Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a philosophical memoir based on the life of its author, Robert M. Pirsig. In it, the protagonist and his son set out on a cross-country road trip, from Illinois through the great plains, up into the pacific northwest, and down through California. This is the primary, or surface, plot, but this primary journey is supported by a second plot, that of a man named Phaedrus who, through the voice of our narrator, recounts a philosophical journey that leads to psychological break causing him to be institutionalized. As the story unfolds, these two journeys come together, culminating in a synthesizing of the two men and a reconciliation between father and son.
Although the book was published in the 1970s, its ideas remain relevant today, particularly the protagonist’s ruminations on technology and the investigations into the self. Many readers have taken umbrage with two things about this book. First, that the protagonist seems to go off into the weeds about motorcycle maintenance/technology, to the point of exhaustion. It can be difficult to get through these parts of the text, but what helps is to remember that this is metaphor for the philosophical position Pirsig is trying to convey. When the narrator describes care for his motorcycle, what he’s really talking about is his main thesis, “Quality,” and how any person can pursue Quality in anything in their life, especially the things that matters to them. For Pirsig, this is his motorcycle, but I could just as easily substitute writing or photography into these sections and make it more relevant to myself.
The second issue many readers take with the book is that Pirsig seems to be arguing that the right way to live—his idea of authenticity—is to be completely self-involved and self-centered. I do see where this interpretation comes from, and I think it’s an unfortunate misstep on the part of the writer (something he tried to correct in the forward to his anniversary edition.) At the end of the book, we’ve seen Phaedrus elevated to “right livelihood,” but everything we see about Phaedrus, through the narrator’s memories, is mostly unpleasant. His intellectual curiosity is admirable, sure, and the fact that he wanted to serve his students fully and authentically, rather than subjecting them to rote pedagogy simply because it was the accepted form. Yet, in the end, this Phaedrus just comes across as arrogant, cruel, and rather cold. I don’t think this is what Pirsig intended. Indeed, if we look to what the narrator’s son says about him near the end of their journey, we see that Phaedrus was the one of these two personalities who was more interesting, pleasant, and involved with his family. (His son, Chris, remarks that his father used to be fun, used to make them laugh, etc.) This, unfortunately, doesn’t come across because there’s very little—indeed none—of that part of Phaedrus’s former life presented to the reader. We only know it was true because of one line from the son to his father, right near the end of the tale.
Personally, since I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy in the last half-decade or so, I found much to appreciate in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That said, I can understand the criticisms, and I do think those unfamiliar with the philosophical perspective he’s championing, here, will simply not understand what he’s trying to get at, and that’s not the readers’ fault.
The heart of the message is to be true to oneself, to think for oneself, and to respect both the universal oneness that makes us all the same while searching for and adhering to Quality as we understand it. It’s an interesting message of independence and collectivism.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Book 1 of 12 for my #TBR2022RBR Challenge.