Zen And the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig back then.

This is a book that became very popular in the early 1970s when it was first published. I read it then (or thought I did), lost my copy of the book, bought another copy years later that came out for the 25th anniversary, tucked it away unread, forgot about it, recently came across it again, and am now reading it for sure—finally.

It is autobiographical. The author, Robert Pirsig, was a child prodigy with an IQ of 170, but developed mental problems and underwent electroshock therapy that largely wiped out his previous personality and memories. So did the unnamed narrator.  Pirsig died this past April at age 88.

The book is a first-person description of a long-distance motorcycle trip with his young son and two friends to Bozeman, Montana,where he was a professor of rhetoric at Montana State University before the electroshock therapy. They stay with old friends who knew him then, but haven’t seen him since.  His two traveling companions turn back for home while he and his son continue on to the West Coast.

We get to know his son, Chris, and it comes as a shock to learn from a Google reference that the real Chris was killed in a 1979 mugging when he was only 22.

The story line ties together Pirsig’s philosophy. The hours of isolation on the noisy motorcycle provide time to think. He calls these themes his “Chautauqua” after the famous series of informative lectures held in Chautauqua, NY.

In the title, Zen is not meant to be part of motorcycle maintenance, but is in opposition to it. Zen represents seeing life in terms of feelings and connections, while motorcycle maintenance represents the logical, technical view where understanding comes by division into smaller and smaller understandable parts. People generally fall into one or the other of those two categories of understanding. He represents the technical approach and does most of his own motorcycle maintenance and repairs. His traveling companions are a married couple who represent the other extreme. They paid a lot of money for a high-end motorcycle, care nothing for how it works, and pay a mechanic to do any repairs or adjustments. Logical explanations actually offend them.

(You may have noticed that instructions everywhere have all but disappeared.  At best, you will get a cryptic sheet of diagrams with no written instructions and the website of a User’s Forum you can search through. Companies have found few people read instructions, anyway, and only look for them when they get stuck.)

Later, he shows how the Zen calming of the mind can improve motorcycle maintenance. He uses the old-fashioned term “gumption.” This is what gives us the courage to tackle a mechanical problem on something as complex as a motorcycle. But then, he says, there are “gumption killers,” millions of them. These cause you to throw up your hands in surrender and pay a mechanic to do it. A good example is when you reassemble the parts all back together, thinking you are finished, and you find an important piece left over. This means you will have to take it all apart again, find where the part belongs, and put it all back together. What gumption you started with is now sprawled on the floor with a bloody head.

His recommendation is to forget about it and come back maybe a month later with new gumption, rather than start immediately all full of anger and impatience. He routinely keeps a notebook of the order of disassembly. He also recommends laying out the parts on newspaper in the order they came apart. Whatever, do not rush the second disassembly and reassembly in an attempt to make up for lost time.

I can relate to this, because I still change the oil in my car, adjust the timing and change the plugs. But my car, a Mazda pick-up, is 25 years old. Newer cars are too complex and need expensive diagnostic tools for anyone to maintain it themselves.

Re-reading the book now, I don’t think I ever read much of it before. I may have started it, but was turned off by all of the psychological references, although I shouldn’t have been. Pirsig creates the ghostly Phaedrus character to represent his former persona, before the shock treatments, a character he recalls in fragments. As the fragments build up, we get a sense of his former self. Phaedrus is just another character that builds slowly.

A study guide that may help you better understand all of this is at http://www.litcharts.com/lit/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance  At the opening menu, click on “Detailed Summary & Analysis” and you will find a chapter-by-chapter summary.

Chapter 11 goes into Kant’s theory of a priority concepts that I first heard about, but didn’t really understand, in my philosophy class at Penn State. Pirsig gives a clearer explanation. If I had ever read that part before, I surely would remember it.

(Kant’s theory of a priority knowledge is knowledge gained by simply thinking, independent of sensory input. Mathematics is his primary example.)

We have a preconceived concepts of all sorts of things that are built up from a long history of sensory input. Motorcycles, for instance. And it is constantly changing with new data. Because of this a priority concept of a motorcycle, we can recognize very different looking brands and sizes as still being motorcycles. (A three-wheeler?  Is that still a motorcycle? Perhaps your a priority concept excludes it, while mine includes it.)

Modern psychologists have a different theory. In the first three years of life, we generalize every specific. We may have a specific toy boat, but we generalize it so that when we see a real boat, we can recognize it as also being a boat. The real boat may be a fishing boat or a battleship, but we know it is a boat. That is why we cannot remember anything before we were about three. Sometimes, a child gets the generalization wrong. Many teenaged boys have been embarrassed when a child, a stranger, calls them “Daddy.” The child got the category wrong, thinking “Daddy” meant any man, not the specific man that sired them.)

Pirsig also points out Kant’s opposition with David Hume, the Scottish philosopher. Hume maintained all thoughts ultimately derive from the senses. Suppose a child is born devoid of any of the senses: no sight, no hearing, no touch, no smell, no taste. This child is kept alive by technology. When this child reaches age 18, does he have any thought at all in his head? Hume would say No. Such a believer is defined as an empiricist.

Where, then, do we get the idea of cause-and-effect? Hume would say From our own imagination. Nature’s law of cause-and-effect is only in our minds.

Kant would add some concepts do not come from the senses, but are organizational concepts preformed in our brains. Space and time are examples of these a priori concepts. But Kant goes further. A motorcycle is also an a priori concept that allows us to recognize a wide variety of sensual inputs as all representing a motorcycle. Our a priori concepts may be wrong and are changeable. Maybe what we see is not a motorcycle at all, but some sort of motorized scooter. (Pirsig did not agree with Kant. Neither would modern psychologists.)

Chapter 12 opens with a return to the trip, and we hear nothing more about Hume, or much of Kant, or a priori.

If all this speculation bores you, this book is not for you. There is no moral attachment to this, so don’t feel guilty about it. But then you may miss something that would change your thinking forever, such a discussion on eliminating grading of schoolwork, or of goals in life. It’s all up to you to decide if the chance of discovery is likely to be worth the effort.

The second half of the book is mostly a discussion of Quality. When we hang a painting on a wall, why is it better than the bare wall alone? Quality. The painting has Quality; the bare wall does not. But what does that mean? And does Quality exist in objects, or in ourselves? They were important questions in the 1970s when Pirsig wrote the book, the age of the beat generation.

The narrator gradually comes to understand the search for the meaning of Quality was the source of Phaedra’s mental breakdown when he finds it is the basis of everything and is synonymous with the “Way” of the Tao Te Ching, the holy scripture of Taoism.

I’ll cut this short. You may already be bored. I’m getting bored, myself. Read the book, or at least the online summary.

You can’t read this book too often. You can’t read this book too little.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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