The Highwayman

Book Review

[Pirsig, R. (1984). Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: William Morrow & Co.]

[Key Words: Zen; science; art; Church of Reason; tensions; Chautauqua; Phaedrus; values; highway]


During my life’s journey, over the past few decades, I have read Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at least twice. And by now, people who are familiar with Pirsig’s popular and successful work know that the book is about much more than either Zen or motorcycle maintenance; yet, at the same time, that’s exactly what it is about. This review is not necessarily addressing those who have read, familiarized themselves with, and have admired and been provoked by this book as I do and have. Instead, I hope to pique the interest of those who have not read and know little to nothing about this work. But rather than merely your interest, I also want to prep your thinking cap, angst, and courage to engage this work of literature and a man’s story that will take you on a journey. The highway on which Pirsig, his son, and friends travel is an apt metaphor, for this book is indeed a journey, not only into the depths of a man’s mind, but perhaps into a culture’s mindset, as well as a journey into the world of ideas and the consequences that ideas hold.

What’s in a Title?

A good writer or storyteller possesses the ability to entitle his work. The full title and subtitle of this book is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. The title itself is thought provoking in that on some level it combines Zen and the mechanical know-how of maintaining motorcycles. Moreover, rather than the science of, or the mechanics of,  or the engineering of  motorcycle maintenance, the title touts the Art of such an endeavor. And then to add to an already interesting juxtaposition of thoughts, somehow, the reader is informed in the subtitle, that the topics of Zen and motorcycle maintenance provide a path of inquiry and exploration into values. Yet this is a well-suited title for this work and the author’s personal experience. And as a reader, you enter that experience, traveling the highway of that inquiry.

An Inquiry into Values

Lessons from life about living life itself come in a variety of packages and experiences. And drawing on centuries of philosophical inquiry, it’s no mere accident that the lessons from Pirsig’s Zen are encountered and reflected upon along a highway; nor is mere academic epistemology at play given that the inquiries into which Pirsig takes us are about what we know, and how we know what we know. And struggles with such questions are not about writing textbooks, but about how one is to understand, value, and live life in its fullness. Along the highway traveled by Pirsig and company, lessons about living come in yet two other forms: in a dialogic form known as Chatauquas, and in the shadowy form of a person from the past, known as Phaedrus. The narrative is propelled by tensions that rise and subside in fortuitous events along the journey, drawn from memory of the dialectic established by the conflict between rationality and the passion for living that defies pure rationality. And through mystic memories from the past, triggered by the journey, Phaedrus waits, still haunting the traveler from the roadways, hallways, and classrooms in the Church of Reason.

Tensions within Existence

If one attends to even a casual reading of the history of thought, one might be struck by the various tensions in existence that different explorers of ideas over the centuries have sought to work out, clarify, and resolve. Some common polarities that come to mind are: idealism and realism, classicism and romanticism, objectivity and subjectivity, rationality and irrationality, transcendence (spirituality) and materialism. These tensions also surface in various fields of endeavor, for example, how science tends to be pitted against art in our culture. They surface, as well, in our take on living. The polarization of the contemplative life versus the active life is a common theme in literature and liturgy. It appears that we are always trying to navigate these polarities to find our place in living. Rather than seeking to rid life of such tensions, one wonders if it is not best to let them be what that are: tensions in living. But Phaedrus, too, struggled with these polarities, and in his desire to integrate and resolve them so as to align with the Church of Reason, he entered upon a highway that few travel.

Conclusion: Enter at Your Own Risk

Is it worth the struggle to engage the question of how each of us is to make sense of life? Are all the questions and explorations worth the trouble, isolation, and pain that may come with the questioning? St. John of the Cross traveled his Dark Night of the Soul before finding rest in God. Boethius discovered his Consolation upon the morning of his execution. Frankl found meaning via the horrific experiences of concentration camps. And Solzhenitsyn found his path for expression in a gulag. Not one of us desires to travel these seemingly extreme paths in order to more fully understand our lives. But such paths were all too real to the people just mentioned. And many more have traveled thus. No doubt, many can go through life without questioning its meaning, and be content to do so. Others cannot. I invite you to travel the highway with Pirsig. You may not like all you encounter there. But then again, the journey might be worth the effort.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/June 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review