Generally I liked Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but for the ending and a few other moments. For this reason, please be warned that I will be covering this. And hopefully I am representing the philosophical elements properly.
The novel has been widely celebrated and called life-changing. This may be due to, as Pirsig himself states in the Afterword of my edition, the book tapping into the underlying mood of the culture of that time. I was born after its release in 1974, so I, unable to connect to the book in that way, do not find it so profound. Not to diminish Pirsig’s work at all. It just didn’t reach me that way.
The point of view is first person (and second in a sense). Our unnamed protagonist talks to the reader, relating his Chautauqua, his name for this meaningful story. The protagonist is sympathetic, a man who seems content, attuned to his surroundings while trying to appreciate all the moments of life. He’s on a journey with his 12-year-old son, Chris. They travel on a motorcycle from Minnesota to the California coast. All the while a wolf stalks them at the periphery, then closes in towards them at the end.
It would appear that father and son have a healthy relationship. Agreeing to accompany your dad, clung to his back on a cycle for thousands of miles, camping out and hiking canyons, would require this. But one of the reasons I did not like the ending is that it puts a lie to that assumption.
Pirsig writes in an enviably clear and simple style. The book is an easy read and I especially enjoyed the beginning. I like how he compared riding in a car and riding on a motorcycle. He described the former as being an observer, the window both framing the world and removing you from it, while being on the cycle you are a participant, you’re in the middle of it all. You can see above, around and below, feel the wind, feel the road. It almost makes me want to buy a bike and go cross country (but I know I’d not like the heat, cold, bugs, rain…).
Pirsig has practical advice when discussing motorcycle riding and repair. It comes down to preparation and rolling with the unexpected. It’s attitude as much, if not more, than skill.
Unfortunately, as he book progresses, we see less of the road, the journey, the relationship, till they are isolated paragraphs interspersed with the Chatauqua, which to me was less engaging. Throughout, we are given this sense that something is amiss. Chris frequently complains of stomach pains and loss of appetite, the protagonist has snatches of memory as though he had been on this road before. Bad dreams haunt his nights.
As the pair travel through the Dakotas into Montana, then Idaho and Oregon beyond, the protagonist sets about to explain through his Chautauqua that quality, value, Buddha can be found in everything, from flower petals to circuit boards. He’s trying to remove the boundaries between science and aesthetics, between something that’s mass-manufactured and hand-crafted. So much of the novel is investigating these dichotomies in order to discern if they are real or illusionary and the very nature of Quality — big Q.
Our hero introduces Phaedrus, a contemporary philosopher whom he once knew. Using the writings of Phaedrus and his own recall, the protagonist attempts to break down Western philosophy into its constituent parts, as one would disassemble a motorcycle with great care, trying to understand why the pieces fit together the way they do. The first dichotomy Phaedrus described was classic and romantic. These are general modes of appreciating forms. Those with a classic mindset would appreciate the schematics of a motorcycle, the lists of parts, tolerances and specifications, units of measure, and so on. The romantic wouldn’t care for any of that and instead would appreciate the appearance of the bike, its colors, curves, feel of the handlebar grips, sound of the engine. Extrapolated out, you have other pairs of dichotomies that are similar: empirical versus a priori science; male/female, rational/emotional, material/spiritual.
All this leads to the central question Phaedrus and our protagonist wrestle with. What is Quality? What mode does it belong to? If Quality is empirical, then everyone would recognize it equally. Everyone can agree on the weight of a particular motorcycle, the type of engine, the number of wheels. All observable. But not everyone would agree on the particular motorcycle’s quality.
If Quality is entirely subjective, then the definition becomes too fluid to have value. Even an individual has to decide for himself on the quality of the motorcycle. By what measure? What is best?
Phaedrus believes that Quality is neither one, but both together. At first he thinks it arises when the classic and romantic meet, but really it precedes them. It’s from Quality that the two split. Quality is one. Ultimately this epiphany leads to Phaedrus having a psychotic break.
As it turns out, Phaedrus is our protagonist. Our protagonist had thought he put that demon away for good, but he was there all along, stalking him and his son this whole journey. At the end, Chris is no longer having fun and demands that they go home. Father is willing to send Chris home, but he will go on, perhaps to never see Chris again. Further, he insists that Chris’s ailments are all in his head. Perhaps this tells of a fear that father has for his son, that his son may have inherited his predisposition to mental instability.
What happens next is what threw me, and not in a way I liked. Phaedrus devours our protagonist. Our hero dies in that Phaedrus reasserts himself. Chris picks up on it instantly, perhaps by tone of voice or body language, and is not dismayed or scared, but relieved and happy. Now he doesn’t want to go home, he wants to stay with Phaedrus and continue their journey. Apparently, Chris had preferred the unstable, monomaniac Phaedrus rather than the father we came to like throughout the book? Since we don’t have access to Chris’s thoughts, we can only guess that all this time he had been pining for his old father and had secretly waited for him to reappear.
It was a jarring ending for me. What do you think?