Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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.

5 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. So, why no desire to teach ZAMM in the classroom? Do you think students wouldn’t “get” it? I’ve taught it twice in my “American Literature of the Open Road” class, and students responded quite favorably to it, really grappling with its philosophical message. Ultimately, though, I stopped assigning it because it’s just too darn long to teach in a 15-week semester where we spend only two weeks on each book we read. But bless my students, they tried to plow through the whole thing regardless of such time restraints!

  2. In one sense, I wouldn’t teach it for the same reason I never thought of offering Moby Dick to my high school classes.

    First, it’s just plain too long and too complex. It would end up eating up almost a half year of a high school literature class to teach it adequately.

    Second, it’s too hard. Most of the students in a high school class would only get it on a superficial level, if they got it at all.

    Perhaps more importantly, I’m, still not sure I “got” it. There are whole sections. like on the pre-Socratic philosophers that’s just plai over my head. Then I begin to wonder if that’s even relevant? Does it matter if Phaedrus’ view is confirmed by a group of dead Greeks? Or, are we only concerned with whether his ideas are valid or not? Ultimately, I wanted some sort of “expertise” in anything I taught.

    Without taking an entire class devoted to Pirsig, I doubt I would feel like an expert when it comes to his work.

  3. I haven’t driven for several years, but there was a
    time in my life when I drove 25,000 miles a year
    and purchased a new car every two years. It was a
    way to keep myself perpetually in debt. One car I
    sold became a delivery vehicle for a pizza biz.

    As to Emerson’s statement, things had so often
    given me fits I modified his truth to:
    “Things are in the saddle and ride Brian.”

  4. Geez, Loren, if you keep paring down your life, getting rid of the detritus America offers, you will either become the Bodhisattva or the guy on the corner with a cup. I liked Pirsig when I read him for 2 things: his pure commitment to taking care of things, a kind of engineer’s devotion to the charm of a clean machine; and his persistent questioning. I am wondering, as I read this note, if everybody is as unhappy as you suggest. I believe the indicators (divorce,child abuse, drug abuse,GWB’s war) may be more symptomatic of something other than materialism, in fact. The three trends (lately) that intrigue me most are the story (this morning) that most American youth consider “video snacking” more interesting than the evening news or the morning paper, a sign that they don’t find conventional news compelling; the growing disenchantment with the leadership of GWB & Cheney even in their own party; and the rapid evolution of materialism in China. The latter may mean they will soon be as unhappy as we are. Tongue out of cheek, I’d say that “happiness has twoness” has two metrics, one philosophical (yours) and the other material. Using the latter, as people acquire materiaL comforts like washing machines and a steady food supply and some protection from the elements, they generally feel happier/better. Misery is usually measured in economic terms first (hunger, shelter, epidemic), and since America still uses about 75% of the natural resources of the world to sustain about 12% of its population, we’ve had a long run of comfort. The rest of the world (88% of it) has only begun to gain speed and (relative) prosperity in the past 30 years. In that sense, I believe more people are “happy” than were happy in 1975. And in America, our unhappiness is on the brink of getting worse, not so much because we have sacrificed our sanity on the altars of comfort (though I agree it’s an issue), but because our security, our position in the world economy, and our status as a credible republic are all in doubt. I believe we do better as individuals when we feel our country is a haven, when we act (nationally) to offer a warm hand rather than a heavy one, and when we make our communities safer for kids and women. The rest (fast food, PDAs, a new car and a new suit) is gravy. But I’d hate to give up my earbud. It helps me sleep.

  5. In the past week or so, I came across a quote attributed to Robert Pirsig. It went something like, “The motorcycle you’re working on is yourself.”

What do you think?