The unlikely success of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes Robert Pirsig perhaps the most read modern philosopher
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Somewhere between the publication of Richard Bach’s pop philosophy book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and the end of the golden age of rock came the unlikely publishing sensation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values in 1974. A generation of men and women—mostly young and not just in the US—snapped up a million copies in the first year alone. It was an “explosive” sensation, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, the day its author Robert M. Pirsig, once a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer, died in Maine, US, at the age of 88.
Forty-three years after its publication, it is hard to imagine the sensation it caused at the time. Zen is a dense work of non-fiction that tells the story of a man (Pirsig, really), his 11-year-old son and two friends going on a 17-day trip on a motorcycle in the US while the author grapples with insanity, deeply troubling and potentially life-changing questions of philosophy and the son searches for his ”lost” father.
The book makes Pirsig, a reclusive man who only ever wrote one more book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, probably the most read modern philosopher. To an extent, it was the book’s impeccable timing that was responsible for its success. It struck a chord with a generation of youth, scarred by Vietnam and fearful of the spectre of nuclear war, who took comfort in Pirsig’s book—although it offered no easy answers with its searing exploration of madness and reason.
Timing was important because the book appeared to a post-hippy, post-psychedelic world. The gurus of woodstock had long slipped into oblivion, it was only a year to the end of the Vietnam war and capitalism had won. Zen was the Bible that a generation was looking for and Pirsig became the iconic figure it clung to.
Cult does not even begin to describe the adulation with which Pirsig, whose book was rejected by no fewer than 121 publishers, was held.
Fans would turn up at his home outside Minneapolis, camp overnight on the lawns outside, hoping to meet the reclusive writer in the morning and get to ask him questions. He would take a camper van and flee.
The book recounts Pirsig’s mental breakdown—his schizhophrenia as he grappled with a mental ghost called Phaedrus. It delves primarily into the question of what constitutes “quality”—the very question that brings the author on the edge of insanity.
As later interpreters have written, it is the question of whether quality signifies insanity or enlightenment—or a bit of both—and the question of whether it was possible to fuse western and eastern thought on duality (Pirsig spent some time in Benares studying Indian philosophy) that occupies Pirsig. The running refrain is Pirsig’s other self, Phaedrus, who must terrify but also deliver.
Famously, in his foreword, Pirsig writes about the book, “It should in no way be associated with the great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.”
He wrote later, “The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this,” adding: “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”
To a post-industrial generation, Pirsig’s descent into madness and his eventual success—that is how it was read by many at the time though Pirsig later disagreed—in overcoming the shadowy Phaedrus spoke of an experience that was close to them but never articulated so clearly.
“The Buddha, the Godhead,” he wrote, “resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”
In the 10th-anniversary edition in 1984, Pirsig used the Swedish word “kulturbarer”—or culture bearer—to try and explain the success of Zen. It heralds a change that is already underway, like Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin and the abolition of slavery.
Generations to come will wonder at this book and its author. Not all of them will be “Pirsig’s pilgrims” as his fandom came to be known. But they will all be drawn into this philosophical book—at once gentle, potentially uplifting and damaging—from its first words, quoted from Plato:
And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good,
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things.