A Belated Preface to My ZAMM Discussion

I’ve decided to back up on my discussion of ZAMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) because I’ve begun to see it in a new perspective the more I’ve thought about it. In other words, this should have been the preface, but since this is blogging it’s the second entry.

When I first read ZAMM many years ago I thought it was a novel, a quest novel. It didn’t take long to realize that Phaedrus and the narrator were one and the same and that the novel was a journey to make the self whole, One.

The novel became one of my favorites, ranking right up there with modern classics like Catch-22, Invisible Man, Cat’s Cradle, and Giles Goat Boy. I identified with Phaedrus and the narrator, because our journeys (minus the mental institution, thank heavens) seemed to parallel each other.

In junior high school I had my own chemistry set and was making and launching solid fuel rockets, before rockets became the rage. In high school I took honors math and science courses, and earned advanced standing in math at the University of Washington, which I entered as a physics major. For much of my youth I dreamed of becoming a “scentist.”

Like Phaedrus, though, it turned out I was looking for answers that science didn’t seem too interested in answering. Once in college, I shifted to English, but actually spent more time taking Philosophy classes my first two years. My favorite freshman class was a Philosophy Course in Logic, a class I nearly aced because it was so similar to my favorite math class, Geometry. It wasn’t until I started trying to apply those logical syllogisms to my own life that I realized such Logic might not be the final answer. I’ve never lost my love for the precision that such thinking offered, as opposed to the messy emotional world of, say, love and personal relationships.

Both Phaedrus and I had become English teachers and struggled with the problem of quality and the best way to elicit if from our students. Any English teacher that hasn’t become disillusioned with the attempt to teach good writing through good grammar is not someone I want to study under. I’d learned that through personal experience. My 8th grade teacher told my parents that he’d never had a student who could diagram sentences as well as I did. Which makes it a little difficult to understand why my writing scores on the SAT were so low, particularly since I’d earned an “A” in all my English classes.

Most of all I agreed with Pirsig’s emphasis on quality, agreed that pride in work and quality products were vital qualities that had somehow gotten lost. It was about this time that I’d discovered woodworking and Krenov’s furniture books. Building quality furniture that I could never afford to buy became an important part of my life. It wasn’t motorcycle maintenance, but I approached it the way Pirsig approached the care and maintenance of his bike.

So, as a novel, ZAMM was about as good as it could get.

When I bought the new edition, however, a subtitle had been added “An Inquiry into Values” and it’s published under Harper Torch: Philosophy, which led me to approach the book with a rather different attitude than I’d approach it as a novel, a more disciplined approach. That’s when I began to see flaws that made me wonder just how rigorous Pirsig’s argument really is.

Statements like this, for instance, make me a little nervous:

At first the truths Phaedrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory situation, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can't make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That's a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn't move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull's-eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that's from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that's not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one's existing system of getting at truth.

To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He couldn't follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do.

Like most people, I’ve done some “drifting” in my life, trying to recover from traumatic events that challenged my basic beliefs about life, but it’s not a method I would recommend for finding new “truths,” nor a form of thinking I’d want to rely on to achieve a clear understanding of life.

I’m certainly not about to dismiss ZAMM, but I actually have more questions after a second reading than I had after I read it the first time. I’ll try to explore some of those questions in the next few days and get ready to read Lila to see if it answers any of those questions.

8 thoughts on “A Belated Preface to My ZAMM Discussion

  1. When I first read the book in my 20s, in 1974-1975, I was coming from an educational background heavy on English literature and art. I had avoided classes in math, science and philosophy. Pirsig’s intertwining of personal narrative, sensitive description of landscape, philosophy and motorcycle maintenance fascinated me and opened my mind in an unexpected way. I began to see beauty in the way a motorcycle worked and that maintaining a motorcycle involved intuition along with what I would certainly call “Art.” I enjoyed being exposed to philosophical questions.

    On the first reading, I felt closer in age to his son than to him and was impressionable. Now, I am older than he was when he wrote the book and am still impressionable but that is tempered with 30+ years of life experiences. I have my own ideas. Still, I found his meditations on quality to be just as vital as they were the first time around. For me, his descriptions of Western landscape are immaculate.

    In both readings, much of what he discussed was way over my head, but I like to read over my head. Always have.

  2. I read Lila about ten years ago and have still never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My impression of Lila was that I probably needed to have read ZAMM first to establish any real rapport with the character narrating Lila. He comes across as a pseudo-intellectual jerk with a few too many bad habits he wants to rationalize. How would you rate ZAMM in comparison to The Education of Henry Adams?

  3. Afraid I can’t make that comparison, Craig, since I haven’t read The Education of Henry Adams. though it sounds like it could be another interesting read.

  4. Was it just a slip, influenced by pop culture and advertising lingo, when you used the verb “to read” as a noun (in a reply to another comment, above)? Or do you endorse and embrace this little four-letter bastardization, in spite of your otherwise clear attention to the beauty and function of the English language? Am I alone in feeling that a book might be enjoyable to read, but not a good “read,” even though it might take me a few extra words to say so?

  5. I can’t remember ever consciously saying “that’s a good read,” Rae, and don’t know why I didn’t just say “book,” but there’s no doubt that I am much more informal in comments than I am in my blog entries, which I write over a much longer period of time and edit several times to insure that I’ve really said what I want to say with the least number of words possible.

  6. Thanks for the reply, Loren. I agree, the best choice is to say it’s a good book. It is frustrating to see the phrase “a good read” attributed at times to published writers, editors and literary agents, who ought to know better. Out of curiosity, how you do feel about Cormac McCarthy’s lack of apostrophes for contractions with the word “not” such as dont instead of don’t, and cant instead of can’t, in his (otherwise) delightful novel, The Road? And by the way, kudos to you for your blog. It is a wonderful place to visit.

  7. Again, I’m not a purist, but I can’t imagine using contractions without the apostrophe, though I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s work.

    Without the apostrophe I tend to read cant as “cant,” i.e. “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk.” I don’t see any good reason for leaving them out. There’s no reason to consciously add confusion to a conversation if it can be easily avoided.

  8. Loren, I certainly hope you will read McCarthy’s THE ROAD. As for the lost apostrophes: McCarthy isn’t the only one to jettison them. The choice does drive some people to distraction. Yes, it takes a little getting used to, but we can get used to it and go with it and even to appreciate the spare nature of the language without apostrophes. After McCarthy, regular writing tends to look frilly to me, like a doilly. There is something quite beautiful about McCarthy’s prose. The writer is the god of the world she/he creates, and I’m happy to see this kind of experiment. Who says writers have to follow the rules? (smiling mischeviously here)

What do you think?