There are books that shape our personality, give a shape to our emotions or bring us on a trip far away. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is one of those books where Robert Pirsig elevates the meaning of riding and he does it by exploring the consciousness
Who is Robert M. Pirsig?
Robert M. Pirsig was born on September 6th, 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was such a smart kid that he skipped two grades and he scored an IQ of 170. But he was bullied by older classmates and being left-handed he was forced by teachers to write right-handed. In this environment, he developed a stammer which he later overcame.
After taking classes at the University of Minnesota, he joined the army and was sent to Korea. Robert was teaching English to the local laborers he was supervising and that was the point when he got to know zen philosophy. After he visited Japan he earned a philosophy degree in Minnesota. He taught rhetoric and made his first experiences with hallucinogenic peyote during a Cheyenne tribal ceremony.
Traveling without arriving
In 1961 he received treatment in a psychiatric hospital after he was delivered in a catatonic state. Two years later he submitted to electro-shock treatments. An experience later reported, recollected, and processed in his book by his alter ego. After he was discharged, he fell in love with motorcycles. In 1968, he took a long road trip that you can find in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which he published in 1974. The book was an immediate success selling millions of copies.
There was an after-book-life in which he didn’t want to take part to this popularity almost like J.D. Salinger after Catcher in the Rye. After he received the Guggenheim grant he bought a 32 ft sailing boat and sailed away with his wife from the Great Lakes. He got separated and on the way, he met also his second wife, a journalist who, apparently, never left the boat after the interview.
In 1979, Chris, his first child, was stabbed to death by a mugger outside the Zen Center in San Francisco. One year later Robert and his new wife had a daughter, Nell. Robert saw a sort of “continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied”. In 1985, they went back to New Hampshire so that Nell could start school.
Robert M. Pirsig died on April 24th, 2017 at 88 in his home in South Berwick, Maine.
What is this Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about?
This is a book about a 17-day trip from Minnesota to California with his son Chris and his friends John and Sylvia. The story is not just about the physical travel on the two bikes, it’s also an exploration of his past, the time when he worked as a teacher followed by his breakdown. During the trip he lets us dive into the characters and the different approach they have towards the maintenance of their motorcycles and life. John rides a BMW because it doesn’t need any particular care.
Pirsig refers to his alter-ego Phaedrus like his younger self before the psychiatric treatment. And it’s this trip that gave him the possibility to reconcile with his past.
This is not a book about motorcycles but more about philosophy. He could have used a boat or an airplane. The motorcycle is the carrier needed to deliver the message.
The Story behind the Best Seller
In the 1970s, he was working for a computer company writing manuals. Pirsig wrote his book in the morning before work. He used to wake up at 2 am and write until 6 am. During an interview, he confessed that were days where he didn’t write at all but he didn’t find these days unproductive. He learned from meditation that there is a certain art in “not doing”. Once you learn how this state of “not doing”, you will be more focused when you are actually “doing”.
Zen and Futurism
Futurism was the first art genre to relate to machines, progress, and speed. But sadly also to fascism. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wanted to make peace between hippies and technology. Like Pirsig said in his book “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”.
A weird note
What you see down here is not a mistake, it’s what Nell typed at the age of 4 while her father was writing the afterword for the next edition of his best seller.