More philosophy (and a bit of motorcycle maintenance)

Robert and Chris Pirsig on the road-trip that provided part of
the inspiration for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Many years ago while I was stuck in hospital having broken my leg, acquaintances showered me with books - some loaned, some to keep. My favourite of those reads was Glyn Daniel's (aka Dilwyn Rees) Cambridge Murders, which I still have (I was working in a Cambridge college at the time, so it seemed peculiarly appropriate), other reads included the autobiography of Guy Gibson Enemy coast ahead (dam busting and how not to cook a piece of salmon), Vasari's Lives of the artists, which I dipped in and out of, and the hippy classic Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which wasn't my kind of book at all, so I didn't read it, even though I told my acquaintance of the time that I had (because I didn't want to hurt his feelings). I very much doubt he will come across this blog, but if he does, many apologies - I have finally read it and I was wrong (though I suspect I may have been right at the time, my tastes have somewhat changed over the last 25 years).

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance is quite unlike anything else I've read. Oddly enough, if I had been writing this post a week ago, I would probably have said that it was quite unlike anything else I've ever read; but part of the prompting to read this came through reading Elizabeth McKenzie's The portable Veblen, which reminded me of what I thought ZMM was about. I think I was both right and wrong about that...

ZMM is hard to describe - is it fiction?, is it fact?, is it a travelogue?, a musing on philosophy and materialism?, a motorcycle repair manual?, an exploration of mental health?, or a book about what makes life worth living? It's a little bit of all the former, but principally it's about the latter. The narrator of the book remains anonymous, but his son is called Chris, and much of the narrator's life mirrors that of the author, Robert M. Pirsig, it's more autobiographical than fictional, but Pirsig has not been afraid to move around real events to suit the narrative flow.

The book opens with Robert and his 11 year old son, Chris, going on a motor-cycle road-trip across the United States, with friends. En route Robert, a former lecturer, is forced to face his own demons of mental health - he had suffered from serious mental health issues (paranoid schizophrenia and depression, although these are never clearly defined in the book). As part of the treatment process, he was subjected to forced electroconvulsive therapy, which led to much of his earlier life as "another person", who he calls Phaedrus, being blotted out. The road-trip is partly to bond with Chris, part for the fun of it, part to re-kindle these lost memories, and part, what Pirsig refers to as a Chatauqua, a series of short talks looking into philosophy, the meaning of life, and his attempts to define "Quality". Along the way Pirsig struggles with his own mental health, and his relationship and fears for Chris.

Reading that paragraph back, I can quite see why in my 20's, I didn't want to read it - so grim, so serious. But in fact this is a joy of a book, often very funny, always making you think, a warm hug of a book even if some of the philosophical sections take a bit of grappling with. The sort of book that makes you re-evaluate your own life, and how you deal with it. You'll never read anything quite like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Pirsig's editor, James Landis, said in a letter to him "The book is not, as I think you now realise from your correspondence with other publishers [ZMM was famously rejected by 121 of them, only to become a publishing sensation], a marketing man's dream...No sense in trying to kid you by pretending that the book is "commercial" in the way that term is understood by most people in publishing...However, I have ultimate faith in the book's being good, valuable, which gets us into standards beyond the commercial and gets us also into what, to my mind, publishing is all about."

I was sure that The portable Veblen must have been inspired by ZMM. Structurally, and to a certain extent, story-wise they have such a lot in common. The author very kindly sent me a tweet, and I asked her if ZMM was an inspiration. Curiously she had never read it. I suspect though that it's one of those books that always leaves its mark even if it's only in the zeitgeist of the times. ZMM is of its period, Woodstock and hippies, and the late '60's, early '70's, but it's also an eternal story of life, its struggles and its beauty; and as such there will always be time for some quality motorcycle maintenance.

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