Robert M. Pirsig and the Quest for Quality


How do you qualify and define what makes something “quality?" This question drives the narrator of Robert M. Pirsig's “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." There is a lot going on in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," most of it below the surface. The main plot alternates between a fictional account of a father and his son taking a road trip from Minnesota to Northern California and the father’s descent into madness a few years prior. The real story of the book is that of the duality of man and the quest to define what is quality. Heady stuff.

These are two things that I believe is important for every man to grapple with. Men, according to Pirsig, have always been divided into two archetypes: the romantic and the classical. The romantic is the artist and the visionary. The classical is the scientist and the engineer. Pirsig is not exactly breaking new ground with his analysis, but the way it's laid out – in clear terms – is useful. Pirsig comes to the conclusion that the romantic archetype takes a gestalt view of the world. These individuals do not sweat and fret over the smaller details. Instead, they opt for a big picture view of things. The classical mindset is more rational. It's rooted in the classical tradition originated with Socrates and Plato. These men have a rational, almost clinical view of the world. They see how everything works, how all the pieces fit together.

Initially our narrator is a classic personality, while his neighbor, John Sutherland, is a romantic. John Sutherland and his wife Sylvia join the father and son during the first leg of their road trip. One of the main sources of conflict comes from these two opposing ideologies. Specifically how these two world views look at and attempt to resolve the same problem. You see, Sutherland has purchased a new top of the line motorcycle for this trip. The narrator and his son, meanwhile, drive much older but well-maintained motorcycles. Whenever Sutherland’s motorcycle begins to break down and malfunction, he's forced to use costly mechanics to fix the problem. Sutherland himself only has the most basic notions of how a motorcycle runs and how to maintain it. He went on this road trip with his wife for adventures. Sutherland was so set on experiencing this journey that he neglected to learn even the most basic things about motorcycle repair. When it stops working, he has no idea how to handle it. He never focused on the tiny details that were right in front of him.

The narrator takes the classical approach to life. He studies the details, the way things work and the way things should work. When driving into Miles City, the narrator notices that the “engine idle is loping a little." Instead of taking his bike to a mechanic, the narrator finishes out his day and decides to deal with it the next morning. Unlike Sutherland, the narrator knows exactly how to fix his motorcycle. He diagnoses the problem during his morning ritual of inspecting and performing upkeep on the motorcycle. Not only did the Narrator fix his motorcycle, he made sure that it was still running in the best shape possible.

Sounds simple right? The classical approach to life is the smarter way of going about things? Not exactly. Eventually the narrator has more in-depth discussions about philosophy and life, and comes to grips with his own traumas, he realizes that he has lost sight of the beauty and wonder of the world. He got too granular. He was too focused on his bike, on the details of the trip, on his past, that he was missing out on the grandeur all around him.

The ideal man then is the successful synthesis of these two world views. The appreciation of things that lie in the romantic worldview mixed with the granularity and attention to detail of the classical view. Combining these two things should result in a man that appreciates the beauty of life, while also never losing sight of the details.

That attention to detail is what leads me into my next major – and arguably most important – take away from the book. I’m speaking of the keen eye for detail the narrator showcases every morning during his motorcycle maintenance. I'm talking about the appreciation and value of ritual. Pirsig writes about the tedious nature of motorcycle maintenance, about checking every single valve and plug. He then writes about making the choice to enjoy these moments. I believe this appreciation for ritual should be the thing that every man takes away from this book. Taking life’s daily grind and turning it into a pleasurable thing could be life-changing.

Earlier I wrote about defining “quality” and quantifying it. It is an inherently paradoxical thing that means different things to different people. A classic view of quality would state that the object in question does what it sets out to do in an outstanding fashion. This applies to anything from an oven to a motorcycle. The romantic view says that quality is subjective, that art and life are subjective, and thus it can never be answered. Robert M. Pirsig splits the baby and goes for a down-the-middle answer. You need both to determine what true quality is, and only you can make that conclusion. Pirsig also makes the case that you can improve the quality of something through methodical upkeep. That is something that every man should benefit from. Who among us hasn't been subjected to mind-numbing monotony? Who hasn’t grumbled through paperwork? Take Pirsig’s advice and take pleasure in the minutia; I know I am.