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Zen and the Art of… Harley-Davidson

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In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig explores the meaning and concept of quality, a term he deems to be undefinable. Pirsig’s thesis is that to truly experience quality one must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation. According to Pirsig, such an approach would avoid a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction common to modern life.

In the book, the Narrator describes the “Romantic” approach to life of his friend, John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated, and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the “classical” Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.

In an example of the classical approach, Pirsig explains to the reader that one must pay continual attention: when the Narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana [3] he notices that the “engine idle is loping a little,” a possible indication that the fuel/air mixture is too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on his cycle’s engine. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the feel-good-higher-altitude-mountain-air is causing the engine to run rich. New jets are purchased, and installed, and with the valves adjusted, the engine runs well again.

With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being “In the moment”, and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance) and so on.

Read the rest of the book summary here –

Philosophy and Motorcycles

It’s been a long since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZATAMM) by Pirsig. I read it in high school. I still have the dog-eared copy on my bookshelf.  A few days ago I took a look at it.  I saw it as a very thick book.  These days, I don’t think I could read such a book again. The book has a sort of patina reserved for old books that can only be read in a certain time and age. That time was gone.

So why my interest in Zen and the Art… ? I recently bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle. In some way, I relived some of the philosophical discussion that takes place in the book. The mindset of the Harley-Davidson dealer was not ready for someone like me.

The Dinner Bell & The Race Track

At the particular dealership where I bought the bike I was asked to ring this giant bell – a sales dinner bell, no doubt. This is a signal that the customer (now a buyer)is going to run the “race track”. The “race track” is really a path through the dealership. First the department that sells Harley branded apparel. Then the parts and accessories department. And finally, the service department. The managers of each of the departments introduce themselves and show you what they have to offer.

When I got to the parts and accessories department they brought my bike over and set it over a checker-boarded area. The manager of the department asked me what accessories I wanted to buy. I told him, “none”. That I, “just wanted to ride it”.

When I got to the service department they told me about the work they can do including dyno tuning. They also told me that many Harley owners do regular maintenance on their bikes themselves. And, if I did the work myself that I should keep maintenance records during the warranty period. I told the service guy, “I want you to do all the service, I just want to ride it”

Both the accessories guy and the service guy were somewhat surprised by my answer, “I just want to ride it”. To not want to bling-out the bike with chrome and accessories and to not want to wrench the bike is “un-Harley-like’. “I just want to ride it.”

Zen and the Art…

One of the first debates or “differences in perspectives” in ZATAMM is the debate between John Sutherland and Pirsig. Whereas Pirsig wants to know every technical and rational detail of how his motorcycle works John doesn’t care one bit. John Sutherland “just wants to ride it.”. Pirsig finds John’s lack of interest in the technical detail of how his motorcycle works –  frustrating.

If I had to run the clock back in my life I’d say I was more like Pirsig than like John. I wanted to know how every detail of how things work. This got translated to the study of physics and mathematics in college. Of course I was on track wanting to find, “The Theory of Everything” – a reductionist approach to understanding everything – or so I thought.

But a physicist’s understanding of a Theory of Everything excludes most things.

Missing everything that matters

A while ago I was discussing a movie with a group of people. This movie, set in the middle ages, had a scene with a row of people sitting on a bench. One of the individuals in the discussion asked if we noticed the guy (actor) at the end of the bench, which was in closeup. That person was wearing contact lenses.

Of course such a question about the contact lens took everyone by surprise.  If you saw the contact lens did you miss everything that was meaningful?  If you notice the technical details are you missing the movie?  Blinded by technology?

In college I took a few courses in literary criticism. I soon found myself in a literary criticism peer group. I was advised by one of the people in this group that I should NOT study literary criticism. I asked why. They told me that I enjoyed literature too much and I should not know “how it (literature) works”.

Where is the value of the thing?

I wonder.  By knowing how something works, do you destroy something valuable?  Did the person who saw the contact lens in the actor’s eye in the movie set in the middle ages miss the point of the movie? If you know how literature works then are you distracted from the experience of reading the text? Somehow, I think that if you are reading Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost and you are thinking of the mechanics of the verses then you are missing the whole of the meaning of the work. If you see a contact lens in an actors eye, then you didn’t see the movie.

There is a technology part and a meaning part to everything.  It’s interesting how some people are able to focus on only one aspect and nearly completely ignore the other aspect.  But I think we need to assign a higher value to the meaning part than the technical part.  The technical part has no value unless its enabling some value other than technology as an end in itself.

Radio as (only) technical curiosity 

In the 1920’s David Sarnoff saw the value of the discovery of RF as far more than just an interesting phenomenon of physics.  If people could see past the fascination of how these waves were transmitted and received one could see the real value, potential, and opportunity (emphasis mine)

“When the novelty of radio will have worn off and the public [is] no longer interested in the means by which it is able to receive, but rather in the substance and quality of the material received, I think that the task of reasonably meeting the public’s expectation and desires will be greater than any so far tackled by any newspaper, theater, opera, or other public information or entertainment agency…

Let us organize a separate and distinct company, to be known as Public Service Broadcasting Company, or National Broadcasting Company (NBC), or American Radio Broadcasting Company, or some similar name…

David Sarnoff 1922

The Take

Watch how people differentiate themselves. Some watch a movie and see actors with contact lenses; others see a story. Some read great literature while others want to pick it apart to see how it works. Radio was a great discovery of the 20’th century. While some were building circuits to understand the physics of it David Sarnoff was building RCA to bring ou the value of this technology to the masses.

Why is it that most people either focus on the technology part of something or on the Zen of it?

How many people do you know that can balance multiple perspectives? In the business world, in most companies, I see this dichotomy between the business people and the technical people. The business people think that the technology people are geeks (don’t see value past technology as an end in itself) while the technical people think their job would be better if there were no business people and no customers.

In ZATAMM, the character of Pirsig learns that the rational, analytical, and technical aspect of Motorcycles is not all of it.  Pirsig’s knowledge of the “Theory of Everything” applied to understanding how to maintain his motorcycle needs to be balanced with what John Sutherland experiences when riding his bike.

What Pirsig discovers in Zen and the Art is that both perspectives are “correct”.

Pirsig shows that rationality’s pursuit of “Pure Truths” derives from the first Greek philosophers who were establishing the concept of truth, against the opposing force of “The Good”. He argues that although rational thought may find truth (or The Truth) it may not be valid for all experiences. Therefore, what is needed is an approach to viewing life that is more varied and inclusive and has a wider range of application. He makes a case that originally the Greeks did not distinguish between “Quality” and “Truth” – they were one and the same – and that the divorce was, in fact, artificial (though needed at the time) and is now a source of much frustration and unhappiness in the world, particularly overall dissatisfaction with modern life.

Pirsig aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing “irrational” sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not (in his view) rationally explicable. Pirsig seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life.

What all real motorcycle people know is that the joy and experience of riding a motorcycle is “not rationally explicable”

Pirsig seems to say that both the Zen (“in the moment”) experience of riding and the technical attention is compatible and simultaneous.  I don’t think so.  If you are truly in the moment of riding a motorcycle you won’t hear the slop of the primary chain or the one in a million cylinder miss… just as you won’t see the lens in the eye of actor in a great movie or worry about the technical details of the construction of great literature or music.

Read More

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Written by frrl

July 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm

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