Nearly impossible to describe and just as impossible for millions of readers to put down, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” became one of history’s unlikeliest bestsellers and turned its author, Robert M. Pirsig, into one of the world’s best-known philosophers.
That would have been a heavy mantle for anyone to bear, and perhaps even more so for Mr. Pirsig. Just getting “Zen” to the public took considerable fortitude — more than 100 publishers turned it down. And the book’s narrator was modeled closely on the author, both of whom had undergone significant treatment for mental illness.
“I’m enjoying the new feeling of success, after all those years of rejection, but I worry about what success will mean to my life,” Mr. Pirsig told The New York Times in 1974 as “Zen” quickly exhausted its early printings on the way to selling millions of copies that would become a dog-eared presence in many a college dorm room. “I don’t want to become too self-conscious about my work and I am aware that publicity seeks to rob you ofyour hard-won privacy, transforming your private life into a public life.”
Mr. Pirsig only published one more book – “Lila,” in 1991. His publisher said that after the success of his first book he lived reclusively the rest of his life, including the last 30 years in South Berwick, Maine, where he was 88 when he died Monday.
Reviewers struggled to explain the allure of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and often ended up listing its dualities. The book is not “an autobiographical novel but rather a novelistic autobiography,” Edward Abbey wrote in the New York Times Sunday Book Review after the book was published. “But does that make any difference? The whole intent of Pirsig is to break through such abstract divisions, to splint and heal what he sees as the compound fractures between our thinking and feeling, science and art, reason and emotion, our outer and inner selves.”
The narrative structure is deceptively simple and, as The New Yorker’s George Steiner said in a review, “deceptively true.” Based on a 1968 motorcycle trip Mr. Pirsig took with his son Chris and two friends from Minneapolis to the West Coast, “Zen” explores the geography of Midwestern and western states as it zigzags through the topography of the author’s soul.
Subtitled “An Inquiry into Values,” the book is “as willfully awkward as its title,” Steiner wrote. “Zen,” he added, “lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse, between a private memoir and the formulaic impersonality of an engineering or trade journal.”
The book’s narrator spends considerable time trying to define the concept of “quality,” only to be overwhelmed by the task. Mr. Pirsig wrote that “you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about.”
Such mind-twisting sentences lie alongside lyrical passages that capture the passing minutes and miles of the journey, and which explore the ways people experience the world. “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other,” he wrote near the outset. “In a car, you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it, you don’t realize that through the car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. . . . You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
Robert Maynard Pirsig was born in Minneapolis. His father, Maynard, was a professor and served as dean at the University of Minnesota Law School. His mother was the former Harriet Sjobeck.
According to his publisher’s news release, Mr. Pirsig’s IQ was tested at 170 when he was 9 and he graduated from high school at 15. Nevertheless, he left the University of Minnesota because he was failing his classes. He served in the Army and became interested in Zen Buddhism during a visit to Japan. He returned to the University of Minnesota, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees.
Mr. Pirsig worked as a technical writer and taught at Montana State University in Bozeman — jobs that became part of the storyline in “Zen.” He also pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India and at the University of Chicago. Ultimately, he was hospitalized for mental illness.
His first marriage, to Nancy James, ended in divorce. One of their two sons, Chris, was the boy who accompanied the narrator in “Zen.” Chris died at 22 after being stabbed during a mugging in San Francisco in 1979.
An avid and adept sailor, Mr. Pirsig crossed the Atlantic in his boat and explored the islands along Maine’s coast, often sailing with his second wife, Wendy Kimball. He worked his sailing passion into “Lila,” his second book, which he subtitled “An Inquiry into Morals.”
“Lila” was a sequel of sorts to “Zen.” Though “Lila” never matched the publishing success of its predecessor, it “serves as much-needed ballast to an evolution that increasingly in our day seems to have gone haywire,” Maureen Brown wrote in a 1991 Globe review. “Values create a thing, Pirsig writes, not the other way around. Everything is a matter of ethics. What we do must be morally defensible; it’s evolution. ‘The ultimate truth about the world isn’t history or sociology but biography.’ ”
Decades ago, Mr. Pirsig helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, and his books were dotted with aphoristic sentences and passages his fans embraced as the counterculture of the 1960s faded during the late-1970s and into the ’80s. “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top,” he wrote, and he reminded readers: “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”
In addition to his wife, Wendy, Mr. Pirsig leaves his son Ted of Volcano, Hawaii; his daughter, Nell Peiken of Middleton; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Pirsig’s publisher said a private memorial service will be held.
In a 2006 interview, Mr. Pirsig told The Guardian newspaper in London that he didn’t fear death. “I’m not depressed about it,” he said, and added: “I really don’t mind dying because I figure I haven’t wasted this life. Up until my first book was published I had all this potential, people would say, and I screwed up. After it, I could say: ‘No, I didn’t screw up.’”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.