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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

February 28, 2006

It is a little bit amazing that I managed to finish this–a book I found deeply tedious, sometimes intriguing, and often irritating. Sheer determination saw the end of this dense 373 page, philosophical treatise on one man’s quest to find the limits of rationality. And dip into insanity on the way.

Pirsig arranges his philosophical discourses around a nameless narrator who is on a metaphysical and actual cross-country trip with his son, and his two friends (who about halfway through the book fade away to live their technologically esthetic little lives).

The narrator/philosopher is on a quest to reconcile his dual nature–his alter-ego, a figure he refers to as Phaedrus–with his present self, presumably his present, rational logical self. The duality of the main narrator falls in line neatly with what the philosophy elaborates on–what he calls classical and romantic thinking. He begins by defining rationality or reason through the classical framework, one that looks beyond the beautiful and ugly, into functionality. He then defines romantic thinking with one that looks simply at the veneer of objects without understanding or appreciating the underlying meaning.

After many pages where he plays around with these ideas and uses the maintenance of his motorcyle as an example, the narrator unveils his ideas on Quality. In fact, he does this very nicely by comparing his epiphany with a seed crystal that manages to push a saturated solution into super-saturated solidity. Quality becomes an undefinable value that exists both logically (classically) and esthetically (romantically).

In the process, he makes highly problematic, jingoistic arguments on the classical (logical) nature of Western thought as opposed to its mystic and esthetically centered Eastern counterpart. Some of the most grating passages were bits where he would define Eastern philosophy (which apparently comprises of India alone) through a singularly narrow, Western prism then goes on to dismiss it for its inferiority and uselessness. Consider the passage below: day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding
on the illusory nature of the world…Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly
if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end
of the exchange. Within the tradition of Indian philosophy that answer may have
been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers
regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human
beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left
India and gave up…

Indian professors apparently do not read newspapers nor are they concerned about human beings as much as Western scholars.

In another instance, he talks about how Indian villagers will believe in ghosts, but not the law of gravity.

Aside from the obvious reduction of the vast Eastern thought and philosophy into an ill-defined mysticism–there is a puzzling and frank dismissal of these ideas too. In fact, despite being used as one of the cornerstones on his whole thesis on Quality and its relationship with subject-object, Pirsig never bothers to engage this mystic, or esthetic philosophy in any concrete way. There is an especially awkward passage where he draws parallels between Quality without esthetics to “being square” in a hip-hop, black culture.

In the words of Pirsing, “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ton Up permalink
    March 3, 2006 4:00 am

    I’m about to embark on my own 373 page journey in to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Your review was very interesting. Thanks!

  2. July 18, 2008 4:42 am

    Sonia, your comments are interesting. Although, you criticize certain aspects of the book and discuss about their inadequate-ness, the way you judges the book and read through the lines is what is Quality is all about. In your endeavour to criticize it, you have ended up approving it, using it and through your own judgement bettering it. I do not see the underlying theme losing its potency at all.


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