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Books in my life: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Jul 22, 2013

I'm in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, still jet lagged, unable to fall asleep before 3 AM. In NYC that's only 9 PM. Who can fall asleep so early?

I want to write a post about books in my life, and my mind drifts back many decades. I remember the first book that made a big impression on me.

It was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. With that book I realized that an author can describe ideas that are big, that feel real. He wrote about emotional versus rational ways of perceiving the world, or, as he called them, the "romantic" and "classical" modes. Misunderstandings arise between those who look at the world through these different lenses.

For instance, the narrator of the book is on a motorcycle trip with his son and another couple. When his motorcycle breaks down, he enjoys diagnosing the problem and fixing the motorcycle himself. He has a classical appreciation for how the different parts of the motorcycle fit together. He doesn't see pieces of steel, he sees ideas.  The cycle components are forms that originated in someone's mind. The other couple, John and Sylvia, are Romantics. They don't understand why anyone would want to spend time working on the motorcycle instead of bringing it to a repair shop. They like the way the motorcycle makes them feel as they ride along the road, the immediacy of the experience, the wind blowing against them, the ground just inches from their feet. From a romantic perspective, the engine is a dirty, grimy machine part. Malfunctions mean an interruption of their Romantic experience.

Pirsig didn't advocate one perspective over another. His idea (this is where the Zen comes in) was that there doesn't have to be a dichotomy between the Classical and Romantic modes. One can accept things (including motorcycles) in all their aspects. There is beauty in the Classic and Romantic modes, and in fusing the two together.

He wrote about "Quality", our aesthetic understanding of what is good, as something we recognize without words. Because the recognition is nonverbal, it can't easily be defined.  This is expressed well by the jazz musician he quotes: "Will you please, kindly dig it. If you've got to ask what is it all the time, you'll never get time to know.”

These and other ideas (about Socrates, the philosophy of science, creative writing) are all couched within a story about a father on a motorcycle journey with his son through the Dakotas. The journey had an outer and an inner aspect. Much of the journey was 'inner'. That's what made it so exciting.