Pirsig, The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Sacred

We’re half way through the cult-philosophy-classic novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig now, and it’s a fascinating read, especially through the lens of the brain hemispheres and the work and research of Iain McGilchrist.

The main character in the book recounts much of his earlier life story and how there is a constant tension between the “classic” and “romantic” ways of apprehending and experiencing the world, largely corresponding to the old cultures of sciences and the humanities in the Universities.

But what makes it especially fascinating is how Pirsig by intuition and introspection also discovers the battle between his own hemispheres, and increasingly understands the natures of the two. And then we see how his aspiration becomes to try to create a balance and unification of the two worlds.

Being on page 220, Pirsig is starting to find his way into the right hemisphere by relating to concepts that can be shown to exist, but cannot be clearly defined, focussing on the word “Quality”. And in some ways this beautifully parallels so many sacred traditions where the Divine cannot be named without diminishing it. What is experienced and understood intuitively, spiritually and emotionally with the RH, cannot be grasped by the words and language of the left hemisphere, without changing it into a linguistic representation, which is something else. And arguably the way to unite and unify the worlds will go through the RH, but necessitates to some extent a relation to something Sacred, the ineffable Beyond, or at least an openness to the Mystery of existence or something Divine.

In ancient wisdom the key to true enlightenment comes through intellectual humility, as a starting point for new learning and for receiving deeper insights. And then the process of unifying could gradually start melding together the two worlds of the hemispheres and create a new whole, in something that might at times resemble the nature, of a new rebirth.

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13 Responses to Pirsig, The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Sacred

  1. James Willis says:

    As a long-time enthusiast for this book (although I too came to it long after it was fashionable) I have to thank you for this beautiful and insightful post.

    You seem to have got to the heart of it straight away – it took me two readings – and you draw out the links with McGilchrist’s more recent, and fundamentally important, hemisphere hypothesis so clearly. Brilliant.

    • Hi James,
      thank you so much for your wonderful words, and thank you for the inspiration to finally start reading Pirsig.

      I’m not sure how I would have seen this book pre-McGilchrist, it’s almost like we have a new sort of “transparency” on some aspects now, with regards to our own internal world and psyche.

      And it’s also a beautiful read – joining him on the road with a gentle breeze over the face, seeing the landscape glide by. Highly recommended.

  2. Excellent piece Richard – as James suggests you seem to have “got it in one” on a quick, partial, first read.

    I’d like to think Pirsig scholars might thereby be tempted to investigate McGilchrist’s two-views, seeing the fit with Pirsig supported by such masses of evidence and argument.

    • Thank you so much for the wonderful words, Ian, and also thank you – for the inspiration to pick up the book in the first place.

      If Pirsig scholars might open up to the world of the hemisphere hypothesis and the work of McGilchrist, that could be a very fruitful endeavour I think. The amounts of congruence and applicable insights could be breath-taking at times.

  3. Dan Glover says:

    Hello. Nicely written piece, this. Haven’t really heard of McGilchrist and his work before though from what little I’ve read after a quick Google he seems to reflect a bit of Julian Jaynes and his Bicameral Mind.

    Here https://channelmcgilchrist.com/ he mentions something along the lines of creativity and meaningfulness. I’ve been exploring art recently, not by reading about it but by doing, and one of the conundrums that keeps rearing its head in my work is the total uselessness of art. In fact, some years ago I remember remarking to Robert Pirsig just such a statement, which he dismissed. I am still not convinced.

    As a for instance, a friend just dropped off a sign for me to put up on my boathouse facing the canal. It reads:

    Hostile Hogs. Please Call Police.

    I love it. Pure art. Sure, it is roughly painted in crooked lettering on an old rotten board he must’ve dredged up from the bottom of the swamp but all that only adds to the artistry. Now, is it possible someone may happen by and take the sign literally? Only an idiot. But then again, doesn’t that point to the point of art too? If that sign was actually useful, would it still be art?

    • Hi Dan, and thanks for the kind words and interesting thoughts. McGilchrist is not a house-hold name yet I think, but he might become eventually. It borders on revolutionary some of the research he’s done on our “two brains” – largely based on stroke patients and other brain deficits.

      And art is a big and great topic, both personal experience and the creativity of it. Glad to hear you’re doing it, and I think I’ll lean towards Pirsig’s response to your statement. It could be very helpful for stimulating the right hemisphere and balancing the brain.

      Love the sign your friend made! It taps into the larger question about perception and society’s relationship to art too – which can hugely change over time. Having lived some years in Florence, I still have a deep love for art as beauty and inspiration, and a powerful source of quality of life.

      Last point – I’ve read on in the book (p. 260 now) and see more and more of what might have been Pirsig’s brain trying to use his left hemisphere’s capacities on the right hemisphere’s domains. It’s a recipe for brain-tissue tear I think. And I think it points to a much bigger problem of modernity over the last centuries, that highly intelligent people like Pirsig drift into mental confusion and breakdown. There are things lacking in the culture, that we now might be able to address more methodically with McGilchrist.

      Very best,

  4. Hi Dan, I’ll just add one point.

    You are right, there was previously significant “bi-cameral mind” literature, but so much left-right-brain stuff became lifestyle-pop-psychology in the 70’s and 80’s and was based on a misunderstanding of what the differences actually were – that it became a taboo topic for serious research.

    What McGilchrist has done over two enormous book projects is gather and organise absolutely masses of evidence at all levels from physical to psychological, with his own special combination of artistic / literary and medical / psychiatric expertise and experience.

    (Richard and I in fact met at “Channel McGilchrist” – as a “channel” for dialogue it is very disappointing, but we’re working on that.)

    • Hi Ian,
      yes excellent point. Having not being exposed to the pop-psychology version in the 70’s and 80’s, I’m increasingly seeing the necessity to point this out.

      And btw., we’ve just added a general notifcation for all comments in a thread on this blog, not just replies to a specific comments. Hope this works smoothly!


  5. I should add –
    Jaynes is of course one on McGilchrist’s sources in his first book, but across the two books, the bibliographies and references alone run to hundreds of pages 🙂

    • Scanning the TMwT, there seems to be just one single reference to Julian Jaynes, in the chapter about Time. Related to how Jaynes’ description of time is a left-hemispheric and discrete apprehension of it.

  6. In TMAHE he first refers to Jaynes “now classic book” in the text and makes further specific references later.

  7. Sean says:

    I love seeing how much interaction this post is generating! The discussion is definitely inspiring me to pick the book up.

    • Great, having finished the book and still churning on it – I think you’ll find it interesting. He even goes into the mythos and logos in the last part, though with a certain tilt in his view of it. Which sort of illuminates the quest of the book in interesting ways, the search for balance and unity. Pirsig in some sense expresses the LH tilt in the culture, through the nature of his own outlook. When he finds the balance, it often glides into the LH again, partly by habit or by long term external pressures from the culture itself. Excellent food for thought.

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