Title of Book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Author: Robert Maynard Pirsig
Publisher: Vintage 2004
Year of Publication: 1991
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance written by Robert M. Pirsig describes his journey from his home state, Minnesota to the Northern side of California along with his son, Chris. At the beginning of the journey, they are accompanied by his close friends, John Sutherland and Sylvia Sutherland with whom they always part their ways in Montana.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has concentrated on the author’s thought process so the book is a first-person narrative. He writes about the trip and a special emphasis on the motorcycles they are travelling with to speak out his idea and philosophy of quality. The philosophy of quality is explained through the art of motorcycle maintenance.
He uses a long motorcycle trip to describe his world of thoughts and ideas about ways to best live life. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance progresses the narrator reveals the story of Phaedrus. At first, it is hard to associate Phaedrus to the narrator. Later, the connection is found that Phaedrus is the old personality of Robert M. Pirsig.
He uncovers his life story by declaring his nervous breakdown in the past and mentions the psychiatric procedure of electroconvulsive therapy. At the book’s end, he started to realise that it was wrong to change his way of living and personality. He starts to realise that his old self is capable of living the normal life as a father and a husband with optimism.
It has been noted that most of the research papers always concentrated on the concept of “quality” and Pirsig trying to explain the concepts of oriental philosophy through his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Maynard Pirsig rose into fame because of his autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in the year 1974. He was born on September 6, 1928. He entered the University of Minnesota to pursue Biochemistry. The number of theories and hypotheses perplexed him.
He could not find a solution to the unlimited number of hypotheses being put forward to him. He started to question the scientific practices which distracted him from his studies and thus he started to fail in the subject. After a few months or so he was expelled from the university.
Losing hope, he joined the army and was posted in South Korea till the year 1948. Later, he returned to Seattle and agreed to finish the course for Biochemistry as he didn’t like to leave it undone. He was successful in doing so and earned the Bachelor’s degree.
Pirsig found interest in philosophy so he went to India and joined Banaras Hindu University to study and understand Oriental philosophy. He also earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Chicago.
Pirsig started to earn a living by writing computer manuals. It is known that after his morning shift he wrote the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It took him three years to complete the entire autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
ROBERT MAYNARD PIRSIG AS AN ESCAPIST
Critics say that Robert M. Pirsig took these road trips with his son, Chris to develop and yield the knowledge of fixing motorcycles and plotting the routes on a map. They further add that it would save his son, Chris from the failure of his career and most importantly, mental hospitals. It’s true to some extent as he does not want his son to suffer the same fate as his. I feel he took these road trips to escape the city life, escape the world of machines.
The irony is that he travels with his son on his bike but defends the machine at one instance by saying that “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car, you’re always in a compartment, and because you are used to it don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.” (Pirsig 4)
This shows he likes to stick with the primitive machines and does not want to accept the world of modern machinery. Every time he travels with his son he gives special emphasis on the marshy lands, and the soothing scenery. He says “I have seen these marshes a thousand times, yet each time they are new. It’s wrong to call them benign.” (Pirsig 6)
He finds the nature more relaxing than a normal human being. He thinks his son also feels the same way but he doesn’t. He defends himself by saying that he is not mature enough to understand nature. But, I feel that Pirsig being an escapist fails to understand the psychology of a normal human being, so he defends himself by telling that his son is not mature enough to understand nature which I feel is partly true.
DEPICTION OF EXISTENTIAL CRISIS BY ROBERT M. PIRSIG IN HIS NOVEL, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
According to Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism, he tells that “to be human is characterised by an existence that precedes its essence. As such, existence is problematic.” Existence was related to suicide by Albert Camus and he further commented that “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus he tells that “Should I kill myself?” is the essential philosophical question.
Camus commented about the reason behind “suicide”. He said that “people commit suicide because they judge life is not worth living.”
In the autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance it seems the author takes this frequent road trips to be in the lap of nature and escape from the reality. He was a subject to electroconvulsive therapy in his past which changed his personality and to cure him of the insanity.
During the trip, he refers his old personality as Phaedrus that is before he was diagnosed to be Schizophrenia and became a subject of electroconvulsive therapy. In other words, Phaedrus occupied Pirsig’s body in the past. He relates Zen philosophy in his novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and creates a whole different meaning by concentrating on everyday aspects of life.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, Schizophrenia is “a mental disorder that is characterized by disturbances in thought (such as delusions), perception (such as hallucinations), and behaviour (such as disorganized speech or catatonic behaviour), by a loss of emotional responsiveness and extreme apathy, and by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life — called also dementia praecox.”
The author feels that these places might have been visited before. He gets these flashbacks from the past which gives us a vague account of Phaedrus’ life. The way he describes everything seems non-linear, because of his depression and alienation which makes his thought process out of touch with reality and disorganised.
I agree with the fact that Robert Pirsig explains his philosophies through motorcycle maintenance. So, Pirsig wants his son to learn the art of motorcycle maintenance to somehow understand its importance. But I feel there’s more. Maintaining a motorcycle on our own is not an easy job so we have mechanics specialized to do such jobs.
Pirsig even mocks John Sutherland because he has a motorcycle which he cannot maintain himself. It seems Pirsig used to maintain and repair his own motorcycle to assure proper repair and ensure “quality”. The very act of motorcycle maintenance can also be related to him being an escapist and already being into the pits of existential crisis. He used to maintain his motorcycle to divert his mind from his depression.
THEME OF QUALITY IN ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
The narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that is Robert Pirsig tries to explain the philosophy of quality in two ways. Firstly, he concentrates on the motorcycle trip taken by him and his son, Chris across the United States and explains Quality and then when he retrospects about Phaedrus.
According to Pirsig, Quality is a thing that cannot be defined by anyone. Phaedrus finds out Quality in philosophy while Pirsig, on the other hand, perceives Quality in a more practical way. He tries to explain quality by giving special emphasis on motorcycle maintenance, his relation with his son, Chris. He also points out the fact that “It is the peace of mind in doing something.” (Pirsig 154)
The main distinct paragraph written by Pirsig is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, “Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes, it really does exist.” (Pirsig 171)
In the primary stage, he doesn’t characterize Quality but instead utilizes it to reach the conclusion that genuine learning processes don’t originate from outside of one’s self rather the inside of one’s self and that the present tutoring arrangement of review prevents this procedure in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He mentions about the part of Phaedrus’ life where he hopes to have a quality education but ultimately fails.
The narrator explains Quality by picking two assignments his students had written and gave the entire class to analyse them. He knew the first paper that was selected by him was sloppy and disconnected from the topic whereas the second topic was to the point and informative. Naturally, the student chose the second paper which was exceptional but there were a few students who had selected the first assignment which raised another question. How would a person know if a particular thing is good or bad? This question had frustrated Pirsig so much that he was ready to resign from his job as a professor. But this exact question was answered by one of his students saying that “You just see it”.
Later, he gave a much deeper thought on it and found out that it is the student that makes the difference. A person’s inner quality is where the difference arises.
Robert M. Pirsig also argues that time is an essential factor for Quality where he narrates about his experience with the air-cooled engine in his motorcycle. Overheating of an engine may throttle the working of the motorcycle. So, when he had experienced that he would usually park his motorcycle at the side of the road and wonder what went wrong. Since he couldn’t figure out what was going on he planned to go to a repair shop who call themselves “mechanics”. Unfortunately, they couldn’t repair his motorcycle and commented that he would have to run his motorcycle at lower speeds in order to avoid such accidents. Pirsig obviously got frustrated as they couldn’t solve his issue. He took some time, went over the manual and gave a thought about the overheating of the engine. After spending a time on it for a few weeks he found out that there was a little pin inside the engine which was preventing the oil to burn at higher speeds thus making the engine go red-hot. We can see that the mechanics were careless and never took time to find out the issue. Whereas, Robert M. Pirsig had a depth analysis of his own motorcycle, spent weeks studying it and finally could found the solution by finding a small twenty-five cent pin.
RELATING PIRSIG’S THOUGHT PROCESS TO THE HAWTHORNE EFFECT
According to the webpage, Psychology Today Hawthorne effect is “…an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important, through the attention of the research team. The Hawthorne effect has become a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment; behaviour is changed due to the attention subjects receive from the researchers, rather than because of any manipulation independent variables.”
I feel it is beyond the capability of a normal human being to think of such philosophical heights just during a motorcycle trip mentioned in the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I feel that when he retrospect his past events and recalls his old personality, Phaedrus, there is a conflict between the present and the past. It seems Phaedrus is pressurizing the present self of Pirsig maybe to take over his old body.
It seems Phaedrus observes over the “dynamic-now” of the author may be to prove he is better than him. Due to the internal peer pressure by Phaedrus, the author was forced to perform much better in terms of cognitive thought process.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. London: Vintage Random House, 1991.
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Brudenell, Alistair. (2008). Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’: Quality, reason and binary opposites. Futures. 40. 287–292. 10.1016/j.futures.2007.08.016.
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