Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 4, Chapter 30 | Summary



For the first time in the book, the Phaedrus section is told in the present tense—a concrete sign that Phaedrus and the narrator are merging.

After he leaves Montana State University because he thinks he's not needed by the students, Phaedrus searches philosophy PhD programs and finds an interdisciplinary program at the University of Chicago that interests him. The philosophy professor for Phaedrus's rhetoric course is absent for several weeks. Finally, he's replaced by the Chairman of the Committee on Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods. Phaedrus suspects the Chairman is gunning for him. "First they are going to destroy his status dialectically"; then they'll suggest that he either shape up or leave.

The Chairman announces that today's class will cover Phaedrus, a work describing a dialogue between Socrates and his student Phaedrus (from whom the character in the book has taken his name). As the lecture proceeds, Phaedrus begins to notice the Chairman is skipping important sections of the work.

The lecture is, in essence, an attempt to establish authority over Phaedrus and to lift one argument higher. Phaedrus and the Chairman disagree at a fundamental level. The Chairman sets up a dynamic in which he is leading the discussion, building tension, and as such, he expects to assert his view over the students. To Phaedrus, the Chairman is "using the dialogue to prove the holiness of reason!"

Phaedrus objects. He raises his hand, and he points out that the allegory of the seeker, who is trying to reach the One, is an allegory: "Socrates himself says it is an analogy." When the Chairman objects, Phaedrus suggests the place in the text where the Chairman will see the proof of Phaedrus's words. He has asserted authority over the Chairman, and the students take advantage.

When the Chairman resumes control of the class, he calls on Phaedrus again, asking, "What is dialectic?" Here, Phaedrus realizes there is a trap. He replies with a statement from the Chairman's "own article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica." When Phaedrus continues in this vein, the Chairman cuts him off, proving to Phaedrus the Chairman is not a "real Truth-seeker."

Phaedrus begins to realize he is close to a mental and emotional breakdown, and then he does begin to break down. He does not say a word in any of the classes he's supposed to give. He stops sleeping, and he begins to perceive that Chicago is little more than a collection of old rubble and dead animals. He also loses the ability to read. When he finally stops moving or talking, his wife calls the hospital. Even before the ambulance arrives, Phaedrus feels he has faded out of the world. It's only now that Phaedrus begins to understand Quality, "and his soul is at rest."

Meanwhile, the narrator and Chris have a wretched time riding through dark streets in a driving rain to find a motel. When they finally do, Chris asks when they're going home. He begins to sob, rocks back and forth, and moans that the narrator just sits and stares without doing anything.

Gradually, it dawns on the narrator that Chris is crying because he misses Phaedrus—the father he used to have.


The narrator paints a bleak picture in this chapter. His memory of Phaedrus has caught up to the point of the younger man's utter collapse. The portrayal and description here are quite realistic. Phaedrus may win the debate with the Chairman on technical points, but there is no triumph. He's no happier for having bested his superior. At the following class, Phaedrus feels sorry for "this old shepherd and his classroom sheep."

Phaedrus has reached the point where he sees no value in feeling happy. "Hostility is really his element," he thinks. But readers have seen no evidence that Phaedrus thrives on hostility; instead, his statement proves his deep unhappiness.

The narrator is miserable as well. "My mind has become tired and slow," he says. Notice that his perception of the streets is very similar to the way Phaedrus saw them when he was trying to find the furniture store with Chris. The landscape is dark, the streetlights garish, the signs illegible or absent.

It sounds as though the narrator is on his way to his own collapse. Readers may wonder whether the rush of memories surrounding Phaedrus's breakdown is what overwhelms and consumes him.

Pirsig's tone is stark in his depiction of the narrator's treatment of Chris. The narrator has closed his mind and holds back any empathy he may feel toward his son. He refuses to engage and seems oddly cold. As Chris begins to rock back and forth (a sign of severe emotional distress), the narrator only comments, "The way he does it gives me an eerie feeling."

When he realizes Chris misses Phaedrus—or more specifically the way Phaedrus behaved before his breakdown—he's reminded of his dream about the glass door. This scene is a living version of that nightmare. Parent and child are unable to connect.

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