By the time I was in high school, I had developed the ability to ascertain exactly how much work I had to do to receive a reasonably good grade. And that’s exactly what I did. During the three-and-a-half years I was in high school, I was assigned several books to read. I’m not sure I ever read all the way through any of them. In spite of this, I managed to make the B honor roll and qualify for Moody Bible Institute.
Beginning a year or so after high school, I started going back to those books I’d been assigned but hadn’t read. I remember walking to a bookstore near campus after supper one Friday afternoon and buying Lord of the Flies. I returned to my room and read it straight through that evening.
Other books on the list included:
- Romeo and Juliet
- Julius Caesar
- The Wife of Martin Guerre
- Fantastic Voyage
- The Pearl
- Catcher in the Rye
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Animal Farm
- Brave New World
Most of these made it onto one of the classic lists I’ve read through over the years. But there was one other book that I forgot about until recently when the distinctive title caught my eye — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. This weekend, I decided to read it.
The book tells the story of a cross-country motorcycle trip the author made with his 11-year-old son. Pirsig was a college professor of rhetoric who searched for the meaning of life and went insane. He was committed to an institution and given shock therapy. During the motorcycle trip, he was attempting to figure out what had happened to him and attempting to reconnect with his son Chris.
Scenes from the trip are interspersed with lessons on philosophy. From time to time, the author would get the feeling that he was pursued by a ghost named Phaedrus who turns out to be his former (pre-insanity) self.
It’s all as strange as it sounds. Here and there, it gets interesting for a while. But about the time I was starting to root for the guy, it develops that the ghost was really the good guy and the author “sold-out” to societal norms to get out of the institution. He concludes that he is smarter than any other person living or dead, has figured out the meaning of life far beyond the intellect of anybody else ever, and that he has to get in touch with his insane self to succeed.
Pirsig doesn’t put it exactly like that, but that’s the basic result. It’s a classic example of one man’s wisdom making him a fool. Here are a few quotes to give you a feel for the book:
This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to stay alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may life longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.
The allegory of a physcial mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the moutains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.
In one place, Pirsig dismisses the Old and New Testaments as “flat-earth thinking.” In another, he says this, To doubt the literal meaning of the words of Jesus or Moses incurs hostility from most people, but it’s just a fact that if Jesus or Moses were to appear today, unidentified, with the same message he spoke many years ago, his mental stability would be challenged. This isn’t because what Jesus or Moses said was untrue or because modern society is in error but simply because the route they chose to reveal to others has lost relevance and comprehensibility.
Prisig’s premise is that Quality underlies all things and is the source of value. It’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one has ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.
This is all illustrated by Pirsig in the way he maintains his motorcycle, becoming familiar with it on all levels so that not only can he tell instinctively when a part needs replacing, but he can replace it or even, when necessary, manufacture the replacement part himself. He pictures a person who understands his philosophy like this: Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with — and they are all, sooner or later, dull — and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves.
This “Quality,” which Pirsig says can be traced in the thinking of all the great philosophers, becomes his god. It’s all rather sad. In an afterword, written 25 years later, Pirsig brings the story up to date. The book was a best-seller because “The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer.” But Pirsig “goes on living, more from force of habit than anything else.” Chris was murdered outside a Zen center in San Francisco. Pirsig’s first wife left him. His second wife got pregnant, and he and she decided to abort the child until Pirsig realized it was the reincarnation of Chris. Very sad indeed.
The book was published in 1974, and so must have been assigned to me during my Junior year. I remember reading the first two or three chapters and being totally bored. Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I think it would be a rare high schooler indeed who could follow it. And among those who could follow it, I imagine there would be a very few who would find it interesting. And for those who would find it interesting, I think it would probably be dangerous.
But there you have it. A few weeks shy of my 52nd birthday, I have finally completed high school.