Conservative Reactions to Communist Fears in the 1950s
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974, but it takes place in two different time periods. The Phaedrus phase of the narrator’s life occurs in the 1950s. The real-life motorcycle trip Pirsig writes about in the novel took place in 1968, several years prior to the book’s publication, but within the same general cultural atmosphere. The narrator relates a few things about both time periods. In Montana in the late 1950s, the place and time in which Phaedrus taught there, was what the narrator describes as ‘‘an outbreak of ultra-rightwing politics.’’ Through his narrator, Pirsig highlights some of the conservative policies of the University administration. He relates that the public statements of professors had to be approved by the administration, and the academic standards of the college were, in Phaedrus’s opinion, deteriorating in order to increase enrollment. The University’s accreditation status would be affected unless the broad enrollment guidelines were enforced Phaedrus objected to this policy. The Montana State University Web site confirms that the expansion of the school was brought about by a lowering of academic standards, which the president of the university allowed but with which he apparently did not agree. According to Montana State University, the president (Roland Renne) was ‘‘forced to downplay his ideals in order to secure funds for the expansion’’ of the school.
While the narrator focuses on Phaedrus’s particular concerns about the school’s accreditation, the university’s Web site also confirms the truth about a general atmosphere of fear and resulting conservatism and names the fear of Communism that began to seep across the country as a cause. Such heightened concern about Communism was generated in part by the Korean War and by McCarthyism and the Red Scare. The United States’s involvement in the Korean War took place from 1950 to 1953 and was centered around the U.S. defense of South Korea against Communist North Korea. Fear of the spread of Communism became pervasive in the United States, as the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) was becomingly increasingly powerful. Senator Joseph McCarthy was famous for claiming to have a list of accused Communists who worked for the U.S. State Department. His accusations were unproven, but he gained national support for his interest in finding and convicting suspected communists of treason.
Social Activism in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s
Whereas Pirsig, in his novel, offers specifics regarding the conservative atmosphere of the university setting in the 1950s, his portrayal of the cultural atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s is more vague. And for neither time frame does he discuss national political events, such as the Korean War or the Vietnam War. He mentions that Phaedrus served in Korea, but the context provided, along with known biographical facts of Pirsig’s life, shows that his service was prior to the war. With regard to the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pirsig’s novel paints a picture of what is wrong with society in terms of general, negative reactions to technology. Pervading the novel is the idea that because so many people view the world in terms of the classic/romantic split, everyone suffers from the tension created. He speaks of the need to reform attitudes.
This desire for societal reformation, the narrator insists, must be accomplished on a personal level before society can change, but the desire itself for inner peace and the longing to ‘‘reform the world, and make it a better place to live in,’’ are reflective of the activism of the time period. The United States’s involvement in the Vietnam War (1959–1975) was lengthy, and as U.S. military presence there grew, so did the opposition to it back in the United States. During the late 1950s, the most pervasive fear in the United States was the fear of communism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the deeper fear seems to have been with the way the United States was fighting the war against the spread of communism. War protesters learned from the activism of the everyday citizens involved in the civil rights movement, citizens who were successful in making changes to government policies. Both the civil rights and the anti-war movements focused on peaceful activities for advocating change: they staged marches, rallies, and parades; they spread their message through speeches and publications; and they petitioned the government for change.
The narrator directly contrasts the conservatism of the 1950s with the liberalism of the 1970s by stating, ‘‘This was the nineteen-fifties, not the nineteen-seventies. There were rumblings from the beatniks and early hippies at this time about ‘the system’ and the square intellectualism that supported it, but hardly anyone guessed how deeply the whole edifice would be brought into doubt.’’
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.