"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value."
I love this book, but I don't know what it is. Is it really a novel, or is it largely autobiographical? Bookshops and libraries shelve it in all sorts of strange places, but then how do you categorize a book about motorcycles, mental illness and philosophy?
This book was undoubtedly the forerunner of the new-age adventure genre (for want of a better description) which has proved so lucrative for the likes of James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) in recent years. But don't let that cloud your judgement - this is the real thing: a profound piece of philosophical writing. It is not an easy read, but it is inspiring.
121 publishers rejected Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before one of them offered Pirsig a $3,000 advance, telling him that the book had "forced him to decide what he was in publishing for."
So what the hell is it all about?
Well, on one hand it follows in the tyre-tracks of Kerouac's On the Road:
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
But on the other hand, like Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, it's about someone trying to discover how they came to have a nervous breakdown. A man, quite literally, trying to find himself.
And on the third hand it depicts an achingly distant relationship between father and son. But most of all it's about metaphysical philosophy, I think. (Hence its subtitle: An Inquiry Into Values)
Basically it's about a journey undertaken by a father (our narrator) and his son Chris, as they travel across America on a motorbike. For the first part of their journey they are accompanied by friends John & Sylvia Sutherland. John and Sylvia ride a BMW, without knowing anything about how it works and without having a clue how to fix the simplest mechanical problem. They can't even fix a tap, and wouldn't have a clue what points are. This is in complete a contrast to our narrator, who lovingly maintains, and understands every piece of, his motorcycle.
Yes, there are real tips on motorcycle maintenance here, but more importantly, the machine serves as a metaphor for life, and he dissects it with a subtle knife called rational analysis in order to show the difference, as he sees it, between 'classical' and 'romantic' modes of reality.
They ride from Minneapolis across the prairies of the Dakotas to Montana. And it's when they arrive there, at a place called Bozeman, and stay with an old friend, that our narrator's past life comes back to haunt him. Before his mental breakdown he had been a teacher at a college there. His memory of those days is almost completely lost though, and he refers to his former self (before the breakdown) as 'Phaedrus' (the Greek word for wolf, and a character from a work by Plato.) He is trying to rediscover himself through the notes and writings made by Phaedrus at the time, as well as by retracing his steps:
He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he's insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw.
Phaedrus had been a prodigy. He went to University at the age of fifteen to study biochemistry, but was expelled two years later because of failing grades. He had suffered a mental block, believing that he could construct an endless number of possible hypotheses to explain any phenomenon.
This echoed a mental block I experienced once. I was supposed to write a program in a low-level computer language, but I never finished it - in fact I never even got round to running it through the computer. I knew that one part of it wasn't going to work you see, and every time I fixed one bug, it opened up another glitch somewhere else. Other students stuck them into the computer, ran them, crashed them and patched them, in the ad hoc way programmers do, until they work (or seem to!) Not me. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I wouldn't run it until I expected it to work, and of course writing the perfect program just isn't possible. I got stuck.
That reminds me: What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? An optimist thinks that every problem has a solution, whereas a pessimist knows that every solution contains another problem...
I remember having a similar problem at junior school. All I had to do was make a cube out of cardboard. No problem: draw a 'net', cut it out, fold it up and stick the flaps inside (yes, I did remember to include the flaps!) But how was I supposed to glue down the last flap? There I was, holding a box with an open lid, wondering how I could press that last flap into place when it went inside the box. I was stuck rather than the box. I still haven't figured that one out. That's the kind of mind I have. But I digress. Back to the book...
We learn how Phaedrus became obsessed with a quest to define 'quality' in philosophical terms - convinced he was on the verge of a breakthrough - when, in fact, he was on the verge of a breakdown. There's a thin line between madness and genius though - who can say which is which?
As the narrator chases his academic Holy Grail (and I'd forgotten how much heavy philosophical theory there is in this book since I last read it) we see, with agonizing clarity, his troubled relationship with Chris, whose behaviour is starting to show symptoms of the onset of mental illness too...
(view spoiler)[I bought this book to give to a friend as a Christmas present many years ago. Obviously I had to read it first to make sure it was suitable (I think it was), which is how I came to finish reading it at 4am one Christmas morning. Because it was a fairly recent edition, it had an afterword which I found devastating. In it Robert Pirsig explains how, five years after this book was published, Chris was stabbed to death on a San Francisco sidewalk. Such a waste.
Being alive often feels like walking through a meadow, but then a moment comes when you find out that it's actually a minefield. Things change from ordinariness to tragedy with no warning.
A few years later I heard about the death of a young man called David Gribble. A shy looking lad with a big cheeky grin, he was one of the stars of the UK TV show Robot Wars. He drove the robot for the Pussycat team led by his father Alan. Tragically he was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was just seventeen. In a questionnaire on their team's website, he chose as his best moment in life: "Getting my first motorbike."
It was reading about him that made me want to re-read this book, so this review is dedicated to the memory of Chris Pirsig and David Gribble. (hide spoiler)]
If you hanker after a more in-depth analysis of the philosophy behind both books, there's a forum for the discussion of the Metaphysics of Quality at:
Here are some of the things that other reviewers said about this book:
"A hypnotist's crystal ... sparkled with diamonds" - Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.
"The most significant book I have recently read ... a major reinterpretation of the pre-Socratic philosophers." - Martin Seligman, Psychology Today.
"A moving tale of the modern soul, and a fine detective story of a man in search of himself. Beautifully, lucidly written, it offers a large challenge and an equal reward..." - The Chicago Daily News.
"An unforgettable trip" - Time Magazine.
There is no film, because films are too dumb to convey deep thoughts, but Robert M. Pirsig did write a sequel (Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals) which was published in 1991. In it he expounds on his ideas about the Metaphysics of Quality - but that's another story. (Unless it's all true.)
[This review was adapted from one I posted on dooyoo.co.uk in 2002] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)