A fresh look at Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Tim Wilson has a fresh take on his 1974 interview with Robert Pirsig, the reclusive author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, on the landmark philosophy book's 40th anniversary.

Pirsig's key bit of wisdom: “The real motorcycle you are working on is yourself.”

Philosophical trailblazer Robert M. Pirsig's novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is not directly about Zen or motorcycles. It’s about living a good and meaningful life. (Shutterstock)

It became an almost immediate classic, has been compared in literary stature to Moby Dick, and acclaimed as the most widely read book of philosophy ever written. 

The philosophical trailblazer was Robert M. Pirsig, at the time an unassuming writer of computer technical manuals, living in Saint Paul, Minn. His first novel, the then-bizarrely titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was published in 1974 and has never been out of print since.

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.

Robert Pirsig (left) found the inspiration for his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, during a road trip he took through Minnesota in 1968 with his son Chris (centre) and philosophy buddy John Sutherland. (Courtesy Robert Pirsig)

Pirsig argued passionately that it is actually possible to unify the cold, rational 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 proverbial ghost in the machine.

A few months after Pirsig's book came out in 1974, I travelled — not on a Harley but in a Toyota (it was November) — to meet the author at his home.

From our intimate and engrossing conversation, which began almost the minute I walked in the door, I made a radio feature for CBC Radio's 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.

The whole thing, he says, is to become one with what one is doing, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate the most minute detail.

Pirsig gave it the deceptively quotidien name of Quality, which he described as the “knife-edge” moment of grasping something before thinking about it. It's 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.

Pirsig’s own ideas continue to find a devoted and erudite following in a website devoted to the Metaphysics of Quality: moq.org. And there’s even a comprehensive Guidebook, co-authored, as it happens, by a Jesuit, those master melders of intellect and spirituality.

According to Robert Pirsig (right), pictured with his son Chris on the 1968 road trip that inspired his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in life, “The real motorcycle you are working on is yourself.” (Courtesy Robert Pirsig)

This week on CBC's Ideas, to mark the 40th anniversary of the book, we’re revisiting that radio program (listen in Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. on CBC Radio or or listen online now). 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,” he said.

“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.”

And this, most resonant of all: “The real motorcycle you are working on is yourself.”

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 — when I had the radiant, reassuring feeling that there was absolutely no better place on Earth or in time to be than with that man, in that moment.

(Listen to Tim Wilson's interview with Robert Pirsig on CBC Radio's Ideas on Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. or listen online now.)