The subtitle of the book says far more about the content of the book than the momentarily-catchy title: An Inquiry Into Values. On the surface, it was the account of a motorcycle trip across the American West by a father and son. Beneath the surface, it was a painstaking, and often painful, search for the meaning of life, and an attempt to discover how to live in harmony with nature in an increasingly mechanized world.
There are other books of philosophy written by warm human beings: Abraham Maslow’s Toward A Psychology of Being comes to mind; so does Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Notations and The Examined Life. But no other book of its day connected the old philosophical truism, “Man’s search for meaning”–the stuff every philosopher swears she’s interested in–so firmly to the lives that millions of us actually live. The tension is often palpable in Zen between father and son as their motorcycles move down the roads; they love each other so much it hurts. The book is at its best in many of those real moments.
What Pirsig tries to do in all of his philosophical asides, however, is show us that people have been there before. Our suffering, while it is often acute, is not exactly unique. When the pain comes, as it did for the elder Pirsig when he was a diagnosed schizophrenic, we seldom think of the common bonds of suffering, but they are there. We are held by them whether we want to be or not; and the knowledge of that shared suffering may bring us some comfort, if we let it. If. That’s where the Zen comes in. The Western mind is conditioned to believe that suffering must be fought and overcome. Even our religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–are rooted in this idea, even as they point toward a life after death. But the Eastern way, the Way of Zen, is grounded in the acceptance of life in all of its twists and turns, and suggests that the survival of all we value is best accomplished by remaining lightly-rooted in the earth under our feet, as we sway in the winds of whatever storms may come.
Pirsig’s attempt to examine Western and Eastern philosophy and his attempt to harmonize them within the framework of a quintessential American adventure confused a hundred publishers, each of whom rejected the book. They did so because their minds were not young enough to receive it. The generation to whom Pirsig was speaking was the same generation that read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and responded to its evocation of an earlier green and undying age of our own world with a growing contempt for mechanized things.
Pirsig knew we had to find a way to preserve the one and live with the other. He knew that we ourselves had to make peace with the shortness of our lives and our own inevitable deaths. He also knew, however, that the efforts to do so might bring us an illumination we would not otherwise have, and a calmness we would not otherwise possess.