Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. He was 88.
The most formative class I took in college was Civilization and Literature, where I spent half the semester writing a paper on Zen. In it, I described Pirsig via Hamlet:
So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason
Or by some habit that too much o’erleavens
the form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.
I don’t believe Pirsig was “defected,” but his book—a narrator’s cross-country journey to find peace in a world wherein he felt misplaced, forever to wander—is almost certainly autobiographical. Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1960s and, like his narrator, was crippled by existential anxiety despite his deep desire to be, foremost, a loving father.
What I’m trying to do here is pull it all together. It’s so big. That’s why I seem to wander sometimes.
This book spoke to me, even saved me, years ago. And it speaks louder now than it did—of anxiety, of peace, of “zen.”
But Pirsig scolds me now, I’m sure. His book wasn’t about anxiety. It was about “quality”—the unutterable center of all things.
Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.
Quality, he argues, was once inseparable from Truth—arete (Greek). Dichotomizing these concepts, he says, is a source of unhappiness and our general and grave misunderstanding of our role as romantics vs. mechanics. Can we find objective truths in our creativity and intuitional outbursts? Can we find zen in the mechanical inner-workings of technology?
We must, he says. At the least, we are better off for trying, as Pirsig tried against circumstances more brutal and anxious, probably, than ours.
You’ve got to live right, too. 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. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidance, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together … The real cycle you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things.