The First Normal Thing I’ve Said in Weeks

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     By the time we are out of the Red River Valley the storm clouds are everywhere and almost upon us.
     John and I have discussed the situation in Breckenridge and decided to keep going until we have to stop.
     That shouldn’t be long now. The sun is gone, the wind is blowing cold, and a wall of differing shades of grey looms around us.
     It seems huge, overpowering. The prairie here is huge but above it the hugeness of this ominous grey mass ready to descend is frightening. We are traveling at its mercy now. When and where it will come is nothing we can control. All we can do is watch it move in closer and closer.
     Where the darkest grey has come down to the ground, a town that was seen earlier, some small buildings and a water tower, has disappeared. It will be on us soon now. I don’t see any towns ahead and we are just going to have to run for it.
     I pull up alongside John and throw my hand ahead in a “Speed up!” gesture. He nods and opens up. I let him get ahead a little, then pick up to his speed. The engine responds beautifully—seventy… eighty… eight-five… we are really feeling the wind now and I drop my head to cut down the resistance… ninety. The speedometer needle swings back and forth but the tach reads a steady nine thousand… about ninety-five miles an hour… and we hold this speed… moving. Too fast to focus on the shoulder of the road now… I reach forward and flip the headlight switch just for safety. But it is needed anyway. It is getting very dark.
     We whizz through the flat open land, not a car anywhere, hardly a tree, but the road is smooth and clean and the engine now has a “packed,” high rpm sound that says it’s right on. It gets darker and darker.
     A flash and Ka-wham! of thunder, one right on top of the other. That shook me, and Chris has got his head against my back now. A few warning drops of rain… at this speed they are like needles. A second flash-WHAM and everything brilliant… and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse… that windmill… oh, my God, he’s been here!… throttle off… this is his road… a fence and trees… and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.
     “Why are we slowing down?” Chris shouts.
     “Too fast!”
     “No, it isn’t!”
     I nod yes.
     The house and water tower have gone by and then a small drainage ditch appears and a crossroad leading off to the horizon. Yes… that’s right, I think. That’s exactly right.
     “They’re way ahead of us!” Chris hollers. “Speed up!”
     I turn my head from side to side.
     “Why not?” he hollers.
     “Not safe!”
     “They’re gone!”
     “They’ll wait!”
     “Speed up!”
     “No.” I shake my head. It’s just a feeling. On a cycle you trust them and we stay at fifty-five.
     The first rain begins now but up ahead I see the lights of a town… I knew it would be there.

     When we arrive John and Sylvia are there under the first tree by the road, waiting for us.
     “What happened to you?”
     “Slowed down.”
     “Well, we know that. Something wrong?”
     “No. Let’s get out of this rain.”
     John says there is a motel at the other end of town, but I tell him there’s a better one if you turn right, at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.
     We turn at the cottonwoods and travel a few blocks, and a small motel appears. Inside the office John looks around and says, “This is a good place. When were you here before?”
     “I don’t remember,” I say.
     “Then how did you know about this?”
     He looks at Sylvia and shakes his head.
     Sylvia has been watching me silently for some time. She notices my hands are unsteady as I sign in. “You look awfully pale,” she says. “Did that lightning shake you up?”
     “You look like you’d seen a ghost.”
     John and Chris look at me and I turn away from them to the door. It is still raining hard, but we make a run for it to the rooms. The gear on the cycles is protected and we wait until the storm passes over before removing it.
     After the rain stops, the sky lightens a little. But from the motel courtyard, I see past the cottonwoods that a second darkness, that of night, is about to come on. We walk into town, have supper, and by the time we get back, the fatigue of the day is really on me. We rest, almost motionless, in the metal armchairs of the motel courtyard, slowly working down a pint of whiskey that John brought with some mix from the motel cooler. It goes down slowly and agreeably. A cool night wind rattles the leaves of the cottonwoods along the road.
     Chris wonders what we should do next. Nothing tires this kid. The newness and strangeness of the motel surroundings excite him and he wants us to sing songs as they did at camp.
     “We’re not very good at songs,” John says.
     “Let’s tell stories then,” Chris says. He thinks for a while. “Do you know any good ghost stories? All the kids in our cabin used to tell ghost stories at night.”
     “You tell us some,” John says.
     And he does. They are kind of fun to hear. Some of them I haven’t heard since I was his age. I tell him so, and Chris wants to hear some of mine, but I can’t remember any.
     After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
     “No,” I say.
     “Why not?”
     “Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
     The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”
     The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.
     “I’m being kind of facetious.”
     Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.
     “One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”
     “He was just spoofing you.”
     “No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes that.”
     “He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.
     “What’s his name?” Sylvia says.
     “Tom White Bear.”
     John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
     “Ohhh, Indian!” he says.
     I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
     “What’s the difference?”
     John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.
     I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”
     “Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
     He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”
     Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
     “It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”
     John nods affirmatively and I continue.
     “My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”
     “Oh, the laws of physics and of logic… the number system… the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”
     “They seem real to me,” John says.
     “I don’t get it,” says Chris.
     So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
     “Of course.”
     “So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
     John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
     “What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
     “Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere—this law of gravity still existed?”
     Now John seems not so sure.
     “If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
     John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
     “Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
     “And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
     “Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”
     “Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.'”
     “You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”
     “That’s absurd.”
     “You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”
     John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, “You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.”
     I counter, “That’s the first normal thing I’ve said in weeks. The rest of the time I’m feigning twentieth-century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.
     “But I’ll repeat it for you,” I say. “We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words. They were already there, even when they applied to nothing. Gradually the world came into being and then they applied to it. In fact, those words themselves were what formed the world. That, John, is ridiculous.
     “The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
     They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”
     John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. “Where do you get all these ideas?” she asks.
     I am about to answer them but then do not. I have a feeling of having already pushed it to the limit, maybe beyond, and it is time to drop it.
     After a while John says, “It’ll be good to see the mountains again.”
     “Yes, it will,” I agree. “One last drink to that!”
     We finish it and are off to our rooms.
     I see that Chris brushes his teeth, and let him get by with a promise that he’ll shower in the morning. I pull seniority and take the bed by the window. After the lights are out he says, “Now, tell me a ghost story.”
     “I just did, out there.”
     “I mean a real ghost story.”
     “That was the realest ghost story you’ll ever hear.”
     “You know what I mean. The other kind.”
     I try to think of some conventional ones. “I used to know so many of them when I was a kid, Chris, but they’re all forgotten,” I say. “It’s time to go to sleep. We’ve all got to get up early tomorrow.”
     Except for the wind through the screens of the motel window it is quiet. The thought of all that wind sweeping toward us across the open fields of the prairie is a tranquil one and I feel lulled by it.
     The wind rises and the falls, then rises and sighs, and falls again… from so many miles away.
     “Did you ever know a ghost?” Chris asks.
     I am half asleep. “Chris,” I say, “I knew a fellow once who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time. So go to sleep.”
     I realize my mistake too late.
     “Did he find him?”
     “Yes, he found him, Chris.”
     I keep wishing Chris would just listen to the wind and not ask questions.
     “What did he do then?”
     “He thrashed him good.”
     “Then what?”
     “Then he became a ghost himself.” Somehow I had the thought this was going to put Chris to sleep, but it’s not and it’s just waking me up.
     “What is his name?”
     “No one you know.”
     “But what is it?”
     “It doesn’t matter.”
     “Well, what is it anyway?”
     “His name, Chris, since it doesn’t matter, is Phaedrus. It’s not a name you know.”
     “Did you see him on the motorcycle in the storm?”
     “What makes you say that?”
     “Sylvia said she thought you saw a ghost.”
     “That’s just an expression.”
     “This had better be the last question, Chris, or I’m going to become angry.”
     “I was just trying to say you sure don’t talk like anyone else.”
     “Yes, Chris, I know that,” I say. “It’s a problem. Now go to sleep.”
     “Good night, Dad.”
     “Good night.”
     A half hour later he is breathing sleepfully, and the wind is still strong as ever and I am wide-awake. There, out the window in the dark—this cold wind crossing the road into the trees, the leaves shimmering flecks of moonlight—there is no question about it, Phaedrus saw all of this. What he was doing here I have no idea. Why he came this way I will probably never know. But he has been here, steered us onto this strange road, has been with us all along. There is no escape.
     I wish I could say that I don’t know why he is here, but I’m afraid I must now confess that I do. The ideas, the things I was saying about science and ghosts, and even the idea this afternoon about caring and technology—they are not my own. I haven’t really had a new idea in years. They are stolen from him. And he has been watching. And that is why he is here.
     With that confession, I hope he will now allow me some sleep.
     Poor Chris. “Do you know any ghost stories?” he asked. I could have told him one but even the thought of that is frightening.
     I really must go to sleep.

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