One of my most vivid memories from my European tour as a young man was sitting in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, reading Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values."
The park that sunny summer morning was filled with beautiful French mothers and their children, sitting upon blankets spread upon the grass and enjoying picnics. Their affection for their children and their patience with them amazed me, so different from the critical and exasperated style of American Moms.
In those youthful days of intense engagement with books, I was captivated with Pirsig's story of a motorcycle trip across America, as I was riding trains from Holland to Italy and Spain. During my journey, I also read several Graham Greene novels and Malcolm Lowery's "Under the Volcano."
That long-ago day in Paris came back to me when I read in The New York Times that Pirsig died Monday at age 88 in his home in Maine, where he'd sought refuge years ago from overzealous fans of his book, who stalked Pirsig seeking his wisdom on a personal level. Like J.D. Salinger, Pirsig needed to retreat from fame.
I was somewhat surprised that the Times called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" a novel. When I was reading it, I considered it autobiography. The book was packed with ideas, criticizing Plato and other early philosophers and offering instead a search for "quality" in human experience. Pirsig believed that Aristotle and the other early philosophers had set the West on a destructive course of splitting mind from spirit.
What I remember most about the book was the voice of a character named Phaedrus, the narrator's alter-ego. as a younger man who had suffered a devastating mental breakdown requiring electroshock therapy. The account of the wise, rational Phaderus's collapse was a searing moment, illuminating the motorcycle journey as a search for peace and healing.
The Times, citing Todd Gitlin, says "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" reflected the culture's need to accept technology after the '60s turn to mysticism and irrationality. The book might have anticipated the cultural ascendancy of Apple, Microsoft and Google, but I believe Pirsig was advocating traditional craftsmanship and practicality, not the technology that brought a new era of rampant commercialism.
I thought one of the best descriptions was in the Los Angeles Times obituary, which said that Pirsig sought to unify the mysticism of the East with the reason of the West.
After all these years, I can't remember the details of the book's philosophical arguments. What lasts is Pirsig's voice, part of the American stream that begins with Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Melville's Moby Dick, and threads through Fitzgerald and the Beats and Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" and others. It's a first-person male voice, seeking to understand the vast American continent, and needing to take to the road.