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Reflections on Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art'

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Jerry Fletcher

Joined: 21 Jan 2006
Posts: 837
Location: Studio BS

PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 6:09 am    Post subject: Reflections on Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art' Reply with quote


hello... hello... hello...


echo ... echo ... echo ... echo ...

Wow. The first post - like setting foot on an uninhabited planet. Ahem, ...

"Today I make one small click with Mac, and one giant spleef with the kind."

Being the creator of the universe has it's advantages.

Heh, heh ... sometimes I just kill myself ... wait a minute, uh, never mind.

Ok, hilarity aside, who else is feeling like an eyeball on a stick?

I mean, I'm sitting here looking at my cool novelty store fiber optic light - hundreds of hair like strands waving about in a spherical shape, each one aglow at the tip from light which originates from an unseen bulb in the center. Each one a tiny beam of the larger light, illuminating the space around it.

All of a sudden the cheesiest thing in my house is a spiritual teacher. That's what I'm talking about.

I realize the title of my post sounds like a new age CD you'd glance at while sitting in the massage chair at Sharper Image, but I felt like the concept of reflections kept coming back to mind when grappling with the mirror plane. Trying to define the relationship between the two kept bringing up the shortcomings of language - which to me is a sign that you're 'talking' about the right thing - you can't describe it. The Tao that can be told... etc.

That sounds like a fun board, eh? Discussing what inherently can never be described. Well, frighteningly, it sounds like a good time to me.

The thing I like about inserting the mirror plane between the subject and the object is that it provides a location that we can reference, the 'middle' if you will, (conceptually at least, like a point) as well as a syntax of sorts to describe that third 'thing' that exists both as a noun and a verb at the same time. Something cannot be reflective without the presence of something to reflect - and it's interesting that we can only ever see ourselves in reflection, or in the presence of something reflective. For me, it provides a third perspective in the subject object relationship, one that is able to observe the subject gazing at it's reflection.

Well, the snake's already swallowing it's tail again.

But I guess that's where I'd start - just by trying to notice the reflective process in all it's manifestations. Like the way we reflect the people we're around, and the way we can see ourselves in them after a while. Like the way we're each a reflection of the culture in which we were raised. Are we really much more than reflective surfaces ourselves?

Ultimately, I see this forum as the surface of the mirror plane of Fintan's work; the place where all the rippling action takes place, as the roots anchor themselves in our minds. That's why I'm here flapping my fingers - just trying to make some waves. Even if we don't know which direction we're flowing, a little lateral drift and the current might find us.

What other mirror processes are sitting there reflecting back at us in the everyday, hard to believe, miracle-ness of simply waking up and living through another day? Which all of a sudden jump out at you?

How does it feel to think we all might be connected by some mystical light bulb in the center of the Earth?

Um ... Who else is fired up about TreeIncarnation?
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Site Admin

Joined: 18 Jan 2006
Posts: 8252

PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2006 2:44 pm    Post subject: Zen and the Art Reply with quote

The thing I like about inserting the mirror plane between the subject and the object is that it provides a location that we can reference, the 'middle' if you will, (conceptually at least, like a point) as well as a syntax of sorts to describe that third 'thing' that exists both as a noun and a verb at the same time. -Jerry

Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" was a key part of what got me started on all this. He was saying that 'Quality' was found in the moment of pre-intellectual awareness, and that this produced both subjects and objects. It was in the middle, so to speak. By the way, Zen is called the "Middle Way."

This is concordant with my 'Mirror Plane' concept --something that runs down the middle of our bodies, and down the middle of reality itself.

For anyone who wants to trace this line, below are links to the online copy of Pirsig's book -Fintan

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Author's Note

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, 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.

And what is good, Phædrus,
And what is not good...
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
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Site Admin

Joined: 18 Jan 2006
Posts: 8252

PostPosted: Sat Aug 07, 2010 8:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Those links above to Pirsig's
Zen have slipped off the net.

So I BFN archived it: Wink


Minds are like parachutes.
They only function when open.

Last edited by Fintan on Wed Apr 18, 2018 7:32 am; edited 2 times in total
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Jeffrey Walters

Joined: 01 Mar 2008
Posts: 8
Location: Michigan

PostPosted: Sun Aug 08, 2010 8:34 pm    Post subject: Link points to wrong page Reply with quote

Hello Fintan,

Just wanted to let you know that the link to third page of your archive of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance actually points to the first page in the series.

And also thank you for everything you do here on BFN. It's my favorite website on the whole internet.

Though this is my first post, I visit and read much of what is posted here almost daily.

Jeff Walters
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Craig W

Joined: 24 Feb 2007
Posts: 330

PostPosted: Thu Sep 23, 2010 8:39 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Welcome, Jeff, and do post more! It's not a forum without posters and none of us has a monopoly on truth. Post away!
"Nothing can trouble you but your own imagination." ~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 18, 2018 7:32 am    Post subject: Reply with quote


Robert M. Pirsig working on a motorcycle © Robert Morrow/AP

On the road with Aristotle


A review by R. C. Zaehner, published in the TLS of April 19, 1974, of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, who died on April 24, 2017.

The key to the delightfully improbable title of Robert Pirsig’s book is supplied by the following passage from it:

    Plato is the essential Buddha-seeker who appears again in each generation, moving onward and upward toward the “one”. Aristotle is the eternal motorcycle mechanic who prefers the “many”. I myself am pretty much Aristotelian in this sense, preferring to find the Buddha in the quality of the facts around me, but Phaedrus was clearly a Platonist by temperament and when the classes shifted to Plato he was greatly relieved.

There are two main characters in the book: Mr Pirsig himself and the problematical Phaedrus. They do not want to meet; and had everything gone as planned they never would or indeed could have met because Phaedrus was dead – snuffed out by those deadly electrodes in a mental hospital. So Platonic Phaedrus died and Robert Pirsig, the Aristotelian physician who at this stage used his medical craft on maintaining the health of motorcycles was born, as passionately interested as Aristotle himself would have been, in their parts, the functions of each part and the relationship of each to all, and of each and all to their formal cause (their “entelechy” qua motorcycle) and their final cause (their ti en einai, their “what was it to be?”), in this case Mr Pirsig’s own motorcycle. For, whatever Phaedrus may have been, Mr Pirsig is an Aristotelian for whom “all understanding is in terms of underlying form”.

Plotinus described his quest as “the flight from the alone to the Alone”: in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Mr Pirsig (though he does not appear to know it) is describing his “flight from Aristotle to Aristotle”. This may sound perverse, for, after a good many ups and more downs on the American academic scene, he finally got himself accepted (against intense official opposition) as a student at the University of Chicago, earning his keep the while by teaching rhetoric at the adjacent University of Illinois; and it was at the University of Chicago that, after a mystico-metaphysical struggle of exceptional severity, he finally fell into the mystic’s usual grave – “his soul at rest” – his body numbed, his fingers blistered by the heat of the cigarette he could no longer feel, and himself wallowing in a pool of his own urine. He tells his wife and children to leave and the next he knows is that he is in hospital. And the proximate cause of this disaster had been a direct confrontation with Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric expounded by a professor who intensely disliked him and succeeded in killing both him and Aristotle with one single lethal dose of academic hemlock.

This was the death of Phaedrus, the brilliant, uneasy, tortured thinker who Mr Pirsig had once been but had now, blessedly, ceased to be. Or was it so blessedly? If you want to know, you will have to read this book.

Phaedrus is dead: and that should be that. “You have a new personality now”, they had told him, and a new job, technical and Aristotelian, which should keep him out of trouble. And then he had his motorcycle, that microcosm of the Aristotelian universe, a deftly coordinated mass of metallic matter alive with underlying form that made it what it was under the poietikos nous, the “craftsman-mind” of Robert Pirsig himself. And then there was Chris, his eleven-year-old son and therefore, according to Aristotle’s own suggestion, by rights his “second self” – himself yet not himself, different yet in some way the same. Phaedrus had never understood those magic words “in some way” with which Aristotle, that master of pellucidly precise ambiguity, clothed his deeper thoughts: but Phaedrus, the intoxicated romantic Platonist was dead and buried, and the scene is set for a long, long motorcycle-trip across the American continent from Minnesota to California – just Dad and Chris, the motorcycle, the Sutherlands and their motorcycle, camping out in blazing heat and freezing cold, far from the technological hell of the great American cities.

Of course, there are bound to be ups and downs in any holiday trip of this kind. There are some things about which two people will never agree, like motorcycles. How can John Sutherland with his blind hatred of technology in all its manifestations ever come to understand the sheer beauty of “underlying form” of a motorcycle? He just uses it to go places as fast as its wheels will carry him, and damn the consequences. For John is a romantic, Robert a classicist: John is a Platonist, Robert an Aristotelian. Hence you will never get anywhere talking to John about motorcycle maintenance any more than you will get anywhere talking to Pope Paul about the Pill. However, that is all in the day’s work.

It is Chris who is the real trouble, for he is showing signs of mental disturbance – and that is bad. Can this be the work of poor “dead” Phaedrus? Chris had been told “ghosts appear when someone has not been buried right”. And then Mr Pirsig realizes with a shudder that Phaedrus “never was buried right, and that was exactly the source of the trouble”. Phaedrus makes his first appearance on page 69; and we now know that this is going to be no ordinary motorcycle trip: it is to be a life-and-death struggle between mad, dead Phaedrus and Mr Pirsig’s new-found Aristotelian soul. The dead soul’s first appearance is dramatic:

    And in the fog there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when I look at it directly, but then reappears in the earner of my vision when I turn my glance. I am about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then do not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure I recognize even though I do not let on. It is Phaedrus.

    Evil spirit Insane. From a world without life or death.

    The figure fades and I hold panic down . . . tight . . . not rushing it . . . just letting it sink in . . . not believing it, not disbelieving it . . . but the hair crawls slowly on the back of my skull . . . he is calling Chris, is that it . . . Yes?

Yes! . . . The Erlkönig all over again: the father with his child – and the dead child at the end of the horrible ride. This is one of the things this startlingly beautiful book is about. Who is going to win? Pirsig or Phaedrus? The sane or the mad? Or will some uneasy compromise be reached? Does it matter so very much? Perhaps not, since after all Pirsig and Phaedrus are really the same person, and if Phaedrus wins, then he can always have electric shock treatment again to turn him back into Pirsig.

But what of Chris? He is already showing signs of intense withdrawal and, like Phaedrus in his last abject mystic state, he is already suffering from incontinence. He cannot understand his father who in turn seems quite unable to communicate with him. And as they approach the Pacific it gets worse and worse – because Phaedrus has won. He has taken over and is going to send Chris away again just as he did before. “The wail is high-pitched and inhuman, like a siren in the distance.”

That’s Chris: a child’s despair: and even Phaedrus can’t bear that. After all Chris is his other self too quite as much as Pirsig’s. Then Chris sees, and the two “selves” come together in one underlying Aristotelian form, together and one in one sense yet distinct and individual in another. Or, to be more precise, one in (or rather on) the underlying form which is the motorcycle, now carrying them triumphantly to they do not quite know where. The nightmare is over, but it was horrible while it lasted.

The story is told with immense skill: hints at former lunacy are followed by broader hints until the whole past comes rushing back with overwhelming force when Mr Pirsig revisits his former classroom in Bozeman, Montana, where it had all started:

    There’s no sound at all. Chris whispers, “Why are we here?” I Just shake my head. I hear a car go by outside. Chris whispers, “l don’t like it here. It’s scary in here.”

And he’s dead right, for “he [Phaedrus] is here now. He’s aware of everything I see. Everything jumps forth and vibrates with recall.” This is where it all began; his metaphysical quest for a real university, a real “Church of Reason” where young men and women should be taught about Quality and be freed from the rat-race of mechanically quantified grades which mean nothing and do nothing except stultify any creative impulse the student may possess.

“Quality”, that’s the word that first occurs to him, but the more he looks at Quality the plainer it comes to be that you cannot ever define it: it is just there, given and somehow absolute. He stumbles on the Tao Tê Ching and there it is – the Way that cannot be told but which is yet the unvarying Way. He should have left it at that: but how can he leave it at that? He is, after all, dedicated to building the Church of Reason in the setting of the University of Montana, and how can you build such a church if its cornerstone is itself beyond reason?

He did not know it at the time, but this is precisely what Aristotle had tried to do without floundering into madness; but he was perhaps unique in this respect, since of all the geniuses of the first rank the world has produced he is the most unquestionably sane – perhaps the only one. Phaedrus, unfortunately for Mr Pirsig, was no Aristotle, and his essentially Aristotelian formulations of Quality lead him on inexorably to the mystical One and that pool of urine:

    The sun of quality [he wrote] does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it.

    And at that point, when he wrote that, he knew he had reached some kind of culmination of thought he had been unconsciously striving for over a long period of time.

He had indeed: he had discovered on his own Aristotle’s poietikos nous, that “creative mind” which has baffled the academic commentators ever since. He would have done well to stop there, but he is obsessed by a Socratic demon who drives him on to ever higher metaphysical heights to fall from which means insanity. The beginning of the end can be descried by the increasing use of capital letters, the increasingly fanatical hatred of reason in one who saw himself as the founder of the Church of Reason, and a savage determination to make reason accept Quality as qualified by himself!

He had come to the Greeks late, but when he was finally accepted for a course called “Ideas and Methods 251, Rhetoric” what he learnt (and everything he was taught seems to have been factually wrong) turned him not only against Aristotle but against Plato and Socrates who he strangely thought had wickedly vilified the inspired Sophist rhetoricians who alone extolled the absolute supremacy of aretē; (excellence) by which they meant what he called Quality and everyone who knew called the One. How he arrived at these extraordinary contradictions of all the evidence is far from clear, but Phaedrus could hardly have cared less, for he realized with certainty at last that “There is no contradiction. There never really can be between the core terms of monistic philosophies. The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece.”

It is that “has got to be” that is paranoiac. Mr Pirsig knows this, but Phaedrus too knows “that he has a new and shattering and world-shaking truth to be born”. Alas, there are intuitions of genius and intuitions of madness: and they can be terribly alike. Both, for very different reasons, tend to bypass facts. Phaedrus is terribly good at this, and Mr Pirsig seems to be fooled by him. How on earth did he get it into his head, for instance, that the Greek word Phaidros means “wolf” or that “gumption” is a Scottish equivalent for Greek enthousiasmos, or that Aristotelianism is based on “form” and “substance”?

Is it simply that he was mad at the time, or is it that American higher education is based on inaccurate paperback editions of secondary and tertiary sources? Whatever the reason Pirsig-Phaedrus should really find what he wants if he can be persuaded to return to the last three books of Aristotle’s Ethics, De Anima III, and Metaphysics XII where he will find the Unmoved Mover awaiting him with open arms.

Perhaps it would be excessive to say that this is a great book, but it is certainly a powerfully original one – disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights. There is just the right mixture of madness and motorcycle maintenance, of the beauties on the road without and the travail of the mind within, of Pirsig and Phaedrus and Chris. If it is not quite great it is at least wonderful – as “wonderful” or nearly so as when Aristotle sees and roundly affirms that “God is a living being, eternal and supremely good, and that in God there is life and coherent, eternal being. For that is God.” This surely is the “underlying form” that both Mr Pirsig and Phaedrus had been looking for, Quality in machines and men.

Yes, it can be “round affirmed” that this is a wonderful book. And once we have admitted that it may perhaps not seem hyper-critical to add that the treatise on “gumptionology” (pages 302–325) is really a little too long


Minds are like parachutes.
They only function when open.
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