A review of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

I first read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was about 14 and have re-read it about three times since then. Trying to give a short review, which will still do justice to this wonderful book isn’t easy.

It was a massive struggle for the author to get the book published. After receiving dozens and dozens of rejection slips, he eventually found a publisher. The publisher in question said that the book forced him to reconsider why he went into publishing in the first place – is it to make money or to produce great literature? A book about philosophy – initially the expectation was that it would sell only a few thousand copies, yet it has sold in its millions.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a story of Robert Pirsig, the author, and his son as they journey across America on an old motorbike. It is also a story of a clash of values – whether we should be obsessed with the image of things, or whether we should be purely utilitarian about our possessions. Does it matter what they are called, or what they look like, as long as they perform their function well? Pirsig calls these outlooks “romantic” and “classical”, and then goes further in trying to unite these two opposing outlooks in terms of “Quality”.

I suppose the romantic / classical dichotomy in the book also applies to religion / science, or to a need to understand the meaning behind things and why they work (classical), or the opposite point of view which would be simply to appreciate their beauty (romantic).

A parallel narrative in the book is that of the fictional Phaedrus, who goes on a voyage of self-discovery, just as the author and his son are travelling across country. He attempts to reconcile Western and Oriental, scientific and religious, classical and romantic attitudes towards life, again through the notion of Quality.

Following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Pirsig believes that our concepts of the world are built out of what we experience. These aspects of reality that we cannot sense directly, Kant calls a priori experience.

According to Pirsig, at the cutting edge of experience is Quality – an analogy would be of surfing a wave, or riding a motorcycle – the shifting experience we have of the natural world, transmitted through the filter of our senses.

When we become stuck with a problem, we may be forced to re-evaluate our entire perceptions:
“Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding.” Pirsig talks about a screw which has become sheared so that you cannot remove it when you are trying to fix your bike. “Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now, as your Quality awareness becomes stronger, you realise that the screw actually has the same value as the whole motorcycle.”

What he is discussing is how the precepts of Zen Buddhism can break us out of normal ways of thought and force us to come up with new ideas. We need to re-think things because the world is in a continual state of flux – Quality. We need to look deeper than merely on the surface of things and think about what they are really worth.

The philosophy comes, thankfully, in small, bite-size chunks, interspersed with Pirsig telling the story of his journey across America on motorbike. It has to be written like this, otherwise it would be unreadably dense. However, there are shafts of insight between the two tales which clarify each other. Pirsig calls this journey a Chautauqua – an Indian word for an oral story. Again he employs the deliberate juxtaposition of Western / Indian, classical / romantic ideas. Reading it, however, is still an intellectual challenge. This is a book which demands to be re-read repeatedly and thought about.

There is also a sequel, Lila, which explores similar themes and develops Pirsig’s ideas further. (But that story is for another review).

I would highly recommend Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to anyone who wants a stimulating and thought-provoking read. It will stay with you for life, such is the power of Pirsig’s crystal-clear prose. This is a wonderful book.

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