Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - One of the Great Novels from 1974

Zen and the Art of Mototcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig, is what is known as a "philosophical novel," which means that the story and the dialog are there as a device to discuss philosophical issues.

Zen was a hugely popular book in 1974, and it continues to earn new dedicated fans. It was one of my top five favorites published that year - a great time for novels! The other four:
  • Tales of Power - Carlos Casaneda
  • Something Happened - Joseph Heller
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard
  • My Life as a Man - Philip Roth
Five more great ones from 1974:
  • Sula - Tony Morrison
  • The Hair of Harold Roux - Thomas Williams
  • Dog Soldiers - Robert Stone
  • Fear of Flying - Erica Jong
  • The Killer Angels - Michael Shaara
In the story, the narrator takes a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son. Along the way, the repairs they make together are used to illustrate how to unify the objective, rational realm of technology with the subjective, imaginative realm of artistry. He encourages his son to become one with whatever activity he's involved in, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all its details, whether it's hiking in the woods, writing an article, or adjusting the chain on a motorcycle.

The following passage expresses one of the central, non-philosophical points:
"In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame...On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming."

A lot of what the narrator says algns with the personal strengths I often write about:

ACCEPTANCE - "The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away."

AWARENESS - "To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top."

AWARENESS - "We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone."

ATTITUDE - "Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn't mean much."

EXCELLENCE - "Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness."

EXCELLENCE - "We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on "good" rather than on 'time'...."

FOCUS - "This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too, as attested by the ability of Hindu mystics to live buried alive for many days. Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest."

GRATITUDE - "The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed."

INTEGRITY - "Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all."

RATIONALITY - "If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you."

RESPONSIBILITY - "The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there."

SELF-DEVELOPMENT - "If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then it might be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas....Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the physic predecessor of all real understanding."

SERVICE - "The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there."

SPIRITUALITY - "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion."

This quote does a good job of summing up the novel:
"The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself."

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Verna Wilder said...

Ah, what a beautiful summing up of this book! I read it when I was about 30 and had 2 small children at home and a husband who worked a full-time job and went to law school 4 nights a week. I felt like a boring stupid housewife with no thoughts of her own, and I cannot imagine what drew me to this book. I loved it, didn't understand most of what I read, and could hardly put it down. Thanks so much for these quotes, Denny.

I read a few of the others you list as well. Such good books!

Sarcastic Bastard said...

It is a truly great book. I particularly like the Awareness quote. How true!