by Brian

While the first goal of Pirsig’s Zen is to reunite the left brain/right brain concepts into one unified whole, as explained in the previous post, the second was as a solution to the alienation many romantics feel towards their classical-dominated world. While the great tendency of the romantically-minded is to only take away the ugliness of a system whose constituent parts are designed primarily for function, Pirsig hopes to illuminate to beauty of the system and its functions in itself, to give weight to the idea that a system is as beholden to quality as a painting is to beauty.

The narrator illustrates the gulf while discussing the motorcycles with his friend and fellow rider John. John rides a BMW, a bike known for its reliability. Being a foreign bike, though, John is unlikely to find a mechanic in the western US, where they are riding, should he need one. The narrator points this out and suggests that John learn how to care for his bike to prevent such a disaster, to understand how the thing properly functions so he can foresee any problems before they become catastrophic.

John is nonplussed by the suggestion, saying he doesn’t want to get into “all that”, which disturbs our narrator: the idea that John and the bike are separate considerations in this cross-country journey makes little sense. The two, in fact, are co-dependent in just about every way. John depends on the bike’s proper function to go anywhere–the very thing he chooses to ignore–otherwise he’s not going anywhere. By the same idea, the bike and its proper function are dependent on John; how he rides it in what conditions, how often he greases the chain or changes the oil, when he tunes it or has someone tune it for him, all effect the proper function of the bike. But this requires the classical quality perspective, which brings past and future knowledge and consequences to bear on this object in the present, which John doesn’t have, at least not towards this machine. To John, the machine is there solely for the purposes of the romantic sensation of riding it, and that exists in the present tense.

What we learn later is that our idea of the John-bike symbiotic relationship is slightly off. By considering the bike as a separate entity, we have further perpetuated the alienation: the bike remains something unconnected and misunderstood despite the need John has for it. In fact, by this line of thinking it becomes more so, as we are treating the bike as an agent unto itself, as if the bike is making decisions apart from John’s own decision making. The bike thus transforms from a confusing gizmo that John would rather not take the time to understand its operation, to an actor itself who is actively attempting to be misunderstood and trying to thwart John’s riding it without issue. Which, of course, is completely silly, but an easy enough emotion to understand if one has ever interacted with a device that simply doesn’t want to perform its function; it seems to not want to be understood.

What the narrator proposes later on is a much healthier engagement with the technology we interact. Reflecting the Kantian system of a priori concepts upon which we build our knowledge, the narrator proposes the work on the bike as the work on the mental concept of the bike as well. Considering the skilled mechanic, the narrator describes the way in which he clears his thoughts of nothing but the bike, adjusting the parts of the bike in reality as well as the parts of the bike in his mind. The bike he disassembles is not alien to him because he already has it sitting on the work table of his mind, waiting to be taken apart just like the actual bike. Thus comes the ability to fix it properly: the bike on his work table is meant to be fixed, adjusted, and calibrated to the a priori bike sitting in his mind, to be made as close to the ideal as the tools and reality will allow him.

Thus, we get the John-bike relationship straightened: the bike is to be an extension of John as much as any of his appendages are.