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. 12 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 12, 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 12, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 3, Chapter 20 | Summary



The narrator and Chris doze in the late-morning sunshine, and the narrator awakes with a vague feeling of dread. He wonders about the things Chris reports his having said in his sleep. In particular, he wonders why he said he'd meet Chris at the top of the mountain when they're traveling together and why he said he felt lonely when, awake, he's not lonely at all. Pondering these questions, he suddenly hears the sound of falling rock.

Chris asks the narrator what he's thinking so hard about. Troubled, he adds that when the narrator talks in his sleep, he sounds "like you used to sound a long time ago, when we lived here." At that moment, they hear another rockslide.

The narrator tells Chris about a nearby avalanche that buried 19 people under millions of tons of rock. He hears more rocks clattering and becomes suddenly afraid the two of them are in danger. He tells Chris they'll have to try to reach the summit another summer; right now, he has a bad feeling about it. Very reluctantly, Chris agrees.

Now the narrator wants to develop some ideas Phaedrus neglected to pursue. This means returning to the definition of Quality. For Phaedrus, Quality was "that event which gives birth to mind and matter." Before an object such as a tree can be identified, "there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness": the awareness of Quality. (In this explanation, Quality refers to the essence or the inherent nature of consciousness.) A person who sees a tree can't be aware of seeing the tree until after they have seen it. Their awareness—"I see a tree"—always refers to something they have already seen. Therefore, to experience seeing a tree is to remember something from the past. Since the experience can never take place in the present, it is unreal, an illusion, a picture of reality no longer present.

"Between the instant of vision and the instant of awareness there must be a time lag," which Phaedrus calls "preintellectual reality." Because preintellectual reality leads to awareness, Quality is "the source of all subjects and objects." But everyone perceives Quality differently; the concept can't be pinned down.

In the midst of pondering this, Phaedrus impulsively picks up his copy of the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu. He reads various passages and "realizes," in a flash of intuition, that the concept of the Tao (which roughly translates as the source of all reality) precisely describes his vision of Quality. The realization, the "mass of awareness," is so powerful it consumes him.


In the context of the literal events—the cessation of the climb to the summit—the narrator tackles the intersection of Western and Eastern philosophy. He specifically references Hegel and the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher influenced by Kant, who was in turn a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Throughout Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the narrator has referenced a number of significant philosophical thinkers. The majority of them fit into a pattern—from Aristotelian to Kantian to Hegelian thought—all pillars of Western philosophy.

Hegel, who is possibly one of the most complex philosophers to comprehend, posits the idea of the "Absolute Mind." Basically, Phaedrus hopes to equate Hegel's notion of Absolute Mind with his notion of Quality but finds Hegel's idea has no room for romantic, emotional inclusion. According to Phaedrus, Quality is both romantic and classical, not one or the other. Hegel's absolute is thoroughly Western, "completely classical, completely rational and completely orderly." Not having found the answers he is looking for, Phaedrus moves away from Hegel and instead reads a section of the Tao Te Ching ("the way of integrity"). This is the foundational text in Taoism and influenced Buddhism and Confucianism. The passage he reads discusses what he perceives as Quality, and the words resound so strongly with Phaedrus, they provide a moment of revelation. He feels "the internal parting of his mind," and then "it all gave way from under him."

This seems to be the moment Phaedrus's mind drifts away, described as "no more anything." Moreover, the narrator has essentially completed the reopening of his past as Phaedrus. The skeletons are out of the closet. The narrator has recovered some of the most troubling as well as positive memories of his life as Phaedrus. Readers may now wonder what the narrator will do with this knowledge.

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