If you are a person of a certain age, you will probably remember Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; and you may also remember the surprising effect the book had on the general culture of travel in North America.
Published in 1974, the book became a literary and cultural icon as the author took those of us who were heavily into the loosy-goosy counter-culture movement of that period of time; when it was not only permissible but encouraged to think and behave in unconventional ways and to go travelling (or questing) in search of higher truths, especially metaphysical ones.
Let’s not forget the tenor of the times: the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement; and the winding down of the Vietnam War. The latter of course hit hard at the metaphysical core of America; and when I say America I mean Canada as well as the United States because there is always an overflow across the (formerly) “longest undefended border in the world.”
It was a time of general angst and collective questioning of “What’s it all about, Alfie?” However, it was also the “best of times, the worst of times,” in that, despite the struggles and the aforementioned angst, there was also a renewed idealism and search for truth in North American society. It was also a time when quality of life and individual self-expression were also being re-assessed and articulated differently.
The Cleaver family was well on its way to the recycling bin.
So when Pirsig’s book came along, it struck a Jungian chord with many. In part I believe this was because the quest that Pirsig’s alter ego undertakes — he is not identified in the book, although with the luxury of hindsight we can see how much of Persig is in the character who he is trekking across the country on his motorcycle with his son Chris with whom he is struggling to bond — has a lot to do with something very fundamental to the human condition, to wit — the road trip.
Now the road trip is really nothing new. The first travellers, maybe even travel journalists — have you ever thought of yourself as a troubadour? — went where they went and saw what they saw and achieved whatever level of enlightenment they did … on foot.
Was Marco Polo a travel journalist, a kind of Paul Theroux of ancient times? What great stories were told along those caravan routes, along the pilgrimage routes? How many of the Canterbury Tales are really travel stories? And are we, the lah dee dah travel journalists of the 21st century, really any different from the motley crowd of pilgrims who made there often randy way from Southwork to Canterbury Cathedral?
And now if I could get my head back into the 20th century for a moment, I must also pay homage to the Jack Kerouacs of the world who had also gone where angels fear to tread long before Robert Pirsig and his literary doppleganger did.
Quite simply, the road trip has become a staple in our psyches and collective consciousness. I was reminded once again of this fact recently in Missouri as we rushed hither and yon (on the most intense media tour I have ever been on) across that betwixt and between state. And as we did so, we followed Interstate 44.
However, weaving its ghostly presence back and forth along our journey was the equally iconic and resonant Route 66.
Well if you ever plan to motor west,
Just take my way, that’s the highway that’s the best.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.
And in his recent New Yorker article on his own culturally conflicted and morally painful road trek across Siberia, Ian Frazier writes:
“In America, we love roads. To be ‘on the road’ is to be happy and alive and free. Whatever lonesomeness the road implies is also a blankness that soon will be filled with possibility. A road leading to the horizon almost always signifies a hopeful vista for Americans. ‘Riding off into the sunset has always been our happy ending.”
These days, travelling by road, especially in and around our major megalopolises, can be be a hair-raising and even dispiriting experience, but when you hit that true open road, happy endings cannot be too far away. And that is why it still gives me a pang when I read Pirsig’s introduction to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
“The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.”
I’m still waiting for the inner peace of mind; and still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but in terms of what Pirsig was exploring in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I still get it.
Back to the future
So, one day a friend brought me a new book that turned out to be déjà vu all over again, as our good friend Yogi Berra once said. The book is titled Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson, editor of the “Wheels” section of the Toronto Star.
At first I was sceptical about the book and hesitated opening it. Like many I prefer to remember certain experiences and moments in time as I choose to remember them, godammit!. I am always a bit concerned when someone writes a book about a famous book; and possibly reformats the first experience in such away that all the romance goes out of that long-term stored memory.
And by the way, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is most certainly a romance novel, but only in the truest sense of that word. From the French roman meaning novel, the definition of romance that speaks to me best is “a medieval narrative, originally one in verse and in some Romance dialect, treating of heroic, fantastic, or supernatural events, often in the form of allegory.”
Allegory. The trip. The journey. The quest. The romance.
I am definitely not talking Sleepless in Seattle.
Fortunately, Richardson’s book did not either gild the lily nor disillusion me, although he certainly paints a portrait of Pirsig that sheds a whole new light on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I don’t want to give too much of it away, but in many ways Richardson continues Pirsig’s journey with all its inherent conflicts, doubts, and angst. For example, he sets just the right tone when he says:
“It’s tough to explain to someone who’s only ever traveled behind a windshield, sealed in with the comforting thunk of a closing door. On a bike there’s no comforting thunk. The road is right there below you, blurring past your feet, ready to scuff your sole should you pull your boot from the peg and let it touch the ground.”
This particular excerpt resonates with me (even though I am a non-biker) because there have been trips (even media trips) in which that immediacy of experience of the destination is so strongly felt; and in my experience it is always connected to some person or persons who have embodied the truly authentic sense of the place.
If you have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you will remember that key metaphysical element of this “trip” is Pirsig’s search for quality and his attempt to define it. Richardson does a similar thing, in part I suspect because he too was at a crossroads in his life where he was starting to doubt what “it” was all about. I’m only guessing mind you, but get this.
“It was Zen that brought me here and Zen that helped get me to the top [of a mountain]. Just as readers who like motorcycles are attracted to Pirsig’s book, so are readers who appreciate Zen. And both sides are often disappointed that Zen and the Art isn’t really about either motorcycles or Zen…. There’s just not enough time to get to everything in this modern overstuffed, overtaxed, overindulgent world…. The moral here is [he’s actually talking about a particularly vexing maintenance issue Pirsig is having but I suspect their spirits have coalesced] that it doesn’t matter how much physical care you apply to something — if your mind gets stuck along the way way or your heart’s not in it, the work will be substandard. Quality will be lost. Substance needs art. Ying and Yang.”
Anyone out there ever experienced writer’s block?
Anyone ever felt they were being asked to dumb it down just a touch so that the travel piece was a little more marketable?
Another road trip book and “must read,” recommended by yours truly
And finally …
May I recommend the travel article “Driving Across The U.S. in 1936, by Nelle Etchison Burgess” (91 years young) from my good friend Bonnie Neely’s website Real Travel Adventures. Road adventures and travel writing run in Bonnie’s family.