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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by budr Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 11:03:30 AM EST

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is another of those books that mark a major waypoint in the course plot of my life.  It is an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that the book saved my life.  It was the right book at the right time to show me the way out of a very bad place I had wandered into.

Thank you, Phaedrus.

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua ... that's the only name I can think of for it ... like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not a book to be read casually.  It merits a certain investment of time and attention.  It warrants a certain amount of contemplation, like the works of Merton and de Chardin. Pirsig writes about reading with his son. They would read a page or maybe just a paragraph of an interesting book and then talk about what it meant. It took a long time to read a book that way, but they shared many deep and interesting thoughts. I think you will want to read Pirsig like that, in small pieces. The book works on several levels simultaneously. Some of the levels work better than others, some are easier to read, some require a little more work on our part to follow along. I've lost count of how many times I've read it over the years. Each time I see a little more.

There is the physical journey, the cross country cycle trip with his son. It's kind of interesting in itself, but probably wouldn't amount to much if it didn't serve as the vehicle for all the rest. There is the journey of self-discovery. In some sense we all make such a journey, but Pirsig is in a very real, very explicit sense rediscovering parts of himself. Then there is the painstaking exposition of the philosophical journey made by Phaedrus. Parts of that are just plain hard slogging, not for the casual reader. But they are the real heart of the book.

There is a passage where they are making their way through the mountains and the cycle isn't running very well because of the altitude. At the same time, Pirsig is exploring some of the most difficult abstractions of Western philosophy. The atmosphere is rarified, the terrain difficult, and no one who goes there returns unchanged. Call me dense, but I didn't see the parallel the first time I read it.

On this machine I've done the tuning so many times it's become a ritual. I don't have to think much about how to do it anymore. Just mainly look for anything unusual. The engine has picked up a noise that sounds like a loose tappet but could be something worse, so I'm going to tune it now and see if it goes away. Tappet adjustment has to be done with the engine cold, which means wherever you park it for the night is where you work on it the next morning, which is why I'm on a shady curbstone back of a hotel in Miles City, Montana. Right now the air is cool in the shade and will be for an hour or so until the sun gets around the tree branches, which is good for working on cycles. It's important not to tune these machines in the direct sun or late in the day when your brain gets muddy because even if you've been through it a hundred times you should be alert and looking for things.

Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it's some kind of a "knack" or some kind of "affinity for machines" in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason, and most of the troubles are caused by what old time radio men called a "short between the earphones," failures to use the head properly. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. I said yesterday that the ghost of rationality was what Phaedrus pursued and what led to his insanity, but to get into that it's vital to stay with down-to-earth examples of rationality, so as not to get lost in generalities no one else can understand. Talk about rationality can get very confusing unless the things with which rationality deals are also included.

We are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately ... and this is an important way of seeing it ... and where on the other side we can begin to see it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form ... and this is an important way of seeing things too. These tools for example ... this wrench ... has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It's designed to change the underlying form of the machine.

The porcelain inside this first plug is very dark. That is classically as well as romantically ugly because it means the cylinder is getting too much gas and not enough air. The carbon molecules in the gasoline aren't finding enough oxygen to combine with and they're just sitting here loading up the plug. Coming into town yesterday the idle was loping a little, which is a symptom of the same thing.

Just to see if it's just the one cylinder that's rich I check the other one. They're both the same. I get out a pocket knife, grab a stick lying in the gutter and whittle down the end to clean out the plugs, wondering what could be the cause of the richness. That wouldn't have anything to do with rods or valves. And carbs rarely go out of adjustment. The main jets are oversized, which causes richness at high speeds but the plugs were a lot cleaner than this before with the same jets. Mystery. You're always surrounded by them. But if you tried to solve them all, you'd never get the machine fixed. There's no immediate answer so I just leave it as a hanging question.

The first tappet is right on, no adjustment required, so I move on to the next. Still plenty of time before the sun gets past those trees ... I always feel like I'm in church when I do this ... The gage is some kind of religious icon and I'm performing a holy rite with it. It is a member of a set called "precision measuring instruments" which in a classic sense has a profound meaning.

In a motorcycle this precision isn't maintained for any romantic or perfectionist reasons. It's simply that the enormous forces of heat and explosive pressure inside this engine can only be controlled through the kind of precision these instruments give. When each explosion takes place it drives a connecting rod onto the crankshaft with a surface pressure of many tons per square inch. If the fit of the rod to the crankshaft is precise the explosion force will be transferred smoothly and the metal will be able to stand it. But if the fit is loose by a distance of only a few thousandths of an inch the force will be delivered suddenly, like a hammer blow, and the rod, bearing and crankshaft surface will soon be pounded flat, creating a noise which at first sounds a lot like loose tappets. That's the reason I'm checking it now. If it is a loose rod and I try to make it to the mountains without an overhaul, it will soon get louder and louder until the rod tears itself free, slams into the spinning crankshaft and destroys the engine. Sometimes broken rods will pile right down through the crankcase and dump all the oil onto the road. All you can do then is start walking.

But all this can be prevented by a few thousandths of an inch fit which precision measuring instruments give, and this is their classical beauty -- not what you see, but what they mean -- what they are capable of in terms of control of underlying form.

The second tappet's fine. I swing over to the street side of the machine and start on the other cylinder.

Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It's the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that's fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I'm working on parts. I'm working on concepts.

That deft, almost casual interweaving of the concrete and the abstract, the real and the ideal, was what first attracted me to Pirsig's work.  But the concepts I found there, and their application to my own life, were what drew me back to the book again and again.

In 1970 I enrolled at a small liberal arts college in Oklahoma. It was a special school and a special time. In my own way I set out on a philosophical journey not unlike Phaedrus'. What I had in mind was something like a Grand Unified Field Theory of philosophy. I was just ignorant enough to think that such a thing was possible, and just arrogant enough to think that I could pull it off. Well, I was nineteen and thought I knew everything.  In truth I had neither the mental discipline nor the mental horsepower of a Phaedrus. I read broadly but neither deeply nor wisely. In hindsight the outcome was quite predictable. In fairly short order I "discovered" existentialism, solipsism, and drugs. The combination was for me quite self destructive.

Take a self-absorbed twenty-something. Feed him a little Wittgenstein, a little Kant. Throw in some Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung. Stir in Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception.  Add John Lilly and Carlos Casteneda.  Perhaps you notice a certain progression there.  Throw in a little mescaline and LSD, and a lot of marijuana and alcohol. Shake well. You can imagine how it will turn out.

In the early days of aviation, before the advent of autopilots and sophisticated instruments, flying into any kind of inclement weather was risky even for experienced pilots. A pilot who found himself flying in the clouds was in grave peril. Once he lost the visual reference of the horizon it was all too easy to become disoriented. Without an outside frame of reference, the balance mechanism of the inner ear can easily be fooled by random motion. Even seasoned pilots quickly lose any clear sense of up and down. Add a little storm-induced turbulence, and disorientation, vertigo, and panic are not far away.

Sooner or later the aircraft will drift away from straight and level flight into a slight bank and corresponding turn. The hapless pilot, reading the confused signals from his inner ear, may not notice the bank or may even imagine he is banking the other way. Like as not, he will turn the wheel into the bank, making matters worse.

As the plane turns it begins to lose altitude. When and if the pilot notices the altimeter unwinding, his instinct is to pull the nose up. This only tightens the spiral and steepens the descent. The eventual outcome is all too predictable. Many otherwise competent pilots just keep wrapping up the spiral until they either fly into the ground or pull the wings off the plane. In either case the pilot and the aircraft are doomed. Pilots call it the graveyard spiral.

Doing drugs is a lot like flying in the clouds. Eventually one loses all frames of reference, all sense of reality. The outcome is often as not a kind of mental graveyard spiral. It's probably an exaggeration to say that Robert Pirsig saved my life, but it's probably not much of an exaggeration. I'm not sure when I first read ZAMM. Probably about '75 or '76. Things were pretty hazy by then. It was electrifying. It was the book I intended to write. Don't laugh. The thing about self-delusion is that, by definition, you don't recognize it in yourself.

In any case, it showed me the way out of my own little spiral. For a time I focused on my own very narrow interpretation of Pirsig's Quality. I got clean and sober and found work as an electrician. There is both science and art in wiring a building. It takes mental clarity and technical understanding to lay out circuits and balance loads. There is a certain spartan aesthetic to bending conduit and mounting switchboxes. I put my heart into my work. There is a school in Waurika, Oklahoma that has little bits of quality in every wall. I know, because I put them there. Thomas Merton wrote about work as a kind of prayer. Well, my prayers are all over that school.

Eventually I began to read again, to think again, to recover some of what I had lost just as Phaedrus did.  For that I owe him and Pirsig my deepest gratitude if not my life.

Thank you, Robert.

Also in green.

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 11:41:03 AM EST
We've been here before, not long ago


I believe Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality" constitutes one of the most important philosophical insights in a very long time. If we apply his metaphysical insight as a foundation we may build financial and economic infrastructure that actually has some relationship to Reality, instead of that based upon the completely nonsensical assumptions which are used now.

Bryson's phrase is worth repeating.

Once in a great while, a few times in history, a human mind produces an observation so acute and unexpected, that people can't quite decide which is the more amazing, the Thought, or the Thinking of it

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 12:06:40 PM EST
Wow.  Not sure how I missed your diary first time around.  Methinks that, like Pirsig, it is not to be read casually.  I'll have to spend some time with it.

And I'm probably not qualified to judge the merits of Pirsig's work in the larger scheme of things.  What it has meant to me personally simply dwarfs what it may mean in that larger sense.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 12:35:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're no more and no less "qualified" than I am.

I don't know much about Philosophy, but I know what I Like!

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 12:51:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Despite wearing black turtleneck sweaters and hanging around in coffee bars ...

If you don't know the influence of Chrysippus of Soli on Frege's Calculus of Propositions how can anyone take you seriously!


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 02:42:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I liked ZAMM, but somehow Lila had more impact on my life. Of course, this may just highlight the fact that I'm still as foolishly arrogant as you were at 19. I still have the feeling that maybe I can do something impossible.

Ah well...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 12:24:22 PM EST
Heh.  I have a feeling that may have much to do with when and where and how you encountered the two books.  I enjoyed Lila, but it did not have the impact on me that ZAMM did.

That said, Lila offered some stunning insights of its own.  Pirsig's ruminations of cast iron ornamental lawn furniture as a a metaphor for the rigidity of Victorian thought and social structure stands out in my mind.  That is always my first thought when Lila comes up in conversation.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 12:42:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
aaah the wonder of fuzzy metaphors - Don't I just love 'em?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 07:37:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Technology has always been both a driver and a victim of metaphorical thought.

WE can only ever see the world in terms of the memes that surround us. We even analogize our brain in terms of the latest technology. But whether the products of our brains will ever BE our brains is a moot point.

I still have a feeling that the oldest solution to understanding the brain is to create more brains (reproduction). So we come to the question of whether the desire to solve an intractable problem is to not say 'No, I don't know the answer' but to say 'I don't know the answer, but I am going to provide more future people (kids) that may solve it.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 07:49:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We even analogize our brain in terms of the latest technology.

Pirsig's key insight was that we relate to Reality through Analogy.

Reproduction as problem solving is an interesting thought.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 07:59:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I guess we all feel that we just don't have enough information or insight to 'get the final picture' because there is NO final picture.

There is no answer yet - but maybe the next generation can solve it?

I sat with my daughters tonight thru 2 episodes of the 70's series 'Colombo' (perfect old style dramas with very little deconstruction - just plot), an episode of Derren Brown's psychological illusionism and then a long session with Songstar or whatever that PS2 karaoke game is.

I can't say that I am confident that the secret of reality is anywhere close, but I am confident that my daughters will, at some point, take a crack at the same problems that I ponder. And that makes me happy....

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 08:58:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You? Foolishly arrogant? You're the well-tempered, civilized British person I could never be.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 06:07:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice to have heroes, I guess.

Would have to think real hard who mine are.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Sat Jan 13th, 2007 at 10:07:12 PM EST
Thank you for this.  I have read this book dozens of times and given it as a gift dozens more.

So it is wondeful to read someone who enjoys it as much as I but has a VERY different set of perspectives going in.

Thanks again!

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 03:07:52 PM EST

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