David Neto's book reviews: philosophy

Updated August 12, 1996
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.


This book describes a triple journey. It intertwines (a) the story of a man and his son on a motorcycle journey from the U.S. midwest to the Pacific coast, (b) the story of that man's journey into madness, and (c) his coming to terms with recovery.

Some people call this an important book on philosophy. Pirsig tries to explain his view of Quality, which he describes as undefinable, yet is the very essence of a thing. He goes into depth about how he developed these ideas. However, for the longest time he hides the effects his journey has on his sanity. The punch line is this: he went mad on his pursuit; more exactly, he suffered a brief psychotic episode. Pirsig doesn't tell you this until you're well into the book. To me, that's a fundamental dishonesty about this book.

The good news is that he was treated. Unfortunately, it was through electroshock therapy. These days there are nicer alternatives, including medication.

To me, a telltale and sad part of the book is the way he interacts with his son during the trip. He's never fully involved, never fully present, and never fully empathetic with his son. He brushes his son off, and plays the overbearing judge far too often. I take this behaviour as an echo of what he was to himself before the psychosis.

Phaedrus, as Pirsig calls himself before the psychosis, was not a happy camper. He plugged up his anger and pushed himself way too far: he was his own harshest judge, and he went mad for it. Probably the truest line in the book is

Hostility is really his element. It really is.
But Phaedrus did nothing constructive with that anger. That's dangerous.

In the end, Pirsig reconciles with Phaedrus, and reconnects with his son. However, I was left concerned that Pirsig had completely missed the point about his psychosis, that he believed that the psychosis was a good and natural stage in his intellectual development. To me, it was bottled-up and misdirected anger. It was unhealthy stuff, no bones about it. I was concerned that he still had the potential to fall into the same trap as he did the first time.

I would have really liked a history of Phaedrus/Pirsig from his own childhood. His relationship with his own parents, and I suspect is father in particular, are conspicuous by their absence. Starting the story at university age is way too late.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a powerful, worthwhile book. I have strong reactions to it because I repeatedly said to myself ``No! You idiot!''. He had come very close, but I think he missed the healing potential of his psychosis. That's what's so frustrating about this book. A terrific companion piece is Dr. Jack Birnbaum's Cry Anger.

Also recommended to me is Lila, which is Pirsig's second cut at the same ideas. Supposedly, it's better-explained and/or developed. If he's still fixated on Quality and ignores his anger, I think he's missed the boat.

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