Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Course Hero. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide." Course Hero. 20 Sep. 2017. Web. 14 Dec. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/>.

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Course Hero. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide." September 20, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.


Course Hero, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide," September 20, 2017, accessed December 14, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 2, Chapter 15 | Summary



The Sutherlands decide to return home while Chris and the narrator continue their trip. Everyone feels melancholy, and Sylvia worries about the narrator and Chris. She and John climb onto their motorcycle and soon vanish from sight.

The narrator suggests he and Chris take a look at the university in Bozeman, Montana. As they walk along he asks Chris what he remembers of the family's time here. Disconcertingly, Chris answers he remembers riding in the family car looking "for you ... Whoever saw you first would get a nickel." Chris adds that whenever they found him, he would get into the car without speaking to them.

"I was thinking hard then," says the narrator, remembering his times as Phaedrus and his breakdown. He remembers his difficulties teaching rhetoric, "the most unprecise, unanalytic, amorphous area" in the university. With his analytical mind it was difficult to teach what he considered a "Sargasso Sea of stagnated logic." His stomach tightens as he and Chris approach the building where he used to teach. They enter the building, but Chris is frightened and runs out almost immediately.

Alone, the narrator wanders the halls and then finds his old office. A tidal wave of memory and emotion hits him. The narrator finds himself reliving the critical moments at the university that accompanied Phaedrus's mental breakdown. He meets a woman who remembers him. She asks about what happened to him and why he no longer teaches. He sees a painting in a classroom that brings him deeper into his recollections of his time there. A chance remark from a woman named Sarah—"I hope you are teaching Quality to your students"—triggered in Phaedrus such an "intricate, highly structured mass of thought" that he remained motionless for hours. The question of how to define Quality took over his thinking so much he became unable to teach: "Obviously some things are better than others ... but what's the 'betterness'?" The question consumed Phaedrus and ultimately drove him crazy.


In this chapter, painful memories so overwhelm the narrator, it's hard for him to sustain a didactic "Chautauqua" moment. The chapter's tone is emotional, immediate, and dramatic as the reader learns of the beginning stages of Phaedrus's breakdown.

At this critical juncture in his mental health, Phaedrus witnesses a seed crystal form and grow. Regardless of whether readers believe this or not, the metaphor is striking: crystals bloom in the same way Phaedrus's head fills with insane thoughts. Readers may also wonder if Sarah really stresses Quality as hard and as often as the narrator remembers. It doesn't matter. Phaedrus becomes a real character here, a desperate man clinging to a reality that is drifting out of control. He is no longer just a philosophy professor with personal problems, but a man in need of real help.

The chapter is pivotal in the narrative because Phaedrus is now once again fully present in the narrator's life, no longer hidden away in disgrace or shame. Floods of memory of his days as the troubled professor of rhetoric have begun. Over the remaining days of their trip together, Chris and his father will have to struggle with this new reality. It raises many unanswered questions, especially for Chris, who was so young when Phaedrus went mad and abandoned him and his mother.

However, it is now clear Phaedrus was a wonderful teacher during his tenure at Bozeman. Though the word Quality triggers his breakdown, the word isn't uttered in isolation; just as important is the phrase "to your students." Quality resonates with him because he worries he hasn't given his students a proper education. Every rule of composition he tries to teach ends up seeming so contradictory and confusing, "he wished he'd never come across the rule in the first place."

Phaedrus senses correctly that most good writers work without thinking about the rules. But how can he teach students to write if there are no rules for them to learn? Pure rationality does not make students write well. Intuition is what matters, but the essence of intuition is impossible to teach. The realization that the "rational foundations of communication" in the textbook are trivial and nitpicky troubles him more. It is this sense of despair, Phaedrus's feeling that he isn't teaching what he believes in, that leads him to create a new teaching method. True, his first off-the-cuff assignment to define Quality is a failure, but he feels his teaching is gaining integrity. Unfortunately, he is falling apart at the same time.

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