Jul 15, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig: Book Review

The context…
‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance’ (ZAMM) is the largest selling philosophical novel ever. It is listed in the Guinness book of world records as the bestselling book that faced the highest number of rejections (121) before finally finding a willing publisher. It is a window into the mind of a remarkable man (author Robert Pirsig) whose obsession with the ‘grand truths’ of life took him to the verge of self-destruction and even beyond it (he was institutionalized for Insanity and forcibly put through electroconvulsive shock therapy). He is a defining example of a genius (he was tested to have an IQ of 170, a 1-in-50000 result) as traditionally conceived – coruscating and inspirational but tortured and solipsistic.

The book itself…
is essentially an exposition of a new philosophical thesis that is put forth embodied in a series of meditative reflections interspersing the course of a motorcycle journey through northwestern United States.
The narrator has his son Chris for a pillion during the entire journey; it must be said that a certain poignant tension continually attends their relationship which progressively reveals itself in the course of events.

Pirsig and his son on the roadtrip described in the book (Actual photograph)
Then of course there is the constant companion, the motorcycle, which the narrator recurrently employs (as a readily accessible epistemological and ethical object) in his annotations to ‘concretize’ the many otherwise often abstract themes.
There are a host of other characters, none of whom occupy the Mise-en-scène throughout, but all of them serve as exemplars of a more general ‘type’ and help in anatomizing, for the reader, the many varied perspectives that stood considered by the author en route to his grand thesis.

I have no intention to speak in criticalese of the literary merit of the book and wish only to jaw on about the powerful idea expounded in it. The narrator is concerned by a certain metaphysical schism in the philosophical edifice of contemporary western world which, in his opinion, has resulted in perpetuation of false dichotomies and caused estrangement between, inter alia, the Arts and the Sciences, Romance and Realism, Intuition and Rationality; 
and beyond the  cultural milieu of the civilizations descended from the Hellenistic world, he holds that this great divide is also of the same sort that since the Bronze age has divided the ‘Eastern’ and the ‘Western’ weltanschauungs. The subject-object Dualism is, what he discerns, the common denominator of all the pathological epistemologies of our(western) world today and it has forced upon us many irreconcilable dis-unions that aggravate the existential angst of the individual and undermine the well-being of society.
The narrator brilliantly and lucidly instantiates myriad manifestations of this ailment and discovers its presence beneath the veneer of countless experiences of daily life (including motorcycle maintenance) – something that makes his thesis readily ‘empathizable’.
In the course of his philosophical diagnosis he briefly traces the history of western philosophy till ancient Greece and, having found the genesis of the ailment there, goes on to hammer it into a different mould, incorporating many tenets of oriental philosophy in a grand attempt at ameliorating what he saw as the most urgent philosophical dilemma of out times. The result is a new Metaphysic of ‘Quality’.
His Metaphysic of ‘Quality’ is, to my knowledge, an approach never before (or never after) taken by any philosopher… completely novel in its synthesis of oriental and occidental thought, ingenuous as much as rebellious in its reconfiguration of the traditional Aristotelian metaphysic and profoundly brilliant in the elegance with which it seems to transcend what appeared an intractable divide.
Once the narrator arrives at his metaphysic in the abstract, he does translate it down in terms of the lived reality that most of us are more familiar with (again often using motorcycle maintenance as an example).
Whether he succeeds in doing what no one has done, in overturning two millennia old habit-of-thought, of iconoclasm on unprecedented scale is for the readers to judge. But what he does unmistakably succeed in doing, is in giving the reader a sense of identification with the most profound questions of life and in showing that our ordinary lives are not as far removed from the realm of abstract essences as we have accustomed ourselves to believe.
He demonstrates that ideas have consequences, not just in transcendental realms but in the here-and-now of our lives and that they are, far more than mere words, repositories of immense causative potential that effects and changes the Quality of our lives… for the better or for the worse.

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