I put off reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance for a very long time. When the novel first started seriously hitting my radar years ago, I was just finishing up my full-tilt dive into New Age thought (which, by the way, is often just Westernized Eastern thought). I had spent months that probably added-up to years (off and on) of reading all about: reincarnation, karma, collective unconscious, lucid dreaming, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Tantrism—even crystals and witchcraft and astrology—and yes, of course, Zen practices. The list could go on (the New Age umbrella is large, and I guess I must’ve read a good bit of what was piled beneath it). Anyway, I had become overfull with New Age thought, and some book with the word “Zen” in its title did not titillate me in the least.
But flashforward more years than I care to mention—and people are still talking about Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not only that, but it’s young people talking about it. Granted, I think the book is used as an entry-point into philosophy and is assigned reading in many a introductory course (a la Sophie’s World), but still, the references I hear are always positive. So, recovered from my New Age exhaustion, I finally decided to give the book a go.
What I found was not what I was expecting. Though the work is definitely of its time, it is not a simple-minded, touchy-feeling, New Agey gloss-over of vague, I-wish-it-were-true fantasies of the Great Big Loving Interconnected Oneness Of It All. Neither was it some bland, unsupported assertion that, gosh, y’know what religions call “God” is really just that loving energy force inside each one of us (ahh…). And t’weren’t another tirade against heartless soulless science and reason preaching that we should worship intuition and artistic expression, and that all value systems are of equal worth (I suppose such an assertion would include the value system that values value systems equally). Nope. Author Robert M. Pirsig is actually a proponent of scientific thinking and logic. He’s just sneaking in the backdoor over the doormat labelled “Zen.”
One thing no one much mentions about Zen And The Art…, is that the last half of the book is actually a promulgation of Pirsig’s pet theory of Reality, and much of the book up to that point has been preparing the reader for this theory. I think people don’t mention this because they feel as I do: most of the interesting thought is in the first half of the book, in which Pirsig talks in a general and simple way about Reality and Perception, and about the divide between The System and Counterculture, a divide that was peaking about the time Pirsig finally found a publisher for his book.
Pirsig says that the distinction between The System and Counterculture can also be viewed as the difference between two worldviews: the “Classical” and the “Romantic” (the Romantic would include the New Age blather, which had a much longer build than the Counterculture/ Youth Culture phenom of the Sixties).
[Let me make a paragraphical aside here and get out of the way that in my opinion, although Zen And The Art… is told in novel form, it is a sorry piece of work judged solely as a novel. I never gave a damn about any of the “characters,” and the plot is pretty measly— if you want to call riding a motorcycle cross country while talking philosophy and giving tips on small engine maintenance a plot.]
But of course, the play is not the thing in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. What Pirsig is really excited about is this theory of his that states that something he calls “Quality” is the underlying basis of Reality. I might do a separate post on Pirsig’s Quality theory, but what I want to discuss in the remainder of this post is what I found most fascinating in the book: Pirsig’s ability to explain, and later to synthesize, the Classical and the Romantic worldviews. Science and Art can be —should be— one.
To a Romantic, says Pirsig, the Classical worldview “often appears dull, awkward, and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself.” On the other hand, the Romantic worldview is “primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate.” And he doesn’t hesitate to point out the obvious, though perhaps today considered politically incorrect: “In the northern European cultures, the Romantic mode is usually associated with femininity.” He contrasts this with the Western association of the Classical with the typically “manly” pursuits of his time: science, technology, law, and medicine— and of course, motorcycle maintenance. “Although motorcycle riding is Romantic,” he says, “motorcycle maintenance is purely Classic.”
Thus, due to the period’s locked-in associations of Gender and Worldview (Man = downwardly spiraling current System; Woman = redemptive Counterculture), it is no wonder that masculinity came under fierce attack during the 1970s (from which it still hasn’t recovered). And of course, since “it’s a man’s world” (according to a saying of the day) masculinity had only itself to blame.
What Pirsig shows us is that this (at the time largely) “masculine” desire to draw order from the chaos is, in itself, a creative, philosophical, and artistic pursuit. Just as the Romantic might look for underlying Reality in karma or the collective unconscious, the Classicist is also on a quest for underlying Reality.
Pirsig uses the motorcycle as a symbol for what he is talking about. For the Romantic who rejects man’s technological world, with its domination by logic and science, the motorcycle is just a collection of heartless pieces of metal, rubber, and plastic. But the Classicist sees the underlying Reality, the idea, of the motorcycle beneath the parts. A blueprint or electronic schematic is the Classicist’s Bhagavad-Gita, taking him to places wherein he can swim in the deeper Ideals beyond the superficial phenomena of this world. The Classicist looks at a blueprint and sees “that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.”
Pirsig was actually swimming against the current at the time he wrote his super-duper-best-seller; much of popular psychology and personal philosophy in the 1970s was a mutiny against authoritarianism and the assembly line. Western culture had become too mechanical and impersonal, too dehumanized and dispirited, too compulsively competitive and obsessively at war. The war in Vietnam was shown to be senseless, cruel, son-stealing, family-murdering, counterproductive violence. The idea of a “just war” had become ludicrous; war, itself, had become recognized as a crime against humanity. And even in the good ol’ U.S. of A., our streets were unsafe, our homes were rampant with domestic violence, and our greatest leaders were being assassinated. There was obviously something very fundamentally wrong with how Western culture, especially American culture, was approaching life. It was becoming clear: the West was stumbling through the Cosmos with the wrong worldview.
Wading into the middle of this tidal wave of mass rebellion comes Mister Pirsig boldly holding aloft his little book and telling us -–oh-so-old-school!– that the calm satisfaction one can derive from the rational pursuit of technology can be just as enlightening and peace-inducing as Zen meditation!
What saved the book—indeed, MADE the book– was its timing. Despite their knowledge that the world had tipped too far in one direction, people, down deep, did not really want to give up on science; they knew the wonders it had accomplished and could accomplish when the head is guided by the heart. And they accepted gratefully Pirsig’s vision of how they could throw out the dirty bathwater of the modern world without losing the baby. Pirsig had found a way to romanticize science.
Any zeitgeist takes from events only what it craves and tosses aside the rest. In the case of Pirsig’s novel, the people shrugged their shoulders at the boring plot, ignored the fact that the book was really a exposition of Pirsig’s personal (and unconvincing) “Quality” theory of ultimate Reality—and took to their collective bosom, instead, his generalized overview of the philosophy of Reality. They wanted to hear that — beneath the superficial, painful, perplexing, heartbreaking world of phenomena surrounding us— there was something more, something deeper. People stood in desperate need of a new understanding of reality—or at least of the possibility that a different Reality existed. And best of all to the children of the Sixties: Pirsig’s book on the deeper Reality came without the devastating side-effects of LSD!
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