Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I am rereading Robert Pirsig’s classic book and I have to say that while I am enjoying it there are parts of it that I found bothersome once I delved a little into the back story to paint in what appeared to be narrative omissions.

I was an idealistic 20 year old the first time I read it and I was also in a place where I found that a good bit of the story resonated with me. Coincidentally, it was in the same time frame I was also enamored with Alan Watt’s brilliant introduction to Zen, ‘The Way of Zen’.

And I liked Pirsig’s discourse on technology. And his approach to explaining technology through the not so modern lens of the romantic view of life vs. the classic view.

The classic view of life is where one sees the beauty in the underlying infrastructure. Using the motorcycle as example, [the knowledge of] the working system (classic view) contains a beauty equally as important as the sensuous silhouette (romantic view) of the bike.

Forty years ago I liked all that but when I opened it up this time I was apprehensive that his book – like so many others – might not have stood the test of time.

For example there are certain books that you can only read once in your life and then you have to be at that impressionable age of somewhere between 14 and 21. Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Or anything by Dostoevsky for that matter are books that I just cannot go back to.

So as I said, I am enjoying  ‘Zen and the Art of motorcycle Maintenance’, it’s a brilliant piece of writing although I have to also say that there are some parts, given the back story (Pirsig’s personal story), that I have found both disturbing and bothersome.

For instance Pirsig ended up having a mental breakdown. I didn’t know that. In the book he so often spoke of his life in the third person that in my readings I didn’t find, without the additional info from the wiki supplied back story, that in the case of the breakdown he was talking about himself.

But the reason for his breakdown apparently had something to do with two of the major threads early in the book which were concerned with his obsessions with defining the nature of quality and his disappointment in the scientific method.

I was disturbed that such a brilliant man couldn’t reconcile himself to either quality (as in the definition of) nor to the methodology we in the science community use to solve problems; commonly called scientific method.

Let’s talk about his quality conundrum first. Pirsig’s objection to the nature of quality was that because one couldn’t weigh it or in any way objectify it in a standalone way, then it must not exist.

But from my perspective (and yours) it exists. Why? Because a reasonable counterargument – using adjectives and adverbs as an example – suggests not only does it exist, but it exists only as an extension to something else (which logically speaking is okay).

Example. The word ‘cool’ as an adjective contains no meaning until it’s applied to a noun. Is it a cool day? A cool view? Or a cool glass of water? Adjectives, grammatically speaking, exist to further explain nouns. Adjectives like adverbs, in and of themselves, don’t really say anything.

The same way with quality. Everyone has a pretty good understanding of what quality is but more specifically inasmuch as the quantity [of quality] is placed contextually.

Gemstones are a good example as quality is quantified in a much understood rating scheme.

Quality is an attribute that can be objectively quantified (measured) given context – be it clothing, furniture, food, wine, cigars, automobiles, or just about any other tangible aspect of our lives.

Also in the book, Pirsig relates his frustration with scientific method which he saw stemmed from what he related as being the almost infinite number of hypotheses he was able to generate given a certain problem. I think to myself, ‘What?’ How can one researcher -albeit junior, but genius – create an almost endless supply of questions about any given problem?

Ah, but there is the issue of Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’  which I will bring up in a moment.

Granted this all happened at an early age. He enrolled in a biochemistry university program at the precocious age of 15 – he had/has an IQ of 170 after all. But this internal conundrum he had with what amounted to the validity of hypotheses as they related to the overall scientific method process made him eventually lose interest in his studies to where he was finally expelled.

I just shake my tiny little head over these pieces of information that fill in the blanks to an otherwise great novel and in part philosophical treatise.

Someone very wise and probably a genius too said something to the effect that ‘to be too acutely aware is to be diseased’. That sounds right to me. Pirsig wrestling himself to the edge of insanity over the validity of the discovery process in science is just that, insane.

Hypotheses are merely questions posed as statements.

Scientific method suggests you start with a problem statement and then proceed from there to making cautious queries (hypotheses) as to what the resolution to the problem is.

It isn’t all that complicated nor should the underlying methodology drive anyone however brilliant to a nervous breakdown.

I mean, was it really necessary for Pirsig to go all the way back to Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ to try and resolve his intellectual differences with the mechanics of the scientific method?

Not just no, but hell no.

His problem was he kept subdividing each hypothesis all the way down to the logical/virtual beginning of the philosophical universe, namely Kant’s ‘Pure Reason’.

It’s analogous to a small child asking ‘Why?’ over and over again. As Irma Bombeck once quipped, ‘Nine questions in and you’re all the way back trying to explain the origin of the universe.

No, he failed as a prospective researcher, as a man of science, and a man of reason, because he lacked that necessary discernment that required perspective to put proper boundaries around the nature of the problem at hand. Instead like a child, he didn’t know when to stop. He parsed everything into unnecessarily useless tiny bits.

So it is not surprising how Pirsig – genius that he was – abandoned science and ended up getting a bachelor of arts degree in Eastern philosophy; a truly limp dick degree if there ever  was one.

And there is some irony at work here when you consider that his only real occupation (other than writer) was teaching creative writing which he admitted in his book was something one couldn’t teach. Meaning, you can’t teach someone to be creative and you can’t teach someone to be a good writer.

But he is a man who wrote what is still arguably a relevant and great book. And I am reading it again because in spite of my partial objections to his life, career, and philosophies I laud him for giving us a book that makes us the reader question not just him but also ourselves as to the defensible nature of our own beliefs, lives, and personal philosophies.

PS – I’ve told my daughter on several occasions that it is better to be smart and to be intelligent enough to know how to work smart then it is to be an outright genius.



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