Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Fall 2017 Course OLLI  2017 Nov 1-29, Nashua Hunt 10-11:30

A virtual road trip with Robert Pirsig's book, keeping an eye on the road & concepts introduced.
No prior experience with motorcycles, Zen, art, or writing is required,
however thinking helmets are mandatory. 
Students should have a copy they can mark-up (what? write in a book!), used copies are readily available, also versions for eReaders.

Trust me, this will be a Quality experience (if we can figure out what that means.)
"Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform,
 persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations" (Wikipedia)

We will be asking the life altering questions like "what's it all about", "what is real?" and "are we there yet?"
There are many ways to view ZMM as a reading experience, and we will touch on many of them.  There is room for classical literature approaches (theme, plot, etc.). There is the discussion that follows the Narrator and his son Chris.  There is the thread that considers that path to insanity, and back.  There is also the critique of philosophy and the nature of reality that takes place in the book.  These elements are so tightly connected that the book has earned best-seller status, various recognitions, and even cult status among some readers.
"Author's Note: What follows is based  on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."

Week 1 - discussion of Part 1 - the trip towards self recognition
(please read first 80 pages or so before class)

  • Read closely the first paragraph, now read it again --- what is the narrator telling us?
  • What is your style? Analytic/Classical (narrator) or Romantic (Sutherlands)  or ??
  • Note that "The Trip" was taken in 1968 -- consider the mood of the country/world in that year
    (RFK/MLK assassinations, Chicago Democratic Convention, near fall of French Government...)
  • Who is Phaedrus?     Is Phaedrus really dead?
  • Who are the "characters" (narrator, Phaedrus, author, implicit author, Chris, ...)

Week 2 - discussion of Part 2 -- the trip towards knowledge
  • Is the narrator reliable? -- if not, why not?  How does it impact the story? How does it impact the messages?
  • Intuition - where do hypotheses come from? (z98)
  • What is an example of a priori knowledge? (Knowledge not supplied by senses/experience.)
  • What is the role of a University? (Church of Reason)
  • "Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind" (z146)
  • Art vs Technology
  • What is Quality?

Week 3 - discussion of Part 3 - 
  • What is gumption? (list of gumption traps?)
  • "when false information makes you look good, you are inclined to believe it" (p283)
  • What does "Mu" mean?
  • [For those who wish to take the full trip -- not in the 1960's use of the term -- consider reading Lila as well before week 5]

Week 4- discussion of Part 4
  • What is the "story?" or more properly what are the story "arcs" and how do they resolve?
     --- a travelogue? Father/Son reconciliation? a trip into a mental breakdown?
  • What happens at the end -- read the last paragraphs, read them again.
    (Note the 25th Anniversary addition  changes some phrases to italics -- because the narrator has changed
  • What does "unreliable narrator" mean? Is that happening in Zen-- if so why/why not?
    (Note: Pirsig admits being significantly influenced by "The Turn of the Screw")
    The book demonstrates the difference between "Quality" and "Truth", or is perhaps a Koan (catalyst?) for enlightenment.

Week 5 (and 6 where offered) - Where does this Road Lead? --- Following onto Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
  • Lila is the sequel -- sort of -- the characters are fictitious, created to make a point
  • (except Robert Redford, who plays himself in the story)
  • Far more philosophical points are put forward, with less pretense of real persons.

Chautauqua (an adult education movement in in the United States, highly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Named after Chautauqua Lake where the first was held, Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt  was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America" (from Wikipedia)


  • On Philosophy
    • Santo & Steele; Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Harper-Collins, 1990
      serious academic/philosophical background and commentary on ZMM. Includes subsequent interviews, letter from Pirsig to Robert Redford about a movie, etc. 
  • On Pirsig
    • Richardson, Mark; Zen and Now; Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
      Mark followed ZMM's trip via Motorcycle circa 2004; he comments on book, interviews folks mentioned in the book, includes bibliographical information about Pirsig, Chris, et al. -- not strong on the philosophical side, but insight on the personal side. (Folks who follow the ZMM route are refered to as Pirsig pilgrims) 
    • NPR Interview with Robert Pirsig 2005
    • Guardian Interview 2006

  • And going a bit further afield (or maybe not)

    • Jeff Hawkins "On Intelligence" book and TED talk
      Consider "the quality event" in the context of data entering the brain in Jeff's model
    • Consciousness is a mathematical pattern: Max Tegmark at TEDxCambridge 2014 17min
      Consciousness values a specific bio-chemical pattern - parallels Lila's 
    • Private Universe - a study of Myth-conception(s)-- at Harvard (Initial video, 20 min)
      Humans start "filling" our brains from the instant we become conscious, and 
      the rationale(s) we develop can over-ride our educational experiences.
    • TED Radio Hour on Brand vs Brain ... looking at perceived value(s)
    • Selective Vision: Dan Simmons example 1  and  Example 2
      Consider how "values" implicit in our filtering affect "perception" in terms of those things that reach our consciousness 
    • Jill Bolten Taylor's Stroke of Insight 
      Jill's experience articulates distinctions that might be called the "classical" vs "romantic" perspective ("objective"/"subjective", "rational"/"mystical", "scientific"/"artistic",  ) ... but also may be right brain / left brain
    • ElectroShock therapy - TED presentation "How ECT changed me"
    • DO you exist? http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-do-you-know-you-exist-james-zucker

"the narrator weaves into his text a subtle set of prescriptions that can be pieced together to form an approach that transcends both classicism and romanticism. Though this approach is never given an explicit name, it can be understood as Zen. The narrator uses motorcycle repair as an allegory to describe his concept of Zen—when done right, the craft offers precisely the “positive goal” Pirsig recognized was needed. Devoted motorcycle maintenance fosters an attunement, a sense of presence, and most of all a commitment to Quality work that allow the mechanic to pursue the process out of an intrinsic sense of reward. Importantly, the Zen process is divorced from egotistical concerns." [Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, LitCharts Editors (2014). LitChart on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Retrieved June 6, 2014 from http://www.litcharts.com/lit/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance]