Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 2, Chapter 12 | Summary



The narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands will be spending the night with the DeWeeses, a couple Phaedrus knew well but the narrator can barely remember. He knows that DeWeese (as he calls the husband) is an abstract painter, but that's about it. It troubles the narrator that when DeWeese sees him, he'll take him for the same person—Phaedrus—he knew during their teaching days at Montana State University. Readers may wonder if he expects him to share the same memories. The narrator does remember that although they often argued, Phaedrus respected and liked DeWeese. But each man seemed puzzled by the other's worldview.

The narrator recalls his days studying Asian philosophy at Benares Hindu University, when Phaedrus realizes that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are much less important than those differences among Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: "Holy wars are not fought over [Asian doctrines] because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself." Still, Phaedrus knows that there is an objective reality—that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima in World War II are not an illusion, as his professor thinks: "He [Phaedrus] left the classroom, left India and gave up."

Some might consider Phaedrus's "giving up" to be simply growing up. He gets a degree in journalism, has children, buys a farm, and supports himself and his family as a writer. But he's always aware of an inner emptiness, and he feels that abandoning his inner goals has aged him prematurely.


The narrator's isolation is clear in this chapter. He does not seem to communicate well with John and Sylvia, and he cannot recall DeWeese. Both in the present and as he recollects his life as Phaedrus, his isolation is accented by the embarrassment of his past mental illness.

The narrator is recalling his life as Phaedrus more clearly in this chapter, perhaps because he is traveling where his former self lived and worked. His reluctance to address the topic of mental illness extends to Chris. His son is attuned to his father's moods more keenly than the narrator himself is. After the treatment, the narrator has significant memory loss, a normal side effect. His son, however, remembers the years that the narrator doesn't.

The text has not yet broached the subject of the extent of the narrator's former struggles with mental illness. Yet Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is as much a search for meaning as it is the posttreatment journey of a man who underwent electroconvulsive therapy. ECT resulted in memory loss for the narrator/author, and the prior self the narrator defines now as "Phaedrus" within Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is his pretreatment self. The reader must wrestle with the same questions raised by Pirsig in the text: are these revelations of Phaedrus the result of insane thinking or enlightened thinking? There is no conclusive answer to this question, not for Phaedrus or Pirsig or his critics.

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