Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

About five years ago now, a good friend of mine told me that she had just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) for her office bookclub. She said it was a good read but that she had skipped all the motorbike bits. Having not read the book I found her comment quite curious. How can you skip all the motorcycle bits if the title promises to speak to that very subject? Wouldn’t you then be reading a completely different book?

Since that conversation I have asked around to see if others I know have read the book and what they thought of it. One friend, who had come of age in the Netherlands in the 1970s, revealed that he had read ZMM several times and that it led him to motorcycle touring. Cool.

Anyway, I have just ‘finished’ reading the book, by which I mean, I have come to the end of the book. Consisting of 400 pages divided into four unequal parts, it wasn’t a page turner for me. One of my friends became incredulous at how long I was nursing it for. ‘Almost there’ I would chortle over the phone, trying to soothe her. ‘Marios, just get it done’ she would implore me. ‘You don’t understand’ I would cry hopelessly. ‘It’s a terrible book. Just terrible!’ But why did I persist? The reason is that despite the strain and demands it placed on my attention as a reader, I felt that the book held enough value for me to endure its rambling style.

On a very broad level, ZMM is essentially a spatial and psychological journey back from the brink, from the abyss, about a highly original but misunderstood academic who drops out of society and reinvents himself as a technical manual writer and home mechanic. Some of the most touching and powerful moments of the book occur between the narrator and his estranged 11 year old son Chris, made all the more poignant when we learn in the Afterward, written in 1984, that his boy had passed away in a violent confrontation in 1979, 2 weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.

Reviewing the book, hot off the press, respected cultural critic George Steiner wrote that ‘Zen and the Art is awkward both to live with and to write about. It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.’ (Steiner 1974) I have to say that Steiner’s sentiments mirror my own experience of the first reading. But reading the book a second time round, feels more edifying and pleasurable.

There are new insights and discoveries to be had. Father and son go touring on a motorcycle across the states. I knew the father had a psychiatric episode, but I hadn’t picked up that Chris was diagnosed with mental illness, or that the narrator wasn’t always a sure-footed mechanic. This time the narrator’s voice has a coherent and crisp tone that was not revealed to me in the first reading. Also, the early introduction of Phaedrus, whose meaning and identity totally went over my head, is starting to make sense. Who knew that Phaedrus, the ghost, which stalks him, is actually his authentic self, psychologically repressed throughout the book until he overcomes the unreliable narrator in the final chapter and emotionally reconnects with his son.

Where does the name Phaedrus hail from? He is a youthful hot head, immortalised in one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Drawing inspiration from Plato, the narrator refers to his former self (before he was committed to an asylum) as Phaedrus, a self that had an intellectual axe to grind. Phaedrus is convinced that he has unlocked the secret to Western philosophy. Mad Phaedrus versus the world! He argues that rhetoric (let’s call it art) and logic (science) are foreign lands, meaningless cultural tools without a moral roadmap to guide the way. Taking a cue from the Sophists’ concept of areté (excellence, virtue) Phaedrus claims that to appreciate our relationship to technology, to avoid being dominated by it, or obversely not taking it for granted, what we need is a concept of Quality.

The underlying theme of the book is this: whatever you do in life, caring about Quality matters. The narrator writes that ‘care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares.’ (259) Being genuine, not seeking shortcuts, taking the time to understand how things work and what they mean, it is these personal attributes which constitute Quality. Though never stated as explicitly, when it comes to motorcycle maintenance, Quality is essentially an appreciation of craftsmanship.

But what’s the significance of motorcycle maintenance? Persig locates the possibility of Quality in man’s personal relation to machines, and the motorcycle was, for Persig, a personal technology par excellence. If we could, like him, appreciate Quality in our everyday lives then maybe this could lead to social change from the ground up. ‘The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outwards from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how fix a motorcycle. I think what I have to say has more lasting value.’ (280)

ZMM also contains a cautionary tale. Caring too much is an enterprise fraught with danger. The cost of dedicating oneself so single-mindedly to an endeavour that clashes with cherished social values, is alienation and social ostracisation. And so it’s not surprising that Phaedrus succumbs to psychiatric illness and is treated with electroshock therapy. ‘Before the electrodes were attached to his head he’d lost everything tangible: money, property, children, even his rights as a citizen had been taken away from him by order of the court.’ (176)

The title of the book appears somewhat misleading. In the author’s note, Pirsig cautions us that although the story is based on fact, it should not be ‘associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.’ He also goes on to say that it’s ‘not very factual on motorcycles either.’ It’s forgivable to be technically inaccurate when talking about engines in a novel. It’s not a technical manual after all. It’s another matter altogether to pass the book off as a meditation on Zen Buddhism in the title, and then to become a Greek over the next 400 pages. But maybe the distinction is a false one. On a universal level, don’t all faiths, not unlike the Greek philosophers Phaedrus takes on, aspire to mastery of one’s self toward the unattainable ideal of perfection? I dunno.

It was recently pointed out to me that this is very much a man’s book, if not sexist. I wanted to disagree, but passages such as the following weaken my resolve: ‘Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.’ (64)

To be honest, I have found it quite difficult to cogently articulate my initial impressions of ZMM on the page. Anyone with a good comprehension of the book will notice I have failed abysmally to capture the richness of material: The concept of the Chautauquas, Phaedrus’ classic/romantic distinction, the way that Persig’s narrator beautifully renders the landscape and the experience of riding on the open road. And where are the descriptions of motorcycle maintenance? The heartbreaking dialogues with his son? Despite over-labouring this essay, I have only managed to paint an opaque portrait of Persig’s flawed masterpiece. But if anything written here has inspired you to read ZMM, then I have probably done enough.

References

Persig, R 2004 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Vintage Books: London

Steiner, G 1974 ‘Uneasy Rider’ The New Yorker, 15th April, Condé Nast: New York

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