Author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Was 88 Years Old

Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance died Monday of undisclosed causes at his family home in South Berwick, Maine. He was 88.

Published by William Morrow in 1974, the book went on to be hugely influential within the motorcycling community, still showing up on suggested reading lists to this day.

It almost never happened. Before being picked up by William Morrow, the manuscript had been rejected by more than 100 publishers. Subtitled “An Inquiry into Values,” the 412-page book was an anomaly on the best seller list: a philosophical treatise based on Pirsig's own cross-country motorcycle trip with his 13-year-old son, Chris.

The author’s introductory note was a frank description of his intent: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, 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.”

<em>Robert M Pirsig and his son, Chris, on their iconic cross-country adventure.</em>

Robert M Pirsig and his son, Chris, on their iconic cross-country adventure.


Grabbing the book off my own shelf, the dust jacket includes this quote from the text: “The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of the process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.”

Born 6 September 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pirsig had been a brilliant student, graduating high school at 15. In college he studied chemistry and philosophy, received a Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, and studied Oriental philosophy in India. In the 60s, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and suffered a breakdown. At one point he was institutionalized and administered electro-shock therapy. (A now-abandoned therapy that in many cases caused additional psychological trauma)

The continuing struggle with his own demons, and the recognition of similar symptoms in his son, led Pirsig to the motorcycle trip and writing the book. Its premise, that human understanding divides into two forms, what the author calls Classical and Romantic, informs the substance of the work.

"A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance,” wrote Pirsig.

That thesis caught the attention of young editor at Cycle Magazine, Phil Schilling, who touted the book in one of his columns. And that dichotomy, the duality of nature and human understanding, remains a subject of discussion in college classrooms even today. As Pirsig pointed out in the book: “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called 'yourself.'"

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