I recently finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and I was blown away. The book was published in 1974 and The London Telegraph and BBC have described it as, “the most widely read philosophy book, ever.”
Upon reflection on the book’s wild success, Pirsig said:
In the early seventies when it was being written, I had those dreams, of course, but didn’t let myself dwell on them or express them publicly for fear they would be interpreted as megalomania and a regression to my former mental illness. Now the dreams are a reality and I don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Pirsig’s commentary is fascinating, and I’ll be reflecting more on it, but that’s not the purpose of this post. Rather, this post is an exploration into the dichotomy of the book’s two main characters: the narrator, and Phaedrus, a fictionalized ghost, inspired by Plato’s work.
I’ll be discussing a writing technique that Pirsig uses to create a twisted storyline with a failure of an ending that left readers unsatisfied, and I’ll also talk about my takeaways from the personality dichotomy of the main characters, as well as a life lesson.
A Writing Technique from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Writing in first-person locks the author, and the reader, inside the head of the narrator, so the reader only ever sees a single perspective. The author can’t write something like, meanwhile back at the ranch.
Pirsig learned this technique from a creative writing class he took where the professor analyzed Henry James’ horror novella, The Turn of the Screw. The book is about a governess who tries to shield her two proteges from a ghost, but fails, and they end up getting killed. James uses first-person to trick the reader into thinking that the governess is the heroine, when in fact she is the villian, because it's the governess' hysterical belief that kills the children, not the ghost. (What a nifty technique!)
So now let’s return to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I’ll show you how Pirsig uses the first-person narrator technique, but fails to convey to readers the ending he intended.
The Narrator and Phaedrus
The narrator, the father, in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, is one part of the schizophrenic personality dichotomy, and Phaedrus, the imaginary ghost living inside of the narrator’s mind, is the other. The story is about how the narrator and Phaedrus compete for the same body.
The narrator is a person dominated by social values and he tells his story in a way to make you like him. He’s hyper critical of John and Sylvia, friends that are accompanying him and his son, Chris, on the motorcycle trip, but he shares his private thoughts only with the reader, never with John or Sylvia. (I’ll return to this observation in the last section, as it’s very important.)
Phaedrus is dominated by intellectual values, pursuing a truth he felt was of staggering importance to the world. He’s an academic and a philosopher, and doesn’t give a damn if other people like him. His brashness ends up socially destroying him, and the narrator, witnessing this, becomes extremely cautious to avoid that life trajectory for himself. Phaedrus, on the other hand, considers the narrator to be a sellout, a coward, someone who has abandoned truth for popularity and social acceptance by psychiatrists, family, employers, and social acquaintances. He sees that the narrator doesn't want to be honest anymore, just an accepted member of the community, bowing and accommodating his way through the rest of his years.
The narrator has the residue of Phaedrus lingering in his brain, and this is the source of the story’s conflict.
The Narrator and Chris and the Failed Ending
Chris, the narrator’s young son, is the only person who sees the dichotomy in his father. He notices that his father has changed over the years, and all along the motorcycle journey, he keeps asking for his father back.
In the end, Chris’ agony releases Phaedrus. Chris asks, “were you really insane?” and the answer is “No.” This is then followed by, “It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”
Here’s how the failure happens: to the reader, it seems that the narrator answers the question, saying “no,” and “it’s going to get better now.” However, Pirsig intended for Phaedrus to answer the question. This was supposed to be the “a-ha” moment for the reader, as Pirsig shows that Phaedrus won, and he’s actually the hero, not the villian, like the narrator makes the reader believe. “Things will get better” is supposed to mean that the narrator will be more of himself now: a more honest, truthful, person.
Pirsig’s use of the first-person narrative was really powerful to make the reader locked in to the narrator’s thoughts. He said, to the reader, in his private thoughts, that John and Sylvia, his friends and trip comrades, look at life through a subpar lens. He goes on a wild philosophical rant about romantics vs. classicists, and at the end of the rant, I grew fond of the narrator, which is exactly what Pirsig wanted. The problem, however, is that the narrator never discussed his private thoughts with John or Sylvia. I can now understand why he was so dissatisfied, and eaten up inside.
It takes courage to have real conversations with people, where you discuss differing views, and can agree to disagree on some things. Especially today, in a world of polarizing realities, ignoring conversations about values and life outlooks only exacerbates our differences and leads to more “othering.”
If you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and have thoughts to share on the book, I’d love to hear from you. And if you haven’t read it, but have thoughts to share, as always, I’d love to hear from you too.
Take care, and be well!
I got married this weekend, and my family all chose a song for the processional. I thought it would be a fun way to remember that special time by sharing the songs here 😀