In a recent article published on National Book Lovers Day, we put forward eight classic novels that ought to be made into movies. One of our selections was Robert M. Pirsig’s excellent road novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The reason we chose Pirsig’s novel was that it was felt that the finished product could end up looking like a wholesome, philosophical version of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider. In fact, Pirsig had been keen to make a film adaptation of his book, though it never came to fruition as he had been adamant about making it solely on his terms.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1974. The title is a play on words of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, though its introduction reads, “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.”
Narratively, Pirsig’s novel tells of a 17-day motorcycle journey that he took with his son Chris in 1968 from Minnesota to Northern California. The pair are also accompanied by Pirsig’s close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland for the first nine days of the journey.
Though much of the writing in the book concerns the day-to-day travelling, camping, and living of the journey, it is frequented by several philosophical discussions surrounding the nature of technology, the reality and importance of knowledge and the history of philosophy and science.
Also included are passages pertaining to a past life of the narrator in the form of a being named Phaedrus, who was a teacher of writing at Montana State College, and who became obsessed by the question of what defined ‘good writing’ and, in turn, what defines ‘goodness’ at all.
The philosophical content also examines the distinction between the ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ forms of understanding – namely that romantics live “in the moment”, whereas those with classical knowledge draw on history and breadth of rational analysis. The narrator, whilst primarily drawn to the classical understanding, is attempting to live a life somewhere in the middle, to attain an “inner peace of mind”.
So too does Pirsig explore the role of the self and its relation to an intimate relationship with another, the Stoic nature of fighting back against a ‘setback’, and how one can get caught up in not beginning a project that will bring meaning to their life – for example, through egotism, anxiety, boredom, or impatience.
So, where Easy Rider was the story of two rebels in pursuit of something beyond the American Dream, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an examination of what it is to be a human capable of experiencing that dream in the first place. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda found enlightenment through the use of psychedelic drugs, but Pirsig and his son showed that a deeper, more profound enlightenment can be achieved through a sensitive inspection of the human soul whilst throwing oneself into the great American countryside.