Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has several obligatory features of American best-sellers; chiefly, an attention-grabbing title and a rather flashy assortment of color paper-covers. Yet it is the anomalies of this work that are worthy of some extended attention. The author is, first of all, the guru for an apparently outmoded tradition. The narrator unabashedly confesses himself to be a devotee of Rhetoric—the art of speaking well. Once one of the University’s three R’s, the term has been reduced to a derivative that suggests lousy speech writers. Secondly, one of the book’s most resonant themes proclaims the necessity of technological advance in any workable conception of the good life. So enthusiastic is Pirsig’s narrator for the nuts and bolts of social engineering that the book has been panned for implied endorsements of technocracy. If Pirsig were guilty of the charge, his motive could hardly be one of conformity with the intellectual avant-garde. And then there is the clincher. Pirsig seems, on occasion, to espouse an almost arcane ignorance of Marxism.

Given these signs of sure-fire literary obscurity, the popularity and possible staying power of Zen becomes something of a mystery. But we feel the source of Zen‘s popularity is in its theme—a theme which should be taken seriously. By focusing on the literary and argumentative structure of Zen, some of the more perverse and condescending interpretations of the work may be laid to rest without compromising its essential controversial position.

Now, the plot of Zen is simple enough. Basically, it is the story of a Father and Son’s motorcycle journey across the country. During the course of their journey, the seasons for the Father’s previous mental collapse are revealed; Father and Son are united; and an extensive but scattered commentary is offered on subjects ranging from governmental administration and ocial alienation to graduate school at the University of Chicago. The story of the quest is a familiar one, yet Pirsig’s book resists a simple plot summary. Just as Plato’s Phaedrus consists of more than Socrates taking Phaedrus outside the city walls for a little talk, so Zen is much more than a blueprint of its observable action.

The book is really philosophical airgument masquerading as literary fiction. As Pirsig’s central character rides about the country, he emerges as an atypical motorcycle hero—neither wishing to bust up small towns nor make it to the Mardi Gras. Rather, he becomes increasingly obsessed and involved in an inner dialogue concerning the nature of Quality. Now literature which serves as a vehicle for philosophic dialogue is not, in and of itself, revolutionary. However, when claims about the nature of reality are offered covertly in an unreal universe, the authenticity of the entire enterprise may become somewhat suspect. Is the viability of a philosophy to be weighed not in the truth-value of its claims but rather on the fulfillment of aesthetic expectations? If so, then the test of philosophy becomes as broad and as arbitrary as communicative experience itself (Tolstoy as critic rather than Tolstoy as writer becomes our model).

To his credit, our author does not hide his intentions. He is out to persuade us. His tantalizingly brief and mildly infuriating preface announces that he will take liberties with fact for rhetorical purposes. And if this were not enough, the narrator names his own purpose as the presentation of a Chautauqua to his readers. Chautauquas were a popular form of public address entertainment in nineteenth-century America. During that period, professional public speakers toured the country giving carefully prepared addresses that were designed primarily to entertain and secondarily to teach. By analogy, Pirsig’s narrator is out to both entertain us and to teach us wisdom, to persuade us toward some truth. Zen is public address on wheels: a Chautauqua for a highly mobile, future-shock society; Socrates as Easy Rider.

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