How a road trip inspired a classic
In the years after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’s immense success, its author Robert M Pirsig became a recluse. He rarely granted interviews or made public appearances. He was once even dubbed ‘New England’s second most reclusive novelist’, second of course to JD Salinger. His only other book Lila didn’t fare too well. He has now passed away at the age of 88.
But in one of those rare interviews that he granted several decades after Zen… came out, Pirsig described a time in his early thirties when his life was consumed by anxiety and “all these ideas were coming” to him “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?” he told the Observer. He was teaching at a college then. And he would be so anxious he recounts that he was often physically sick before each class.
“I could not sleep and I could not stay awake... I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days... Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers... but then a kind of chaos set in. 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...”
His psychiatrists took the former view. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and treated with electric-shock therapy on numerous occasions. His marriage itself was also unraveling. His wife threw him out and later took him back again. Their marriage lasted a little longer after the book was released. Several writers, once their books become famous, come up with remarkable but exaggerated stories of they put their books together, or found their voice, to perhaps satiate the reader’s craving for a profound and difficult origin story. But in the case of Pirsig, his novel Zen… and the ideas that he explored in it took birth during this period of genuine instability in his life. He was often without a job, his marriage was coming undone, and perhaps the worst of all, his mind was not in place.
His book Zen… was an unlikely bestseller. Neither a Buddhist Zen philosophy book nor a motorcycle maintenance tract (Pirsig joked in the introduction to the book, “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”), the book is about the time in his life when he took his 12-year-old son, Chris, on a cross-country motorcycle trip.
In actuality, the book is a philosophical tract disguised as an old-fashioned road-trip novel. In it, he develops what he calls the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’, where he tries to unite Eastern and Western philosophy, and religious mysticism and scientific positivism. He writes in the book, “I would like … to be concerned with the question ‘What is Best?’... What is the best way to act, to think, to live? It is an important question – the second oldest known to man, after ‘Why are we here?’
Riding the lonely back roads of a post-hippie America on a Honda Superhawk CB77, the protagonist ruminates philosophically through the ride while trying unsuccessfully to bond with his son, who appears to be unsettled by his father’s increasing signs of mania. The son in fact, perhaps a pitch in for the reader, often seems to wonder, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘What’s really the point of it all?’
The book’s manuscript was rejected 121 times by publishers before it was published and created a record in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling book rejected by the largest number of publishers. It sold about 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since, making Pirsig then the most widely read philosopher alive. The book was translated into 27 languages, likened to American classics like Moby Dick, and Robert Redford even tried to buy its movie rights.
There are some who can find the book impenetrable and the writer a man gone crazy with t-shirt-ready lines (‘The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there’). But to most readers, it is a timeless classic. And a reminder that despite the misery, you can still find peace. That ‘the Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain’.