Monday, 19 September 2011

Zen and all that

More than anything else I have come to the conclusion that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a warning to not think too hard about the meaning of life, since it appears to be the cause of the total disintegration of the narrator's personality. I started this book some nine years ago when I first moved in with Dunk and I restarted it at page 130 where the bookmark was, though I have no idea if that was actually where I read to. I remember there being an awful lot of stuff about motorbikes and that was probably why I abandoned it, however as it progressed there was less bike and much more philosophy, and I rather wished it would go back to the bikes. The unnamed narrator is telling us the story of Phaedrus, who is his alter-ego, the name he gives to his former self (that took me a while to figure out), a teacher of creative writing, and of how his search to understand the abstract idea of 'Quality' leads him to madness. I found much sympathy with his original struggle:

"Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies ....
It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue as to what 'Quality' was, picked up his briefcase and headed home." (p.177)

and his astute assessment of what was wrong with the education system:

"Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated of course, you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A's. Originality on the other hand could get you anything - from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it." (p.187)

but I found that as it went on he dove into the depths of Rhetoric and Dialectic, Aristotle, Plato and Sophistry and I think it assumed too much prior knowledge of Ancient Greek philosophical ideas so that I was a little out of my depth. The zen stuff is kind of in the background of the ongoing story of his motorbike journey with his son:

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself." (p.198)

"Weeds and grass and wild flowers grow where the concrete has cracked and broken. Neat, squared, upright lines acquire a random sag. The uniform masses of the unbroken colour of fresh paint modify to a mottled, weathered softness. Nature has a non-Euclidian geometry of her own that seems to soften the deliberate objectivity of the buildings with a kind of random spontaneity that architects would do well to study." (p.281)

"While we wait for chocolates malteds I notice a high-schooler sitting at the counter exchanging looks with the girl next to him. She's gorgeous, and I'm not the only other one who notices it. The girl behind the counter waiting on them is also watching with an anger she thinks no one else sees. Some kind of triangle. We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives. (p.282)

As the book progresses he talks more and more philosophy and their travels are relegated to mere moments interspersed within the story of Phaedrus, recounting in detail his attendance at a philosophy course. The trouble is that his recounting of these events inside his head as he drives the motorbike is causing him to relive the same reactions to what he learned and what he thought, and is taking him back into the breakdown that he suffered. Sometimes he pauses in his recounting only for a sentence or two, to tell us they stopped to eat something, and then goes right back to the intellectualising. But these moments were the ones that seemed more significant to me and were what I focussed on. The journey seems to have become an end in itself and tension grows between the pair, the father so wrapped up in his thoughts and the son becoming a truculent teenager:

"Farther on at Leggett we see a tourist duck pond and we buy Cracker Jacks and throw them to the ducks and he does this in the most unhappy way I have ever seen." (p.394)

Even brief they are enough to give the reader quite an intimate picture of the relationship between father and son. The son's growing reaction to the aimless and purposeless travelling, and his need to understand what really happened to his father, sees the situation come to a crisis point and ends with them having fogbound confrontation.

The book almost seems to be cautioning against viewing classic philosophy with too much reverence, that even people like Aristotle and Plato need to have their ideas scrutinised and criticised. Read more carefully than I have done I am sure it would be an education in itself. He is very critical of the higher education system and the nature of teaching and schooling in general, about how it discourages real creativity and originality. I don't think this book has changed the way I think about my life but it has a lot of interesting things to say about life in general, philosophy and human nature ... and zen and motorbikes as well. Still worth reading after all this time.


  1. This book used to mean a great, great deal to me, back when I was studying philosophy in college and for several years afterward when such things were still central in my life. It fell away as other things became more important to me...but I'm interested to revisit it sometime and see how it stands up (as well as its motorcycle-free sequel, Lila).

  2. Terry Pratchet says the same stuff,but less directly, and much more amusingly.

  3. I read this book WAY back in high school and again in college. I should revisit it and see what I think now. thanks for the reminder!

  4. Another nice book. I found your blog accidentally but I think it made my day. great resource. thanks for sharing
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