Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Parsig
On this machine I’ve done the tuning so many times it’s become a ritual. I don’t have to think much about how to do it anymore. Just mainly look for anything unusual. The engine has picked up a noise that sounds like a loose tappet but could be something worse, so I’m going to tune it now and see if it goes away. Tappet adjustment has to be done with the engine cold, which means wherever you park it for the night is where you work on it the next morning, which is why I’m on a shady curbstone back of a hotel in Miles City, Montana. Right now the air is cool in the shade and will be for an hour or so until the sun gets around the tree branches, which is good for working on cycles. It’s important not to tune these machines in the direct sun or late in the when your brain gets muddy because even if you’ve been through it a hundred times you should be alert and looking for things.
Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it’s some kind of a “knack” or some kind of “affinity for machines” in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason, and most of the troubles are caused by what old time radio men called a “short between the earphones,” failures to use the head properly. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. I said yesterday that the ghost of rationality was what Phaedrus pursued and what led to his insanity, but to get into that it’s vital to stay with down-to-earth examples of rationality, so as not to get lost in generalities no one else can understand. Talk about rationality can get very confusing unless the things with which rationality deals are also included.
We are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately—and this is an important way of seeing it—and where on the other side we can begin to see it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form—and this is an important way of seeing things too. These tools for example—this wrench—has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It’s designed to change the underlying form of the machine.
The porcelain inside this first plug is very dark. That is classically as well as romantically ugly because it means the cylinder is getting too much gas and not enough air. The carbon molecules in the gasoline aren’t finding enough oxygen to combine with and they’re just sitting here loading up the plug. Coming into town yesterday the idle was loping a little, which is a symptom of the same thing.
Just to see if it’s just the one cylinder that’s rich I check the other one. They’re both the same. I get out a pocket knife, grab a stick lying in the gutter and whittle down the end to clean out the plugs, wondering what could be the cause of the richness. That wouldn’t have anything to do with rods or valves. And carbs rarely go out of adjustment. The main jets are oversized, which causes richness at high speeds but the plugs were a lot cleaner than this before with the same jets. Mystery. You’re always surrounded by them. But if you tried to solve them all, you’d never get the machine fixed. There’s no immediate answer so I just leave it as a hanging question.
The first tappet is right on, no adjustment required, so I move on to the next. Still plenty of time before the sun gets past those trees… I always feel like I’m in church when I do this… The gauge is some kind of religious icon and I’m performing a holy rite with it. It is a member of a set called “precision measuring instruments” which in a classic sense has a profound meaning.
In a motorcycle this precision isn’t maintained for any romantic or perfectionist reasons. It’s simply that the enormous forces of heat and explosive pressure inside this engine can only be controlled through the kind of precision these instruments give. When each explosion takes place it drives a connecting rod onto the crankshaft with a surface pressure of many tons per square inch. If the fit of the rod to the crankshaft is precise the explosion force will be transferred smoothly and the metal will be able to stand it. But if the fit is loose by a distance of only a few thousandths of an inch the force will be delivered suddenly, like a hammer blow, and the rod, bearing and crankshaft surface will soon be pounded flat, creating a noise which at first sounds a lot like loose tappets. That’s the reason I’m checking it now. If it is a loose rod and I try to make it to the mountains without an overhaul, it will soon get louder and louder until the rod tears itself free, slams into the spinning crankshaft and destroys the engine. Sometimes broken rods will pile right down through the crankcase and dump all the oil onto the road. All you can do then is start walking.
But all this can be prevented by a few thousandths of an inch fit which precision measuring instruments give, and this is their classical beauty—not what you see, but what they mean—what they are capable of in terms of control of underlying form.
The second tappet’s fine. I swing over to the street side of the machine and start on the other cylinder.
Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.
I was talking about these concepts yesterday when I said that a motorcycle can be divided according to its components and according to its functions. When I said that suddenly I created a set of boxes with the following arrangement:
And when I said the components may be subdivided into a power assembly and a running assembly, suddenly appear some more little boxes:
- POWER ASSEMBLY
- RUNNING ASSEMBLY
And you see that every time I made a further division, up came more boxes based on these divisions until I had a huge pyramid of boxes. Finally you see that while I was splitting the cycle up into finer and finer pieces, I was also building a structure.
This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge. Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured—so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.
This box “motorcycle” contains the boxes “components” and “functions.” The box “components” contains the boxes “power assembly” and “running assembly,” and so on. There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as “causes” which produce long chain structures of the form, “A causes B which causes C which causes D,” and so on. A functional description of the motorcycle uses this structure. The operators “exists,” “equals,” and “implies” produce still other structures. These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and structure of causation are just species, is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question and because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind… number three tappet is right on too. One more to go. This had better be it…. I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone’s mind. That’s important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone’s mind. There’s no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There’s nothing else there. But what’s “potential”? That’s also in someone’s mind!… Ghosts.
That’s really what Phaedrus was talking about when he said it’s all in the mind. It sounds insane when you just jump up and say it without reference to anything specific like an engine. But when you tie it down to something specific and concrete, the insane sound tends to disappear and you see he could have been saying something of importance.
The fourth tappet is too loose, which is what I had hoped. I adjust it. I check the timing and see that it is still right on and the points are not pitted, so I leave them alone, screw on the valve covers, replace the plugs and start it up.
The tappet noise is gone, but that doesn’t mean much yet while the oil is still cold. I let it idle while I pack the tools away, then climb on and head for a cycle shop a cyclist on the street told us about last night where they may have a chain adjuster link, and a new foot-peg rubber. Chris must have nervous feet. His foot pegs keep wearing out.
I go a couple of blocks and still no tappet noise. It’s beginning to sound good, I think it’s gone. I won’t come to any conclusions until we’ve gone about thirty miles though. But until then, and right now, the sun is bright, the air is cool, my head is clear, there’s a whole day ahead of us, we’re almost to the mountains, it’s a good day to be alive. It’s this thinner air that does it. You always feel like this when you start getting into higher altitudes.
The altitude! That’s why the engine’s running rich. Sure, that’s got to be the reason. We’re at twenty-five hundred feet now, I’d better switch to standard jets. They take only a few minutes to put in. And lean out the idle adjustment a little. We’ll be getting up a lot higher than this.
Under some shady trees I find Bill’s Cycle Shop but no Bill.A passerby says he has “maybe gone fishing somewhere,” leaving his shop wide open. We really are in the West. No one would leave a shop like this open in Chicago or New York.
Inside I see that Bill is a mechanic of the “photographic mind” school. Everything lying around everywhere. Wrenches, screwdrivers, old parts, old motorcycles, new parts, new motorcycles, sales literature, inner tubes, all scattered so thickly and clutteredly you can’t even see the workbenches under them. I couldn’t work in conditions like this but that’s just because I’m not a photographic-mind mechanic. Bill can probably turn around and put his hand on any tool in this mess without having to think about where it is. I’ve seen mechanics like that. Drive you crazy to watch them, but they get the job done just as well and sometimes faster. Move one tool three inches to the left though, and he’ll have to spend days looking for it.
Bill arrives with a grin about something. Sure, he’s got some jets for my machine and knows right where they are. I’ll have to wait a second though. He’s got to close a deal out in the back on some Harley parts. I go with him out in a shed in back and see he is selling a whole Harley machine in used parts, except for the frame, which the customer already has. He is selling them all for $125. Not a bad price at all.
Coming back I comment, “He’ll know something about motorcycles before he gets those together.”
Bill laughs. “And that’s the best way to learn, too.”
He has the jets and foot-peg rubber but no chain adjuster link. I get the rubber and jets installed, take the lump out of the idle and ride back to the hotel.
Sylvia and John and Chris are just coming down the stairs with their stuff as I arrive. Their faces indicate they’re in the same good mood I’m in. We head down the main street, find a restaurant and order steaks for lunch.
“This is a great town,” John says, “really great. Surprised there were any like this left. I was looking all over this morning. They’ve got stockmen’s bars, high-top boots, silver-dollar belt buckles, Levis, Stetsons, the whole thing… and it’s real. It isn’t just Chamber of Commerce stuff…. In the bar down the block this morning they just started talking to me like I’d lived here all my life.”
We order a round of beers. I see by a horseshoe sign on the wall we’re into Olympia beer territory now, and order that.
“They must have thought I was off a ranch or something,” John continues. “And this one old guy was talking away about how he wasn’t going to give a thing to the goddam boys, and I really enjoyed that. The ranch was going to go to the girls, ’cause the goddam boys spend every cent they got down at Suzie’s.” John breaks up with laughter. “Sorry he ever raised ’em, and so on. I thought all that stuff disappeared thirty years ago, but it’s still here.”
The waitress comes with the steaks and we knife right into them. That work on the cycle has given me an appetite.
“Something else that ought to interest you,” John says. “They were talking in the bar about Bozeman, where we’re going. They said the governor of Montana had a list of fifty radical college professors at the college in Bozeman he was going to fire. Then he got killed in a plane crash.”
“That was a long time ago,” I answer. These steaks really are good.
“I didn’t know they had a lot of radicals in this state.”
“They’ve got all kinds of people in this state,” I say. “But that was just right-wing politics.”
John helps himself to some more salt. He says, “A Washington newspaper columnist came through and put it in his column yesterday, and that’s why they were all talking about it. The president of the college confirmed it.”
“Did they print the list?”
“I don’t know. Did you know any of them?”
“If they had fifty names,” I say, “mine must have been one.”
They both look at me with some surprise. I don’t know much about it, actually. It was him, of course, and with some feeling of falseness because of this I explain that a “radical” in Gallatin County, Montana, is a little different from a radical somewhere else.
“This was a college,” I tell them, “where the wife of the president of the United States was actually banned because she was ‘too controversial.'”
“Oh my God,” John laughs, “that must have been wild.”
They want to hear more but it’s hard to say anything. Then I remember one thing: “In a situation like that a real radical’s actually got a perfect setup. He can do almost anything and get away with it because his opposition have already made asses out of themselves. They’ll make him look good no matter what he says.”
On the way out we pass a city park which I noticed last night, and which produced a memory concurrence. Just a vision of looking up into some trees. He had slept on that park bench one night on his way through to Bozeman. That’s why I didn’t recognize that forest yesterday. He’d come through at night, on his way to the college at Bozeman.