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From the September, 2006
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Wheelin’ Grace by Franklin Freeman

Wheelin’ Grace

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Franklin Freeman

Rejected by 121 publishers, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance appeared in April 1974 to a chorus of praise that included such eminent critics as Erich Hoffer and George Steiner. “The analogies with Moby Dick are patent,” the latter wrote, breathlessly, in The New Yorker. “Robert Pirsig invites the prodigious comparison. . . . What more can one say?”

Nineteen seventy-four was the year President Nixon resigned, the energy crisis sent fuel prices soaring, and the Dow Jones declined to a low of 663. Enter Pirsig’s book, a meditation on life’s meaning and a call to an inward reform of the soul through the union of Western technological advances and Eastern mystical thought, that is, motorcycles and zen.

The word zen derives from the Japanese word for “sit and meditate.” According to Pirsig, “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.” Hence the cover illustration of a wrench growing up from the midst of an arrangement of leaves, the wrench taking the place of blossoms.

Two Stories

Pirsig’s book tells two stories, one told in the present time of the book, the other told through flashbacks. The first is about a man (the narrator) and his twelve-year-old son Chris motorcycling one summer from Minnesota to San Francisco, accompanied for the first part of the trip by John and Sylvia, a married couple, friends of the family.

The second is about the life and ideas of a figure called Phaedrus—meaning, according to the text, “wolf” in Greek, a mistaken definition, as Pirsig admitted in a foreword to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of the book, for Phaedrus means “brilliant” or “radiant.” Phaedrus, it turns out, is Pirsig long ago, before something bad happened and he ended up in the hospital and got enough electroshock therapy to erase most of his memory, which returns to him in glimpses.

In the first story, Chris periodically rebels against his father, but we don’t know why, while the narrator and John do not always get along. Pirsig likes to repair his own motorcycle, even tear the engine down if he has to; John hates working on his and refuses to learn how or to take advice from Pirsig.

Pirsig doesn’t understand why John loses his temper whenever he tries to help him with his cycle, but as the miles go by, he slowly begins to feel the problem is not just a difference between two people, but something that points to a big cultural and philosophical divide. This difference in attitude becomes the key idea of the book and also eventually explains the rift between father and son.

This rift, personal and societal, the narrator explains in different ways. One way is in terms of the Classic/Romantic divide. Pirsig says his way of thinking is a variety of classical thinking, which has to do with “underlying scientific explanation” and which “proceeds by reason and by laws.” Romantic thinking has to do with “immediate artistic experience” and “is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive.” “Although motorcycling is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”

Now, why do we have this rift between these two “visions of reality”? Pirsig says we create, with our dualistic Western reason, hierarchic systems, to which we then become enslaved by the apparent objectivity of the system because no one wants to do the hard work of restructuring. The problem is dualistic rationality itself.

Or, as Pirsig, writing as Phaedrus, concludes, “The real cycle you are working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.”

Stinking Reason

How did Phaedrus arrive there? He began a search at age 15, when, a university student with an IQ of 175, he realized that “if all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.” This meant, he thought, that the scientific method, instead of stabilizing society by knowledge of “unchanging truth,” was “leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.”

His preoccupation with this issue caused him to flunk out of the university. After a stint in the army in Korea, where he first encountered Eastern ways of life and thought, he saw that the question he was asking about science was one science could not answer.

So he turned to philosophy, thought he had found the solution in Kant’s metaphysics, but then became disillusioned with Kant and the university as a whole: “The whole university he was attending smelled of . . . ugliness. . . . It was reason itself that was ugly and there seemed no way to get free.”

There followed years of studying Oriental philosophy in India, which ended when he asked his philosophy professor if the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusions, and the professor, smiling, said yes. Phaedrus gave up philosophy and went home.

He then settled into the American Dream of marriage, family, and material comfort, and ended up in Bozeman, Montana, teaching English composition. One day a fellow teacher (of Classics) breezed by his desk and asked if he was teaching his students “Quality.” He became obsessed with the term, this obsession in part encouraged by his frustration in trying to teach his students how to write well by distinguishing good essays from bad.

A Quality Life

Driven by his obsession with Quality and its meaning for philosophy and life, Phaedrus entered a graduate program, an interdisciplinary program called “Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods,” at the University of Chicago. Eventually, he concluded that the Sophists were right, that they were striving for Quality, excellence, arête, in the present moment, and that Plato had gone terribly wrong by subordinating the good to the true.

At this point in his story, Phaedrus’s life falls apart. First, he argues in class with the chairman of the department, who had a reputation for turning out carbon copies of himself, about the dialogue Phaedrus, thereby ruining his chances to succeed in the program.

Second, he is teaching English composition full-time and studying so hard to “outflank the whole body of Western academic thought at the University of Chicago” that he is forced “to work and study twenty hours a day with inadequate attention to food or exercise.” Realizing that he hated teaching, he fell totally silent in his rhetoric classes, finally abandoned them, and kept wondering “what would happen next.” He sleeps only two hours a night and soon is walking the streets.

He comes to understand in his wanderings that “his original goal was to keep Quality undefined, but in the process of battling against the dialecticians he has made statements, and each statement has been a brick in a wall of definition he himself has been building around Quality. Any attempt to develop an organized reason around an undefined quality defeats its own purpose.”

After collapsing in the street, he forces himself to return home, and done with wandering, he sits on a quilted blanket, smokes cigarettes, gazes into space, and slowly has a nervous breakdown (Pirsig speaks of Phaedrus’s “megalomania” and “delusions of grandeur”). He hears what his wife is saying, but doesn’t answer. His cigarettes go out of themselves in the blisters formed on his fingers.

There are several religious allusions in this breakdown scene: He sits on the blanket for three days and nights, overcomes “the pain of the martyrs” when the cigarette burns don’t bother him, and, as his wife calls for help because of the burns and the urine pooling about him, a line from a hymn comes to mind: “You’ve got to cross that lonesome valley alone.”

Then his personality disintegrates: “And the Quality, the arête, he has fought so hard for, has sacrificed for, has never betrayed, but in all that time has never once understood, now makes itself clear to him and his soul is at rest.”

Pirsig does not explain how Quality “makes itself clear to him,” unless he means that the disintegration of the self brings rest and that he finally learns that Quality can’t be defined. At any rate, there is something askew with this scene, as if Pirsig is trying to give it a positive meaning it doesn’t have.

Beauty Will Save the World

Now, back in the present father/son story, Pirsig’s relationship with his son deteriorates. Chris wants the old father, Phaedrus, back. It’s as if he is riding on the back of a motorcycle behind a man who walks, talks, and looks like his father, but he knows this father is not exactly the same person he used to be. He keeps asking his father why they are doing this.

Finally, while father and son are resting on the shoulder of the highway north of San Francisco, Chris wanders off and Pirsig finds him sitting on the ground rocking back and forth, crying. Pirsig tells him that he might be going insane again and that Chris’s behavioral problems might be related to this. Chris might have to return home on the bus without him. Chris stares back at his father like a wounded animal about to be killed.

A truck rumbles near in the fog and Pirsig pleads with Chris to get up, out of the way of the truck, but he gets up only when Pirsig, under the emotional strain of the moment, speaks reassuringly to him in the voice of Phaedrus (which, in the text, is put in italics). Chris responds to his father, the one he remembers, with love. Father and son are reconciled.

Chris asks his father if he was really insane, and Pirsig says no, he was not. He has said in the foreword to the new edition that readers have misunderstood the ending, that he meant it to show that the narrator had played it safe—by not thinking about Quality, by doing what people in the hospital tell him to do, by giving up his passionate search for ultimate truth—in order to avoid Phaedrus’s trauma, and that Phaedrus, at the end, has won the battle for his soul.

In other words, Phaedrus is the real self of the narrator, who, before the reconciliation with his son, has been holding back from being his real self. As he says to himself, “Be one person again!”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a very moving book, especially at the end when both stories peak. The problem is with its philosophy.

Pirsig wants to unite ideas and life, but falls into Plato’s error: that we sin through ignorance. If we only knew what Quality is, Phaedrus says, all would be well. Pirsig says: Let’s not try to define Quality, since we can’t, yet since deep down we know what it is anyway, let’s do good work, Quality work. This “is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all.”

Unfortunately, there is this matter of sin and evil (speaking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), which has to do with the will of a person. Pirsig refuses to see, or does not see, that a person can will to do wrong even when he knows what is right. We will not always make Quality decisions, just because we don’t want to (cf. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground).

“Beauty will save the world,” says Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. I think Pirsig is trying to say the same thing, but in an Eastern mystical way, a way that forgets that Beauty is not just a quality but a Person, who, in Hopkins’s phrase, “fathers-forth” all earthly beauty, of flowers and of humans who make and fix their beautiful motorcycles.

Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.


Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.

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