7 Nov 2019, Re-reading Pirsig (1974): Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert M. Pirsig (1974): Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. An Inquiry into Values. Bantam edition (1975) / Bantam Books, New York, NY

p.iii: Author’s note. What follows is based on actual occurrences … However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.

Part I. p.1: We are in an area of the Central Plains … heading northwest from Minneapolis … a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that … p.39: A copy of Thoreau’s Walden . . . which … can be read a hundred times without exhaustion … p.47: The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins … we approach the High plains … p.48: Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space … We are in a Western town … p.52: … a figure I recognize … It is Phaedrus. Evil spirit. Insane … p.64: … looking across it into a kind of Western spaciousness. Barren hills, no one anywhere, not a sound; and there is something about places like this that … makes you think that things will probably get better. p.78: Phaedrus spent his entire life pursuing a ghost … that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was the ghost of rationality itself … p.84: He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as “Annihilation ECS”. A whole personality had been liquidated … I have never met him. Never will. And yet strange wisps of memory suddenly match and fit this road and desert bluffs … and then I know he has seen all of this …

Part II. p.95: … the sun is bright, the air is cool, … there’s a whole day ahead of us, we’re almost to the mountains, it’s a good day to be alive … p.114: … the truths Phaedrus began to pursue were lateral truths;…the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye … p.119: … We’ve reached the high country, above the timberline … People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists … p.146: … this was the nineteen-fifties, not the nineteen-seventies. There were rumblings from the beatniks and early hippies … about “the system” …, but hardly anyone guessed how deeply the whole edifice would be brought into doubt … p.174: … an avalanche of memory … begins to come down … p.178: … What the hell is Quality? What is it?

Part III. p.183: Phaedrus’ second metaphysical phase was a total disaster. Before the electrodes were attached to his head he’d lost everything tangible: money, property, children … All he had left was his one crazy lone dream of Quality … for which he had sacrificed everything. Then, after the electrodes were attached, he lost that … p.281: … strange how old obsolete buildings and plants and mills, the technology of fifty and a hundred years ago, always seem to look so much better … Weeds and grass and wild flowers grow where the concrete has cracked … Nature has a non-Euclidian geometry of her own that seems to soften the deliberate objectivity of these buildings with a kind of random spontaneity that architects would do well to study.

Part IV. p.325: … Phaedrus … waking up … It’s a matter now of preparing for it … p.394: … When the fog lifts we can see the ocean from a high cliff, far out and so blue and so distant … p.396: We’re on the Mendocino County coast now, and it’s all wild and beautiful … The hills are mostly grass but in the lee of rocks and folds in the hills are strange flowing shrubs sculptured by the upsweep of winds from the ocean … some old wooden fences, weathered grey … p.397: Coastal people never really know what the ocean symbolizes to landlocked inland people – what a great … dream it is, present … in the deepest levels of subconsciousness, and when they arrive at the ocean … there is a sense of defeat at having come so far to be so stopped by a mystery that can never be fathomed … p.406: … we ride on and on, down through Ukiah … and Cloverdale, down into the wine country … The engine which has carried us halfway across a continent drones on and on … We pass through Asti and Santa Rosa, and Petaluma and Novato … and soon by the road are houses and boats and the water of the Bay. Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that … penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now …


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_and_the_Art_of_Motorcycle_Maintenance: Genre: Philosophical fiction, Autobiographical novel … explores … [the] Metaphysics of Quality … The title is an apparent play on … the 1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery … Pirsig received a remarkable 126 rejections before an editor finally accepted it for publication — …. Then it was on best-selling lists for decades … sold at least 5 million copies worldwide …

… a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey that Pirsig made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son Chris … accompanied, for the first … days of the trip, by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions … on topics including epistemology … and the philosophy of science. Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator’s own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus … Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a small college, became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or “Quality” … His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which permanently changed his personality. Towards the end of the book, Phaedrus’s strong and unorthodox personality … begins to re-emerge and the narrator is reconciled with his past …

… the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints focused on being “in the moment” …), and those who seek to know details, understand inner workings, and master mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis …). The Sutherlands represent an exclusively romantic attitude toward the world. The narrator … understands both viewpoints and is aiming for the middle ground … He seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life … Pirsig’s romantic / classical dichotomy resembles Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy …  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has become the best-selling philosophy book of all time.