Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Many of the patterns of thought that Pirsig challenges in the novel are informed by dualist principles. Phaedrus’s breakthrough, for example, comes when he chooses not to subscribe to the duality of the subjective versus the objective that has governed western thought for millenia. The narrator, too, surprises his friends by delivering a long speech condemning the arbitrary dichotomy between art and technology. Later on, he uses the example of the Japanese “mu”—a word that means “no thing”—to expose “the process of dualistic discrimination” that has become ingrained in much of contemporary American thought. The narrator encourages readers to value moments of “mu,” moments when a yes/no answer cannot be furnished. It is these moments that catalyze the most meaningful breaks from habituated thought and expose the most valuable insights—and accordingly, help foment Zen.

However, it is important to note that even as the narrator deconstructs duality after duality, the novel leaves a core duality almost completely ignored. Even as Phaedrus and the narrator both use logic to dismantle dualistic misconceptions, the narrator is never reconciled with his previous identity. The characters’ troubling dual identity offers an ironically self-aware reminder that harmful and intractable dualist beliefs may persist in spite of reason.

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Duality Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Below you will find the important quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance related to the theme of Duality.
Chapter 5 Quotes

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. …
What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John Sutherland
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

Thinking about the very different approaches to motorcycle maintenance that he and John have, the narrator recalls an incident where he tried to help John repair a bike in order to get him interested in mechanics. He realizes that beyond viewing motorcycles differently, the two men have completely different world-views and understanding of reality. The narrator is interested in what things mean, while John is only interested in what things are.

John is invested in the present experience of things. The world how he sees it is reality, "regardless of what scientists say it might be." But the narrator asserts that the world and reality are also described by scientific discoveries, and that "people in John's dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it." The romantic dimension involved with what things are is aligned with a frustration with and distrust of technology. The narrator also calls it "grooving." But to hold on to that type of living and that reality of immediate artistic appearance, "hip" people must also try to understand the alternate reality of "underlying scientific explanation." These realities, however, seem completely at odds and like they don't relate at all. This dichotomy and contrast is one of the main problems that the narrator will try to reconcile in the Chautauqua.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter the narrator describes Phaedrus and his style of thought, which is quintessentially classical. It is organized and rooted entirely in logic and reason. To give an example, the narrator breaks down the components of a motorcycle in an extremely detailed, organized list. It is pure analysis; there is no room for the romantic or for value judgements or anything in line with John's worldview. Phaedrus mastered this type of rational thinking and used it as a tool. The narrator refers to the tool, used to cut things and organize them into pieces like the motorcycle, as Phaedrus' knife.

The narrator also reveals that Phaedrus' obsession with an idea or philosophical project seemingly drove him to insanity. But rather than calling him an assassin, the narrator calls Phaedrus a poor surgeon. He does this to make the point that Phaedrus was trying to do something—"he was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had." The "sick and ailing thing" that Phaedrus operates is the dichotomy that the narrator has so far been outlining. The tragedy of this inquiry is that eventually he cuts so far that he ends up permanently damaging himself.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before this quote the narrator introduces the metaphor of a handful of sand to describe both the Classical and Romantic modes of thought and being. Some sort of sorting, says the narrator, is essential and is done by everyone, since we are exposed to so many experiences at once that if we were aware of it all at once we could not even think. The landscape of awareness available to us is endless and unfathomable. From that landscape, we take a handful of sand, which represents details and experiences and the world we are conscious of. Taking the handful alone is an act of sorting.

But the romantic seeks to look at the whole handful of sand at once, and the classicist seeks to sort the handful into specific piles by the means of Phaedrus' "knife"—logic used to divide the world we are conscious of into distinct parts.

In the quote, the narrator describes the major project of Phaedrus and of the book itself, to find a way of looking at the world that "does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and then unites them into one." By violence, he means that when you attempt to look at the handful all at once, you lose some of the nuance found in the sorting, and when you sort, you lose some of the beauty of the whole. Something is always lost. Phaedrus attempted to embrace both means of viewing the world and unite them. He wanted to look at the endless landscape itself, and the idea that we grab sand at all.

Chapter 14 Quotes

This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The travelers have arrived at their destination in Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus used to teach, and have met DeWeese, the old friend of Phaedrus with whom they will stay. There they are greeted by a small welcoming party, during which at one point DeWeese asks the narrator to review an instruction manual for a rotisserie (a cooking appliance for roasting meat). The inspection of the manual sends the narrator on a long philosophical speech.

In this speech he returns to the split of the classical and the romantic, explaining some of the content of his private Chautauqua to his friends. Here, he elaborates on the false dichotomy between technology and art, saying that it is "completely unnatural." This idea, he says, has been carried throughout history much since the invention of reason. He says "rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture," suggesting that technology and art are one. He explains that instead of there being only one right way to assemble a piece of machinery, there are actually infinite ways. The art is in approaching the problem with peace of mind, and in the process of figuring out and choosing which way to proceed.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Phaedrus’ refusal to define Quality, in terms of this analogy, was an attempt to break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding and find a point of common understanding between the classic and romantic worlds. Quality, the cleavage term between hip and square, seemed to be it. Both worlds used the term. Both knew what it was. It was just that the romantic left it alone and appreciated it for what it was and the classic tried to turn it into a set of intellectual building blocks for other purposes. Now, with the definition blocked, the classic mind was forced to view Quality as the romantic did, undistorted by thought structures.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator and Chris are still hiking, and the narrator says he wants to make one last point about Quality. He begins by summarizing some of the points he has made about the split between classical and romantic, or "hip" and "square." He briefly goes over the analogy he has previously made, which says that life and awareness are an infinite landscape, and from that landscape we take a handful of sand. The romantic approach is to appreciate the whole handful; the classical approach is to sort the handful into piles.

Using this analogy again, the narrator explains that Phaedrus' refusal to define Quality in the classroom and in his thought can be understood as him trying to "break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding." Phaedrus wanted to challenge classical reason. Instead of using his "knife" or sifting the sand (using reason) to define Quality, Phaedrus wanted to find a concept that could bridge the classic and romantic worlds and unite them.

Phaedrus determined that Quality was the concept that united hip and square (classical and romantic), and that both worlds used Quality and knew what it was. Because of these ideas, Phaedrus thought that Quality was the thing that could bring rationality and irrationality, hip and square together. The romantics like John knew what quality was, and "they left it alone and appreciated it." Classicists would try to define Quality and use it as a tool for reason. But by blocking the classic mind from defining Quality, Phaedrus would force a classicist to see Quality how a romantic might, free from the confines of rationality and logic. In this way he might bridge the gap that has occupied so much of the Chautauqua.

Chapter 19 Quotes

This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has recounted more of Phaedrus' thought process, describing in detail what followed after the Bozeman English faculty asked Phaedrus to tell them if Quality was subjective or objective. This question proves to be a dilemma, which the narrator likens to a charging bull: each side is a horn that would destroy his argument. Ultimately, Phaedrus chooses to reject both sides of the dilemma, saying that Quality is neither subjective nor objective, but rather it is a third entity; the three (subject, object, and Quality) make up the world in some kind of trinity.

But after a while, this trinitarian, three-part definition of the world no longer satisfies Phaedrus. He realized that Quality could only be found in the relationship of the subject to the object—"It is the point at which subject and object meet." After this realization, Phaedrus decides Quality must be an event instead of a thing. After a series of small steps like these, Phaedrus ultimately comes to the definition presented in the excerpted quote, which he believes has completely defeated the dilemma and satisfied his lengthy frustration with the duality of classicism and romanticism. Quality, he realizes, is the event that causes subjects and objects. Quality predates the divide between romantic and classic, and even causes this divide and is responsible for the creation of each side. With this bold move Phaedrus challenges the subject/object dualism that has been a foundation of Western thought for centuries.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word quality cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker)
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator decides that it is unsafe to climb to the top of the mountain. During the descent, he continues describing Phaedrus' breakthrough. He conceptualizes Quality as "preintellectual reality." Quality is reality, and classical quality and romantic quality become different modes of perceiving and processing it. He also reasons that people think different objects have Quality not because of any difference or variability within Quality itself, but because people are all so different and bring a different set of memories each time they interpret quality.

Here, Phaedrus writes to his colleagues at Bozeman that "any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation." Analytic thinking, we know, is breaking things down into its components (the narrator has previously used sandsifting and knife metaphors to help us understand this point). But Quality, he says, cannot be broken down into any more parts. It cannot be broken down or cut apart not because it is complicated or mysterious, because it is so simple. Quality is the event of reality itself. He goes on to say, "Quality is the response of an organism to its environment."

Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

Still descending the mountain, the narrator says that he wishes to move way from the abstract intellectual pursuits of Phaedrus and connect those ideas back to everyday life and the general dissatisfaction with technology and the spirit of the 20th century. He says that he cannot say for sure if Phaedrus' comparison between Quality and Tao was correct, or good, and he even says that it's possible to "hurt" Quality just by trying to define it.

Rather, the narrator says that Phaedrus' work was done in the service of reason. By climbing the intellectual mountain (investigating Quality), Phaedrus showed how to include irrational and emotional issues under the umbrella of reason. He found a way to connect what had "previously been unassimilable" in reason and academia. The narrator goes on to say that it is the presence of irrational ideas and the need to assimilate them (understand them, and bridge the gap between classic and romantic) that is driving all of the "bad quality' and the "chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century" which drove him to begin the Chautauqua in the first place.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 366
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the Chautauqua, the narrator is discussing the feeling of stuckness that occurs when reason fails to solve a problem. The example he uses is of a screw stuck in a motorcycle you are trying to repair. Like the screw itself, you become stuck, unable to remove it and unable to proceed. Such a moment can be extremely frustrating.

However, the narrator suggests that moments like this are actually key to new ideas and recognizing Quality. Stuckness is what comes before true understanding. Rather than avoiding stuckness, he says it should be embraced. Without ego, we need to accept this position of stuckness as a key to understanding Quality. It is this patience and embrace of stuckness, he says, that makes self-taught mechanics better than "institute-trained men." The self-taught person knows how to move past stuckness and figure out ingenious solutions to new problems, but the institute-trained person knows only a set of procedures which sometimes can lead to the unfamiliar stuckness he or she can't handle.

Chapter 25 Quotes

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is ... not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 373-374
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator reiterates a point made earlier in the Chautauqua. The aversion that John and Sylvia feel to technology needs to be solved, and running away from it wont solve the problem. Indeed, the narrator said early on how reliant they all are on technology, despite their hatred of it. The best way to approach the conflict, he says, is "to break down the barriers of dualistic thought" (classicism vs romanticism) which prevent a true understanding of what technology really is.

Technology is not an exploitation of nature. Rather, it is a "fusion of nature and human spirit.. a new kind of creation that transcends both." We recognize this special transcendence of nature in major technological revolutions or events, like the first airplane or the moon landing. But the narrator says we also need to recognize how special and artful technology is on a personal (and "less dramatic") level. As we know by now, proper understanding and application of Quality, both as a designer of technology and as a user and a consumer, will alleviate the problem and help us to recognize technology for what it truly is and should be. This sort of recognition, the narrator believes, will make people like John and Sylvia feel like they don't want to or have to run from technology any more.

Chapter 26 Quotes

A very strong case can be made for the statement that science grows by its mu answers more than by its yes or no answer. Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific enquiry in the first place! There’s nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. It’s just that our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mu
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator is continuing to discuss possible "gumption" traps. He has introduced the truth trap, which is concerned with "yes" or "no" questions. The narrator introduces a third option: the Japanese Mu, which means "no thing." It is a kind of "no" answer; it means that the question is too small, or the answer is neither yes nor no. Our natural inclination is to resist "mu," but it is even present in the sciences.

What's more, the narrator asserts that mu answers actually contribute more to science than yes or no answers. The reason he gives is that yes or no simply tells you that a certain hypothesis is correct or incorrect. But "mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis." Mu, he says, is the very "phenomenon" that inspires scientists to study and explore in the first place. The narrator says that we should place more value on mu, and that it is an error that "our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it." Like embracing "stuckness," the narrator says that we should embrace mu as part of his Zen solution.

Note also that much of his (and Phaedrus') project has been to unify or break the duality of classic and romantic. Mu is the same type of answer and gesture—a rejection of duality. It refutes what seems like should only be "yes" or "no," and provides a third option.

Chapter 29 Quotes

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine "virtue." But areté. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 484-485
Explanation and Analysis:

This excerpt comes at the end of a long, detailed chapter which continues to describe Phaedrus' struggles with other academics at the University of Chicago, leading closer and closer to his psychotic break. The narrator describes Phaedrus' experience in a philosophy class about ancient Greek literature, and the research he did into Sophists, the pre-Socratic thinkers who supposedly taught virtue. These Sophists are given a bad name by Plato, who pits them against Socrates in his Dialogues. Phaedrus, for some reason, aligns himself with these Sophists, and distrusts Plato's rejection of them.

Looking at the ancient Greek heroes, Phaedrus has an epiphany. What we translate as "virtue" is the Greek word "areté," which means excellence. Here he realizes "Quality! Virtue! Dharma!" are all the same thing. The Sophists, he believes, were teaching Quality, not the "ethical relativism" that we commonly associate with the English word virtue. Before reason, substance, mind, and matter, and before the classical / romantic duality, Quality was absolute. These Sophists, the "first teachers of the Western world," were "teaching Quality," and they taught it through rhetoric, just as Phaedrus had been doing all along.

This realization is a major epiphany for Phaedrus in the context of his struggles with the university, and it demonstrates again that Quality is trans-historical and multicultural.

Chapter 31 Quotes

I can imitate the father he’s supposed to have, but subconsciously, at the Quality level, he sees through it and knows his real father isn’t here. In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus, Chris Pirsig
Page Number: 517
Explanation and Analysis:

The book is winding down; Phaedrus' psychotic break has been reached in the narrator's retelling, and the Chautauqua is mostly complete. Phaedrus is returning, has been slowly resurfacing, and the narrator finally realizes that Chris misses Phaedrus. Chris hates the narrator and is so frustrated because he isn't Phaedrus anymore. At night during nightmares, and in some other moments Phaedrus returns briefly, but these small episodes seem only to further torture Chris.

The narrator says here that he can imitate Phaedrus, the father that Chris wants to have and is used to, but on the level of Quality and the subconscious, Chris can tell that the narrator just isn't Phaedrus. The narrator says that in the Chautauqua he has been hypocritical, since he has worked so hard to eliminate duality—subject/object and classical/romantic—but the "biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced." His mind is still divided. He is still both Phaedrus and himself.

Finally, the narrator appears ready to confront this rift within himself, and makes preparations for Phaedrus' return. He believes that his current split makes him unreliable as a father, and even plans to send Chris home and check back into a mental hospital. But in the course of the climactic, emotional conversation with Chris, in which the narrator tries to explain his insanity and his plan to send Chris home, Phaedrus emerges to comfort his son. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

For God’s sake relieve him of his burden! Be one person again!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 528
Explanation and Analysis:

Chris has asked Phaedrus if he really was insane, and Phaedrus answers "No!" To this Chris responds, "I knew it." This phrase resonates with Phaedrus, who realizes that the split of his personality and the idea that his father was insane have been plaguing Chris for years, causing many of his problems. He realizes that Chris has been carrying Phaedrus this whole time, and that Chris is the only reason that he ever emerged from the hospital. Feeling new understanding and empathy for his son, Phaedrus/the narrator urges himself to "be one person again!" and to relieve Chris of his burden and the pain the split is causing him.

Note that this chapter, the last in the book, is written in Phaedrus' font. The narrator seems to have reconciled and become one  with Phaedrus, finally, to save Chris.

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 531
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the last lines of the book, excepting the Afterward. Chris has asked if one day he can get his own motorcycle, and Phaedrus is confident that his son will approach motorcycle maintenance with the right attitude. Phaedrus reflects that "trials never end," and that unhappiness and bad things are bound to happen, but now there is a new feeling that has been absent. It's not just a surface feeling, but a deep feeling that seems to be on the Quality level (though he doesn't say this for sure). The feeling is this: "We've won it. It's going to get better now." Phaedrus ends by asserting that finally he has reconciled with himself, and that he and Chris (and he and the narrator) have won and completed their journey. Things are going to get better for everyone. His reason for believing this fact recalls the instinctual way that Phaedrus asserts we make Quality judgements: "You can sort of tell these things."