Day Trip to the Dark Side of the Moon

A reflection on the life and death of philosopher and author Robert Pirsig, by someone who knew him.

The lunatic is in my head
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me ’til I’m sane
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon!

Roger Waters

INTERVIEWER: I would like to thank you for taking time to talk to me about Robert M. Pirsig’s life and work and especially 1974’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM). Mr. Pirsig is not able to discuss these issues himself so would you like to tell our readers why he is unavailable?

PHAEDRUS (the ‘intellectual’ of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance): Pirsig is dead as a dodo. Get over it. Can we talk about Lila now?

THE NARRATOR of ZMM: It’s really great to be here. This is an absolutely fantastic place, by the way. Thank you for inviting us to do this interview with you while taking this day trip to the Moon. We are coming back to Earth today, aren’t we?

DR MCWATT: Sadly, Robert Pirsig has been too ill to write anything (even a short note….) since suffering a serious fall about five years ago. This is why we are here answering your questions on his behalf. I have the first (and, up to now) only PhD in Pirsig’s ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ so I should be able to answer at least some of the questions that you had originally planned for Mr Pirsig.

INTERVIEWER: Rest assured, we’ll be back in New Hampshire this evening… Otherwise, our thoughts are with Robert Pirsig’s friends and family during this difficult time. 

PHAEDRUS: Pirsig’s death is completely irrelevant concerning the philosophical merits of his metaphysical system, the MOQ. (The MOQ stands for “The Metaphysics of Quality” for those readers of yours who have still not read Lila which, in my mind, is a much better book than ZMM; certainly intellectually speaking.)

THE NARRATOR of ZMM: Yes, to answer your question, it’s certainly been a difficult time for the Pirsig family over the last five years. Your thoughts are therefore much appreciated.

DR MCWATT: To add to what the Narrator of ZMM is saying, this why I now tend to deal with much of the philosophical correspondence that Robert Pirsig once dealt with himself. Having said that, I tend to agree with Phaedrus here though I wish he wasn’t so rude about it!

INTERVIEWER: I read in our archives that ZMM was rejected by publishers 121 times.  Yet, it is now recognized as a best seller. Did Robert Pirsig ever talk about his struggle in getting this book published?

DR MCWATT: Yes, he did in some detail. The complete story can be found in the foreword of the 25th Anniversary Edition of ZMM.

INTERVIEWER: My journeys, at least between solar systems, can take a relatively long time. A colleague suggested (as I am now usually based near the Earth and Mars) that I listen to some of the iconic human music and literature books for educational purposes and to help with the monotony of interstellar journeys. I went to our library and noticed ZMM because of its relatively strange title. To be honest, I thought the book would bore me with primitive technical details and obscure cultural references but I took a chance anyway and was pleasantly surprised by its soul searching characters and central theme about Quality. Have other readers expressed a similar response to Pirsig’s first book?

PHAEDRUS: This so-called soul searching of the characters in ZMM is largely a rhetorical device used by Pirsig to draw the “average person in the street” into seeing the Narrator and his so-called buddies as relatively normal, sane people. They are nice people aren’t they? But nice people tend to give the answers that other people want to hear at the time rather than the absolute truth which can be difficult to deal with at times. This is why I don’t consider ZMM an honest book. It tricks the reader into reading it and, again, is why I would recommend anyone of any intellectual ability who is actually interested in really improving their life and their philosophical knowledge to read Lila (published in 1991) and then F.S.C. Northrop (I’d particularly recommend his The Logic of Sciences & Humanities published in 1948).

THE NARRATOR of ZMM: Hey, I enjoy listening to ZMM while in the car too. Anything that can get Pirsig’s message over to the general public (on Earth or anywhere else for the matter) is a good idea, in my mind.

DR MCWATT: I think the phrase often applied to ZMM is that “this book will change your life” and has been true for many readers of the book. We often played the audio version of ZMM when we retraced the story’s route for a movie we filmed in 2006. One of us would also read passages out loud. These moments were highlights of the trip. When you are reading a passage from a book and travelling through the scenery that it is referring to, this can be – surprisingly – quite a touching moment. It may not be as intense as listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” when viewing the Moon from a spaceship but then again, not too many things are!

INTERVIEWER: I have served in several types of craft throughout the years and each one displayed a personality, at least to me. I am sure many people feel that way about their Earth-based rides as well.  If one travels in a spaceship, a plane or motorcycle for any length of time, what we drive often becomes more than a machine, it can become a companion (in the wider sense of term). In an early section of ZMM, the Narrator notes that:

Each machine has its own, unique, personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance.

Do you have a favorite passage in the book that reflects certain aspects of your life?

PHAEDRUS: The end chapter of ZMM redeems the book though I think Pirsig would have been more honest by writing a conventional ‘heavyweight’ philosophy book without all the rhetorical devices.

THE NARRATOR of ZMM: I love a number of the rhetorical phrases throughout ZMM especially his ruminations about the scenery as it slowly changes in the mid-West of North America. I think Pirsig is a great writer and a great philosopher too. Lila is not such a pleasant read though…

DR MCWATT: Speaking for myself, I think the quote at the front of ZMM: “And what is good, Phaedrus and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” sums it up very well. As such, that is probably my favorite quote from the whole of that book.

INTERVIEWER: One of the characters in this book is Phaedrus, he is a haunting figure throughout the narration. Without giving away the author’s philosophical twisted plot, for readers who have not picked up the book or heard a digital recording yet, I would just like to consider Phaedrus’ role. I found him to be more than an inner demon who wrestles our very patient Narrator into a startling confession. Phaedrus is a recurring reminder that our past can catch up with us. What are your thoughts on this character? 

PHAEDRUS: I’ll answer this. I am largely concerned with the truth irrespective of whether anyone appreciates it or might be hurt by it, and irrespective of their origin. I was a rhetorical device invented initially so Pirsig didn’t seem so egotistical. When the first draft of ZMM was completed around the beginning of 1970 (if this date means anything to you), it was full of the word “I”. Again, if he’d written a pure philosophy book, he would have avoided this problem. To conclude, I guess I represent Pirsig’s conscience. But as Pirsig comments in McWatt’s “On The Road with Robert Pirsig” film, I soon developed a life of my own, sorted out that hypocrite, the Narrator, and gave Pirsig a best seller plus a follow-up book too. The latter book, Lila, I am pleased to say, does not include the character of the Narrator and, in my mind, it conveys his philosophy (the MOQ) a lot better too.

INTERVIEWER: Did Robert have any idea that his book would become so popular? To your knowledge, can you estimate how many copies were sold worldwide?

DR MCWATT: I don’t think he did. Robert Pirsig wrote to me about 12 years ago saying that ZMM had sold well over six million copies, including editions for Mongolia and Japan!

PHAEDRUS: I think the publishers of ZMM (initially William Morrow, who were then bought out by Random House in the early 1990s) have always been a little coy about updating Pirsig with the exact number of copies that ZMM has actually sold to date. As such, and knowing how modern corporate publishers operate, I’d double that six million estimate.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think people are so attracted to this book?

DR MCWATT: It deals with many of the issues that many Western people on Earth find themselves concerned with today whether that’s dealing with modern technology, family relationships or where we are going as a society. Not only that, it has some unique (and, in my mind, better!) answers for these issues that you won’t be able to find elsewhere; not even on Mars…

INTERVIEWER: Some of us would say that there is nothing better than enjoying peace of mind. ZMM seems to reflect that sentiment and, in this sense, Pirsig’s writing is rather refreshing. Moreover, I would like to thank you all for speaking with me.  Do you have any final thoughts to share with our colleagues back home?

PHAEDRUS: I’ll leave the social niceties to the Narrator and McWatt though, as you asked, peace of mind can be found, ultimately, by only being true to yourself.

THE NARRATOR of ZMM: I’m sure any reader new to ZMM will enjoy being in my company and the company of my friends, the Sutherlands, travelling on the road by motorcycle from one side of America to the other. On the whole, we have a great time, racing sports cars, stopping at bars, talking philosophy and seeing some stunning scenery.

DR MCWATT: Please keep in mind that ZMM is as much an anti-novel as a novel. It is anti-philosophy as much as it is a philosophical treatise. It is the great anti-dichotomy book to paraphrase Professor Ron DiSanto of Regis College! No matter, I hope bringing Phaedrus and the Narrator of ZMM into this interview has helped you understand the type of thinking that Pirsig was going through as he wrote his first book. While we need to stick to the truth (represented by the character of Phaedrus), human beings are also social animals. In other words, there is usually a nice way of saying the truth; of presenting things. Someone such as Phaedrus will find himself limited in the type of relationships he has; whether that’s personal or for the day job; despite being true to himself.

The Narrator of ZMM will, on the other hand, be eventually caught out by being a friend to everyone; he’d be no good as a doctor or taking another responsible role as he’d tend to provide people with what they want to hear rather then what they need! He’d make a good politician.

The trick, of course, is keeping an even balance between being too intellectual and being too socially orientated. Fortunately, the Phaedrus that we find in Lila is a much better balanced character even if the latter tends to be intellectually minded.

(All responses are by Dr Anthony McWatt with the moral support of the Pirsigs. They found some of the responses hilarious… Phaedrus and ‘the Narrator’ are characters originally to be found in ZMM and Lila.)

About Anthony McWatt 3 Articles
Dr. Anthony McWatt is a philosopher and artist lost in a world of multinationals and Platonism. His PhD and subsequent philosophical career has been based on researching and exploring the work of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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