Thursday, December 16, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) has been called a modern classic by some, and a self-absorbed ego-trip by others.  In any case, it is an interesting book to include on this list since the author casts disparaging comments at the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) for their slavish devotion to Aristotle.

Robert M. Pirsig (1928-) published ZMM in 1974 after it was rejected by 121 publishers (a world record). Since then it has sold over 4 million copies worldwide and the London Telegraph and BBC radio called ZMM the most widely read philosophy novel ever written. 

The book is two stories, both autobiographical accounts of the author's life separated by about 10 years. One regards a 17-day motorcycle trip that the author makes with his young son, traveling from Minnesota to California. The other concerns Pirsig's earlier adult life, when he was a teacher and a student of philosophy.  The novel oscillates between Pirsig's current motorcycle journey and his reflections of his early life, all the while as he ponders the philosophical concept of "quality".   When referring to his early life, the author calls himself Phaedrus, after the character in the eponymous dialogue written by Plato - a story that plays a major role toward the end of the novel.

Pirsig and his son Chris

To summarize, this book was maddening.  I found myself loving and loathing ZMM, sometimes within the same page.  I admire Prisig for writing a very personal work and I found his philosophical insights thought provoking, although not profound. However, since he decided to publish and profit from his life it is fair for me to be critical.

Prisig describes himself as an unappreciated genius who has to endure living in a world of Philistines.  The author knows and talks about the "truth" but everyone else is too wrapped up in their own worlds to listen to him.  In a moment of unrestrained ego, Pirsig states that he had the opportunity to change the entire focus of 2000 years of Western philosophy but he failed.  Much of this is done in the 3rd person as Pirsig talks about "Phaedrus", trying to understand how such a brilliant and insightful young man (himself) could be brought down by bigoted, narrow-minded professors at Montana State University and at the University of Chicago.

Pirsig seems unfair to his son and it appears he wants to lump him in with everyone else who doesn't understand him.  Not surprisingly, Chris does not completely enjoy riding on the back of a motorcycle for 17 days and this certainly affects his opinion of the entire trip.  Pirsig badgers his son and at times it appears Pirsig is either completely lacking in empathy or he has cleverly disguised his true opinions - I really could not tell. 

Some of the themes Prisig discusses include how technology and life have become separated.  Imagine how different 2010 is from 1970 and he was already saying that. His main issue is the difference between subjective and objective people, whom he calls Romantics and Classicists.  He says these people are both lacking in one thing that would unite them and that is "quality".  What is quality?    It is the central point of Pirsigs thesis, the thing that guides and directs us to being better - and it is talked about on my next post.

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