More philosophy (and a bit of motorcycle maintenance)
|Robert and Chris Pirsig on the road-trip that provided part of|
the inspiration for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance is quite unlike anything else I've read. Oddly enough, if I had been writing this post a week ago, I would probably have said that it was quite unlike anything else I've ever read; but part of the prompting to read this came through reading Elizabeth McKenzie's The portable Veblen, which reminded me of what I thought ZMM was about. I think I was both right and wrong about that...
ZMM is hard to describe - is it fiction?, is it fact?, is it a travelogue?, a musing on philosophy and materialism?, a motorcycle repair manual?, an exploration of mental health?, or a book about what makes life worth living? It's a little bit of all the former, but principally it's about the latter. The narrator of the book remains anonymous, but his son is called Chris, and much of the narrator's life mirrors that of the author, Robert M. Pirsig, it's more autobiographical than fictional, but Pirsig has not been afraid to move around real events to suit the narrative flow.
The book opens with Robert and his 11 year old son, Chris, going on a motor-cycle road-trip across the United States, with friends. En route Robert, a former lecturer, is forced to face his own demons of mental health - he had suffered from serious mental health issues (paranoid schizophrenia and depression, although these are never clearly defined in the book). As part of the treatment process, he was subjected to forced electroconvulsive therapy, which led to much of his earlier life as "another person", who he calls Phaedrus, being blotted out. The road-trip is partly to bond with Chris, part for the fun of it, part to re-kindle these lost memories, and part, what Pirsig refers to as a Chatauqua, a series of short talks looking into philosophy, the meaning of life, and his attempts to define "Quality". Along the way Pirsig struggles with his own mental health, and his relationship and fears for Chris.
I was sure that The portable Veblen must have been inspired by ZMM. Structurally, and to a certain extent, story-wise they have such a lot in common. The author very kindly sent me a tweet, and I asked her if ZMM was an inspiration. Curiously she had never read it. I suspect though that it's one of those books that always leaves its mark even if it's only in the zeitgeist of the times. ZMM is of its period, Woodstock and hippies, and the late '60's, early '70's, but it's also an eternal story of life, its struggles and its beauty; and as such there will always be time for some quality motorcycle maintenance.