Robert Pirsig Dies At 88; Motorcycle Trip Inspired Popular 'Zen' Book

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 25, 2017 10:51 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The author of "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance" has died. That 1974 book was a counterculture classic, the story of a road trip that doubled as a metaphysical meditation on everything from East Asian philosophy to the author's own struggles with mental illness. NPR's Neda Ulaby remembers the author, Robert Pirsig.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In 1974, Robert Pirsig was, as he put it, no longer a screwup. After being rejected by more than 100 publishers, "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance" was a surprise bestseller. That year, the author told NPR he'd learned to embrace what feels broken and wrong through Buddhism and motorcycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT PIRSIG: When you get stuck on fixing motorcycles, that's not a bad moment. I notice whenever I'm stuck like that that if I look at the clouds, the clouds are much more beautiful than if I - that's getting a little bit sentimental. But I find that at the very moment of stuckness (ph), if you just stop and look around you, you find the world is very real.

ULABY: Millions of people found meaning in Pirsig's book in the years after the Vietnam War. But it's hardly an easy read. It's partly based on a real motorcycle journey the author took with his 11-year-old son. Along the way, there's a mythological creature, the narrator's memories of electroshock therapy and heavy discussions about the duality of consciousness. In 1992, Pirsig told NPR he wanted his legacy to be the theory of reality he called the metaphysics of quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PIRSIG: I hope that people who are skilled in philosophy will take me seriously on this metaphysics of quality. The worst tragedy would be that everybody says either this is too hard or this fellow is just an amateur and we won't fool with it.

ULABY: Only five years after his first book's success, Robert Pirsig's son was stabbed to death in front of the Zen Center in San Francisco. His next book would take 17 years to complete. It continues the author's quest to bridge eastern and western thought. After its publication, Pirsig told NPR he intended to stop writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PIRSIG: I've said what I want to say. There are other things I could say, but I'm sure it would be a lesser work than what I've done.

ULABY: Later in his life, Robert Pirsig switched from motorcycles to boats. He spent his last 30 years in South Berwick, Maine, sailing and answering correspondence from his fans. He died yesterday at home at the age of 88. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHURANGBIN'S "THE RECITAL THAT NEVER HAPPENED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.