|This week I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig. It’s a curious book: not really a novel, more an excuse to philosophise about anything and everything, and likely to provoke many arguments and lots of feverish thinking.
The narrator of the tale sets out on a road trip with his son, meeting up with various people on the way. He spends a lot of time fiddling with his bike, listening for malfunction, trying to catch problems before they become problems and get the machine running perfectly. And he does the same with his mind, searching for answers to something forgotten and hidden in his past.
Everything that happens is really just an excuse to philosophise and discuss his ideas, and many of these discussions are conducted with himself – or rather, his past self or alter-ego: Phaedrus. This is who he was when he had taught writing at a college, but his obsession with the idea of “Quality” had driven him mad. After some extreme therapy, Phaedrus was banished into his subconscious, but slowly re-emerges throughout the course of the novel as he struggles to integrate what he has learned since.
The story is an enquiry into values and the search for meaning and the experience of what he calls ‘Quality.’ Quality seems to stand for the essence of experience, inherent in thought and being, but he also ties it to the idea of the dharma and virtue. He’s trying to show that being in the moment and being rational are perfectly compatible states. It’s not just a search for the meaning of life in abstract terms, but also in practical terms – how you actually go about living a meaningful life.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a novel that isn’t a novel. It’s also not really about motorcycle maintenance, or Zen. It’s a philosophical adventure, a ghost story, a man slowly unravelling as he goes mad (perhaps), and a study of the relationship between a father and a son. Make of it what you will.
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