The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called "yourself." -Robert Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is surely the best-known book in all of motorcycledom, a classic for twenty-seven years now. When I've mentioned Zen to other motorcyclists who've read it, though, responses go something like, "Oh, yeah, a great read!" or "What a powerful tale!" Beyond this, there doesn't seem to be much anyone has actually gleaned from the book about maintaining a motorcycle. Over the years, in fact, most reviewers have observed that the book is only loosely related to motorcycle maintenance, with some going as far as to say it has little to do with motorcycling at all. To some degree, they're right. Zen is, more than anything, a treatise on values and their relationship to quality. That said, here and there the book makes some provocative and practical observations about maintaining a motorcycle.
Pirsig is interested in the motorcycle because it serves nicely to illustrate the relationship between the two poles of the human psyche: emotion and intellect. Emotions are subjective while an intellectual experience is objective, strictly consistent with reason and logic. These two ways of understanding have been called the Romantic and the Classic, respectively, and the question about how they work together has raged for centuries. Zen has been celebrated as a smart discussion of the issue-with the motorcycle as the central example. "Although motorcycle riding is romantic," Pirsig writes, "motorcycle maintenance is purely classic."
As 5.7 million of us have discovered, the motorcycle is far more than technological fluff. Tooling down the highway on a bike is nearly pure emotion, an elemental, bare-knuckled adrenaline rush. The feelings evoked by the motorcycle are so vivid and so powerful, in fact, it's become a colossal icon of pop culture, symbolizing values associated with rebellion, power, high fashion, and escape. Pirsig was right-on when he chose it as the embodiment of romantic fantasy.
While the motorcycle can deliver fierce emotions, Pirsig reminds us that it's the product of pure intellect, a wholly rational system worked out in steel. It has to be that way to control the fiery temperatures and explosive pressures involved in converting energy into mechanical force. Understanding the precision involved is part of what motorcycle maintenance teaches. Sadly, says Pirsig, many motorcyclists are interested only in the emotional highs, ignoring the intellectual dimension of the machine. What they've missed are the classical pleasures of motorcycling.
Even though the classical perspective minimizes romantic pleasure, one gains another kind of enjoyment. A conversation with the curator of Willi's Motorcycle World in Daytona Beach illustrates the trade off. While he was showing the $4 million collection, he paused to point out an unusual and clever front brake pully/cable device on a 1962 MV Augusta Grand Prix. He clearly enjoyed the beauty of the concept and its execution, much like a mathematician delights in an elegant formula. This intellectual pleasure, says Pirsig, is what motorcycle maintenance teaches.
When Pirsig wrote Zen in '68, he noticed that it was primarily touring riders who knew how to keep their machines in top running order; for others, motorcycle maintenance was something to be avoided, an unpleasant, messy, and baffling chore. Pirsig blames this on our culture which confers diabolic overtones on technology, brainwashing many into believing that they shouldn't fool with complex mechanical assemblies. And today it seems there are more and more riders who love what a motorcycle does, yet prefer to ignore what it is. Ask these motorcyclists about maintenance, and, as often as not, watch the face acquire a kind of glazed look, and hear the mantras: "I'm not good at fixing things" or "I leave it to professionals."
The actual hands-on part of motorcycle maintenance that many find intimidating is really the easiest part of what's involved. For this reason, then, you should be maintaining your motorcycle. "You're at a disadvantage the first time around," says Pirsig, "and it may cost you a little more in parts. . .but you're way ahead."
While that's pragmatic advice, there's a far more important aspect to the art of motorcycle maintenance, a point that's made over and over in Zen. There's a classical beauty in the precision of well-functioning machinery, and one of the greatest pleasures of owning a motorcycle is the opportunity to savor it. With every turn of the wench, your understanding increases, and eventually, you'll develop a bit of a "mechanic's feel," that almost intuitive relationship with the machine that mechanical wizards develop.
How do you cultivate such a state of mind? It takes time. In Zen, Pirsig reviews the "traps" that have doomed motorcycle maintenance projects, robbing the do-it-yourselfer of the right mental attitude:
It requires discipline to overcome maintenance obstacles, and there are plenty of mistakes to be made. However, you can find comfort by remembering that there's never been a mechanic who didn't bungle a job. The big difference between the do-it-yourselfer and a professional, Pirsig reminds us, is that we rarely learn of a pro's screw-ups-all we do is pay for them.
More than anything else, then, the art of motorcycle maintenance concerns mastering the right mental attitude: "Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts, right thoughts produce right actions." With the right frame of mind, maintenance is nothing more than an engaging puzzle, and working the puzzle gives motorcycling another deeply satisfying dimension. Ultimately-and here's the part where the art of motorcycle maintenance finds transcendental significance, it's Zen, so to speak-you'll come to understand that the mechanical condition of a motorcycle reflects the metaphysical harmony of the pilgrim who turned the wrenches.