An Overrated Classic
Robert M. Pirsig performs literary autofellatio in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
By Bryant Peng
ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
An Inquiry into Values
By Robert M. Pirsig
Part novel, autobiography, and philosophy thesis, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a clumsy attempt to hide vegetables in the food. The book tries to deliver grand ideas through narrative, but stumbles over the mechanics.
Zen follows the narrator — Pirsig himself — on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Don’t expect too much from the story though, because the book’s true purpose is to enlighten you with his philosophies. Having solved the universe’s mysteries, Pirsig’s ready to rain his knowledge onto the masses like water in Mad Max.
Between monologues, the road trip storyline provides a much-needed mental break. Here, Pirsig makes some thoughtful observations:
I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought that maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It’s here, but I have no names for it.
But despite the title, mindfulness is scarce. When Pirsig’s not explaining reality, he’s writing contrived dialogue from an undergrad English class:
“Where are you teaching?” she finally asks.
“I’m not teaching anymore,” I say. “I’ve stopped.”
She looks incredulous. “You’ve stopped?” She frowns and looks at me again, as if to verify that she is really talking to the right person. “You can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can.”
She shakes her head in disbelief. “Not you!”
“That’s all over for me now. I’m doing other things.”
I keep wondering who she is, and her expression looks equally baffled. ”But that’s just…” The sentence drops off. She tries again. “You’re just being completely…” but this sentence fails too.
The next word is “crazy.”
Moments like this read like autobiographical fan fiction. Characters in Zen are props, cardboard cutouts for Pirsig to roleplay with or lecture to. His use of dialogue makes you wonder: Has he ever had a real conversation?
A child prodigy who started university at age 14, Pirsig sees complexity in ideas, not people. He likes to remind you he’s from a higher dimension, and sometimes quite directly:
I look over my shoulder for one last view of the gorge. Like looking down at the bottom of the ocean. People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists.
It’s no surprise that this book established Pirsig’s place as another Great Misunderstood White Man in literary history. He has ideas, but neither the talent to animate them nor the self-awareness to realize it.