Robert M. Pirsig Essay - Critical Essays

Pirsig, Robert M(aynard)

Pirsig, Robert M(aynard) 1928–

Pirsig is an American novelist whose "lifelong compulsion to negotiate a workable intellectual contract with Ultimate Reality" has given us the extraordinary novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

[As] Pirsig talks on [in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance], one feels a certain ominous hollowness to his arguments. The technological optimism, for instance, that is crucial to his world view is not persuasive. At bad moments Pirsig can lapse into chamber of commerce talk, reminding the reader that life in an industrial society is superior to that in a primitive one, and that "a technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset." Well, maybe, but it is not obvious that because technology has brought us to someplace better it might not lead us further, to someplace worse.

Even when he is at his most telling on the subject of technology, Pirsig seems to forget some essential truths. He misses, for example, the fact that individual salvation may spell collective doom: the now familiar "tragedy of the commons." He misses, too, the gratuitous, wanton symbolic power a man with a machine may wield, his ability to influence the world around him beyond his natural powers of articulation and apart from his social and political affiliations. Should all the residents of my town become devoted motorcyclists, no matter with what epiphanous love we replace our points and plugs, we will shatter the peace of Sunday afternoon, annoy one another, and each will hate the place that all have created.

What is absent from Pirsig's arguments is what is absent from the life he describes: a developed sense of the inevitable mutuality of experience. It is with true dismay that the reader realizes that the battle he describes in the past is being reenacted in the present, and that the outcome is by no means certain….

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a bold book. Its author disregards the risks of humiliation and speaks without the aid of a social support system (without a professorial chair or a title, not even the title "novelist") about the largest issues. The issues are ones that have inhabited our culture and which now consume more and more of our conscious life: how to think about the hated and beloved machines … how to blunt the force of onrushing linear thought … how to escape the traps of "individuality" without obliterating the self. And in his own confessional story he dares to render more than he fully understands. High intelligence, high intention, and deeply flawed self-knowledge: ingredients of tragedy, and so they have been in the life this book recounts, but they have also produced a self-sacrificial document of a strength that is not commonly found in works of more deliberate art. (p. 94)

Richard Todd, "Praise God, From Whom All Ball Bearings Flow," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1974, pp. 92-4.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is trying to initiate a philosophical change, and simultaneously a change of imagination and sensibility, in its readers. It's an ambitious and exciting aim, and the only question is, How successful is it?

One of the strengths of the book is its dramatization of the passion and riskiness of truth-hunting: in original thought, passions are at the full, and the thinker's sanity, love and life are at stake, involving lonely terrors and survival procedures the timid, who've never questioned the mythos, know nothing of. The first zen insight is a cataclysm and a lot of people are registered insane at this point and get locked up. The narrator of this autobiographical recreation was one of the unlucky ones. He was subjected to the technological violence of 'annihilation' electroshock therapy and his personality killed. When 'he' came to, he had to construct a new personality. This book's an account of a lonely motor bike holiday, with his son, over the territory the former man—now a ghost he calls Phaedrus—lived in. Both father and son are in fact incurably mourning the man who died; and neither of them will be able to find themselves and each other—in zen of course they are each other—or love until the narrator stops thinking of Phaedrus as someone else and integrates.

It's ghostly, but far from a horror story, and at points deeply moving—and an extreme account of everyone's relation to the people he once was, who have died. 'We' tread the corridors 'we' once trod. Who is the ghost? 'Saw I an old man young, or young man old?'

Another theme is the need to take responsibility for the technology, concretized by the motor bike: the Buddha's in bikes as well as the horseturd in the road and the daisy. But the cycle's also the body, the self, the universe, society, and so on. We are whole and we reveal ourselves in all our relationships. There is, however, a slight failure at this frontier. He makes the typical mistake of our time, supposing the individual and private solution enough, even though the individual suffering is seen to be simultaneously collective. Like Krishnamurti, say, he rightly emphasizes that the revolution takes place in the individual consciousness or not at all; but does not see that if the revolution has taken place it must begin to seek political imagery and expression.

The book has many faults, sometimes trying ones. It does what Cyril Connolly once called hitting the nail on the head, and then hitting it on the head, and then hitting it on the head. Often I felt I was being asked to mark time until the stupes caught us up, or while he went on in a folksy, lariat-spinning cowboy philosophizing. The section on 'gumption' is an almost total disaster. The book's often naive: over-chummy, confiding, ingenuously conceited, garrulous, repetitive, crackerbarrel, sometimes clichéd, facetious and over-explanatory. At times I thought: this is a Buddhistic Norman Vincent Peale. Often I felt the author didn't realize how self-righteous he was being, or what a bastard. I'm still not sure. The book's awkwardness is one of its strengths—whether this awkwardness is just plain struggle to get something difficult out, or whether it's irony and art as I now think. At the end the author has considerably revised his view of the behaviour he earlier seemed to be offering as a model for us—a model I for one couldn't accept. But the author is considerably more intelligent than his taste sometimes made me think; and what gives the book dignity and power is its struggle with madness. A lot of the survival techniques here offered are the sort that only look vulgar when you're not yourself on the traditional razor edge.

But the test of a major work is not its perfection but whether the world looks—however slightly—different after it. Do I notice a slight polish on the doors of perception? Not so great as, say, after seeing Cézanne for the first time, or reading Proust, but yes: rather, recovering something I'm constantly losing. And yes—something new as well, especially about motor bikes. I might even do something about that long-standing aesthetic guilt of mine about not being able to mend my own car. (pp. 136-38)

Herbert Lomas, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), December 1974/January 1975.

When I finished my ride through Robert M. Pirsig's book, impressed but not overawed, I was surprised to learn that "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" ("Z.A.M.M." for short) is not, as I had thought, an autobiographical novel but rather a novelistic autobiography. But does that make any difference? The whole intent of Pirsig is to break through such abstract divisions, to splint and heal what he sees as compound fractures between our thinking and feeling, science and art, reason and emotion, our outer and our inner selves….

One reviewer, in The New Yorker, compared "Z.A.M.M." favorably to "Moby Dick," a helpful exaggeration. Pirsig's hero like Melville's Ahab risks madness, in fact goes through madness and beyond, in his desperately determined quest for a unifying vision of what life is and of what life can be in the modern scientific-industrial world. But while we must respect the stubborn integrity of Pirsig's effort, it should be plain by now even to his most ardent admirers that "Z.A.M.M." lacks, to name three qualities, the grandeur of passìon, the splendor of style and the planetary, almost cosmic scale of "Moby Dick." Pirsig's ambition is heroic but his methods much more modest than those of Melville; I think it would be fair, not in any way denigratory, if the two must be compared, to say that Pirsig's hero is to Captain Ahab as a graduate student of philosophy is to a—well, to a Giordano Bruno. If Ahab was a sea captain, a whale-pursuing seer with the power to inspire and lead, then Pirsig and his hero (the two are the same) can be likened more honestly to a good, competent shade-tree mechanic telling us, in a flat but earnest Midwestern accent, how to repair and take care of a motorcycle….

One is tempted to call the book a psychomelodrama, for Pirsig's intentions are as extravagant as his themes. The attempt to triumph over madness, suicide, death in the self, of his son, for our world, by means of the patient exploration of ideas and emotions is certainly an extravagant ambition. That he succeeds in finding a plausible catharsis through such an enterprise seems to me sufficient reward for the author's perseverance, and ample testimony to his honesty and courage.

Among the many dichotomies that Pirsig securely bridges is the one with which I began this retrospective review: Is "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" a novel or an autobiography? In this case the distinction seems of no importance; maybe it never was. Call the book, as Pirsig himself does, an inquiry. Therein lies its singular energy and force. (p. 6)

Edward Abbey, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1975.