Zen and Motorcycles: Exploring Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Considered as one of the “most important and influential books written in the past half-century”, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a “powerful, moving, and penetrating examination of how we live . . . and a breathtaking meditation on how to live better”. This book has allegedly “transformed a generation” as it engineered “an unforgettable narration of a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest, undertaken by a father and his young son”.
Not just a story of love and fear, Pirsig’s book is a story of self-discovery, growth and acceptance as it profoundly explores the personal and philosophical journey into life’s fundamental questions. First appeared in 1974, the book is more than a motorcycle ride, Zen and the Art is a reconciliation with solitude. Reconciliation, not resignation. Isaiah Berlin tells us, “Solitude doesn’t mean you live far from people. It means that people don’t understand what you are saying. ” The hero’s quests takes with him and his readers beyond the bounds of rational thought onto a tightrope strung between triumph and terror.
The cost to him of seeking high-quality information and a voice for its expression is his own sanity. Zen and the Art is not just a picnic to read. Pirsig emphasized that if you feel like working, get with Zen and the Art; it will reward your effort. Thus, Pirsig’s effort to write the book is about reconciliation. A quality is a respect for excellence, and excellence can only be achieved when beauty and function are harmoniously blended. The pursuit of one without the other is doomed to end in failure, meaning ugliness.
Ugly art is art that ignores the necessity of structure, and ugly structures are those that ignore the necessity of art. Quality, then, is expressed in the attitude that is taken toward a task, and that attitude must reflect harmony between the objective understanding of the task’s underlying principles and a subjective appreciation of its surface aesthetics. Pirsig believed that if conflict over the concept of Quality can split the world into hip and square, Classic and Romantic, technological and humanistic, then resolution of that conflict can unite that world.
Pirsig wrote that “Real understanding of Quality doesn’t just serve the System, or even beat it or even escape it. A real understanding of Quality captures the System, tames it, and puts it to work for one’s own personal use, while leaving one completely free to fulfill his inner destiny” (p. 217). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for instance, sought to rationalize what traditional schools teach: Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade.
Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything — from A to F (p. 172). Pirsig also voiced out the 70’s youths fear for science and technology. These thoughts are often communicated beautifully and clearly about what they do in ways that both students and their teachers can understand.
To use Robert Pirsig’s metaphor from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the motorcycle and its workings are as meaningful as the countryside through which its riders pass. Pirsig says that “flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. ” He continues, The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower” (p. 25). Some understanding of what science is can help students overcome their fear.
Readers could draw some evaluation of the merging of the scientific and the human minds—among other phenomena, the Lindbergh flight and the Apollo 11 moon landing: The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is—not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and he human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.
When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footsteps on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs (p. 261-262). Pirsig goes on to state that “this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life…. ” (p. 262). More than technology, the image of the motorcycle becomes some sort of liberator. It is a symbol of American way of life and the vehicle that brought one closest to nature and to the feel of the road.
Rather than cross the country in a protected air-conditioned car, true children of nature preferred to let the wind ruffle their hair, the smell of pine needles fill their nostrils, the feel of the roadbed vibrate through their bodies. Of course, readers who expected Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a lot of groovy exultations about Harley-Davidson were surprised at first at what they found: the motorcycle as teaching tool to demonstrate the necessity of reuniting Classical reason with Romantic emotion.
Even greater was the surprise of those who came to complain and stayed to praise, for they found their disdain for motorcycles dissolving in their respect for Pirsig’s vast learning and impressive reasoning. The motorcycle was the perfect metaphorical intersection of these divergent attitudes took on such authority that no substitute seemed possible – even though Pirsig admitted that any substitute would do. In any case, Pirsig’s book is considered to be a “cult classic” in the 1970’s.
Pirsig’s emphasis on restructuring one’s thinking fit in perfectly with this new mood that was celebrated by youths who thirsted for it during those times. His approach sounded a bit like brainstorming and a bit like mind-altering, and enough like both to make it easy to accommodate his ideas to the new sensibility. This new sensibility took its readers to a certain “transcendence” that will occur, albeit in a less dramatic way, at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.