After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and discussing it with a friend for several hours, I’m beginning to remember why I urged other English teachers to read it but never had any desire to teach it in the classroom. In retrospect, I think I was more impressed by the book when I originally read it than I am now, though it still seems one of the few books that raises vital questions about why so many people are unhappy even though they have material wealth undreamt of by our forefathers.
One wonders why our society still hasn’t addressed most of the questions Pirsig raises thirty seven years ago, which, of course, is all the more reason why individuals have to address them. The book is a tour de force, but I remain doubtful that Pirsig has truly found the Grand Unification Theory, which seemed to be Phaedrus’ goal.
When the book appeared in 1974 many in my generation were beginning to doubt that the living the Great American Dream was really going to bring happiness. After all, I had graduated from college, owned a brand new home in the suburbs, had a new Mustang and Dodge Dart in the garage, had the perfect son and daughter and many people who knew us felt that we were the perfect American family, unaware that within a few years the marriage would dissolve and our family would be living hundreds of miles apart.
No wonder the life the narrator finds on the backroads of America suddenly seemed so appealing:
The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and newness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
Of course, those of us living in the suburbs were beginning to wonder if the the cities of our childhood weren’t preferable to the suburbs where nuclear families played in their own backyards rather than gathering on the stoop to watch children play baseball in the street.
Like Pirsig, many of us were also beginning to realize that owning the “latest thing” was no guarantee of happiness:
In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?”, a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.
Even those of us who should have know better had fallen victim to the corporate sell that new was better than old and that the happiest people were those who had all the latest toys, whether it was a new car every three years or a gold refrigerator when the green one had gone out of fashion.
In our mad rush to replace the old with the new (he says while longing for a new Intel Mac Pro to replace his ancient G5) we had somehow forgotten that the only important things are those things we really care about:
I talked yesterday about caring, I care about these moldy old riding gloves. I smile at them flying through the breeze beside me because they have been there for so many years and are so old and so tired and so rotten there is something kind of humorous about them. They have become filled with oil and sweat and dirt and spattered bugs and now when I set them down flat on a table, even when they are not cold, they won’t stay flat. They’ve got a memory of their own. They cost only three dollars and have been restitched so many times it is getting impossible to repair them, yet I take a lot of time and pains to do it anyway because I can’t imagine any new pair taking their place. That is impractical, but practicality isn’t the whole thing with gloves or with anything else.
I’ve already done a blog entry describing the most valuable things in my life, all of which added up to a monetary value of less than a dollar, and I long ago decided that money couldn’t buy the things that made my life richer. Even in college I felt Emerson was right on when he said, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind” so it came as no great surprise that I moved further and further in that direction. Good thing, too, since every time I changed jobs I took another cut in pay.
Of course, these weren’t new attitudes when Pirsig introduced them, though most of society had managed to forget them, relegating Emerson and Thoreau to the Great Trash Bin of History, where ideas go to be forgotten.