Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (An Enquiry into Values) (1974)

Published: Vintage, 2004.

I have been intending to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for over twenty years, but have never got round to it until this February. Though famously influential, there are still surprisingly few books at all like it, with its combination of fictionalised travelogue and philosophical speculation. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, which aims more at teaching the basics of philosophical thought rather than taking a polemical approach as Pirsig does here.

The narrator tells the story of a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, initially with friends but eventually just with his son Chris. This kind of trip obviously provides a lot of time for solitary thought, and the narrator does just that: musing about how philosophy relates to the world around us. To the narrator, the journey is also about finding and at the same time escaping the person he names Phaedrus (after a character in one of Plato's Socratic dialogues). Phaedrus turns out to be his own self, the university lecturer who suffered a breakdown and had his mind almost wiped by "Annihilation ECS", also (and to me at least, better) known as electroconvulsive therapy.

What fascinated Phaedrus, and continues to interest the narrator, is the difference - indeed, conflict - between two ways of looking at the world. The "Classic" mode is intellectual, analytical, reductionist and concerned with underlying processes; while the "Romantic" mode is emotional, artistic, holistic and concerned with surface beauty. Pirsig seems to overstate broadness of the division between the two: I would say that most people probably use a mixture, depending on context (a sports fan is likely to be more analytical about a football game, for example, but might respond to music on an emotional level, not really sure why particular songs appeal to them). It does seem reasonable that background, education and personality would make most of us use one mode in preference to the other. Phaedrus sought to bring back unity between the two viewpoints by giving the concept of "Quality" pre-eminent status, the idea being that everyone can recognise "good work" on a non-rational level and so gain an understanding of the thought mode which is more alien to their personality. Pirsig spends quite a lot of effort on the argument that Quality is non- (or more accurately, pre-) rational, but does not convince me. I think it probably can be analysed, though any analysis would need to take into account factors such as culture and personality which influence an individual's recognition of Quality on a subconscious level. Leaving that aside, the one thing I did not find clear about the philosophical discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is just how the concept brings about a union between the Classical and the Romantic. It's obvious that "quality" is an element of both, but then so are other concepts (beauty, for example).

As the title suggests, much of the philosophical speculation is illustrated with reference to motorbike mechanics. The mechanics is rather more simplified than the philosophy, but it is Pirsig's big selling point and leads to some nice clear exposition. The references also underline a major point of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which is that philosophy should underpin the way we act in everyday life. (Of course, it is easy to argue that it does, albeit unconsciously, but Pirsig obviously means something more deliberate and, indeed, life-changing.) A drawback of the use of mechanics to illustrate his points is that it sometimes makes the key idea of Quality seem very closely related to the Protestant work ethic: put something into everything you do and you will produce Quality outputs.

The most novelistic aspect of the book is the psychological journey made by the narrator, retracing the footsteps of his former self with an increasingly reluctant companion. The tension builds well (even if the philosophy is likely to deflate it every time it is introduced, for many readers) to a final scene which, according to Pirsig's introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition which is reprinted here, has been frequently misunderstood over the years. As Pirsig points out, the narrator of a story has the opportunity to paint himself in a favourable light, which means that nothing he says about himself (or his alter ego, Phaedrus) can be taken at face value. But even if the reader ignores this advice, it seems to me that it would be quite hard to feel that the narrator is a nice person, particularly considering his behaviour to his son. Phaedrus is rather more congenial, though his obsessive search for philosophical truth might make him a rather disconcerting person to spend time with. The ending still feels a little contrived to me, but this is partly because it is the kind of event that seems to mark an end rather than because it is intrinsically unconvincing.

In the afterword, Pirsig describes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a "culture-bearing" book, using a term derived from a Swedish word which has no direct English equivalent. What this means is that it appeared at the time of a cultural shift, and by being a head of the curve, became incredibly successful as a result. I think this is perhaps undervaluing the book: people did find their lives changed by it, and it has continued to find a readership ever since. In other ways, it is a good description of a book which is very much of its time, something which is probably an important reason for my feeling that the philosophy was less than convincing. (The other book Pirsig mentions as a culture-bearer, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is similarly not going to be as effective now as it was when it appeared, because the issues it addresses are less in the mind than they were then.) While it remains a fascinating read, particularly to anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is no longer likely to change your life.


Oxzen said...

Enjoyed reading your blog, Simon. I've just bought this book for my son, who has recently bought his first motorcycle. I'm very curious to know what he's going to make of ZAMM. It had a very big impact on me - I read it just after it became available in paperback, and it stimulated me to find out more about Zen philosophy and practice. My son's already dipped into eastern philosophy and has a tremendous interest in Samurai traditions, customs and beliefs. I'm really looking forward to discussing ZAMM with him after he's read it.

Pirsig's ideas about our dualistic characters and perceptions reminded me somewhat of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, which I also read when I was in my early twenties, and haven't got around to re-reading yet, in spite of intending to do so from time to time. I seem to recall that the Hesse book concluded with the realisation that our psyches are not a simple duality (man/wolf; rational/irrational) and that there are several different "me's" within each of us.

Ultimately the Pirsig book, as enjoyable as it is, is maybe too hung up on the central premise that there are two sorts of perceptions, two souls within the same body, as it were.

For what it's worth, my own reflections and studies have brought me to the conclusion that there are six different types of intelligence within each of us - intellectual/academic/scientific; instinctual; emotional; social; physical/sensual; metaphysical/spiritual. In order to become a balanced and fully-functioning individual, capable of achieving what Maslow called 'self-actualisation', we need a balanced development of each of these 'intelligences'. I think Pirsig also believed we need synthesis and balance, but only saw it in terms of the scientific v Romantic, at least in ZAMM.

If you haven't read Pirsig's "Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals" (1991) yet then I'd strongly recommend it to you.

Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Do not regret that I spent a couple of minutes to read . Write more often, yet surely I will come to read something new.

Anonymous said...

thanks, very good =)