Thursday, August 29, 2002

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M. Pirsig’s classic novel was one of my favorite books in college. This isn’t just one of those 60s-70s hippie books, which hasn’t stood the test of time (like, say, The Greening of America). The philosophical reflections were quite intriguing. There were also a lot of more or less practical suggestions throughout. For instance, I still remember his analysis of what he called “gumption traps” and how to cope with them.

I’m not sure his philosophy would be completely compatible with a Catholic world view. I can’t remember enough of his discussion of Quality to know whether it made any sense or not. Although his criticisms of the great books program at U of C and of Robert Hutchins in particular may have merit, his scathing indictment of the whole western intellectual tradition from Socrates on seems a bit over the top, to say the least. In short, he sides with the sophists against Plato, which I think is dangerous.

The book succeeds best, however, as a suspense novel in which the author struggles with his own mental illness and struggles in his relationship with his 12-year old son, Chris. There are some moments of real terror in the book as various realizations come to the reader. This is why I think the “afterward” that was attached to later editions of the book was a bad idea. First, it resolved things that should have remained unresolved. For instance, the last line in Part IV. Also, it shifted the weight of the book from literature to philosophy and thus undercut the value of the book as art. Pirsig began to think of his message as Important, I suppose, so couldn’t resist telling you what it all means. It changed from a Zen Koan to an Aristotelian treatise. Bad move for someone who doesn’t like Aristotle.

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