Early in the text, the narrator reveals that he underwent electro-convulsive therapy to treat mental illness. This treatment altered the narrator so deeply that he regards his post-therapy self as an entirely different person. The narrator strictly separates his present-day self from his past identity and refers to the latter in the third person, using the name Phaedrus. His is “a mind divided against itself.”
The narrator’s conflicted identity complicates his relationship to his son. Chris is too young to fully grasp his father’s mental turmoil, but he does notice a personality change once the narrator returns from treatment. When Chris laments his father’s altered persona, the narrator observes, “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.” The narrator feels obligated to replicate a role he fulfilled when he was a completely different person, even though such a replication is impossible. He sees this paternal discontinuity as one of the root causes of his son’s anxieties.
This divided identity is especially discordant when considered in the book’s larger context. Through his Chautauquas, the narrator strives to resolve the problems that arise when the world is intellectualized in terms of opposing dualities. However, all the while, the narrator maintains such a strict division between his past self and his present persona that he refuses to consider them the same person. Finally, at the end of the book, the narrator acknowledges this dilemma: “the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and [Phaedrus], remains unfaced.” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance details Phaedrus’s attempts to provide a unifying philosophical framework that explains the universe in all of its physical, scientific, and subjective manifestations. While this new system is a fascinating one, the narrator’s psychological disunity is a constant reminder that Phaedrus’s philosophical system has not yet been perfectly actualized and put into practice.
Identity Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A second flash...WHAM and everything brilliant—and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse—that windmill—oh, my God, he’s been here! -- throttle off—this is his road—a fence and trees—and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.
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.
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.
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.
For God’s sake relieve him of his burden! Be one person again!