Ride Out, Sail Back
A conversation with the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
By John Freeman
Robert Pirsig has a bone to pick with philosophers. As his era-defining memoir Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance levitated up the bestseller lists in 1974, all he heard from them was grumbling.
This story of a father-son motorcycle trip across America was just a skeleton of a philosophy, they said. What exactly was this “metaphysics of quality” he kept talking about? And who was he to tell them about it? Seventeen years later, Pirsig gave his answer and it came in the form of a 500-page novel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Now, at last, the thinkers of the world had something to tinker with. Their response? “Silence. They have just given me zero support and great hostility,” Pirsig says on the eve of the novel’s reissue in Britain.
“It’s just, they don’t say anything.” Now, Pirsig believes he has one last shot at explaining his philosophy to the public, and if it means coming out of seclusion, so be it.
Sitting in a hotel suite that overlooks the Charles River in Boston, a meditation mat at his feet, his wife Wendy at his side, America’s second-most reclusive New England novelist does not appear to have sweated much over his celebrity.
At the age of 77, Pirsig is a white-haired, bandy-legged old coot, as they say in this country. Years at sea and on the road have given his face a sun-blasted quality. His voice is strong and clear, but when he takes out a pen and paper to demonstrate a concept, his hands shake.
“As I see these two books,” Pirsig says, drawing an oval on a notepad, “there is a Zen circle. You start here with Zen,” he says, marking an X, “and then you go here to enlightenment, that’s what’s called 180 Zen.
“Then you go back to where you started from—that’s 360 Zen—and the world is exactly as it was when you left it.” Pirsig sits back and lets that sink in, then adds: “Well, I felt that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the journey out, and Lila was this trip back.”
This might explain why Lila was not as universally adored as its predecessor. Zen was a serious feel-good book, a modern day Walden, written by a man who had been through the wringer, but emerged having identified a better way to live.
It was also as picturesque a tour of western America as one could find between two covers. Lila is an almost noir-like novel about a writer who falls in love with a former prostitute. As they float down a brooding river toward New York City, the writer—whose name is Phaedrus, the name Pirsig gave his insane alter ego in Zen—muses on her nature and on the metaphysics of quality (MOQ).
The novel is structured like a river with many locks—each stage a new level of Pirsig’s philosophy. The mental work it takes to measure these ideas explains why Lila has sold 600,000 copies, hardly a failure, but nowhere near the 4 to 6 million of his more famous book.
There are two types of Quality, as Pirsig sees it, Dynamic and Static.
“Without dynamic quality, an organism cannot grow,” he explained in an essay. “But without static quality, an organism cannot last.”
While it became a cultural cliché to say that we have moved beyond good and evil, Pirsig believes just the opposite—and he believes that the MOQ can be a useful tool in bringing order to a chaotic world.
“You know the structure of the MOQ,” he says, bringing out the pad again. “Static quality can be divided into intellectual, social, biological and inorganic realms. Any attempt by a lower order to overcome a higher order represents evil. So those forces which prohibit intellectual freedom are evil according to the MOQ.” Pirsig adds: “Just as those biological forces which tend to prohibit social freedom are evil, and at an even lower level, even the inorganic forces of death that try to destroy biology are evil.”
Pirsig’s insistence on the existence of evil has a painful personal note. In November 1979, his son Chris was stabbed to death in a robbery outside the San Francisco Zen Center. He was two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday. Pirsig was living on a houseboat in England at the time. He came home for the funeral and wrote a moving epilogue about his son—the child at the heart of Zen—and it has been printed in every edition since. This loss can be felt in Lila and might explain why it took Pirsig almost two decades to write it. “One reviewer said the shadow of Pirsig’s son’s death seems to hang over this entire book,” Pirsig says, looking bewildered. “I had no idea that was true at the time, but now I see in retrospect I was very gloomy.”
Pirsig seems to have come into the world capable of thought—but less so of gloom. Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minn., he was a gifted child whose IQ was measured at 170 when he was 9 years old.
His father was a law professor who studied in England, so Pirsig learned to read and write in England. He returned to Minnesota and entered grade school so young that he was picked on. He entered university at the age of 15, flunked out, then served in the Korean War, coming home with an interest in philosophy. He eventually finished his degree and went on to get a graduate degree in Oriental philosophy from Benares Hindu University in India. And here’s where the drifting begins. Pirsig returned to the U.S. in the ’50s and began to study journalism.
To make a living, he began doing technical writing and some editing at a university newspaper where he met his first wife. For 20 years, they would move around, Pirsig doing odd jobs, occasionally teaching English composition, raising their two kids.
Without knowing it, he had begun a kind of internal philosophical quest, but the heat of his intellectual searching pushed him over the edge.
In 1960, he began the first of a series of hospital treatments for mental illness. Pirsig’s father obtained a court order to commit him to a hospital where he received electro-convulsive shock therapy. It seemed to work, but Pirsig maintains that he was not insane. “I never thought I was crazy. But I wasn’t about to tell anybody that at the time.”
Pirsig took to writing as a life raft. In 1965 he bought a motorcycle, and in 1967, began what he thought would just be a few essays on motorcycle maintenance--he was, after all, a technical writer. But the book grew into a fully fledged project.
In 1968, he wrote to 122 publishers offering sample chapters. Only one wrote back. This was enough encouragement for him. He rented a room at a flophouse and would go there from midnight until 6 a.m. to write.
Then he would go to work. Each night he went to bed at 6 p.m. “When I talk about compulsion in that book,” Pirsig says, “that’s what I mean. I was compelled to write that book.”
Pirsig admits that this regimen had as much to do with his ambitions as with “problems at home,” as he calls them. When the book finally became a bestseller, Pirsig dealt with it as best he could then felt he needed to get away. He and his wife bought a yacht and planned to travel the world. Instead they divorced.
Pirsig’s response was to keep moving, and it was in this fashion that he met his second wife, Wendy Kimball, on a boat, of course, in Florida. She was a freelance writer who wanted to interview him. He hung around for two years in Florida while she worked as a reporter, and then they started a life of travel together, down to the Bahamas, up to Maine where they were married, and across the North Atlantic to England—a trip so rough that Pirsig thought they might not make it. “I saw this bank of icebergs moving toward us very fast, and I turned to Wendy and said, 'Well, hon, it’s been nice knowing you.'”
They made it, of course, but that same year Pirsig’s son was murdered, halting their floating honeymoon. He has moved forward. He and Wendy had a daughter, Nell, in 1980.
This autumn, an academic philosopher named David A. Granger will publish a book called John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living. Pirsig is overjoyed. “This really could be my white knight.”
The success of Zen has afforded Pirsig and his wife “a very nice life,” he admits, and he doesn’t want to appear ungrateful for this gift. But he adds that it is not for his sake that he wants Lila to be read. He truly believes it can help people. “I think this philosophy could address a lot of the problems we have in the world today,” he says, leaning forward, tapping the pad of paper, “just so long as people know about it.”
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