Robert Pirsig Reveals the Personal Journey That Led Him to Write His Counterculture Classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

I well remem­ber pulling Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance from my par­ents’ shelves at age twelve or thir­teen, work­ing my way through a few pages, and stop­ping in true per­plex­i­ty to ask, “what is this?” The book fit no for­mal scheme or genre I had ever encoun­tered before. I under­stood its lan­guage, but I did not know how to read it. I still don’t, though I’ve had decades to study some of Pirsig’s ref­er­ences and influ­ences, from Pla­to to Kant to Dōgen. Is this mem­oir? Fic­tion? Phi­los­o­phy? A med­i­ta­tion on machin­ery, like Hen­ry Adams’ strange essay “The Dynamo and the Vir­gin”? Yes.

Pirsig’s coun­ter­cul­tur­al clas­sic, pub­lished in 1974 after five years of rejec­tions (121 in total) was “not… a mar­ket­ing man’s dream,” as the edi­tor at his even­tu­al pub­lish­er, William Mor­row, wrote to him at the time. Nev­er­the­less, it sold—“50,000 copies in three months,” writes the L.A. Times, “and more than 5 mil­lion in the decades since. The dense tome has been trans­lat­ed into at least 27 lan­guages…. Its pop­u­lar­i­ty made Pir­sig ‘prob­a­bly the most wide­ly read philoso­pher alive,’ one British jour­nal­ist wrote in 2006.’” Pir­sig, who died this past Mon­day, only wrote one oth­er work, the philo­soph­i­cal nov­el Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. But he will be remem­bered as an impor­tant, if quixot­ic, fig­ure in 20th cen­tu­ry thought.

Zen osten­si­bly recounts a motor­cy­cle jour­ney Pir­sig took with his son, Chris, and two friends. They are shad­owed by anoth­er char­ac­ter, Phae­drus, the author’s neu­rot­ic alter ego. Pir­sig poured all of him­self into the book: his unortho­dox philo­soph­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al jour­ney, his strug­gle with schiz­o­phre­nia, his close and fret­ful rela­tion­ship to his son (who lat­er suc­cumbed to drug addic­tion and was mur­dered at age 22, five years after Zen came out). It is a book “filled with unan­swered and, per­haps, unan­swer­able ques­tions.”

The kind of deep ambi­gu­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty Zen explores is not easy to write about, unsur­pris­ing­ly, and in the NPR inter­view above from 1974, Pir­sig describes his strug­gles as a writer—the dis­trac­tions and intru­sions, the self-doubt and con­fu­sion. Pir­sig seclud­ed him­self for much of the writ­ing of the book, and for much of it worked a day job writ­ing tech­ni­cal man­u­als, which explains quite a lot about its intri­cate lev­els of tech­ni­cal detail.

Pirsig’s descrip­tions of the hard-won self-dis­ci­pline (and exhaus­tion) that the writer’s life requires will ring true for any­one who has tried to write a book. He sums up his moti­va­tion suc­cinct­ly: “this was real­ly a com­pul­sive book. If I didn’t do it, I’d feel worse than if I did do it.” But Pir­sig found he couldn’t make any progress as a writer until he gave up try­ing to be “in quotes, a ‘writer,’” or play the role of one any­way. “It was always a sep­a­ra­tion of my real self from the act of writ­ing,” he says.

His process sounds like the freewrit­ing of Ker­ouac’s road nov­el or the auto­mat­ic writ­ing of the Sur­re­al­ists: “I could almost watch my hand mov­ing on the page; there was almost no voli­tion one way or the oth­er, it was just hap­pen­ing.” What he iden­ti­fies as the “sin­cer­i­ty” of the book’s voice helps steady read­ers who must trust a very unre­li­able nar­ra­tor to guide them through a phi­los­o­phy of what Pir­sig calls “quality”—a meta­phys­i­cal con­di­tion that under­lies reli­gions and philoso­phies East and West. “One can med­i­tate,” he wrote, “on the fact that the old Eng­lish roots for the Bud­dha and Qual­i­ty, God and good, appear to be iden­ti­cal.” Pir­sig sub­ject­ed all human endeav­or to the scruti­ny of “qual­i­ty,” includ­ing so-called “val­ue free” sci­ence, a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion he found dubi­ous.

In the BBC radio inter­view above, you can hear Pir­sig describe his per­son­al and intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney, which took him through a trou­bled child­hood in Min­neso­ta, a tour in the Kore­an War, an aca­d­e­m­ic career, and even­tu­al­ly a cen­tral role in the “whole attempt to reform Amer­i­ca” begun by “beat­niks” and “hip­pies” in San Fran­cis­co. (Both words, he wrote, were “clich­es and stereo­types… invent­ed for the antitech­nol­o­gists, the anti­sys­tem peo­ple.”) Urged by a uni­ver­si­ty col­league to pur­sue the ques­tion “what is qual­i­ty?,” Pir­sig under­took an obses­sive inves­ti­ga­tion. His will­ing­ness and courage to fol­low wher­ev­er it led defined the rest of his life as a writer and thinker.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

What Are Lit­er­a­ture, Phi­los­o­phy & His­to­ry For? Alain de Bot­ton Explains with Mon­ty Python-Style Videos

12 Clas­sic Lit­er­ary Road Trips in One Handy Inter­ac­tive Map

Phi­los­o­phy of Reli­gion: A Free Online Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nick Summerhayes says:

    One thing that can be missed in dis­cus­sions about the books is that Pir­sig cre­at­ed a whole new phi­los­o­phy that this Plan­et des­per­ate­ly needs at the moment.
    Every’thing’ can be defined as belong­ing to one of 4 lev­els of Qual­i­ty:

    With each lev­el required to sup­port the one above, but the high­er ones more ‘moral’.
    All that’s miss­ing is Dynam­ic Qual­i­ty, a place­hold­er name for an enti­ty that can’t be defined, unlike the struc­ture above.
    Dynam­ic Qual­i­ty is con­stant­ly work­ing on sta­t­ic or sta­ble Qual­i­ty defined in the struc­ture above.
    An exam­ple of sta­t­ic and dynam­ic in say the social lev­el, could be a reli­gion… the dynam­ic qual­i­ty is the desire for gay and female priests while the sta­t­ic qual­i­ty rejects this and wants the old tra­di­tions.
    Ten­sion between the two is required for it to con­tin­ue. Too much sta­t­ic or too much Dynam­ic Qual­i­ty and it will die.

  • Richard Gilbert says:

    I just start­ed reread­ing Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance. It blew me away at 18! A lot is com­ing back. All I remem­bered is his con­clu­sion “The heart of tech­nol­o­gy is death”; now I see it is in rela­tion to his friend who won’t work on his motor­cy­cle and Pir­sig’s puz­zle­ment over it. And the author los­ing it at the end and pee­ing him­self try­ing to define “qual­i­ty.”

    Today this clas­sic might be pub­lished as mem­oir. But the nov­el form was and maybe is capa­cious enough to do what he want­ed.

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