Godfather of modern new-age fiction still packs a spiritual punch
Robert M. Pirsig’s classic novel is a mix of engaging storytelling and an exploration of how classical Greek philosophy drove the growth of Western civilization; we have mastered the physical world but at the cost of spiritual growth. Those more knowledgeable in philosophy may quibble with his premise, but to me he seems to be one the first modern novelists to advocate taking God out of the temple and recognize that spiritual wholeness was inside us all along.
Story: The book intertwines three stories; the first follows a college professor struggling to become whole again after a devastating psychotic breakdown. His story provides structure and context for a lengthy introduction to the growth of Western philosophy and what we have gained and sacrificed as a result. The third story details his attempts to reconnect with his son after his breakdown shattered his family. The blend of engaging story, philosophical introduction, and spiritual journey is why the book has endured as a classic philosophical/new age novel for the last quarter-century (this is my overview).
Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Pirsig’s theme explores Quality and Truth with a capital T. Interestingly, he equates Quality to God only twice in the book (Chapters 21 and xx), and he implies that the reconciliation of Quality and Truth results in Zen but never explicitly states that point. However, in my opinion that’s the driving force behind the work—the need for Western civilization to get back to a state of spiritual wholeness, enlightenment, God, Zen, dharma—the words don’t matter. Perhaps it was necessary in the early 1970s to use the terms of classical philosophy in order to be taken seriously, but the core message of the book is clear: We a lost a part of our soul by embracing Western philosophy. Western civilization has gained mastery over the world, but “lost the ability to be a part of the world and not an enemy of it.”
Although Pirsig sidesteps the effect of religion on Western development, I feel this fracturing of our world view was exacerbated by the spread of Christianity. People were encouraged to stop looking inside of themselves for truth and let the Church direct their spiritual growth and define their values and ethics. I’m not certain, but Pirsig may have been one of the first 20th-century American novelists to popularize the notionthat Western thought took a wrong turn more than 2,300 years ago and that exploring Eastern philosophy may help fill a spiritual void for many pe0ple.
I’ll admit, the rhetorical sections were a hard slog at times. I felt like I was reading a doctoral candidate’s dissertation without the footnotes. However, I learned a great deal about Western philosophy and how we got to where we are as a society. Greek philosophers, primarily Aristotle, moved away from the idea of wholeness and individual excellence – Quality – toward dividing the way we see the world into mind and matter, which enabled Western cultures to master the realm of matter. However, spiritual growth was sacrificed to technological innovation; we a lost a part of our soul by embracing Western philosophy. Despite the dense philosophical sections, I loved the book 20 years ago, and after rereading it I still love it today. The blend of engaging story, great writing, philosophical exploration, and spiritual journey is why the book has endured as a classic new age novel for the last quarter-century.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig
Published by Harper Torch, 2006 (first published 1974)
Paperback, 560 pages
Buy at Amazon