Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

I’d always wanted to read Pirsig’s sixties classic. The first exposure which I can recall having towards this book was as a young teenager when I ran across it in a mall bookstore chain, now defunct. (B. Dalton’s for those who remember.) I skimmed it at the time and thought, “there’s no way I could ever read this!”

Having finished it on a plane back in October, I’m still convinced I was right. IT would take me several more read-thoughs to grasp everything Pirsig has set down here. At a dense 500 pages, I don’t expect to ever have that much time.

I enjoyed this book. Pirsig, a student of philosophy turned motorcycle rambler uses a cross country trip taken by he and his son to expose a philosophy which he’s clearly put quite a bit of time into. The book’s subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values” and so it is. Pirsig invites the reader early on to listen in on a series of fairly informal value based debates. These are not Socratic in nature, exactly, since Pirsig has some serious beef with Socrates and the nature of dialog.

Already I’ve found that I’m having a hard time explaining succinctly what Pirsig’s real Values are. But it goes a little sump’n like this:

Humans recognize Quality inherently in thought, deed, and material property. You know when something is Quality. Since this value exists outside of any codified system of Western thought, and across time and culture, it is a universal truth. Plato and Aristotle were unable to rationalize Quality (arête in Greek) into their system of dialectic, and so they vilified it as sloppy thinking. But, in the modern age (the sixties, for Persig) one of the reasons we have all become so uptight is that we can see this huge gulf between Quality in life, and those things we are expected to do, make, buy, etc.

This philosophy makes some sense, though at times it also reads as a window into an acid trip experienced by a particularly bright scholar of the Greek classicists.

Where does motorcycle maintence come into play? Well, turns out that Persig has a real affinity for the mechanical, and he likes to use tuning a cycle, or repairing it, or preaching to others about it’s maintenance as a form of zen meditation, which allows him to become, as the old joke goes, one with everything.

This book was enjoyable, if dated. It’s hippie philosophy, but lots of it rings true. Persig is extremely bright, has good ideas, and presents them in a format that is compelling. He’s no stylist, to be sure, but his book has enough content to keep a person so inclined busy for years.


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