Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Is There Quality in Growing Old?

I wrote this as a reply over in Goodreads  to a conversation about ZAMM.  It is not review.  As often happens with me I get mesmerized by my own bullshit and it became something of a monster.  What better place to post it, than here?  I added some reflection about some friends' losses here.   

Image Credit: Goodreads

 I have run into two classes of people regarding ZAMM, those who read it and find that it is one of those watershed experiences of their lives, and those who read it (usually as a college lit assignment) and regard it as a complete waste of time. I am in the former category. 

I read this during my mid-life crises years, instead of buying a red sports car and making an ass of myself. I read ZAMM and dreamed of telling my boss to go f--- himself, jump in the car, and go to Montana. Fortunately enough common sense remained through the dropping testosterone levels, and middle aged angst, that the question THEN WHAT? was asked not only by myself but by my loving wife, a realist who fought menopause with far more aplomb than I battled mid-life crisis. My wife saved me from making a bigger ass of myself. I owe my life to her. 

ZAMM was a story within a story within a story. On the surface was a guy and his kid on motorcycle trip. Then within that frame work was Pirsig telling Chautauquas about Quality. Within that was Phaedrus, Pirsig's brilliant philosophic internal demon, whose victory over the chairman cost Pirsig his sanity and his family. I suspect that within Phaedrus there may be even deeper embedded stories that are too deep for the likes of me--rhetoric and dialectic. One thing I learned from ZAMM and some of my other readings in can have intellectual pursuits and interests, mount them on your ego like a veneer on cheap furniture, but unless there is some IQ horse power embedded in one's skull, understanding evades one. Such it was with the philosophical battle of Phaedrus and the chairman. I doubt that the analogy of the two horsed chariot will ever sufficiently explain the difference of rhetoric and dialectic to me. I had to be pretty much satisfied with Phaedrus catching the Chairman, the guy who writes articles in Britannica about dialectic, pompously bullshitting the class. 

"Were he a real Truth-seeker and not a propagandist for a particular point of view he would not."

Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 383). HarperTorch. Kindle Edition. 

Rather than getting some huge overlying philosophy of life from ZAMM, I picked up bits and pieces. I loved the concept of the Chautauqua, a dialogue to not only edify but to entertain. I love the idea of Quality, don't know what the hell it is, but you can recognize it...some mysterious property that defies explanation yet is obvious. Then there was the idea that problems were opportunities for growth. Don't despair at intractable difficulties, do the work to solve them, and learn from it. Problems then become Chautauqaus in the pursuit of Quality. Beware of the gods, the bullshitters in life like the chairman who use power, influence, and position to bullshit their way past Truth and Quality. 

Or from the bumper sticker:

Trust those who seek the Truth. Doubt those who find it. 

Learn to the beginning of the book, the narrator makes a big production about the advantages of the motorcycle trip for bonding with his son...horsepower, wind in your face, one with the road and the natural beauty flying by. At the end of the book Pirsig realizes the trip would have been far better in a car. He and Chris were isolated by the noise and the wind...they became prisoners to the motorcycle, conversation and bonding being impossible on the bike, and nights around the campfire spent in exhaustion from having the shit beat out of them by hundreds of miles on the bike. 

The final lesson of the book for me was in the afterward. In real life Chris was murdered in 1979. Pirsig then asks:

Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud?

Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . HarperTorch. Kindle Edition. 

I read ZAMM during my mid-life crises, perhaps I should read it again now that I am on the threshold of the "golden years." Perhaps I could gain further insights. I had hoped for such an understanding from John Jerome. His Stone Work: Reflections on Serious Play and Other Aspects of Country Life was another book that greatly affected my life.  Zen and the art of rock wall building. Jerome and Pirsig said many of the same things, but Jerome was far easier to understand. I was delighted to find Jerome had written On Turning Sixty-Five: Notes from the Field. Just the thing I needed on the eve of an impending retirement that I was pretty sure I didn't want. Stay and go crazy and die before you are 65, leave and go crazy and die before you are 65. So Jerome was putting this into context. About half way through the book, I thought "gee I wonder what Jerome is doing now?" A quick google search and I was shocked to find out that Jerome, a fitness buff, died two years after the book was published of lung cancer. I tried to go back to the book, upon reading of plans for his future together with his wife, trips and intellectual pursuits designed to stave off mental decline, I couldn't do it. I could not sit and read of optimistic hopes for he and his wife when they were in their 80's knowing full well that he never saw 70. 

Some dear internet friends have suffered the losses of loved ones as of late, and another is probably about to lose her mother.  You look at the pictures they post, you see wonderful loving human beings.  Indeed where do they go?  I looked at one photo yesterday and unbidden tears rolled down my cheek.  You see love in the photo.

Roland Barthes spoke of there being two qualities of a photograph.  Studium and punctum.  Studium is the physical facts of the photo.  There is a couple, they dressed a certain way, have certain hair styles, wear glasses or not...etc.  Then there is the punctum, that which pierces the heart.  It was the love in that photo that pierced my heart and brought the tears coursing down my cheeks.  It is just an ordinary photograph of an ordinary couple, yet love like Pirsig's Quality just exudes from the photo--we may not know what it is but we recognize it. Where will that love go?  Where did he go?  Will the love continue to exist in half transmissions from the remaining spouse and silence from the parted one?  How do you look at  a photo of people in love, realize that half is gone, where we don't know, and then write something meaningful to her?  There is a whole body of work of dimwitted cliches that you can utter but beyond that what can you say to comfort people?   Do they really want to hear cliches?  Does some well worn trite phrase do anything to help the blackness of pure grief in their hearts?   Perhaps I should write my friend and tell her that with her photograph, she gave us a gift...see our love, don't waste a precious second.

I am not sure that ZAMM will do for me at 64 what it did at 39. It is a middle aged book. Perhaps I should dust off Jerome and pretend that the golden years will be golden.  I think of that photo, and think how much there is to lose.  The golden years are a cruelty. 


  1. I started reading ZAMM..many, many years ago. Got about a 1/4 way thru and gave up. Way too deep for this bus driver. And the only thing I remember about ZAMM is this and it has stuck in my head forever, not sure why...
    “And what is good, Phaedrus,
    And what is not good—
    Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
    You, like myself, prefer Jerome's philosophy on and about life. As you mention, way easier to read and absorb and relate to everyday life.

    The golden years, there a quality in growing old? I don't know, ask me when I'm 85. I, also like you, plan to live to be a 100 years. And why not? Beats the alternative, which is what I tell folks when they show some surprise when I tell them that I am gunning for 100. I can't predict the future any better than you can, maybe we'll both get cancer when we're 69 and 1/2? My dad died at 68 (cancer) and I gotta beat that. Screw the money and material possessions....give me some reasonable health and half a mind and I'll think I've won the lottery. You know what I mean jelly bean!
    You got a few years on me, so I'll watch what lead you take and when I see you wandering down some untrodden path, I'll tap you on the shoulder and ask you if you really had meant to take this particular route. ( that's about as deep a thinkin as this bus driver ventures ).
    On another note.....have you read all of Jerome's books and his brother, Judson Jerome?
    This also prompted me to go back and read your blog about Jerome, from Nov. 13, 2010. For me, re-reading Jerome's books is therapy. This fall/winter I will do round 3. His stuff tends to keep me focused and grounded, unlike ZAMM.
    Which brings me around to pumpernickel bread. I just had 2 pieces, toasted of course, with lots of butter and homemade black wyoming raspberry jam,spread very thickly. Wonderfully delicious.

    1. Yes... I know. I'm incorrigible.

    2. Busman

      I read one of Judson's books, the one on their youth. I meant to read the second one on Judson's adulthood, it supposed to be racy if I remember right, but I never got around to it. I read Truck. I really want to read Stonework again and I should get beyond my unhappiness with his death and read On Turning 65 seeing as I am about 7 month shy of turning 65. I have another book something about blue pools. So I have plenty of jerome to read. Let me know when you are re-reading, I'll read some of the titles over.

      On aging all we can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst. Not sure what the worst is. I agree with you about money and possessions. If you have enough to get by that is all you need. I have enough unread books laying around this house and in my Kindle that I should never have to buy another book and make it to 100. To your list of health and mind, I add spouse. One of us dying before the other scares the shit out of me--hence my furnace explosion ideal. You know I couldn't just check out with out a bang. I figure when I am 100, I'll defer that till my wife is 100. When she gets to 100 then we find another numerical goal, you know something like dying only on years that square root of one of our ages would result in a prime integer. That would get us to 121 or 169. Not a bad goal. For now 100 is good enough.

      Your bread sounds wonderful. I generally like a little bread with my butter and jam. Not good habits for aiming for 100. Busman, you incorrigible old bastard, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    3. Coincidentally, while unpacking books and shelving them, I came across my well-worn copy of Zen and the Art...I've started to reread it. I think that living through the 70's was the most exciting and hopeful time of my life .Ditto for the 60's!

    4. Elaine,

      By the fact that your copy of ZAMM is well worn I assumed you rather liked the book. Did you ever read Lila, Pirsig's second book? I should really sit down re-read both.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Hi Sextant. I've got a copy of ZAMM, and like Busman, got a quarter of the way through. However, you have made me get it off the shelf. I'll give it a good go this time. Very sad about our blogger's loss: I feel just the same about that photo. My sister-in-law lost her 5-year old the day after his birthday (an accident on the farm). She told me that people said some really daft things e.g. "Better now than if he was older"??? etc. etc. She told me a hug and no words at all is best.

    1. Fiftyodd,

      ZAMM is not easy sledding. I keep thinking I should read it and Lila again and I keep thinking that I am too damned lazy.

      Oh my goodness, your poor sister in law. How tragic, such things are just beyond the normal range of belief. Why in the world do such terrible things happen?

      People do say some really daft things. Some people naturally are just daft, but most people are not. It is not that people are daft, it is the overwhelming sense of helplessness that we face. What in the world do you say to a woman that has lost her 5 year child? There is nothing that can be said. These things are violations of our normal sense of decency. You bury your parents and that is terrible, but it is also the natural order of life. We do not bury our children. It is an unspeakable violation of natural order. So people in that situation reach into their bucket of experience and find absolutely nothing to help them and blindly out slides the daft comment.

      I believe your sister in law is correct, a hug is probably the best one can do.

  3. Great review. Fortunately I didn't read this book in English Lit, but then again I made the concious choice to do the subject. Instead it was some of those books that I read in my forties, and I was certainly able to appreciate it in a way that I wasn't able to when I was much younger. Actually, it was my American History Lecturer that first planted the seed in my mind.

    I've also linked this from my post on the book.

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  5. where i can find the zen the art of motorcycle Maintenance