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Pirsig Revisited: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Review by Michael Wood
Published in New Society, 17th February 1997

The sixties have begun to look like a dimly remembered holiday: a beach strewn with communes, flower children yippies, radicals. One sees occasional survivors of course, people still wearing the holiday gear or style, still talking the holiday slang about letting it all hang out. But not a great many of them.

Yet even as a memory, the holiday commands quite a few allegiances, at least in America. Respectable, competitive, successful folks whose idea of dropping out is confined to bridge or poker do often hanker for a drastic rethinking of everything; at least like to toy with the notion of what used to be called an alternative life style.

My own hunch is that the American audience for the films of Lina Wertmuller, for example, contains a lot of these people, seeking radical chic where it seems it can be found in these tighter, more nervous and more cynical days. And the many readers of Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (five hardcover and ten paperback printings since 1974) represent the same constituency for a younger age-group. A student of mine recommended the book to me, saying it was to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

That sounds about right. Looking back at it, it is a sloppy and sentimental book in places, just as the sixties were sloppy and sentimental. But it is also acute and energetic and decent, as the sixties also were; and it is a much better memorial to those times than many a faithful straggler, and many a dip into edgy nostalgia.

And, of course, it is not meant to be only a memorial. It is also a correction and a rescue. It is cosily unpolitical where the sixties, even in their daftest reaches had uncomfortable political undertones. "I think" Pirsig writes when he is winding up to his big message, "that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature . . or with programmes full of things for other people to do . . . The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there . . ."

Of course, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not really much about either Zen or motorbikes. As several thousand readers know, and presumably appreciate, it is a narrative of a trip through the mountains of Montana, interspersed with indirect confessions and long chats about the possibility of revamping our manner of thinking about the world. But it is also about the need to put mountains and motorbikes together, and not just because we may need the second to get to the first. Pirsig wants to dissolve the paradoxes of technological man, make us return to nature through a care for machine. The motorbike is an emblem and practical example. The motorbike is what Pirsig has drawn on the blackboard.

The book is full of nicely observed details: the narrator's friend John, riding an expensive motorbike and simply refusing to think of its maintenance as a job for anyone other than a possibly incompetent specialist; a gang of happy young mechanics in a workshop, gaily making terrible mistakes while the radio blares out above their heads; a distinction between the "romantic" pleasure of riding a motorbike and the "classical" delight of really understanding how one works.

The divided mind that interests Pirsig is neatly represented by a narrator who simply speaks of a former self, a self that broke down and ended up in electro-convulsion therapy, as another person. And the correspondence between the landscapes travelled and the subjects discussed -- high places for spiritual stuff and deserts for the ugliness of modern life -- is so elegant as to be entirely unbearable. The ending, where the narrator fights off a bout of returning insanity, finally communicates with his son and sets the boy off on the road to disentangled manhood, is worthy of Old Hollywood, and must have quite a bit to do with the book's success. To be able to pose problems intelligently, and to solve them with schmaltz, is really quite a recipe.

Pirsig's appeal is that of the old-fashioned crackerbarrel philosopher, what we might call the "see here now" school of writing and talking. Here he picks up a thread that is everywhere in American life, from last night's party to the flattest of television situation comedies: the urge to moralise and be moralised to (or at), a quite extraordinary urge to make ordinary life yield improving sermons.

But Pirsig's work is also home-made in the sense that American culture is always supposed to be, and scarcely ever is. He has knocked together a philosophy from his reading of Plato and Aristotle and Hegel and Zen and the Tao and Henri Poincare; taught himself philosophy in the way he suggests we should teach ourselves to care for our machinery. It's a mistake to think the expert knows better, he argues. The expert probably didn't learn how to do whatever it is the hard way, and you certainly did, if you taught yourself.

The results are not always encouraging. "I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life: otherwise forget it." "That mind-matter relationship has been an intellectual hang-up for centuries." And at times one gets the feeling that this is not home-made philosophy at all, but school-learned (and perhaps taught) philosophy, and academic discipline given the folksy touch. That is when Pirsig starts to sound like C P Snow: "We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all." Such a sentence, incidentally, is a good illustration of the ill that Pirsig is trying to diagnose: it's all natty categories, tidy boxes whose very tidiness guarantees their uselessness.

Still, behind his jargon, Pirsig often does get at interesting things. His distinction between ego-climbing" (because you want to get to the top of the mountain) and "selfless climbing " (because you like climbing) seems trivial until Pirsig's narrator has to carry his son's pack as well as his own -- that is, take one pack up a space, then come back for the other. He argues that "it isn't any more work for me, actually, than the other way. It's more work in terms of reaching the top of the mountain, but . . ."

There is a very delicate mixture of moral truth and self-deceiving rationalisation here. The same is the case with Pirsig's quest for what he calls quality (in the sense of high-quality material, rather than of the quality of mercy). When he speaks of three levels of peace of mind, and begins to count them: physical, mental . . one really is waiting for spiritual to drop into its slot as the third. But Pirsig speaks instead of "value-quietness," which strikes me as a genuinely creative piece of instant jargon. The hoary old "value-free" is shifted into a mental condition, and takes on a bit of real life in the process. But what attracts me most in Pirsig's book is its persistent attempt to say something which is at once simple and unsayable. Or rather, it is sayable (and I'll say it in a minute), but once said, it sends us back where we started from.

It's this: a lot of the concepts we use can't be defined, they can only be used. When we try to define them, they crumble into confusion, and we have perhaps spoiled some perfectly good concepts. The old, well-meant advice about saying what you like as long as you define your terms, is thus seriously misleading in this respect. It's often the definition that causes the trouble. What is needed, frequently, is rather a larger awareness of one's own practice in the use of certain words. And as long as other people share our usage, of course we can talk.

But nothing can be done for people who continue to require definitions (and we all require definitions some of the time) or for people who will take your words as definitions anyway, or who will privately supply their own definitions sotto voce. What is your aim in philosophy? Wittgenstein asked himself, and answered, "To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." But what if the habits and needs which got the fly into the bottle are also what keep him there?

To say that you are calling a book a "novel" because the word corresponds both to your sense of usage and to your general sense of what novels are like, seems unexceptionable enough. But I find my students are regularly upset by such remarks (or rather by my refusal to say anything more). In one sense, they are right to be upset. Partly because my remark presupposes an answer to the question I seem to be asking ("What is a novel"), but mainly because it sends us all back to our experience of novels. As a reader, I feel this can only be desirable, but as a teacher of literature it's not playing the game I'm paid to play.

This is precisely Pirsig's problem; or hang-up as he would say. He borrows both his epigraph and the gist of his book from Plato's Phaedrus: "And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good -- need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" Pirsig's answer is no, we merely need someone to show us that we already know. But if we don't need anyone to tell us that we don't need telling, and if, in the awkward event of our really not knowing what is good, no amount of telling will help you, then Pirsig and hundreds of other moralists and teachers are out of business.

My main objection to Pirsig's book, I think is that it is too blithe and sentimental in its evasion of the consequences of this argument. Not that the moralists shouldn't go on moralising, or that teachers shouldn't go on teaching. There are all kinds of useful by-products of those activities. But they could do it, perhaps, with a stronger sense of the chief potential flaw in their enterprise, which is its distressing superfluity.

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