Professor Shawn Edie
23 June 2015
Analysis of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig explores the meaning and concept of quality, a term he believes to be indefinable. Pirsig’s thesis is that to truly experience quality one must both embrace and apply it as best fits to the requirements of that situation. What is the meaning of the title? Zen is a form of Buddhism that does not look towards great enlightenments, instead it suggest that the soul grows through actively engaging with life as it is. In this case it is the narrator’s maintenance of his motorcycle that captivatingly expresses his understanding of how to approach life. A search for meaning and identity is a dangerous journey with many wrong turns and enemies to be defeated. Often the bitterest enemy is oneself, or some false self that one holds on to for too long. One must leave home and discover America in order to find oneself.
We start out seeing Pirsig showing us a traditional approach when they reach Miles City, Montana. He notices that the “engine idle is loping a little,” a possible indication that the fuel and air mixture is too rich. The Narrator speaks of motorcycle maintenance being a completely rational enterprise. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on the cycle’s engine. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black. He discusses the need for precision instruments for working on the motorcycle parts and for working on concepts. This leads him to the idea of hierarchies and how they contain systems and out present construction of systematic thought. He recognizes that the higher altitude mountain air is causing the engine to also run rich. New jets are purchased, and installed, and with the valves adjusted the engine runes well again. By asking the right questions and choosing the right tests and drawing the right conclusions, he works his way down the levels of the motorcycle’s hierarchy until he found the exact specific cause or causes of the engine failure, and then he changes them so that they no longer cause the failure.
This details two types of personalities, those who are interested mostly in romantic viewpoints, which is focused on being “in the moment”. The second is those who seek to know the details in understanding the inner workings, and master the mechanics. It becomes clear that he understands both viewpoints and is aiming for the middle ground. Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is “to achieve the inner peace of