A motorcycle rides into the sunset
Saipan’s status as an East-meets-West crossroads is one of my favorite aspects of the island. Here’s another East-meets-West gig: A book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It rolled out in 1974. It promptly sold several million copies. In the dog-eat-dog world of retail competition it still gets display space in some bookstores. And in the writer-eats-cheeseburger world of my beach chair the book often gets space, too, since I like to mention it on occasion.
Unfortunately, this occasion is the passing of Robert Pirsig, who died in Maine on April 24. He was 88.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will, of course, live on. It’s one of those rare things that get better with age. Its originality becomes more visible, by dint of contrast, in our age of formulaic, mass-produced fare.
There are a number of editions of the book on the market. Some only cost about $8.
Much of the book’s genius is the way it couches a philosophical treatise (that’s the Zen) in a narrative, namely, a sometimes kitschy take on a great American road trip (that’s the motorcycle).
One side effect of the narrative approach is that it might be held to a narrative standard. For some readers this standard requires a feel-good experience of watching the good guy prevail. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn’t necessarily that kind of book, though. For all of his good points, and he has many of them, Pirsig doesn’t come across as a matinee idol, and there’s some tragic overhang in the tale as well.
In other words, the narrative structure means that it will often be judged on how emotionally satisfying the story is, as opposed to how substantial the philosophical fare is. Come to think of it, that dichotomy is consistent with the very philosophical issue pondered by Pirsig, who contemplates the great conceptual gulf between subjective and objective perspectives.
Speaking of perspective, it’s hard for me to consider this book in a vacuum, and I’ll note that during Pirsig’s ride to fame, Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Harvard-educated novelist John D. MacDonald were also enjoying prominence.
Pirsig did, by the way, pen a second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
I think it’s safe to say, though, that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the reason for Pirsig’s fame.
One element of the book is the never-ending “name game” that plays out in philosophy and in everything else, too. Pirsig wasn’t the only one to notice this gig. The charismatic physicist Richard Feynman observed that just because you know the name of something doesn’t mean you know anything about it. As Feynman said: “There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.” Ain’t that the truth!
Pirsig, for his part, sort of inverts this wisdom and knows that just because something lacks a name doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. That’s a good observation. And it’s an observation that the Chinese made about 2,500 years ago.
In fact, from that same body of Chinese work (the Tao Te Ching, also called the Dao De Jing) comes one of my favorite quotes: “Knowers don’t talk. Talkers don’t know.” That’s certainly consistent with the outlook that confusing words for the truth is not a sign of true knowledge.
Likewise, Pirsig eventually discovers that, as his philosophical inquiry is tangled in a world of names and more names and intricate ideas, the Chinese approach was far cleaner. This is revealed in chapter 20 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which, in fact, carries about 260 words of the Tao Te Ching. I guess I could summarize how this solves Pirsig’s philosophical conundrum, at least up until that point of the story, but he told his tale far better than I can tell his tale. As for the Zen element, and everything else for that matter, well, ditto.
Robert Pirsig’s passing not only marks the departure of a great writer and philosopher, but, having come long after the passing of Messrs. Thompson and MacDonald, it closes an entire chapter in American writing.