Classicism versus Romanticism
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator discusses two schools of thought— classicism and romanticism—and explores the reasons these branches of thinking have been set in opposition to one another throughout history. He advocates for a unification of these two ways of approaching the world, stating that ‘‘classic and romantic understanding should be united at a basic level.’’ The narrator also explains that Phaedrus’s quest was to solve this philosophical dilemma. The classical school of thought or mode of thinking, as the narrator describes it, is associated with analysis, reasoning, science, technology, and technological methods. Romanticism is associated with art, intuition, and the view that technology is ugly. The Sutherlands are identified by the narrator as representatives of romanticism. Throughout the novel, the narrator offers examples of the ways these two modes of thought are viewed in terms of their opposition to one another. He speaks of the way abstract art is derided by the scientifically minded and how technical tasks such as motorcycle repair are feared by individuals with a more intuitive mind-set. He explains that romantics see things for what they are, appreciating the beauty of the object as it is, while classicists see things for what they do, appreciating the function of each component.
When the narrator is asked by Robert DeWeese to examine the instructions for putting together a rotisserie, the discussion arises again. DeWeese, an artist, is unable to make sense of the technical assembly instructions. The narrator claims that the reason for this is at least in part because the instructions were written without an appreciation for the rotisserie as a whole. The instruction writer focused on the pieces, while DeWeese focused on his desire for the completed whole. This points to the disconnection and resulting isolation the narrator spends much of the book discussing. Had the instruction writer appreciated the various ways the parts could be assembled to make a functioning unit, and had DeWeese had that same appreciation, rather than the impatience for only the end result, there would likely not have been a problem. As the narrator points out, ‘‘This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural.’’
The narrator’s gradual solution to the divorce of art and technology is the idea of Quality. Phaedrus arrives at a philosophical, metaphysical idea of Quality. (Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the principles of reality and nature of being, as well as an exploration of concepts which the sciences accept as fact.) The notion of Quality, or Quality in the metaphysical way Phaedrus considers it, is his solution to the classic versus romantic split. He sees the notion of Quality as a ‘‘new spiritual rationality—in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness’’ provided by traditional classic versus romantic thinking ‘‘would become illogical.’’
The narrator, however, takes a different approach, focusing instead on attitudes, making Quality ‘‘occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.’’ The ideas of care and of gumption are the more practical approaches to experiencing Quality advocated by the narrator. Phaedrus and the narrator offer different details and structures to support their theories about Quality. For Phaedrus, the details include analyses of the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Aristotle, and Plato. He offers a reasoned approach to the existence of Quality despite its inability to be defined. As an instructor at the University, he proved that his students could identify Quality (in the writing of other students), even though they could not explain or define it. The narrator offers instead details regarding the specific features of various motorcycle repair jobs. He discusses a variety of parts, their functions, and the way to avoid a ‘‘gumption trap’’ like anxiety or ego, traps which inhibit Quality. He discusses ‘‘stuckness’’ and the meditative way this state can be approached in order to yield a more enlightened understanding of the motorcycle as a fusion of both art and technology.
The two take different approaches to the same goal. Phaedrus eventually comes to recognize Quality as the same concept as the Tao, the ‘‘Way,’’ as explored in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. (Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that focuses on achieving a spiritual harmony with nature.) The narrator comes to identify his meditative approach to his motorcycle and his life with the Zen Buddhist tradition. (Zen Buddhism is a Japanese philosophy advocating meditation as a path toward spiritual enlightenment.)
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.