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Robert Pirsig: Philosophical scrivener

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

The reclusive author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig, passed away on April 24 at his home in Maine, at the age of 88. Originally rejected by at least 120 publishers, his 1974 novel somehow captured the zeitgeist of the American counterculture as our country moved passed the free love spirit of the ‘60s, while still questioning the equivalence of material wealth with success.

Pirsig’s attempt to reconcile humanism with the forces of modernization, globalization and technological progress quickly became a cult classic.

A road trip book in the same lineage as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Pirsig’s most famous work recounts a motorcycle excursion he took with his 11-year-old son from the plains of Minnesota to the California coast. Much of ZAMM is inspired by events that took place when Pirsig was teaching rhetoric at Montana State University, and there are still pilgrims who retrace the motorcycle trip, passing through Bozeman every summer.

Pirsig was a prodigy as child, and as is common with many brilliant minds, he struggled with depression and insanity throughout his life. The involuntary electric shock therapies he endured in the early 1960s and the murder of his son in 1979 did not improve his mental health.

Much of ZAMM’s philosophical diatribes, or “Chautauquas” as he calls them, are focused on the elusive concept of “Quality.” Like the Beat Generation writers before him, Pirsig felt that a healthy dose of Eastern mysticism was a necessary antidote to the Western philosophical tradition’s inability to answer the question of “How to live?”
Pirsig’s insights into the limitations of subject-object oriented metaphysics are still relevant today. His recognition of the intellectual dishonesty in making sharp dichotomies between facts and values; reason and spirituality; and mind and body still ring true some 50 years later.

Some philosophical problems are not meant to be solved, but only dissolved. Freeing us from false dualisms of our cultural mindset is one way of avoiding philosophical dead-ends. In this sense, Pirsig’s philosophy is very much in line with a strain of thought championed by John Dewey and William James known as American pragmatism.

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a self-help book in the best sense of the term. It offers no easy answers, but does present a compelling introduction to the grand philosophical questions in a way that makes them relevant to the art of living well. ZAMM has had a transformative effect on millions of readers who emerge from the book reoriented to the need for simplicity and cultivating peace of mind in an increasingly complex, fragmented world.

After reading Pirsig, it’s hard not to want a bike in the garage, just in case you need to clear your mind.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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