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April 27, 2017


Can you point me to the place that quote was taken from? We're about to "celebrate" the 7th year since our daughter passed, and I'd like to read it in context.

lj, thanks for this.

Oddly (given various things not worth going into here/now), I never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Wrong timing, I guess.

But you inspired me to go to the Wikipedia page on Pirsig for the details about his son's death (he was killed outside the SF Zen Center, of all places), and I came upon this:

Pirsig and his second wife Wendy Kimball decided not to abort the child she conceived in 1980 because he believed that this unborn child – later their daughter Nell – was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied.

This is a fascinating idea, and gives me something new to think about in relation to an old question of my own. My parents had a child (their first) thirteen months and one week before I was born; he only lived for a few hours.

A shaman once told me that the soul that had briefly been my brother might have come back into the world as me. Now, my rational nerd mind doesn't believe any of that claptrap, but my rational nerd mind doesn't have the last word on everything. The notion that I somehow inherited, or inhabited, or fit into, the "pattern" that was my older brother is quite intriguing.....

Big thoughts for a Thursday night in springtime.

I remember Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as an intense, chewy read, digested a bit at a time.

His character ate big Washington apples as he thought his way to the concept of "quality", so while I read the book, twice as I remember, so did I.

I'm mechanically dysfunctional, with a flibbertigibbet sense of concentration, but the descriptions of working on a motorcycle engine riveted me, somewhat like observing the Japanese Tea Ceremony on TV does, which I need to do for real.

Hi John, thanks for writing and asking. Hope this helps you as much as it has helped me.

This isn't where I pulled it from, but you can read it here


It is the afterword, written after the gazillionth printing of the book, which has Pirsig trying to understand why the book 'went viral' as the younguns say. Take care.

The reference to physics shows incomplete understanding of it. Our personality or at least a major part of it is stored in brain as a complex set of connections between neurons. This set is, for almost all intents and purposes, quite immeasurable except with certain rather crude imagining methods. However, it has a high information-content, and we can surmise the physical location of certain types of information based on case studies of personality-changing brain injuries.

So, when a person dies, the information-content stored in his nervous system is lost to us. The entropy of brain is thereby increased but the energies involved are very low.

In fact, the belief in immortal soul is very much a belief that an essential part of this information remains in being outside of its natural location, the human nervous system, by supernatural means. The Christian belief of resurrection of both body and soul is actually quite sensible in comparison, because it is clear that our personality is stored in the nervous system physically. This, it would make sense that if it is resurrected supernaturally, the information (i.e. soul) would actually require hardware to run on.

i read Zen... in high school and, based on the grade my report received, i didn't quite get it.

The one thing that the living can do for the dead is to keep them alive in their memories.

Liked Pirsig more than Casteneda but less than Brautigan, Farina, Robbins, or Pynchon. Took that book and collected Whitman when I was traveling with a phone sales bank, Chicago to San Antonio.

Quality. I have long been frustrated by the intellectual's need to create or reconfigure terminology. Originality and novelty is way overrated. Pirsig could have connected with a vast tradition of Japanese aesthetics and craft: geido in particular, yugen, wabi, sabi, ma. People ask why Marxists keep looking to a 150-yr-old book. It isn't like scripture or authority as much as to remember that intellectual work is social and historical and communal.

Watched Fritz Lang's Liliom 1934 (Molnar 1909; base of Carousel) the other night. Wonderful cut where the main couple has carved their names into a park bench soon after meeting. We don't see them carving, but Lang shows time passing by showing the carvings fade and get covered by other names and graffiti.

Pirsig could have connected with a vast tradition of Japanese aesthetics and craft: geido in particular, yugen, wabi, sabi, ma.

In fairness, it was published in 1974, probably developed and written across the 60's, so access to ideas about Japan was pretty limited.

But my take (which is probably even more cynical that Bob's, which may be hard to believe) is that all of those cultural aesthetics are the result of forced rationing and a merchant class (which was always on the bottom of the social hierarchy, known as shi-no-ko-sho) making tons of money and not having any way to spend it. So they created aesthetics that made a virtue out of not being able to buy stuff.

The key question you have to ask when confronted with any kind of Japanese trend in art, architecture, fashion whatever is 'how does this show that I've spent a lot of money without making it look obvious'. I have my issues with Japanese culture, but the fact that it is going to take a lot more work to get a Robin Leach and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to pop out is not one of them.

And looking in Wikipedia to confirm the publishing date reveals this


Photos from Pirsig's trip. Go up to the top link for other stuff. I feel both attracted and repelled by the site. Attracted because it makes the journey described in the book more real, repelled because you feel like you are peering into someone else's diary without their permission. Ironic that Pirsig's book has recreated an old economy, that of the pilgrim searching to follow the same footsteps of a saint.

The parts of ZATAOMM that resonated for me (read it in a single day when I was 21, sitting in the Bootshaus at Rasthaus am Chiemsee, and then several times again over the next decade)

- the discussion of and argument over "what is quality"

- the discussion of the varying reactions of students when evaluation was withheld, and their motivations.

- Pirsig's depiction of the "groovy dimension" aesthetic of his companions on the motorcycle trip, and their horror when he proposed fixing their loose handlebar with an aluminum shim sheared from an aluminum beer can -- a near-perfect solution rejected because "How can you possibly suggest fixing my N-thousand-dollar BMW motorcycle with a piece of old beer can". My kids live in that dimension to a large degree.

- but the most useful to me was the discussion of gumption, its sources and sinks, and the discussion of the dangers of goal rigidity.

He wrote another book, Lila, An Inquiry Into Morals, which I own but have never read. In a box in storage, I'm sure.

merchant class...making tons of money and not having any way to spend it.

The high arts, Zen arts, arts of simplicity (Noh, Tea, Koto, flower arranging, elaborate kimonos, poetry) were largely by and for the court nobility and samurai. There were sorta merchant-class guilds serving the samurai in these arts, but the merchant class had a pretty hard time consuming them, because the guilds sold exclusivity as part of the product.

The merchant class had their own arts as they became ascendant, kabuki, uchiyo-e, samisen, humorous and satirical novels, Yoshiwara and the Floating World, gambling. Like the arts of many rising classes, they liked irreverence, melodrama, spectacle, novelty.

High Edo period, 16oos, had both Raku ware (the brutally plain black clay tea bowl) and Nabeshima/Imari porcelain, thin and decorated.

All bets were off after the Meiji Restoration, as the samurai class went underground and many merchants were raised to the nobility. The guilds went commercial. and merchants bought class.

The aestheticians, Zeami ca 1400, Motoori Norinaga 1700s, various late Meiji are interesting. Not ruling class, like all philosophers and intellectuals they served to codify and justify the preferences and tastes of the ruling or the rising aspiring class, turn taste into rationality, morality, meritocracy...ideology.

Same as feminists, critical race thinkers, queer theorists etc are doing today.

their horror when he proposed fixing their loose handlebar with an aluminum shim sheared from an aluminum beer can

this puts me in mind of the late, great Sheldon brown. Brown knew anything and everything anyone could possibly want to know about bicycles, and shared what he knew with the world, for free, on blogs sponsored by his employer, Harris Cyclery, and anyplace else he could get a word in.

Brown grew up in the town I live in now. his family had no money whatsoever, but liked bicycles, so he went to the dump, scrounged parts, and built bikes for himself.

in the process, he learned what there was to know. he figured it out.

I'm always interested in people who truly engage with something out side of themselves, for its own sake and on its own terms, without any agenda beyond the fact that it fascinates them. I think there is an act if surrender there, a willingness to let the thing reveal itself to you, and a willingness to form your own mind and intentions to the nature and demands of whatever it is that has captured your imagination.

ultimately it is an act of love, and IMO it is the source of all of the best things that people achieve.

Pirsig: I read Zen way back in my youth, like most folks do. it seemed profound and illuminating, but now I can't really remember much of the gist of it.

it would be interesting to read it again, 40 odd years on, to see what I make of it.

Inspired by Lurker's comment, I dug out an essay called "The Material Basis of Emotions," by Candace Pert, from the Whole Earth Review, Summer, 1988 (while we’re doing counterculture….). Candace Pert was doing AIDS research in the early days, and the article was an utterly fascinating meditation on the interrelationships amongst the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. It ended with this:

Can Mind Survive Physical Death?

One last speculation, an outrageous one perhaps, but on the theme I was asked to consider for this symposium on “Survival and Consciousness.” Can the mind survive the death of the physical brain? Perhaps here we have to recall how mathematics suggests that physical entites can suddenly collapse or infinitely expand. I think it is important to realize that information is stored in the brain, and it is conceivable to me that this information could transform itself into some other realm. The DNA molecules surely have the information that makes the brain and body, and the bodymind seems to share information molecules that enliven the organism. Where does the information go after the destruction of the molecules (the mass) that compose it? Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and perhaps biological information flow cannot just disappear at death and must be transformed into another realm. Who can rationally say “impossible”? No one has yet mathematically unified gravitation field theory with matter and energy. The mathematics of consciousness has not even been applied. The nature of the hypothetical “other realm” is currently in the religious or mystical dimension, where Western science is clearly forbidden to tread.

And then if you want to get really wild, there’s Arnold Mindell’s book Quantum Mind.

Truly, it sounds a little blurry to me at this point.

When did the Counterculture (TM) give way to the New Age, anyhow? ;-)

Maybe if I had read Pirsig's book in my youth, it would sound a little fuzzy to me in the same way forty+ years later. I'd be curious to know if anyone who did read it long ago makes the experiment of rereading it now, and if so, what you think.


This, too, is interesting to me.

By far the largest fraction of the book is devoted to a "Chautauqua", a long, to me utterly lucid rumination on the question "what is quality, and how do we recognize it?". Along the way he rehashes Platonic and Aristotelian views, explores the evaluation of rhetoric in an academic setting, discusses what makes a good mechanic and what quality in mechanical work entails ... it's the whole point of the book.

Yet that's mostly not what people remember, or at least, not clearly enough to talk about it.
(mcmanus tells us what Pirsig's quality discussion is not, without much mention of what it is)

responding to a couple of comments

I've re-read it and it still strikes me. His discussion of arete still seems spot on to me. But I'm not looking at it as a scientist, so I may be the target audience.

The book is on the internets in several places, not sure if it is legally, but relatively easy to find

Talk about emotions has me think of this.


An incredibly inter-related system that, if one part is out of whack, the rest can, like an out of balance spin drier, can destroy itself. Reminds me of other systems...

Bob, interesting stuff but while I agree with your division of high and low culture in Japanese arts, (though a lot of the low culture has moved into the high culture realm) I'm a bit cynical about a lot of that, particularly zen. I do martial arts to a reasonable degree (5th dan in aikido, 6th dan in iaido) and all that talk about zen in martial arts is BS. Tom Conlan has a monograph called _State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan_ that really puts paid to the notion that samurai were zen motivated warriors (nb: Tom is a friend from my first time in Japan), but basically mercs who would exaggerate their wounds to get a better pensions, and were propelled by pretty universal motives rather than some otherworldly notions of Zen. In my study of martial arts, my teachers, who are pretty high ranking, are a lot more interested in the nuts and bolts of doing things and why they are done, and if I started asking about satori or mushin, they would twock me on the head and tell me to stop screwing around. We have zanshin, but it doesn't have a philosophical basis, it has a practical, martial basis, in that you are prepared for the next attack.

good practice for the internet, I'm afraid.

Raku ware is different from Nabeshima porcelain. The arguments people use to create culture and difference (value) may be be bs to justify hierarchies, but it really is all we have, all we do. And we all claim our justificatory discourses are natural, reality based, practical, scientific, true.

Neoliberalism is a very powerful culture and justificatory mechanism. As I said in another thread, one way to look at neoliberalism is under rhetorical uses of individualism, universalism, and meliorism.

Individualism: arguments from personal experience, history, feelings rather than social, group, historical or geographical factors. Very powerful stuff, whether or not the openness, trust and intimacy is provisional or pretense.

Universalism: that the individual, abstracted from social, cultural, historical contexts, viewed as bodies and (rational, free) choosers and consumers, practical, empirical, pragmatic is the best basis for a universal symbolic discourse.

Meliorism: that educating or enlightening people that they are rational agents, bodies and deracinated consumer/producers in a irrational world of cultural bullshit is the path to a free, open, egalitarian and productive society and world.

Sure you can wear a hajib, as long as you choose to and not because they force you to. It's just taste and elective community, not culture. Like coke or pepsi.

When did the Counterculture (TM) give way to the New Age, anyhow? ;-)

the iron law of capitalist society:

every human impulse, experience, and desire must be commodified, so that it's value can be monetized.

You wanna talk about commodified and monetized, wait till you see my next post. I would add instrumentalized as well (although maybe that's just another word for the same thing), in that so much of our culture now involves treating people as if their only value is in serving other people's purposes...

Way out of my philosophical league, but that doesn't mean I can't observe the phenomena.

liberal japonicus,

I think that the ideals of Zen are, despite of what you say, pretty clearly in line with military thinking. I am definitely not a practitioner of Zen, and I speak as an outsider, but I think that the ideal of effortlessly, thoughtlessly flowing skilled movement is something any soldier strives at.

And when you achieve that kind of mastery, the exercise of basic movements allows you to reach certain inner peace. For me, personally, the disassembly and assembly of an assault rifle and shooting with it provides, when it goes smoothly, such feeling of loss of self. So, I can imagine that you can reach a mystical experience via martial arts, although that cannot be the main purpose, if you want to be actually good at the art itself. Such enlightment comes without asking for it, if you work long enough on honing the actual skill.

bob: Sure you can wear a hajib, as long as you choose to and not because they force you to. It's just taste and elective community, not culture. Like coke or pepsi.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the early 80s and as best I can remember it struck me as a somewhat opaque exposition of some possibly significant insights -- something like a bob mcmanus comment.

The fault may have been not in the book but in myself. Maybe I was not sufficiently up on the prerequisites: philosophical literature and jargon, related writings by the author or to which the author might be responding, or something. I still have the book somewhere because I never throw books away, and I intend to take another whack at it now that I am possibly better prepared to plumb its depths.

Meanwhile, just a small question; a minor point; sorry to even raise it: what the hell is bob saying in the paragraph I quoted above? Is he for or against the hijab? Or the women who wear it? Or the men who care one way or the other?


Like russell, I read ZATAOMM way back in my youth, and like him I have only the haziest recollection of it, although it did seem profound and illuminating at the time.

Of McManus's list, I certainly enjoyed Brautigan and Robbins (if he means Tom Robbins) a great deal, but even then (although I read them all) I think I had a sneaking suspicion that Carlos Castaneda was a bit of a charlatan. By the time I really became aware of Pynchon it was too late; despite always having been a voracious reader in my youth, I was already in my (alas still continuing) phase of being almost unable to read "proper"novels, with the exception of genre novels like scifi, because, to quote Francis Spufford in his wonderful The Child that Books Built, I find the frictionless surfaces of genre fiction easier food for my compulsion.

I think my problem with non-genre novels is that so many of them just seem to lack an interesting story. I prefer my novels with interesting characters as well, but I can deal with rather flat characters if the story is interesting.

I'm not saying that there aren't any, perhaps even lots, of novels that would qualify. But it seems a lot harder to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

I'm the opposite: I love novels in which the story is in the psychology of the characters: e.g. Thomas Mann, Henry James, Robert Musil and, more recenctly, Knausgaard (haven't gotten around to Proust yet).

But most people find this stuff terribly boring - and I don't blame them. Conversely I find genre fiction boring and a bit juvenile, with the exception of some crime writers, but these are basically writing about character and the crime is usually of secondary importance.

Aristotle is certainly not on my side: he favours plot above all other elements - but then it's been a while.

No doubt this is also why I can enjoy genre TV shows (Castle, Death in Paradise, etc.) but found Seinfeld utterly unwatchable.

I'm halfway through the second volume of Knausgaard's "My Struggle".

I found the first volume compelling, not so much the second so far, but I've been interrupted by terrible flu, now over with, sheesh, and a road trip.

I soak in novels in which the characters have rich inner lives.

Plot is fine too, of course, but, as in Bellow's characters, I want to hear the inner voice of the protagonist.

Bellow's characters won't shut up, but why would you want them to? They have "Too Much To Think About", which, incidentally, is the title of a collection of Bellow's essays.

Hi Lurker,
I don't disagree, but I also think the ideals of zen are especially suited for music and musicians. However, if you go into a music lesson and start talking about zen, you proabably aren't going to get very far. Practitioners of any art or craft, when they reach a certain level, start to partake of zen (one of the points of Pirsig's book is "The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha.. .which is to demean oneself.") and the layering on of zen to martial arts is more of a sales tactic than something that has extensive historical roots.

What it seems to come down to is this. When you reach the higher levels in any endeavour, whether martial, musical, athletic, mechanical, or whatever), you shut out distractions. But external and internal ones. Which, to the small extent that I understand zen, is what it speaks of.

You can talk about that as becoming one with whatever you are doing. But I think it's really just shutting out distractions.

sapient, I think you put your last two comments in the wrong thread? In any case, slight clarification: I do still read a fair bit, but almost no novels except occasional scifi, fantasy etc (I say almost because a "normal" novel does very rarely slip through, usually because I have nothing else to read - being without reading material is unthinkable). So what I normally read is non-fiction and magazines etc. I very much miss the luxurious, immersive experience of reading a good, long novel, but there was an incomprehensible change some years ago, and now something in me shies away from actually starting one.

I think you put your last two comments in the wrong thread?

Oops, yep.

So what I normally read is non-fiction and magazines etc.

Yes, me too. Although I was stuck in a snowstorm alone (not the usual circumstance for me), reading Elena Ferrante, and I'm convinced that it's insane that I'm not reading novels full time, and that everyone else isn't too. But here I am, not reading novels full time. Although whenever I'm on a long plane trip, that's what happens, and it's all good.

something in me shies away from actually starting one.

Me too, and I think it's about the amount of time to myself that I have (or do not have). To me, giving up the luxury of noncommitment, which is what hanging out on the Internet represents, seems exhausting.

Hang in there, Count, it's worth it - I made it to the middle of volume 4 with many breaks due to life getting in the way.

Where did Chris go?

I just took a morning walk, almost unheard of for me, because I'm a night person and on most days I'm barely sentient before noon. It's a perfect spring day, grass lush before the first mowing, trees (here in the north country) just getting the green/red/whatever film that says there will be leaves in two or three weeks, sky an impossible blue around lackadaisical bright clouds.

I was thinking, as I walked, of how this place looked thirty+ years ago when I moved here. I've walked around some subset of the property (ten acres), the neighborhood, and the woods up beyond the school almost every day in all those years, but the woods, the neighborhood, the property, and I myself have all changed a lot in those thirty years.

So, a twin to the question "Where did Chris go?" is the question, "Where did that earlier version of me go?" It's just about as big a mystery. I sort of remember things she saw, thought, and did, but if I cross-check my memories with those of other people who shared those times with me, the unreliability of memory is amply confirmed.

Time. What is that?

Lj and Snarki, thanks for your comments. We read the piece at her memorial day lunch (Taco Bell and Pinkberry! Her faves.) and it was wonderful.

I haven't read a non-genre novel since my wife died, aged 49. I think novels enable one to experience vicariously an intensity of feeling, especially of loss, beyond what's in one's own life. I don't need that any more.

Did Pirsig have anything to say about this?

Pro Bono, you might want to read Walker Percy, who talks about the question of experience and how different circumstances can bring us in touch with an intensity of feeling. Not precisely the same, but related, I think. The two books I'd recommend of his are The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

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