Robert Pirsig dies at 88; wrote counterculture classic ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’
In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.
The 122nd gently warned Pirsig, a former rhetoric professor who had a job writing technical manuals, not to expect more than his $3,000 advance.
“The book is not, as I think you now realize from your correspondence with other publishers, a marketing man’s dream,” the editor at William Morrow wrote in a congratulatory note before its 1974 publication.
He was wrong. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages. A reviewer for the New Yorker likened its author to Herman Melville. Its popularity made Pirsig “probably the most widely read philosopher alive,” a British journalist wrote in 2006.
Pirsig, a perfectionist who published only one major work after “Zen” but inspired college classes, academic conferences and a legion of “Pirsig pilgrims” who retrace the anguished, cross-country motorcycle trip at the heart of his novel, died Monday at his home in South Berwick, Maine, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 88 and had been in failing health.
“Zen” and Pirsig’s less successful 1991 novel, “Lila,” are not easy reads. In both, he develops what he calls the “Metaphysics of Quality,” a philosophy that attempts to unite and transcend the mysticism of the East and the reason of the West.
“Zen” is the account of a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig, his 11-year-old son Chris and two friends made from Minneapolis through the West. A fifth traveler was sensed but unseen: Phaedrus, Pirsig’s alter ego, brilliant, uncompromising and obsessed with the search for truth. Like the real-life Pirsig, the ghost-like Phaedrus had an IQ of 170, entered a university at 15 and, as a young man, was committed to mental hospitals where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.
“He was dead,” Pirsig’s narrator writes in “Zen.” “Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain.”
On the trip, though, the “dead” Phaedrus was all too active, a real but intangible force vying for the soul of the emotionally unstable Chris. Chris is spared in the novel, but Pirsig’s actual son Chris struggled with drug addiction and, at 22, was stabbed to death during a 1979 mugging in San Francisco. It was at a bus stop near the Zen Buddhism center where he lived.
While the book has a more or less happy ending, “Zen” is filled with unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable questions. Pirsig, who weathered schizophrenia but was devastated by its treatment, doubts everything: reality, sanity — and himself.
“What I am,” he writes, “is a heretic who’s recanted and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.”
Born Sept. 6, 1928, in Minneapolis, Robert Maynard Pirsig was the son of Harriet and Maynard Pirsig. His father was a law professor and dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.
Stammering and inattentive, Pirsig flunked out of the university at 17, two years after he entered.
Enlisting in the Army, he served in Korea and returned to Minnesota, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1950.
Over the next eight years, he married fellow student Nancy Ann James, studied Eastern religions in India, lived in a Mexican seaside town, wrote advertising for mortuary cosmetics and, returning again to Minnesota, earned his master’s degree in journalism in 1958.
In 1960, he taught English composition at what was then Montana State College, where he refused, for philosophical reasons, to issue grades. He once disrupted a speech by the institution’s president, shouting, “This school has no quality!”
Two years later, he was teaching at the University of Illinois-Chicago when he was hospitalized for an emotional collapse.
“This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment,” he told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2006.
Still struggling with his illness, he set out to write what he thought would be a short essay about the journey he and his son made to San Francisco on his 1964 Honda Superhawk. The resulting manuscript turned into “Zen,” which, unedited, was nearly 30% longer than “War and Peace.”
In addition to fleshing out a tortured father-son relationship and sketching out a philosophy, “Zen” defended technology even as surging environmental awareness was giving it a bad name.
In his traveling friends’ refusal to learn basic engine maintenance, Pirsig saw a clash of cultures.
“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower,” he wrote. “To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself.”
Pirsig’s unexpected success with “Zen” made it no easier for him to write “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.” He started plotting out the fictional account of sailing down the Hudson River with an over-the-hill former prostitute 17 years before it was published.
“To get a line that is exactly right, you sometimes have to sacrifice everything,” he told the Washington Post in 1991. “That goes for being a celebrity, for interaction with people, personal comfort, everything.”
After a long separation, Pirsig was divorced from his first wife in 1978. Several months later, he married Wendy Kimball, a writer he met while sailing off the Florida coast. They crossed the Atlantic and lived aboard his boat in England, the Netherlands and Sweden before returning to the U.S. in 1985.
Rarely giving interviews or making public appearances, the writer dubbed “New England’s second most reclusive novelist” (J.D. Salinger, the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” and a virtual hermit until his death in 2010, was no doubt the first) published no other books. In 2012, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Montana State University but could not attend the ceremony because of poor health.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by son Ted and daughter Nell.
In 1984, his daughter, then 4, provided the last line to his afterword of “Zen’s” 10-year anniversary edition. It was: “ooolo99ikl;i.,pyknulmmmmmmmmm 111”.
“She reached around the corner of the machine and banged on the keys and then watched with the same gleam Chris used to have,” Pirsig wrote in one of his few light moments. “If the editors preserve it, it will be her first published work.”
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