“UNEASY RIDER” by George Steiner


George Steiner, The New Yorker, 15th April 1974
The first review of  Robert M. Pirsig
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Told by the blurb that we have here “one of the most unique and exciting books in the history of American letters,” one bridles both at the grammar of the claim and at its routine excess. The grammar stays irreparable. But I have a hunch that the assertion itself is valid. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig (Morrow), is as wilfully awkward as its title. It is densely put together. It lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse, between a private memoir and the formulaic impersonality of an engineering or trade journal. As it stands, it is a very long book, but report has it, and fault lines indicate, that a much longer text lies behind it. One hears of an eight- hundred-thousand-word draft and feels perversely deprived of it by the mere sanity and worldliness of the publisher. Zen and the Art is awkward both to live with and to write about. It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.

The narrative thread is deceptively trite. Father and son are on a motorcycle holiday, travelling from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas, then across the mountains, turning south to Santa Rosa and the Bay. Asphalt, motels, hairpins in the knife-cold of the Rockies, fog and desert, the waters dividing, then the vineyards and the tawny flanks of the sea. Mr. Pirsig is not the first ever to burst: Kerouac has been here before him, and Humbert Humbert, a clutch of novels, films, stories, television serials of loners on the move, lapping the silent miles, toasted or drenched under the big skies, motelling from one neon oasis to the next, and gliding at sundown through the nerve- wrenching sadness of the American suburb, honky-tonk town, and used-car crater. Pirsig is good on distance, windburn, and the uncomely occurrences in one’s innards after too many hours on a cycle, after too many dusty snacks. But this would not make for the force of his book.

There are other pressures. The eleven-year-old passenger is called Chris. The weight of his nascent perceptions, of his endangered identity, grows fierce. There is a level at which this is the story of the great-shouldered ferryman of the Lord, of St. Christopher, guardian, talisman of travelers, his ribs bursting, his thighs shivering as the Child’s weight almost overwhelms him in midstream. And Pirsig knows, perhaps senses with the somnambular erudition of a major artist, that the Christian image is itself a reflection of something much older-the centaur, a creature “motorcyclic” if ever there was, bearing the infant Hercules. A father and his child are riding through night and wind, enigmatically pursued, in receipt of eerie solicitations that seem to tear at the boy’s soul. Yes, of course: the most famous of ballads, Goethe’s “Erlkonig,” some of whose multitudinous musical settings seem to resound from between the crotchets and plosives of the motorcycle engine. An erl-tale of nocturnal harrying, the human psyche being drawn back into an ancient slumber or possession, precisely as Chris may be if the cleansing Pacific is not reached in time. In short, we find a prodigality of pointers and echoes. There are the Wild Ones from Marlon Brando’s pack, the Angels out of Hell (all theological inferences being allowed)-those outriders of Death whom Cocteau sheathed in leather and filmed long ago. A largesse of symbols, allusions, archetypes so spendthrift, so palpable, that only a great imaginer, shaping his material out of integral need, could afford it. A more professional contriver would have excised, he would have made his mythologies oblique, he would have felt embarrassed at the obviousness of the symbols offered. Mr. Pirsig allows himself a certain broad innocence. Everything is animate at the surface, contoured, casting exact shadows, as in the snowscape of an American primitive. Because the underlying design is covert and original to a degree.
Pirsig’s work is, like so much of classic American literature, Manichaean. It is formed of dualities, binary oppositions, presences, values, codes of utterance in conflict. Father against son; the architectures of the mind against those of the machine; a modernity of speed, uniformity, and consumption (of fuel, of space, of political gimmicks) against conservancy, against the patience of true thought. But these confrontations are themselves ambiguous; they keep us off balance and straining for poise as do the swerves of the motorcycle.

Phaedrus is hunting the narrator. He is, at one level, the secret sharer, the intense questioner, the compaction of pure intellect. He has sprung directly out of the Plato dialogue that carries his name, and the device of having a living being pursued by a shadow out of Plato is by itself enough to certify Pirsig’s strength, his mastery over the reader is. But the chase is, to be sure, internal. It is the narrator himself who is a rent being, cloven nearly to his roots by alternate modes of identity. It is not the Demonking who is threatening the child’s psyche, perhaps his life, but the father. Chris’s dawning awareness of this fact, via nightmares, via the strangeness he hears in the penumbra of his father’s voice, and the final duel between divided man and child on the verge of the healing sea, are of a numbing force. Chris perceives that his father has, at some dread point in the past, been out of his mind, literally ecstatic, as are the daemonically inhabited. The remembrance of a glass wall, in some hospital long ago, overwhelms him. Phaedrus, the lambent but ultimately anarchic agency of untamed thought, of speculative obsession beyond the constraints of love and of social life, is about to spring:

“His gaze fails in a sudden inward flash. Then his eyes close and a strange cry
comes from his mouth, a wail like the sound of something far away. He turns and
stumbles on the ground, then falls, doubles up and kneels and rocks back and forth,
head on the ground.

A faint misty wind blows in the grass around him. A seagull
alights, nearby. Through the fog I hear the whine of gears of a truck….

Gears, points, engine-mounting bolts, the overhead-cam chain-tensioner, chain guards, fuel injectors play a major part. This is indeed a book about the art of motorcycle maintenance, about the cerebral concentration, about the scruple and delicacy of both hand and ear required to keep an engine musical and safe across heat or cold, tarmac or red dust. It is a book about the diverse orders of relation-wasteful, obtuse, amateurish, peremptory, utilitarian, insightful-which connect modern man to his mechanical environment.

A motorcycle is “a system of concepts worked out in steel” Phaedrus and Plato, his master, believe that the steel fabric is but a shadow, necessarily inferior, of the idea of an engine generated by, perfect within, the mind. There is, the narrator allows, truth in this addiction to the ideal. But it is a perilous truth. It is the actual, the material we must endure and shape to our needs. Matter, too, has its exactitudes:

If the fit is loose by a distance of only a few thousandths of an inch the force will be delivered suddenly, like a hammer blow, and the rod, bearing, and crankshaft surface will soon be pounded flat, creating a noise which at first sounds a lot like loose tappets. That’s the reason I’m checking it now. If it is a loose rod and I try to make it to the mountains without an overhaul, it will soon get louder and louder until the rod tears itself free, slams into the spinning crankshaft, and destroys the engine. Sometimes broken rods will pile right down through the crankcase and dump all the oil onto the road.

All you can do then is start walking.”

The two disciplines of apprehension, ideal and instrumental, are bodied forth in what is probably the wittiest, most ramified episode in the tale. The traveller returns to the college in Montana from which nervous collapse and Phaedrus’s insistence on the absolute value of truth, on education as moral begetting, had driven him years before. His hosts dwell in the perfect house in the perfect canyon. Theirs is the very essence of the new American pastoral, of those chic serenities we now dress, build, and diet for. Robert DeWeese, artist-in-residence, brings out instructions for the assembly of an outdoor barbecue rotisserie which have baffled him. The discussion flows deep. It touches on the limitations of language in regard to mechanical procedure, on machine assembly as a long-lost branch of sculpture whose organic finesse is betrayed by the inert facility of commercial blueprints, on the ghost (O shades of Descartes) that inhabits the machine. Pirsig’s timing and crafting at this juncture are flawless.

This is not always so. The westward journey is punctuated by lengthy meditations and lay sermons that Pirsig calls “Chautauquas. ” They are basic to his purpose. During these addresses to the reader, Phaedrus’s insinuations are registered and diagnosed. The nature of quality, in conduct as in engineering, is debated and tested against the pragmatic shoddiness of a consumer society. Much of this discursive argument, the “inquiry into values,” is finely shaped. But there are pedestrian stretches, potted summaries of Kant which betray the aggressive certitudes of the self-taught man, misattributions (it was not Coleridge but Goethe who divided rational humanity into Platonists and Aristotelians), tatters out of a Great Books seminar to which the narrator once took bitter exception. The cracker-barrel voice grinds on, sententious and flat. But the book is inspired, original enough to impel us across gray patches. And as the mountains gentle toward the sea with father and child locked in a ghostly grip-the narrative tact, the perfect economy of effect, defy criticism.

A detailed technical treatise on the tools, on the routines, on the metaphysics of a specialized skill; the legend of a great hunt after identity, after the salvation of mind and soul out of obsession, the hunter being hunted; a fiction repeatedly interrupted by, en meshed with, a lengthy meditation on the ironic and tragic singularities of American man- the analogies with Moby Dick are patent. Robert Pirsig invites the prodigious comparison. It is at many points, including, even, the almost complete absence of women, suitable.

What more can one say?

[Source: On-line text recovered 2004, original links since lost, republished here 2018.]
[Copyrights acknowledged.]
[All Psybertron Pirsig Pages linked here.]