Primarily A Mental Phenomenon: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance's Robert Pirsig Dies


Pirsig and Chris in 1968. Chris died at 22 in a mugging. Photo by Willam Morrow

Robert Pirsig, the brilliant, troubled author of 1974's iconic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values - a dense philosophical exploration, father/son road trip narrative, and study of the art of motorcycle maintenance as "study of the art of rationality itself” - has died at 88 at his Maine home. Pirsig's Zen was published in 1974 after being famously rejected by 121 publishers over five years; even William Morrow, the 122nd who did accept it, warned the book was not "a marketing man's dream." Even though only peripherally about both Zen and motorcycles, it went on to become a cultural touchstone, selling over five million copies and for a time rendering Pirsig "the most widely read philosopher alive."

Zen is an account of a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig took with his emotionally fragile 11-year-old son Chris on his 1964 Honda Superhawk from Minnesota to the west coast. En route, Pirsig delivers a series of philosophical lectures while struggling with a ghost-like presence that both threatens his and his son's sanity - both suffered from mental illness - and obsessively seeks the good, the true, the "metaphysics of quality." Pirsig also explored the clash of cultures between humanism and technology, arguing, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite 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 or in the petals of a flower.” Ultimately, he believed, "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself."


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