Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | 12 Things You Didn't Know


Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a semiautobiographical account of the author's trek across the United States with his son on a motorcycle, combining intense philosophical thought and meditation with a travel narrative. Published in 1974, it quickly became a best seller, with initial sales of more than five million copies.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sets forth what Pirsig refers to as his "Metaphysics of Quality"—a worldview combining elements of Buddhist, indigenous North American, and 19th-century American philosophical traditions. By framing philosophy within a narrative, Pirsig made practical philosophical concepts accessible to a general readership that lacked a background in the field.

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected more than 100 times.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an instant best seller, but Pirsig didn't have an easy time getting a publisher to accept his manuscript. The author received 121 rejection letters from publishing houses before the novel was finally accepted by William Morrow and Company in 1974. Pirsig's editor, James Landis, quickly saw the novel's potential and claimed:

The book is brilliant beyond belief ... It is probably a work of genius and will, I'll wager, attain classic status.

2. Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to help overcome mental illness.

Pirsig had very personal reasons for writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the early 1960s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent a series of treatments. He was hospitalized for two years, and he received controversial electric shock therapy treatments that were administered to the mentally ill at the time. Throughout the novel, Pirsig speaks openly about his diagnosis and the fear he felt when he realized his son, Chris, exhibited symptoms similar to his own. He wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in part, to come to terms with both his mental illness and the invasive treatments he'd received for it.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance inspired many readers to re-create the exact trip across the country.

The popularity of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has inspired many readers and fans to undertake Pirsig's journey across the United States. Known as "Pirsig's Pilgrims," those who have been inspired by the novel travel the country by motorcycle, taking care to re-create the author's journey by stopping at the same vista points, small towns, and roadside diners he describes in the book.

4. The narrator's "past self" is an allusion to a famous work of ancient philosophy.

Throughout the novel, Pirsig's narrator identifies his past self as "Phaedrus." This name is a reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's Phaedrus, in which the titular character engages in philosophical debates with Socrates. The narrator, in turn, is likened to the philosopher Aristotle, who represents Pirsig's more mechanically minded self, dedicated to his craft of motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig notes that his "Phaedrus" persona was "killed" during his electric shock therapy treatments earlier in his life.

5. In addition to his career as a philosopher, Pirsig was an avid mechanic.

Although Pirsig states, "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself," the author was actually quite knowledgeable when it came to motorcycle mechanics. In addition to his writing, philosophizing, and professorship at Montana State University, Pirsig frequently worked on motorcycle repairs in his home workshop. It was this mechanical knowledge that allowed him to successfully complete his cross-country adventure.

6. Pirsig sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition to fixing and riding motorcycles, Pirsig loved the sea—and sailboats in particular. Pirsig and his second wife, Wendy Kimball, traveled across the Atlantic together on his sailboat. The two first met when Kimball visited Pirsig on his boat to conduct an interview. Pirsig wrote a 1991 sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, entitled Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, which describes a sailing trip on the Hudson River.

7. Pirsig emphasized that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn't a guide to Buddhism or motorcycles.

Despite the title, Pirsig made it very clear that his novel had very little to do with Zen Buddhism or motorcycle maintenance—although he does address both topics. He included a disclaimer in the novel's preface, stating specifically that:

It should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.

8. Pirsig coined a now-common philosophical term in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gave rise to a term that has been discussed extensively in contemporary philosophy and psychology. Pirsig describes "gumption traps," which are defined as small, often unnoticed moments and events that drain someone of their "gumption," or motivation and courage. Although few scholars consider Pirsig's definition as scientifically credible, the American psychologist Martin Seligman adapted the idea to what he calls "learned helplessness" and self-doubt.

9. Pirsig turned to Buddhism during his time serving in the U.S. army.

Pirsig joined the U.S. Army shortly before the Korean War, and he was deployed to South Korea in the lead-up to the conflict. It was here that Pirsig was first exposed to the Buddhist tradition, as well as the Eastern philosophy that would influence his writing. After briefly returning to the United States from Asia in 1948, Pirsig also proceeded to spend a year and a half studying Hinduism in India at Banaras Hindu University.

10. Pirsig was expelled from college as an undergraduate.

Pirsig was considered brilliant by many of his teachers and peers throughout his youth—but he often had trouble as a student. Despite his extremely high IQ, allegedly 170, Pirsig was expelled from the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate for failing classes. This expulsion was embarrassing to his family, as Pirsig's father was the dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. After his time in the army, however, Pirsig returned to school and received a master's degree in journalism.

11. While employed as a professor, Pirsig once rudely disrupted the university president's speech.

In 1960 Pirsig taught English composition at Montana State University. His teaching style was rather unique—he refused to administer grades to students due to philosophical objection. Pirsig also caused a controversy on campus when he interrupted the university president's speech by yelling, "This school has no quality!" He later left Montana and taught at University of Illinois in Chicago, where he experienced the mental breakdown that would lead to extensive psychiatric treatment.

12. Pirsig eventually grew tired of interviews about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

After the publication and success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig was swamped with requests for interviews. He was interviewed many times but eventually stopped speaking with reporters due to "laziness." He conducted an interview with The Guardian in 2006 after years of refusal and explained:

Well, this may be the last one. I turned down a lot of things. This may well be my very last one. Part of it is just laziness. When I first wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I was completely innocent ... In the first week after I wrote Zen I gave maybe 35 [interviews], though. I found it very unsettling.

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