The Poor Surgeon

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]

     I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.
     The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us—these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road—aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
     Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.
     The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles—sizes in different piles—grain shapes in different piles—subtypes of grain shapes in different piles—grades of opacity in different piles—and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.
     Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.
     What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phaedrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.
     To understand what he was trying to do it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.
     There is a perennial classical question that asks which part of the motorcycle, which grain of sand in which pile, is the Buddha. Obviously to ask that question is to look in the wrong direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. But just as obviously to ask that question is to look in the right direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. About the Buddha that exists independently of any analytical thought much has been said—some would say too much, and would question any attempt to add to it. But about the Buddha that exists within analytical thought, and gives that analytical thought its direction, virtually nothing has been said, and there are historic reasons for this. But history keeps happening, and it seems no harm and maybe some positive good to add to our historical heritage with some talk in this area of discourse.
     When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts. Mark Twain’s experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty. Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts—something is always created too. And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it’s important also to see what’s created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is.
     We pass through a town called Marmarth but John doesn’t stop even for a rest and so we go on. More furnace heat, into some badlands, and we cross the border into Montana. A sign by the road announces it.
     Sylvia waves her arms up and down and I beep the horn in response, but when I look at the sign my feelings are not jubilant at all. For me its information causes a sudden inward tension that can’t exist for them. They’ve no way of knowing we’re now in the country where he lived.
     All this talk so far about classic and romantic understanding must seem a strangely oblique way of describing him, but to get at Phaedrus, this oblique route is the only one to take. To describe his physical appearance or the statistics of his life would be to dwell on misleading superficialities. And to come at him directly would be to invite disaster.
     He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way. There is only one access to him that I can see as passable and we still have a way to go.
     I’ve been going into all this business of analyses and definitions and hierarchies not for their own sake but to lay the groundwork for an understanding of the direction in which Phaedrus went.
     I told Chris the other night that Phaedrus spent his entire life pursuing a ghost. That was true. The ghost he pursued was the ghost that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was the ghost of rationality itself. I told Chris that he found the ghost and that when he found it he thrashed it good. I think in a figurative sense that is true. The things I hope to bring to light as we go along are some of the things he uncovered. Now the times are such that others may at last find them of value. No one then would see the ghost that Phaedrus pursued, but I think now that more and more people see it, or get glimpses of it in bad moments, a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose in life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.

Suddenly We are All Separate, All Alone in Our Private Universes

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]

     At one stretch in the long desolate road we see an isolated grocery store. Inside, in back, we find a place to sit on some packing cases and drink canned beer.
     The fatigue and backache are getting to me now. I push the packing case over to a post and lean on that.
     Chris’s expression shows he is really settling into something bad. This has been a long hard day. I told Sylvia way back in Minnesota that we could expect a slump in spirits like this on the second or third day and now it’s here. Minnesota—when was that?
     A woman, badly drunk, is buying beer for some man she’s got outside in a car. She can’t make up her mind what brand to buy and the wife of the owner waiting on her is getting mad. She still can’t decide, but then sees us, and weaves over and asks if we own the motorcycles. We nod yes. Then she wants a ride on one. I move back and let John handle this.
     He puts her off graciously, but she comes back again and again, offering him a dollar for a ride. I make some jokes about it, but they’re not funny and just add to the depression. We get out and back into the brown hills and heat again.
     By the time we reach Lemmon we are really aching tired. At a bar we hear about a campground to the south. John wants to camp in a park in the middle of Lemmon, a comment that sounds strange and angers Chris greatly.
     I’m more tired now than I can remember having been in a long time. The others too. But we drag ourselves through a supermarket, pick up whatever groceries come to mind and with some difficulty pack them onto the cycles. The sun is so far down we’re running out of light. It’ll be dark in an hour. We can’t seem to get moving. I wonder, are we dawdling, or what?
     “C’mon, Chris, let’s go,” I say.
     “Don’t holler at me. I’m ready.”
     We drive down a country road from Lemmon, exhausted, for what seems a long, long time, but can’t be too long because the sun is still above the horizon. The campsite is deserted. Good. But there is less than a half-hour of sun and no energy left. This is the hardest now.
     I try to get unpacked as fast as possible but am so stupid with exhaustion I just set everything by the camp road without seeing what a bad spot it is. Then I see it is too windy. This is a High Plains wind. It is semidesert here, everything burned up and dry except for a lake, a large reservoir of some sort below us. The wind blows from the horizon across the lake and hits us with sharp gusts. It is already chilly. There are some scrubby pines back from the road about twenty yards and I ask Chris to move the stuff over there.
     He doesn’t do it. He wanders off down to the reservoir. I carry the gear over by myself.
     I see between trips that Sylvia is making a real effort at setting things up for cooking, but she’s as tired as I am.
     The sun goes down.
     John has gathered wood but it’s too big and the wind is so gusty it’s hard to start. It needs to be splintered into kindling. I go back over the scrub pines, hunt around through the twilight for the machete, but it’s already so dark in the pines I can’t find it. I need the flashlight. I look for it, but it’s too dark to find that either.
     I go back and start up the cycle and ride it back over to shine the headlight on the stuff so that I can find the flashlight. I look through all the stuff item by item to find the flashlight. It takes a long time to realize I don’t need the flashlight, I need the machete, which is in plain sight. By the time I get it back John has got the fire going. I use the machete to hack up some of the larger pieces of wood.
     Chris reappears. He’s got the flashlight!
     “When are we going to eat? he complains.
     “We’re getting it fixed as fast as possible,” I tell him. “Leave the flashlight here.”
     He disappears again, taking the flashlight with him.
     The wind blows the fire so hard it doesn’t reach up to cook the steaks. We try to fix up a shelter from the wind using large stones from the road, but it’s too dark to see what we’re doing. We bring both cycles over and catch the scene in a crossbeam of headlights. Peculiar light. Bits of ash blowing up from the fire suddenly glow bright white in it, then disappear in the wind.
     BANG! There’s a loud explosion behind us. Then I hear Chris giggling.
     Sylvia is upset.
     “I found some firecrackers,” Chris says.
     I catch my anger in time and say to him, coldly, “It’s time to eat now.”
     “I need some matches,” he says.
     “Sit down and eat.”
     “Give me some matches first.”
     “Sit down and eat.”
     He sits down and I try to eat the steak with my Army mess knife, but it is too tough, and so I get out a hunting knife and use it instead. The light from the motorcycle headlight is full upon me so that the knife, when it goes down into the mess gear, is in full shadow and I can’t see where it’s going.
     Chris says he can’t cut his either and I pass my knife to him. While reaching for it he dumps everything onto the tarp.
     No one says a word.
     I’m not angry that he spilled it. I’m angry that now the tarp’s going to be greasy the rest of the trip.
     “Is there any more?” he asks.
     “Eat that,” I say. “It just fell on the tarp.”
     “It’s too dirty,” he says.
     “Well, that’s all there is.”
     A wave of depression hits. I just want to go to sleep now. But he’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes. I wait for it and pretty soon it starts.
     “I don’t like the taste of this,” he says.
     “Yes, that’s rough, Chris.”
     “I don’t like any of this. I don’t like this camping at all.”
     “It was your idea,” Sylvia says. “You’re the one who wanted to go camping.”
     She shouldn’t say that, but there’s no way she can know. You take his bait and he’ll feed you another one, and then another, and another until you finally hit him, which is what he really wants.
     “I don’t care,” he says.
     “Well, you ought to,” she says.
     “Well, I don’t.”
     An explosion point is very near. Sylvia and John look at me but I remain deadpan. I’m sorry about this but there’s nothing I can do right now. Any argument will just worsen things.
     “I’m not hungry,” Chris says.
     No one answers.
     “My stomach hurts,” he says.
     The explosion is avoided when Chris turns and walks away in the darkness.
     We finish eating. I help Sylvia clean up, and then we sit around for a while. We turn the cycle lights off to conserve the batteries and because the light from them is ugly anyway. The wind has died down some and there is a little light from the fire. After a while my eyes become accustomed to it. The food and anger have taken off some of the sleepiness. Chris doesn’t return.
     “Do you suppose he’s just punishing?” Sylvia asks.
     “I suppose,” I say, “although it doesn’t sound quite right.” I think about it and add, “That’s a child-psychology term—a context I dislike. Let’s just say he’s being a complete bastard.”
     John laughs a little.
     “Anyway,” I say, “it was a good supper. I’m sorry he had to act up like this.”
     “Oh, that’s all right,” John says. “I’m just sorry he won’t get anything to eat.”
     “It won’t hurt him.”
     “You don’t suppose he’ll get lost out there.”
     “No, he’ll holler if he is.”
     Now that he has gone and we have nothing to do I become more aware of the space all around us. There is not a sound anywhere. Lone prairie.
     Sylvia says, “do you suppose he really has stomach pains?”
     “Yes,” I say, somewhat dogmatically. I’m sorry to see the subject continued but they deserve a better explanation than they’re getting. They probably sense that there’s more to it than they’ve heard. “I’m sure he does,” I finally say. “He’s been examined a half-dozen times for it. Once it was so bad we thought it was appendicitis…. I remember we were on a vacation up north. I’d just finished getting out an engineering proposal for a five-million-dollar contract that just about did me in. That’s a whole other world. No time and no patience and six hundred pages of information to get out the door in one week and I was about ready to kill three different people and we thought we’d better head for the woods for a while.
     “I can hardly remember what part of the woods we were in. Head just spinning with engineering data, and anyway Chris was just screaming. We couldn’t touch him, until I finally saw I was going to have to pick him up fast and get him to the hospital, and where that was I’ll never remember, but they found nothing.”
     “Nothing?”
     “No. But it happened again on other occasions too.”
     “Don’t they have any idea?” Sylvia asks.
     “This spring they diagnosed it as the beginning symptoms of mental illness.”
     “What?” John says.
     It’s too dark to see Sylvia or John now or even the outlines of the hills. I listen for sounds in the distance, but hear none. I don’t know what to answer and so say nothing.
     When I look hard I can make out stars overhead but the fire in front of us makes it hard to see them. The night all around is thick and obscure. My cigarette is down to my fingers and I put it out.
     “I didn’t know that,” Sylvia’s voice says. All traces of anger are gone. “We wondered why you brought him instead of your wife,” she says. “I’m glad you told us.”
     John shoves some of the unburned ends of the wood into the fire.
     Sylvia says, “What do you suppose the cause is?”
     John’s voice rasps, as if to cut it off, but I answer, “I don’t know. Causes and effects don’t seem to fit. Causes and effects are a result of thought. I would think mental illness comes before thought.” This doesn’t make sense to them, I’m sure. It doesn’t make much sense to me and I’m too tired to try to think it out and give it up.
     “What do the psychiatrists think?” John asks.
     “Nothing. I stopped it.”
     “Stopped it?”
     “Yes.”
     “Is that good?”
     “I don’t know. There’s no rational reason I can think of for saying it’s not good. Just a mental block of my own. I think about it and all the good reasons for it and make plans for an appointment and even look for the phone number and then the block hits, and it’s just like a door slammed shut.”
     “That doesn’t sound right.”
     “No one else thinks so either. I suppose I can’t hold out forever.”
     “But why?” Sylvia asks.
     “I don’t know why… it’s just that… I don’t know… they’re not kin“… Surprising word, I think to myself never used it before. Not of kin… sounds like hillbilly talk… not of a kind… same root… kindness, too… they can’t have real kindness toward him, they’re not his kin… That’s exactly the feeling.
     Old word, so ancient it’s almost drowned out. What a change through the centuries. Now anybody can be “kind.” And everybody’s supposed to be. Except that long ago it was something you were born into and couldn’t help. Now it’s just a faked-up attitude half the time, like teachers the first day of class. But what do they really know about kindness who are not kin?
     It goes over and over again through my thoughts… mein Kind—my child. There it is in another language Mein Kinder… “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.”
     Strange feeling from that.
     “What are you thinking about?” Sylvia asks.
     “An old poem, by Goethe. It must be two hundred years old. I had to learn it a long time ago. I don’t know why I should remember it now, except…” The strange feeling comes back.
     “How does it go?” Sylvia asks.
     I try to recall. “A man is riding along a beach at night, through the wind. It’s a father, with his son, whom he holds fast in his arm. He asks his son why he looks so pale, and the son replies, ‘Father, don’t you see the ghost?’ The father tried to reassure the boy it’s only a bank of fog along the beach that he sees and only the rustling of the leaves in the wind that he hears but the son keeps saying it is the ghost and the father rides harder and harder through the night.”
     “How does it end?”
     “In failure… death of the child. The ghost wins.”
     The wind blows light up from the coals and I see Sylvia look at me startled.
     “But that’s another land and another time,” I say. “Here life is the end and ghosts have no meaning. I believe that. I believe in all this too,” I say, looking out at the darkened prairie, “although I’m not sure of what it all means yet… I’m not sure of much of anything these days. Maybe that’s why I talk so much.”
     The coals die lower and lower. We smoke our cigarettes. Chris is off somewhere in the darkness but I’m not going to shag after him. John is carefully silent and Sylvia is silent and suddenly we are all separate, all alone in our private universes, and there is no communication among us. We douse the fire and go back to the sleeping bags in the pines.
     I discover that this one tiny refuge of scrub pines where I have put the sleeping bags is also the refuge from the wind of millions of mosquitoes up from the reservoir. The mosquito repellent doesn’t stop them at all. I crawl deep into the sleeping bag and make one little hole for breathing. I am almost asleep when Chris finally shows up.
     “There’s a great big sandpile over there,” he says, crunching around on the pine needles.
     “Yes,” I say. “Get to sleep.”
     “You should see it. Will you come and see it tomorrow?”
     “We won’t have time.”
     “Can I play over there tomorrow morning?”
     “Yes.”
     He makes interminable noises getting undressed and into the sleeping bag. He is in it. Then he rolls around. Then he is silent, and then rolls some more. Then he says, “Dad?”
     “What?”
     “What was it like when you were a kid?”
     “Go to sleep, Chris!” There are limits to what you can listen to.
     Later I hear a sharp inhaling of phlegm that tells me he has been crying, and though I’m exhausted, I don’t sleep. A few words of consolation might have helped there. He was trying to be friendly. But the words aren’t forthcoming for some reason. Consoling words are more for strangers, for hospitals, not kin. Little emotional Band-Aids like that aren’t what he needs or what’s sought… I don’t know what he needs, or what’s sought.
     A gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semisleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitoes and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal lost landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken…. And then it reappears.
     And in the fog there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when I look at it directly, but then reappears in the corner of my vision when I turn my glance. I am about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then do not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure I recognize even though I do not let on. It is Phaedrus.
     Evil spirit. Insane. from a world without life or death.
     The figure fades and I hold panic down… tight… not rushing it… just letting it sink in… not believing it, not disbelieving it… but the hair crawls slowly on the back of my skull… he is calling Chris, is that it?… Yes?…

Grooving On It

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]

     The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins. Fences are rarer, and the greenness has become paler… all signs that we approach the High Plains.
     We stop for gas at Hague and ask if there is any way to get across the Missouri between Bismarck and and Mobridge. The attendant doesn’t know of any. It is hot now, and John and Sylvia go somewhere to get their long underwear off. The motorcycle gets a change of oil and chain lubrication. Chris watches everything I do but with some impatience. Not a good sign.
     “My eyes hurt,” he says.
     “From what?”
     “From the wind.”
     “We’ll look for some goggles.”
     All of us go in a shop for coffee and rolls. Everything is different except one another, so we look around rather than talk, catching fragments of conversation among people who seem to know each other and are glancing at us because we’re new. Afterward, down the street, I find a thermometer for storage in the saddlebags and some plastic goggles for Chris.
     The hardware man doesn’t know any short route across the Missouri either. John and I study the map. I had hoped we might find an unofficial ferryboat crossing or footbridge or something in the ninety-mile stretch, but evidently there isn’t any because there’s not much to get to on the other side. It’s all Indian reservation. We decide to head south to Mobridge and cross there.
     The road south is awful. Choppy, narrow, bumpy concrete with a bad head wind, going into the sun and big semis going the other way. These roller-coaster hills speed them up on the down side and slow them up on the up side and prevent our seeing very far ahead, making passing nervewracking. The first one gave me a scare because I wasn’t ready for it. Now I hold tight and brace for them. No danger. Just a shock wave that hits you. It is hotter and dryer.
     At Herreid John disappears for a drink while Sylvia and Chris and I find some shade in a park and try to rest. It isn’t restful. A change has taken place and I don’t know quite what it is. The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water tower are like those of previous towns but more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical-looking, sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn’t valuable anymore. We are in a Western town.
     We have lunch of hamburgers and malts at an A & W place in Mobridge, cruise down a heavily trafficked main street and then there it is, at the bottom of the hill, the Missouri. All that moving water is strange, banked by grass hills that hardly get any water at all. I turn around and glance at Chris but he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in it.
     We coast down the hill, clunk onto the bridge and across we go, watching the river through the girders moving by rhythmically, and then we are on the other side.
     We climb a long, long hill into another kind of country.
     The fences are really all gone now. No brush, no trees. The sweep of the hills is so great John’s motorcycle looks like an ant up ahead moving through the green slopes. Above the slopes outcroppings of rocks stand out overhead at the tops of the bluffs.
     It all has a natural tidiness. If it were abandoned land there would be a chewed-up, scruffy look, with chunks of old foundation concrete, scraps of painted sheet metal and wire, weeds that had gotten in where the sod was broken up for whatever little enterprise was attempted. None of that here. Not kept up, just never messed up in the first place. It’s just the way it always must have been. Reservation land.
     There’s no friendly motorcycle mechanic on the other side of those rocks and I’m wondering if we’re ready for this. If anything goes wrong now we’re in real trouble.
     I check the engine temperature with my hand. It’s reassuringly cool. I put in the clutch and let it coast for a second in order to hear it idling. Something sounds funny and I do it again. It takes me a while to figure out that it’s not the engine at all. There’s an echo from the bluff ahead that lingers after the throttle is closed. Funny. I do this two or three times. Chris wonders what’s wrong and I have him listen to the echo. No comment from him.
     This old engine has a nickels-and-dimes sound to it. As if there were a lot of loose change flying around inside. Sounds awful, but it’s just normal valve clatter. Once you get used to that sound and learn to expect it, you automatically hear any difference. If you don’t hear any, that’s good.
     I tried to get John interested in that sound once but it was hopeless. All he heard was noise and all he saw was the machine and me with greasy tools in my hands, nothing else. That didn’t work.
     He didn’t really see what was going on and was not interested enough to find out. He isn’t so interested in what things mean as in what they are. That’s quite important, that he sees things this way. It took me a long time to see this difference and it’s important for the Chautauqua that I make this difference clear.
     I was so baffled by his refusal even to think about any mechanical subject I kept searching for ways to clue him to the whole thing but didn’t know where to start.
     I thought I would wait until something went wrong with his machine and then I would help him fix it and that way get him into it, but I goofed that one myself because I didn’t understand this difference in the way he looked at things.
     His handlebars had started flipping. Not badly, he said, just a little when you shoved hard on them. I warned him not to use his adjustable wrench on the tightening nuts. It was likely to damage the chrome and start small rust spots. He agreed to use my metric sockets and box-ends.
     When he brought his motorcycle over I got my wrenches out but then noticed that no amount of tightening would stop the slippage, because the ends of the collars were pinched shut.
     “You’re going to have to shim those out,” I said.
     “What’s shim?”
     “It’s a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines.”
     “Oh,” he said. He was getting interested. “Good. Where do you buy them?”
     “I’ve got some right here,” I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.
     He didn’t understand for a moment. Then he said, “What, the can?
     “Sure,” I said, “best shim stock in the world.”
     I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.
     But to my surprise he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.
     As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!
     Ach, du lieber!
     Since then we have had very few conversations about motorcycle maintenance. None, now that I think of it.
     You push it any further and suddenly you are angry, without knowing why.
     I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.
     In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.
     For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.
     That Krupp’s-private-shim fantasy gratified me for a while, but then it wore off and I saw it was just being vindictive. In its place grew that old feeling I’ve talked about before, a feeling that there’s something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface. You follow these little discrepancies long enough and they sometimes open up into huge revelations. There was just a feeling on my part that this was something a little bigger than I wanted to take on without thinking about it, and I turned instead to my usual habit of trying to extract causes and effects to see what was involved that could possibly lead to such an impasse between John’s view of that lovely shim and my own. This comes up all the time in mechanical work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.
     What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?
     I guess I forgot to mention John is a musician, a drummer, who works with groups all over town and makes a pretty fair income from it. I suppose he just thinks about everything the way he thinks about drumming—which is to say he doesn’t really think about it at all. He just does it. Is with it. He just responded to fixing his motorcycle with a beer can the way he would respond to someone dragging the beat while he was playing. It just did a big thud with him and that was it. He didn’t want any part of it.
     At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew… and grew… and grew… until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.
     He really does care about technology. It’s just that in this other dimension he gets all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It just won’t swing for him. He tries to swing it without any rational premeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches gives up and just kind of puts a blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene. He will not or cannot believe there is anything in this world for which grooving is not the way to go.
     That’s the dimension he’s in. The groovy dimension. I’m being awfully square talking about all this mechanical stuff all the time. It’s all just parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn’t really here. It’s somewhere else, which thinks it’s here, but’s a million miles away. This is what it’s all about. He’s on this dimensional difference which underlay much of the cultural changes of the sixties, I think, and is still in the process of reshaping our whole national outlook on things. The “generation gap” has been a result of it. The names “beat” and “hip” grew out of it. Now it’s become apparent that this dimension isn’t a fad that’s going to go away next year or the year after. It’s here to stay because it’s a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. Now we are down to the root of things.
     My legs have become so stiff they are aching. I hold them out one at a time and turn my foot as far to the left and to the right as it will go to stretch the leg. It helps, but then the other muscles get tired from holding the legs out.

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. John will discover this if his points burn out.
     That’s really why he got upset that day when he couldn’t get his engine started. It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have. That didn’t fit their lifestyle either.
     What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here.

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?”
     “Intuition.”
     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?”
     “No.”
     “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.”
     “What?”
     “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.”
     “Sure.”
     “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?”
     “Sure.”
     “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.”
     “Dad?”
     “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.