Robert Maynard Pirsig, author of the great 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died on April 24, 2017 at the age of 88. This novel was a cornerstone of the late Beat/Hippie literary era, and it continues to touch the hearts of countless readers all over the world.
Though this novel’s fetching title makes a big first impression, it’s about much more than Buddhist philosophy and combustion engines. As a philosophical novel, it brushes quickly past Eastern philosophy to dive deep into the classics of ancient Greece, and despite all this it’s really a novel about parenthood, and about the challenge of staying centered and sane amidst the trials and challenges of everyday American life.
Most of all, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a personal, autobiographical story about a father worrying about how to raise his son. It’s mainly because the novel works so effectively on this raw emotional ground — of course, its clever title and zeitgest-y Summer of Love vibe helps too — that it remains so widely loved by so many readers today.
But there’s an agonizing, terrible twist to the story Robert Pirsig tells about a cross-country motorcycle trip with his tween son Chris, a trip designed to strengthen a father/son bond that the narrator/novelist knew would always be precarious and hazardous due to his own psychological instability. The narrator/novelist took his curious, pleasant and occasionally irritable son on a cross-country trip in order to give him a grounding in motion and reality, and a cosmic sense of the possibilities of life. Robert Pirsig was apparently a pretty good father, and young Chris (his real name as well as his name in the book) was turning out fine by the time the novel was published in 1974, several years after the ride chronicled in the book.
But, five years after that, just before Chris Pirsig turned 23, he was murdered in a random robbery in San Francisco. In a harrowing irony that must have haunted this Buddhist-minded father for the rest of his life, this senseless mugging and murder took place outside a Zen center that both father and son frequented often, though at this time the son was visiting alone.
This after-story is far crueler and sadder than anything that happens in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, a lovely tale composed with a quiet tone and an underlying tension that often happily yields to a simply joyful celebration of life on the road. The narrator spends much of the book worrying about his son, but he is not worried that his son will be suddenly stabbed by a total stranger on a city street. He is absolutely obsessed, though, with the fear that he himself will fail to be a good father to his own son. He is specifically worried that his son may have inherited his own tendency towards mental illness.
He teaches Chris how to fix motorcycles and plot journeys on road maps and sleep in tents because he hopes these life lessons will yield the kind of holistic sense of reality that he wishes he could have attained at an earlier age himself. He thinks it might save the growing boy from a future of broken marriages, failed careers, mental hospitals and electroshock therapy.
It’s because Robert Pirsig lived through these trials himself before writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence that it’s such a serious and valuable book. It was obviously inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (which presents two buddies on a ride, rather than a father and a son, but aims for the same balm of enlightenment). It stands today as a period piece alongside the experimental/”kooky” work of other hippie-era counterculture novelists like Ken Kesey, Richard Farina, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins.
But it’s a mistake to dismiss the book for its immersion in a singular era (and, actually, it’s a mistake to dismiss the novels of Kesey, Farina, Brautigan, Vonnegut and Robbins for the same reason too). All of these writers took their craft seriously, and most of them dealt with the looming specter of mental illness as well. But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is unique for its sober and sensible tone, its devotion to serious analytic thought, and its complete lack of debauchery. The mind-altering substance most vividly described in the book is coffee, which Pirsig’s narrator recommends as essential for any amateur motorcycle mechanic dealing with a difficult problem such as a broken gear chain.
Zen and … is undeniably a wordy, brainy book, especially since it chronicles the author’s collision with the University of Chicago’s famed Philosophy department, where the notable professor Mortimer Adler championed an aggressively rational and Aristotlean approach to the works of Plato, and where Pirsig struggled badly as a grad student. The parts of the book that do not involve roads and motorcycles show the narrator battling a professor who wishes to humble and humiliate his contributions to class discussions. Pirsig’s earnest student narrator wanted to bask in the spiritual anarchy of Plato’s mind-spinning Socratic dialogues, and refuses to accept his teacher’s direction. He feels himself stopped in his tracks by the basic uncertainty of the human mind, and insists (rather childishly, some Aristotlean philosophers might argue) that it is impossible to proceed with philosophy once one realizes that no hypothesis can ever be proven, and that an infinite number of hypotheses will always exist to answer any question. He comes to see his professor as an enemy, and indeed this professor is the only villain in the book.
Pirsig performs an artful feint in tying his vision of an epistemological crisis to Zen Buddhism, since the book’s direct philosophical lineage is clearly grounded in classic Greek philosophy, and aligns with the critiques of Platonic thought laid out by existentialist philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. In Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre’s narrator apprehends the existential emptiness of reality, and becomes physically sick. Robert Pirsig’s narrator apprehends the same thing, but eventually finds salvation in motorcycle engineering. Not a bad moral lesson, nor a shabby intellectual reach, for a mere “hippie novel” from the wacky/crazy 1970s.
The Zen-tinged title does point, though, to the wide cosmic sense of openness that Pirsig yearns for throughout the book. Indeed the novel might never have caught on (I might not have picked it up myself once, as an eager pre-teen with a library card) if it did not have this great title, which alludes to an earlier East/West crossover, Zen in the Art of Archery by the German Buddhist scholar Eugen Herrigel. It’s worth wondering if Pirsig thought up the book’s title first, and then challenged himself to write a novel good enough to earn it. If so, it was a tough challenge and he succeeded.
Zen and … is far from a perfect book, and in my opinion its biggest failure is its inability to connect the philosophical/existential crisis described in the University of Chicago classroom scenes with the narrator’s growing mental illness. We watch the narrator descend into dysfunction, in scenes from a bleak past, but the main clues we are given as to the cause involve his ballooning philosophical inquiries. Are we really meant to believe that a sublime appreciation of Plato’s Gorgias and Republic drove a grad student mad? Is there really any causal relationship between an eager reader’s intellectual apprehension of uncertainty and that same reader’s actual descent into mental illness?
There may be, but the book fails to make this connection clear. Nietzsche did go mad, but Kierkegaard and Sartre did not, and the uncertainty of knowledge is usually more likely a metaphor for mental illness than an actual root cause. The idea that a proper philosophy education may lead an innocent soul to bedlam and shock therapy is a stretch. It seems more likely that any person may apprehend the total crisis of western philosophy, and that any person may suffer from mental illness, but that there is actually no clear causality between the two.
This is an argument that seems to deflate Pirsig’s novel just a little bit, though it doesn’t harm the book’s charm or relevance or appeal at all. We can forgive stretchy metaphors when the prose is as good as this scene, in which our hero visits a mechanic in a repair shop to fix a problem he can’t fix himself.
When I show it to him he nods and slowly goes over and sets the regulators for his gas torch. Here he looks at the tip and selects another one. Absolutely no hurry. He picks up a steel filter rod and I wonder if he’s actually going to try to weld that thin metal. Sheet metal I don’t weld. I braze it with a brass rod. When I try to weld it I punch holes in it and then have to patch them up with huge blobs of filler rod. “Aren’t you going to braze it?” I ask.
“No,” he says. Talkative fellow.
He sparks the torch and sets a tiny little blue flame and then, it’s hard to describe, actually dances the torch and the rod in separate little rhythms over the thin sheet metal, the whole spot a uniform luminous orange yellow, dropping the torch and filler rod down at the exact right moment and then removing them. No holes. You can hardly see the weld. “That’s beautiful,” I say.
“One dollar,” he says, without smiling. Then I catch a funny quizzical look within his glance. Does he wonder if he’s overcharged? No, something else … lonely, same as the waitress. Probably he thinks I’m bullshitting him. Who appreciates work like this anymore?
Pirsig’s book holds a place not only among the great hippie novels of its era but also among the era’s notable novels about mental illness and fear of looming insanity, such as Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as well as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by, again, Ken Kesey. Zen is a delicate, compassionate portrait of a fragmented mind, and a hopeful, soothing chronicle of a program for recovery and prevention.
Of course, it is more than a quaint and academic problem that human existence is a never-ending crisis of epistemology. This is the root of the absurd reality that we humans are always prone to misinformation and stunted thought, and that we often don’t know how to think or who to believe. It’s galling to realize that the humane and spiritually conscious Robert Pirsig’s last year of life was mired within the ugly muck of a new American crisis of epistemology. This crisis sees Pirsig’s beloved America fallen into a state of willful stupidity, led by a malicious liar who urges us to abandon our own common sense and descend to the low moral level of a hate-filled mob. It’s truly enraging that a great word-painter of affectionate Americana like Robert Pirsig had to live his last months of life under the cloud of the absurdly sinister administration of fake-President Trump: our whole nation’s descent into mental illness.
But Pirsig is accustomed to crises of epistemology. In a late afterword to his great novel, written 25 years after its initial publication, the novelist describes how a recent rereading of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw helped him understand his own novel in a new way. Like the heroine of James’s perceptive psychological “ghost story”, Pirsig’s hero is not actually as innocent as he appears to be. And Pirsig’s admission that he was still struggling to understand his own novel years after it was published proves how humble and eager his sharp mind always was.
Pirsig’s later writings about his best book are well worth reading, though I have to admit that I never took the time to read his second novel, an apparent sequel to Zen and … called Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. It may be a great book, but it did not seem to jump off the shelves the way his first book did, and I never observed much of a groundswell of support for the book. In later writings, Pirsig expressed disappointment that many readers of his first novel failed to pick up his second. Well, maybe I’ll give it another shot this year.
Lila was Pirsig’s only other novel, though, and I’m guessing it was his beloved son’s death that knocked Robert Pirsig off the fast lane as a writer of popular books. He also appears to completely lack the kind of outsized ego that inspires many other novelists to keep putting out new stuff. Robert Pirsig didn’t seem to care whether or not anybody thought he was still in the game, and instead appears to have lived a quiet, contemplative life off the fashionably literary grid.
Once, humorously dismissing the intellectual pretensions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, he said this:
It should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.
Actually, it’s got just enough facts about both, but we don’t read novels for facts. Robert Pirsig’s classic book brings us the great American road, with two lonely figures riding in — one parent and one child, and the love that keeps their wheels spinning forward.