Robert M. Pirsig Pirsig, Robert M. - Essay

Pirsig, Robert M.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pirsig, Robert M. 1928–

Pirsig, an American, wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values," by Robert M. Pirsig …, is as willfully awkward as its title. It is densely put together. It lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse, between a private memoir and the formulaic impersonality of an engineering or trade journal. As it stands, it is a very long book, but report has it, and fault lines indicate, that a much longer text lies behind it…. "Zen and the Art" is awkward both to live with and to write about. It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.

The narrative thread is deceptively trite. Father and son are on a motorcycle holiday, travelling from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas, then across the mountains, turning south to Santa Rosa and the Bay….

A largesse of symbols, allusions, archetypes so spendthrift, so palpable, that only a great imaginer, shaping his material out of integral need, could afford it. A more professional contriver would have excised, he would have made his mythologies oblique, he would have felt embarrassed at the obviousness of the symbols offered. Mr. Pirsig allows himself a certain broad innocence. Everything is animate at the surface, contoured, casting exact shadows, as in the snowscape of an American primitive. Because the underlying design is covert and original to a degree.

Pirsig's work is, like so much of classic American literature, Manichaean. It is formed of dualities, binary oppositions, presences, values, codes of utterance in conflict. Father against son; the architectures of the mind against those of the machine; a modernity of speed, uniformity, and consumption (of fuel, of space, of political gimmicks) against conservancy, against the patience of true thought. But these confrontations are themselves ambiguous; they keep us off balance and straining for poise as do the swerves of the motorcycle.

Phaedrus is hunting the narrator. He is, at one level, the secret sharer, the intense questioner, the compaction of pure intellect. He has sprung directly out of the Plato dialogue that carries his name, and the device of having a living being pursued by a shadow out of Plato is by itself enough to certify Pirsig's strength, his mastery over the reader. But the chase is, to be sure, internal….

The westward journey is punctuated by lengthy meditations and lay sermons that Pirsig calls "Chautauquas." They are basic to his purpose. During these addresses to the reader, Phaedrus's insinuations are registered and diagnosed. The nature of quality, in conduct as in engineering, is debated and tested against the pragmatic shoddiness of a consumer society. Much of this discursive argument, the "inquiry into values," is finely shaped. But there are pedestrian stretches, potted summaries of Kant which betray the aggressive certitudes of the self-taught man, misattributions (it was not Coleridge but Goethe who divided rational humanity into Platonists and Aristotelians), tatters out of a Great Books seminar to which the narrator once took bitter exception. The cracker-barrel voice grinds on, sententious and flat. But the book is inspired, original enough to impel us across gray patches. And as the mountains gentle toward the sea—with father and child locked in a ghostly grip—the narrative tact, the perfect economy of effect, defy criticism.

A detailed technical treatise on the tools, on the routines, on the metaphysics of a specialized skill; the legend of a great hunt after identity, after the salvation of mind and soul out of obsession, the hunter being hunted; a fiction repeatedly interrupted by, enmeshed with, a lengthy meditation on the ironic and tragic singularities of American man—the analogies with "Moby Dick" are patent. Robert Pirsig invites the prodigious comparison. It is at many points, including, even, the almost complete absence of women, suitable. What more can one say?

George Steiner, "Uneasy Rider" (abridged with permission), in The New Yorker, April 15, 1974, pp. 147-50.

From its title—which sounds freaky and pretentious, but is apt and perfectly serious—to its shattering final pages, Robert Pirsig's [Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values] is extraordinary. It's a sort of autobiography, cast in the form of a motorcycle journey from Minneapolis across the Central Plains to the Dakotas, through the Rockies to the Pacific Coast….

The shifts from exterior landscape to the slippery crevasses of the haunted narrator's interior life are usually brilliantly managed. In the later chapters, Pirsig does sometimes lapse into a Village Explainer, recapitulating Kant, Poincaré or Zen teachings with an autodidact's cumbersome fervor. One willingly endures a certain amount of tedium. The piercing clarity of feeling between father and son lifts the book to majesty.

Walter Clemons, "Life Cycle," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1974, pp. 95-6.

[In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, what Pirsig] talks about, mostly, is his lifelong compulsion to negotiate a workable intellectual contract with Ultimate Reality.

Actually, it's not the narrator's compulsion, but the compulsion of the man he used to be before all this thinking snapped his mind, and he ended up an incontinent vegetable, sitting on the floor of his Chicago apartment for three days before the court committed him to a hospital….

[Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] is splendidly lucid. It is even fascinating. Fascinating, at least, if you're the sort of person who got snagged by the old college conundrums such as: "If a tree falls in the woods and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make any noise?"

That sort of thinking has not been fashionable lately. Rationality has been the enemy of the great gestalt march back to Eden. THINK, we remind ourselves, was the motto of the loathed IBM. Thinking made atom bombs and factories….

[This book] not only defends rationality, but insists on it….

It plunges back into the mind-work our civilization is founded on. With all the ferocious energy of naive faith, it gnashes and flails and wrestles with all the anarchic epiphanies of 20th-century science, the Heisenber-Uncertainty-Principle sort of thing, until the narrator is satisfied that he has expanded rationality to satisfy the needs of technological, quantum-physics man.

Henry Allen, "Uneasy Rider," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 19, 1974, pp. 1-2.

Dear Robert Pirsig,

I write this letter with difficulty, knowing I will not be able to disguise my confusion or my feelings, and fearing that because of this, the things I am clear about may be misunderstood too. You have written a book that in many ways I find honest and true (virtues, for me, slightly more important than artful or intelligent). But happy as I am that you are whole enough to set down the true parts of your book, I am troubled by some of your strategies of artifice—the Thoreauvian touches at the start, the quietly insistent priggishness and the parade (or is it parody?) of textbook techniques. There is also a whispered presumption of larger-than-life insight. Yet I, for one, feel reticent about imputing such presumptuousness to you, even though I find synoptic philosophy, truth-table logic and binary analysis heavily interlarded with those realities that supposedly are meant to assure a workaday existence for the airy vision—the concreteness of the bike and the down-home flavor of the Chautauqua….

There is real anguish in [your book]. You reach us (me, I won't be coy) where it hurts. You're describing that feeling of being out of touch, of things slipping past, of being dead before we know it—and with a lot of regrets for having blown the scene. You explore this time and again in those real encounters between people and people, but why can't you hold the focus in just those human terms? Why the shift from human pain to a dialogue in six philosophic modes? You're making it easy on yourself and easy on your readers, especially those who will enjoy babbling about the Big Ideas in your book. Biker genuinely knows that discussing concepts is easy, but how to feel about them is hard, and how to live with them harder still….

My own life is so far from tranquil that I cannot bring myself to apply the literary analyst's eye-loupe to your creation and show how it all coheres into some metaphysical, multifaceted crystal. It may well be that you are just too clever for me (no irony intended)….

I will remember your book indelibly for the way you checked your metric bolts and ran the threads clean with the die; I will remember it because it gave a glimpse of something that saddens me yet I know for truth—how a decent, moral and intelligent man can find more in his machine than in his own flesh and blood to solace himself. But I will forget, as quickly as I can, those abstractions presuming to edify and purporting to share great truths that are like the fine clothes of the naked emperor.


                                              Dudley Flamm

Dudley Flamm, "The Manuals Never Tell All You Need to Know," in New Leader, May 27, 1974, pp. 15-17.

Earnest, innocent, awkward, authentic—long on character and short on formal art (but that includes a blessed lack of artfulness)—[Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] is an ungainly piece of do-it-yourself American Gothic. It is a novel, a travelogue, a quest, a set of lectures, and a secular confession, with some sketchy information on motorcycle maintenance thrown in for good measure. In his subtitle the author describes it as "an inquiry into values," and it's that too. But anything you call it, it's also something else. They may seem silly, but these problems of nomenclature are symptomatic; the book is exasperating and impressive in about equal measure, which is to say greatly. It's a completely heteroclite performance….

As a four-square, feet-on-the-ground thinker, Pirsig leaves us bemused and quizzical; as a teller of stories, he disturbs more than he ingratiates, but the way values now stand, that's all to the good. His work mainly depends on the quality of his writing, and about this I don't think there can be two opinions. He is a stunning writer of fictional prose. With a minimum of apparatus, he can evoke a landscape or intimate a deep sense of uneasiness, allow a mood to evaporate, or touch us with compassion. Yet there's very little overwriting….

Paradoxically, the novel has a sharper line as a stream of sensations than it does as an organized story. Zen and motorcycle maintenance dominate the earlier pages; but they represent the solution to a problem that is defined only in the last part of the book. That leaves them hanging out, so to speak: more like picturesque properties than working components….

The real test of a prickly, rankling book like ZAAMM lies in its enduring power to disquiet. One can guess that even if the intense and confused metaphysics should pall (based as they seem to be on feverish interpretations of hastily read books), the wonder and fear of the novel would remain. These are loose, impressionistic words for an effect that grows, not simply out of effect making, but from quiet and deft prose on seemingly impersonal topics.

Robert M. Adams, "Good Trip," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), June 13, 1974, pp. 22-3.

[Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] says nothing practical about choppers, and little more about Zen. But it says plenty about cycles writ large, and implies even more about art—particularly the fiction of the American '70s. Zen is a novel in need of maintenance because it chops and grinds its way along, truly humming only at the end—which is part of the point….

Or, perhaps I should begin with Pirsig's ending—"there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things." This remarkable novel is part of the evidence that there is indeed an important new victory making itself felt now, a resurgence rivaling the one that seized America in the middle of the last century. Ideas in the outdoors: we haven't seen anything like it since Melville. If Melville and his contemporaries worried about the machine in the garden, Pirsig is one of many writers now worried about slipping the garden back into the machine—art back into artifice, romantic back into classical—and it's a telling moment when Pirsig rebukes Thoreau for "talking to another situation, another time, just discovering the evils of technology rather than discovering the solution…. No books can guide us anymore."

Not unlike Thoreau's and Melville's books, nevertheless, Pirsig's novel is by turns exasperating and profoundly exciting…. [The] narrator tells us this book will be [a series of] thoughtful essays,… set pieces he calls Chautauquas, "intended to edify and entertain." But this novel is less about edification, besieged as it becomes, than about the relationship of edification to everything else in the world….

There will be a lot of people reading this novel and it may well become an American classic.

W. T. Lhamon, "A Fine Fiction," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), June 29, 1974, pp. 24-6.

Mr. Pirsig describes his book as a series of chautauquas. This deliberately anachronistic term evokes an image of a bygone America in the days before radio and television, or for that matter motorcycles, when people assembled in the summer outdoors for two or three days of edifying lectures, concerts, and recreation. In large part this is, to the contrary, a repellent and dispiriting work by a not very likable man. If all the speakers on the chautauqua circuit were like the author, it is no wonder the phenomenon has died out.

Perhaps it is true that some books are like thermometers which generalize for us whether the cumulative sicknesses of our society are ebbing or flowing on the fever chart. That is to say, a work that is the opposite of the platitudinizing or moral-cancer-diagnosticating the heads of church and state. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is like a thermometer protruding from the anus of America. Reading it is like taking a reading of 106° in the shade….

As Eric Hoffer correctly is quoted as saying in a jacket blurb, Pirsig is a born writer. His technological instructions, whether on computers or motorcycles, are likely accurate, logical, in a way poetic. This is because he has a passion for wanting the reader to understand technology and not run away from it. If there is one valuable lesson in this book it is this: the next time your radio stops working, or your automobile breaks down, try to fix it yourself. Pirsig says the future of America is the machine and it will keep breaking down until we take the Zen approach, look upon the busted radio, in a sense, as ourselves, forbear dropping it off at the repair shop, and learn to fix it….

So there are chautauquas about how to repair a motorcycle, and others again, almost lyrical, on blackbirds and grey skies in Montana, and many more on insanity, the arguments of philosophers from Phaedrus to Hegel on the meaning of quality; and so on. But if the reader is in some ways enlightened, he certainly feels little moral elevation.

What is frightful about Pirsig is his technological hatred for what he calls the Romanticist, by which he means the person who really is unable even to concentrate on reading some simple instructions on, say, how to operate an electric can-opener, or fix a tire. Pirsig has for all practical purposes metaphorized the repair of machines, trivial or complicated, as equivalent to his own rehabilitation into a "sane person." Implicit in the book is a doctrinaire Zen idea that self and thing are identical, which is nonsense.

At the end of the narrative Pirsig sketches a rather ambiguous chautauqua in which the reader is unable to determine whether the author recants, in whole or part, his technological credo or not. Patently he has been treating his son as a machine. It is the relationship of a mechanic with a troublesome set of valves, loving and hating, but above all wanting it to work right….

Pirsig has considerable integrity. He is like a forerunner of a new kind of technological intellectual: not just the graduate out of engineering school without the least interest in the humanities; but someone who has learned a great deal about philosophy and literature only to repudiate it, or subsume it to the qualities of the machine.

Perhaps the most "romanticism" is to treat a motorcycle as the self and time as something that can be divided into equal Zen parts. Some things are urgent. The self is not always so important—sometimes it is the least important. When the radio falls apart one ought to try to fix it—providing one is not too busy doing something better like trying to read Tolstoy, or make Mozart live again; or, when it comes to that, writing one's own War and Peace, or distributing one's goods to the peasants. The invidious and paradoxical thing about Pirsig's vision of technology is that it is concerned only about "values" (the subtitle is "An Inquiry into Values"), not people. And yet the end result is to find oneself the complete egotist: everything is the self. The motorcycle and the rider are equal partners on the long journey towards eternity. The new chautauqua is the motorcycle manual. To misappropriate the words of Katherine Mansfield, if this is the future, then I'm glad I have consumption.

John Heidenry, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), August 23, 1974, pp. 461-62.