Self-Discovery in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Self-Discovery in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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He was a man in search of himself, a man not willing to follow the human race as it moved drearily on, a man who would not cease in his journey until he knew what truth and quality were. His expedition across American answered his inquiries. In actuality, he provided his own answers, solutions that would provide for the most important of all states: peace of mind. Such is the depth of discovery that a reader will find in Robert Pirsig's masterful innovation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The story is an eye-opening look into the thoughts and feelings of an unnamed man who saw too much of his society and started asking questions. In the story, his quest begins when he hops on a motorcycle with his young son, Chris, a sharp but slightly confused boy. While Chris thinks that the trip is meant only to be a vacation on the back roads of America, his father knows that he is really taking this trip for himself. It is meant to be a period in which he can think about and piece together the events of his early life, a time in which he started to wonder about the faults of society, eventually driving himself insane. Their journey leads them through highways, roads, one lane country passes, and finally into beautiful pastures and mountains. It was during these extended rides and rest stops in nature that we see what this story is really about.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really isn't a story so much as it is a doctrine of philosophy. The novel, in effect, appears to be just a vehicle to express Pirsig's ideas to a large audience. If, in fact, this is what he's doing, he does a wonderful job at it. The most striking detail about the book is in how Pirsig relates the entire motorcycle journey and the process of maintaining that cycle to, in essence, all of life. A major point of the novel is that in order to find the answers to anything you are looking for you must first clear your mind and make sure that it is as fine tuned as possible. Most times, in order to do this, you must leave the highway and journey into the pastures or mountains where everything is clearer and easier. Metaphors like this one are really what brings the book alive.

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Another metaphor that digs deep into the thoughts of the reader involves the conditions that a person must face in pursuing total peace of mind. He relates this to the challenges placed on an individual as he struggles up a mountain: "the thinner air of uncertainty, the magnitude of questions asked, and the untraveled trail that a climber must take to answer his questions" (111). these kind of large scale metaphors are really what bring Zen together and intriguing to read.

Another factor that makes it extremely interesting to read is the profundity of Pirsig's analysis of many different ideas and processes. Right off, he starts in on the fields of science and art, stating that a major part of the problem society is facing right now is that these fields are so separated. He contends that technology, as a product of science, has become ugly by the process that produces it. The producers and inventors of technology are no longer taking into account artistic value and this is why there seems to be a false quality associated with technology. Pirsig states that, in actuality, there is no quality in modern technology at all and it has just been laced with style.

These are the sort of revelations that occurred to the narrator before his "nervous breakdown." Throughout the novel he affectionately refers to this pre-insanity self as Phaedrus, a sort of ghost that he knows but can't remember. The narrator's entire journey is focused on trying to piece together the fragments of his memory of Phaedrus and figure out what caused his surmise. He follows Phaedrus' path to a college in Montana where the inquiries started. It was there, at the university, where a student in his rhetoric class first implanted the seed which would lead to Phaedrus' dilemma. She just asked him one simple question: "What is Quality?" It was his pondering of this question that started a chain reaction that eventually led Phaedrus to the University of Chicago, a desolate place that provided him the opportunity to analyze methods and study the ideas of the ancient Greeks, a pursuit that left him empty, unable to deal with every day life let alone analyze it.

As far as advising a future reader of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance goes, I can only say one thing: be prepared to take your time! This book is extremely challenging in many, many different ways. Difficulty comes up frequently in revealing metaphors and in understanding some of philosophic principles that Pirsig is inventing or re-inventing. Also, it is quite evident the Robert Pirsig is a genius of a man and this definitely is reflected in the amount of knowledge contained in Zen. I spent hours re-reading certain chapters just trying to gain the slightest grasp on what he was trying to say. Also, if at all possible, take notes. Just as the narrator wanders through the country and through his thoughts, the novel wanders quite a bit as well.

Overall, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although challenging, is an excellent book that is an eye-opener for anyone who reads it. The metaphors and philosophical magnitude of it are awe-inspiring and deserve to be explored again and again. I look forward to re-reading it and hope that you decide to take on the challenge. I guarantee you will learn something about philosophy, something about life, and something about yourself.

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