Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig
This classic icon of twentieth century philosophy is regarded as almost a myth; my daughter’s boyfriend indeed believed it to be an actual urban myth and not an actual book, and I doubt he is alone. First published in 1974, the book has been a corner stone for some of the hippy movement and yet, its subtitle, An Inquiry into Values seems at variance with this. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book, the careful and loving maintenance of motorcycles seems also at variance with the hippy movement too and this is one of the many apparent contradictions this book throws up.
It’s a truly disconcerting book to read, because it fits no genre and it shifts at intervals between both style and format. The book starts simply enough, as an account of a road trip taken across America by the author and his young son Chris, and for a while two friends as well. You get the sense of a fractured relationship between man and boy, in the process of being mended, as well as an uneasy friendship with their two travelling companions John and Sylvia. There is a focus on the minutiae of their daily life, on the mechanics of motorbikes, both of which are at once alien and familiar, that many might find dull or even boring. Persist with them; to some degree these are important background. You’re not reading a simple story.
The narrative shifts to a kind of flashback to a different story, the tale of someone who lost the plot and lost himself in the process. Phaedrus, the man who lost the plot, is central to the whole book, but I shall say no more about him now. It’s best you discover his story for yourself.
The other facet of the book is a kind of overview narration that links together the road-trip with its focus on details and meticulous attention to them with the story of Phaedrus. It’s this aspect of the book that really, really messes with your head. Let me explain.
I was given the book as a Christmas present by my friend J, but like books I know are important, I wanted to read it during a time that gave me both time and context in which to read it. I read extremely fast, but that’s not always a good thing, so I wanted to have an opportunity to read in segments dictated by an external force I had little control over. So I read it during a road trip of my own, this time across France during a work trip in May. This was the same trip that brought back the photograph that rocked my world when I went home, to be seen here. But during the six days I was away, I had a number of times where I did wonder if I might not actually return at all. During the quiet moments during my trip, lying on my hotel bed or sitting somewhere out of the way, in various places like the centre of Caen, in Bayeux, at Disneyland(for about five minutes as I could not concentrate) and most memorably, sitting outside a French hypermarket, I dipped into the book and read.
I sat there, on a marble step, by a display of plants, trying to take in what I had just read. I watched the ants, ferrying food backwards and forwards, and tried to keep my mind from bubbling out of my ears. It felt like an earthquake in my head.
“I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.
The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us- these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road- aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see, We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From this awareness we must select and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p 82)
At this point, or shortly after, I shut the book and stuffed it back into my rucksack and waited till the students came back to meet me. I felt disjointed, and uneasy but in the kind of way that you get when you know you are onto something important but that you need to tread very very carefully. I knew also, don’t ask me how, that my own sanity might well be at risk at this point if I rushed it. These things take time to sink in and you do well not to try and grasp them all in one go. Once, as a student, in a senior common room I had no right to be in but had been invited in by a lecturer in astrophysics, I had Relativity explained to me. For about three minutes, I grasped it but I let it go when I realised I could not hold that concept in my head for long without going slightly mad. I wasn’t ready for it.
So I stepped away that day, because I was working and descending into catatonia was possibly not the best thing I could do at that point. I am still digesting the concepts and the implications of those concepts now. I am no philosopher, in all honesty, but I am a seeker after meaning. This is a book that has given me more tools in my own search for meaning.
And once you get used to the switching focuses on the book, the story itself becomes utterly gripping and strangely moving. You feel for the people(they are not characters, because it’s a true story, in the main) and you hope for them.
I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to delve deeper into what life is about, but I would also suggest that you give it the time and attention it deserves. It’s not a beach read to entertain you but a book to unsettle and disturb and challenge you.
Are YOU up for the challenge?