Robert Pirsig: Still Zen after all these years

Robert Pirsig: Still Zen after all these years
Author’s 500-page novel Lila about to be reissued
He defined an era with Motorcycle memoir in 1974
Aug. 12, 2006

Toronto Star

Robert Pirsig has a bone to pick with philosophers. As his era-defining memoir Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance levitated up the bestseller lists in 1974, all he heard from them was grumbling.

This story of a father-son motorcycle trip across America was just a skeleton of a philosophy, they said. What exactly was this “metaphysics of quality” he kept talking about? And who was he to tell them about it?

Seventeen years later Pirsig gave his answer and it came in the form of a 500-page novel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Now, at last, the thinkers of the world had something to tinker with. Their response? “Silence. They have just given me zero support and great hostility,” Pirsig says on the eve of the novel’s reissue in Britain.

“It’s just they don’t say anything.” Now, Pirsig believes that he has one last shot at explaining his philosophy to the public, and if it means coming out of seclusion, so be it.

Sitting in a hotel suite overlooking the Charles River in Boston, a meditation mat at his feet, his wife Wendy at his side, New England’s second-most reclusive novelist does not appear to have sweated much over his celebrity.

At the age of 77, Pirsig is a white-haired, bandy-legged old coot. Years at sea and on the road have given his face a sun-blasted quality. His voice is strong and clear, but when he takes out a pen and paper to demonstrate a concept, his hands shake.

“As I see these two books,” Pirsig says, drawing an oval on a notepad, “there is a Zen circle. You start here with Zen,” he says, marking an X, “and then you go here to enlightenment, that’s what’s called 180 Zen.

“Then you go back to where you started from — that’s 360 Zen — and the world is exactly as it was when you left it.” Pirsig sits back and lets that sink in, then adds: “Well, I felt that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the journey out, and Lila was this trip back.”

This might explain why Lila was not as universally adored as its predecessor. Zen was a serious feelgood book, a modern day “Thoreau,” written by a man who had been through the wringer, but emerged having identified a better way to live.

It was also as picturesque a tour of western America as one could find between two covers. Lila is an almost noir-like novel about a writer who falls in love with a former prostitute. As they float down a brooding river toward New York City, the writer — whose name is Phaedrus, the name Pirsig gave his insane alter ego in Zen — muses on her nature and on the metaphysics of quality (MOQ).

The novel is structured like a river with many locks — each stage a new level of Pirsig’s philosophy. The mental work it takes to measure these ideas explains why Lila has sold 600,000 copies, hardly a failure, but nowhere near the 4 to 6 million of Zen.

There are two types of Quality, as Pirsig sees it, Dynamic and Static.

“Without dynamic quality an organism cannot grow,” he explained in an essay. “But without static quality an organism cannot last.”

While it became a cultural cliché to say that we have moved beyond good and evil, Pirsig believes just the opposite — and he believes that the MOQ can be a useful tool in bringing order to a chaotic world.

“You know the structure of the MOQ,” he says, bringing out the pad again. “Static quality can be divided into intellectual, social, biological and inorganic realms. Any attempt by a lower order to overcome a higher order represents evil. So those forces which prohibit intellectual freedom are evil according to the MOQ.”

Pirsig’s insistence on the existence of evil has a painful personal note. In November 1979, his son Chris was stabbed to death in a robbery outside the San Francisco Zen Center. He was two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday. Pirsig was living on a houseboat in England at the time. He came home for the funeral, and wrote a moving epilogue about his son — the child at the heart of Zen — and it has been printed in every edition since.

This loss can be felt in Lila and might explain why it took Pirsig almost two decades to write it. “One reviewer said that the shadow of Pirsig’s son’s death seems to hang over this entire book,” Pirsig says, looking bewildered. “I had no idea that was true at the time, but now I see in retrospect. I was very gloomy.”

Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minn., Pirsig was a gifted child, whose IQ was measured at 170 when he was 9.

His father was a law professor who studied in England, so Pirsig learned to read and write in England. He returned to Minnesota and entered grade school so young that he was picked on. He entered university at the age of 15, flunked out, then served in the Korean War, coming home with an interest in philosophy. He eventually finished his degree and went on to get a graduate degree in oriental philosophy from Benares Hindu University in India. And here’s where the drifting begins. Pirsig returned to the U.S. in the 1950s and began to study journalism.

To make a living he began technical writing and doing some editing at a university newspaper where he met his first wife. For 20 years they would move around, Pirsig doing odd jobs, raising their two kids.

Without knowing it, he had begun a kind of internal philosophical quest, but the heat of his intellectual searching pushed him over the edge.

In 1960, he began the first of a series of hospital treatments for mental illness. Pirsig’s father obtained a court order to commit him to a hospital where he received electro-convulsive shock therapy. It seemed to work, but Pirsig maintains that he was not insane. “I never thought I was crazy.”

Pirsig took to writing as a life raft. In 1965 he bought a motorcycle, and in 1967 began what he thought would just be a few essays on motorcycle maintenance but the book grew into a fully fledged project.

In 1968 he wrote to 122 publishers offering sample chapters. Only one wrote back. This was enough encouragement for him. He rented a room at a flophouse and would go there from midnight until 6 a.m. to write, then he would go to work.

“When I talk about compulsion in that book,” Pirsig says, “that’s what I mean. I was compelled to write that book.”

Pirsig admits that this regimen had as much to do with his ambitions as with “problems at home,” as he calls them. When the book finally became a bestseller, Pirsig felt he needed to get away. He and his wife bought a yacht and planned to travel the world. Instead they divorced.

Pirsig’s response was to keep moving, and it was in this fashion that he met his second wife, Wendy Kimball, and they started a life of travel together.

That same year Pirsig’s son was murdered. He has moved forward. He and Wendy had a daughter, Nell, in 1980.

The success of Zen has afforded Pirsig and his wife “a very nice life,” he admits, and he doesn’t want to appear ungrateful for this gift. But he says that it is not for his sake that he wants Lila to be read. “I think this philosophy could address a lot of the problems we have in the world today,” he says, leaning forward. “Just so long as people know about it.”

Comments (4)

Robert ChristopherNovember 29th, 2006 at 5:08 am

Zen and the Pen by Robert Christopher (Bernard Walker author)has used ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitainance’ as his anchor for his would-be-reader scanning the back cover as a lead to what the book portents. I quote;

Zen and the Pen -Zen and the art of writing/ Write your book in 90 days – Living the writers life – writing between the Equinox and the Solstice.

Using the natural energy of Zen Mind, the writer’s path is made smooth and easy to follow. Zen and the Pen being written as a happy diversion – leading the reader slightlt astray – relating stories of the Zen life, taken from ongoing diaries, essays, and poetry.

Like’Zen and the art of motorcycle maintainance’ (R.M. Pirsic. Corgi Books) this book takes the reader on a unique journey of self-discovery. Designed for the development of mind, boy and spirit, this little book may help you rediscover just who you are and where you are going.

Tap into Google /book title and name – follow the leads to Maitreya’s beautiful Japanese Garden where the books are centred and sold.

Bill WellsDecember 4th, 2007 at 8:16 am

Pirsig is slightly in error. All moments contain both a static with dynamic, both of which are requisite for growth and development. Our orientation in the west tends to divorce the two. In reality as well as an emergent science, an integration and awareness for their presence in a moment of time are necessary. Just strange how the journey takes a lifetime to realize at different scales of existence, we become aware of nature’s pulsar within all life.

The Daily EudemonOctober 7th, 2008 at 1:14 pm

[...] Merton (Mystics and Zen Masters; Zen and the Birds of Appetite), Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums), Robert Persig (Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and D. T. Suzuki (Essays in Zen Buddhism). And, of [...]

DavidDecember 13th, 2008 at 12:51 am


I’m guessing you havent read Pirsig, but what I find really interesting is that in your correction of his stance on dynamic-static quality, what you state is very close to Pirsig’s actual position. The way it was presented in the article makes it seem as if Dynamic – Static quality are divorced, however the MoQ basically describes quality as unified at the moment of experience, but as being historically treated dichotomously, and thus useful to describe as a cultural artifact. You really should read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it souns like something you might find very interesting and close to your views.

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