Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top…But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides.”

This was an incredibly insipid, over-hyped, self-indulgent and a pseudo-philosophic read. A few dense concepts were buried deep within heaps of nonsense. And even the treatment of those concepts was poorly managed. I fail to understand the mainstream fame acquired by this apparently “life-altering” book whose recourse is nothing but self-involvement to an extent of alienating the common reader with the most mundane of ideas.

Besides the content, what is most infuriating about the book is the structuring. Chapters are haphazardly broken with sudden introductions of new concepts which seem more like interruptions. Just when the reader is getting along a particular theme, the writer changes the course with an indented paragraph, taking the reader on a completely new and unrelated direction. Reading becomes an arduous task.

“This Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.”

Essentially, ZAMM are three books congealed to form one whole, which accounts for the disarray found in the structuring. Thematically the book can be divided into three parts: the first one is an account of a father-son’s motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, the second book concerns the story of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his former self, and lastly, the third book consists of philosophical meditations on concept of Quality, Classic and Romantic thought process, resistance to incursion of technology and so on.

The author begins with a disclaimer that notions of Zen Buddhism and motorcycle maintenance are not accurate within the context of the book. What he really failed to warn his readers was the tedious way in which he amalgamates motorcycle anatomy with pseudo-philosophic stream of thought.

“I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that”

The book starts off on an adventurous spirit before devolving into Pirsig’s thought process. He aims to dissect his own history through absolute self-absorption. The narrator is not a likeable person. He revels in mediocrity with roles attributed to him – a father, a friend, a husband, a teacher and lastly as a human being. He is deliberately cold towards his son, basking in self-indulgent thoughts, concerned with inquiries whose answers bear no weightage on his personal life.

“He is a heretic who is congratulated by everyone for having saved his soul but who knows secretly that all he has saved is his skin.”

One expects this pedestrian living to have a huge pay-off. Maybe the author is setting the reader up for an intellectual awakening that evolves from self-centeredness and eventual self-awareness. Prepare to be disappointed! This philosophic treatise fails to attain the reader’s attention as it casually disregards the importance of making the narrator likeable or at least be cared for, even in the minutest of ways.

When it comes to style of writing, the book appears to be nauseating at 500+ pages. It aims to edify but becomes pedantic and stilted so much so that one forgets to care about the message the author is trying to get across. Having been rejected from 121 publishers, one would have thought the book required to undergo serious editorial changes. But the book fails to grasp empathy with its turgid dialogues and uninteresting account of cross-country motorcycling. Add to that half-baked references to Greek philosophy and the author’s personal musings on nature of philosophy and it results in a book so far removed from the international recognition it has somehow managed to achieve.

After slating the utter nonsense contained in this novel, I will now expound on a few dense concepts that intrigued me. These concepts managed to awaken my curiosity, but the treatment of them is such that no definitive answers can be sought within the book. As a reader I felt exploited but given my tendency to seek goodness in the most demeaning, useless of reads I’m personally obliged to dedicate a few choice paragraphs to the notions that captivated my attention.

Firstly, as a modern day Luddite, the influx of technology as an interference in ordinary lives struck a chord with me. Technology aims to modernize every aspect of human life with or without their consent. Rapid changes in science and technology has been unable to keep pace with the gradual change that takes place within social value systems. This results in an ever-growing lacunae amongst people. Two characters in the book, John and Sylvia, are averse to concerning themselves with understanding the modes of tech surrounding them. If John’s motorcycle malfunctions, he seeks the help of a mechanic in order to dump on him the mechanical problems he does not understand. For the writer, this behaviour is disconcerting as he views mechanical and technical problems with the same zeal as he would any other problem in life. The writer explains that technology envisions its users in masses and that John and Sylvia are not mass people.

“It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting. And they feel that technology has got a lot to do with the forces that are trying to turn them into mass people and they don’t like it.”

The writer resolves that technology is not concerned with matters of heart and spirit which is why people are increasingly distancing themselves from it, disinclined to learn its functionalities and even hostile to employing some time and thought to it. Their values are rigid which inhibits them from learning new facts of a machine, which in turn results in failure to come up with a solution to even the easiest of problems.

The writer’s conceptions on systematic education and grading system seem most relevant to current day and age. In his opinion, all institutions and organisations function towards serving their own appropriated versions of truth rather than seeking the ultimate Truth. They seek to have control over individuals which is intended for self-perpetuation only. This leads to the failing grading system that has plagued the institution of education for long now.

“Grades really cover up failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out the scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if the grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning. The questions, What’s being taught? What’s the goal? How do the lectures and assignments accomplish the goal? become ominous. The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum.”

This concept of inanity of grading system is presented as a circular argument for which no solution is present. After all “how can you put on the blackboard the mysterious internal goal of each creative person?” The narrator connects this stream of thought with the perpetual question of “what is Quality?” He mulls over the nature of quality, and aims to discover a single notion that could determine it. The crux of this novel lies in the narrator’s life-long search for the definition of Quality and its implications.

“Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You might suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense. On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like.”

Much of the treatise on Quality is handled in a highfalutin, neo-philosophical way which may be better comprehended by Philosophy majors or general readers who take fancy to the philosophical genre. I disagreed with the narrator’s idea (and by extension the author’s) that “reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality.” Reality is not defined by its approachability nor by its applicability. The Ultimate Truth stands unified, in its Oneness and Supremacy (objective truth), and it is the variations of this Truth that have dawned upon Man (subjective truth).

I’m not aware of the author’s personal religious beliefs, but in all his references to Oriental and Occidental religions and cultures (especially Eastern beliefs), it seems he picks notions that run parallel to his own personal philosophy and casually disregards other ideas that may run contrary to it.

To sum it up, the faults with this book are twofold: it flunks on a conceptual as well as a literary level. Pirsig intended for “unification of spiritual feeling and technological thought” but only achieved grandiose claims of self-reflection, written in a banal, uninspiring manner. With poor treatment of barely three concepts that caught my attention, this book is not worth investing time and effort in.


Influx of Technology

  • …because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep
  • Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance
  • After a while he says, ‘This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph. You need a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree lens, or something. You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it’s just nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it’s gone.’
  • John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.
  • The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both
  • Those that block affective understanding, called ‘value traps’; those that block cognitive understanding, called ‘truth traps’; and those that block psychomotor behavior, called ‘muscle traps.’ The value traps are by far the largest and the most dangerous group.
  • The typical situation is that the motorcycle doesn’t work. The facts are there but you don’t see them. You’re looking right at them, but they don’t yet have enough value. This is what Phaedrus was talking about. Quality, value, creates the subjects and objects of the world. The facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can’t really learn new facts.
  • If you’re plagued with value rigidity you can fail to see the real answer even when it’s staring you right in the face because you can’t see the new answer’s importance

Classic vs. Romantic Thought

  • That’s the problem, all right, where to start. To reach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic enquiry.
  • A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.
  • The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience
  • The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour
  • The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an esthetically free and natural style. It is esthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained
  • Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination – ‘unstuckness,’ in other words – are completely outside its domain

Induction and Deduction

  • That is induction: reasoning from particular experiences to general truths.
  • The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know
  • If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge
  • Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude.

Systematic Education

  • It’s a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him
  • You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow.
  • For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one
  • She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to

Aphorisms

  • Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere
  • The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.
  • If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.
  • You always suppress momentary anger at something you deeply and permanently hate
  • a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness
  • Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge
  • If you really don’t care you aren’t going to know it’s wrong
  • If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government
  • The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans
  • We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world
  • Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion
  • Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.
  • If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality
  • The real University is a state of mind.
  • Zen is the ‘spirit of the valley,’ not the mountaintop. The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. Let’s get out of here.
  • The physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It’s psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are big but the psychic distances between people are small.
  • This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their
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