Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert M. Pirsig

‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values’ (ZAMM) is a book by Robert M. Pirsig first published in 1974. It is a work of fictionalized autobiography, and is the first of Pirsig’s texts in which he explores his “Metaphysics of Quality”.

The title is an apparent play on the title of the 1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In its introduction, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, “it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Pirsig received 126 rejections before an editor finally accepted the book for publication—and he did so thinking it would never generate a profit. It was subsequently featured on best-seller lists for decades, with initial sales of at least 5 million copies worldwide.

The book is a fictionalized autobiographical account of a 17-day journey that Pirsig made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son Chris. The story of this journey is recounted in a first-person narrative, although the author is not identified. Father and son are also accompanied, for the first nine days of the trip, by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland, with whom they part ways in Montana. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of science.

Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator’s own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus (after Plato’s dialogue). Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a small college, became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or ‘Quality,’ which he understands similar to Tao (the unknowable principle underlying the universe). His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which permanently changed his personality.

Towards the end of the book, Phaedrus’s strong and unorthodox personality, presented as dangerous to the narrator, begins to re-emerge and the narrator is reconciled with his past.

In the book, the narrator describes the ‘romantic’ approach to life of his friend, John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the ‘classical’ narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem-solving skills.

In an example of the classical approach, the narrator explains that one must pay continual attention: when the narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana he notices that the ‘engine idle is loping a little,’ a possible indication that the fuel/air mixture is too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the jets on his motorcycle’s carburetor. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the higher elevation is causing the engine to run rich. The narrator rectifies this by installing new jets with the valves adjusted, and the engine runs well again.

With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints focused on being ‘in the moment,’ and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know details, understand inner workings, and master mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance).

The Sutherlands represent an exclusively romantic attitude toward the world. The narrator initially appears to prefer the classic approach. It later becomes apparent that he understands both viewpoints and is aiming for the middle ground. He understands that technology, and the ‘dehumanized world’ it carries with it, appears ugly and repulsive to a romantic person. He knows that such persons are determined to shoehorn all of life’s experience into the romantic view. Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is ‘to achieve an inner peace of mind.’ The book demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude.

The narrator aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing ‘irrational’ sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason, and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not (in his view) rationally explicable. He seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like ‘being in the moment’ can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life. It has been noted that Pirsig’s romantic/classical dichotomy resembles Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy as described in ‘The Birth of Tragedy.’

A ‘gumption’ trap is an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and become discouraged from starting or continuing a project. The word ‘gumption’ denotes a combination of commonsense, shrewdness, and a sense of initiative. Although the last of these traits is the primary victim, the first two suffer indirectly in that a reduction in initiative results in a reduction in constructive activity and therefore inhibits one’s development of the first two traits.

The ‘trap’ portion of the term refers to the positive feedback loop that the event or mindset creates: That the reduction in the person’s enthusiasm and initiative decreases both the person’s likelihood of success in that project and the degree of success likely (thus doubly affecting the expected outcome of the person’s efforts). The usual result, whether a mere lack of success or instead an outright failure complete with embarrassment and loss of the resources initially invested, further discourages the person.

Pirsig refers to two types of gumption traps: ‘setbacks,’ which arise from external/’exogenous’ events, and ‘hang-ups,’ which are the product of internal/’endogenous’ factors such as a poor fit between one’s psychological state and the requirements of a project.

The nature of setbacks can vary considerably. For example, a minor setback might result from a minor injury. Larger setbacks include the lack of knowledge that a certain procedural step or other condition is necessary for a project’s success: If one attempts to keep working despite the lack of knowledge that this obstacle exists (let alone how to deal with it), one’s lack of progress may prompt one to take long breaks from the project, to focus one’s attention on other endeavors, or even to lose interest in the project altogether. Pirsig suggests preventing these kinds of gumption traps by being slow and meticulous, taking notes that might help later, and troubleshooting in advance (e.g., by laying out the requirements for one’s project in logical and/or conceptual order and looking for procedural problems ranging from unaccounted-for prerequisites to gaps in one’s instructions or plans).

Hang-ups stem from internal factors that can get in the way of starting or completing a project. Examples of such hang-ups include anxiety, boredom, impatience, and the failure (often borne of excessive egotism) to realize that a) one might not have all the information necessary to succeed and/or b) certain aspects of the problem might be more or less important than one believes. Dealing with hang-ups can be as simple as reducing hyperfocus on a specific aspect of a problem by taking a short break from working on the problem or that specific aspect of it.

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