I’ve read Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values four times — once during each decade since it was published in 1974.
Each time I read the book at a different level. And each time I was reminded of the defining feature of a great book: You can reread it for decades without exhausting it.
My original copy of ZMM (as Pirsig abbreviated the title) is defaced and nearly destroyed.
The pages in that battered paperback are splattered with underlines, circles, exclamation points, question marks, and numbered lists.
I read the text passionately, almost aggressively, arguing with the author paragraph by paragraph, line by line.
Great books invite that kind of engagement. Each time we return to such works we see them fresh and whole, discovering layers of meaning that previously eluded us.
Reviewing our annotations and remembering who we were when we first turned those pages, we index ourselves.
People ask what ZMM is about.
Don’t get me started.
A topical index would include everything from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism — with references to welding, abstract painting, rhetoric, and non-Euclidian geometry tossed in for good measure.
It would be easier to say what ZMM is not about.
On one level, ZMM is the story of Pirsig’s cross-country motorcycle trip with his son.
It’s also the story Pirsig’s attempt to reform Western civilization.
And the story of Pirsig’s obsession with abstract questions.
And his gradual descent into insanity. And his recovery.
And, it works. Against all odds, the book hangs together — a miracle of writing craft.
To achieve this, Pirsig invented a genre that blends narration and exposition, storytelling and explanation.
Chapters are divided into sections — scenes full of action and dialogue alternated with essays dense with ideas, all separated by a little extra space on the page.
This simple device keeps you oriented while Pirsig steers his bike from freeways to back roads and the conversation shifts from Plato to industrial solvents.
In terms of craft, ZMM is as close to a perfect book as anything I’ve ever read.
My first encounter with ZMM took place in 1975. Barely out of adolescence, I immediately tuned in to Pirsig’s sense of rebellion and desire to do battle with the “System.”
I wasn’t alone. ZMM immediately became associated with the last waves of the counter culture movements that flowered during the 1960s.
What some readers missed, however, was the radical depth of Pirsig’s assault.
He wasn’t out to simply burn draft cards, picket factories, march on Washington, or protest the military-industrial complex. He knew that would never be enough.
No, he wanted to dismantle the whole desiccated and dying thing in the only way he thought possible — by a full-frontal assault on its metaphysical roots.
Pirsig’s ultimate foe was dualism — divorcing science from spirituality, technology from art, business from compassion, reason from emotion, and actions from consequences.
You can tear down a factory that pollutes rivers, Pirsig wrote. But if the dualistic system of thought that created the factory remains intact, then you’ve gained nothing.
For that reason, most of Pirsig’s battles took place not on the streets but in what he called “the high country of the mind.”
He became a militant philosopher, something that was not so uncommon in those days. He believed that if we purged our thinking of delusions, then we could act ethically — in ways that no longer harmed people or the planet.
Ultimately Pirsig aimed his metaphysical firearms at a core distinction in Western thought — the distinction between subject (I, me) and object (you, it, them).
It was attachment to this distinction, he believed, that led people to do evil things to each other.
Unfortunately, the subject-object distinction is hard to remove. Without it, you’d be hard pressed to walk through a parking lot let alone drive the freeway during rush hour.
Survival in such circumstances hinges on protecting ourselves as subjects as while navigating an environment filled with large and potentially lethal objects.
In fact, you’d be hard pressed to speak a single sentence in the English language that’s not predicated on the distinction between subject and object.
Inevitably we speak in terms of I versus you and us versus them. (It’s that or remain silent, which of course offers its own rewards.)
Linguistic constraints didn’t stop Pirsig. He kept trying to articulate a way of seeing the world that would merge reason with emotion, us with them, you with I — and save us all from destruction.
Pirsig found his solution in the realm of values — specifically, in the concept of Quality (a word that he capitalized throughout the book).
Quality, he thought, could be experienced directly and defined precisely. Quality is both objective and subjective. It is an intellectual construct that transcends the intellect. In terms of world view, it is Romantic and Classic.
If you truly understood Quality, Pirsig wrote, you would live each moment of your life differently. You would handle the material details of your life with exquisite care. You would think, speak, and act impeccably, ever mindful of karma — your actions and their consequences.
You would even repair your motorcycle in a way that benefits all living beings.
And mindful of Quality, you would never intentionally do violence to another being. By loosening the tight grip of the subject-object distinction, you’d know in your gut that harming others is the same as harming yourself.
The insight was grand (if not original). And it came at a horrific price.
Pirsig became so obsessed with task of defining Quality that he did little else.
Eventually he lost interest in relating to people, working, and handling the tasks of daily life. For a time he sacrificed everything to his philosophical quest — his job, his family, and his sanity.
The score at this point in the narrative: System, 1. Philosopher, 0.
Pirsig’s story of his stay in a mental ward and ego-death through court-ordered electroshock therapy is complex, heart-breaking, and exquisite.
I won’t even attempt to summarize it.
All I will say is that every time I read it, I emerge almost gasping for air — and glad to be alive.
“It’s going to get better now”
The only comfort I take is that Pirsig survived unspeakable horrors and returned to our consensual reality with something that surely approaches Enlightenment — the “peace that passeth all understanding.”
Pirsig hints at this in ZMM’s closing paragraphs, recalling a day near the end of that motorcycle trip with his son Chris at his back:
And so we ride on and on, down through Ukiah, and Hopland, and Cloverdale, down into the wine country. The freeway miles seem so easy now. The engine which has carried us halfway across a continent drones on and on in its continuing oblivion to everything but its own internal forces. We pass through Asti and Santa Rosa, and Petaluma and Novato, on the freeway that grows wider and fuller now, swelling with cars and trucks and buses full of people, and soon by the road are houses and boats and the water of the Bay.
Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and it is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.