I remember reading this book, but I don’t remember reading this book. Most critics point out that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is probably three or four books in one, and that each time you read it, you’re reading something unique.
When I read ZMM ten years ago, it was definitely a book about philosophy and being att odds with society. It was a book about being an outsider, about seeing things differently, and about realizing the power that comes with clear vision. It was a book about Quality and Individuality.
I am sure that I’ll read this book in another ten years, and it’ll be a book about a man who discovers that fatherhood is standing by your convictions and revealing your true self to your children. It will be a book about Quality and Personal Relationships.
But right now, this was a book about work, work that comes from peace of mind. It’s a book about Quality and Craftsmanship, because right now, I am concerned with craftsmanship and self-reliance and finding peace of mind about the work I do.
Peace of mind is how we tap into Quality, but Quality is pre-existing. I remember the feeling of writing a song, but not really writing a song, just writing down a song that existed before I knew to write it down. Then the feeling of bringing that song to my bandmates and finding out that more of the song existed but it required us to work together to discover it. The song existed before we brought it into life. I remember associating that feeling with what Pirsig describes as Quality, even though the songs I wrote probably didn’t have much in the way of Quality.
But that sense of what is good is not something we can create or define, but only hope to hear, by approaching each creative endeavor with peace of mind.
The end of the novel, with it’s Moby Dick descriptions of motorcycle parts and gumption traps and it’s brief and subtle climax, feels sluggish and rushed at the same time. I know that the practical application of the novel, the how-to-get-to-work of it, is the facet of the book that’s speaking to me the most, but now that we’re here, I find myself disengaging from his ideas on practical applications. Perhaps reading it so closely after The War of Art wasn’t necessary. Similar ground is being covered, though within wildly different contexts. I think this reading helped me realize that I have been running low on gumption (Pirsig) and high on Resistance (Pressfield).
The narrator is biased, possibly even unreliable, so how does his advice fare? It feels as though he’s reiterating ideas and tactics that are in themselves good, but his error is that he isn’t inhabiting them. If we take up a Zen practice to learn a particular skill, aren’t we meant to eventually take that beginner’s mindset, that ability to make new realizations, and apply it not simply to the skill at hand, but to ourselves? While he spends the novel applying his zen practice to maintaining his motorcycle, the novel ends with his internal realizations, that he has no peace of mind when it comes to his son and to his own self, and that his entire life suffering from one internal gumption trap.
The narrator finds that his gumption-source is both internal and external. He gives it a name and a personality, but the whole point is to combine both the white and black horses and use their momentum to move forward. The movement on the motorcycle that so defined him throughout the novel is revealed as a false front, and only hiding his lack of movement through life itself. Focus switches from the Zen practice to the Zen art of self-realization.
It’s a beautiful book that pushes us to define our values on this omnipresent sense of Quality, to practice honing these values in our work, and to eventually apply the lessons we learn to our own self-maintenance.