Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Robert Pirsig | Biography

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Early Life

Robert Pirsig was born on September 6, 1928, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At age nine, tests showed Pirsig had an IQ of 170. His extraordinary intelligence presented him with both opportunities and challenges. Pirsig skipped several grades to enter the University of Minnesota at 15, an age few would consider mature enough for college. He enrolled in 1943, planning to study biochemistry, but was dismissed for failing grades. Later he would explain that learning that biochemical hypotheses could have more than one explanation overwhelmed him.

Education

In 1946 Pirsig joined the army and was stationed in South Korea through 1948, at which point he returned to the United States. After some time in Seattle, he reenrolled at the University of Minnesota. This time he graduated, earning a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1950. Before continuing his formal education, he used money from the G.I. Bill to study Eastern philosophy in Benares, India.

Pirsig married his first wife, Nancy Ann James, in 1954; she is the wife featured in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They had two sons, Theodore and Christopher. Christopher would later accompany his father on the motorcycle trip that inspired the book.

Throughout the 1950s Pirsig supported himself and his family with freelance writing on a variety of topics (including ads for the mortuary cosmetics business). In the middle of the decade, he worked in research for General Mills, leaving the company after earning a master's degree in journalism in 1958. The following year he taught English composition and rhetoric at the University of Montana.

Mental Breakdown

It was during his teaching stint at the University of Montana that Pirsig became interested in how best to define quality. By the time Pirsig moved his family to Chicago to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, that interest had become an obsession. The obsession proved to be one of the symptoms of a severe psychiatric breakdown for which he was hospitalized several times from 1961 to 1963, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig describes receiving electroconvulsive ("shock") therapy on many occasions during a court-mandated hospital stay. This caused some extensive memory loss that Pirsig describes as an "annihilation" of his former identity. Pirsig also reported that his wife divorced him while he was in the hospital, though their divorce was not finalized until 1978.

Writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Once out of the hospital, Pirsig went back to freelance writing, mostly computer manuals; he also began work on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Before planning the motorcycle trip that would provide the basis for the writing, he wrote a book proposal and sent it to 122 publishing houses. Although 22 editors were interested, only Jim Landis at the publishing company William Morrow was willing to sign a contract for the book. The 17-day trip Pirsig describes in the book takes place in 1968.

The manuscript ended up being over 2,000 pages long. At Morrow, Jim Landis predicted it would "attain classic status" once it had been edited and cut by three-quarters. Landis was right; after only a few months, 50,000 copies had been sold, and the book ultimately sold more than five million copies. Reviewers compared it to Walden and Moby-Dick. Actor-director Robert Redford tried to option the movie rights, but he and Pirsig couldn't agree on a price. He gave dozens of interviews and won a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a sequel. Streams of fans—nicknamed Pirsig's Pilgrims—began showing up at his house.

Aftermath of the Book

Always something of a loner, Pirsig found his celebrity hard to take. He began to take sailing trips that lasted for months. His marital difficulties increased, and he and his wife separated in 1976. They divorced in 1978, the same year Pirsig married his second wife, Wendy. In addition, the way Pirsig portrayed his son Chris in the book dismayed Chris, who struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. In a Guardian interview Pirsig recalls Chris's protesting, "Dad, I had a good time on that trip. It was all false."

When Chris was 22, a Buddhist monk who was also Pirsig's friend took Chris in at a Zen center in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, a mugger stabbed Chris to death outside the center. In the 1984 afterword to the book, Pirsig remembers receiving a letter from Chris that arrived shortly after his death. "I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday," Chris wrote. His murder occurred two weeks before that birthday.

In 1980 Pirsig's daughter, Nell, was born. In the 1984 afterword Pirsig says Nell's birth had returned perspective to his life. "A thousand memories of Chris will always be at hand, of course, but not a destructive clinging to some material entity that can never be here again." Ted Pirsig, Chris's younger brother, also struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. As an adult he became estranged from his father.

Sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig worked for 17 years on his second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). The book sets Phaedrus on a sailing voyage along the Hudson River. On his trip he meets a woman named Lila, who inspires Phaedrus to explore the philosophical questions raised in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance more deeply. Eventually, Phaedrus develops a philosophy called "Metaphysics of Quality." Though this sequel was briefly a best seller and received nominations for a Pulitzer Prize, the book did not sell well. This disappointed Pirsig, who had hoped the book would bridge the gap between New Age thinking and serious philosophy. "If I wrote it today," Pirsig later confessed, "it would be a much more cheerful book. But I was resolving things in Lila; the sadness of the past, and particularly Chris's death, is there."

Pirsig did pick up thousands of new fans on the Internet, where a website called MOQ.org (for "Metaphysics of Quality") still allows visitors to discuss Pirsig's ideas. A documentary about him—"Arrive without Travelling"—was released in 2008. In the same year, the book Zen and Now was published. The author, Mark Richardson, followed Pirsig's path in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on his own motorcycle. Pirsig approved its publication but had little involvement with the text.

Death and Legacy

For the last three decades of his life, Pirsig lived reclusively in New Hampshire and Maine with Wendy. He died on April 24, 2017, survived by Wendy, their daughter Nell, and his son Ted.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a classic, as its editor expected. It has sold over five million copies and has been called "the most widely read philosophy book, ever" by the London Telegraph and BBC radio. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance continues to influence new generations more than forty years after its publication.

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