Re-reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Ten Years Later

I first read Robert Pirsig’s novel in the summer of 2004 while living in Austin, Texas with Matt Fettig, Robbie, and Jon. We shared a studio apartment; no one had a job. For rent money we worked as extras in the Mike Judge film Idiocracy and occasionally cut down scratchy mesquite trees in long-sleeve shirts.

Jon and I read ZMM at the same time and bounced ideas off each other binging on the Flaming Lips. A few months earlier Cole Bennett, my professor in the department of English at ACU, suggested I read it. At the time I rode a Yamaha Maxim 750.

Two years earlier I rode it into Abilene after catching a ride on a Make-Way-Move-All moving truck from Tawas, Michigan to Hico, Texas. There was just enough space in the back for the bike and Denny and I made the haul. After unloading in Hico I rode the final two-hour leg into Abilene, arriving in the sunset.

Later I bought an ’84 Chevy in Coleman. I rode my Yamaha down highway 84 to the seller’s house and transported it back to Abilene in the bed. The man who sold it to me said “You look like someone who’s been around.” Towns like Coleman, Buffalo Gap, Cisco and Abilene made up my Texas experience, before heading down to Austin and then on to the ROK.

The novel centers on the difference between a classical and romantic understanding, describing it with the illustration:

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world. Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts. The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity.…Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.

The book delves into the idea of Quality and how to define it. The narrator’s second-self, Phaedrus, sees Quality as the “point of common understanding” between classic and romantic. In the context of teaching rhetoric—undergraduate composition courses—he recognizes its existence but struggles to define it; however, “At the moment of pure quality, subject and object are identical.” This is when the artificially dualistic subject-object way of approaching the world breaks down into zen.