Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RIP Robert Pirsig

Many of us Baby Boomers read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when it came out in 1974. Who could resist a title like that? This quirky, intense book combined the Zen/Eastern religions/meditation/New Age influences of the 1970s in the United States with the daring, heady sound of freedom evoked by the “motorcycle” part of the title. We had already read the work of D.T. Suzuki and others writing about Zen Buddhism, had read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (published in 1957 but still a big seller in our youths), and had seen the movie “Easy Rider” (1969). I remember reading Pirsig’s book eagerly and believing it was full of wisdom. The book was well received, and praised for its blend of the author’s narrative about his own life and particularly a road trip he took with his son, on the one hand, and his philosophical/metaphysical beliefs, on the other hand, all blended together. A New Yorker critic even compared the book to “Moby Dick.” Although it had taken a long time to get the book published, having been turned down by over 100 publishers, it soon became a million-seller. Pirsig was brilliant but troubled, and had a difficult life and career, doing various jobs, and occasionally having to seek treatment for severe mental illness, probably schizophrenia. This gifted writer died April 24 at the age of 88. As soon as I heard the news, my mind and emotions flew back to the 1970s, those years of hope, experimentation, and grappling with thrilling new ideas and new combinations of ideas. I am sure I am far from the only one whose reading of Pirsig’s obituary took them back to those days, and who felt a twinge of sadness at the passing of this author and the passing of time. In today’s world, it is hard to preserve the expansive, hopeful attitude reflected in such books of that time period as “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance.” Thank you, Robert Pirsig, and RIP.
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