Zen & Art of Self Love
The author: Robert Pirsig.
The book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Let me start by apologizing to his followers. Mainly because his can beat mine up. You see, his ride motorcycles; and mine—well, they don’t really exist. And if they did, they wouldn’t ride bikes. They’d surf the web. And read books. And know HTML code.
Nonetheless, here goes.
Dear, loyal followers (his, not mine), I’m sorry. You’ve been duped.
Here’s the deal with this motorcycle book. There’s this super genius guy who is consumed by his quest to discover the meaning of life—in fact, so consumed by it, that he transcends normal society, ignoring family and friends and decorum, and he becomes isolated and alone—but because this guy’s so smart, he finds it. Some abstract notion called Quality. Which transcends stuff. Religion. Truth. Time. Space. Continuums. Things of that ilk.
At core, the problem Mr. Pirsig faces with this book is how to tell this story when the main character is himself. You see, polite society doesn’t allow you to call yourself a super-genius. Jesus couldn’t have written the Bible. So what’s an author to do? Well, he comes up with a clever little device of becoming a schizophrenic. He separates himself (the narrator) from himself (Phaedrus, the evil genius), thus empowering himself (the narrator) to say what he wants about the genius (Phaedrus).
Now that he has created a separate persona he has no problem telling us how smart this guy (aka, himself) is. He tells us that that this guy has a super IQ; that his discovery of Quality is akin to Copernicus’s revolution. He tells us that he is smarter than college professors and Albert Einstein and therefore we are left to deduce through some sort of transitive process, that he’s also smarter than us, the reader. Self-aggrandizing at it’s best.
The thing is he’s not really schizophrenic (although, technically—at least according to Wikipedia—he is). Still, c’mon. He admits as much in his new introduction. The one that comes with the book now. He tells us that Phaedrus and he are one and the same.
So, that was my first problem with Mr. Pirsig—the self-aggrandizing rubbed me the wrong way. But that shit’s kind of superficial. Alone, it’s not enough for me to rain on everyone’s parade. Perhaps I could’ve forgiven him for that if he had in fact discovered the meaning of life. Perhaps.
The real problem is he lies to us. You see, he’s not that smart (although again, according to Wikipedia, he is… IQ, a whopping 170). But, in fact, the story itself blows his own cover. He screws up. He tells us the word phaedrus means “wolf.” It turns out it doesn’t. I know, I know, big whoop. Wrong. That single fact (not a fact), now glossed over in that new foreword I mentioned as a “minor” mistake, is anything but. That realization that that word doesn’t mean “wolf” does to the story what Phaedrus’s theory of “Quality” does to his life; it unravels it. Because it’s not just Mr. Pirsig’s mea culpa; it is Phaedrus’s too. In one of those final scenes, Phaedrus—having become a student to show us all the banality of academia—beats his professor in some antiquated argument about Aristotle or Plato or Socrates or some other Greek dude, which all arises out of the meaning of the word, phaedrus (indeed, this confrontation is so important to the story that its how he gets his name). But you see the problem now? Phaedrus—and not the fallible Mr. Pirsig—got it wrong. The trouble comes if you keep pulling on that thread. If Phaedrus is not bulldozing professors, maybe his other arguments aren’t quite as infallible as we thought. Once you know that everything this guy is putting us through may be—not is, but may be—a crock of complete shit, then we have a problem, Houston. You have no choice but to take a break from the kool-aid train and maybe then we realize that this Quality notion thing may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The book is filled with so many bold assertions (e.g., “logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom”) it’s easy to get caught up in them; until you realize they’re just assertions. Supported only by the fact that Phaedrus is smarter than us. Than not even supported by that. The irony is that the very example that the narrator uses to show that Phaedrus was smarter than everyone, professors included, is exactly what shows he might not be. That’s the moment we learn (please, I beg of you, close your eyes if you’re under the age of 8 ) there’s no Santa Claus. Or Easter Bunny. Or Quality.
So at core this motorcycle books is just some guy making wild assertions about himself, saying that he’s smart, smarter than professors and philosophers, and Albert Einstein—and you, too. It’d be one thing if it were a debate; but rather it is presented to us as absolute truth and that, my followers, is absolute shit.
I feel bad. That is how I felt.
Then I learned that the author’s son died. It says so right there in the afterward. I didn’t have to read much. His son. The son that rode on the back of his bike. So let me offer a kinder way, a more tragic way, of experiencing this book. Maybe the creation of the split personality isn’t a tool to praise himself; instead, let’s pretend it’s born out of guilt for not being a good enough father. It is not the need to say, look at me, I’m so smart, that splits his mind; rather, it’s his son’s heartbreaking question toward the end of the book, why aren’t you more fun, dad? Dad, why do I hate you? After all, despite the father’s attempt to make this book about himself, at core what this is is a story about a father and his son and their relationship. It is a story about that, but the narrator makes it about himself—he gives no name to his wife and tells little of his son aside from present interjections or small little shortcomings; he chooses rather to obsess himself with himself. And there is guilt in that; there must be. And there is guilt in how his son looks to him. And there is guilt in that his son dies before him.
Mr. Pirsig spends a good chunk of the book seemingly obsessed with his notion of the Quality; there is a not-too-subtle concern that that notion becomes all consuming, that Phaedrus and the narrator cannot co-exist because to obsess with Quality means you are consumed by it. But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it was the pain of fatherhood, the loss of his son—even before he died—that made it easier for Mr. Pirsig to split into two people. Otherwise, the guilt—and not the Quality—would be what consumed him.
Just a thought.