Six Damn Fine Degrees #73: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Philosophy? Honestly? Old dudes with beards? Nope, not for me. That was, until I picked up a German soft-cover edition of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). The cover looked good, promising some sort of roadside adventure, the blurb sounded intriguing. Pretty far away from dull old philosophical babbling, I thought.

The book is about Pirsig’s travels by motorcycle with his son Chris. It took me long to realise that the other alter ego in the book, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy because of his schizophrenia, was of course also Pirsig himself. There are some philosophical moments in the book, but by and large, we are witness to the road trip and to Pirsig’s mental illness.

I didn’t understand all of the parts – I had no clue about Aristotle -, but I liked the story of the trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco. In those parts, philosophy enters through the backdoor. It’s not a book about Zen nor about motorcycle maintenance; it’s Pirsig’s world-view and musings, and partly his descent into, and escape from, his schizophrenia, by way of a journey westward. Pirsig teaches his son a few things during their journey; they talk, they quarrel, they burn rubber.

Rejected by a staggering number of publishers, it became a huge success. There was a less successful sequel called Lila (1991), which continues where Zen… left off. I wasn’t aware of any of this while reading the book; I just followed Pirsig on his way. I learned some bits about philosophy, much more than in any theoretical reader since.

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