The stink of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Dan Meyrowitsch, zvg.

The stink of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Because of the dangers, riding a motorcycle is fundamentally different from driving a car. A combination of power, control and vulnerability made the motorcycle an iconic symbol of different countercultures.


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Although motorcycles are primarily used as a means of transport in many parts of the world, the two-wheeled machine has, since series production was launched in 1894, also been perceived and used as an iconic symbol for specific cultures and fashions. There are several underlying reasons for the iconic role and importance of the machine, and some of these do not directly relate to the motorcycle as an object, but rather to the ride.

«Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.» The first time I came across this quote was in Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1974). The fictionalized autobiography stands today as a key philosophical text for the generation that came too late for the youth uprising in 1968, and too early for Punk and the later countercultures that followed.

The book can be read in several ways. It is a description of a motorcycle trip that stretches over several months, with the narrator and his son riding through the United States. The story is also a study of the mind, the senses and has its focus on the analysis of values and society. Important to the text are the concepts that in Buddhist thinking are called relative and absolute truth. However, it is not necessary for the reader to be familiar with Buddhist thinking in order to relate to the motorcycle ride and the narrator’s investigations.

No room for error

I have read the book several times over the last 30 years. I still think it is exciting and interesting. However, I have always disliked the contrasts that the book is filled with. I understand and acknowledge that Pirsig constructs these contradictions to illustrate the phenomena and describe the underlying considerations. But these tales make the book stink: It stinks of zen. This is not an expression that I have invented, but is a well-described phenomenon, when a Buddhist practitioner talks too much about zen. The Buddhist may feel as if approaching enlightenment, but in reality, he or she creates noise which prevents the journey towards insight. However, this book would hardly have gained such popularity without the stench of zen. In this way, the smell of the book is a necessary collateral damage.

Pirsig uses the motorcycle as a tool for an analysis of the self, the mind and sensory experiences. The analyses are based on a detailed dissection of the individual parts of the motorcycle, the way they interact, and the energy transfer of the parts. But it is also about the rider, the rider’s experience of the motorcycle and the road. Could the narrator not illustrate the same considerations if the topic was a car or a cuckoo clock? No. The motorcycle is not a random choice. Riding a motorcycle has some qualities that create a space where it is possible to navigate between the topics that Pirsig and the book’s narrator are engaged in. Riding a motorcycle is in itself a contrast-filled, and in many ways unique activity, which at the same time contains elements of power, control and vulnerability.

Power. The motorcycle is superb when it comes to performance in relation to weight. A modern motorcycle has, in comparison with a brand-new electric supercar, double the performance and traction when the power is calculated per kilogram. Anyone who has ridden a motorcycle with a certain engine size has experienced this power. Especially when the traffic light changes from red to green.

 Control. Moving a vehicle with as much power as a motorcycle creates…