How Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ changed the way I think

The American author, whose 1974 part-autobiographical philosophical novel became a cult hit, died on Monday at the age of 88.

It was a purple paperback that sat on my father’s bookshelf for years before I picked it out one summer afternoon, having finally overcome my resistance to its peculiar title and to the ugly-sounding name of its author. I was 16 or maybe 17, which was the perfect age to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Had I tried a year or two earlier, I’d have been bored by its verbosity and probably never given it a second go. Had I waited for a couple more years, I might have been less receptive to its message, having developed the capacity to see through its less tenable claims and being turned off as a result from its most interesting bits.

I picked two pop science books from the same shelf that summer, which also had weird titles and author names: Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters. They shared Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’s interest in synthesising East and South Asian mysticism with science and rationality.

Pirsig’s interest in Zen philosophy had been sparked during a holiday in Japan. He also studied for a while at Banaras Hindu University, although Indian thought does not feature too prominently in this novel. Pirsig, Capra and Zukav were tremendously influential in their time, required reading for thinking adults and adolescents, but their influence waned rapidly, suggesting their best-known work was tied strongly to a particular historical moment. All three books were published in the 1970s, and marked a mid-point of sorts between the hippie philosophy of the previous decade and the consumerism of the 1980s. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the only one of the three that spoke to me strongly enough to leave a lasting imprint on the way I interpret the world.

RobertPirsig/via Twitter
RobertPirsig/via Twitter

The question of quality

I recall relatively little of the book now. It is about a motorcycle road trip across the United States taken by the author and his young son, who are joined for part of the course by two friends with a very different philosophical perspective. The gap between the intuitive, instinctive personalities of the friends (which Pirsig terms “romantic”) and the author’s own logical and pragmatic tendencies (which he calls “classical”) occasions a series of philosophical meditations.

We are also introduced to a character named Phaedrus, who is the author’s alter ego or earlier self and whose philosophical journey parallels the author’s physical one. The central question Phaedrus ponders is that of quality, which is something essential that all of us recognise, but eludes definition.

At the time I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I was certain I would go on to work in a scientific field, but soon switched to the humanities, studied English Literature and then focussed on visual art. Phaedrus’s enquiry has resonated through much of my writing, even as the concept of quality has become virtually redundant in contemporary evaluations of art.

Until a few decades ago, few people questioned the idea of artistic or literary merit. There were well-written books and badly written books, good paintings and bad paintings, and the job of experts was to help members of the public distinguish between the two and improve general taste. Starting in the 1960s, however, a theory took hold in academia that artistic merit was more a matter of privilege of birth or institutional backing than of any features intrinsic to artworks. That explained why so many of the world’s most renowned writers and artists were European males.

I’ve never believed this to be wholly true. Take the case of Pablo Picasso, for example. Sure, he was a European male, and a macho egoist who treated his lovers terribly. But he was also a boy from Andalusia, out of place in sophisticated Barcelona and even more of a hick in Paris. If success were merely a matter of privilege, there were hundreds of European male artists with better claim than Picasso. If he became the most important artist of his generation, it was largely due to the freshness of his vision, the ferocity of his imagination, the quality of his painting and sculpture.

One could make a similar argument for MF Husain and dozens of other artists who would not be automatic choices for inclusion in a canon based on privilege. But adjectives of the kind I just used to describe Picasso’s work, words like “fresh” and “ferocious”, don’t cut it any more. They appear hopelessly impressionistic and subjective.

The question of politics

For a while, the obvious subjectivity of art criticism was shielded by the exclusive nature of publishing. The rise of the web broke through the shield, and more or less ended the reign of expertise. Everybody can now publish their opinion and everybody’s opinion is equally valid. To argue otherwise would be dreadfully elitist, especially in the absence of any objective or measurable criteria for excellence.

The discourse in art, therefore, has shifted away from questions of merit to those of politics. One can make statements about a work’s politics that appear far more rigorous than anything one might say about its aesthetics. A dense theoretical language far more formidable than that of conventional art criticism has gradually become dominant. It has the advantage of not being replicable by laypeople publishing on the Web. I think of it as a Terminator tongue, superior in most respects to the all-too-human writing that preceded it.

The central problem with the new language is that it completely ignores what draws us to art in the first place. When it does venture into that territory, it loses its rigour the way Superman loses his power in the presence of kryptonite. I have written and lectured on this crisis of language a fair amount and at the end of one talk an art historian took me aside and said, “I understand what you’re trying to get at, but why do you use the word ‘quality’? Surely there are better words for what you’re trying to express.” I replied, “I use the term because of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I gathered from her blank look that she had never picked the purple paperback from a bookshelf.

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