8th July 1968 was a Monday 50 years ago when Robert Pirsig set off from the Twin Cities on his Honda CB77 Superhawk with son Chris riding pillion and friends John and Sylvia Sutherland alongside on their BMW. That road trip to California formed the narrative of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM). You get a clue to the summer holiday timing when Chris finds discarded 4th July firework cases at the Shadehill campsite near Lemmon (SD) on the evening of day 2.
Many fans of ZMM – it has sold many millions – have pieced together such arcane details over the years, from DiSanto and Steele’s Guiebook to ZMM (*1) to the many so-called Pirsig Pilgrims who have dropped in to the DeWeese’s in Cottonwood Canyon, Bozeman (MT) as they’ve retraced the journey for themselves.
Artist friends of the Pirsigs from the days when Bob had worked teaching English composition at Montana State in Bozeman 1959 to 61, the DeWeese’s are signficicant to the chatauqua – the public educational dialogue – within the ZMM story. Bob shifts his metaphors away from his main thread on the mechanics of motorcycles to that of a seemingly mundane self-assembly barbecue for the edutainment of his artistic audience. As well as being a teacher of English rhetoric, Bob had previously also written manuals for early computers and weapons guidance systems. All the while we are reminded that the real object of our maintenance is ourselves. What we are looking for is an operating manual for our minds.
One reason for ZMM‘s success and fanbase was that it caught the zeitgeist of its 1974 publication. It was “culture-bearing” at a time when many were dissatisfied with a post-hippy void left by rejection of the increasing mechanisation of life living with the prevailing military-industrial-complex.
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust,
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
(Joni Mitchell “Woodstock” Big Sur, 1969)
Pirsig provided a reflective philosophical dissertation packaged up in a motorcycle road-trip / buddy-movie script on what back to the garden might mean for a generation of seekers after truth and goodness. Think Easy Rider minus the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, or Kerouac’s On The Road stream-of-consciousness with added index-cards. Many ZMM fans found satisfaction in the qualitative individual Zen-lifestyle advice they found there. Whether classified on the shelves under philosophy or under lifestyle, it sold millions and still does. But Pirsig was on a more tangible mission to define quality as something altogether more metaphysical, underlying the whole of objective reality.
This is the start of what I’ve characterised as a persistent irony with Pirsig’s work. A Catch-22. I didn’t come to Pirsig until 2001 aged 45 after 25 years as an engineer. When I did, this battle to dissolve the distracting division between things classically objective and romantically subjective was already raging between Pirsig afficionados who at the same time were working to establish his Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) as a thing – the object of serious academic study. The example of modern-day Stoicism (*2) gives hope to the idea that life-style advice and serious academia are not mutually exclusive when in comes to living philosophy.
Pirsig himself wrote his follow-up to ZMM in Lila, published in 1991, as his attempt to establish his MoQ more explicitly as a philosophy, though again his message was bound-up in the rhetoric of a “road-trip”. Actually a sailboat trip this time down the Eerie canal system, the Hudson and the Intra-coastal waterway via downtown Manhattan, where the audience for his chautauqua this time are fellow sailors, Robert Redford and a bar-girl Lila he picks-up along the way. Contrasting with the mysterious recluse persona cultivated to market the original ZMM, Pirsig did in fact go out on the road to promote his philosophical ideas on quality in 1993 and 1995. Pirsig himself however never engaged in comparative criticism with fellow philosophers, a practice he once dubbed disparagingly as philosophology. A philosophologist being to a philosopher as an art-critic is to an artist.
The Lila Squad, those that had taken-up the challenge of Lila to set Pirsig’s MoQ in the philosophical canon, formed an on-line discussion forum whose primary condition for membership was to have read Lila as well as ZMM. 12 years later in 2003 Dan Glover was able to publish Lila’s Child (*3), a consolidated set of interpretations on Pirsig’s MoQ complete with Pirsig’s own annotations.
As I mentioned, I was a latecomer to Pirsig. I had joined the Lila Squad on the MoQ-Discussion (MD) forum only in 2002, the same year I read both ZMM and Lila for the first time. I stayed active thru 2010 though I’d already signed-off my own Pirsig learning aims in 2008 and eventually dropped-off any participation in 2014.
Anyone “debating” Pirsig’s MoQ has their own reasons for doing so. Initially anyone might honestly claim to be curious to learn and/or test understanding. For some Pirsig becomes the professional interest of their career in philosophy and/or education. Given non-acceptance of Pirsig in mainstream philosophy, that represents significant personal investment by those that do so, in order to achieve and maintain such a position.
Now, as Dan Dannett has said, philosophy is a contact sport. Even small differences over otherwise large levels of agreement can lead to quite vicious personal and rhetorical fisticuffs. Everyone has their own good-intentions, but bad-faith easily sets-in as the default position regarding the disagreement and questioning of others. Claims of authority of direct communication with the author, some I’d even characterised as Pirsig’s Bulldogs. Sometimes even expressed agreement is tainted with ad-hominem suspicions of wilful misrepresentation for personal interests. Part of that irony, where relegation of the ego is an explicit aspect of the MoQ.
People pressing each others buttons. All kinds of dirty tricks, and not just rhetorical ones. There was even one infamous “Sokal” trick of presenting a spoof paper to test the Pirsig “establishment” response. Suffice to say bad feelings linger between certain parties over particular disagreements. Mis-representation and trolling seem part of the fabric of social-media reality in 2018 but ever since on-line mailing lists and internet discussion forums were invented, flame-wars and very public personal attacks have been occupational hazards. These are of course as old as philosophical discourse itself. If I learned anything, it’s that academia is as inter-personally cut-throat competitive as any commercial business.
After a decade of participation I’d learned a lot about philosophical and rhetorical debate generally but the Lila Squad / MD bubble no longer felt like a healthy environment in which to make progress on either Pirsig or philosophy in general. I actually made several acquaintances that have become firm friends and stayed in regular contact, some still in ongoing Pirsig-related contexts and not solely on-line.
One such, in his last post on his own blog relating to Pirsig, back in 2010 wrote (*4): “[We’ve] have had several long-standing disagreements for over seven years now” and an increasing “rudeness” where “we’ve found less and less new to talk about”. In that same piece he goes on to describe the specific point of disagreement – the idea of accepting a “Subject-Object Layer” in order to resolve definitive mis-understandings of the level which Pirsig had called “Social”. Ironically, those defending the Pirsig status quo were actually displaying a more static social view of the ongoing evolutionary dynamics of human intellect, but at some point we all have to stop arguing and live life.
I, and I think I speak for a few others, didn’t stop participating in Pirsig debates because I’d lost interest in Pirsig. Far from it. Pirsig’s MoQ had become embedded in my own world view to the point that I’d lost interest in arguing about that in particular. I’m quoted by others as holding that “Pirsig’s MoQ represents the best framework for the whole of reality I’ve come across” (*5). I still believe that, even though no-one can have the last word, ideas always evolve and anyway, I prefer synthesis to criticism.
Some ex-MD Pirsigian’s continued to plough their own furrows in academic philosophy, so they have personal interest in solving the problem of how to fit Pirsig into the philosophical canon. There are obvious relationships to the Greeks, to Kant and to the US Pragmatists as well as Zen Buddhist philosophies to be explored. None of which we can even attempt here. Still only one person to my knowledge, Anthony McWatt, has successfully made Pirsig’s MoQ the subject of their entire PhD thesis, though gradually more and more academics have Pirsig as a string to their bow. McWatt also went on to create several documentary films, the second of which “On the Road with Robert Pirsig” I’d recommend as an introduction for any Pirsig newcomer with”On the Road with John Sutherland” as probably the best of the bunch for those already interested.
As I suggested, one supreme irony in Pirsig is his rejection of comparative philosophical debate. He’s not in the mainstream precisely because he didn’t like mainstream behaviour – he rejected the academy – and yet, for many, a serious question is what’s the best way to get the essential value – quality – of his work recognised by the mainstream?
One attempt by “established” UK philosopher Julian Baggini in 2006 (*6), to tease out connections between Pirsig and the accepted canon, foundered at least partly because the Pirsigian camp chose to conduct the dialogue by indirect correspondence. The attempt to insulate Pirsig himself from perceived critical intent of philosophology was surely misguided, but in any event it achieved little progress. We can’t fail to notice the parallel in the subsequent rise of the intellectual dark web as a safe-space for constructive dialogue on the publicly disagreeable?
But, there is ultimately that Catch 22 in attempting to fit a novel take on what it means to be rational, using the rationality of established public academic discourse. Pirsig himself noted the exasperation in trying to add something new to mainstream philosophy whilst at the same time manouevring to outflank the entire Western canon. Philosophy is not just a contact sport, it’s war and the Art of War was written by a Zen Buddhist (*7). Good luck to those on that quest.
For many others, the point is that direct and immediate participation – the radical empirical experience of what matters most in life – is the lesson learned beyond any academic rationalisation. The koans of Zen serve to emphasise that rational responses to life’s biggest questions can be beside the point to actually learning the answers in living practice. Most of us have of course chosen our own balanced selection from the available menu.
Pirsig died only last year, his books still sell and philosophical debate continues 50 years on, if a little more diffuse and less intense than the Lila Squad years. As I noted at the time, his demise prompted a renewed interest in his work and many reflective pieces on what that meant to many different people. Underway since then is a new film project with the working title “Pirsig’s Journey“ [Update – this particular project now on hold.] Pirsig more than once discussed a film project directly with actor-director and mutual-admirer Robert Redford and in later years let it be known that official biographical rights to follow that up lay with his wife, now widow, Wendy (*8). There is a certain perfect circularity that the film project was targetting the Sundance festival for its release.
More information – generally:
My own “Psybertron Pirsig Pages” of Pirsig, ZMM, Lila, and MoQ links and many more Pirsig references in the blog. Including my own personal (and naive) thought journey and the Pirsig Biographical Timeline. [Biographical source materials and correspondence archive with Mark Richardson and extended in his “Zen and Now“.]
David Harding’s “Good Metaphysics” for metaphysics and the MoQ itself.
“Pirsig dot org” (temporary holding pages) incorporating key content from Good Metaphysics and “Robert Pirsig dot org” pages of Anthony McWatt (retired). [McWatt-Pirsig correspondence archive also at MSU.]
[Easy Rider, On the Road, Catch-22, Cuckoo’s Nest, Woodstock
– givens inspired by the beat generation?]
More information – the specifics referenced:
(*1) DiSanto & Steele’s – “Guidebook to ZMM”
(*3) Dan Glover’s – “Lila’s Child”
(*5) Ian Glendinning’s – retrospective on MoQ Worldview in a picture.
(*6) Julian Baggini’s – Pirsig “interview”.
(*7) Sun Tzu’s – “The Art of War“.
(*8) Wendy as custodian of Pirsig’s story – Tim Adams’ November 2006 interview drew on my existing timeline for much of the story Bob had already shared in correspondence, but in fact Bob makes explicit (jokey) reference: “I told Wendy she should sell [the book / bio / film adaptation rights] as soon as I die.”
[Timely post-note on living philosophy:
“Zen and the Art of a Higher Education – It may seem odd for the university educated or even university educators to welcome a book that seems to view the academy as enemy territory. But properly understood, and more in keeping with Pirsig’s original intentions, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shows how the learning in a lecture hall or seminar room should be preparation for a life of learning on the open road.”