This is such a strange and dense book that it almost defies summary. Framed by a fictionalised account of an actual father-son motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California undertaken by the author and his son, Zen is also a work of metaphysics, and a treatise on how one might be able to be more content in an age of technological rationalism, which alienates many even as they rely on its benefits.
When I picked up Zen, I had very little idea of what the book was and why it had attracted such a strong following – I expected at most an uplifting account of a summer journey through the American West peppered with koans and platitudes, where father and son learn much about life and each other and emerge as better people at the end of the journey.
Instead, it’s a disquieting, quasi-autobiographical account, focusing relatively little on that road trip per se, but more on the narrator’s own past and a novel system of philosophy painstakingly developed by a mysterious alter-ego named Phaedrus, as a means of addressing what he saw was an otherwise unresolvable problem in rational inquiry and rational life.
It starts from the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance. Some people enjoy the process of engineering, of conceptualising things by their parts and figuring out how they all cohere together into a functional whole. Others find themselves appreciating the motorcycle as a whole as a thing that serves a purpose, and as an ideal of functional beauty. The distinction between the two is known as the classic-romantic split, and often the romantic finds himself alienated in a world in which technology and classic rationality – that Aristotelian taxonomisation of the natural world – as king.
Clearly, the narrator explains, rationality can’t explain everything that is experienced and perceived; rationality in and of itself does not contain the means to choose between an infinite set of possible hypotheses to explain any natural phenomenon. How does the classically-inclined person know what hypothesis to favor when making a rational deduction? How does a romantically-inclined person know what is beautiful without rationally scrutinising the aspects of something beautiful?
His answer, which is rooted in the kind of metaphysics that wouldn’t have seemed out of place to a Plotinus or a Taoist, is to posit something called Quality, which is a conceptual monad that defies definition but may be compared to the concept of arete, or virtue, or good, or unity, or even the Godhead, in various schools of metaphysical thought. Quality is what reality strives towards; it precedes perceptual experience, it is pre-intellectual, but only with an apprehension of Quality do we have a sense of what should be. We all know Quality when we see it – but not why. To a classical person, Quality guides the process of rational inquiry by positing the Good to which the inquiry aspires, while to the romantic person, Quality is the source of aesthetic and moral judgement. To the narrator (and by extension Pirsig), Quality is the only metaphysical explanation that provides a conceptual frame to reconcile rational and non-rational modes of thought into a harmonious whole that enriches human experience.
Pirsig briefly dwells on how Quality relates to everyday lived experience, and it can pretty much be boiled down to a metaphysically-supported version of “trust your instincts”. In many tasks we do, we sometimes get caught up in what Pirsig calls gumption traps, i.e. mental blocks fostered by the frustration felt at the lack of progress in a particular task due to internal or external factors. The way to escape the gumption trap is to allow yourself the mental space to apprehend the Quality in the thing you’re doing – which, if you do it right, should come as a pre-intellectual flash of insight.
It’s a weird way of thinking and not at all in tune with modern modes of thought, and comes from a line of logical inquiry that would perhaps be most recognisable to a Greek metaphysicist of old – non-dualistic monads, the unity of the Truth and the Good – the Good being Truth. It’s just that Quality is a modern metaphor, just as the act of repairing a motorcycle is, for life. I don’t personally buy the metaphysics, but certainly I can appreciate its moral or prescriptive content – just like any religion.
The book actually spends most of its time on its so-called Chautauquas – or philosophical stories, and little time on the actual journey itself – which is actually a strange and disturbing account of a man’s struggle with his inner demon alter ego, the person the narrator used to be, who came up with Quality. Essentially that entire plot is inherently a return to Quality as the two dualistic halves of the narrator’s self reconcile at the end of the book.
Zen is therefore, when all is said and done, an odd book. Because it’s a philosophy treatise disguised as roadtrip novel, written so densely that its metaphysics will escape readers unprepared for it, and an odd reflection of the true life of the narrator, but warped beyond reasonable facsimile of reality due to its extremes in personality disorder (and that the narrator’s life was just that weird). But it was worth reading, just for how surprisingly deep and well-constructed it was, even if the metaphysics probably made it less of an actual philosophical revolution that could have been expected, given its popularity amongs t the contemporary crowd.
I give this: 4/5 motorcycles