Zen and the Art of Motorbicycle Maintenance

Discussion in 'General Questions' started by roughrider, Dec 29, 2012.

  1. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    Before I wrote this, I did a search to see if anyone had talked about Robert M. Pirsig's book as it relates to motorized bicycles. Though I found a couple of people who use quotes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in their sigs, and another who used the "wrench in the lotus" icon as his avatar, I was surprised that no one had addressed this interesting read in a post.

    So here goes.

    First, for the benefit of those who have not read the book, it is a story about how the author rides a motorcycle--never given a brand, but having a two cylinder, four stroke "Otto" engine--cross country, taking back ways, with his young son, and, for part of the journey, with two friends. Pirsig uses the journey to explore philosophy. "ZAAMM" as the book is referred to in the wiki was written in 1974. I am re-reading the 1984 version with a new introduction by the author.

    Later, I'll expand on some of the ideas introduced in the book, but for now, I'll just say that Pirsig is at first frustrated and then intrigued by the attititude his friend, John, and his wife, Sylvia, toward technology. They absolutely refuse to learn how to work on their expensive BMW.

    Pirsig notices that this attitude shows up in many ways, like a dripping faucet at home that after one fleeting attempt at repair, goes "drip, drip" forever after. He sees that both his friends have a barely suppressed RAGE at technology, blaming its gray, impersonal, "logic" for all the ills of the world. But John and Sylvia are intelligent, competent people. They could easily learn many mechanical skills.

    Yet they don't.

    The author, on the other hand, rather enjoys working on his bike. As they climbed the Montana Rockies, he felt his engine bogging and clattering a bit. He uses a bit of deductive analysis, theorizes that it's running rich, verified by a plug inspection, gets a couple of leaner jets, and adjusts the "tappets." (Usually, I hear that process referred to as a "valve adjustment," but Pirsig is probably being more precise in his terminology.)

    He is at first disturbed--then amused--by his friends' attitude towards mechanical things. God help them if they have a breakdown! When Pirsig suggests that John could shim his loose handlebar brackets with aluminum from a soda can, his friend prefers to ignore the problem. He cannot understand that "the can" is anything other than a soda can, and nothing like that is getting near his precious Beamer! John cannot see into things. He cannot see that the aluminum of the can is as perfect a shim material as any German engineer would use.

    Pirsig calls his friend's way of seeing the world the "Romantic" view. The author identifies himself as a "Classicist." One view sees surface appearances, the other sees internal structure. Apparently, the two views are incompatible.

    Later, Pirsig attempts to reconcile these views. He also reveals that he went insane, earlier, trying to define "Quality," and he went into an institution and emerged with a different personality. Along this journey, he has to face his former self, called "Phaedrus."

    If anyone finds this all intriguing or enjoyable, I'll add to this thread later, but at the moment, I'd like to stick just the one, first aspect of the book and explore it a bit with others. This whole "Romantic vs Classic" thing. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

    As an example, I have seen that there are some moto-bikers who "just want something that works" while there are others who "enjoy a bit of tinkering." Some would rather build from a kit, others would rather build from scratch. Yet even among fabbers, there are strong divisions. Some do not care in the least about appearance, only function, for others, its ALL about the look.

    Such observations tend to support Pirsig's first thesis. However, bear in mind, he later challenges this himself. Your thoughts?

    BTW, Since I am waiting on parts, I've had a lot of time to stare at my bike and think. Pirsig thinks that mechanical arts, despite the visceral nature of the work, are primarily mental. That is counter-intuitive, but I am afraid I have to agree. A stupid, thoughtless mechanic is a BAD mechanic! The poor John and Sylvias of the world are at their mercy, for good, honest mechanics are the exception rather than the rule...

    Sorry, that's a another topic entirely! However, it does relate. I hint at my own classicist bias.


  2. Tanstaafl

    Tanstaafl Member

    Read that book when it first came out. Was interesting, but I never got into the Zen thingie.
  3. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    On the first reading, I never could figure out how his book had anything to do with Zen. His opening blurb says as much; that is, it has little to do with it.

    This time around, I see that he is, so far, actually arguing against Zen, saying--so I have gleaned--its "just be there" actually interferes with insight. Zen is "outsight." It's Romantic. A Zen "master" would never figure out why an engine didn't work. He might make a pretty picture of it though. :)
  4. Ludwig II

    Ludwig II Member

  5. grinningremlin

    grinningremlin Active Member

    Zen can be attained by anything that takes you out of yourself, if even for a moment.As far as different people, well we're different.I've never been a car guy, couldn't care less how it looked, but my bike is done to the 9's.I have a glove-leather seat, compound-curve wood fenders and sit back and just look at it for long stretches.
    Like in musicians, I know people who can play ANY music set in front of them, but when you ask them to freeball a solo or come up with a song they give a blank stare.Then the one's who can't read a lick, but will smoke near anyone when it comes to improvising, different brains, and bless them all.
  6. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    Form and function are, for me, inextricable from each other. I have to have both, and I will work very hard to achieve that.

    grinninggremlin, you say you have compound curve wooden fenders? Perfect example. Few people know that properly selected and prepared woods when laminated, have higher strength weight ratios than high grade aluminum, rivaling carbon fiber, yet unlike the latter, they are less susceptible to catastrophic failure. Very functional, yet also exquisitely beautiful.

    I have been trying to develop the techniques to make compound curve fenders myself. I built a steambox, and managed to get compound curves, but I find I need a thickness planer to get my materials down to a consistent 1/16". I could use hand planes, but I'm also working on a boat, so the planer is justified. I'd love to see pictures of your fenders!

    On another topic, I noticed that there was this odd rumor around the net that Pirsig committed suicide, but last I heard, he was alive and well and living in Europe. In the 1984 intro, he does say that his son Chris was murdered in San Francisco. In the book, the 11 year old boy has no problem shooting his mouth off at the wrong time. Pirsig's terse comments suggest that Chris may have antagonized his assailant as well.
  7. Richard H.

    Richard H. Member

    If you use the google search feature rather than the internal search, you'll find many, many mentions over the years here on ZATAMM. Just a fyi...........
  8. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    Hi, Richard H. I'm not sure what you mean by "internal search" vs "google search feature" since the "internal search" is, according to the text "Google Custom Search." But after scanning 7 pages for non spurious hits, I saw that no one had said what I had to say; thus, it seemed that the topic was not closed. Is the topic closed, in your opinion?
  9. Richard H.

    Richard H. Member

    No, of course not and it wouldn't be up to me to say. I didn't mean to imply the topic was closed, it was just a fyi. The topic has been touched upon many times over the years though, a somewhat natural progression from MC to MB as it were, and I was simply recalling that.

    The search feature using 'advanced search' is part of the forum software I believe, while 'google custom search' I think offers a broader range of SEO type hits on a given topic. Just now playing with both, the former offered little on the topic while the latter offers pages and pages where the topic gets mentioned.

  10. darwin

    darwin Well-Known Member

    Zen lost out to johnny the tinkerer, then it became popular and the Johnsons took over.
  11. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    Excellent. I've used the advanced search several times, usually as a date filter for when I'm looking for current information. A lot has changed since 2008.

    Regarding the book, it appears Pirsig chose the title because the book was written right after the hippie thing, so he knew "Zen" would catch people's attention. But again, the book has almost nothing to do with Zen. Actually, its roots are in Greek philosophy. Pirsig was looking to reconcile technology, and, well, art! (My words, not his.)
  12. jaguar

    jaguar Well-Known Member

    Unless you really get into Zen 100% all you can deduce about it winds up as a superficial.
    Roughrider wrote "A Zen "master" would never figure out why an engine didn't work. "
    I disagree. Zen is more about being completely natural as opposed to being contrived. It is not really about being "simple". If it is in your nature to analyze things in depth then doing so would be a zen experience for you. If wrenching comes natural to you then doing so is a zen experience. In the book the main character enjoyed delving into the mechanics of the bike while his friends did not. He was in tune with his natural impulses and so was "Zen". The book really was about Zen without ever really talking about it. In ancient Zen literature there is the idea of "stinking of Zen" by excessively talking and thinking about it without really embodying it. To realize your true self and live it completely is Zen.
  13. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    You are persuasive. I stand corrected. Maybe there's more Zen in the book than I thought. I've been reading more and seeing that Pirsig does stress the correct attitude, and this attitude is calm and peaceful. Certainly I have learned that when I get exasperated with wrenching, it is time for a cup of tea and a sigh. Then, it is best to just look at things. Inevitably, when I have calmed completely down, I go, "Ah HAH! I wonder if ..."

    The work then tends to go smoothly. Even if my theory is wrong, at least I will find out I am wrong, and that is quite useful.
  14. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    Part II

    I had planned on doing this thread in several parts. I was curious to see if a deeply philosophic discussion of motorbikes would pique anyone's interests, and I thought Pirsig's book would make a good point of departure. I am not at all sure I've suceeded with either, but I like to finish things, so interesting or not, here goes...

    Earlier, I mentioned Pirsig's take on the Classic/Romantic split. A bit later he suggests that this has a philosophic base in the split between Western and Asian philosophy. Western is rational; Asian is aesthetic. Or so it is said.

    Next, he strikes at the core of the split, citing Hume's postulate that since without perception, we cannot know anything of the universe; thus, according to the purest logic, the universe cannot exist outside our perception. This, of course, disagrees with common sense, even though logical. It was not until Kant that Hume was successfully refuted. Kant argued that there do indeed exist perceptions that do not depend on external sense data, like time and space.

    This perception of something undefined yet still emphatically real is the springboard into the heart of ZAAMM: Quality.

    Everyone knows that quality exists, but what is it?

    As a word, it means, "having value, degree of worth, and essential characteristic of something, etc." Pirsig knows that, obviously. He is really asking, "How do we know all that?"

    In his career as a teacher of rhetoric, before the question drove him mad, his former personna, whom he calls "Phaedrus" found he could get interesting and useful results in his classes using the indefinability of "quality" because he could get his students to think outside the box, as it were. However, he ran into some serious challenges with the faculty, who laid a rhetorical trap for him by asking whether quality was objective or subjective. If it was objective, then why could it not be detected by any scientific method? If it was subjective, then it was just, "what you like" (and therefore without value.)

    Phaedrus siezed on that last, realizing that was itself a quality judgement and not based on logic or evidence. He declared that quality was senior to the objective/subjective split, and these were, in fact, artificial demarcations.

    Now we get to motorbikes.

    This artificial split shows up everywhere. The engineers design a functional machine, and the stylists wrap it in a superficial "style."

    Pirsig thinks that we can have utilitarian objects that are very beautiful, and beautiful objects that are very utilitarian. To me, this shows the appeal of bobbers, café racers, and street fighters. It's a machine aesthetic. It can be done when individuals decide to enhance quality for themselves. I sure have seen some gorgeous work here!

    Pirsig suggests that this requires a certain state of mind, this is, one supposes, the "Zen" part of the book. When achieved, it leads to greatness.

    It took him more than half the book to finally lay out his thesis. He then follows this with a series of anecdotes about "gumption": the attitude you need to be an effectice mechanic, and the various ways you can lose your gumption in the day to day little defeats machines can throw at us.

    Finally, Pirsig tells the story of how his former personna went crazy, and he offers the most effective refutation of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle I have yet read. He shows that it was then that there was the rational/aesthetic split, and he disagrees with these philosophers attitude towards those whom they labled "sophists."

    In the end, Phaedrus reasserts himself, and Pirsig's son, Chris, who had been being a brat, calms down. He has his real father back.

    It was a touching ending.

    So there. That's my lightning summary of the book and it's relevance to motorbicyling.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 18, 2015
  15. GearNut

    GearNut Active Member

    I have the book and I really like the book. I have read it a few times.
    Fiddling around with mechanical and electrical things has always been a great form of relaxation for me which was the reason the book was given to me by a very observant friend.
  16. I have read the book several times and I really do appreciate his fix it yourself attitude and patience. I have seen motorcyclists who can't fix the simplest little things and miss much riding time because " the bike's in the shop". Sad, and maybe a little stupid.

    I once read a long article in a magazine about an Artic expedition with an Inuit snowcat guide/driver. The snowcat threw a rod and the expedition members figured they were going to die, lost in the frozen Northern wastes and panicked, cried, despared, and wailed. The guide, on the other hand, built them all a survival camp, hunted game for food, tore down the snowcat engine, and found a broken rod that could not be repaired. He managed to kill a walrus and patiently carved a new rod from the walrus tusk and gerryrig-repaired the engine. Driving very slowly and gently, so as not to break his fragile ivory connecting rod, he delivered them safely to the nearest town where they could phone loved ones that they were safe, catch a flight with a bush pilot, and he could order the correct parts to permanently repair the snowcat. That is zen at it's finest.
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2013
  17. wacute400

    wacute400 New Member

    Thanks for sharing

    :goofy:, Thanks for sharing, I bought I honda last month, good for enheice my know of maintenance!
  18. roughrider

    roughrider Member

    It's the same with me. I used to get so exasperated with machines. Now I get a natural buzz messing around with 'em. ZAAMM was a rare book. It really helped me cultivate the right attitude.

    Totally. And the thing is, there are a LOT of totally dishonest, incompetent mechanics, so depending on them is bad policy. That story about the snowmobile adventure was as good as it gets. That guide sure had the right stuff!

    Hi! Welcome to the forum, and you are welcome. I'm pretty new myself, but I hear the thing to do is introduce oneself in the introductions forum.