Book 1: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Pirsig

Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is an extraordinary book. It is filled with sources of pleasure: the beautiful elegance of the prose, the startling contemporary insights delivered offhand by the narrator, and the challengingly divergent worldview proposed by the book’s meta-narrative.

The book is written in first-person, and the narrator details the story of his son and he navigating the US by motorcycle. Early on, the narrator makes no secret of the fact that he is the byproduct of insanity: the narrator is a “new personality”, present in a skin that was previously inhabited by a spirit referred to as “Phaedrus” (incorrectly stated as the Greek word for ‘wolf’). Phaedrus, after becoming insane, was purged with electro-shock therapy, and the narrator brought into existence in the same act. Fragments of Phaedrus and his ideas remain in the narrator’s psyche, and the detailed examination of and discussion about these fragments forms the book’s meta-narrative.

This meta-narrative,and the philosophical ideas it contains are the heart of the novel. To be brief, Phaedrus is committed to a monist worldview in opposition to the subject-object duality typical both of Aristotelian (and thus, most of Westernthought) and of the modern scientific process. This worldview revolves around the concept of quality, “the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live”, and it attempts a synthesis of the dichotomous relationship of the Romantic to the Classical, of Art to Science, of, perhaps, the feelers to the thinkers. Whether or not you find this worldview acceptable, it is compelling in the insinuation of an alternative framework for understanding reality.

Let us explore this by examining the experience of music as being high or low quality. Pirsig suggests that “people see quality differently…because they come to it with different sets of anologies.” Western notated music is based on major scales and minor scales, and composition and apprehension is bound to this framework. In this framework, middle C has a frequency of 261.626 Hz, the frequency of C sharp is about 277.18 Hz. One simply can’t compose a note that vibrates at 265.00 Hz. Because my musical paradigms are western, I find it harder to perceive quality in Indian music, which may use different scales and different harmonic relationships.

I’ve learnt about intervals, about harmonic sequence, and about dissonance. Yet, when I experience Beethoven’s work as having high-quality, it isn’t because I know about these things. There is something imbued in the music which can’t be grasped at with a merely scientific approach. Beethoven, when composing, didn’t deliberately put in perfect fifths. He had a Romantic sense of what was high-quality, which existed independently of intellectual reality.

If I’m sitting at a piano and playing Debussy’s “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin”, I can play the notes while my mind wanders and I consider what to have for lunch. I’m here engaging with the music in a manner that Pirsig describes as Classical. In this case the music is an object and I am the subject; my experience of being a performer is dualistic. If I am absorbed in the music, am one with it – a state which I experience regrettably rarely, but which is available to musicians more consummate than I – I am experiencing it Romantically, simply in terms of what it is (a beautiful aural experience) not in terms of its underlying forms (notes, key signatures, rhythms).

Look, my musical detour may not have been captivating, but the book is. It contains a philosophy that will challenge and expand your experience of life and of reality. It contains snippets, little illustrations that will resonate with you and shed light on the little oddities of human experience. It also will help you a bit if you have to repair any motorcycles. Read it!

Rating: 4/5

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One Response to “Book 1: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Pirsig”

  1. I read this first in college – and was blown away by the philisophical aspects of it. This faded quickly though. As an adult, I re-read it and found it to be a compelling personal story as well. In the end, that might be the true story of the book.

    thanks for sharing.

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