Zen, Motorcycles, And The Cult of Tech: How Robert Pirsig’s Classic Anticipated the Future

Robert Pirsig's 1974 oddball classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance reflects the malaise of its era and prefigures our own technophiliac age.

Hal Bergman Photography/Getty

Zeitgeist novels tend to fall in one of three categories, none of which have anything to do with the quality of the work itself. In the first category are books nostalgic for a simpler, romanticized past; James A. Michener’s Centennial, the best-selling novel of 1974, is an example. The second category is made up of books that unwittingly capture the spirit of their time, a feat accomplished in the early ’60s by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Group. Forward-looking novels that provide glimpses into the future, while echoing anxieties of the present—1984, Neuromancer, White Noise—comprise the third category. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance pulls off the remarkable feat of straddling all three categories, achieving an unusual triple crown. It is a nostalgic, old-fashioned novel that nevertheless reflects the malaise of its era and prefigures our own technophiliac age. Pirsig’s hat trick has much to do with the novel’s incredible commercial success. But it tells us nothing about the novel’s quality.

The principle of “Quality,” a word capitalized by Pirsig and elevated into the metaphysical ether, lies at the heart of the book, which is really a philosophical tract halfheartedly disguised as a novel. Pirsig never precisely defines Quality (“any description of Quality is a kind of definition and must therefore fall short of its mark”), but it comes to stand for the fundamental essence of all thought and being. “Quality is the Buddha,” he says at one point; elsewhere he likens it to what the Greeks calls “virtue,” the Hindus call “dharma,” and scientists call “the truth.” Pirsig’s goal is to create a unifying theory of existence, breaking down the boundaries between Eastern and Western philosophy, art and technology, classicism and romanticism, religious mysticism and scientific positivism. “I would like … to be concerned with the question ‘What is Best?’” he writes. What is the best way to act, to think, to live? It is an important question—the second oldest known to man, after “Why are we here?”

The rickety chassis Pirsig chooses to transport his exegesis is a road trip—a trope that, in 1974, induced flashbacks to Easy Rider, if not On the Road and Travels With Charley. The pervasive sense of unsettledness and anxiety about modern life (“We’re living in topsy-turvy times”) is another ’60s throwback. The novel is a pastoral, weaving through valleys, mountain ranges, and desert, pursuing crooked side roads through small towns, and shunning freeways with their queues of lonely, red-eyed commuters. In the first half of the story Pirsig’s narrator is accompanied by a couple of aging hippies who are desperate to abandon urban life:

They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about “it” or “it all” as in the sentence, “There is just no escape from it.” And if I asked, “From what?” the answer might be “The whole thing,” or “The whole organized bit,” or even “The system.”

This sensibility already seemed antiquated in 1974, when the nation, having just emerged from the Watergate hearings, began its drift into the sullen anomie of Gerald Ford’s presidency. Pirsig, highly attuned to the creeping cynicism of the time, makes it clear that he has little sympathy for the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out generation. He defends pragmatism because Quality can be found everywhere. “It’s the dualistic ways of looking at things,” he writes, “that produces the evil.” Quality can be found in the most mundane works of man—even within the rusting gears of a motorcycle engine.

For all of Pirsig’s peregrinations through the higher atmosphere, his grand conclusions tend to be terrestrial and homespun, bromides borrowed from the lower echelons of self-help. He wants to offer “shortcuts to living right.” These include tips on how to avoid boredom, loneliness, frustration, and anxiety. His manner is sensible, good-natured, avuncular: “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Good old American rugged individualism is extolled: “We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do.” Finally he mixes in a heavy dose of carpe diem. When his impatient son complains of boredom as they drive down an empty road between two golden meadows, the narrator offers this rebuke: “There’s nothing up ahead that’s any better than it is right here.”

Such prescriptions have no expiration date, and were swallowed as easily in 1974 as in 1934 or 2014. What is striking about the novel when read today, however, is its prescient embrace of technology. The narrator, a writer of technical manuals, does not only argue that “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer … as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” He goes further, endowing his machines with a spiritual aura. “Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it,” he writes. Here, seven years before Tracy Kidder’s book of the same title, is the soul of a new machine.

Pirsig’s idea—that by improving our machines, we improve ourselves—has become a mantra for today’s Silicon youth. It is not surprising that Steve Jobs credited his devotion to Zen Buddhism for his passion for simplicity and perfection (Walter Isaacson titled a chapter of his Jobs biography, “Zen and the Art of Game Design”), or that Forbes, Business Insider, and Fast Company periodically run articles with titles like “Why Every Entrepreneur Should Read Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Echoes of Pirsig can be heard every time Mark Zuckerberg boasts about how Facebook, by “helping people connect,” is bringing about “a complete transformation of society”; or when Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, talks of a future, brought to you by Google, in which “you’re never lonely … you’re never bored … you’re never out of ideas.”

It is one of the many ironies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that a book born out of an era of acute cynicism and despair should inspire today’s tech utopians. But it remains to be determined whether the technological world we are creating is of higher Quality than the reality we’ve left behind. Is it really possible that there’s nothing up ahead that’s any better than it is right here?

Other notable novels published in 1974:

If Beale Street Could Talk by James BaldwinJaws by Peter BenchleyMarathon Man by William GoldmanSomething Happened by Joseph HellerRipley’s Game by Patricia HighsmithCarrie by Stephen KingSula by Toni MorrisonLook at the Harlequins! by Vladimir NabokovThe Wanderers by Richard PriceThe Last Days of Louisiana Red by Ishmael ReedMyron by Gore Vidal

Pulitzer Prize:No prize awarded

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National Book Award (tie):Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas PynchonA Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Bestselling novel of the year:Centennial by James A. Michener

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockers by Richard Price2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington1924—So Big by Edna Ferber1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith1954—The Bad Seed by William March1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow