Monday, June 4, 2018
ZEN AND NOW On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance By Mark Richardson 274 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25
Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974) was the rare quest narrative in which two American males headed west in search of enlightenment and didn’t score a single chick along the way. Chaste and pedagogic, the book has sold five million copies and inspired way-seeking “Pirsig’s pilgrims” to retrace his journey, plotting its GPS coordinates and debating his ideas on the Internet. Devotees compiled a readers’ guide and organized an academic conference dedicated to Pirsig’s unifying idea, the Metaphysics of Quality.
And in their wake came Mark Richardson, who writes about cars and motorcycles for The Toronto Star. In 2004, feeling cramped by his children’s Hot Wheels and Pokémon cards, he saddled up his trusty 1985 Suzuki DR600, added a GPS device and Butt Buffer gel seat pad, and set out along Pirsig’s route from Minnesota to San Francisco, to arrive on his 42nd birthday. “It’s undeniable,” Richardson writes, “that if his book could open so many readers’ eyes to more of life’s qualities, then there’s a good chance his actual journey can open my own eyes wider still.”
Friends, haven’t we all been there? Haven’t we all traveled to the mystic mountaintop or to Elvis’s burial place, hoping for contact catharsis, only to find the same perceptive blockages we carried up in the first place: wow, cool mountain, now what? Or, as Richardson expounds in midjourney, “A big part of the message of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ can be boiled down to a truism: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” This level of insight never lets Richardson down, but it never quite lifts him up, either. Elsewhere in “Zen and Now,” he finds “a reminder of one of the greatest lessons of all: live as if you’ll live forever, but live each day as if it were your last.” And, when he misses his family, he finally discovers that “we’re related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all, but my family is pulling at me now as, at 42, I come to realize the meaning of my life. . . . People who care and people who care enough for me to give me a home — they are Quality.” Like Pirsig’s, his is a book of its time: the new seeker’s payoff is therapeutic, and fatherhood is life’s wondrous gift.Photo
Richardson interweaves a broad outline of Pirsig’s troubled and fascinating biography. Before his Zen journey, Pirsig was institutionalized and forcibly given electroshock therapy, and much of “Zen and the Art” is the narrator’s dance with his pre-shock self, whom he calls Phaedrus. Pirsig later described his collapse, which included waving a gun at his wife, as either “catatonic schizophrenia” or “hard enlightenment,” depending on your perspective. He declined to make that call; his ex-wife, Nancy, chose the schizophrenia. His turbulence passed to his son Chris, his travel companion in “Zen and the Art,” who was also later institutionalized, and eventually stabbed to death outside a San Francisco Zen center in 1979 during a mugging.
In “Zen and the Art,” Pirsig used the motorcycle trip mainly to illustrate the principles of his “Inquiry Into Values,” which he felt broke through the either-or logjam of Western thought (emotion versus intellect, technology versus romanticism, subject versus object) by establishing the idea of Quality as the foundation for both sides. In press interviews — he did not speak with Richardson, though they exchanged letters — he has lamented that he is not embraced by academic philosophy departments and that his books are sometimes lumped under “New Age.” After all, as he writes in “Zen and the Art,” his ideas constitute “a line of thought that had never been traveled before.
Richardson, on the other hand, is a motorcycle guy. He’s best describing the gear or the feel of the bike. “It’s almost like bull riding,” he writes of heading down a Montana road, “and just as I let out a ringing yee-hah,the road turns without warning … and an almighty pothole bottoms the suspension, almost throwing the bike into the fence alongside.” His tensions are automotive: Will he run out of gas? Will he be able to swerve to avoid oncoming traffic? It’s a nice travelogue that occasionally abandons Pirsig’s austere path. “That’s not for me,” Richardson writes. “I’ll take a snug Super 8 any day, or an attentive server at a decent steakhouse.” The journey through what Pirsig called “the high country of the mind” need not entail outdoor camping or bad coffee.
This isn’t a biography, and Richardson doesn’t provide enough interviews to flesh out the testimony of Pirsig and a few people close to him. For example, part of both “Zen and the Art” and “Zen and Now” concerns Pirsig’s battles with the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, which Pirsig describes as high drama, featuring a rebel genius against the tenured forces of darkness. “Zen and Now” offers no second opinion.
Richardson’s modesty, winning in small doses, distances him from his subject, who was all grand ambition. In the end, Richardson writes, “Robert Pirsig’s remarkable book changed my life in numerous ways.” I wish I could tell what they were.