On Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

I have just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time. I first discovered it back in the 1970s just before I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer. I traveled differently than Pirsig. He headed west on a motorcycle, his eleven-year-old son on the back, traveling with friends and staying most of the time in motels. I headed east alone with a duffle bag, using my thumb to request rides.

The second time I read this book was in Greece while I was raising my young family. This third time, I picked up a newer edition at a library book sale and waited for an opportune time to read it. Pandemic-imposed isolation and scouring my shelves for reading material provided the impetus.

As I mentioned, the book concerns a father-son cross-country motorcycle odyssey. Part of the time they are alone, and part of the time they travel with friends. Pirsig alternates between descriptions of the journey and of his search for quality (or excellence), mainly expressed through a study of classic philosophers. However, there is a twist. When he was a college teacher, he became so involved with his quest for meaning that it became an obsession and he lost touch with reality. He was committed to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock treatment until his past personality was effectively wiped out. He remained locked up until he formed a new personality, and this personality is the one writing the book. He calls his former self Phaedrus and writes of him in third person. The story is about Pirsig describing Phaedrus’s search and at the same time coming to grips with the fact that he is not the same person that he used to be. He is also attempting to deal with his relationship with his son, who has known him both as Phaedrus and as Pirsig.

There are wonderful passages where Pirsig describes the differences between classic and romantic thought, the relationship of repairing and maintaining a motorcycle to the practice of Zen, and Phaedrus’s studies and reactions to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, and other philosophers. I have to admit that at one point about two-thirds of the way through the book my interest in some of the more involved and convoluted philosophical inquiries lagged a bit, but overall Pirsig has a clear, simple, and effective writing style that makes even the more esoteric passages easy to understand.

Interestingly, this book was rejected more than one hundred twenty times before it was finally accepted for publication. Most likely that’s because it didn’t (and doesn’t) fit into any neat marketable categories. The editor who took a chance on it accepted it because it was an important book and deserved publication, but it was never expected to see a profit. It quickly became a bestseller and has remained in print ever since, selling over five million copies. Somehow it has resonated through the decades with people on their own quest for values.

You don’t have to agree with all of Pirsig’s thought processes to enjoy and benefit from the book. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if you do or not. The important thing is that you consider these things on your own quest for quality. Getting back to my trip east in search of truth, as I read about Phaedrus’s pursuit of excellence I recalled my mindset when I set out on the road those many years ago. I was fully focused on what I was doing. I had fun, sure, but I wasn’t there on holiday. I was on a serious mission, and as far as I was concerned, I was prepared to head full speed into the void to find what I had come for. Books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance remind us that we are not here just for the bullshit bells and whistles; there is significant profundity in life, and it is up to each one of us to search for it diligently until we find it.

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