A Successful Pirsig Rethinks Life of Zen and Science
By George Gent, New York Times, May 15, 1974
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[This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. NB – I fixed a couple of transcription errors in the version below.]
After what he describes as a lifetime of rejection and humiliation that culminated in a mental breakdown, Robert M. Pirsig now faces the prospect of learning to live with success
Mr. 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 psyche.
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.
Source 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 16th Street.
“The last time I was in New York, no one knew if I existed — or cared. It can he 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 of 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 ‘Mister 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 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
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 interested publishers declined, Throughout the 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 Mr. Pirsig drew 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.
Mr. Pirsig 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, dissembler who puts on his best face for others 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 a reconciliation.
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 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 aware 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.
“Why, in 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.”