Book: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance - Livre d'Or — LiveJournal








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livredor
Book: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Monday, 10 October 2005 at 03:55 pm
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Author: Robert M Pirsig

Details: (c) 1974 Robert M Pirsig; Pub Vintage 1989; ISBN 0-09-978640-0

Verdict: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has some interesting ideas, but is rather dry.

Reasons for reading it: wychwood was enthusing about it lots, and loreid chimed in, and then it came up in conversation several times.

How it came into my hands: The nice friendly library that lives at the bottom of my drive. I somehow managed to convince myself using the electronic catalogue that they didn't have it, but when I went in to ask about ordering it by ILL, it turned out they had it after all. I love friendly helpful librarians, I do.

I got the impression that Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has a novel trapped somewhere inside it, trying to get out. The development of the narrator's relationship with Chris, the way the back story about Phaedrus is gradually revealed, the exploration of a struggle with madness, all these sorts of things are very interesting and evoked with a real intensity. But they're rather cluttered out by the philosophical sermon that comprises most of the book. The nearest comparison I can think of is Sophie's World, though ZatAoMM is more explicit about its biases and isn't pretending to be providing a neutral overview of the history of philosophy.

The sermon itself isn't at all terrible. It's certainly more readable than a lot of philosophy, and less cringey than a lot of popular philosophy. Probably a lot of my problem with it is that I don't quite have the patience for a novel-length philosophical exposition, and I did find it slow going.

Some of the advice for right living parts caught my attention; the more directly practical the suggestions, the more I appreciated them. And the concept of Quality does seem like a useful philosophical tool in some ways, but IMO Pirsig took this powerful idea too far. For example, the point that you can't make Quality things by taking shoddy, ill-made things and prettifying them is very powerfully made; the stuff about Quality being the source of everything just seems like irrelevant mysticism. Even if it's in some sense true, I'm inclined to feel, so what? What are the practical consequences? I'm also suspicious of the parts that seem to imply that humans are somehow magically in touch with this mystical force, if they can only learn the tricks needed to access it.

What I knew of ZatAoMM by reputation led me to think it was going to be one of those awful hippy things about how Eastern wisdom is more pure than corrupt decadent Western intellectual values, man. And it certainly isn't that; in fact, it opens with a fairly controlled rant against that kind of attitude. It certainly does have some interesting points, and it's actually surprisingly hard to summarize its arguments in an LJ post. It's worth reading for some of the new perspectives it provides, although taken at face value it doesn't entirely work for me as a system of thought. (I also have a soft spot for Plato, so I bristled a bit at the way Phaedrus treats him.)

greengolux made a magnificent post on Subjectivity and evaluating literature while I was reading ZatAoMM. Her post and the really excellent discussion that it generated seem to fit quite well into the sort of head space that the best parts of the book evoked for me (and are worth reading in their own right).


Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:October 12th, 2005 03:20 pm (UTC)
23 minutes after journal entry, 11:20 am (rysmiel's time)
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Oh goodie. I am not actually close enough to having read Zen and the Art to have a detailed going-over of Pirsig's philosphy at this point, but the concept of Quality certainly strikes me as useful, I have a great fondness for it as a response to the kind of post-modern worldview that demands that all opinions be equal regardless of how much sense they make.

The bits where Pirsig annoys me, somewhat in this book and a lot more in Lila, is where he has clearly been taught, or come across, a simplified version of some aspect of the physical world - not one that's mendacious, maybe something he was taught in school at ten or twelve that was structured for the understanding of the average child that age - and is bright enough to see that it's clearly incomplete, but goes off to figure out some peculiar way of filling the hole by himself rather than checking to see whether there already exists a more sophisticated explanation. I remember a couple of passages about computers that gave me that reaction but cannot recall which book they were in, and there's some stuff about evolution in Lila that really drives me up the wall on those grounds. I suppose it's an inevitable feature of being such an autodidact. I also think Zen and the Art would really have benefited had the concept of memes been available to Pirsig at the time.

My understanding is that the odd structure and the road trip with Chris is the shape it is because it's pretty much directly from Pirsig's life and has not had the oddly shaped ends smoothed for flow purposes.
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 03:29 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 03:29 pm (livredor's time)
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the concept of Quality certainly strikes me as useful
It does seem very useful, though the mystical expansion of it in the later part of the book reduces its usefulness somewhat. Reading this certainly helped me to understand what you were getting at in your Mansions of the Superego post, anyway, which counts as useful in my view.

a response to the kind of post-modern worldview that demands that all opinions be equal regardless of how much sense they make
No, I don't think so. I didn't read it at all as a response to sloppy post-modernism / relativism. It seems to be arguing much more against the idea that Quality can be measured and quantified and defined, rather than the idea that there's no such thing as Quality.

would really have benefited had the concept of memes been available to Pirsig at the time
Good point, definitely a powerful concept, and one that would make the argument clearer and stronger, I think. But if Pirsig is clueless about evolution he might well not get it.

the odd structure and the road trip with Chris is the shape it is because it's pretty much directly from Pirsig's life
Eh, a story that happens to be true rather than invented can still be well written or less well written. And it's clear that the road trip stuff must be somewhat fictionalized, because nobody realistically remembers the sequence of events and conversation at that level of detail. Actually I didn't mind that part, though; I think it is well told and I didn't find it oddly shaped at all. It just makes the book a bit emotionally uneven, because the road trip bit doesn't mesh all that well with the sermon bit.
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rysmiel: mary magnum
From:rysmiel
Date:October 14th, 2005 04:58 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 12:58 pm (rysmiel's time)
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because nobody realistically remembers the sequence of events and conversation at that level of detail.

Not to be contrarian, but papersky provably does. In ways which are to me quite astounding, though like Severian she seems not quite to comprehend forgetting.

It just makes the book a bit emotionally uneven, because the road trip bit doesn't mesh all that well with the sermon bit.

It was a real jerk to me finding out before my recentish reread that Chris has been dead for some time.
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 09:19 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 09:19 pm (livredor's time)
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I'm not stupid enough to argue with you about papersky, but I'm intrigued how the accuracy of her memory for detail is provable.

The edition I have has an afterword by the author mentioning Chris' death. I really wasn't sure whether it was a slightly tacky trick to give added depth to a fictional account, or whether it was true (and if so, what's the point of mentioning it?) That's because I didn't know how fictional the book itself is meant to be, and in a sense it doesn't really matter.
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rysmiel: space opera
From:rysmiel
Date:October 14th, 2005 05:16 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 01:16 pm (rysmiel's time)
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It seems to be arguing much more against the idea that Quality can be measured and quantified and defined, rather than the idea that there's no such thing as Quality.

I think that to make that argument you have to take it as axiomatic that Quality exists, though.
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From:wychwood
Date:October 12th, 2005 03:30 pm (UTC)
32 minutes after journal entry
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Yay!

I'm very impressed you managed to read it already! It's not exactly, uh, easy going. And, as you say, there are certainly points you can take issue with. But I enjoyed the way it made me think, and re-evaluate, to a certain extent.

Also, I have *major* problems with the model of the Socratic dialogue, so have never been able to read Plato without simultaneously having the desire to chew my own arm off, or something...

I also liked the way that Zen - to me - didn't read like "popular philosophy". It wasn't "ooh, let me tell you about Heidegger", it was more "here is my journey through my own head". Something like that.

I really need to re-read it... it's been years. But since that puts it behind War and Peace, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Vanity Fair on my reading list, it may be a while...
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 09:27 pm (livredor's time)
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I'm very impressed you managed to read it already!
It's funny, it felt to me as if I was reading pretty slowly; it took somewhere over two weeks to get through it, which is slow for me, especially at the moment when I have a lot of free time to read it.

I enjoyed the way it made me think, and re-evaluate, to a certain extent.
I agree with you, it is definitely strong in the thought-provoking department!

it was more "here is my journey through my own head"
Yeah. I did enjoy the character development of Phaedrus and the narrator, but there's just too much detail of the philosophy for it to quite work as a pure character piece.

And I completely sympathize about the reading list issue!
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(no subject) - greengolux (10/13/05 08:20 am)
livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 09:30 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
Ooh, thanks for that link! I tend to skim reviews of books I haven't read myself, so I hadn't remembered that you'd posted about it. It's really interesting to hear about your relationship with the book, cool.
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