Robert Pirsig has died.
In late high school (or early college, I can’t definitively recall), I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was greatly affected by it. I’m not so sure how well it holds up today, nor how well it holds up personally after many years of reading philosophy, but the book certainly captured the cultural mood of the time it was written.
Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88…
Mr. Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when the novel — its full title was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” — was published in 1974 to critical acclaim and explosive popularity, selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since.
The novel, with its peculiar but intriguing title, ranged widely in its concerns, contemplating the relationship of humans and machines, madness and the roots of culture.
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and the author of books about the counterculture, said that “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order…
Of the book:
Part road-trip novel, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Mr. Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.
The narrative alternates between travelogue-like accounts of their 17 days on the road, from the Pirsigs’ home in Minnesota to the Pacific Coast, and long interior monologues that he calls his “Chautauquas,” after the open-air educational meetings at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., popular with self-improvers since the 19th century.
Mr. Pirsig’s narrator (his barely disguised stand-in) focuses on what he sees as two profound schisms. The first lay in the 1960s culture war, in which the “hippies” rejected industrialization and the technological values that had been embraced by the “straight” mainstream society.
The second schism is in the narrator’s own mind, as he struggles in his hyperrational way to understand his recent mental breakdown. Mr. Pirsig, who was told he had schizophrenia in the early 1960s, said that writing the book was partly an effort to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, including electric shock therapy, and the turmoil that he, his wife and children suffered as a result…
One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.
But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.
In his part gnomic, part mechanic’s style, Mr. Pirsig’s narrator declares that the real world is a seamless continuum of the material and metaphysical.
“The Buddha, the Godhead,” he writes, “resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”
Pirsig had an interesting life:
Robert Maynard Pirsig was born in Minneapolis on Sept. 6, 1928, to Harriet and Maynard Pirsig. His father was a law professor and dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. As a child, Robert spoke with a stammer and had trouble making friends; though highly intelligent (his I.Q. was said to be 170), he was expelled from the University of Minnesota because of failing grades.
Serving in the Army before the start of the Korean War, he visited Japan on a leave and became interested in Zen Buddhism, and remained an adherent throughout his life. After his Army service, he returned to the university and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism.
He later studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Banaras Hindu University in India and taught writing at Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also did freelance writing and editing for corporate publications and technical magazines, including the first generation of computer journals.