Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

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...

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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 through an extended discussion of Quality. Ultimately he argues that Quality is an event. It comes through experience or perception rather than through logic. A person knows Quality. One does not reason one’s way to it. As Pirsig advances his thinking, he comes to believe that Quality is the source of excel-lence, and of subjects and objects. It creates things. Having reached this point in his thinking, he picks up the sixth century b.c. Tao-te Ching of Lao-tzu and identifies his Quality with the Tao. Having reached this high point of metaphysical speculation, Pirsig literally comes down from the mountain where he has been camping with Chris and proceeds in his Chautauqua to arrive at Quality through Western tradition. Using the work of the French mathematician Jules-Henri Poincaré, Pirsig shows that East and West arrive at contiguous points and that the meeting point must be Quality itself. Thus Pirsig brings together the great thinkers and the great philosophical traditions of East and West.

In addition to the philosophical drive of the book, there is a psychological one. The Phaedrus theme is fascinating and provocative. Phaedrus is the name Pirsig gives to his former self—the person he was before he had a mental breakdown and received electroshock therapy. As Pirsig travels westward, he travels back to his past. In fact, the motorcyclists stay a few days with a couple Pirsig knew when he taught at the local college in Bozeman. Readers are reminded that it was there that the pursuit of Quality launched him on his venture—taking him to graduate school in Chicago and ultimately to a breakdown. The DeWeeses did not know what had happened to Pirsig after he left Bozeman. They did not know about his obsessive drive to understand Quality; they did not realize that his personality had been damaged by electroshock treatments. The reader, however, knows that the gaps in his memory are not the normal ones that result simply from the passage of time. As Pirsig journeys back toward Montana, he passes through places and has feelings that are familiar, although frequently he cannot place them. These recognitions are frightening, because Pirsig realizes that he is drawing ever closer to Phaedrus—and if he is traveling physically and mentally toward Phaedrus, he is approaching madness as well. This psychological thrust enlivens the philosophical movement and dramatically intensifies the geographical journey. Despite the intellectual difficulty presented by the philosophical themes of the book, it remains a fascinating book that can be read on many different levels.

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