Tuesday, May 09, 2017
On metaphysical quality, motorcycles, the late Robert Pirsig, and me
The passing last month of iconic writer and philosopher Robert Pirsig, author of 1974's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is currently resonating throughout both the motorcycling and academic worlds. As you may know if you've followed this blog with any frequency over the past 13 years, I have often fancied myself a bit of a thinker and lay philosopher, one who has repeatedly used motorcycling as metaphor, both in my writings and videos. With that in mind, I feel compelled to compose a bit about how the book has affected me in different ways over the years, and to explore motorcycling as metaphysical quality in a way that Pirsig would've hopefully not completely hated.
I first became aware of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in college during the '90s. My speech professor, with whom I had developed a personal acquaintance, recommended the book to me after learning I was a rider. "You should check it out," he said. "I think it would really speak to you."
But it didn't. Not at first, anyway. Honestly, I struggled to get through Zen the first time around, abandoning the book a couple of times and then eventually dragging back to it. It was tedious to me, often meandering conceptually in ways that left me mostly frustrated. As a young man, I simply wanted the book to teach me how to increase my experiencing of beauty through motorcycles. And while Pirsig did write very profoundly about motorcycles and motorcycling at times, that payoff only existed to a certain extent. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was about something else, too, but I just couldn't fully grasp it at the time.
For one thing, I didn't get all the deep talk about what is quality and why Pirsig maintained that it could never really be defined. Seemed to me he was defining it over and over again in many different ways throughout the book, via subterfuge and – more importantly – example. Example, after all, is the root of definition in many cases. Secondly, in addition to using the story of a cross-country motorcycle tour with his young son Chris as a figurative vehicle for these philosophical excursions, he also employed the concept of his own alter ego in the form of Pheadrus, named after Plato's dialog. I took from the book what I could back then. But aside from the parts I liked that where directly tied to motorcycles and the beauty of riding, I ruled it a brilliant mess. Pirsig was clearly a genius in his own way, but not enough of a genius to employ the necessary language, conciseness, and brevity needed to keep the attention (or move the soul) of a young non-intellectual such as me. I walked away from the book nodding in approval but shrugging my shoulders, and didn't think of it again for another decade.
Fast-forward to the mid-2000s, a period of my life when I had suddenly and inexplicably begun to suffer from near-debilitating episodes of panic. Note that I did not use the term "panic attacks". While classic panic attacks and anxiety were an occasional part of the equation, I was most often plunging into extended periods of full throttle fight-or-flight, both mentally and physically. These periods of intense panic might last minutes or days, but most often lasted for hours at a stretch. Imagine the fear and adrenaline of fighting off a bear attack for hours at a time. That's what it was like. When the episodes would finally subside, they left me exhausted and depressed. So naturally, I was trying anything and everything to figure them out and make them stop. Doctors had no idea what I was talking about when I would try to explain what was happening. Stupidly and invariably, they would always blow me off, usually suggesting strong anti-depression/anti-anxiety medication. The answer was always to write me a prescription and send me on my way. Of course, the meds never worked because they weren't formulated for what I was going through. I've never liked drugs of any kind and stopped taking the stuff pretty quickly. I also stopped going to doctors.
Several things did provide me limited relief, though, and one of them was riding motorcycles. It was during that time, with my mind racked by always being in survival mode, that I began to experience motorcycling (and being around motorcycles) in more the sense I now think Pirsig did. But perhaps oddly, I only began to truly connect the dots after noticing a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau on the shelf in a book store. I remembered Walden having been referenced several times in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it got me thinking about Pirsig. So I went home, dug through a few old boxes for my copy of Zen, and then spent some time online reading about Pirsig. What I found was the key to better understanding the book, Pirsig, and even myself.
I discovered how Pirsig had been the textbook definition of a tortured soul throughout his entire life. In my lack of comprehension during the first reading of Zen, I hadn't truly arrived at that knowledge of him. He had really been in and out of mental institutions as a young man, had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, had been subjected to violent shock therapy treatments, and had lost jobs and a marriage over it. As I read more and more about Robert Pirsig the person, I began to grasp his philosophies a little better. I could make more sense of his alter ego character, his torturous attempts at experiencing but not defining quality, at viewing himself as his own enemy at times, and at making sense of everything while simultaneously making sense of nothing. My own struggles with panic had helped open that door; not only toward Pirsig, but toward others who suffer inside themselves for whatever reason. Before, I'd had little empathy for such things and often viewed them as pathetic weakness. I was a jerk, essentially, with no relatable experience or sympathetic emotional circuit to close for them. So with those new revelations freshly a part of me, I read over the book again. I still didn't understand certain parts of it, and still other parts I found I disagreed with, but there's no doubt that I came much closer to "getting it" than I did the first time.
Fast forward to today and another decade has passed. Either I figured out how to control the episodes of fight-or-flight along the way or that part of my brain wore out from overuse. In any case they are rarer now, and thank God for that. To this day, I still do not know their exact cause. There is still a mild chronic anxiety humming in the background much of the time, but I've learned to live with it. I guess it is my cross to bear. I would be dishonest if I said it hasn't changed me. But I accept it and am otherwise happy and healthy. The quality, beauty, and spiritual peace provided by motorcycles, being a musician, and being a freemason have most definitely helped along the way. Much more so has the love of family and friends, along with my faith in God.
Best of all, my experiences thus far – still touched often, I believe, by the Pirsig-esque concept of quality – continue to expand. For that I am thankful. It would be interesting to read Zen once again now and see if it speaks to me differently still. Life is quite good, and though I stand at its halfway point having made no fortune, having attained no influence, having acquired no power (having accomplished nothing really), I continue onward with a strange contentment I cannot fully explain. Perhaps that comes from actively seeking, constantly finding, and recognizing with appreciation some of those indefinable qualities over time. Time is a funny thing, after all. It's job is to eventually kill you, but along the way it offers wisdom, perspective, acceptance, and a certain serenity. That too is quality, in both the practical and metaphysical senses.