A Fascinating Read--Several, Actually
I just reread Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), forty years after the first time in college. It's a different book seen through the eyes of a 65-year-old man, particularly one who was a philosophy major, Methodist seminary graduate, licensed family therapist, and who practices Zen meditation. For me, ZMM was several books. Like many contemporary novels that constantly shift from scene to scene to keep our attention, ZMM shifts constantly—multiple times in most chapters—between a philosophical story and a psychological, interpersonal one. Much of its power derives from the fact that ZMM is based on Pirsig's own life. Others have well-summarized the “plot”, so I won't reiterate that.
1) ZMM is a philosophical novel. Pirsig was an English professor and teacher of Rhetoric, a blend of writing, persuasion and philosophical argument. The book recalls Pirsig's multi-year search to define Quality. Heavy on the Greek philosophers, Pirsig presents argument after argument, originating in a variety of settings, through a series of daily chautauquas, over the course of his motorcycle road trip with his young son in 1960's America. Pirsig is quite good at the metaphor/smilie game, relating many of his arguments to how one keeps a motorcycle running. The “Zen” part of the book is that the Quality Pirsig seeks to define is less a matter of “either-or” (rational vs romantic thinking) and more like something else, represented by Plato's Forms (eidos), or the Buddha's thinking. As a former philosophy major and a Zen meditator, this is familiar territory to me. My difficulty with ZMM was that Pirsig is a lot smarter than I and often left me in the dust of his arguments. Like a lot of brilliant people, he is also arrogant and convinced that his views are correct and nearly all others, stupid. Another reviewer of the book noted that non-philosophers are often awed by Pirsig's reasoning, while those who know a bit about philosophy are less so. Nonetheless, the philosophical part of this novel was a fun ride.
2) ZMM is also a psychological journey. Early on it become clear that Pirsig was quite obsessive. One of my Old Testament professors remarked that “Fundamentalism is less a theological position than a psychological problem.” Pirsig often exhibited something like fundamentalist zeal. As I read ZMM, I wondered if Pirsig's dogmatic certainties weren't as much a function of his psychological issues—his compulsive nature—as anything else. Over the course of the book, Pirsig related how his thinking became clearly obsessive , occupying his mind 18, 20, 22 hours per day, until he could no longer sleep. Pirsig crashes and burns, is diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, is hospitalized several years and receives shock treatments. He is open about all this, and about the damage it does to his relationships, particularly with his own son, Chris, his companion on this journey. A recurrent theme is Pirsig's fear that Chris' psychological makeup parallel's his own. A fascinating aspect of all this is the psychological distance that forms between the narrator Pirsig and his former self, whom he calls Phaedrus (also the name of a Platonic dialog). After hospitalization and treatment, Pirsig has forgotten a lot about Phaedrus, and the psychological track of ZMM recounts the slow recovery of Pirsig's memories about Phaedrus' earlier decline. As I followed Pirsig's no-holes-barred recounting of this decline, I often had the sense I was watching a slow-motion psychological and interpersonal train wreck.
ZMM is a difficult read, but an excellent one. Chris, whom I had grown to love in the book, was murdered some years after the book's publication, and ZMM's Afterword contains an interesting glimpse of how Pirsig's mind and psyche continued to evolve after ZMM was published.