Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Paying Tribute to Quality-- RIP Robert M. Pirsig

Author Robert M. Pirsig died at the age of 88 in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.  Pirsig was renowned for writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance-- An Inquiry Into Values (1974), a loosely autobiographical travelogue of a 17 day cross country road trip in 1968 with his 11 year old son and two friends during which he pondered weighty philosophical problems to discern the metaphysics of quality,  

Pirsig had served in the Army in the Far East before the Korean War.  During a trip on leave to Japan, Pirsig became fascinated by Zen Buddhism. After his military service, Pirsig received graduate degrees in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and Banaras Hindu University.

Like the unnamed protagonist in the novel, who sometimes referred to himself as Phaedrus (a name inspired by Plato's Dialogues),  Pirsig was a brilliant thinker with a high IQ who eventually suffered a mental breakdown which was treated by electro-shock therapy that altered his personality. By delving deeply into undercurrents of thought, the novel can be seen as a detective story of a man in search of himself.

Robert M. Pirsig, 1975
The title of the book was a play on another popular tome Zen and the Art of Archery (1971). Pirsig's playfulness was also evident in the forward in which the author wrote:

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.”
But the book contemplated how man relates to machines, the roots of our culture and what inspires madness.

Plato & Aristotle "The School of Athens" Raphael (1510)
Phaedrus ordered existence between "classic" values (like rational problem solving in fixing motorcycles) and "romantic values" (like beauty and the arts). This philosophical chautauqua ("circus of ideas) which Phaedrus grappled with in his deep thoughts was how the Western mind had separated ordinary experiences from transcendent experiences because Plato and Aristotle had done so. Moreover, the mind-body dualism championed by the Greeks stoked a mental civil war which stripped rationality from its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason.

What man really ought to strive for is quality.  As Pirsig contemplated:

"Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist."

The book became a phenomenon which the author later described as a “kulturbarer" (Swedish for culture bearer), which developed a near cult popularity amongst hippies.  Pirsig mused: “I expressed what I thought were my prime thoughts and they turned out to be the prime thoughts of everybody else." Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance truly appealed to Baby Boomers. When the novel was first published, New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote: 

"[H]owever impressive are the seductive powers with which Mr. Pirsig engages us in his motorcycle trip, they are nothing compared to the skill with which he interests us in his philosophic trip... when [Pirsig] comes to grips with the hard philosophical conundrums raised by the 1960's, he can be electrifying." 
 When reflecting on the impact of ZAMM, Todd Gitlin, a counter cultural sociologist speculated that by blending the deep thoughts with the drudgery of daily life, such as motorcycle maintenance:  "Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.”

The counter cultural novel sold over one million books in the first year of its publication and sold several million more since then.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became  the biggest selling philosophy book of all times and remained on the best sellers list for over a decade. This is remarkable for a manuscript which was rejected by 121 different publishers before William Morrow signed hi for a small $3,000 advance.

After the unexpected success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig won a Guggenheim fellowship, some fortune and unwanted fame. Pirsig got so freaked out by what his neighbors called "Pirsig Pilgrims" to his Minneapolis home that he eventually packed his bags and would live in a camper or a sailboat for months.  Pirsig spent the last 30 years of his life in a small town in Southern Maine.

Pirsig wrote one other book, Lila- An Inquiry into Morals (1991), which achieved neither the same success nor cultural impact.  But sometimes one oeuvre is enough to make one's mark on the world. 

Personally, I found Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be a highly influential book. Believe it or not, it served as a textbook for an Advanced Placement American History course in high school. Despite the unorthodox textbook, I achieved highest marks on the exam as it honed in me an incredible analytical inclination which remains with me to this day (sometimes to the consternation of those close to me).  

While I may not be an adherent to Zen Buddhism, nor will anyone catch me fixing motor scooters or the ilk, I am graced by the idea that there is a nexus between the simply joys and drudgery of daily life and the transcendent. More than a quarter century later, I am still inspired by a quest for quality. To be so deeply impacted by a book demonstrates its importance. 

Robert M. Pirsig on Life

H/T: New York Times

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