Friday, 6 September 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert M. Pirsig, 1974
(September 2013)

One of things I find myself doing, as a result of blogging about every book I read, is picking out quotations I think I could use here. It’s not obsessive, but every so often something will jump out at me as illustrative, or just interesting, and I’ll put it in the final post. After about five pages of Zen… I noticed one. Then after a few more pages another presented itself, then after a few more pages another, and another, and another.

Quite a quotable book then, and definitely relevant to our (by which I mean my) areas of interest. But there are just too many of the damn things. It’s packed too tight to unwrap in a single blogpost and the connections to other stuff I think and have thought shoot out like a web spun by a spider on speed. So I’m not going to quote anything from the book at all. No. I’m going to quote Donald Rumsfeld instead.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

In 2003 the Plain English Campaign gave this their award for most baffling comment by a public figure. Now, I’m certainly no fan of Mr Rumsfeld – I think he’s undeniably been a force for ill in the world and I’d struggle to care if bad things happened to him – but calling this baffling is just unfair. This is actually a concise, lucid, and indeed useful summation of almost the entire fields of ontology and epistemology. The only thing missing is a consideration of unknown knowns; those things we know but don’t know we know.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Robert Pirsig’s attempt to get his head round both the unknown unknowns and, more importantly, those unknown knowns, through the invocation of Quality. I’m not convinced it all hangs together, but then I’m not convinced it matters all that much if it does or not. He’s trying, at least in one aspect of this book, to present a coherent and unified theory of being, so full marks for ambition. But it’s something that has taxed the finest minds since the dawn of civilization and it’s no surprise that this too falls a little short.

The real value of this book is not, necessarily, in its ability to present a watertight theory of everything, but in its ability to make you think about its component parts (the motorcycle metaphor is very apt in this respect). Every chapter contains two or three ideas that vibrate your web of ideas so strongly that you’ve no choice but to race out from the centre to see what manner of fly you might have caught.

Yeah, the motorcycle metaphor is better, isn’t it? Let’s just put it like this: this book’s value perhaps lies less in the ideas it actually contains, and more in the ideas it forces you to consider for yourself.

That said, I’m not sure (again – frankly I could write that at the start of every paragraph) about the overarching frame story either. It’s clearly allegorical, and it’s clearly meant to act as more than just a more traditional narrative device to provide an emotional hook for those of us lacking the intellectual fortitude to wade through the more densely philosophical stuff. And yet this edition contains an introduction by the author written for the book’s 25th anniversary in which he spoilers his own sodding book. Ding ding! The narrator is unreliable! Ding ding! Pheadrus is the real ‘hero’! Ding ding! Nobody understands me.

Slightly hollow complaint that, coming as it does from someone who used to teach rhetoric. Coming as it does from the creator of a narrator who is, in all fairness and over an extended period of time, something of a prick to his obviously alienated adolescent son. Phaedrus doesn’t come out much better, either, dragging his family hither and yon in pursuit of ever finer whetstones on which to grind his own philosophical axe.

See what I mean about creating an emotional hook for us dummies at the back? And in truth I don’t think we’re really meant to sympathise with either of the narrator’s two personalities. They’re both flawed but, crucially, they’re both also and obviously meant as more than just enabling devices for the harder stuff, and so the reader’s reaction to them matters. Why bother explaining/giving away the ending otherwise?

I’m probably dwelling on this aspect of the book because it’s the easiest to grasp, at least so soon after reading. Everything else will take a while to swill around and will come dribbling out in its customary manner as and when; that’s just how my mind works, unfortunately. But this is one of those books which keeps the parts ticking over and in good working order, so I should offer a tip of the hat to both Chris and Will for prompting me to look at it. Cheers guys, very useful mental maintenance work done here. It’s shit in-flight reading material though…


  1. Read this too long ago to be definitive, but I do remember that reading it after a BA in philosophy I did not think he was a twat. Whatever else you can say about that major, if you paid attention it taught you how to easily find the lacunae in someone else's argument. The title is tawdry, but you have to sell books.

    1. 'Not a twat,' coming from you that's high praise indeed ;)

      He's clearly playing a very deliberate game with his reader's perceptions of the narrator/himself, which is why I don't feel bad about labelling him a bit of a prick, as I feel that's pretty much what was meant to be achieved. I'm just not quite sure to what end, as yet.

      I've got a bit of background in this, nowhere near as much as yourself, but enough to feel quite safely ensconced in my Critical Realism bubble. Trouble with that is that I'm always looking for the applicability of things, and here I think certain fragments could be very useful in a way the overall thesis isn't. So now it's just a case of getting at those bits in amongst everything else. The devil is in the details, as ever...

  2. Suppose I should get around to reading this one; Seems like everyone who's had a go at it recommends it whether they enjoyed reading it or not.

    1. Yeah, 'enjoyed' is not the word I would chose. Parts of it actually are quite enjoyable, but that's not really the point, y'know? Still very much worth a read though.

  3. "[p292] It's the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. [...] The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn't separate from your existence. If you're a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren't working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together."

    Allow me to translate Mr (I took waaaay too much L.S.D)

    If you wanna be great act great and accept nothing less. If you think you can mail it in for 5 days a week at work and then be great on your time your terribly mistaken.

    The 1 person who read this how I did owns a Harley Davidson franchise now and we both have taxable assets in the 7 figure range (U.S. Currency). I linked to FORBES article about the book because he...the writer in the FORBES article saw it the same way.

    I thought 1Q84 was total shit in the same way you saw this as airline shit reading. Waaaay too fucking long. Inception was infinitely more coherent and compacted and far more interesting. That was Book v.s. Film but you devoted much more time to a revolting piece of shit that was trying to be something while Zen was a collection of analogies and metaphors written by a guy that took too much dope. One was trying to be what it wasn't and the other was made to be something it was never intended to be until Universities started making students read it. I'm glad they did but it wasn't supposed to be. Murakami's piece of shit was touted before it's long awaited release as something more than shit and it was worse than that. IMO ;)

    1. Aw, don't go just giving me the answers. It's much more fun if I can work them out on my own ;)

      And, I should note, it wasn't me on LSD, it was the spiders. THE SPIDERS. THE SPIDERS I TELL YOU.

      That doesn't really help my case, does it?

      I think the 'collection of analogies and metaphors' is the way to take it. Break it down into what's useful. It wasn't the length that was the problem in-flight (in fact that's usually a plus), but the concentration necessary. I very quickly learned that sitting next to a slightly travel sick toddler isn't really conducive to deep philosophical though. But on the plus side I did finish World of Goo, so there's that.

  4. (The following comment is in response to a number of items. While trying to read responses to ‘If you’re jōzu and you know it, hold your ground’ and a very ‘initiated’ sounding comment – actually a particular keyword - caught me off guard and triggered recent memories of reading “Shield This Increase”  and the prices people pay for ‘professional services’.  Your finely writ writing featured a quote from Mr. Seargent’s ‘Multilingual Matters’. What kind of set things off was the simple word I have yet to use to describe any people I’ve taken part in dialogue or simply had conversations with: inerlocutor.)

    Wild Horses
    So, I’m in the middle of this cleaning ritual (no animals were harmed) and, in the background, this Louis Theroux fella’ is like in Reno, riding along in a car with the madam of the brothel he’s been camped out at for the last few weeks, and he’d doing his usual line of questioning and they get to this bit about the women in the business, where they may be headed, like in their futures, and they get around to talking about the one who’s been very difficult to figure out, ‘hard to pin down on anything’ and then the madam says something like, “She won’t tell you why she’s deaf in one year.”
    Then she’s like, bang,  and follows up with, “This is an ugly world we live in, didn’t you know that?” (Pause) “We grow up as children thinking everything’s going to be wonderful in our lives…” and things don’t always turn out that way.
    But that’s not really what this comment is about. 
    What it’s about is how higher learning is somewhat of a cult. As you so unabashedly reveal by dismantling a quote from one of the books you read (shoot, you had to take it apart in able to understand what the guy was going on about)… you deconstruct the quote to make it painfully easy to understand for the uninitiated, the language that divides ‘them’ from ‘us’ - language people invest unabashedly handsome amounts of time (and often money) to acquire, all for the sake of being one of the ‘in’ group, being part of an ‘in’ group that is not about ‘what you know’ or even ‘who you know’, but maybe just  ‘what you know about who you know’, ya’ know? Yeah, real ‘professional’.
    Dang, looks like I’ve timed out. Must feed them horses and get back to a’cleanin’.
    Tags words: interlocutors, pro forma, reaffirm the narrative, hence, florid

    1. I must confess a sneaking fondness for 'hence'. You may well have noticed.

      The final section of Zen..., where he's heading for his intellectual showdown/cock waving exhibition with 'The Chairman of The Committee', was simultaneously the most interesting and the most depressing section of the book.

      None of the academics I've met in person have talked like they write, y'know? That's a lie. Very few of the academics I've met in person talk like they write. A decent proportion are very willing to discuss the point that the way the expressed themselves was not perhaps the most conducive to opening up the debate, but an equally decent (so to speak) number are also so invested in the community they've worked so hard to join that it's hard to get beyond the knee-jerk defensiveness.

      It's worth noting the irony that the writing I'm encouraged to produce for a course in Applied Linguistics is an order of magnitude more stylised and rigid than anything I ever did as a Geographer.