Second Sunday in Advent – time for one of the big guns. I’ve written about Zen before and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, so I apologise in advance if I’m repeating myself.
Yesterday’s book was perhaps not really a travel book but this one is doubly eligible – it’s about motorcycle travel and I took it round Europe carefuly wrapped in a paper bag, but this was six years before I had a licence so it was an Interrail tour with a US university acquaintance. We didn’t know each other well when we set out and we were ready to murder each other when we got back, but looking back now, she did me a massive favour by challenging my conditioning that every day and every outing had to be planned to the nth degree. I’m still not totally cool about just going with the flow and seeing what happens, but I know I’d be so much worse if it hadn’t been for 2 weeks riding the trains with Lowrie.
Anyway – Zen. I bought the book before I could ride, but when I knew that I wanted to. And of couse as anyone who has picked it up knows, you get a bit about a cross-contiental US trip, you get a bit about motorcycle maintenance and you get a whole lot of 1970s patchouli-scented philosophy. And then you realise the importance of the trip – that the narrator has undergone ECT or a similar hugely interventionist mental heath intervention and the trip is an attempt to remember who he is and reconnect with his son.
I read it every ten years or so and I find different things in it each time. And although the joke is that there isn’t a lot of motorcycle maintenance in it, I would disagree. Even the start is about maintenance – a retelling of a scene where Pirsig’s travelling companion can’t get his bike started because he’s got it on full choke on a hot day.
“I smell gas like we’re next to a refinery and tell him so, thinking this is enough to let him know his engine’s flooded.
‘Yeah, I smell it too,’ he says, and keeps on pumping.”
Later in the book Pirsig builds on this idea and divides bikers into Romantics and Classics –
“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in term of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. Is has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint of schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.”
Which I thought was bollocks until I was chatting with a biker friend on twitter and realised he is an archetypal Romantic – he loves to ride but sees no value in getting stuck into maintenance. He can pay someone else to fettle his bike. Working on his own bike is not part of motorcycling, for him, and would actually diminish the joy he gets from riding.
There’s no judgement here. One of the things I learned about myself since buying and reading Zen all that time ago is that I really enjoy taking a bike that isn’t working right and making it run better. I wish I was a better mechanic. But it is interesting how much of my approach to problem-solving, to doing the best job I can, comes back to the ideas set out by this old hippie. (Though I suppose he was a young hippie when he wrote it.) And my horror of trusting other people to do the work for me – in fact once you’ve waded through one of the heftier lumps of philopsphy there’s a whole section giving reassurance on why you should try complex jobs yourself:-
“there’s a school of mechanical thought which says I shouldn’t be getting into a complex assembly I don’t know anything about. I should have training or leave the job to a specialist. That’s a self-serving school of mechanical eliteness I’d like to see wiped out. That was a ‘specialist’ who broke the fins on this machine…You’re at a disadvantage the first time around and it may cost you a little more because of parts you accidentally damage, and it will almost undoubtedly take a lot more time, but the next time around you’re way aead of the specialist. You, with gumption, have learned the assembly the hard way and you’ve a whole set of good feelings about it that he’s unlikely to have.”
I suppose that’s a lot of words for a simple idea. Here’s the same philosophy in the words of the Proprietor of the Northern Rest Home for Distressed Machinery: “what a man can do.”