Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig

I borrowed this book from the reception of a hotel where I was staying during my last visit to Corralejo. This was probably the only book in English there. I heard so much about this work before but never bothered to look it up, although the full text is available on the web. Now I had my chance to read it while relaxing on the beach. I honestly intended to return it there on my day of departure, which was Sunday. Alas, it turned out that the reception was closed until 9 am — but I had to go. Never mind, I will bring it back next time.

I am not sure that it is any good as a travelogue. True, I never travelled across the States on a motorbike. But it seems that it wouldn’t be much different if it was Canada or Australia or any other big and mostly empty country where you can drive a motorcycle. The only geographical link to the narrator’s past, some godforsaken Montana town where Phaedrus used to teach in a college, even that is totally interchangeable with any other place. Curiously, some important philosophical points are cross-referenced as made “just after Miles City” or “back in South Dakota” instead of, say, chapter numbers. Maybe this was done on purpose, to remind the reader that the journey was real.

On the other hand, Pirsig’s meditations on the nature of Quality, care, gumption ring all sorts of bells. Whether you work in industry or academia, it is quantity, not quality (areté, dharma, excellence) that your employer is after. How many papers are published, how many people are employed, how many hits that corporate website gets, this sort of stuff. Finally, there is motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig says about his book: “It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.” And yet I feel that this is writing of a master of this art. I would trust him to look into my motorbike if I had one.

This is the most poetical book on philosophy (or motorcycles) I ever read.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn't see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth”, and so it goes away. Puzzling.
But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us off these roads, weekends, evenings, vacations. We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs and found there are things you learn as you go.
We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that’s good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that’s bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker.

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