Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) Recalls His Near-Deadly Sailing Adventure

After receiv­ing 121 rejec­tions from pub­lish­ers, Robert Pir­sig final­ly got Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance pub­lished in 1974, which sub­se­quent­ly sold over five mil­lion copies and put Pir­sig in high demand. Nev­er­the­less, his fol­low-up book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, did­n’t come out until 1991, and he’s pub­lished no book-length works since then. What did this tow­er­ing influ­ence on so many writ­ers, bik­ers, and lone­ly mis­fits do with the rest of his time?

In this video, Pir­sig talks about his pas­sion for boat­ing, which is the set­ting for Lila. As an intro­duc­tion, we hear John Suther­land, who was a promi­nent­ly-fea­tured char­ac­ter in the first half of Zen, opin­ing that Pir­sig should do some trav­el writ­ing, and to my ears being a lit­tle snarky about the phi­los­o­phy com­po­nent of his works. We then get to see Pir­sig’s boat and hear him talk about a near­ly dead­ly trip he took across the Atlantic in 1979. (“right where the Titan­ic was sunk”).

Pir­sig’s sparse out­put should­n’t be a sur­prise if you’re famil­iar with his phi­los­o­phy, which is all about what he calls “Qual­i­ty,” a basic (and there­fore in an impor­tant sense inde­fin­able) com­po­nent of expe­ri­ence that not only pro­vides a basis for explain­ing psy­chol­o­gy, biol­o­gy, and physics, but also pro­vides a guide for prac­ti­cal, dai­ly life. Get­ting pulled into the world of “philosophol­o­gy,” which he describes as a con­cern with the his­to­ry and meth­ods of phi­los­o­phy, as opposed to actu­al­ly doing phi­los­o­phy, would not yield the qual­i­ty of life that float­ing around on his boat would.

To learn more about Pir­sig, check out this pod­cast episode on Zen, and the sub­se­quent series of notes I pub­lished on Lila, which engen­dered a lot of great con­ver­sa­tion with Pir­sig’s fans and crit­ics.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er runs the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast and blog

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.