Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has died at the age of 88.
I first came across this book in 1998 when I was on holiday in Rhodes and I borrowed it from somebody in the hotel. I got through the first few chapters before he asked for it back, and so when I returned to Manchester I bought a copy of my own. It was heavy going in places, and some people at the time (my sister being one of them) said it was rather pretentious and there is some truth to that, but I recall thinking it was very good nonetheless. There were certainly some interesting ideas in there, one of them being that university students should not be graded: instead of chasing marks they should simply attend, because only those who truly wish to learn and apply their knowledge would stick around. I was also swayed by the author’s arguments on quality, which I notice are mentioned in the article I’ve linked to:
The protagonist of Zen attempts to resolve the conflicts between “classic” values that create machinery like the motorcycle, and “romantic” values like the beauty of a country road. He discovers all values find their root in what Pirsig called Quality:
“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”
There were two other elements to the book that appealed to me, one of which ought to be pretty obvious to those who know me: that of motorcycle maintenance. As you know I’m an engineer (at least, that’s what my degree certificate says) and I’ve spent a few years of my life as a rather enthusiastic amateur mechanic, and I found the technical details and descriptions of the maintenance philosophies interesting in their own right.
There was also the theme of the great American road trip in which the author discovers himself, which at the time interested me a lot. On my wall in my student hall of residence I had a huge map of the United States, and for a long time I planned to drive around as much of it as I could. Some stories would now have me tell you that I never found the time and life intervened, but not this one: I went to the US in the summer of 2000, rented a car, and did just that, covering 26 states (if I include those I went through on the Greyhound). But it wasn’t Pirsig’s book which inspired me so much as William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, which I’d found knocking around back home in Wales. While it doesn’t have the Zen wisdom and chapters on motorcycle maintenance, it is a far better account of a journey of self-discovery across America.
I’ve read Blue Highways at least twice, Zen only once. Both are with me here in Paris. Perhaps I should read Pirsig’s tome once more, and see what I find different in the nineteen years since I last read it. I’m sure the ending will be no less heartbreaking.