Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M Pirsig
Revisited by Robin Ford
When Rachael Kohn’s Radio National program The Spirit of Things reviewed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (25 May, 2008) it stirred my recollections of three decades ago, and I decided to read this classic again.
Thirty years back I was starting out on an engineering academic career when a new colleague suggested I read the book. He thought it had something useful to say about an experimentation subject we were working on in which students were to learn about the scientific method itself, rather than concentrate on the results of tests. We wanted our students to do real experiments - to take steps into the unknown - so that they would avoid the dispiriting situation of “questionless answers”, where the task is to find an already known “correct result”. How could we create situations in which real experimentation might happen? The philosophising in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance helped us on our way.
After thirty years I hadn’t remembered much of the detail of the book, but certainly remembered a feeling. A connection.
One snippet that did stick in my mind was a discussion of a “shim”. Motorcycling companions of the narrator had found that the handlebars on their BMW motorcycle were loose and needed a packing piece – a shim – to make the clamping system work properly. Our narrator proposed a strip cut out of an aluminium can as a perfect solution. It had all the required properties except one – it didn’t come from the manufacturer’s store. The companions weren’t going to besmirch their BMW with that!
I also remembered that there were discussions of teaching that had meant a lot to me at the time, probably because they explored authenticity in student-teacher interactions.
On re-reading the book, the shim episode popped up like an old friend, and the thoughts on teaching still resonated, but there was so much more to delight and surprise. It seems to be one of those books that, whenever you read it, always has special relevance for your current situation.
My first surprise was the Author’s note at the front:
What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with the great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very practical on motorcycles either.
Evidently the author wants to tell me that the book is loosely autobiographical and speaks (in some way) of Zen and of motorcycles, but he is coyly silent on its major philosophical thread. Reading on, I loved the interwoven structure of the book. One minute it is a road story of a father and son on a motorcycle. The next minute it is someone piecing together his own history after the disruptions of a mental breakdown and subsequent electroconvulsive shock therapy, the next it is a personal expression of ideas on philosophy.
So, what of the philosophy? In it the author aims to reconcile two views of reality that he calls by various names, such as “immediate artistic appearance” and “underlying scientific explanation”. In terms of my remembered snippet, the first view sees a shim as what it is, the second as what it means; the companions on the BMW motorcycle saw the former, the narrator the latter. There’s much more to all of this of course – indeed, a whole book-full. I don’t know enough to judge its intellectual value, but that isn’t the point. For me it was pleasure enough to hear someone putting forward ideas with such reticent passion. I took what I found useful.
The philosophical discussions are introduced as a “Chautauqua”, which is a term I hadn’t heard before. There is a brief explanation in the book, but I wanted more. From Wikipedia, I read that Chautauquas, named for Lake Chautauqua in New York State where early ones were held, began as summer camps to train Sunday school teachers, and expanded to become a more general adult education movement with speakers and performers moving around a circuit, typically in rural USA. Because the author refers to the term so frequently I assumed it was important to him, so it was good to know this background as I read.
As the story tells, it was pursuing his philosophical ideas as a doctoral student that finally took the author over the mental edge. Is the Chautauqua in the book, in some wildly unconventional way, the PhD thesis he didn’t complete before his breakdown? How did the book seem on second reading? It was compelling. This second time I was specially caught by the story of someone re-constructing meaning out of a faintly recollected past. It certainly resonated with me as I reviewed my thirty-year academic career after a year of retirement. What little detail has lodged in my memory this time around? Just at present it’s the concept of stuckness, the value of gumption in overcoming it, and how to build reserves of this admirable quality.
Overall, I had a great time revisiting an overlooked friend, and I’ll be reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again before too long.
I'd wager there are few people who have sufficient internal resources to escape the confusion of external definitions with internal perceptions of the world. There are many who probably are not capable of that distinction. But there are many who like me are capable of seeing this truth once it is pointed out. It is the question, "what is it?"...can one answer that for oneself? - which Pirsig addresses in the Chautauquas.
It seems odd that a book can be a mentor....
Posted by Phil