Tuesday, 25 April 2017


My obituary of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, is up at the Guardian website; you can link to it here. It ought to appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it; it was difficult to write in the sense that one felt the need to explain his philosophy, which he had difficulty doing in hundreds of pages, and also to reflect on a hugely relevant and fascinating life, especially his early years.

I was never a fan of the book. I'm not sure whether that was because I was already locked into some kind of duality linked to Aristotle, or my New England background, or my Swedish-Jewish ancestry, or whether it was because I was locked into my own sense of the Sixties, which was one of rebelliouness but not of rebellion. Or maybe it was because I had not been all that impressed by The Prophet, and Gibran's advice to my generation, nor by Casteneda's Don Juan. Maybe I've never been big on self-help.

To me the key was Pirsig's appeal to the 'Me Generation' -- his Quality (the Guardian plays havoc with capitalization) concept allowed you to find your truth apart from its wider context: a way of allowing you to feel satisified with your inner self while not necessarily allowing it to interfere with your interaction with the outer world. As the Sixties morphed into the Seventies and the counter culture became the over-the-counter culture, changing 'the system' became a task that was set aside. Pirsig allowed his readers a sense a way they could remain within the system while remaining true to themselves.  Obviously, this was crucial to Pirsig's own development as a child and then an adult who couldn't fit in with existing systems for which he may have been simply too smart.

I was skipped from first grade into second, and I know a little bit about the problem. Unlike Pirsig, I was big for my age, which kept bullying down to a moderate level, but I had a teacher who resented me, I was bullied, and I went from being a star to a supporting player. Most importantly, not matter how capable you become at fitting in, you are always behind your classmates in emotional development, and there is nothing you can do about that. You may sublimate by trying to please, by working to othe expectations of others, but it all raises questions about who you are yourself. 

The idea of being one with the mechanical world was appealling, in the sense that The Whole Earth Catalogue left large holes unfilled. But I was also irritated by the same sense of consumerism at the heart of practicality. I recall a scene where Pirsig manages to discover the spark plugs are being clogged by the richer mix of gas caused by the thin mountain air; something his friends would never be able to do. But he fixes it by going to the shop and buying new spark plugs: I remember wondering why he didn't clean and file them. Buddha could probably buy new sparkplugs too.

I was serious about the influence of Brautigan as much as Thoreau. I understand the allusion to Melville, but I don't see him as an influence. I also wondered about Ken Kesey: in my original copy I'd speculated Robert Redford would see this story as a kind of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but where the patient eventually escapes.

I would have loved to be able to give more details about Pirsig's many jobs, his epic battle with the University of Chicago's philosophy department, his constant returns home (when he was committed, by his father, to the VA hospital, he was living across the street from his parents. His behaviour before his breakdown was truly dangerous, including brandishing a gun in front of his wife and kids;his marriage nearly ended at that time, and seemed to be on life support for most of the ensuing decade. I confess to not having read Lila, and it would be interesting to see just how much of the breakdown of the marriage is charted in that book. Reading interviews with Pirsig from around that time (there's a great one by Ed Zuckerman in Mother Jones that must've been just before the Pirsigs separated, and her apperaances in the interview would suggest difficulties). It might be time for Redford to take another crack at those film rights.

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