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.