Remembering Robert M. Pirsig

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“Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88.” – New York Times

I’m not a philosopher, so I’ll leave it to the philosophers to put Pirsig’s philosophy of Quality into perspective. I never met Pirsig, so I’ll leave it to those who knew him to talk about what they talked about and what it meant to them.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Nonetheless, my memories were personal because–even though I didn’t subscribe to Pirsig’s passion for Quality (as he saw it)–I felt like all of his sentiments surrounding it were things I was then in the process of discovering; or, as the sages who believe we know everything before each earthly incarnation suggest, remembering.

As I looked out the windows at the landscape from my coach seat in the Empire Builder and saw Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana flying past, I had to smile because this was the route Pirsig took on his motorcycle. Except that he said seeing such sites through a car window was pretty much just more TV. The train window views weren’t real because I wasn’t inside those views.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

He believed the journey was more important than the destination. So did I. I still do. I loved the train, but I also preferred the experience from my motorcycle trip in the Rockies or perhaps from my 6,000 miles in an open-topped Triumph TR3. Mountain climbing and walking were even better. So, I believed that experience trumped books and sages and presumed logic.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

Today we’re even in more of a hurry. Perhaps TV dinners and instant coffee were the first omens of the world to come. Hurry up and wait: we said that in the navy. Now we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the waiting thanks to satellite TV and the Internet. By any real definition of the term, quality has suffered.

Pirsig’s work had a profound influence on my thinking. It still does. There was a time when my ideas were called “New Age.” I disliked the term because the ideas it included were very old, presented in today’s terms. One might say the same thing about many of Pirsig’s ideas; though he presented them in such a monumentally different way, they had more impact than the dusty manuscripts in the forgotten section of the library.

“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”

That sounds very parental, doesn’t it? So, I expect many of today’s young people would say, “hell that’s the kind of crap my father and grandfather tried to get me to swallow.” Perhaps they did, but you didn’t understand what they were talking about.

I used to work at a place where my sarcastic comment about the general work ethic was that “a half-assed job saves time.” Just get the work out the door. If it doesn’t last, it’s somebody else’s problem down the road.  I think a lot of places consider that work ethic to be the guiding force of business and industry and, hell, maybe even literature. If so, they need to get a copy if Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and repair themselves.

–Malcolm

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