Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a narration of a motorcycle ride with Pirsig’s son, Chris, from Minnesota to southern California, chronicling some of the events, and most of the thoughts that happened during that trip. It is a book about Quality, the results of scientific thinking, and insanity. It is a look at how ancient Greek philosophy has affected Western civilization, particularly in how it is worked out in our own culture. And it is a description of Pirsig’s search, his insanity, and the culmination of his search afterwards.

Pirsig and Chris begin the trip with John and Sylvia, who are artists that Pirsig knows. Pirsig, as a technical writer, understands and is comfortable with technology. In particular, he maintains his motorcycle himself, because it takes care and attention to detail to do it right, attention that is not given at the mechanic shop where workers play the radio and count the hours ‘till quittin’ time. John, on the other hand, owns a shiny BMW motorcycle and has the mechanic keep it in good shape. John and Sylvia look at life from an emotional perspective and thus they do not understand technology (which is not very emotional), seeing it as hollow and empty. They are, Pirsig asserts, like many Americans are somewhat frightened by technology. This difference, the difference between those who understand technology and those who are frightened by it is what he wants to explore with the book.

Amidst the camping at the evening and the meals at restaurants, Pirsig explains the scientific method and maintenance of motorcycles. The scientific method is the keeping of records of the hypotheses and their proofs or disproofs. It is an understanding of the motorcycle as a set of systems and their interactions, each performing a particular function. It is a detached observation and will eventually solve any problem.

The job of the scientific method is to select between hypotheses. However, Phaedrus, Pirsig’s self before a court-ordered electrical personality destruction, discovered that there are an infinite number of hypotheses for a given observation, so it is impossible to choose between them all. In fact, instead of finding the absolute truth, science has found multiple truths, which Pirsig points to as the cause of the current social crisis. “As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant [rationality] will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is—emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty.” This conclusion led him to abandon his studies in molecular biology and after some time in Korea and the discovery of Eastern thought, led him to pursue philosophy.

From philosophy, Pirsig eventually became an English teacher at Bozeman, a small college in the middle of Montana. Here he developed the idea of the “Church of Reason”, that is, the University. It’s job is the search of the Kantian absolute truth. From a chance phrase dropped by a colleague, he began to think about Quality. Sure, he taught it, but what was it? He and his students both seemed to agree on whether something was Quality or not (the class analyzed anonymousized papers), but they could not define it. Here the Church of Reason was failing in its job, because the moment that he attempted to define Quality, it disappeared. Without a definition, Reason cannot be applied.

Phaedrus eventually came to the conclusion that Quality was an event: it is the event at which both the classic (scientific, intellectual) and romantic (emotional) awareness of an object is possible. Furthermore, he said that Quality is the cause, that ultimately Quality is that from which everything springs, finding an epiphany in Tao Te Ching, in that the "Tao" and “Quality” can be substituted from each other. Unfortunately, this is also the point where he started to go insane.

Pirsig notes that perhaps Phaedrus had gone too far in what Quality is, and expounds Quality in a more helpful way by talking about stuckness. Inevitably the rational mind will eventually get stuck, in writing or in solving a problem. This is because solutions occur at the edge of knowledge, where the manifestation of Quality has yet to be identified. We get stuck when we start looking behind the edge, at the knowledge that has already been discovered. Stuckness is, in fact, a good state, because eventually we will start re-examining our assumptions about what is important, what is relevant and become unstuck.

At this point we rejoin Phaedrus as he studies at the University of Chicago. Here he discovers the Greek philosophers, the foundation of Western culture. After much research Phaedrus discovers that before Plato, there were groups of thinkers who propounded an absolute truth, but could not agree on what it was. Plato attempts to unify this by splitting it into Truth and Good. Against Plato argue the Sophists, who say that “Man is the measure [not creator] of all things,” namely that truth is relative. So Plato’s surprisingly forceful damning of the Sophists was essentially damning a philosophy of relativism versus a fledgling idea of absolute truth. Plato won, and from him and from absolute truth sprung Western civilization. But in gaining the notion of absolute truth that has so propelled Western society, we lost the oneness with the world, because now the Good (which is very similar to Quality) is now an abstract idea, and as such can be demoted to less than Truth by Aristotle.

At this point Phaedrus sees that the University is not interested in Quality and ceases caring about the world, leading to his being sequestered in the asylum. Likewise, Pirsig begins to agree with Phaedrus, taking leave of the mythos of our culture and going insane again. You get out of the asylum, he says, by figuring out what they want you to say and saying it well, denying the part of you that is insane. Pirsig’s intention was to sell the motorocyle when he hit the ocean, send Chris back on the bus, and check himself into the mental hospital. He is dissauded from doing so by the anguish his son Chris, and Pirsig discovers that Chris is the reason he denied Phaedrus to get out, and Chris is the reason to deny Phaedrus again.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a little schizophrenic, clearly on purpose. The motorcycle journey matches the mood Pirsig’s thoughts and provides a running narrative to break up the exposition. The exposition, unfortunately, is written as if he were thinking it as he goes. This serves to reinforce the motorcycle journey (which was taken from true events), but prevents clarity of exposition. Perhaps this was a goal, to show the thought process, but if so, it obscures the main goal, which is to show that, to regain the quality of living that we lost through the quality of our technology, we need to treat Quality as the highest ideal, and because people’s views of what constitues Quality for them, we need to have a more relativistic outlook.

I am sad to report that this book, while interesting, does not resonate with me. As Pirsig says in his introduction, “the success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems the result of this culture-bearing phenomenon.” Perhaps the culture in 2004 is too unlike that of 1974, when the book was first published, now that relativism and post-modernism have taken a firm hold, so the ideas are no longer the just-what-I-have-been-thinking-but-couldn’t-identify ideas that make a culture-bearing best-seller. Perhaps it is that, as a Christian, I am firmly in the camp of Absolute Truth, and long ago rejected the relativism of my own culture. Nonetheless the thoughts expressed here are quite applicable. While I stop short of viewing Quality as different for everyone, in this age of cookie-cutter subdivision and vast stretches of featureless cement, we do, indeed, need to have Quality or Beauty in our work, not just technical improvement or expedience. And while the book is, unfortunately (but by design) more of a Chautauqua, or an entertaining education, than a treatise, the ideas are worth considering and even adopting, at least as far as a devotion to Absolute Truth will allow.
Review: 8.0
I finished this book unsure what to think. It was recommended to me as a discussion of what it means to be insane, but this is not clearly presented. Clearly Pirsig has a message, too, but it is so well hidden that it was only by attempting to summarize the book for this review that it made sense. In fact, I found it a great book for insomnia. So while I think the contents are potentially worthy of a higher score, this explanation of them could be much more clearly presented, even in the Chautauqua form.