The Quality of Madness in
Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance: A
The Quality of Madness in
Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: A
[A mostly empty seashore. A is sitting alone on the
sand, reading a book. Several sea-birds sing. B walks over to A, recognizing
A: [Looking up from his book] Oh, hello.
B: May I? [Gesturing at a vacant piece of sand next to
A: [Closing the book] Sure.
B: [Sitting] So what are you up to? And what book is
A: Oh, I need to write a paper about this [shows B the
book's cover; it is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert
M. Pirsig] and it's driving me crazy, so I'm taking it with me
B: It's a good book... though I have to admit I had a
hard time finishing it. I did, eventually, but it was ages ago.
A: [Laughs] Yes, it seems like you're
not alone. Do you know how much hype it got almost
immediately when it was published? Funny, too,
compared with how hard the author worked to get it printed.
B: How do you mean?
A: He sent it to 121 publishing houses before it was
B: Yikes! That sure is a lot. But I guess they felt it
was hard to deal with, too, just like I did.
A: [Distracted] yessss... but there must have been
something else going on. [Returning] Probably people just lost touch with the
book around page 100.
B: What happens then?
A: He starts talking about Kant. [They both
B: So, what are you writing about?
A: Well, the topic is madness, or rather, the
aesthetics of madness in the book.
B: Aesthetics of madness?
A: I take that to mean the particular ways madness is
dramatized, developed, and characterized in the work. Since madness is such a
shifty little fellow, and since after all we're dealing with art and not with
dictionaries, a simple ``static'' definition will not do.
B: ``Static''? ``Developed''? You make it sound like
madness is some sort of character.
A: [Smiles] Sort of. I don't think Robert Pirsig tried
to do that--not quite--in his book, but even if he did, he would not be the
first. Erasmus, the early humanist, already wrote his Praise of Folly in
1509 in which Folly speaks in praise of herself, at some length.
B: Folly isn't madness.
A: She is not, but in her praise, she also commends
madness (120-22; chs. 38, 39). It's nice to see how a negative trait is given
such a stage with such freedom to do as it pleases.
B: I don't recall Pirsig (it's an autobiography, by
the way, why do you keep calling him ``the author''?) running about chasing
people with a chainsaw.
A: No, his madness wasn't violent, at least not in that
sense. Although he scared some people by acting weirdly and caused some grief
to his family, most of the freedom associated with this madness was
intellectual, and most of the violence was from the outside, directed against
his own madness.
B: The electro-shock treatments?
A: [Reaching for the book] Yes, here:
He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced
by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes
of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5
to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions,
in a process known technologically as ``Annihilation ECS.'' A whole
personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically
faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never
met him. Never will (77; ch. 7).
B: [Shudders] That's terrible. I'm glad that kind of
``treatment'' is against the law in the US today.
A: Yes, Pirsig mentions his own satisfaction with this
in the Afterword (367). But to answer your question about ``Pirsig'' and
``the author,'' I tend to use the latter because despite what you think,
the book is not exactly an autobiography. The passage we've just read
can show why not. There are two characters in the book that could be
called Pirsig. The first is the ``I'' of the paragraph, who narrates
most of the book and who I like to call ``the narrator.'' The second is
``he,'' often called Phaedrus by the narrator, who is his old self
(Clarified in Richard Rodino, ``Irony and Earnestness'').
B: And who was destroyed by the shock treatment.
A: Not quite; the narrator is wrong when he says he'll
never meet Phaedrus, since the latter reappears with increasing frequency and
scariness as the book progresses.
B: Yes, I remember now. At first it was a mystery who
this Phaedrus guy was, then it got spooky like a ghost story, and finally
in the end scene when Phaedrus returns I was sure he was about to do
something terrible like careen the motorcycle off the cliff (ch. 31).
A: But things end differently, happily. The motorcycle
is saved, and so are Chris--the son--and his father. So the passage
describing the treatment was poignant, but ironic: the ``technologically
faultless act'' is just as faulty technologically as it is morally. But to
get back to the end scene, it isn't completely tranquil. Someone is
B: Who? I thought it was a happy end!
A: The narrator. If you read the last scene carefully,
you see he's lost the battle with Phaedrus, and the Pirsig who's riding
the bike now is no longer the one who's been writing the book until now
B: So the narrator was actually more fictional than
A: In a way, he was: biographically, Phaedrus was
the old person, the one who went mad and was removed temporarily by
the treatments, the narrator being the replacement. The book ends with
the old Phaedrus returning, displacing the narrator. If you like this
kind of imagery, he has successfully usurped the throne that was once
already his. At last, Chris and his father are reconciled, and you get
your happy end.
B: You sound suspicious.
A: I am suspicious. If all this had really happened,
who'd written the book? It can't be the narrator, because he's not there any
more by the time it's all put to paper. But it can't be Phaedrus either, since
he would never go to all the trouble of this trickery.
B: [Wistfully] This multitude of personae reminds me
of a poem by e e cummings:
so many selves(so many friends and gods
each greedier than every)is a man
(so easily one in another hides;
yet man can,being all,escape from none)
so huge a tumult is the simplest wish:
so pitiless a massacre the hope
most innocent(so deep's the mind of flesh
and so awake what waking calls asleep)
so never is most lonely man alone
(his briefest breathing lives some planet's year,
his longest life's a heartbeat of some sun;
his unmotion roams the youngest star)
--how should a fool that calls him ``I'' presume
to comprehend not numerable whom? (609)
A: That's quite a sonnet. Thank you. (Poetry is a good
reason to be grateful.)
[They sit in silence for a moment and look at the
B: The book is more devious than a
straightforward autobiography. So Pirsig is the masterminding author who's
putting us up with all this. What for?
A: Well, it's neither an autobiography,
nor a novel, but something of both; I think it's
also neither strictly literature nor philosophy, but something of both;
and in a way, it tries to be more than a book, to touch life. That's
what I want my paper to be about.
B: You were always one for big talk. What on Earth do
A: Well, we already almost agree on the autobiography
bit, so let's start with that. The poem you brought illustrates how violent
categorization of self can be (even ``the hope most innocent'' is a ``pitiless''
``massacre,'' because it kills the other ``many selves'' [li. 5, 6, 2]). It's bad
enough when someone calls himself ``I'' (li. 13)--I think that's what the narrator
in the book had been doing all along, which is what caused him so much torment,
as exemplified primarily by his estrangement with his son--and it's pretty
blatant when it's someone else doing it for you.
B: You mean madness again.
A: Right. And specifically, what I have in mind is the
work of the French thinker Michel Foucault, who saw madness as a construct of
society, one that didn't exist timelessly, but rather formed almost
spontaneously in history.
B: But surely, people have been mad before the word
A: This is what Foucault calls into question. He
doesn't doubt that if we look today at some time in the distant past, we would
see mad people. His point is, however, that this sight of ours is deceptive,
that it is only by a long series of historical contingencies that we come to
see madness as madness. This took some forms which all did violence to
the new objects of classification (that is, to the mad people): it separated,
silenced, and confined (Madness and Civilization 38; ch. 2); it defined
(65; ch. 3); and in the case of Doctors specializing in psychology, it cured
(197, ch. 6).
B: You use that last word as if it were totally
A: I can quote from David Cooper's Introduction to
Foucault's treatise: ``Curing we understand here as a sort of anti-healing--a
process not dissimilar to the curing of bacon, and totally opposed to healing
in the sense of the making whole of persons'' (ix).
B: Rather like what was done to Phaedrus! I wonder,
has either one read the other?
A: Foucault's work on madness was originally published
in 1961 in France. It was only translated, and brought to light in Britain, in
1969, four years before ZMM was written and five years before being
accepted for publishing. So Pirsig (the author) might have read Foucault.
Personally, though, I doubt it, since he makes no reference to it in the
Afterword even though he does talk about the Hippies and the cultural crises of
the time (376-77). While in no way being academic in his writing, he does
usually acknowledge his sources.
B: There are lots of quotes in the book.
A: Yes, because he often explicitly engages with other
people's ideas. I say it's not academic, though, because the book isn't
a long essay. This is again refusal to be categorized. I'm not talking
about sloppiness of style (he's never sloppy), or glitches (he does make
those, calling his protagonist Phaedrus, thinking it means ``wolf'' in
Greek when in fact it does not; and at one point making an attribution
to Coleridge for something Göthe said [331; ch. 29]). Often he
does take a learned tone about a subject, reporting about it in
a neat paragraph or two of expository prose. But, and this is important,
he usually incorporates it into the narrative of the book.
B: Or perhaps the subject incorporates the
A: What do you mean?
B: Well, maybe the ideas he talks about need to be
talked about in a certain literary manner. There's one striking image from the
first chapter of the book. Sylvia, who is riding on the other motorcycle with
her husband John, looks at the faces of the people driving cars to work, and it
fills her with gloom.
``The first one looked so sad. And then the next one
looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one,
they were all the same.''
``They were just commuting to work.''
She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural
about it. ``Well, you know, work,'' I repeat. ``Monday morning. Half
asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?''
``It's just that they looked so lost,'' she
says. ``Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.'' Then she
puts both feet down and leaves them there.
I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn't
go anywhere. You work to live and that's what they are doing. ``I was
watching swamps,'' I say (7).
The image of the funeral becomes
pretty important later on, and maybe it's important to see it--actually
visualize it as an image--rather than deal with an abstracted notion of
general unhappiness or something like that (230, 294; chs. 21, 26).
A: You know what I missed? I agree with you completely
about the importance of the image here, but I was so busy doing these
abstractions myself that I forgot that it is Sylvia, not the narrator,
who first sees the funeral look. He was busy looking at swamps!
B: It makes sense, from the book's point of view. You
said it yourself, the narrator is a character, implying he's not a
philosophical position and that he can, and does, undergo change.
A: Yes! And this also agrees with what I've been
musing about here before you came by.
B: And what's that?
A: That the ``philosophic vision'' of ZMM cannot
be separated from the literature that's in it.
B: And, probably, the other way around (it would not
work as a book if we took the philosophy out). Another distinction refused; but
surely if you're writing a paper about it you have some examples?
A: Oh, yes. The book talks about skill a lot, as you
know. One of the crafts the narrator returns to again and again is welding
B: It was funny how the narrator classified welders
into those that liked to do the same job over and over again and those who
always looked for a new way of doing things (285-86; ch. 26). I'm not surprised
he put himself in the ``original-liking'' group.
A: Actually, I don't think he took responsibility for
the classification itself. He says that he has only heard there are
those two classes. But you're right, one the classification is in place, he
felt he had to put himself in one class.
B: You may be right, but in any case, the fact that he
could weld did come in handy for him, not only in tuning motorcycles.
A: How so?
B: Socially. He's at the DeWeeses', and the conversation
with one of the guests, the sculptor, is ``sticky'' because he is
suspicious of the narrator ``evidently because I'm not an artist'' (144;
ch. 14). But when they discover they both do welding, the ice breaks:
the sculptor says he likes welding for ``some of the same reasons''
the narrator does.
A: [Looking the passage up] Here it is:
After you pick up skill, welding gives a tremendous
feeling of power and control over the metal. You can do anything. [The
sculptor] brings out some photographs of things he has welded and these
show beautiful birds and animals with flowing metal surface textures
that are not like anything else.
B: He definitely is an artist; an original. The
``things'' are ``beautiful'' and ``not like anything else.'' I still think the
narrator is very friendly of this notion: he rather glorifies welders who can
do ``anything'' with metal.
A: There is that wonderful passage where he says,
That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts
worked out in steel. [...] [A] person who does machining or foundry work
or forge work or welding sees ``steel'' as having no shape at all. Steel
can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but
the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you
arrive at, what you give to the steel. [...] These shapes are all out
of someone's mind. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the
steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from
the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential
for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's ``potential''? That's
also in someone's mind! -- Ghosts (88; ch. 8).
B: So you see, he is championing originality!
This is a very Romantic passage.
A: I suppose that all depends on what you call
romantic. For the author of this book, there is a very profound, but limited,
sense of what it means, the ``primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative,
intuitive'' mode of understanding (61; ch. 6). He puts it at odds with the
notion of the classical, which for him means ``by contrast'' something that
``proceeds by reason and by laws.''
B: This is perhaps the central thesis of the book, I
recall: that the two have been splitting and the growing gap between them is
bringing about a terrible world (60-62). I know that; but I still think the
enthusiasm about welding described above is Romantic. Look how gleefully he
creates! In a minute he'll be talking about inspiration and Genius.
A: I disagree on two counts. First, because the author
looks at skill, as such, as a classical trait and not a romantic one. In the
example of welding, it is the understanding of the underlying form of steel--and
of the craft of welding--that allows one to give shape to steel. John, the
stereotypical romantic, ``looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various
shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the
whole thing'' (86; ch. 6). In contrast, the narrator ``look[s] at the shapes of
the steel'' and sees ``ideas. He thinks I'm working on parts. I'm working on
concepts.'' The second reason I disagree with you is that the author never used
genius in his conception of Romanticism in ZMM. He talks of genius only
twice in the entire book, and when he does that, he's being rather skeptical of
the notion. When he describes Phaedrus' high IQ, he doesn't mention ``genius'' as
such, calling the Stanford-Binet test ``essentially a record of skill at
analytic manipulation,'' which under his categorization is a classical trait,
not at all a romantic one (73-74; ch. 7). The only other time he mentions
genius (this time explicitly) is when he discusses the work of the great
thinker Jules Henri Poincaré. Specifically, he says that when people tried to
understand how he had achieved his breakthroughs, they ascribed it to the
``mysterious workings of genius, but Poincaré was not content with such a
shallow explanation'' (240; ch. 22). We are given to understand the author is
not content with what he deems ``a shallow explanation,'' either.
B: All right, I'll concede that the narrator's joy in
welding is not romantic.
A: [Grinning] Except that it is.
B: Now you've got me confused!
A: It is not exclusively romantic. What I mean to say
is that welding is a symbol for the kind of unity the author is looking for in
the book. And a good one, too, because what he wants to do is to weld together
the romantic and the classical modes of understanding, to reconcile them both.
This can bring what he calls Quality--or rather, this is a result of
Quality, as long as it isn't squelched (199-200; ch. 18).
B: How can you squelch Quality? Isn't it just there if
you're talented? Wasn't that what Phaedrus had been telling his Composition
students, that they already have it and that they knew what it was (183-86; ch.
A: Well, yes, but you recall the resistance that
elicited from his students! Here the narrator and Phaedrus differ in their
opinions. For the narrator, adhering to one side of the classic-romantic
dichotomy was enough of a sure way of abolishing Quality; Phaedrus didn't make
``a big thing'' out of it, but rather saw any attempt at defining Quality
a way of losing it (200; ch. 18).
B: Very much like what Foucault says of madness!
B: So which one was right?
A: The narrator, by his own account, does not intend
to peruse Quality itself because he fears that is precisely what led Phaedrus
to insanity (200).
B: [Uneasy] That doesn't answer my question.
A: True, but it reveals something of the narrator's
motives: he wishes to hold the discussion in an objective manner, not to be
``caught up in [Phaedrus'] own world of Quality metaphysics he couldn't see
outside [of] anymore'' (311; ch. 28). In a way, that's certainly a useful thing
to do, and the narrator remains rather perceptive, in his own way.
A: I think so. For example--another one from
welding--when he and Chris come to Grants Pass with a torn chain guard, and look
for a place to repair it in, they come to the ``[c]leanest welding place'' he had
ever seen (319; ch. 29). The old proprietor fixes the thin metal guard
masterfully, in a manner that surprises the narrator (``He picks up a steel
filler rod and I wonder if he's actually going to try to weld that thin metal.
Sheet metal I don't weld. I braze it with a brass rod. When I try to weld it I
punch holes in it. [...] He sparks the torch, and sets a tiny little blue flame
and then, it's hard to describe, actually dances the torch and the rod in
separate little rhythms over the thin sheet metal, the whole spot a uniform
luminous orange-yellow, dropping the torch and filler rod down at the exact
right moment and then removing them. No holes. You can hardly see the weld.
`That's beautiful,' I say'' ). But although there is master craftsmanship
at work here, there is no Quality. The old welder is a classicist with nothing
romantic in him: he is cold, un-talkative, uninterested in human interaction.
The narrator notices this, and at the same town, he also notices the reverse:
the ``lonely'' waitress in the restaurant is all romantic with nothing classical
about her (320-22). No Quality there, either.
B: Now it's my turn to disagree. It's not the narrator
who's being perceptive here, it's you. Or rather, it's the reader looking over
the shoulders of the author (and not the narrator) who has a chance to
perceive this. The narrator sure feels the loneliness, but he doesn't ascribe
it like you did to the gap between romantic and classical understanding.
Rather, he goes off speculating about abstract notions like ``psychic distances
between people'' (321-22).
A: And the classic/romantic split isn't abstract?
B: Of course it is, but since once again the narrator
is caught theorizing instead of looking, he can't apply his own theories even
when they work. Pirsig the author can see that, but the narrator is blind to
it. It's the same kind of blindness that caused him to look at swamps instead
of people in the beginning of the story, and the same blindness that caused him
not to see Chris as he should have throughout the book.
B: It's only in the last scene that Pirsig can really
interact, can see (372; ch. 32). And so can Chris, at last: as they ride
without their helmets on, they ``can talk in a conversational voice'' (previously
they had been hollering to each other); Chris stands up on the foot pegs of the
motorcycle and can finally see the view (``I never realized it. All this time
he's been staring into my back''; also noted by Beverly Gross, 211).
A: I suppose this is a valid interpretation, except I
wouldn't use the name ``Pirsig.''
B: I believe that here it is appropriate, considering
that the personalities have been welded at last, re-formed if you will. The
narrator is not killed, he is fused with the old Phaedrus, and now what remains
is the writing author, wiser than them both. He has become transformed through
writing. You get your irregular biography, you get your philosophical
A: And if, like you, I call the character in the last
scene Pirsig, I get literature and life too.
B: But you're not satisfied with that, are you?
A: It fits, but it isn't enough. And anyway, we've
been moving away from madness.
B: We're in good company then.
A: [Sighs] The narrator. Yes. He's been dealing with
tough stuff--metaphysics, what he called ``the high country of the mind,'' in
likeness to the hard terrain above the timberline in which Phaedrus had used to
do his backpacking and thinking (111; ch. 11). But although he's been tackling
with it, using it perhaps to see other valleys and the great beyond, the
narrator had constantly been shying away from it. ``[M]etaphysics is good if it
improves everyday life; otherwise forget it,'' he says (221; ch. 20), and indeed
tries hard, desperately hard, to do so. Soon, in the interplay of intellectual
and physical motorcycle journeys that is so typical to the book, they leave the
mountains and it is ``good-bye to the high country, which we've been more or
less in since Miles City'' (250; ch. 24).
B: Ha! ``More or less in,'' not ``in more or less since''!
A: The narrator has only been flirting with
metaphysics; he never was prepared to go all the way with it--just hide behind
it when it was convenient.
B: Although sometimes his preoccupation did come at
considerable cost to those near him, Chris most notably. But the narrator
wasn't a fool. Why these evasions?
A: I think it has to do with avoiding Phaedrus,
B: But does being committed to metaphysics
necessarily and inevitably mean to go mad? Couldn't we learn the lesson, take
the good parts, and leave the bad? Phaedrus, the narrator says, was not
interested in ``fusion,'' he was interested in ``his ghost,'' in ``the wider
meanings of Quality'' (200; ch. 18). It was this stubborn insistence that led
him off from sanity. The narrator is much better than Phaedrus in this respect.
Phaedrus ``just passed through this territory and opened it up. I intend to stay
and cultivate it and see if I can get something to grow.''
A: You're sure onto one of the central tensions of the
book. It could be interesting to track the notion of growth in ZMM, but
I'm not going to focus on that in my paper. There is, however, one important
passage I should give in reply to you. This is from the narrator's discourse on
the way up the mountain:
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort
as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should
determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become
winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between
restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking
ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique
event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This
rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible,
even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To
live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the
mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here's where things
grow (183; ch. 17).
The irony here is twofold.
Once again, the narrator is preaching perceptiveness he blatantly does not
always practice (if being perceptive can be called a practice). ``But'' also, as
the narrator continues, ``of course, without the top you can't have any sides.
It's the top that defines the sides'' (183; original emphasis).
B: I agree the prevalent gap in the narrator's
perceptivity is ironic. But where's the irony in how the narrator goes on?
A: The two are intimately linked. The book seems to be
suggesting that these failures of perception have to do with not spending
enough time on mountaintops. Time isn't, perhaps, the right term here; we're
talking about quality (in the traditional sense), and not quantity. There is,
however, a dark side to the mountaintops.
B: Again, you seem to be suggesting that madness is
somehow essential, or inevitable, for people delving into metaphysics.
A: Not any metaphysics, of course; that claim would be
too strong. But in this particular Metaphysics of Quality, yes: to reach
Quality, one must give up one's sanity. Presupposing the validity of the
``mythos-over-logos argument,'' which ``states that our rationality is shaped'' by
``early historic and prehistoric myths that preceded it'' (315-16; ch. 28), this
metaphysics places Quality ``outside the mythos,'' crowns it the ``generator
of the mythos'' (317; original emphasis). This view posits a relativistic
rationality (logos) subordinated to a historically accidental mythos;
but really they are both in turn subordinated to a monistic Quality.
B: Uh, oh. Of course the mythos-over-logos argument is
presupposed; like any relativistic gabble it can hardly be proved! Pirsig, or
Phaedrus, or whoever it is at this stage--it's getting hard to keep track--is in
A: I owe you a response to that as well, but I haven't
yet told you why all this yields madness. [B nods.] The narrator, in this
passage late in the book, realizes an important fact about this philosophical
view. He understands that Phaedrus, by wanting to somehow grasp Quality, had to
go where it is--outside the mythos. If Western rationality is our mythos, to go
B: Is to go mad!
A: Indeed. Usually, everybody just grows into their
mythos and tacitly accepts it. But ``[t]here is only one kind of person,
Phaedrus said, who accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the
definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos, Phaedrus said, is
`insane.' To go outside the mythos is to become insane'' (316).
B: I'm stricken by the equivocality of this.
A: The equivocality!? I thought it is pretty
B: It is stark; but note it is not just
whoever rejects ``the mythos in which he lives'' that is
insane; it is the person who ``accepts or rejects'' it
(my emphasis). In other words, insanity is not refusal to work
with the mythos; it is treating the propositions that make it up
as contingent ones. The very
inquiry is dangerous.
A: [Thumbing through the book] It was dangerous for
the narrator as well: just a few pages back he said he wanted to ``complete''
Phaedrus' story, to close him up and be done with him, in ``what time remains''
(301). The irony in this sense of urgency is that it is the narrator, not
Phaedrus, who is now in peril; he is the one who is crumbling.
B: [Taking the book] Phaedrus knew this too, the
narrator discovers. ``My God, that only came to me now. I never knew that
before. He knew! He must have known what was about to happen. It's
starting to open up'' (316).
B: You know, if this theory is true, that is, if
problematizing the mythos means insanity, it is no wonder that the narrator had
been going (to insanity, or to Quality, take your pick, for they are
equivalent). But it also means that the readers of the book are
undergoing the same change!
A: [Chuckles] Now we can explain why so many people
found ZMM hard to read. The book was literally asking them to go mad.
[They glance at each other silently, then stare at the sea-birds.]
The preceding dialogue (or ``Anti-text,'' to use Donald
Knuth's phrase) is an attempt to show how one specific work about life can come
close to achieving a life of its own, to reach out and touch the readers who
come across it. Great literature does this--although it is not my intent to
claim that the degree to which it does is the sole measure of its success--by
putting its readers in a place where they must see something in order to
understand the work. In the case of ZMM, the reader is not offered
verbose descriptions of what it is like to go mad, but is rather invited to go
mad for himself. The particular path to madness in this book is philosophical,
and I would like to make a few remarks about this strategy.
Given the choice between philosophical discourse and
a general discussion that is already an enactment--that is already
situated, so to speak, within his views--Pirsig clearly prefers
the latter. But my distinction is perhaps facetious: if Pirsig's views
are indeed correct then he has no choice in the matter, and
philosophical discourse (the term ``dialectic'' is used throughout
ZMM) is also necessarily already an enactment of some view,
and an unhealthy one at that.This is the relativism that the book
commits to. But as I state above, this relativism is itself not total,
but rather subordinate to a monism: what Pirsig calls Quality. Madness,
then, is the state of being open to Quality, and is thus a complete
suspension of self. I therefore agree with Beverly Gross' premise
that ZMM is ``about a man fighting for his insanity,'' but
am not sure about her conclusion that the end of the book allows him
``the highest, happiest, most buoyant sanity of his life--Zen sanity''
(201, 213). Or rather, I agree with the conclusion so long as its
referent is ``him,'' the healed narrator-Phaedrus. After all, in the
next-to-last scene, Phaedrus denies he was ``really insane'' (369-70;
ch. 31). This ``reconciliatory'' reading, as it could be called, is
common among critics, and is even
supported by a letter Pirsig sent to Robert Redford, when negotiations
were being held for a film rendition of the book:
What really happened? [...] I think the effect
of ending the book on this question rather than an answer to it is
correct. Questions can be stories too. Even though the audience is
not consciously aware of another possible story, something in their
subliminal minds responds to it, and that is why the story lingers with
them so. Subliminally they know Phaedrus was getting better, not
worse. They know he was acting rationally, not irrationally. But
they can find no words to justify this and that is what haunts them. It
gives a kind of resonance to the book, a sense of sounds from out of
range of hearing that nevertheless affect the main sounds. [...]
[T]here is an alternative, Zen explanation: What
occurred in Chicago was not insanity but enlightenment as it has been
understood for thousands of years in China, India[,] and Japan. The book
never says this because to do so would be to sink it completely and would
in fact be bad Zen to bring up (qtd. in Guidebook 231-32).
ZMM lives on the tension between the possibility
of a sanity beyond insanity--the reconciliatory reading--and the mystic
enlightenment that is outside anything said, any mythos--the monistic
reading. But in the face of a monism, no objects exist, strictly
speaking, independently. Nothing (literally: no thing) is autonomous
in a monism. Once the subject-object dichotomy is denied, there is no
referent to Gross' ``him.'' We are
faced with a mirror image of cummings' predicament: how can the ``not
numerable'' plurality of selves be explained from within the One?
This is an open question, and its exploration probably demands further
study that is also inclusive of Pirsig's second book, Lila.
When the book was published in 1974, The New York Times Book Review
called it ``[p]rofoundly important'' (76); W. T. Lhamon, Jr. predicted
it will ``become an American classic'' (249); George Steiner saw in its
intricacies a book that ``lodges in the mind,'' gifted with ``narrative
tact [and] perfect economy of prose'' that ``defy criticism'' (250,
Following Richard H. Rodino, I've been therefore calling it simply a
``book'' (``Irony and Earnestness,'' 293).
A ``welder's mask'' is the first mention of the theme, in reference to
something that can protect the narrator from the natural glare of the
surroundings (68; ch. 7). Less ironic use of welding is made in the
discussion of gumption, when the narrator suggests machining one's own
parts for motorcycle maintenance; befittingly, this act can be ``gumption
building, not gumption destroying. To run a cycle with parts in it
you've made yourself gives you a special feeling you can't possibly get
from strictly store-bought parts'' (279; ch. 26). Together with what is
cited in the present main text, these form all the explicit references
to welding in the book.
For a study of the relationships between the various paths through
ZMM, see Rodino, ``The Matrix of Journeys.'' Rodino also wrote
about ``Irony and Earnestness'' in the book; the curious remark over
metaphysics and everyday life he calls ``profoundly and unwittedly ironic
in context'' (293).
I confess only the second half of the passage was directly relevant to
what I'm trying to show, but I simply hadn't the heart to snip something
so beautiful. And anyway, it shows Pirsig's debt to Kant (``means to
an end''). The influence on Pirsig of people he resisted so strongly is
immense; and I think it's only fair to point out his small tributes to
them when they crop up so unexpectedly.
Pirsig also dramatizes this notion of dangerous inquiry in the
confrontation between Phaedrus and the Chairman of the Committee on
Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods. There, the narrator points out
that ``Once it's stated that `the dialectic comes before anything else,'
this statement itself becomes a dialectical entity, subject to dialectical
question'' (353; ch. 30). The destructive force of this observation is
left largely implicit.
Thus Scott Consigny, Michael W. Raymond, and John G. Cawelti all emphasize
the ``whole'' or ``wholeness'' that is the aim of the narrator/Phaedrus
(32; 25; 276). Given that the text itself claims that aretê--the
ancient Greek word for Quality--''implies a respect for the wholeness or
oneness of life,'' this view is certainly justified. But paradoxically,
wholeness is only part of the picture of Quality.
See Pirsig's mention of ``the larger pattern that holds us all together
and goes on and on'' in face of Chris' death and the birth of his
daughter Nell (Afterword, 378-80).
Cawelti, John G. ``Ringer to
Sheeny to Pirsig: The `Greening' of American Ideals
of Success.'' Journal of Popular Culture 2 (1979):
147-61. Rpt. [abridged] in Guidebook 271-81.
Consigny, Scott. ``Rhetoric and Madness:
Robert Pirsig's Inquiry into Values.'' Southern Speech
Communication Journal 43 (1977): 16-32.
Cooper, David. Introduction. Madness and
cummings, e[dward] e[stlin]. Complete Poems,
1904-1962. Revised ed. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1994.
DiSanto, Ronald L., and Thomas J. Steele. Guidebook
to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York:
William Morrow, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A
History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. 1961. Trans. Richard Howard.
London: Routledge, 1999.
Gross, Beverly. ```A Mind Divided Against
Itself': Madness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.''
Journal of Narrative Technique 14 (1984): 201-13.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. ``Rhetoric and the
Madness of Philosophy in Plato and Pirsig.'' Contemporary Literature
29.1 (1988): 64-81.
Lhamon, W. T., Jr. ``A Fine Fiction.'' The
New Republic 29 June 1974: 24-26. Rpt. in Guidebook 246-249.
Pirsig, Robert M. Afterword. ZMM. 1984.
-----. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
1974. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Raymond, Michael W. ``Generic Schizophrenia
in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'' CEA Critic
43.3 (1981): 18-25.
Rodino, Richard H. ``Irony and
Earnestness in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance.'' Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 22 (1980):
21-31. Rpt. in Guidebook 293-303.
-----. ``The Matrix of Journeys in Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'' Journal of Narrative Technique
11 (1981): 53-63. Rpt. in Guidebook 304-315.
Steiner, George. ``Uneasy Rider.'' New Yorker
15 April 1974. 147-50. Rpt. in Guidebook 250-54.
Adams, Robert M. ``Good Trip.'' New York
Review of Books 13 June 1974: 22-23. Rpt. in Guidebook
Allis, Una. ``Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance.'' Critical Quarterly 20 (1978). Rpt. in Guidebook
Basalla, George. ``Man and Machine.'' Science
187 (24 January 1975): 248-250. Rpt. in Guidebook 255-259.
Bump, Jerome. ``Creativity, Rationality, and
Metaphor in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance'' South Atlantic Quarterly 82.4 (1983): 370-80. Rpt. in Guidebook 316-328.
Rorty, Richard. ``Philosophy as a Kind of
Writing: An Essay on Derrida.'' Ch. 6 of Consequences of Pragmatism,
U of Minnesota P, 1982. 90-109.
Shearon, Forrest B. ``Visual Imagery and
Internal Awareness in Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance.'' KPA Bulletin (1983): 53-62. Rpt. in
Steele, Thomas J. ``Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance: The Identity of the Erlkönig.'' Ariel 17 (1979):
83-93. Rpt. and revised in Guidebook 282-92.