Robert Maynard Pirsig

April 25, 2017

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Robert Maynard Pirsig

Robert Maynard Pirsig, an autobiographical essayist who was widely known for his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values died yesterday at his home in South Berwick, Maine.

Pirsig was a former mental patient, a college writing instructor and a freelance writer when he wrote his first book. It was inspired by a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California with his son Chris and by Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. It was rejected by 121 publishers before it found a home at William Morrow & Company in 1974. It sold five million copies. Pirsig published a second book titled Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals in 1991. It sold less well.

Pirsig’s more famous book was not very much about motorcycles. In his foreward, he cautioned that it should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.” He said, “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”

His book was published during an interesting moment in American History – the year before the fall of Saigon and the year America abandoned Southeast Asia. In Zen, Pirsig seemed to try to reconcile his history of sanity and insanity. It came to be widely regarded as a parable about America’s journey through the Vietnam War.

The New Yorker, called it “a profound, if somewhat clunky, articulation of the postwar American experience” and compared it to Moby-Dick.

The New York Times compared Pirsig to Thoreau. The Times critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, wrote “However impressive are the seductive powers with which Mr. Pirsig engages us in his motorcycle trip, they are nothing compared to the skill with which he interests us in his philosophic trip. Mr. Pirsig may sometimes appear to be a greener America proselytizer, with his beard and his motorcycle tripping and his talk about learning to love technology. But when he comes to grips with the hard philosophical conundrums raised by the 1960’s, he can be electrifying.”

The Times of London described Zen as “disturbing, deeply moving,” and “full of insights.”

Robert Maynard Pirsig’s father was a law professor at the University of Minnesota which he attended and from which he flunked out. He developed an interest in Zen while serving in the Army during the Korean War. When he returned, he went to journalism school and earned a master’s degree.

His son Chris, who accompanied on his motorcycle pilgrimage, was stabbed to death on Haight Street in San Francisco in November 1979.

He is survived by his widow Wendy; his son Ted; his daughter Nell Peiken and three grandchildren.

Robert Maynard Pirsig lived to be 88-years-old. He lived an interesting life. He lived in interesting times. He made a mark. He rode a motorcycle.

Requiscat In Pace.


18 Responses to “Robert Maynard Pirsig”

  1. fayettenamhoe Says:

    souls make excellent shims
    life is full of shims.
    death will become my shim
    your too late, we are all
    shimmied out, no need for
    fools who know their way home

  2. FF Says:

    I recall the titillation and fascination the presence of this book caused in my eleven year old hands.

  3. Nuke n' Pave Dave Says:

    Zen touched my soul on a level very little of the other literature I have consumed could manage. Various passages have come back to happily haunt me over the intervening years. May your roads always be smooth, inspiring little two lane jobs with enough distractions to keep you ever entertained, Mr. Pirsig. May those rains we all occasionally encounter merely gently caress you instead of instead of drench you as they invariably do me!

  4. PJ Says:

    My favorite quote of Pirsig’s:
    I’m not afraid of dying, because I know I haven’t wasted this life.


  5. blacksmith Says:


  6. Sharon Cox Says:

    RIP Mr. Pirsig…..


  7. stroker Says:

    “Zen and the Art…” was for me, required reading. Not by anybody else, required by me. At the time it was published, I was knee deep in the motorcycle culture of the 70’s, in El Lay, in the process of my first divorce, and had already been on a few motorcycle pilgrimages of my own. I felt I had to see what the fuss was all about.
    Like Phuquehed, I had a hard time with reading it. I got past the first chapter, but was impatient for the message, and speed read the rest of the book. Some of it, I just flat got lost in. But what I wanted the book to be about, I guess it really was. I wanted it to be about the sense of enlightenment I got, when I had to fix a 65 panhead roller lifter on the side of the road in Wyoming. When I had to patch a tube (twice in the same day)….when I resurrected a battery with new acid in a wayside garage in McDermitt Nevada. It was about the peace I got after days and days in the saddle, with only the wind and the road for company. The book, and what it was about, and what I WANTED it to be about, was part of my beginning life as a scooter tramp. I think it’s title alone influenced me.
    I get it. After every long trip I’ve made (and I’ve made a bunch across this great land), I come back with a feeling of my mind being at peace. My brain washed clean, as it were.
    It’s still that way for me.

    Requiscat In Pace Mr. Pirsig.

  8. Woodstock Says:

    Roll em easy Phaedrus.

  9. Hangaround Says:

    Beer cans make excellent shims!

  10. Grimey Says:

    Sorry to hear about his passing. Does not change my opinion about the book. Thoughts and support to his family and friends.

  11. IcemanB&W Says:

    I’ll have to bust out my copy of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” and read again it in his honor.

    Fair winds and following seas Mr. Pirsig

  12. Phuquehed Says:

    He seems to have truly lived an interesting and unique life. It’s a shame he had to see one of his sons die. I’m a firm believer in the saying no parent should have to bury their kid…even though I got no kids. It just makes sense.

    I couldn’t get past the first chapter though of Zen. Just not my kinda thing or reading.

    Other than that, his survivors still deserve condolences and I’d like to wish them.

  13. Uesque Says:

    Zen was a hard book to read for a pragmatist. I had to take a break in the middle. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, just heavy. Into the wind forever Mr. Pirsig.

  14. Paladin Says:

    RIP Mr Pirsig. May your loved ones take comport knowing you had a positive influence on many.

    Long May You Ride,


  15. Va.Bob Says:

    He rode a Honda 305 Super Hawk cross country.Not just on the trip chronicled in the book ,but an additional one,too,I believe.That ain’t bad.R.I.P.,Professor Pirsig.

  16. Shutup Says:

    Via con Dios.

  17. hoosiertoo Says:

    Pirsig is probably the writer who influenced me more than any other in my life. I spent many a happy hour thinking about discussing Quality.

    “Lila,” though not as popular, may have been even more important to understanding Pirsig’s idea of Quality.

    Ride Free, Mr. Pirsig, and may Chris share the road with you again.

  18. Mudmat Says:

    An interesting book that has been on my shelf for 35 years. Still pull it down every couple years to reread it.

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