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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – A Personal View

“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 orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceAnd thus begins Robert Pirsig’s magnum opus, the ever-quotable Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM).

To me, ZMM is three books in one: Pirsig’s philosophical musings (on his Weltanschauung of Quality as a relationship between classical and romantic philosophies); a haunting account of a man trying to find himself whilst being tormented by his former self (Phædrus – all but lost after years of ‘shock therapy’); and finally a touching (and ultimately tragic) account of a father and son undertaking a cross-country journey of self-discovery.

The first of these – Pirsig’s so-called chautauqua – is the philosophical part of this book and the reason why it is said to be “the most widely read philosophy book, ever”. It discusses Quality as a new way of looking at the world, a theory of reality where instead of viewing the world (and life itself) as object and subject, it is viewed in terms of its Quality.

This may sound complicated but it’s really not. Pirsig himself says Quality is undefinable; that it “cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual constructions. It is the ‘knife-edge’ of experience, known to all.” As Plato said: “What distinguishes good and bad writing?” It’s Quality and you already know what ‘it‘ is.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.”

I find the discussion of Quality as a philosophical view interesting, but feel the presentation could be improved upon. In the first half of the book all of the above ‘stories’ are in harmony; sharing page space and complementing each other. However, as I ventured into the second half of ZMM the density of Pirsig’s philosophising took me by surprise and it took me a good few chapters to become re-immersed into the book.

If you’re expecting a novel, be wary – it sometimes feels like a full on philosophy text and you need to be prepared for it. If you are, you will find the chautauqua both absorbing and extremely thought-provoking; if not, you may find yourself wanting to put the book down.

“It’s paradoxical that where people are the most closely crowded, in the big coastal cities in the East and West, the loneliness is the greatest.”

The last of these ‘books’ – the one in which Pirsig and his son, Chris, journey together across America to discover both themselves and new places – is a powerful story that anyone can associate with, be they a traveller or not. The often tumultuous relationship between them is always held together by their love and a shared mental state bubbling beneath the surface.

However, for those ‘in the know’ this part of the story has a tragic twist: five years after the book’s publication, outside the San Francisco ‘Zen Centre’, Chris was murdered. That morning he had bought a plane ticket to visit, and had sent a letter to, his father in England – a letter received just days after his funeral stating “I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday.” It was to be his birthday two weeks later.

“Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”

Recommended for all and sundry. 4.5 / 5