Author Robert M. Pirsig died last week, aged 88. I want to remember him by questioning his seminal work “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and what it meant for me and my life.
For those who haven’t read it (and you definitely should!), the book is not a motorcycle maintenance manual and there’s not much about Zen in it. The subtitle “An inquiry into values” is a hint. So, it’s a popular philosophy book. Very popular when it came out in 1974, it has remained a staple of post-’68 alternative culture. What keeps it from being another fuzzy, hippy people, flower power, rainbow-coloured account is the almost maniacal rigor with which Pirsig pursues his subject.
The first-person narrator, Phaedrus, travels west across the U.S. by motorbike. Across the plains and into the Rockies, his son Chris is riding pillion. We are witness to Phaedrus’ internal thought process as it is stimulated by what he sees, feels and reasons on this tour. He is pondering questions of direction, sense and value. As they move west, discord with the teenager in back arises, but it’s not the usual adolescent sullenness, it’s Phaedrus who is moving away. Into darkness and an internal world of remorse and bipolar disease.
Again, we are in with Phaedrus in this unique internal narrative, it sucks us in and is engaging like no other account of this kind I’ve read. I can’t even tell if is a maniacal or depressive episode he’s living through, both occur at the same time. The protagonist doggedly pursues his quest for values and we are much the wiser for it.
There is no conclusion, there is only the way. And riding a motorcycle is symbolic and metaphoric for that way. I’ve understood this from the first reading of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when I was young and have come back to reading it often in my lifetime. Long after that first reading, in my forties, my daughter suggested I take up motorcycling and I remembered the way. It is still why I ride.
So, thank you, Mr. Pirsig, for showing me the way. I’ll meet you further on up the road.