Pirsig Robert M. : Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (An Inquiry into Values)

This book was published in 1974, after many rejections and more than four years of re-drafting supported and encouraged by Pirsig’s editor James Landis at William Morrow and Co.  It went on to become an enormous international success, translated into many languages and described by the press as ‘the most widely read philosophy book ever’.

In common with the majority of the book group members who attended the discussion, the proposer had first read the book in the decade when it first came out.  All agreed that it had profoundly affected their thinking at the time, and that many of the book’s themes and ideas had become assimilated into their own ways of thinking.  Of the two readers who had read the book for the first time only recently, one was equally enthusiastic, while the other, although still positive, had more reservations. 

There was some initial discussion about how best to define the book.  It reads in some respects like a novel, and in other respects like a philosophical tract.  The author’s own introductory note states explicitly that ‘it must be regarded in its essence as fact’.  We agreed that the ‘road novel’ structure was essentially a vehicle (to mix metaphors) for a philosophical and psychological journey.

Our first lay-by on our own journey through the book was a discussion about teaching in higher education.  This was sparked by the fact that there were several academics in the room, and Pirsig devotes quite substantial parts of his book to a critique of North American university and college education.  The narrator’s own experiments as a teacher – for example the withholding of grades – had resonance for some, and there was also some sympathy for his position as a difficult outsider trying to make a complacent system wake up to its own blind assumptions.  We commented on the current use of one of Pirsig’s key words ‘Quality’ in the jargon of contemporary British education-speak.  Perhaps Phaedrus’s battles have to be re-fought in every generation.

Before re-mounting our hogs, we kicked around how even research students might be pre-conditioned by their national cultures into seeking to be told what to do, or wanting to go off at obscure tangents.  We speculated as to whether innovative thought declined with age, discussed how students questioned teachers’ established paradigms, and discovered that no-one in the room had a degree in Philosophy.

Our band of Uneasy Riders set off again on the highway we had left briefly.  We discussed the relationship at the centre of the narrative between the narrator and his son Chris.  Everyone felt that in spite of our enforced identification with the first-person voice, our sympathies were much more with Chris.  It turns out that this is very much what Pirsig intended.  In the 25th Anniversary edition of the book which some of us had, Pirsig clarified his intentions regarding the way the narrative ends, and in respect of the narrator.  Phaedrus is not the threatening ‘ghost’ that the narrator portrays, but – in spite of his earlier destructiveness – a positive part of the narrator’s personality which he must accept and re-embrace in order to establish again the connection with his son that has been lost.  One reader pointed out the relationship of this new ‘I’ in the last two chapters to the concept of the Japanese number ‘mu’ discussed earlier in the book.  That is to say, the narrator must cease to think of himself as either his earlier ‘Phaedrus’ self or his new self, but must ‘unask the question’ and see himself as a whole.

Having thundered noisily along this main highway, we turned into various byways, for some more leisurely meandering:

Did Pirsig write the book primarily for himself, or for his audience?  There was clearly an urgent need for personal catharsis, but also more mixed motives such as a desire for revenge on his antagonists in higher education.

To what extent was the book of its time?  Other works of the era that dealt with society’s efforts to make people conform by means of medical treatment were brought up for comparison, such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’.  Was contemporary post-hippie western society less hung-up about conformity?

How insightful was the book into the people met ‘on the way’?  Positive remarks were made about the vivid characters glimpsed, such as the mechanic Bill of the ‘photographic mind’ school, with all his tools lying in a clutter.  The perceptive remarks on the difference between ‘coastal people’ and ‘inland people’ were also admired.

The treatment of women in the book was remarked upon – they were largely absent, and Sylvia was to some degree set up as a straightforward anti-technology patsy to be knocked down.  Apparently the real Sylvia complained that she got some pretty bad lines in the book!  Was it a ‘man’s book’?

One reader commented that the book’s philosophical approach to fixing practical problems had inspired him with the patience to discover – in the face of a 140 page instruction manual – how to delete a programme from his digital TV recorder.

At last we reached a road house, where among slops of beer we ended up in discussion of the size and weight of the various editions we had bought, agreed on the superiority of the 1970s cover design over the 25th Anniversary edition’s faux-hippie graphics, and concluded that we had enjoyed a thoroughly stimulating ride with Mr Pirsig.