Pirsig Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became one of the most popular books of the 1970’s and arguably one of the most widely read philosophy books of all time.

Summary of Event

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was written about a summer trip that the author and his son took in 1968, traveling by motorcycle from Minnesota to California. Accompanied by John and Sylvia Sutherland, Pirsig and his eleven-year-old son Chris began their trip on July 8. By July 17, the group had reached Cottonwood Canyon near Bozeman, Montana, where they visited Robert De Weese. The De Weese family knew Pirsig when he taught English composition at Montana State College in Bozeman, Montana, from 1958 to 1960. Pirsig had only vague memories of this part of his life because he subsequently spent a period of nearly four years in and out of mental hospitals, eventually receiving electroshock therapy. The encounter with the De Weeses allowed Pirsig to begin the process of reconstructing his past. After leaving the De Weeses’ home, Pirsig and his son continued the trip while the Sutherlands headed home by another route. The Pirsigs camped in the mountains near Bozeman and eventually ended their motorcycle trip in San Francisco. Pirsig, Robert M. Pirsig, Chris

At least a year prior to embarking on the trip, Pirsig had written a lighthearted essay concerning motorcycle maintenance and Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism One month before his trip, he had begun envisioning a much longer work. He wrote to 122 publishers expressing his intent to write a book titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, enclosing a few sample pages with his letter. Of those he contacted, 22 publishers expressed interest in the book, including William Morrow and Company, the eventual publisher. After returning from the motorcycle trip, Pirsig worked on the book for the next four years. He wrote from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. at his office at Century Publishing before beginning his eight-hour day there as a technical writer. The book sold to Morrow in January of 1973, garnering Pirsig a standard $3,000 advance. According to Pirsig, the publisher had no idea the book would be as successful as it became. Jim Landis, editor at Morrow, told Pirsig that “the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for.” Nonetheless, despite his respect for the book, he predicted that Pirsig’s royalties would not exceed the $3,000 advance.

Contrary to expectations, the book received rave reviews and ultimately sold millions of copies, making Pirsig an instant celebrity who was interviewed widely. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became the best-selling philosophy book of all time. Interestingly, however, while the book is classified as a book of philosophy, it clearly defies such narrow categorization. It is in part a novel, in part a spiritual autobiography, in part a travelogue, in part a book on philosophy, and in part a book about motorcycle maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is structured as a travelogue. The narrator describes the country through which he and his son and the Sutherlands travel as well as the reactions of the group to that countryside and to each other. In addition to a physical journey, however, the narrator is on a psychological journey, attempting to recover his past. Since the narrator’s past and his son’s past are intertwined, the narrator’s discoveries are vital to recovering in its full dimension his relationship to his son. Just as the narrator and his son go from the Midwest to the West Coast, from the plains, over the mountains, to the sea, so as father and son they confront the distance that lies between them. Also, on a psychological level, the father climbs the mountains that separate him from his former self.

Such an understanding of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance leaves out roughly half of the book. In his 1984 afterword to the book, Pirsig describes his book as a “culture bearer,” explaining that “a culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back.” In this regard, the book confronts what Pirsig considers to be a central dichotomy in Western culture: the division of technology from culture and rationality from mysticism. In order to address such issues, Pirsig uses characters that embody these conflicts as a mechanism to present ideas. According to Pirsig, this dichotomy is a central division between Western culture and Eastern culture as well as the foundation for much of the estrangement and boredom that exists in modern American culture.

The centerpiece of Pirsig’s strategy is the Chautauqua. Pirsig establishes this device early in the text, stating, “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua . . . like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, . . . an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.” Through these interludes in the text, Pirsig is able to interweave philosophy into the narrative, making the book at once more than a novel and more than a book of philosophy. It is both and something else as well.

The initial dichotomy in the book appears as a disagreement between Pirsig and the Sutherlands concerning motorcycle maintenance. John Sutherland Sutherland, John does not want to understand the workings of his motorcycle. Pirsig does all of the maintenance on his bike himself and insists on understanding the way in which his bike works. In fact, an entire chapter of the book is devoted to describing the way the motorcycle works and the way in which mechanics go about troubleshooting. Sutherland, however, cannot be convinced of the importance of understanding the machine, nor can he seem to listen when Pirsig discusses it. Pirsig sees in this refusal to consider the subject something much larger than a mere lack of interest in the work of mechanics: “It’s not the motorcycle maintenance,” he writes. “It’s all of technology they can’t take.” For Pirsig, the question becomes “Why?”

Answering the question allows Pirsig to distinguish between the “romantic view” and the “classical view” of the world inherent in modern life. He traces these two views all the way back to the Greeks. The romantic view emphasizes the emotional response to experience. It allows the individual to grasp experience as a whole. The classical view is analytic, cutting into reality with the sharp knife of the surgeon. Pirsig’s view of the motorcycle, with its emphasis on parts and functions, is classical. The Sutherlands’ view, with its emphasis on the experience of biking as opposed to the mechanics of the bike, is the romantic view.

Understanding the dichotomy between these two characters enables Pirsig to introduce Phaedrus, the silent character or the ghost in the book. The original Phaedrus appears in one of Plato’s most important dialogues, The Phaedrus. Although the main topic of the dialogue is love, another topic that Socrates and Phaedrus discuss in the dialogue is rhetoric. Socrates and Plato are deeply distrustful of rhetoric because it fails to distinguish between what is true and false. Instead, it focuses on the emotional reaction (or persuasive qualities) inherent in ideas. Socrates compares it to cookery. Since Pirsig was a teacher of rhetoric before he entered treatment for mental illness, Phaedrus, as Socrates’ antagonist, becomes the name Pirsig uses for himself before his mental breakdown. Phaedrus then is the self that both Pirsig and Chris need to confront and understand to mend their relationship and to bring wholeness to Pirsig’s divided self. He is also the embodiment of those ideas associated with rhetoric that Socrates vanquished in the Platonic dialogue.

The primary difference between Phaedrus (the past self) and Pirsig (the present self) is that Phaedrus is willing to risk everything to understand. He follows ideas wherever they lead. His ultimate understanding is an avalanche that destroys sanity: “Before he could stop it,” writes Pirsig, “the sudden accumulated mass of awareness began to grow and grow into an avalanche of thought and awareness out of control.” In his journey west and his internal journey to find his lost self, Pirsig is now able to follow the ideas that Phaedrus sought without losing control. The risk of losing control, however, is a constant threat throughout the book and creates much of the suspense that keeps the book moving.

The center of Phaedrus’s philosophical quest focuses on the word “quality.” In seeking to define quality, Phaedrus ultimately discovers a way of unifying the dichotomies that have long divided Western thought. Phaedrus defines quality in this manner: “Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live.” Quality then becomes that reaction to the world that precedes analysis of any sort, whether it be the philosophical analysis that divides subject from object or the scientific analysis that divides the technical or rational from the aesthetic or emotional. It also becomes the secret ingredient that is missing in modern life. Workers who divide themselves from the work they do are not producing quality. They are not involved in the objects that they produce. Thus, subject and object are separate in life as in philosophy. Quality is instantaneous in our reaction to the world. Analysis comes after the fact. Pirsig describes the analytic part of our reaction to the world as the cars on the train. Quality is the part of the train that is at the front, moving forward into the world.

Significance

Pirsig’s ideas were very influential and remained so into the twenty-first century. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a frequent part of many college courses, from freshman composition to upper-level courses in ethics and philosophy. Countless sojourners from all walks of modern life have claimed that this book changed their lives. An important element in the book’s influence was that, as the title suggests, Pirsig was able to bring together Eastern and Western thought. Much of Phaedrus’s understanding of quality is based on passages from Laozi’s Dao De Jing. By subordinating yet connecting the analytic foundations of Western thought to the mystical, in-the-moment presence of Eastern thought, Pirsig achieved a breakthrough of sorts.

Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Lila (Pirsig) (1991), was not nearly as successful as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It did, however, enable Pirsig to expand his ideas on quality into what came to be called the “metaphysics of quality.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Di Santo, Ron, and Tom Steele. Guidebook to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” New York: William Morrow, 1990. With the approval of Pirsig, Di Santo and Steele investigated the background of the book and the symbolism that Pirsig uses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pirsig, Robert M. Afterword to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 25th anniversary ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Written ten years after the book first appeared, the afterword gives a reader Pirsig’s reflections on the book’s significance and the death of his son Chris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “P. S. Insights, Interviews, and More. . . .” In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 25th anniversary ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. This part of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition provides the reader with an array of information on the author, the origin of the book, and its publication.

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