A man on a motorbike in the mountains
Robert Pirsig's 1974 bestseller continues to serve as a gospel for long-distance bikers

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974, was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. A work of fictionalised autobiography, the book follows its author Robert Pirsig on a long motorcycle ride through the US, from Minnesota across the prairie to Oregon, then down to southern California. The muscles of that skeletal journey are Pirsig’s philosophical musings on the notion of Quality. Pirsig created the concept in order explain the relationship between human values and societal values.

At once both obvious and ephemeral, Quality escapes easy definition. (And brings to mind American supreme court justice Potter Stewart’s comments about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”) In his original formulation, Pirsig describes it, not a little paradoxically, as “a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognised by a non-thinking or intuitive process.” At another juncture, Quality is defined as the event which occurs between the observer and the observed. Pirsig’s search for clarity stretched his mind to the breaking point, ultimately landing him in a psychiatric facility where he was subjected to electroshock therapy.

And yet, the concept has been influential. The book, a bestseller, continues to be read by motorcyclists, philosophers and everyone in between. This year, a long-awaited collection of writings has been published for the first time, giving us a deeper look at how Pirsig shaped his concept. Edited by Pirsig’s widow Wendy, an archivist and Pirsig’s frequent collaborator, On Quality uses outtakes from unpublished letters and lectures, and from Pirsig’s two books (Zen and 1991’s Lila). It is an intimate and highly selective look at his journey through the work of the early Greek philosophers, Asiatic mysticism and beyond.

Again and again, he approaches the concept from different angles, employing simile, analogy and deductive reasoning. Often, he only tightens the knot he has created. But there are moments of brilliance. In a letter written in 1995, Pirsig outlined where he saw Quality fitting among the pantheon of religious philosophy, placing it beside Hinduism’s “Oneness” Buddhism’s “Nothingness” and the monotheist’s “God” as a fourth path leading up “the mountain of understanding”. Optimistically, he singles out Quality as the one that cannot be dismissed by the “scientifically minded” as “meaningless, metaphysical claptrap”.

Quality then, is a kind of religion, though one preaching improvement for its own sake, rather than in the service of some deity. It is less concerned with eternal life than with the pursuit of truth and beauty. Much of its appeal lies in Pirsig’s prose, which combines his repetitive, mantra-like style with a pragmatic, matter-of-fact charm. The book is illustrated with photos of his collection of tools – spanners, drills, pliers and the like – a reminder that this was a philosopher with dirt under his fingernails.

The goal of truth

I first read Pirsig in 2012, while preparing for my own long motorcycle journey, from the Canadian prairie to the Argentinian Pampa. It strikes me now as a voyage from one cattle country to another, though at that time it was too sinuous and ill-planned to be so clearly defined. I had none of Pirsig’s discipline, but like him, I struggled to find meaning in what I was pursuing. Was I travelling as catharsis? For freedom? For evasion? Adventure seemed the most likely reason, but I was too often alone and inconsolable to convince myself of that pursuit.

If Quality is the quasi-religion of what Pirsig called the “Church of Reason”, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is its holy book. I wasn’t the only one to treat it as such. Motorcyclists I met on that trip, and have met since, talk about Zen as a kind of compendium for life. Like most adherents, there was among them more enthusiasm (which means, as Pirsig points out, “filled with theos”, or God) for Pirsig than drive for understanding.

When Zen was first published, motorcycle travel literature was not yet the identifiable genre it is today. That variety of travelogue began in earnest in 1979 with the appearance of Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, the story of a five-year round-the-world odyssey between 1973 and 1977. If Pirsig was a kind of modern Homer, Simon was like Virgil: pagan and worldly, inured in scholarship of prose, yet beset with laurels of deism. “Of all the gods in the pantheon,” he wrote, “Jupiter is the one I fancy most. A lovely name, Jupiter, like cream and honey in the mouth. And a sense of great distance and closeness at the same time.”

Compare that to Pirsig, who wrote in Zen that “The primary goal of the Church of Reason... is always Socrates’ old goal of truth, in its ever-changing forms, as it’s revealed by the process of rationality.” It’s easy to see why motorcyclists might choose the path of Simon’s self-aggrandisement over Pirsig’s “goal of truth”. There was always the temptation to play at being god. While my own pan-American odyssey was underway, I came to recognise a particular mindset in fellow riders: an air of being separate in space and time, of being out of reality and untouchable. There were plenty of vengeful Odins and chaotic brothers of Mars riding into town with conquering on their minds. My own choice of god at the time was the callous and boozy Dionysus.

Unambiguously foreign, strangely dressed, noisy, incorrigible, we rode our machines across the world as though it were the plains of Troy. We were given beds, food and love – offerings we accepted as tributes for our appearance on the battlefield. When we left, it was not uncommon for crowds of people to appear to see us off. The effect was inebriating, nectar for the ego. Today, those events put me in mind of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Epic”, which ends with the lines: “Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind. / He said: I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.”

Wreaking havoc

But therein lies the trouble with gods – they do not go out into the world to learn, but to teach, to wreak havoc, have their way with mortals; they live in the world as they want it, rather than as it is. Passing through one country after another, often without our “required” documents, and with the freedom of our vehicles, we felt that we had passed beyond the rules of society. I rode all over the Americas illegally, my expired paperwork needing only a few flicks of my pen to change the date.

It’s easy to understand why travelers feel out of step with the world around them. Society is largely based on repetition and reliability, neither of which travel provides. But enough time ignoring the rules and a detached superiority begins to settle in. And then, the worst: bored with the thrills offered by the natural world, by spontaneity, by socialising, such riders turn from life to arithmetic: tallying up miles ridden, countries entered, tyres blown, meals eaten. Quantity becomes synonymous with merit, and the most venerable are those who have “done more”. As the urge to quantify rises, Quality suffers.

Simon ends Jupiter’s Travels with this reflection: “Often I dream of riding over the hard red floor of a great forest, beneath a high canopy of translucent green, spreading on and on. An enchanted forest, perhaps, where men may still sometimes play at being gods.” Pirsig ends Zen in a very different manner, by saying that “to understand Quality, he would have to leave the mythos.” It continues: “[he] emerges as if from a dream, seeing that his whole consciousness, the mythos, has been a dream and no one’s dream but his own, a dream he must now sustain of his own efforts.”

There is much to admire in motorcycle writing, but too much of it today is a poor imitation of the genre’s forefathers. We will not produce another writer like Robert Pirsig until we can differentiate quantity from Quality. And we have to stop playing at being gods.

This article is a preview from our New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.