Successful Pirsig Rethinks Life of Zen and Science"
York Times, May, 1974
by Ian Glendinning, July 2003)
After what he describes as a
lifetime of humiliation that culminated in a breakdown, Robert M.Pirsig
now faces the prospect of learning to mental live with success.
Pirsig's 20-year struggle against the forces of academic reaction and the
dualistic tradition of Western science and philosophy is poignantly
recounted in his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a
multileveled exploration of values and the author's disintegrating
Despite a title that might seem limiting to some readers,
the book has received rave reviews and William Morrow, its publisher,
reports that the first three printings of 48,000 hardcover copies are
almost sold out, with a fourth printing planned. A major paperback
publisher has also made a six-figure bid for the rights, and there is talk
of a motion picture.
Sources of New Worries
For the 46-year old technical writer and
former teacher of philosophy and rhetoric, it is all very heady but also a
source of new worries.
"It's a great feeling," he smiled, between
sips of a martini at Barbetta's on West 46th Street.
The last time
I was in New York, no one knew if I existed -- or cared. It can be a very
lonely place. I'm enjoying the new feeling of success, after all those
years of rejection, but I worry about what success will mean to my life. I
don't want to become too self-conscious about my work and I am aware that
publicity seeks to rob you your hard-won privacy, transforming your
private life into a public life. I think of what happened to writers like
Ross Lockwood Jr., the author of Raintree County, and Thomas Heggen, the
author of Mr. Roberts, both of whom committed suicide after they became
successful. I want to continue writing and I have learned that I write
best when I am neither too enthusiastic nor too depressed."
Conceived in 1968
The author, who is on leave from his work as
a technical writer in the computer field on a Guggenheim fellowship, said
the idea for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first conceived
in 1968 as a short and light-hearted essay, following a motorcycle trip
(IG - This is clearly not quite true - Pirsig's
letters to the publisher in ZMM 25 Anniversary Edition suggest this essay
and the publishing proposal were before the trip.) with his then 12-year-old son, Chris and two friends, from their home in
Minneapolis to the West Coast. He said the first few pages and a covering
letter was sent to 121 publishers, with 22 of them responding
favorably. (IG - Not mentioned elsewhere.)
However, when the essay was completed, Mr. Pirsig said he was
dissatisfied with the portions dealing with Zen and they became fewer.
On the other hand, as the book's ultimate design began to take
shape, the number of publishers declined.
four-and-a-half years of its creation, only James Landis, a senior editor
at Morrow, retained his enthusiasm and became its strongest advocate.
Perhaps the most compelling portions of the book deal with a
mythical character called Phaedrus, a name me Pirsig grew from Plato's
dialogues and who is soon perceived to represent the author at a period
just before his breakdown.
Seeker After Truth
Phaedrus is the eternally unsatisfied seeker
after truth, although Mr. Pirsig prefers the concept of quality.
Phaedrus's search takes him to different universities -- both here and in
India -- and through a broad exploration of science, technology, and
Western philosophy, Phaedrus's intellectual honesty will allow for no
compromise, no fudging of the borders of quality, and he is perceived
everywhere as an obstreperous gadfly against whom the academic
establishment reacts, first with suspicion, then with hostility. Torn by
such forces, the mind's dissolution seems inevitable.
spent two years in and out of mental hospitals after his breakdown and
says now that he has been exorcised of the spirit of Phaedrus, yet he
feels somehow that he has betrayed his better self. "At the hospital, they
taught me to get along with other people, to compromise, and I agreed," he
explained with a touch of remorse. "Phaedrus was more honest -- he would
never compromise, and the young respected him for that."
In the book ,
the narrator puts it this way: "What I am is a heretic who's recanted, and
thereby in everyone's eyes saved his soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who
knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin."
Narcissism and Emotions
Mr. Pirsig sees the
book's narrator -- himself-- as a "not very nice" person, a dissembler who
puts on his best face for other so he will be liked and who unjustly
patronizes the Minneapolis friends with whom he traveled. He recognizes
the narcissism that prevented him from responding to the emotional needs
of his son, who, at the time of the westward trip, was himself on the
verge of a breakdown, although, at the end, Chris comes to recognize the
Phaedrus he knew and loved as a small child in the narrator, and there is
There have been problems since, he admits, but
things are more hopeful now. Asked about Chris's reaction to the book, the
author said candidly. "At first, he was unhappy with it." But," he added
with a smile, "Chris came to the party that launched the book, so I guess
everything is all right."
Mr. Pirsig, who was born in Minneapolis
and whose father Maynard E. Pirsig, is the former dean of the University
of Minnesota Law School, still lives in the Twin Cities with his wife
Nancy; Christopher who is now 17, and Theodore, 16, despite the city's
many unhappy associations. He explains it this way:
"You can't run
away from yourself, away from your past. My family and friends are there
and if I am to accomplish anything it will be there. I want to overcome
the idea that the Midwest is a cultural desert, although it often is.
Minnesotans will accept things from a native that they never would from an
outsider. For instance, I have helped establish a Zen Center in
Minneapolis and we have imported a great Zen Master. An outsider could
never have done it."
While greatly encouraged by this first step
in the cross-cultural fertilization of Minneapolis, Mr. Pirsig is sanguine
about the immediate acceptance of his imported master.
the Far East," he said with a smile, "the master is considered a living
Buddha, but, in Minneapolis, they wonder why he doesn't have a job.