It was Robert Pirsig’s birthday last week. Pirsig was born 9/6/28 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9, Robert skipped several grades, got his high school diploma at 15 and entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry that autumn.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described the central character, thought to represent himself, as being far from a typical student; he was interested in science as a goal in itself, rather than as a way to establish a career.
He was eventually expelled from the university for poor grades. The story is that he lost interest in the science when he came to understand that there was always more than one (perhaps unlimited) workable hypothesis to explain any given phenomenon. The idea that science had limitations was something of a revelation to him.
He did a stint in the Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge, he settled in Seattle, completed BA in Eastern Philosophy and attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. He also did some graduate work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago.
He married Nancy Ann James in 1954 and they had two sons: Chris (1956) and Theodore (1958. In 1958). He taught creative writing at Montana State University -Bozeman for several years.
But Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) several times.
Almost all of his life story comes into play in his autobiographical book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974 after being rejected 121 times before being accepted by William Morrow Publishers.
I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon. [...] In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. [...] I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this.
That is the opening of Pirsig’s now cult, philosophy classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.
The “novel” is a first person description of a 17-day journey by the narrator (unnamed, but essentially Pirsig) by motorcycle from Minnesota to California. He is accompanied by his son Chris and for the first half of the trip by friends John and Sylvia Sutherland.
Along the way are philosophical discussions (referred to as Chautauquas). The discussions are commentaries on both the present-day journey and the narrator’s past. His past self is a character, Phaedrus (from Plato’s dialogue). Phaedrus was a professor of creative and technical writing at a small college. He became so obsessed with trying to define what it meant to be good or quality noy only as a writer but in life. The pursuit drives him insane. writing, and what in general defines good, or “quality”. His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive ECT therapy which permanently changed his personality.
Through the book’s dialogs with Phaedrus and the people that accompany him or he meets along the way, the narrator is able to reconcile himself with his past. The book also serves as a short course in the history of philosophy of Western and Eastern philosophy.
In 1974, Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow him to write a second book.
Unfortunately, in 1979, Pirsig’s son Chris was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center. Pirsig has written about this even in an afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Although he and his second wife, Kimball, considered aborting the child she conceived in 1980, he ultimately decided that this unborn child was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied. This child’s name is Nell.
In 1991, he published Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals in which he tries to further develop his “Metaphysics of Quality.” Phaedrus is still searching and is now bouncing ideas off of Lila, an aging, desperate “wharf-bar pickup.”
In the years following the publication of his two books and the death of his son, Pirsig became reclusive. He subsequently traveled around the Atlantic Ocean by boat, has lived in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, England and in various places around the United States. As far as I can find, he currently lives in New Hampshire and does not publish or give interviews.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an important book to me in college. Years later, I picked up a book that is a Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thinking that there must be more to the novel than I had understood in my younger years. Though there probably is more in the book – like philosophical concepts that I floated over – I think what I was looking for was more from my own life.