Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values has died.

The New York times has an excellent remembrance as does the New York Post. It’s worth reading both and no doubt others that will come out in the days ahead, each will have different takes on this fascinating man and his surprisingly popular book.

Robert Pirsig’s writing had a profound affect on my life and while I read this book in 1976, many of its ideas have stuck with me.

Here’s an anecdote that I remember from the book although my memory is no doubt burnished. And, I was and remain a weak reader (dyslexia) so I’m slow and tend to miss things.

Surface appearance vs. underlying form

Pirsig is riding cross country (Minnesota to San Francisco) with his son Chris and a friend (John) and his wife. Pirsig is on an old Honda (or something like that) and John and wife are on a new BMW (a much more expensive bike).

They’re somewhere in the middle of their trip, camping out and sitting around the campfire one night drinking beer. John has been complaining about the handlebars on his BMW being loose and is wondering if they’ll pass near a BMW place so he can have them fixed.

Understand that the handlebars on these motorcycles are attached to the post they sit on with a clamp (just like a bicycle) and the adjustment bolt/nut could be tightened all the way and there might still be play between the clamp and the handlebars. Unless one can fill that space, it’s a serious problem.

Pirsig is thinking that he could cut up an aluminum beer can with the tin snips he has in his saddlebag and make perfect shim stock (soft aluminum) to take the play out of John’s handlebars. But John, no doubt, would have none of it because to use a beer can on his fancy BMW would be just plain wrong. Pirsig knows that the BMW repair guy will probably use the same type of thing and charge John a fortune for it. Then Pirsig goes deep into the idea of underlying form (the way things actually work) vs. surface appearance (the BMW brand cache), and also the fact that he has no way to talk about this stuff with John and he goes around and around on this in his head, driving himself crazy.

These deep mind trips Pirsig calls “chautauquas” and he has many in this book. They’re laced with a bit of paranoia and mania (Pirsig was in real life, schizophrenic) and for me, that made them even more real.

This loose handlebar scene and resulting chautauqua becomes a metaphor for other scenes in the book and for those of us who read it, for many things in our lives.

For example, some people buy iPhones because they’re the cool phone to have, others buy them because they understand and appreciate Apple’s design of both the hardware and the iOS software underneath. Geek (underlying form) vs cool hunter (surface appearance).

If you’re into the technical stuff it might be frustrating to have some teenager who wants a pink iPhone to look cool to her friends have the same phone as you and have no clue how it works. Or, the teenager can use the phone amazingly well but doesn’t appreciate the stacks of software underneath the surface appearance.

Substitute anything for iPhone, it’s not about Apple vs Samsung, it’s about surface appearance vs underlying form. Android geeks might have the same frustration with people who buy Android phones simply because they’re cheaper.

Understand that Pirsig’s description of this frustration was the first I’d ever read of it and it hit home to me and has continued to hit home with me for over 30 years.

When I read this book I was not a big reader, this was one of the first “big” books I read that had an affect on me. And, it was scenes like the one I describe above that did it. I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and I experienced Pirsig’s struggle. And, Pirsig wasn’t just struggling with ideas, he was struggling with mental illness which affected his ability to relate his ideas to other people.

Phaedrus

Ten years after I’d read this book I found myself running both the Macintosh and HyperCard groups on AOL (America Online). One of the thousands of user/participants in the group had an interesting screen name: “Phaedrus47.” I remembered that Pirsig had used the name “Phaedrus” to describe his past self as a struggling creative writing teacher.

I sent a message to Phaedrus47 asking if he’d read the book. Indeed he had and this started an amazing, multi-year email discussion/chautauqua between me and Phaedrus47 / Alex Forbes who I met years later at Macworld in San Francisco and am friends with to this day.

Less is more

I’m not a big reader of books, not because I don’t want to, but because I’m so slow it might take me many months to finish one and reading is exhausting for me. For every one book I’ve read my wife has read a thousand (seriously).

But, for me, this means that the books I actually stuck with and read have been worth the trouble and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while in many ways a slog of a read, connected with me and had a big effect.

I will never forget Robert Pirsig’s personal struggle and his articulation of it in this book.

10 comments

  1. Still one of my all-time top favorites. I think of and use its lessons and thinking tools daily, and personally owe Pirsig a huge debt of gratitude for excellent writing and thinking. He will surely be missed, but his “Zen” will be with us forever. Richard, thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks for commenting Phaedrus47. Pirsig’s passing makes me think of the time in my life when I read ZAMM but also how much time has passed since. We’re all getting older, hopefully a bit wiser too.

  2. A very thoughtful post Richard like you I read this many years ago, I was prob too young at the time to appreciate it fully but did revisit as I got older and dare I say wiser. Age gives you the ability to view stuff more critically, time to recognise what is important and material items seldom are. We are merely grains of sand in a Sahara being blown around in ever decreasing circles. In spite of all our best efforts to track a course life has a habit of biting you on the ass when you least expect it.
    I didn’t know he suffered with mental health issues more kudos to him for crafting such a tome.

    1. Thanks Martin. Age does give one some more resources (experience) to look at things like the message(s) of this book more critically. But, the book was right for its time and my guess is it probably is less right for this time.

      In the book (if memory serves), Pirsig, when talking about Phaedrus, talked about his mental health issues and for me, combining that with the fact that he was struggling to express some big ideas in ways that might not be all that popular, gave the book a very different feel. That was what connected it with me.

    1. Looks interesting Martin, thanks.

      I read the Krakauer book: Under the Banner of Heaven about some murders that took place in Mormon fundamentalist territory and in the process of describing them he goes into the history of the Mormon religion. Wow, that was incredible. I’ve read all of his books; not great writing, but great subjects well researched.

    1. It would be interesting to see if it still has the same feel Karen. I’m guessing it hit many of us who read it at least partly because of the time we read it in. Not that the same issues (and more) aren’t around now, but that time was much more fluid and I was much more fluid, or so it seemed. Let me know if you actually do re-read it and how it goes.

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