The ‘‘true’’ identity of the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the novel to understand. The novel depicts two personalities: the now-dead Phaedrus and the lonely, empty man who remained after undergoing shock therapy. The actual storyteller, it may be argued, is neither one of these personalities alone, but an integrated figure representing both the ‘‘old’’ Phaedrus and the unnamed man on the motorcycle trip. In order to distinguish these figures, the narrator’s past personality shall be designated as Phaedrus; the narrator as the character who embarks on the motorcycle journey with his son shall be designated as the man on the motorcycle (or motorcycle man); and the narrator, who is to be viewed as an integrated version of these two individuals, shall be referred to for purposes of this discussion as the narrator/storyteller. A close reading of the novel suggests that the motorcycle man’s understanding of himself and of Phaedrus happened not just on the journey, but after the pivotal moment at the end of the book when man on the motorcycle and Phaedrus are unified into a new personality. This new figure transcends both of the distinct isolated personalities the man used to be, and it is his voice that offers commentary on the two, earlier versions of himself.
Robert Pirsig’s novel was inspired by events in his own life, and he uses a first-person narrator to tell the story. He states in his author’s note that the story is ‘‘based on actual occurrences.’’ He goes on to note that while ‘‘much has been changed for rhetorical purposes,’’ the essence of the story must be considered factual. What readers do not know is what exactly has been changed for ‘‘rhetorical purposes’’—that is, what has been altered in order to improve the novel as a story. Readers are also left to wonder what should be considered factual essence. This statement, rather than specifying what is to be taken as truth, suggests that nothing is safe from doubt, and that even the identity of the narrator should not be presumed to be known. The narrator cannot be taken as Pirsig himself.
When considering Pirsig’s first-person narrator, it should be noted that no one in the story refers to this character as ‘‘Robert’’ or ‘‘Mr. Pirsig.’’ Chris calls him ‘‘Dad,’’ and that is the only direct address the narrator receives. While the narrator is clearly meant to be associated with the author, in that the life experiences attributed to the narrator by Pirsig mirror those events in his own life, it may be argued that this man on the motorcycle is a fictionalized version of the author, a character crafted for the purposes of storytelling.
The way in which the story is told further suggests an overarching consciousness, a personality distinct from Phaedrus and from the man on the motorcycle. The motorcycle man’s experiences—the actual events of the motorcycle trip—are related in present tense. The sections of the story pertaining to Phaedrus—the details regarding his existence, his philosophy, and his ultimate fate—are related in the past tense. The fact that two different stories are being told in two different ways further indicates the presence of a figure—the narrator/storyteller—who is able to discuss both perspectives.
The narrator/storyteller is removed by both time and space from the character who is actually experiencing the events in the story. The man on the motorcycle discusses with the DeWeeses that he is considering writing a ‘‘series of lecture-essays—a sort of Chautauqua,’’ and that he has been attempting to ‘‘work them out’’ in his mind on the trip. During the trip, he is not actually writing the Chautauqua. The story is what he produced after the trip was over. Yet something significant happens at the end of the trip, something suggesting that the final version of the story was produced by a different version of the narrator, by a different mind, than the one in the experiences of the story.
At the end of the trip, and the end of the novel, Phaedrus reemerges. In his ‘‘Introduction to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition,’’ of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig makes this clear. He states that in the end, ‘‘It is an honorable Phaedrus who triumphs over the narrator that has been maligning him all the time.’’ He stresses additionally that the ‘‘dissembling narrator has vanished.’’
Rereading the novel’s ending in this light, it is possible to see that while the fragmented, tormented man on the motorcycle has disappeared, the Phaedrus that emerges is not the same Phaedrus featured all along. The former identity of Phaedrus, like the former identity of the man on the motorcycle, has also disappeared. A new identity, one unifying these two fragmented parts, has emerged. Significantly, there is a recognition by this new version of Phaedrus that he is in fact the same ‘‘I’’ who has experienced the trip with Chris. Previously, the two identities were distinct. The ‘‘old’’ Phaedrus was completely Phaedrus, and the resulting person who remained after Phaedrus’s destruction was aware of Phaedrus as a distinctly separate personality. At the novel’s end, however, the two identities are no longer separated from one another’s consciousness. They have finally integrated into one person. The ‘‘old’’ Phaedrus, upon his reemergence is recognized by the narrator as himself. Regarding Chris’s ‘‘childish misunderstanding’’ about Phaedrus, the narrator says, ‘‘That’s what Phaedrus always said—I— always said.’’ There is recognition now that the two individuals presented as separate personalities throughout the story have united. They have, in fact, become a better version of both, in the sense that as a man and as a father, to be one person rather than two fragmented ones is an improved state of being. Phaedrus/the motorcycle man tells himself, ‘‘Be one person again!’’ Given that it is this unified individual who remains at the journey’s end, it is clearly also this unified person who actually tells us the story.
This narrative voice empathizes both with Phaedrus and with the man struggling along on the motorcycle journey. Returning to the ‘‘Introduction,’’ Pirsig explains that the ‘‘real Phaedrus’’ is not ‘‘a villainous ghost but rather a mild-mannered hyperintellectual.’’ This real Phaedrus is the integrated Phaedrus. He is both the Phaedrus of the story with his obsessive philosophical drive toward Quality and the man on the motorcycle who strives toward a better understanding of himself and of his son. The integrated individual, the narrator/storyteller, shows the motorcycle man’s fear of his former self through the man’s dreams. But when the narrator/storyteller recounts Phaedrus’s quest, it is with sympathy and respect, not with horror. He views Phaedrus as Chris does, as a noble hero, but one with fatal flaws.
As the storyteller presents it, when Phaedrus sat on the floor of his apartment for days, the event that precipitated his hospitalization, the experience was one in which Phaedrus’s consciousness dissolved and he was able to truly perceive Quality, ‘‘and his soul [was] at rest.’’ Phaedrus’s truth-seeking was his undoing. Similarly, the man he became after leaving the mental institution sought, unconsciously at first, and later consciously, Phaedrus, or at least the remnants of his philosophy. His quest, too, was his undoing. Yet the resultant personality—a man who recognizes that he was both Phaedrus, and a ‘‘middle-class, middle-aged person getting along,’’ that remained after Phaedrus was destroyed—is at last able to be the father that his son needs. He is able to examine Phaedrus’s philosophical ideals and combine them with the man on the motorcycle’s desire to ground Phaedrus’s thought into a meaningful approach to everyday life. In the narrator/storyteller’s presentation of Phaedrus’s ideas and the man on the motorcycle’s reaction to those ideas, we see the synthesis he has been advocating throughout the book. In exploring the way to ‘‘solve the conflict between human values and technological needs,’’ which is what Phaedrus and the man on the motorcycle have been attempting to do, each in their own way, the narrator/storyteller insists that ‘‘barriers’’ must be overcome, specifically, the barriers that prevent an understanding of technology as a ‘‘fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.’’ He further explains that this ‘‘transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life.’’
This integration of two separate identities corresponds with what the narrator has been urging throughout the novel. In the man’s motorcycle repair, just as in Phaedrus’s philosophical endeavors, exists a quest for integration, for something that unified the romantic and the intuitive with the classic and analytical approaches. The narrator speaks also of the ‘‘separation of what man is from what man does’’ and of the disjunction between people who see things for what they are and people who see things for what they do. The unification of the disparate parts of the narrator emphasizes the possibility of greater unification. Early on in the novel, the narrator states that Buddha ‘‘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.’’ ‘‘That,’’ he says, ‘‘is what I want to talk about in this Chautauqua.’’ People’s existence, he explains at the beginning of the book and throughout it, should be viewed as one of unity, not one of disintegration. This is reinforced through Phaedrus’s notion of Quality and how he finds the same idea expressed in the ancient words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. The narrator’s approach to maintaining his motorcycle, an approach that involves analytic reasoning as well as such things as ‘‘care’’ and ‘‘gumption,’’ also reinforces the notion of the necessity of integrating two schools of thought that only appear incompatible. The book’s emphasis is perpetually placed on the idea of wholeness and unity, and on the peace that such integration has the potential to bring. When the old motorcycle man and the old Phaedrus have been unified, and Chris has been revived from his own disintegration, the troubled, anxious tone of the story is gone and is replaced by the joy experienced by both Chris and his father. The feeling, it is noted, is a new one. It is one ‘‘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.’’ The new positivity may be viewed as a validation of the process of integration that is occurring for the new Phaedrus, the real Phaedrus.
Phaedrus believed ‘‘that he had solved a huge riddle of the universe,’’ that he had transcended the dualistic, classic versus romantic way of looking at reality. The man on the motorcycle is trying to simply get by and improve his relationship with his son, and he considers himself ‘‘nothing special.’’ The overarching tone of the book, however, is that of the narrator/storyteller, the integrated personality. He seeks to ‘‘reform the world, and make it a better place to live in.’’ To do this, he advises a practical, individual approach: ‘‘The place to improve the world,’’ he says, ‘‘is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.’’ His ideals are, like Phaedrus’s, grand and noble, and his methods, like those of the father and motorcycle man, simple, straightforward, and personal.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Robert M. Pirsig, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010