Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance opens with the narrator riding his motorcycle through the Central Plains. His thoughts are interwoven with his conversation with his young son, Chris, who is on the motorcycle with him. The narrator explains his intention to use the westward journey from their home in Minnesota as an opportunity to discuss some of the things on his mind, and he envisions this experience as a series of ‘‘Chautauquas,’’ or a series of lectures intended to entertain and educate. Traveling with the narrator and his son are family friends John and Sylvia Southerland. The narrator explores John’s dislike of motorcycle maintenance as an example of a certain ‘‘disharmony’’ that plagues not just John but many people. He describes it as a split between those who value and embrace technology and those who approach life in a more romantic, intuitive manner. John and the narrator’s attitudes toward motorcycle maintenance, the narrator explains, shed light on this split and are used to explore the larger implications of the split between rationality and romanticism. The narrator’s philosophic approach to such issues in the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book.
The trip and the Chautauqua continue as the narrator observes the subtle change in the country they are riding through, a transition from the Central Plains to the Great Plains. The narrator offers further ruminations on the way motorcycle maintenance and one’s attitudes toward it reflect larger issues within society as a whole.
The four cyclists (the narrator and his son Chris on one cycle, John and Sylvia on another) have ridden through the Red River Valley and are heading into an approaching storm. As the rain and thunder hit, the narrator has a flash of recognition. When various features of the landscape are illuminated he thinks, ‘‘He’s been here!’’ This is one of the first clues the narrator offers regarding the alternate personality that has resided within him. The narrator becomes extremely cautious about proceeding in the bad weather, but his conversation with his son suggests that his cautiousness and trepidation are also a response to the resurgence of the other personality. Later, at the hotel where the four are staying, talk turns to ghosts. The narrator’s mysterious comments about having known someone who chased a ghost, beat it, and then became a ghost himself foreshadow his later explanations of his relationship with his alternate personality.
The narrator offers an extensive list and discussion of the items he has taken with him on this motorcycle trip. The four cyclists ride out of town early—at the urging of the narrator—on a cold morning. John, Sylvia, and Chris are angry with the narrator when they finally stop for breakfast. The mood shifts before they ride again.
The riders approach the High Plains and stop in Hague, North Dakota, to plan their route across the Missouri River. The narrator recalls previous conversations with John about motorcycle maintenance and continues to contemplate John’s negative reaction to the idea of a person learning the technical and intuitive details of maintaining one’s own machine. In an attempt to account for John’s attitudes, the narrator observes that there are two distinct realities that people perceive, ‘‘one of immediate artistic appearance and of underlying scientific explanation.’’ The narrator observes how these two realities do not seem to fit together very well. After a brief stop, the cyclists continue on to the town of Lemmon. They are all fatigued, but Chris is excited about camping. They find a spot but have difficulties getting set up and preparing dinner. When Chris stalks off after complaining of stomach pains, John, Sylvia, and the narrator discuss his ailment. The narrator explains that Chris’s stomach complaint is a recurring one for which they have found no medical explanation. Doctors have told the narrator and his wife that the issue is likely a symptom of mental illness. The narrator tries to explain why he stopped Chris’s psychiatric treatments, but he falters, acknowledging only that it did not feel right. After Chris returns and the group falls asleep, the narrator dreams of a figure he describes as evil and insane. He identifies this figure as Phaedrus.
The narrator decides to discuss Phaedrus, claiming that to omit him from the story would be like running from him. He asserts that Phaedrus was never properly buried, and assumes that is why he, the narrator, feels troubled by the renewed sense of Phaedrus’s presence. The cyclists load their gear and head out into the hot day. Prefacing his comments with the statement that Phaedrus will not be praised but buried permanently, the narrator begins to flesh out Phaedrus’s theories. Here he further explains ideas he alluded to earlier and discusses at length two modes of human understanding: classical and romantic. Much is made of the division between these two ways of perceiving the world. After commenting on the depths to which Phaedrus probed these ideas, the narrator informs us of Phaedrus’s ultimate fate: a police arrest ordered by the court and removal from society. The narrator’s thoughts are interrupted by periodic breaks in their journey for coffee and food. He continues to analyze Phaedrus’s analytic approach to the classic/romantic split.
The narrator observes the oppressive heat in which they are riding. As the review of Phaedrus’s analysis continues, the narrator stresses that Phaedrus was looking for a solution to the classic/romantic divide, a way to unite these two modes of understanding. He sought a theory that would explain and synthesize rather than dissemble and divide. The group passes into Montana, and the narrator explains that the ghost he spoke with Chris about was the ‘‘ghost of rationality’’ that Phaedrus pursued. As the oppressively hot day continues, the narrator rides more slowly to avoid overheating the motorcycle or blowing tires, but John and Sylvia are irritated with his slow pace. He thinks of the way Phaedrus’s wife and family suffered due to his inattention. Interspersed with discussions of Phaedrus’s thoughts—ideas the narrator claims to have discovered through Phaedrus’s writings—are the narrator’s recollections of having woken up in a hospital where it was eventually explained to him that he now had a new personality. The narrator further explains that Phaedrus, his former personality, was dead, after the court had ordered him institutionalized and he had undergone shock therapy (the administering of high-voltage alternating current through his brain). He speaks of the fear he feels now, of how he never knew Phaedrus, but everything he sees, he sees with his own eyes, as well as with Phaedrus’s. After the slow, hot ride, a cooling rain refreshes the group.
Sylvia, John, Chris, and the narrator are in Miles City, Montana. They have slept and bathed and the mood is good. The narrator applies his analysis of the classic/romantic divide to his current maintenance of his cycle. The group discusses their upcoming destination of Bozeman, Montana. As John discusses radical professors from the college in Bozeman, the narrator notes that he has been among them, observing silently that it was Phaedrus, not him, who was one of the professors under discussion. This observation highlights the peculiarities of the narrator’s identity: he views himself as a different person entirely from the person he used to be (Phaedrus), but to all outward appearances he seems to be the same person.
Following the Yellowstone Valley, the group traverses Montana on their way to Bozeman. The narrator’s Chautauqua for the day focuses on logic and its uses. He extensively discusses inductive and deductive reasoning.
The narrator notes that Phaedrus’s break from mainstream rational thought can now be discussed. He outlines Phaedrus’s thoughts regarding the formation of scientific hypotheses. Phaedrus’s analysis led him always to more questions, to pondering the nature of truth. He reveals that Phaedrus, who entered college at the age of fifteen, was expelled by the age of seventeen for failing grades. He was unable to thrive in the academic community when he questioned the basic structures and models of what he was being taught. The narrator notes that Phaedrus at this point began to drift. The group arrives at Laurel, Montana, with the mountains in sight.
Everyone seems excited and energized by the mountain air. They discuss their path to Bozeman, and they select a route that the narrator recalls Phaedrus having used a number of times. During the next phase of the trip, the narrator explores the truths Phaedrus sought after he left college. He notes that Phaedrus joined the Army and served in Korea and became interested in Eastern philosophy. After his return, Phaedrus renewed his studies at the university in Minnesota, from which he had previously been expelled, focusing on philosophy. As the cyclists travel further into the mountains, the narrator discusses Phaedrus’s philosophical journey, commenting on Phaedrus’s study of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume.
The group is conversing about the person they will be staying with, a former colleague of the narrator. Some anxiety is felt by all, as everyone realizes that the man, an art professor by the name of DeWeese, knew the narrator only as Phaedrus. Though the narrator remembers very little of DeWeese, a few conversations Phaedrus and DeWeese shared come back to him on their way to DeWeese’s house. He also explains that between Phaedrus’s undergraduate studies and his teaching stint in Bozeman, he spent some time living in India and studying Eastern philosophy at the Benares Hindu University. Following Phaedrus’s return to the Midwest, he got a degree in journalism, married, and had two children, and worked as a technical writer. He had, the narrator observes, ‘‘given up.’’
The narrator notices how anxious he feels about being back in Bozeman, and recalls Phaedrus’s extreme anxiety about teaching. Further recollections regarding Phaedrus’s interest in protecting the college’s accreditation requirements are related. For some colleagues it was a political issue, but for Phaedrus it was about the quality of the education the students were receiving.
The four travelers enter Bozeman, stop and eat, and then proceed to DeWeese’s house where they are greeted by DeWeese and his wife. The narrator is aware that DeWeese still views him as Phaedrus. That evening, Chris tells his father that the previous evening, his father told him that it was lonely here. The narrator has no recollection of the conversation, and assumes Chris was dreaming. After dinner, other guests arrive, Jack and Wylla Barsness. Conversation turns to some of the same topics the narrator has been ruminating about, and he offers a brief lecture on the schism between art and technology.
Following some leisure time exploring a mining town, John and Sylvia decide to head back toward Minnesota. Chris and his father will hike into the mountains near Bozeman, then return for the motorcycle to continue their journey. The narrator and Chris walk to the school where Phaedrus used to teach. When the narrator decides to explore one of the buildings, the one containing his former classroom and office, Chris feels scared and runs outside. The narrator proceeds and is overcome with memories. He has the sensation that Phaedrus is present, not as a fragmented part of himself but seeing everything he himself sees. Having returned to the place where his obsession with the metaphysical notion of ‘‘Quality’’ began, the narrator is once again immersed in his former thought processes on the subject.
Chris and his father begin their journey into the mountains. As they hike, the narrator explores Phaedrus’s examination of the notion of Quality. He points out that he is not aware of everything that existed in Phaedrus’s mind during this phase of his life, and is now attempting to piece together the remnants he has found. Interspersed with this extensive recollection of his classroom teachings are snippets of conversations with Chris, who appears to be struggling with the arduous hike.
The narrator attempts to encourage Chris, who has grown increasingly frustrated. As their hike continues, the narrator returns to Phaedrus’s classroom and his attempts to define and identify Quality. Chris’s hiking efforts are defiant and angry.
Phaedrus’s quest toward understanding Quality progresses, the narrator informs us, when Phaedrus begins to view Quality as something undefinable. The benefits and pitfalls of this approach are reviewed, and along the way, the narrator continues to urge on his son, who stumbles up the mountain, falls often, and becomes ever more discouraged and angry. They camp for the night.
Waking, the narrator recalls a dream, one that will recur throughout the rest of the novel in various versions, in which he is separated from Chris, Chris’s brother, and mother by a glass door. Chris beckons his father to open the door, but he does not. When the narrator speaks with Chris, Chris tells him that he, the narrator, kept Chris up all night talking about the mountain, and how he would meet Chris at the top. The narrator recalls nothing of this conversation. Once they are on the move again, the narrator returns to his Chautauqua, recalling Phaedrus’s tackling of the question of whether or not Quality is subjective. The narrator reveals that Phaedrus began to view Quality as an event, the cause of subjects and objects. This represents a major breakthrough in Phaedrus’s theories. Just then, Chris sees blue sky, and realizes they are near the top of the mountain.
Chris is in good spirits, as they have nearly reached the summit of the peak. They discuss Chris’s claim that the narrator spoke to him about meeting him at the top of the mountain, and Chris suggests that the narrator sounded like he used to. The descent down the mountain begins, and the narrator declares that it is time to leave Phaedrus’s path and explore some of his own ideas, paths that Phaedrus neglected. The narrator points out that for Phaedrus, the metaphysics of Quality were not channeled into everyday life. Rather, his approach focused on the moment of ‘‘nonintellectual awareness,’’ the moment between the ‘‘instant of vision’’ and the ‘‘instant of awareness.’’ Phaedrus was increasingly drawn to that in-between moment, when Quality is experienced but not intellectualized, a process which degrades the actual truth of the moment. This awareness, and his being able to link his view with that explored in the Eastern philosophy of the Tao Te Ching caused a ‘‘slippage’’ in Phaedrus’s mind, a disconnection, the narrator explains.
Chris and his father struggle through thick brush on their way down the mountain. The narrator attempts to ground Phaedrus’s theories and place the notion of Quality within the context of art, religion, and science. When Chris and his father reach the bottom of the mountain, they find other campers who offer them a ride into Bozeman, where they get a hotel room for the night.
After saying good-bye to the DeWeeses, Chris and his father head west. The narrator discusses the intersection of Phaedrus’s philosophy with that of another philosopher, Jules Henri Poincare´. Near Missoula, Montana, Chris and his father stop and eat and later find a place to camp.
This brief chapter is from Phaedrus’s point of view. In the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, all that is from Phaedrus’s point of view is set in a font different from that of the rest of the book, to set it apart. Phaedrus recounts the dream the narrator had earlier in the book. In this version, Phaedrus understands that he is dead, and that Chris and Chris’s mother and brother have come to pay their respects. Chris motions for Phaedrus to open the door, but when Phaedrus tries, a dark, shadowy figure moves between him and the door. He shouts to Chris, telling him he will see him at the bottom of the ocean because the mountain is gone.
Waking up in Idaho, the narrator recalls the dream. He wakes Chris and the two head out, and he is eager to begin his Chautauqua. He explores the relationship between care and Quality, pointing out that someone who recognizes Quality, and is able to experience it when he works is someone who cares. The narrator then talks about obstacles to experiencing Quality, obstacles such as one’s reaction to getting stuck in any particular activity, such as motorcycle repair.
Riding through Idaho, the narrator now discusses the ‘‘ugliness of technology’’ that ‘‘traditional reason’’ has created. He advocates viewing technology as a union of the human and the natural into a new transcendent creation, and emphasizes that the transcendence one can experience is not particular to what can be achieved through motorcycle maintenance. He goes on to discuss inner peace of mind and the way it can be achieved in various levels of understanding. They arrive in western Idaho in a town called Cambridge and camp for the night.
Chris and his father arrive in Oregon. The narrator’s Chautauqua focuses on a state of being that leaves one open to Quality, and that is having gumption. The obstacle to enthusiasm is identified as ‘‘the internal gumption trap of ego,’’ which the narrator explores with respect to motorcycle maintenance. After a lengthy discussion, the narrator points out that in reality, the metaphorical cycle he is speaking of is one’s self. Chris and the narrator arrive at the West Coast and settle in for another night of camping after a long day of travel.
This brief chapter opens with a dream, from Phaedrus’s point of view. Phaedrus is attempting to attack the shadowy figure that comes between him and the door, him and Chris. Chris, frightened, wakes his father, who has been shouting. The narrator realizes that the person in the dream, the dreamer, is Phaedrus, and that he is the person in the shadows. He acknowledges to himself that Phaedrus is returning and that he must prepare Chris for this.
The narrator recalls being Phaedrus and driving with a young Chris in the car and not remembering where he was going or how to navigate in his surroundings at all. He fears endangering Chris again now. The narrator begins to recount Phaedrus’s end, which began when he sought to explore Quality further in his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. While the narrator repeatedly turns to these thoughts, he and Chris arrive at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. The narrator describes his classroom experiences in the philosophy courses in Chicago, challenging experiences with professors whose attitudes and beliefs incensed Phaedrus and drove him to further hone his understanding of Quality.
Chris, under his father’s instruction, washes their clothes at the laundromat while the narrator repairs the motorcycle. His thoughts return to Quality, to his own individual view of it, and to Phaedrus’s, which was larger and broader in scope. Detailed analyses of Phaedrus’s clash with his professors regarding the thinking of ancient philosophers, including Aristotle, are provided by the narrator, who also pauses to note the progress of their journey into California. The narrator discusses Phaedrus’s comparison of Plato’s notion of the Good with his own view of Quality.
In the opening paragraph of this chapter the narrator promises to finish Phaedrus’s story once and for all. He speaks of Phaedrus reading one of Plato’s dialogues, the one featuring the character of Phaedrus. The solitude and aggression of the character appeal to Phaedrus. An account of the classroom discussion on the topic is presented. Phaedrus becomes increasingly withdrawn, no longer motivated to teach or to learn. He begins to feel that the more he desires to understand Quality, the more he attempts to define it, and Quality is defeated. He stops wandering and returns to his apartment, sitting cross-legged in his room for days. His consciousness dissolves; his sense of himself disintegrates. The narrator and Chris find a hotel for the night and Chris questions his father about where they are going and why he does nothing. Chris cries, rocking himself in the fetal position, claiming that he has lost an interest in wanting anything. The narrator is certain that Chris’s main problem is that he misses Phaedrus.
Chris and his father leave the hotel and have breakfast. Chris expresses his desire to turn around and go home. The narrator insists that they will be heading south instead, and Chris begrudgingly climbs on the motorcycle behind his father. The narrator feels that Chris understands that his real father is no longer there. He states his feelings of having conformed. He attempts to persuade Chris to return home on a bus, and tells him he was insane for a long while, and is perhaps still insane. When Chris does not respond, the narrator also tells him of the possibility that he, Chris, may also suffer from some sort of mental illness. Chris, stunned as the import of what his father is saying sinks in, falls to the ground, rocking back and forth. A truck is approaching them, the narrator can hear it, and they are in its path. He cannot get Chris to move. When he next speaks, he recognizes the voice as not his own but Phaedrus’s. It is the return of Phaedrus that prompts Chris to save his own life. Chris asks Phaedrus why he left, and if he was really insane. Phaedrus responds that they would not let him leave the hospital, and that no, he was not insane.
Chris and Phaedrus ride without helmets for the first time in the story. They can hear each other better now, and Phaedrus notes that they are connected in ways they do not even understand. Phaedrus concludes the story by stating his belief that things will be better now.
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.