Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 3, Chapter 22 | Summary



The narrator and Chris take their leave of the DeWeeses, who had wanted them to stay: "But a peculiar itching to move west and get on with my thoughts has taken over."

In this Chautauqua he wants to discuss the 19th-century philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré. He says how welcome it is to encounter a mind that thinks and talks like one's own "when you live in the shadow of insanity."

The narrator is still trying to figure out how Phaedrus's Method of Quality holds up when compared to the work of other philosophers. As readers have seen, Phaedrus believed the Tao Te Ching and Quality were uncannily alike. Though Phaedrus had never heard of Poincaré—"an astronomer, a physicist, and mathematician and philosopher all in one"—the narrator has studied Poincaré's work extensively.

The narrator believes he's discovered an interesting connection between Phaedrus's work and Poincaré's. Phaedrus followed "a long and tortuous path into the highest abstractions." Poincaré starts with basic scientific truths and from them reaches the highest abstractions. Both trails, the narrator notes, end at the same place.

Though he doesn't delve into the nature of this continuity, the narrator finds its existence reassuring. He has been living in the shadow of Phaedrus's insanity for a long time. Discovering a philosopher whose work covers the same ground "is something close to a blessed event." Unless the reader is very familiar with Poincaré's work, it's impossible to know whether or not it resembles that of Phaedrus. But the narrator believes he's established a valid connection between the two scholars.

When the narrator and Chris are near Missoula, they find a campsite and settle down. Chris is feeling sick, and the narrator is depressed. When Chris asks what job he should have as an adult, the narrator struggles to answer. Finally he says, "It doesn't matter what you do."


The narrator, when discussing Phaedrus's attempt to find a philosophy he is replicating in his own thoughts, refers to himself in the first person. Although he is discussing what Phaedrus researched, he says, "Eventually I came to Poincaré." He has merged his current self and his past self in this moment.

At this point in the text, contradictory thoughts are often a focus of the narrator's Chautauquas. Whether or not seemingly irreconcilable ideas can both be valid is a question that is circled, revisited, and never entirely resolved. In the case of mathematics, it is true that several systems of geometry are valid—even as they are in contradiction. The same, arguably, is true of philosophy.

Jules Henri Poincaré was a theoretical mathematician whose work was revolutionary. Part of the revelation of Poincaré's theories is that of the harmony of "numbers and forms." This is not romantic beauty, the narrator notes, but classic beauty, "which comes from the harmonious order of the parts." From here, the text addresses the notion of "preselected facts"—which is not "subjective, capricious," but done on the basis of "Quality."

Here, too, in this chapter is the overt question of insanity. Is the narrator's thought pattern (either in his past self of Phaedrus or his modern self)—to use his term—"insane"? Is the acquisition of these higher-level contemplations a form of mastery or evidence of insanity? The narrator offers no answer. The journey continues to be more of a focal point than any resolution.

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