Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces 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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