Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Publisher: Bantam
Year: 1984
Pages: 400

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance carries with it 25 years of critical acclaim, and no small amount of criticism. My brother enjoyed it (in fact, it was his copy that I borrowed), but then he’s always had more patience for reading of that sort. Last year, I researched Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which looks to reconcile the mystic traditions of the Far East with our modern-day notions of metaphysics and the western world’s scientific approach to understanding reality. My conclusions were not favorable to Mr. Capra. Thus, when faced with yet another philosophical inquiry into the union of an eastern outlook (sort of; Pirsig deals with lots of different philosophies, but tends to return to Buddhism more often than not) with the more secular approach popular in the 60s (the setting of the narrative, one of 4 threads that make up the novel).

Pirsig’s claim to fame is his “Metaphysics of Quality,” a strange mix of monism, Taoism, and a bit of Plato’s Forms. It’s all nonsense, if you ask me, and old nonsense at that: Pirsig renounces dualistic worldviews (subjective/objective) for differing manifestations of the same essence (“Quality”). A serious inquiry into it (described as “one of the first indigenous forms of Zen Buddhism to appear in the United States”) can be found at the site of Anthony McWatt. I happen to be of the belief that Buddhism is a quaint way of describing nothing at all except for giving a spiritual gloss to other vapid philosophies. Hey, Buddhism is trendy: Richard Gere’s doing it, right? And Kabbalah, too, now that Madonna Esther is doing it. In fact, the only guy who can’t seem to get a break is Tom Cruise, but I guess than eastern mysticism is still a great deal more reputable than galactic overlords.

In short, and to prevent further diatribes, I have to admit that I just didn’t care for this book. Certainly, I must also admit that my prior judgments had biased me a bit, but neither did I get the feeling that Pirsig’s new philosophy is anything great or exciting. On a rhetorical level, the story was good enough: Pirsig’s amorphous relationship with his son (who was tragically murdered in a San Francisco mugging in 1979) provided the character development necessary for a decent plot, but it was overcome with Pirsig’s babble about static patterns and his questionable alter ego, Phædrus. This is just one of those occasions where my own opinion flies in stark contrast to the literary canon (I feel the same way about Hemingway). But who knows? Many of my readers may like it.

§691 · July 19, 2005 · Tags: ·

6 Comments to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

  1. Jeff says:

    On the subject of Capra, there’s an article in the newest Skeptical Inquirer about his writings on biology. He doesn’t come out looking good.

  2. ffanatic says:

    Read Alan Watts’ The Widsom of Insecurity, and let me know what you think. I’ve got a copy you can borrow, if you so desire.

  3. Blue says:

    I started reading Zen and Motorcycle Main. but became disinterested quickly. On the other hand I love Hemingway’s writings. I think ZAYAOMM is one of those books that seem like a “cool” read.

  4. Geoff says:

    Interesting points about the book. I’m about to start reading this one and will be doing a bike trip of my own soon. Not really sure what to expect from either experience but looking forward to them both. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance certainly sounds like it’s up my alley.

  5. violent spectre says:

    I really would have enjoyed to hear why you think Pirsig’s position is nonsensical. I completely disagree that the only redeeming value is its rhetoric, as Pirsig very accurately describes many of the philosophical reasons why the Modern Western understanding of reality is currently in question. Sure, there may be some mysticism involved in the discussion, but if you take serious his very good points about the arrogance and prejudices of the Western worldview–i.e. the laughable and dated assertion that only We in The West have a
    True Understanding of Reality (pardon the mocking tone of my excessive capitalization)–you may start to realize that your rejection of Pirsig’s metaphysics may stem from the very same prejudices and over-zealously valued Modern (as opposed to Post-Modern) Logically Positive metaphysics as diminished in Zen…. If I am correct in this, it is no small wonder you did not appreciate the philosophical perspectives presented in the novel. Feel free to write me back on the issue. I have left my email address.

  6. Ben says:

    In no small part because Eastern mysticism is now trendy. I’m not exact what you’d lump into Western Thought, but eastern mysticism still has nothing on good old science. If you’re looking for a alternate metaphysical stance that you can intone with great gravitas to a lot of credulous people, then sure, read your Capra and your Pirsig. If you want something useful, ditch the trendy mysticism and pick up a science textbook.

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