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Country of the Mind: Geography in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

By Edited Oct 14, 2015 0 2

Pirsig and son

Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” the narrative’s classic ideas are consistently reinforced by romantic elements. Throughout the motorcycle journey leading to the arrival at Bozeman, the development of the Chautauqua is paralleled by the geography of the countryside traversed, as well as by the major events of the voyage. By contrasting the barren landscape of the American Midwest with the valleys and high country of the Rockies, Persig provides an evocative backdrop for his explanation of the classic romantic split and the manner in which Phaedrus bridged this divide.

At the beginning of chapter six the passing landscape is described bleakly: “burned grass and clumps of earth and sand so bright they are hard to look at” (70). However, it is important to note that, according to the narrator, “there is something about places like this that [...] makes you think that things will probably get better” (71). The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to the exploration of the classic world of underlying form. The classic mode of thought’s employment of the analytic knife to divide awareness is discussed in length. The conflicting nature of the classic and romantic and the resulting split between these two perspectives are also discussed and, on multiple occasions, illustrated by the narrator’s (a classic thinker) inability to convey the skill of motorcycle maintenance to John (a romantic thinker). The narrator recalls that Phaedrus, a man whose mind existed purely in the classic world, became obsessed with bridging this ideological split by cutting away with the classic knife with which he was so gifted. He toiled to no avail, the classic language being inapplicable to the analysis of the romantic realm, and his obsession gradually drove him insane. It is Phaedrus’s initial isolation in the classic mode of thought, completely unable to access or comprehend the romantic, which is reflected by the barren, ugly landscape and the narrator’s initial inability to understand John. Yet, as foreshadowed by this geography, as the journey progresses things do improve for Phaedrus.

American Midwest

 As the narrative unfolds, having been unable to bridge the gap between the classic and the romantic with the classic analytic knife, Phaedrus instead turns his attention to the inadequacies of the classic mode of thought itself. The landscape reflects that this train of thought will lead to the root of the ideological gap: in the first sentences of chapter ten the narrator states that “the bluffs on either side of the river [...] are closer together and closer to us [...] the valley is narrowing as we move towards the river’s source” (112). The narrator then recounts that Phaedrus noticed the possibility for the formulation of hypotheses to be infinite and broke with mainstream rational thought so as to pursue this fault at the very heart of rationality. This pursuit quickly leads to the entire scientific method foundation of his mind suddenly giving way beneath him. Phaedrus’s realisation that the entire realm of rational thought might well be a construct of his own imagination delivers a fatal blow to his identity; his expulsion from university for failing grades shortly afterwards gives testimony to the force of the blow he received. Though his life is in shambles, reduced to a long series of lateral drifts, the landscape and events suggest that he has taken steps towards solving his ultimate epistemological problem. The valley is narrowing: Phaedrus’s freer state of mind following his realisation will lead him to the high country of the mind, a place which in turn will supply him with the source of the classic romantic split and the way, at last, to bridge this gap.

The Rockies

Indeed in the middle of chapter eleven, the narrator’s journey takes him up into the high country amidst the Rockies, “up and up, over one of the highest paved roads in the world” (124). The resplendent landscape of “mountain ranges covered with snow [...] as far as we can see” (126) represents the high country of the mind, the scarcely traveled land of utmost abstraction at the summit of all human knowledge. The narrator explains that Phaedrus wandered in this high country for a long time, reading and thinking, trying to understand the fault in rationality. He came upon Immanuel Kant’s work and was fascinated by his assertion that not all knowledge is derived directly from sense experience. According to Kant, a priori concepts such as space, time and causation are not supplied by sense data but rather are intuitions supplied by the mind as it receives sense data. However Phaedrus soon becomes disillusioned with Kant’s work, finding his ideas about beauty pervasively ugly. Remembering his liberating experience in the Orient, he likens these ideas to just another prison of intellect. By rejecting Kant and turning towards Oriental ideology, Phaedrus stepped away from simply finding the fault with rationality and instead began trying to solve an even greater problem, that of the classic romantic split. Though at this point in the novel he has yet to bridge this gap, the beauty of the landscape and his fresh passion for new ideas show that he has come to the right place to begin thinking in earnest. Phaedrus’s first major foray into the highland of the mind paves the way for his exploration of Oriental ideas, his development of the concept of Quality, and at last for his resolution of the classic romantic problem.

In conclusion, both the romantic geography and events in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” reinforce the development of the narrator’s classic Chautauqua. The progression of the motorcycle journey from the barren plains of the Midwest, through the valleys and foothills of the Rockies to the vertiginous heights of the mountains themselves illustrates Phaedrus’s progression from his confinement to the classic, through a break with rationality itself, to his ultimate reconciliation of the romantic classic split.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
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(price as of Oct 14, 2015)


May 24, 2013 8:59am
Very interesting analysis. Thank you for your work on this. I read Pirsig while minoring in Philosophy in college, was quite taken with the book at the time.
May 24, 2013 8:59am
Very interesting analysis. Thank you for your work on this. I read Pirsig while minoring in Philosophy in college, was quite taken with the book at the time.
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