The Enormous Vroom

The Enormous Vroom

R.Z. Sheppard, Time Magazine, April 15, 1974.

Like the pool hall and the tattoo parlor, the motorcycle usually gets a bad press. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) terminated his romance with himself aboard a British army bike, which he had named George VII. During the ’50s and ’60s, Hell’s Angels on their Harley-Davidsons turned in convincing performances as Visigoths at the gates of suburbia. Easy Rider could not keep off the grass, and Evel Knievel, that star-spangled Icarus of the carnival circuit, gives young minibike owners potentially lethal delusions of grandeur. But now, during the lull in the great gas panic of ’74, comes a 46-year-old Minnesotan and writer of computer manuals, who makes the motorcycle not only respectable but also a focus of mental and spiritual health.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has some casual relationship to Eugen Herrigel’s small, graceful classic, Zen in the Art of Archery (1953). Pirsig’s book has more moving parts, and though it is clearly autobiographical, much of it reads like a novel. It is also a roadbook in the greasing-of-America tradition and a philosophical thriller that probes with dizzying ambition the cloven values of technological society. What makes all this unique is Pirsig’s way of welding his parts to a most down-to-earth story about a troubled man and his eleven-year-old son on a cross-country motorcycle trip.

Mental Breakdown. Pirsig is no orthodox Zen Buddhist; his equivalent of a meditative tea ceremony is tuning his engine. “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance,” he says, “is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” In an age preoccupied with sensation, Pirsig does not regard “reason” as a dirty word. His persistent message is that thinking is feeling, a view that underlies his advice about how to prepare mentally for troubleshooting an engine. Briefly, motor maintenance requires a good deal of quiet concentration so that the underlying principles of the engine are allowed to fill the gap between the object (engine) and the subject (mechanic). A Zen monk would say that under such conditions, the fixer and the fixed are no longer opposing objects but one reality. The author is more practical. Among other things, he suggests that if you cannot fix the bike yourself, at least avoid garages where the mechanics play the radio.

It is the alienating gap between subject and object that Pirsig attempts to fill. To do so he alternates philosophical discourses with descriptions of what happened on a trip that he took out West in 1968, his son Chris riding on the back of the cycle. By the time they reach Bozeman, Mont., where Pirsig once taught college English, it is apparent that his ideas have been earned at considerable cost and suffering. He reveals some frightening facts about himself. In 1961 he suffered a mental breakdown and underwent a series of shock treatments, which wiped out many of his personal memories. To give his philosophical inquiries a dramatic edge, Pirsig refers to his shadowy pretreatment self as Phaedrus, the name of one of Socrates’ straight men from Plato’s Dialogues.

Pirsig’s Phaedrus was a lonely man who, despite an IQ of 170, had trouble with his studies. He began at 15 as a college freshman studying science, but he soon could not keep his ability to reason within any accepted academic context. From hypotheses he would get not proofs but only more hypotheses. Because his mind kept searching for an underlying universal principle, he switched to philosophy and eventually went to India to study oriental thought. Phaedrus-Pirsig never thought small. His aim was to do nothing less than revamp the whole scientific method that operated from the premise that the observer and what was observed must be separate realities.

For Phaedrus, East met West in a synthesis of Buddhism’s ideas on the pursuit of excellence and those of the French mathematician-philosopher Jules Henri Poincare, who in Foundations of Science (1902) claimed that the underlying reality was not to be found in solid objects but in the harmonious order of the objects. Phaedrus called this unobservable order “Quality” and spent years trying to convince his teachers, and later his students, that it was the missing link that would close the subject-object gap and the schism between classic and romantic, between art and technology. Whether it was his method or the intense manner in which he went about his preaching, people thought Phaedrus was going a little crazy. Eventually, he accommodated them.

This ghostly Pirsig-past continues to haunt Pirsig-present as well as his son. There is a climactic moment when Pirsig thinks that he is again losing his grip and that Phaedrus may regain control. He decides to send the boy home by bus and check into a hospital. The boy refuses to go and begins to weep uncontrollably. Then, for the first time, father and son confront the painful truth about Phaedrus. The past and present come together, and Pirsig and Chris, who up to this point have seemed like subject and object, are united by what might be appropriately described as the underlying quality of familial love.

Greasy Hands. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an unforgettable trip. It accelerates from the befuddlements of transmission linkage through Pirsig’s history of Western thought to the mysteries of divine madness with scarcely a wobble. The fact that much of Pirsig’s torque-wrenched dissertation echoes the quandaries that some high-energy physicists have about the nature of matter is not of primary importance. What matters most is that he communicates how very much he cares about living as a whole man and how hard he has worked at it. Indeed, the special gift of the universal principal that Pirsig calls Quality is caring, even if one reaches for the heavens with grease on his hands.

R.Z. Sheppard, The Enormous Vrooom, Time, April 15, 1974