Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

25th Anniversary Edition published 1999 by Vantage / Random House
First Published 1974 (Buy at Amazon)

Review by Ian Glendinning, February 2002.
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ZMM is a journey - at least four in fact - two real in the present, one historical narrative, and one metaphorical.

Real-time is in fact some 30 years ago - immediately post-hippy era - the book having been published in 1974 (Note July 2003 - in fact the narrative takes place in 1968). The first real journey is a cross-US Motorcycle buddy-ride - Easy Rider without the drug culture. The second is a man-and-boy mountain trek - a physical challenge to find themselves and define their relationship - Ex-hippy Walk in the Woods if you like. The third is Pirsig's historical, and painfully personal, autobiography as a student, a teacher, a husband and a father preceding the real-time narrative. Common people and locations link the first three stories, but the fourth, a philosophical argument is woven into all three.

As an experience the book moves quickly - chopping between the various threads - dropping clues and hints at the past events and connections to be revealed later, but always leaving enough doubt and emotional confusion to press on. Whilst several threads do get resolved, with a real-life mix of surprise and anti-climax, several remain wonderfully open ended - no-doubt succeeding in provoking the thoughts Pirsig intended.

Practically the motorcycle and its maintenance are archetypes for technology, and the qualities of these are metaphors for the philosophical "virtues". In fact the concept of quality and the ancient debate between rational (logical) and subjective (rhetorical) views of the world are truly the subject of the book. Like Sophie's World the entire book is a vehicle for a serious philosophy text, though unlike that particular best seller, ZAMM provides a gripping and involving story. The emotive power arises from Pirsig's own credentials in philosophical academia as a student and teacher of rhetoric, coupled with the passion and frustration that jumps off the page and grabs the reader by the throat. No surprise to find that Pirsig's schizophrenic alter ego, Phaedrus, hides a past brush with a mental institution. The frustration of the rational trap, leaving madness as the only apparent escape route is evocative of both Catch-22 and Cuckoo's Nest.

For anyone with an interest in the big questions of life, this is a good read. For anyone concerned with making progress in the details of the underlying philosophical debate, it is a text worthy of serious research. Both will find that those threads with uncertain resolution, are rewarded by at least one re-read.

(Reviewers Note: I find myself identifying strongly with the central character, yet when first given this book on an MBA Organisational Behaviour reading list in 1988 I chose not to read it. Now, having read the 25th anniversary edition, I find myself moved by it and regretting that my main thesis did not benefit from it at the time. I am currently conducting research into knowledge modelling, which can be found at http://www.psybertron.org/index.html

For a fuller review of the relevant of Pirsig’s philosophies, expressed in both ZMM and LILA concerning in particular static / dynamic levels and the existence of moral values, so far as they are relevant to an understanding of knowledge modelling, see http://www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.html

Reviews by others seem to fall into four main categories …

A large majority of thoughtful people who also found it life-changing and a surprising yet absorbing “introduction to philosophy”

Philosophers (Western and Zen / Tao) who criticise the fact that Pirsig ignored important philosophers or had been unaware of their philosophies. Then there are others, who criticise his rather mechanistic description of his “quality” thesis, about 2/3 of the way through the book, as being weak and unconvincing.  The philosophers may have a point. In my view quality per se is a bit of a red herring, despite its prominence, since it is really just an analogy anyway. To criticise this book for lack of a convincing rational argument is merely to disagree with Pirsig’s central thesis – which is everyone’s right - see http://www.psybertron.org/pirsigpages.html

Critics of Pirsig’s lack of original though and self-absorbed lack of skill as father and husband. These readers do indeed miss the irony of Pirsig’s own journey in the book. The whole point is that the “subjective” view is not original, merely suppressed. It’s (not) easy to criticise the emperor’s suit of clothes. The irony is that Pirsig eventually discovers, too late, that the relationship with Chris is (should always have been) the most important thing in his life. Particularly poignant in that Chris was the victim of an arbitrary murder only a few years after publication.

And of course, there are those who just found it difficult, boring, enforced or not as advertised - who admitted they’d missed the point. )