I skip introductions in books usually. This book was gifted by my brother who left me two years back. It was approximately 29 years ago. When he gave me the book, the title or its cover did not attract me at all. I was totally confused what I had to do with Zen and Motorcycle and how the two were related in any way. I flipped through some pages and kept the book aside. On my first read, the book appeared to me as a detail about motorcycles and its workings. I was 14 years that time. After a couple of years, while I was doing my specialization in English Literature, I decided to read it again. This time I read the introduction given by the author. In the introduction, Pirsig explains that despite the book’s title, it should not be associated with the orthodox Zen Buddhist practice or motorcycles as such. On the second read, the underlying philosophy of Quality and its relation to his personal life began to develop in my mind. Pirsig tried to bring in this book the idea that Quality cannot be defined. It can only be felt. Once you define Quality it loses its meaning. He supports this by explaining Zen. Zen is nothingness. You cannot describe nothingness. You have to feel it. The book ranges from Eastern philosophy to empiricism, and rationalism to rhetoric.
The book differentiates between Quality and Reason. Quality as such is undefinable whereas reason is concerned with things that can be defined and explained in detail. He regards quality as the primal experience, the absolute bedrock from which all languages arises. There is a conflict when you try to define Quality with the help of language. Quality, otherwise reality is undivided. Language splits things into parts while trying to define something. So the very attempt of trying to define Quality is absurd. It is an evolving process of experience.
We all know that the words we use to describe our experiences are never adequate to encapsulate the uniqueness and the zest of the actual experience we felt. Let me try to explain it with a work of art. The artist creates something. He leaves it to the audience. The audience tries to interpret it according to their knowledge and experience. Once the creation is done the artist should be left free. The one who sees the work of art may have different views and interpretations. Take an example of an Impressionist painting. Some people might be intrigued by the colours while some others by the perspectives. It all depends on personal experiences and the way we conceive ideas. No two persons feel the same while looking at a work of art. It can only be felt inside and it varies from person to person.But once you try to describe it the whole purpose of the art fails.
One of my favourite excerpts from the book.
“In our highly complex organic state, we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it”.
(Pirsig, 1974, p.317).
Persig's key message to us is his recitation of Socrates's message to Phaedrus: And what is good Phaedrus and what is not good/ Need we ask anyone these things?
The book is a tug of war between mechanical and spiritless. Pirsig’s iconoclastic approach did confuse me in many places while I was reading the book. It still does. But from my personal experience I suggest this book to all students who take philosophy as a serious subject but with a note of caution that it is not for light hearted reading.
Written by Sreevidya Devanand.