Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Analysis
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will probably be attempted by many young adult readers, as it would have an initial appeal to those learning about the mechanics of cars and especially of motorcycles. Probably few will read to the end, however, for there are some stiff philosophical investigations along the way, and only the basics of motorcycle maintenance are described. More important, according to Pirsig, is developing a good attitude toward technology—learning to care for the machine and, in working on it, becoming one with it. By caring for the machine, Pirsig means obviating the subject-object duality that he insists characterizes Western thinking. Thus, attitudes toward motorcycle maintenance launch the reader into a large and complex philosophical debate in which Pirsig, more or less explicitly, sides with the East over the West. Several different repair shops model different attitudes toward motorcycle maintenance, and it is quite clear which ones are the most successful in helping a machine run well.
The controlling drive of the book is the pursuit of “Quality.” It began with an innocent comment made by a colleague when Pirsig was teaching English composition; she said that she hoped he was teaching Quality to his students. Pirsig shows that although Quality cannot be defined, it is recognized and appreciated. This occurs in his classroom experiments in Bozeman, Montana: Time after time, he and his students agreed on the Quality papers, although when they tried to prescribe Quality, only poor quality resulted. This led Pirsig into a lifelong pursuit into the metaphysics of Quality.
Pirsig takes the reader...
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Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Analysis
Perhaps even more than a peripatetic philosopher, Pirsig is a metaphysical detective. He is on the trail of a crime in modern life, a crisis in living that stems from the alienation of what a person is from what he or she does. He sees evidence of this crime in the faces of those around him: in the funeral procession of commuters, who look saddened and numbed; in the vacant, disinterested expression of the mechanic, who instead of repairing Pirsig’s motorcycle further damages it; in the cowed, sleepy eyes of university students, who submit to the rules and sacrifice real learning for regurgitation of their professors’ dead facts.
Pirsig first traces this condition to the existence of two distinct approaches to life, exemplified by two different attitudes toward motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig is fascinated by the workings of his machine, whereas his traveling companions, John and Sylvia Sutherland, view the mechanics with bewilderment and hostility. They are romantics, interested in the poetry of the ride and not concerned, as a classicist would be, with their machine’s form and the functions of its parts. They are running away from technology, a condition which Pirsig suggests is counterproductive, since “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.” The classical and romantic modes, the one proceeding primarily by reason and fact and the other by inspiration and intuition, have been in conflict for centuries; Pirsig believes that a synthesis of these modes is the way out of the modern dilemma.
The dilemma is crystallized for Pirsig in the simple question “What is Quality?” which is a restatement of the question Socrates asks Phaedrus in the Platonic dialogue of the same name, a passage which Pirsig includes as the opening epigraph to this book: “And what is good, Phaedrus,/ And what is not good—/ Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” It is with this question that Pirsig picks up the train of thought begun by his previous self, the ghost he now calls Phaedrus.
As a teacher of rhetoric at the State University of Montana, Phaedrus pursued the question of Quality with passionate intensity, looking first for its definition by trying to codify its presence or absence in student compositions. A lively and unorthodox teacher whose approach could both inspire and anger his students, he launched an experiment wherein he refused to give his students grades for their papers, probing instead for their ideas on what made a good paper good. He eventually concluded that the notion of Quality could be successfully contained neither by a classical formal definition nor by a romantic subjective assessment; rather, he determined that it was the preexisting and all-encompassing source for both...
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance owes its great popular success to its appeal in a number of areas—as travel adventure, psychology, and, above all, philosophy. It marches undaunted through philosophical ages and locks horns with some of the greatest minds in the history of ideas. It asks the big questions about life and is not afraid to admit that it does not necessarily have the answers. Young adult readers especially appreciate the confidence the book emanates toward the individual: One knows Quality when one meets it, and no one can appreciate Quality for someone else. The effect is to free the individual from received opinion, from the shoulds and should nots of Western life, and from pressure to achieve goals and attain “success.” The book does all this without preaching by suggesting another philosophy that undercuts the hold that the Western value system has on Americans.
The book was widely used in the 1970’s as a college text in English composition classes, because it deals specifically with the problems Pirsig experienced as a teacher of writing and those his students experienced as they tried to create Quality writing. Since the 1970’s, composition as a professional discipline has gone through more radical experimentation and upheaval than that which Pirsig reports, but the book continues to be important because the issues it illuminates remain today. In students’ frustration in trying to write as society and teachers demand, they can appreciate learning about the theoretical discussion that lies behind what they do in the classroom. Similarly, they learn that what they do in the classroom—or, more important, the attitude with which they do it—may be symptomatic of how they conduct their lives. The book finally is optimistic, for Quality is available to everyone.
Critical Context (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
After 121 publishers had rejected the manuscript of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one editor decided to accept it, primarily as an act of conscience; the book had forced him to clarify the reason that he was in the publishing business. He offered Pirsig a standard three-thousand-dollar advance, noting that it was probably the last payment the author would receive, because such books never made money. To the surprise of many, the book soared to the top of the best-seller lists. Pirsig was besieged with requests for interviews and offers for film rights and foreign publication. What made this unusual book so popular?
In an afterword written ten years after the book’s initial publication, Pirsig explores the reasons for his book’s astonishing popularity. He fits Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into the category of “culture-bearing books,” books which serve to move the culture forward. Such an effect can never be planned; a book will almost accidentally coincide with a culture’s restless need to change, to challenge old assumptions, and to find new solutions. At the time of this book’s publication, the tumultuous 1960’s had just concluded. Those who had participated in radical group protests against war, racism, and corporate profit at the expense of humanist values now found themselves faced with individual choices: Should they simply enter the work force and pursue material success as their fathers did, or was there another path they could take? Pirsig writes:This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer.