A t 78, Robert Pirsig, probably the most widely read philosopher alive, can look back on many ideas of himself. There is the nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ of , trying to work out how to connect with his classmates in Minnesota. There is the young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism while helping the locals with their English. There is the radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat over a definition of 'quality'. There is the homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment designed to remove all traces of his past. There is the broken-down father trying to bond with his son on a road trip.
|Published (Last):||25 October 2008|
|PDF File Size:||5.9 Mb|
|ePub File Size:||17.65 Mb|
|Price:||Free* [*Free Regsitration Required]|
A t 78, Robert Pirsig, probably the most widely read philosopher alive, can look back on many ideas of himself. There is the nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ of , trying to work out how to connect with his classmates in Minnesota.
There is the young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism while helping the locals with their English. There is the radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat over a definition of 'quality'.
There is the homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment designed to remove all traces of his past. There is the broken-down father trying to bond with his son on a road trip. There is the best-selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, offering solutions to the anxieties of a generation.
And there is, for a good many years, the reclusive yachtsman, trying to steer a course away from cultish fame. Pirsig doesn't do interviews, as a rule; he claims this one will be his last.
He got spooked early on. I was walking by the post office near home and I thought I could hear voices, including my own. I had a history of mental illness, and I thought: it's happening again. Then I realised it was the radio broadcast of an interview I'd done. At that point I took a camper van up into the mountains and started to write Lila, my second book. It is that second book, recently republished, that has prompted him to talk to me now.
He sits in a hotel room in Boston and tries, not for the first time, to make some sense of his life. He is, he suggests, always in a double bind. If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there.
Reclusion has its discontents, however. Ever since I first read Pirsig's motorbike quest for meaning, when I was about 14, I've been curious to imagine its author. Part of the compulsion of that book, which has sold more than five million copies, is the sense of autobiographical mysteries that remain unexplained.
While Pirsig's narrator tries to marry the spirit of the Buddha with western consumerism, discovers the godhead in his toolkit, and intuits a sense of purposive quality independent of subjects and objects, he also constructs a fragmentary picture of his own past.
His pre-shock-treatment former self, the ghostly Phaedrus, haunts his travels across the Midwest. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin. Twenty-six years, and several revisionist readings of the book later, I'm still wondering what Pirsig thinks of when he thinks of himself.
He suggests a lot of that idea still goes back to his childhood as a disaffected prodigy. He says that ever since he could think he had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that explained everything.
As a young man - he was at university at 15 studying chemistry - he thought the answer might lie in science, but he quickly lost that faith. He went to search elsewhere. After the army he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers.
He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry. It was when he picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching, that Phaedrus and his desire for truth overtook Pirsig once more.
At that time, he recalls, in his early thirties, he was so full of anxiety that he would often be physically sick before each class he taught. He used his students to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the 'metaphysics of quality' in his books, the ideas that led him to believe that he had bridged the chasm between Eastern and Western thought. No two classes were the same. He made his students crazy by refusing to grade them, then he had them grade each other.
He suggests that by the end of each term they were so euphoric that if he had told them to jump out of the window they would have done. The president of the university gave a speech, and he contradicted him in the middle of it by shouting: 'This school has no quality. He was reading Kerouac, and trying to live in truth. Alongside that, I say, as he describes that time with some fervour, I guess there was some depression setting in?
All these ideas were coming in to me too fast. There are crackpots with crazy ideas all over the world, and what evidence was I giving that I was not one of them? Such evidence proved harder and harder to present.
One day in the car with his six-year-old son Chris, his mind buzzing, Pirsig stopped at a junction and literally did not know which way to turn.
He had to ask his son to guide him home. What followed was the point where he either found enlightenment, or went insane, depending on how you look at it really the root of all the questions in his first book. All sorts of volitions started to go away.
My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers Suddenly I realised that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind.
It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment.
I have never insisted on either - in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to. Midwestern American society of took the psychiatrist's view. Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. Looking back, he suggests he was just a man outside his time.
When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself. That immune system left him with no job and no future in philosophy; his wife was mad at him, they had two small kids, he was 34 and in tears all day.
Did he think of it at the time as a Zen experience? Though the meditation I have done since takes you to a similar place. If you stare at a wall from four in the morning till nine at night and you do that for a week, you are getting pretty close to nothingness. And you get a lot of opportunities for staring in an asylum.
When he was released, it only got worse. He was crazier; he pointed a gun at someone, he won't say who. He was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive shock treatment of the kind described by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
It stops your lungs before it stops your mind. Before you go under you had a feeling like you were drowning. I woke up one time and I thought: where the hell am I? I had a feeling I was in my Aunt Flossie's house, which I had liked as a child. I thought I must have passed out drunk.
When his wife came to see him he knew something was wrong but he did not know what it was. A nurse started to cry because she knew that his wife had divorced him while he had been in hospital.
Nobody envies you. Pirsig was able to keep a tenuous grip on his former self, despite the treatment. He figured that if he told anyone he was in fact an enlightened Zen disciple, they would lock him up for 50 years.
So he worked out a new strategy of getting his ideas across. He embarked on a book based on a motorcycle ride he made with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to the Dakotas in It started out of a little essay. I wanted to write about motorcycling because I was having such fun doing it, and it grew organically from there. When the book came out, in , edited down from , words, and having been turned down by publishers, it seemed immediately to catch the need of the time.
Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights Pirsig refused. It has since taken on a life of its own, and though parts feel dated, its quest for meaning still seems urgent. For Pirsig, however, it has become a tragic book in some ways. At the heart of it was his relationship with his son, Chris, then 12, who himself, unsettled by his father's mania, seemed close to a breakdown. In , aged 22, Chris was stabbed and killed by a mugger as he came out of the Zen Centre in San Francisco.
Subsequent copies of the book have carried a moving afterword by Pirsig. He said, "Dad, I had a good time on that trip. It was all false. There is stuff I can't talk about still. When Katagiri gave Chris's funeral address tears were just running down his face. He suffered almost more than I did. When his son died, Pirsig was in England.
He had sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, Wendy Kimball, 22 years his junior, whom he had met when she had come to interview him on his boat. She has never disembarked. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to his first book, which further examines Phaedrus's ideas in the context of a voyage along the Hudson, with Lila, a raddled Siren, as crew. The book is bleaker, messier than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though it carries a lot of the charge of Pirsig's restless mind.
Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals
Lila is a sequel of sorts to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's probably possible to read it on its own, but Pirsig introduces his notion of Quality at some length in Zen and Lila is more approachable with that background. One of the beauties of Zen as a book is that it works on multiple levels and creates a coherent whole that's superior to just its philosophy or just its narrative. It's the story of a man re-establishing contact with his son, a story of mental illness and the life of a iconoclastic scholar, and a philosophical meditation.
The interview: Robert Pirsig
Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read. Want to Read saving…. Want to Read Currently Reading Read. Other editions. Enlarge cover.
Data Protection Choices
Pirsig , who is best known for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Phaedrus, the author's alter ego , is jarred out of his solitary routine by an encounter with Lila, a straightforward but troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. The main goal of this book is to develop a complete metaphysical system based on the idea of Quality introduced in his first book. As in his previous book, the narrative is embedded between rounds of philosophical discussion. Unlike his previous book, in which he creates a dichotomy between Classical and Romantic Quality, this book centers on the division of Quality into the Static and the Dynamic. According to the novel, the known universe can be divided into four Static values: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. Everything in the known universe can be categorized into one of these four categories, except Dynamic Quality.