Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An informal book review, from my journal, 6/24/97.

Today I turn forty-one. And this morning I was up, vomiting and vomiting and vomiting into the bathtub. So far, have been able to keep nothing down but a little 7-Up. Yes, it's the old migraine with nausea.

So no work for me today. Some way to spend a birthday! Unlike last year, I get the day off-- but (only because) I feel too rotten to do anything.

Some books for my birthday-- the usual assemblage of Goodwill rejects, but among them two gems.

One, a hardcover copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which Mom & Dad latched onto apparently almost by accident: "It looked technical." Yes, I already have a copy, but it is in paperback, and it is buried somewhere out in the garage. Make that one less book I have to dig out of the wreckage.

The other, from Steven, is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. Now, this is a book that was a bestseller back about in my Wodemarch days-- I seem to recall "Uncle Jim," in Philosophy 101, recommending it to us. After reading it, I can see why.

Back in those days, I was put off by the title, which seemed to promise Sixties whimsy and a "window" on Zen Buddhism. On the contrary-- the book is sharp and faceted as a diamond, and it is a protracted engagement with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the dreaded subject-object dichotomy. And imagine all that, woven together with a motorcycle journey like something out of Blue Highways or On the Road.

It's a good book, but also it's a good thing I didn't take "Uncle Jim's" advice and read it back then-- doing so would have short-circuited about ten years of my own philosophical struggling which was yet to come. Yes, Pirsig in his former pre-psychosis persona of Phaedrus is a near dead ringer for your humble narrator, back in my late teens and early twenties. And his eventual philosophical solution to the subject-object dichotomy-- which is not a bad solution at all!-- smells uncannily like my eventual turn to the symbol, and then to Peirce. Pirsig's "Quality" smells a good deal like Peirce's category of Firstness.

Pirsig also clarifies a question that has exercised me greatly in recent years: "What the hell has gone wrong with modernity?" He thinks, as I do, that the problem lies not in science, technology, industrialization as such, but rather in the mindset we bring to their application-- a mindset which fragments us, which fragments our world, into all sorts of polar dichotomies.

The book is good enough that I intend to give it a second read soon, this time pencilling notes in the margins. And it will end up on my short bookshelf of favorite books (why are all my favorite books about journeys?): Huckleberry Finn, Kon Tiki, On the Road, Blue Highways.

A few quibbles. I read 300 pages in the book the first day, then the last 100 pages yesterday evening. Those last 100 pages somehow don't quite hang together with the rest-- in Pirsig's account of his/Phaedrus' slide into insanity in graduate school, I began to feel that we were seeing a less nuanced, less finely faceted, more radical critique of modern thought than in the first part of the book-- "Oh, no, not another variation on the bumper-sticker notion that Western thought is fatally flawed at its very roots!" Up to that point, Pirsig represented all that to me was best about the Sixties-- and said precious little that could play into the hands of the Sixties' deconstructive heirs today.

In those last 100 pages, though, the critique extends back beyond modernity, to a root attack on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Well, yes, from another angle, I too have sometimes criticized classic Greek philosophy-- too exclusively Apollonian, too wedded to substances and schemata and rigid dichotomies, etc. But unlike Pirsig, I don't think the problem with Western thought really catches on fire until we get to the dawn of the modern age, when Newton provided the tinder and Descartes lit the match. Whereas Pirsig seems to think the problem was "on fire" ab initio.

Another point that struck me in those final chapters. In Pirsig's otherwise very fine tally of "gumption traps," there is nothing that resembles what I would call bollixes-- Laing, knots-- Bateson, pragmatic paradox. Pirsig seems innocent of any acquaintance with the autophagous logic of double binds. (Very strange, as at some point the man spent several years in India studying Hinduism and Buddhism. Very strange, in a book whose very title includes the word "Zen.") And in the account of his own descent into insanity, double binds are just as noticeable by their complete absence. How can you describe the psychotic "break" of a schizophrenic without even bumping up against knots and bollixes?

Still, a very fine book. One of the very few books I've read, of late, which motivated me to sit down and devour 300 pages at a single sitting. More and more in recent times, I discover myself reading books the way Montaigne did it-- dipping and browsing, fifteen minutes here, twenty minutes there. Over a stretch of two or three weeks, that's not a bad way to "work into" a book. But Pirsig drew me onward, for a day and an evening.

Now, if I can break away from this keyboard, I ought to enforce a day of bed rest on myself. Yes, I felt good enough by mid morning that I phoned in and double-checked with Greg. But I still don't feel that hot. And I don't want to miss a second day of work tomorrow.

We forty-one year olds have our momentum to keep up, you know.