of affection for the book could be considered a sidelining move. Does anybody take the book seriously? Certainly not in academia. I am aware of only a tiny handful of efforts to address Pirsig’s work. Most of those have addressed the philosophical nature of the book. Interestingly, academic scorn (and, by the way, scorn for academia) are central considerations of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), so maybe that’s an entirely appropriate state of affairs.
So what is ZAMM? There are plenty of resources that will provide a brief plot summary or philosophical synopsis of the book. These resources will advise that ZAMM is a semi-fictional narrative about a cross-country motorcycle vacation; that it is a critique of the human condition contemporary to the second half of the twentieth century. Some will suggest that it is a cultural exploration and a work of philosophy. Not many will suggest that it is a book of Zen nor that it is an attempt by a serious intellectual to develop an original metaphysical philosophy. Fewer still will mention that ZAMM is a critique of both Eastern and European Philosophy and Academia. Almost nobody talks about ZAMM as a critique of religion – particularly messianic religion. I haven’t seen anyone call ZAMM an epic monster story or supernatural thriller. It is rarely, if ever, declared a tightly-connected literary work.
Many readers have described their first reading of ZAMM as frustrating, challenging, annoying, offensive and boring among many other descriptions. These views are likely to increase as time passes. Others have found it uniquely compelling. Millions of copies of the book have been sold since it was first published in 1974. Brand new copies may still be purchased at most bookstores on any day you may visit. More than forty -five years later.
Despite anything nay-sayers may argue about ZAMM, it is extraordinarily subtle and integrated from cover to cover. I would argue that it is too subtle to fully catch the first time through. At least, that has been my experience. So let’s set considerations of Pirsig’s biography aside for the moment and start with what you may expect to find when you approach the book’s front cover.
The book’s full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Immediately, the juxtaposition of two (or, perhaps, more!?) very different and disconnected themes within the title is established. This approach carries on throughout the book. It is fundamental to the Pirsig’s philosophical and rhetorical approach. For readers who are not familiar- and comfortable-with juggling a variety of conceptual notions while following a story, this is warning that things may be more difficult than they seem.
In 1974, Zen was still a very new and mysterious topic in North America. While it may be more familiar to Western culture in this first quarter of the twenty-first century, mention Zen to most people and several key connotations and mysteries will come up in conversation. Nature and peaceful, relaxed environments, such as Zen gardens. Perhaps minimalist home design, meditation and strangely paradoxical puzzle-stories. Contemplation. Further conversation may yield the question “Is Zen a religion or a practice?” (Yes.) And the Zen enthusiast? Maybe someone wearing pyjamas or a robe sitting in meditation or telling paradox puzzle-stories with gnomish humour. Pristine, clean and sipping green tea.
And then there’s the motorcycle maintenance. Chemicals, wrenches, oil & grease, noisy machines, stinky exhaust. A motorcyclist? OK let’s re-phrase that….a “biker”? Wild. Unpredictable. Violent. The most likely interaction scenario probably involves a fear of physical or verbal assault. Unkempt and barbrian-like, a biker will probably be described as wearing some combination of denim and leather; the biker, so the stereotype will go, guzzles beer (at least).
Two completely different iconic representations.
Pirsig put two concepts together that do not feel that they go together. A contemporary pairing might be “Computer Code and Flower Arrangement” or “Theoretical physics and Cutting Stained Glass ”. Except that putting these two disparate things together is fundamental to Pirsig’s philosophy and the book’s design, To read ZAMM, you must be prepared to attempt to reconcile and synthesize concepts which you may have previously considered mutualy exclusive. The book is anti-dogmatic, in its own way. Already in the title, there is a lesson in its philosophy. The title warns that the reader should be thinking about and through a Zen-like perspective. But also about and through a modern scientific, technological perspective.
However, even in the simple matter of the book ‘s title Pirsig is not quite done. Right in the middle of the title, Pirsig used the term “art” to foreshadow investigation of concepts from European Philosophy. Particularly Plato and Aristotle. He uses the word “art” as we might currently use the word “craft” (or as Alexander Langlands would have it, “craeft”). Art in this title and book is not a throw-away word. It is a functioning and significant philosophical term. It establishes that the book will consider the matter of craftsmanship and aesthetics in a philosophical Context. Langland’s book is not the only other book to follow ZAMM in examining this topic. Zamm also came decades before And it came decades before RIchard Sennet’s The Craftsman, Matthew Crawford‘s Shop Class as Soul Craft, among many, many others.
We’re not done exploring the layers of the book’s title.
The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values”. This subtitle’s use of the term “Inquiry” establishes ZAMM as a philosophical exploration while “values” sets the book within a particular area of philosophy dealing with ethics and aesthetics. So what is ZAMM? According to the title, it is a philosophical inquiry into values.
This is an important observation. Pirsig and the publishers did not set the book as a work narrative fiction. Nor as some kind of proto-adventure travel book.
With all of this happening on title page, the first thing one finds inside the book is an Author’s Note:
Author’s Note: What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.
As with the title page, every sentence and phrase here requires attention. I contend that this author’s note is a kind of Zen koan (those paradoxical puzzles) for the reader.
That this passage is called the “author’s note” hints at one of the challenging features of the book: identity. Over the course of ZAMM, the main character of the book is never explicitly named or referenced as “Robert Pirsig”. In most discussions of ZAMM, there is reference to “the narrator” and to “Pheadrus”. Through the course of the book, Phaedrus is revealed as younger and different version of the narrator. Generally, it is presumed that Robert Pirsig (the author) is both the narrator and Phaedrus. However, with the book’s inherent emphasis of separate identities, it cannot be assumed that the characters in the book are genuine depictions of Robert Pirsig and his friends and family.
The author’s note states that the events of the book are based on actual occurrences. So we can be reasonably confident that Robert Pirsig took a motorcycle trip with his son, Chris and a few friends. Indeed there are readily-available photographs of the trips as well as external interviews of people upon-whom characters in the book are based. Interestingly and tellingly, the term “actual occurrences” is strikingly similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s term“actual entities” from a book that is widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dense books of twentieth-centurty European philosophy, Process and Reality. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” (what resulted in at least one known philosophical offshoot called Process Theology) is deeply embedded in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig mentions Whitehead in ZAMM, though the reference is brief and may not at first be noted as a significant clue to Pirsig’s philosophy.
The author’s note states that the events have been altered for rhetorical purposes, but are basically true. Pirsig spends considerable time defending rhetoric in ZAMM. In reading ZAMM, it isn’t unreasonable to consider it a work of rhetorical argument. That this term is included in the author’s note is another hint of things to expect in the book.
Pirsig then ends by commenting that the book is not to be confused with an explanation of Zen or Motorcycles. Pirsig is playing a bit of a game here. ZAMM does not spend much time in explaining or analyze these things. Instead ZAMM demonstrates them in action. If meditation is Buddhism in practice, Pirsig presents motorcycling as a Zen in practice.
Pirsig positioned ZAMM such that it should not be considered as fiction nor as non-fiction. As occurs frequently in ZAMM, Pirsig demonstrates a rejectiong of dualism in preference to synthesis. He placed the book as a book of philosophy that depicts, rather than explains its philosophy.
At the beginning of this article, I argued that ZAMM is a book “of philosophy” and “of Zen”. I used that phrasing to indicate that the book is a product of these traditions. It is an outcome. It is a rhetorical depiction. It is an effect of those causes.
In many ways, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a better book than many of its critics give it credit for. If you haven’t read it – and if anything in this brief introduction tweaks your interest, maybe you should give it a try.