Why Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ Still Resonates Today
The author’s meditation on technology treads a whole new path in the modern, digital world
Reading Robert Pirsig's description of a road trip today, one feels bereft. In his 1974 autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes an unhurried pace over two-lane roads and through thunderstorms that take the narrator and his companions by surprise as they ride through the North Dakota plains. They register the miles in subtly varying marsh odors and in blackbirds spotted, rather than in coordinates ticked off. Most shocking, there is a child on the back of one of the motorcycles. When was the last time you saw that? The travelers’ exposure—to bodily hazard, to all the unknowns of the road—is arresting to present-day readers, especially if they don’t ride motorcycles. And this exposure is somehow existential in its significance: Pirsig conveys the experience of being fully in the world, without the mediation of devices that filter reality, smoothing its rough edges for our psychic comfort.
If such experiences feel less available to us now, Pirsig would not be surprised. Already, in 1974, he offered this story as a meditation on a particular way of moving through the world, one that felt marked for extinction. The book, which uses the narrator’s road trip with his son and two friends as a journey of inquiry into values, became a massive best seller, and in the decades since its publication has inspired millions to seek their own accommodation with modern life, governed by neither a reflexive aversion to technology, nor a naive faith in it. At the heart of the story is the motorcycle itself, a 1966 Honda Super Hawk. Hondas began to sell widely in America in the 1960s, inaugurating an abiding fascination with Japanese design among American motorists, and the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda, raised the idea of “quality” to a quasi-mystical status, coinciding with Pirsig’s own efforts in Zen to articulate a “metaphysics of quality.” Pirsig’s writing conveys his loyalty to this machine, a relationship of care extending over many years. I got to work on several Hondas of this vintage when I ran a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Compared to British bikes of the same era, the Hondas seemed more refined. (My writing career grew out of these experiences—an effort to articulate the human element in mechanical work.)
In the first chapter, a disagreement develops between the narrator and his riding companions, John and Sylvia, over the question of motorcycle maintenance. Robert performs his own maintenance, while John and Sylvia insist on having a professional do it. This posture of non-involvement, we soon learn, is a crucial element of their countercultural sensibility. They seek escape from “the whole organized bit” or “the system,” as the couple puts it; technology is a death force, and the point of hitting the road is to leave it behind. The solution, or rather evasion, that John and Sylvia hit on for managing their revulsion at technology is to “Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” The irony is they still find themselves entangled with The Machine—the one they sit on.
Today, we often use “technology” to refer to systems whose inner workings are assiduously kept out of view, magical devices that offer no apparent friction between the self and the world, no need to master the grubby details of their operation. The manufacture of our smartphones, the algorithms that guide our digital experiences from the cloud—it all takes place “somewhere else,” just as John and Sylvia wished.
Yet lately we have begun to realize that this very opacity has opened new avenues of surveillance and manipulation. Big Tech now orders everyday life more deeply than John and Sylvia imagined in their techno-dystopian nightmare. Today, a road trip to “get away from it all” would depend on GPS, and would prompt digital ads tailored to our destination. The whole excursion would be mined for behavioral data and used to nudge us into profitable channels, likely without our even knowing it.
We don’t know what Pirsig, who died in 2017, thought of these developments, as he refrained from most interviews after publishing a second novel, Lila, in 1991. But his narrator has left us a way out that can be reclaimed by anyone venturesome enough to try it: He patiently attends to his own motorcycle, submits to its quirky mechanical needs and learns to understand it. His way of living with machines doesn’t rely on the seductions of effortless convenience; it requires us to get our hands dirty, to be self-reliant. In Zen, we see a man maintaining direct engagement with the world of material objects, and with it some measure of independence—both from the purveyors of magic and from cultural despair.
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