The Motorcycle is Yourself

Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on the 1968 road trip that inspired his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Courtesy: Robert Pirsig)

Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on the 1968 road trip that inspired his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Courtesy: Robert Pirsig)


Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been called the most widely read book of philosophy ever written. Forty years after its publication, contributor Tim Wilson revisits an extraordinary interview he did with its author, for still vital advice on how to live.

"The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called 'yourself'.

The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon."

from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Forty years ago, a book with the improbable title, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was quietly published.  The writer and the publisher hoped that it might sell a few thousand copies.

Instead, it went through dozens of printings in both hardcover and paperback in the first year alone, and it has never been out of print in the decades since.  Some sources estimate it's sold upwards of five million copies.

Just after it was published in 1974, Robert Pirsig granted what became something of a landmark interview to IDEAS contributor Tim Wilson. 


The Buddha, the godhead, sits quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital transmission as in the petals of a lotus

-- Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

zen-art-book.jpgIt was a radical, landscape-changing idea, forty years ago: that it might actually be possible to unify the cold, rational, numbingly systematized world of science and technology with the warm, intuitive realm of art and the spirit. To bridge the chasm that has existed in Western thought since the time of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks between reason and emotion, subjective and objective, romantic and classical ways of understanding. To find the Ghost in the machine.

But the idea didn't come from an ivory-towered academic, or a guru on a mountaintop.  It came from the basement workshop of an unassuming writer of computer technical manuals in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  And it wasn't Steve Jobs, whose mythic, marvelous Macintosh was still a decade away.

The philosophical trailblazer was Robert M. Pirsig, whose first novel, the then-bizarrely titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974 and never out of print since, became an almost immediate classic. It has been compared in literary stature to Moby Dick, and acclaimed as the most widely read book of philosophy ever written.  Subtitled "an Inquiry into Values" Pirsig's book is not directly about Zen or, for that matter, about motorcycles.  It's about living a good and meaningful life. And -- I may as well give it away -- the whole thing, he says, is to become one with the activity, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate the most minute detail.

It all rides on what Pirsig calls Quality, the "knife-edge" moment of grasping something before thinking about it.  An idea since set out in a slew of other works, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's notion of Flow,  or oneness with one's work, to Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

A few months after the book came out,  I traveled -- not on a Harley but in a Toyota; it was November -- to meet Pirsig at his home. From our intimate and richly engrossing conversation, which began almost the minute I walked in the door, producer Claudia Buckley and I made a radio feature for IDEAS that itself became something of a landmark. Pirsig, an intensely private, humble man (he is still alive, in his 80s and living in New England), has granted few interviews since.

motorcycle-you-pirsig.jpgFor years, however, he has continued to monitor and contribute to a website devoted to the Metaphysics of Quality:  And there's even a comprehensive Guidebook, co-authored, as it happens, by a Jesuit, those master melders of intellect and spirituality. 

To mark the 40th anniversary of the book, we're revisiting that radio program.  And, in keeping with the motorcycle metaphor, we've given it a substantial overhaul, a new introduction and commentary. Because, you see, I have to confess that at the time, totally smitten by the overarching beauty of Pirsig's creation, I missed almost completely an understanding of its inner workings, its dauntingly detailed structure. Every time I tried to impress him with squibs of the little philosophy and psychology I had read, he would quietly insist, "but I had to follow my own lights."

That, and other gems from our conversation became glowing, permanent fridge-magnets in my mind. "If you run from technology, it will chase you." "Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity." And this, most resonant of all:  "The real motorcycle you are working on is yourself."

And although maybe it's only for those of us over 50, I've a feeling that the present-day vogue for Mindfulness, for relaxed and focused, non-judgmental attention, is a flowering of these same ideas.

And there's one more, vital lesson I got from Robert Pirsig.  There was a moment during our interview when I was changing tapes -- we didn't have digital, back then, and I wasn't doing drugs -- when I had the radiant, reassuring feeling that there was absolutely no better place on earth or in time to be than with that particular person, in that very moment. A kind of landing, he would have said, on the Centre of Things.

Photo: Robert Pirsig (left) his son Chris (centre) and philosophy buddy John Sutherland. (Courtesy Robert Pirsig)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is published by Harper Collins.

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