Successful Pirsig Rethinks Life of Zen and Science"
York Times, May, 1974
After what he
describes as a lifetime of humiliation that culminated in a
breakdown, Robert M.Pirsig now faces the prospect of learning to
mental live with success.
Mr. Pirsig's 20-year struggle
against the forces of academic reaction and the dualistic
tradition of Western science and philosophy is poignantly
recounted in his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, a multileveled exploration of values and the author's
Despite a title that might seem
limiting to some readers, the book has received rave reviews and
William Morrow, its publisher, reports that the first three
printings of 48,000 hardcover copies are almost sold out, with a
fourth printing planned. A major paperback publisher has also made
a six-figure bid for the rights, and there is talk of a motion
of New Worries
For the 46-year old technical
writer and former teacher of philosophy and rhetoric, it is all
very heady but also a source of new worries.
great feeling," he smiled, between sips of a martini at
Barbetta's on West 46th Street.
The last time I was in New
York, no one knew if I existed -- or cared. It can be a very
lonely place. I'm enjoying the new feeling of success, after all
those years of rejection, but I worry about what success will mean
to my life. I don't want to become too self-conscious about my
work and I am aware that publicity seeks to rob you your hard-won
privacy, transforming your private life into a public life. I
think of what happened to writers like Ross Lockwood Jr., the
author of Raintree County, and Thomas Heggen, the author of Mr.
Roberts, both of whom committed suicide after they became
successful. I want to continue writing and I have learned that I
write best when I am neither too enthusiastic nor too depressed."
The author, who is on leave
from his work as a technical writer in the computer field on a
Guggenheim fellowship, said the idea for Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance was first conceived in 1968 as a short and
light-hearted essay, following a motorcycle trip with his then
12-year-old son, Chris and two friends, from their home in
Minneapolis to the West Coast. He said the first few pages and a
covering letter was sent to 121 publishers, with 22 of them
However, when the essay was
completed, Mr. Pirsig said he was dissatisfied with the portions
dealing with Zen and they became fewer.
On the other hand,
as the book's ultimate design began to take shape, the number of
Throughout the four-and-a-half years
of its creation, only James Landis, a senior editor at Morrow,
retained his enthusiasm and became its strongest advocate.
Perhaps the most compelling portions of the book deal with
a mythical character called Phaedrus, a name me Pirsig grew from
Plato's dialogues and who is soon perceived to represent the
author at a period just before his breakdown.
Phaedrus is the eternally
unsatisfied seeker after truth, although Mr. Pirsig prefers the
concept of quality. Phaedrus's search takes him to different
universities -- both here and in India -- and through a broad
exploration of science, technology, and Western philosophy,
Phaedrus's intellectual honesty will allow for no compromise, no
fudging of the borders of quality, and he is perceived everywhere
as an obstreperous gadfly against whom the academic establishment
reacts, first with suspicion, then with hostility. Torn by such
forces, the mind's dissolution seems inevitable.
Pirsig spent two years in and out of mental hospitals after his
breakdown and says now that he has been exorcised of the spirit of
Phaedrus, yet he feels somehow that he has betrayed his better
self. "At the hospital, they taught me to get along with
other people, to compromise, and I agreed," he explained with
a touch of remorse. "Phaedrus was more honest -- he would
never compromise, and the young respected him for that."
the book , the narrator puts it this way: "What I am is a
heretic who's recanted, and thereby in everyone's eyes saved his
soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all
he has saved is his skin."
Mr. Pirsig sees the book's
narrator -- himself-- as a "not very nice" person, a
dissembler who puts on his best face for other so he will be liked
and who unjustly patronizes the Minneapolis friends with whom he
traveled. He recognizes the narcissism that prevented him from
responding to the emotional needs of his son, who, at the time of
the westward trip, was himself on the verge of a breakdown,
although, at the end, Chris comes to recognize the Phaedrus he
knew and loved as a small child in the narrator, and there is
There have been problems since, he admits,
but things are more hopeful now. Asked about Chris's reaction to
the book, the author said candidly. "At first, he was unhappy
with it." But," he added with a smile, "Chris came
to the party that launched the book, so I guess everything is all
Mr. Pirsig, who was born in Minneapolis and
whose father Maynard E. Pirsig, is the former dean of the
University of Minnesota Law School, still lives in the Twin Cities
with his wife Nancy; Christopher who is now 17, and Theodore, 16,
despite the city's many unhappy associations. He explains it this
"You can't run away from yourself, away from
your past. My family and friends are there and if I am to
accomplish anything it will be there. I want to overcome the idea
that the Midwest is a cultural desert, although it often is.
Minnesotans will accept things from a native that they never would
from an outsider. For instance, I have helped establish a Zen
Center in Minneapolis and we have imported a great Zen Master. An
outsider could never have done it."
encouraged by this first step in the cross-cultural fertilization
of Minneapolis, Mr. Pirsig is sanguine about the immediate
acceptance of his imported master.
"Why, in the Far
East," he said with a smile, "the master is considered a
living Buddha, but, in Minneapolis, they wonder why he doesn't
have a job.