Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Biker Read Hegel (on Robert Pirsig)

The Wall Street Journal reviews a new book about Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I read this book when I was too young to grasp any deeper sense of it (be there any) and I wonder how it would hold up now. Perhaps I will simply read this new book about the making of Zen... and let it be.

Zen and Now
By Mark Richardson
(Knopf, 274 pages, $25)

[The Biker Read Hegel]

Midway into "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," the narrator and his son take a break from their cross-country motorbike journey through the American Northwest. Under some trees, the father reads aloud from Thoreau, pausing to field questions from the 11-year-old. The moment is part of an exercise with "advanced books" that has helped to steady their troubled relationship. This time, though, it's a bust: "The book seems tame and cloistered, something I'd never have thought of Thoreau, but there it is. He's talking to another situation, another time, just discovering the evils of technology rather than discovering the solution. He isn't talking to us."

More than 30 years later, Robert Pirsig's 1974 best seller is in no danger of losing its relevance, at least as a pop-culture phenomenon. Having sold millions of copies, it continues to find devoted readers. It is even a cherished text in the academia so vilified in its pages.

For many, the book remains a timeless ode to the open road. So-called Pirsig Pilgrims retrace the route that Pirsig (now 80 and living in New England) took with his son in the summer of 1968 on a beloved Honda Superhawk CB77. And yet for every Pirsig fanatic, there are those who find the book impenetrable, the humorless harangue of a crackpot who hit the jackpot with coffee-mug-ready lines like: "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called 'yourself.' "

It took three tries to make a convert of Mark Richardson, who, mired in a middle-age funk, was finally ready to receive the book's core message. As he reminds us, Pirsig lamented what he saw as a millenniums-old split between art and science in the Western world. He argued for embracing technology as part of Nature's majesty and equated a well-maintained, smooth-running engine with a clear-thinking mind. It took not one but two Jesuit scholars to write a guidebook to the book's dense passages of philosophical rumination.

Mr. Richardson decides to test how well "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" has held up over the years and to "find out more about the people who forged it." "Zen and Now" serves as a primer for both long-time devotees and newcomers to the Pirsig cult. It is also a harrowing account of the toll that the making of one man's masterpiece exacted not only on himself but on those around him.

As a journal of the road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco, "Zen and Now" is an all-too-exhaustive travelogue of bland motels and bike repair. What gives the book's narrative its drive is the reporting Mr. Richardson does when he puts down the wrench and fills in the details of a familiar backstory: how Pirsig lost his mind, embarked on the motorcycle journey that helped him recover, and then lost the son who had made that journey with him.

A brilliant academic with a promising career, Pirsig suffered a breakdown while formulating the ideas that would play such a role in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." What he called a growing state of enlightenment his wife recognized as mental illness, and doctors agreed. Declared clinically insane, Pirsig was committed to an institution and underwent shock therapy. By the time he took his son, Chris, on their cross-country trip, he was a deeply disturbed, frustrated, would-be family man, an exile from campus doing hackwork for technical manuals.

Riding the lonely back roads, he broods on the philosophical inquiries that accompanied his madness while he tries in vain to bond with Chris, who he worries is already displaying signs of mental illness. In the book, Chris is portrayed as a chronic complainer and spoilsport and serves as a surrogate for the reader, who likewise wonders: Where are we going and what's the point?

Mr. Richardson shows how Pirsig used his son for his own dramatic purposes, cutting passages that revealed him in a more positive light. Chris later sparred with his father about the way he was described in the book. Mr. Richardson tracks down a boyhood friend who says of Chris: "He was not a protected, whiny kid. For him, it was a fun summer trip with his dad." Mr. Richardson finds others who objected to their portrayals. "The story isn't really about them," Pirsig later explained. "They are like a Greek chorus to 'Oh' and 'Ah' and give a semblance of reality to a tale that seems always to ride at the very edge of incredibility."

"Zen and Now" details Pirsig's struggle to get his tale on paper and finally published. While he was pounding out the 200,000-word fictionalized memoir, his family was falling apart. Chris and his younger brother got into scrapes with drugs and the law. Pirsig's wife threw him out, then took him back. Pirsig later said: "Writing this book was a compulsive act and whoever stood in the way of it was going to get hurt." The marriage survived for only a short while after the book's success.

When Mr. Richardson reaches the end of his pilgrimage, in San Francisco, he visits a street corner in the Haight district. That's where Chris was murdered in 1979, stabbed to death in a robbery while walking to the Zen Center where the 22-year-old had begun to straighten out his life after years of instability. Pirsig eulogized his son in an afterword to the 10th-anniversary edition of "Zen and the Art." He has otherwise remained a reclusive figure. He did consent to brief exchanges by letter with Mr. Richardson, but he shows no regret or remorse for the damage wrought by his Ahab-like endeavor, encouraging the inclusion of even more biographical details than Mr. Richardson intended.

The appeal of Pirsig's message -- to make good time "with the emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time,' " -- seems to reverberate still. During his years of research, Mr. Richardson encountered many people who say that the book has changed their lives. "When I open the covers and begin riding back into the country," one man says, "the tensions begin to disappear along the old roads." "Zen and Now" is a reminder of how much pain it can take to make so many people feel better.

Mr. Dean is the author of "Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971," to be published in November by Process Books.

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