Book Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The comment in the writer’s critique group came without warning.
“Your memoir seems kind of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” he said.
It wasn’t a question, so I looked at him without responding, embarrassed because I couldn’t remember anything about it.
All I could do was hope the guy offering the critique of the first chapter of my memoir would continue to share his thoughts, but there wasn’t much time for comments, so we moved on.
When I got home, I thought about the fact that I’d included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) in a book list at the end of one of my blog posts in 2013. At that time, I remember thinking that it had been a long time since I’d read it, sometime during my late teens, but there wasn’t any reason for me to give it any more thought.
Of course the comment about my memoir ignited my curiosity. I had to read it again.
When I was picking up a copy of ZAMM, I wondered why I decided to read it when I was a teenager. I’ve never owned a motorcycle, but they are symbols of freedom and radical thinking, so that might have appealed to me. I also may have wanted to know if zen was the answer to some of my questions about life and God, since I didn’t belong to any groups of that kind at the time.
The story revolves around a motorcycle trip that the Narrator, his son, Chris, and a couple of friends take from Minnesota to Montana. Two interweaving story lines emerge. One focuses on the Narrator’s relationship with Chris, and the other focuses on the Narrator’s observations about life that we slowly come to see are attempts at piecing together the direction his life had been taking before he experienced some kind of psychological trauma.
A few pages in, I started to react to some of the content in ways I know I never would have when I read it as a teen, and I realized it was important for me to read it with my current perspectives.
I found myself disagreeing with some of the Narrator’s observations. He claimed that, “people who live along roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder understand the hereness and nowness of things.”(1) He said that everyone else is “trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all of this was just boring hinterland.”(2) I have known for a long time that I don’t want to live anywhere but the city. For about ten years, I lived in a place with an orchard and a lawn that came to the shoulder of the road, and I slowly realized that it wasn’t right for me because of the kind of person I am. I have also actually written a book that includes information I found about why “hereness and nowness,” among other things, matters to some people and doesn’t to others.*
But the Narrator’s beliefs at that point didn’t stop me from continuing to read ZAMM. Neither did the ongoing descriptions of the trip, which for me were stereotypical snapshots. When I reached page sixteen, I found a connection that was encouraging.
The Narrator said, “The Buddha, the Godhead, 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. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha–which is to demean oneself.”(3)
I’m not Buddhist, but part of the focus of my memoir revolves around the idea that no one should be demeaning themselves. The definition of demean is “to lower in dignity, honor, or standing.”(4) But I thought, Look at what this says, literally. “De” and “meaning”– to take away the entire meaning of oneself. That is what almost happened to the Narrator, who slowly reveals that a person he begins to talk about, Phaedrus, is the person he used to be before he experienced trauma that was defined by the medical community as insanity. At that time that meant he was given a “new personality” through intense shock treatment.(5)
He chose the name, Phaedrus, to refer to the person he was before the treatment because of its association with Aristotelian rhetoric and reason, and in Greek, it means “wolf.” Both were significant to the Narrator. The first related to an understanding Phaedrus was seeking about the role reason plays in every aspect of contemporary life, which became apparent to him as he taught writing/rhetoric at a university, and the second refers to a connection to wolves, which he describes in a number of places.(6)
As the road trip continues and the Narrator sees landmarks and places from his past life, Phaedrus’ life, memories come back to him including one that occurred when he was a professor. A random, unexpected statement repeated a couple of times by a woman named Sarah had a profound influence on him. He described it as “the seed crystal” that drove him to find a way to prove that reason is not the path to the ultimate good.(7) “Within a matter of months (it grew) so fast you could almost see it grow, (it became) an enormous, intricate, highly structured mass of thought, formed as if by magic.”(8)
The story I have to tell in my memoir is similar in many ways to this story. The young woman, the person who read ZAMM years ago, is completely different from who I am now. Like the Narrator, I only have fragments of those memories, and like it was for Phaedrus, many beliefs I’ve encountered do not align with what I believe to be true. I have been searching for understanding, relentlessly, for nearly 20 years, pursuing ideas that make some people think I am crazy. Like Phaedrus, I have experienced unexpected masses of thought that were highly structured and enormous in their impact, and also formed in a way I can’t clearly define that have had a profound influence on my life. I also believe that ZAMM may have also influenced my life, but it didn’t revolve around zen.
When I re-read the Narrator’s definition of the essential foundation of zen, that philosophical mysticism is the idea that truth is indefinable and can be apprehended only by non-rational means, and this is the basis of zen practice, it raised a lot of questions.(9)
I thought, What is non-rational? Rational means we use reason. Reasoning is defined as using “the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.”(10) Do we ever not do this? What is “apprehended,” if not “realized by a rational human being”?
The dictionary defines “apprehended” as “being able to grasp the meaning, understand, especially intuitively, to perceive.”(11) Even if we intuitively perceive or understand something, won’t there still be, at some point, some level of reasoning occurring for us to process it fully? The Narrator’s statement about zen clearly says that the truth can’t ever be apprehended via rational means, but given what he did in the book, the intellectual inquiry he followed, as well as what I have been experiencing and doing to understand what has been happening in my life, that didn’t make sense to me.
Still many of the Narrator’s insights and experiences resonated with me because they align with discoveries or observations I’ve already made and life experiences I’ve found to be true. A couple of them are:
1] A “crisis is being caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought…. It can’t be solved by rational means because rationality itself is the source of the problem. The only ones who are solving it are solving it at a personal level by abandoning “square” rationality altogether and going by feelings alone….And that seems like a wrong direction, too.”(12)
2] “The whole Renaissance is supposed to have resulted from the topsy-turvy feeling caused by Columbus’ discovery of the new world. It just shook people up. There was nothing in the flat-earth views of the Old and New Testaments that predicted it….I think present-day reason is an analogue of the flat earth of the medieval period. If you go too far beyond it you’re presumed to fall off, into insanity. And people are very much afraid of that….But what’s happening is that each year our old flat earth of conventional reason becomes less and less adequate to handle the experiences we have and this is creating lots of topsy-turviness. As a result we’re getting more and more people in irrational areas of thought–occultism, mysticism, drug changes and the like–because they feel the inadequacy of classical reason to handle what they know are real experiences.”(13)
3] “A person with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it.”(14)
One more thing caught my attention.
As I mentioned above, the story also involves the Narrator’s son, Chris. The focus of his presence revolves primarily around the difficulty Chris experienced as he tries to understand what happened to his father and his struggles in trying to reconnect with him. While it added emotional depth to the story, it didn’t seem to add much substance, but when I read the “Afterword,” I realized how important it was for him to be part of it. The copy of ZAMM that I read as a teenager had to have been the 1974 edition. In the version I have now, at least part of the “Afterword” must have been added because there is reference to an event in 1979 that revolves around a statement from Chris – a premonition, or vision, that came true in a tragic, but astonishing way.(15)
Now I can address the reviewer’s query.
Yes and no.
Yes, there will be parallels between my memoir and ZAMM because even though I can never prove that I was influenced by this book, my life path reflects the factor that the Narrator/Phaedrus identified, which is an aspect of life that the Narrator thinks we need to talk about more in order to bring about his vision of a more positive, meaningful future.
It will also differ. I have wondered for a long time if the factor that the Narrator/Phaedrus identified, that I have been implementing for years, had any effect on the events that are the focus of my memoir. In early June, I realized the concepts that the Narrator/Phaedrus and I have identified are related, but the central concept I will be pursuing is broader and deeper. I am thankful that, even though it occurred under tragic circumstances, the version I picked up this time had Chris’ premonition. It offers substantiation to the kinds of topics I will be addressing.
*In 2014, I was led to information that helped me understand differences in the ways people perceive the world, how that affects our individual world views, and how that is impacting many religious and spiritual perspectives. I published a book about the discoveries called Critical Revelations in the Realm of Contemporary Spirituality.
1) Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values. Bantam Books, 1981. Print. 5.
3) Ibid; 16.
4) “Dictionary.com.”Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com.
5) Pirsig, op. cit., 77.
6) Ibid; 75, 347, 350.
7) Ibid; 160.
8) Ibid; 161.
9) Ibid; 207.
10) “Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com.
Word Origin and History for de- : From Latin de “down, down from, from, off; concerning” (see de), but also “down to the bottom, totally” hence “completely” (intensive or completive), which is its sense in many English words.
12) Pirsig, op. cit., 150.
13) Ibid; 151-152.
14) Ibid; 272-273.
15) Ibid; 378.
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