[Robert Pirsig's writing, especially his second book, 'Lila: an Inquiry into Morals,' has given me a great deal of insight into many problems over the years--philosophical, political and personal. He has only two works, and is rarely interviewed. That's why I'm passing this on. --CarlD]
The interview: Robert Pirsig
The Seventies bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the biggest-selling philosophy book ever. But for the reclusive author life was bitter-sweet. Here, he talks frankly about anxiety, depression, the death of his son and the road trip that inspired a classic. Interviewed by Tim Adams November 19, 2006
UK Observer /Guardian Unlimited
The article summarizing the interview
At 78, Robert Pirsig, probably the most widely read philosopher alive, can look back on many ideas of himself. There is the nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ of 170, trying to work out how to connect with his classmates in Minnesota. There is the young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism while helping the locals with their English. There is the radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat over a definition of 'quality'. There is the homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment designed to remove all traces of his past. There is the broken-down father trying to bond with his son on a road trip. There is the best-selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, offering solutions to the anxieties of a generation. And there is, for a good many years, the reclusive yachtsman, trying to steer a course away from cultish fame.
Pirsig doesn't do interviews, as a rule; he claims this one will be his last. He got spooked early on. 'In the first week after I wrote Zen I gave maybe 35,' he says, in his low, quick-fire Midwestern voice, from behind his sailor's beard. 'I found it very unsettling. I was walking by the post office near home and I thought I could hear voices, including my own. I had a history of mental illness, and I thought: it's happening again. Then I realised it was the radio broadcast of an interview I'd done. At that point I took a camper van up into the mountains and started to write Lila, my second book.'
It is that second book, recently republished, that has prompted him to talk to me now. He sits in a hotel room in Boston and tries, not for the first time, to make some sense of his life. He is, he suggests, always in a double bind. 'It is not good to talk about Zen because Zen is nothingness ... If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there.' Generally, rather than analysing, he says, he would rather 'just enjoy watching the wind blow through the trees'. Reclusion has its discontents, however. 'In this country someone who sits around and does that is at the bottom of the ladder, but in Japan, say, someone who goes up into the mountains is accorded great respect.' He pauses, laughs. 'I guess I fall somewhere in between.'
Ever since I first read Pirsig's motorbike quest for meaning, when I was about 14, I've been curious to imagine its author. Part of the compulsion of that book, which has sold more than five million copies, is the sense of autobiographical mysteries that remain unexplained. While Pirsig's narrator tries to marry the spirit of the Buddha with western consumerism, discovers the godhead in his toolkit, and intuits a sense of purposive quality independent of subjects and objects, he also constructs a fragmentary picture of his own past. His pre-shock-treatment former self, the ghostly Phaedrus, haunts his travels across the Midwest.
'What I am,' he writes at one point, 'is a heretic who's recanted and thereby in everyone's eyes saved his soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.' My 14-year-old self double-underlined this and put two Biro exclamation marks in the margin. Twenty-six years, and several revisionist readings of the book later, I'm still wondering what Pirsig thinks of when he thinks of himself.
He suggests a lot of that idea still goes back to his childhood as a disaffected prodigy. He says that ever since he could think he had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that explained everything. As a young man - he was at university at 15 studying chemistry - he thought the answer might lie in science, but he quickly lost that faith. 'Science could not teach me how to understand girls sitting in my class, even.'
He went to search elsewhere. After the army he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry. It was when he picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching, that Phaedrus and his desire for truth overtook Pirsig once more.
At that time, he recalls, in his early thirties, he was so full of anxiety that he would often be physically sick before each class he taught. He used his students to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the 'metaphysics of quality' in his books, the ideas that led him to believe that he had bridged the chasm between Eastern and Western thought. No two classes were the same. He made his students crazy by refusing to grade them, then he had them grade each other. He suggests that by the end of each term they were so euphoric that if he had told them to jump out of the window they would have done. The president of the university gave a speech, and he contradicted him in the middle of it by shouting: 'This school has no quality.' He saw clearly how American society was disconnected from life and he believed he could help it connect. He was reading Kerouac, and trying to live in truth.
Alongside that, I say, as he describes that time with some fervour, I guess there was some depression setting in? 'Well,' he says, 'there was fear. All these ideas were coming in to me too fast. There are crackpots with crazy ideas all over the world, and what evidence was I giving that I was not one of them?'
Such evidence proved harder and harder to present. One day in the car with his six-year-old son Chris, his mind buzzing, Pirsig stopped at a junction and literally did not know which way to turn. He had to ask his son to guide him home. What followed was the point where he either found enlightenment, or went insane, depending on how you look at it (really the root of all the questions in his first book).
'I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,' he recalls. 'I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers ...'
It was like a monastic experience?
'Yes, but then a kind of chaos set in. Suddenly I realised that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either - in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to.'
Midwestern American society of 1960 took the psychiatrist's view. Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. Looking back, he suggests he was just a man outside his time. 'It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself.'
That immune system left him with no job and no future in philosophy; his wife was mad at him, they had two small kids, he was 34 and in tears all day. Did he think of it at the time as a Zen experience?
'Not really. Though the meditation I have done since takes you to a similar place. If you stare at a wall from four in the morning till nine at night and you do that for a week, you are getting pretty close to nothingness. And you get a lot of opportunities for staring in an asylum.'
When he was released, it only got worse. He was crazier; he pointed a gun at someone, he won't say who. He was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive shock treatment of the kind described by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
I wonder if he remembers the mechanics of it?
'Well they put a little rubber thing in your mouth and then they gave a drug like curare, used by South American Indians in their darts. It stops your lungs before it stops your mind. Before you go under you had a feeling like you were drowning. I woke up one time and I thought: where the hell am I? I had a feeling I was in my Aunt Flossie's house, which I had liked as a child. I thought I must have passed out drunk.' He laughs. 'This was after the 14th treatment I think.'
When his wife came to see him he knew something was wrong but he did not know what it was. A nurse started to cry because she knew that his wife had divorced him while he had been in hospital. 'The funny thing about insane people,' he says, 'is that it is kind of the opposite of being a celebrity. Nobody envies you.'
Pirsig was able to keep a tenuous grip on his former self, despite the treatment. He figured that if he told anyone he was in fact an enlightened Zen disciple, they would lock him up for 50 years. So he worked out a new strategy of getting his ideas across. He embarked on a book based on a motorcycle ride he made with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to the Dakotas in 1968. 'It was a compulsive thing. It started out of a little essay. I wanted to write about motorcycling because I was having such fun doing it, and it grew organically from there.'
When the book came out, in 1974, edited down from 800,000 words, and having been turned down by 121 publishers, it seemed immediately to catch the need of the time. George Steiner in the New Yorker likened it to Moby Dick. Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused). It has since taken on a life of its own, and though parts feel dated, its quest for meaning still seems urgent. For Pirsig, however, it has become a tragic book in some ways. At the heart of it was his relationship with his son, Chris, then 12, who himself, unsettled by his father's mania, seemed close to a breakdown. In 1979, aged 22, Chris was stabbed and killed by a mugger as he came out of the Zen Centre in San Francisco. Subsequent copies of the book have carried a moving afterword by Pirsig. 'I think about him, have dreams about him, miss him still,' he says now. 'He wasn't a perfect kid, he did a lot of things wrong, but he was my son ...'
I ask what Chris thought of the book, and Pirsig's face strains a little.
'He didn't like it. He said, "Dad, I had a good time on that trip. It was all false." It threw him terribly. There is stuff I can't talk about still. Katagiri Roshi, who helped me set up the Zen Centre in Minnesota, took him in hand in San Francisco. When Katagiri gave Chris's funeral address tears were just running down his face. He suffered almost more than I did.'
When his son died, Pirsig was in England. He had sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, Wendy Kimball, 22 years his junior, whom he had met when she had come to interview him on his boat. She has never disembarked. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to his first book, which further examines Phaedrus's ideas in the context of a voyage along the Hudson, with Lila, a raddled Siren, as crew.
The book is bleaker, messier than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though it carries a lot of the charge of Pirsig's restless mind. 'If I wrote it today,' he says, 'it would be a much more cheerful book. But I was resolving things in Lila; the sadness of the past, and particularly Chris's death, is there. Zen was quite an inspiring book, I think, but I wanted to go in the other direction with Lila and do something that explored a more sordid, depressing life ...'
He hoped Lila would force the 'metaphysics of quality' from the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened. Though a website dedicated to his ideas boasts 50,000 posts, and there have been outposts of academic interest, he is disappointed that his books have not had more mainstream attention. 'Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly, and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that "quality" can not be defined,' he says.
This desire to be incorporated in a philosophy canon seems odd anyhow, since the power of Pirsig's books lie in their dynamic personal quest for value, rather than any fixed statement of it. But maybe eventually every iconoclast wants to be accepted.
He still sails. He lives in rural New England and has just been up to the islands of Maine with his wife on the same boat that he describes in Lila - perfectly maintained, of course. He lives these days in cyberspace, he says, where his ideas circulate. He plans to learn to tango, and visit Buenos Aires. He's just discovered YouTube. He doesn't write any more, though, and he hardly reads. I wonder if that old depression ever returns?
'I've been hit with it lately,' he says. 'It did not seem related to my life in any way. I have money, fame, a happy wife, our daughter Nell. But I did for the first time go to a psychiatrist. He said it's a chemical imbalance and he prescribed some pills and the depression has gone.'
Otherwise, he says, he tries to live as best he can to the dictates of 'his dharma': to stay centred. I ask if he fears death.
'I'm not depressed about it,' he says. 'If you read the 101 Zen Stories you will see that is characteristic. I really don't mind dying because I figure I haven't wasted this life. Up until my first book was published I had all this potential, people would say, and I screwed up. After it, I could say: No, I didn't screw up.'
He smiles. 'It was just that I was listening to a different drummer all along.'
The Interview: Part 1
TA: You stopped doing interviews for a long time. Why have you started again?
RP: Well, this may be the last one. [laughs] I turned down a lot of things. This may well be my very last one. Part of it is just laziness. When I first wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I was completely innocent. Even though our local senator Eugene McCarthy said 'reporters are like blackbirds - when one comes and sits on a wire, 50 come and sit next to him'. In the first week after I wrote Zen I gave maybe 35 [interviews], though. I found it very unsettling. There's a funny story. I was walking by the post office near home and I thought I could hear voices, including my own. I had a history of mental illness, and I thought: It's happening again. Then I realised it was the radio broadcast of an interview I'd done. At that point I took an RV, [camper van], up into the mountains and started to write Lila, my second book. Another reason for reclusion is that I like the ideas to generate their own momentum. But that is a little dangerous because they can sink into oblivion if you are not careful.
TA: I imagine the internet, the sites devoted to your books and so on, helps to keep things current?
RP: The internet is what saved Lila. Anthony McWatt [a lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University who has championed Pirsig] is the one person who has a PhD in my work. He has had to face a huge amount of academic hostility. He first wrote to me with a masters paper he wrote. It wasn't right, but he said something in it about the fact that someone had written something that made his stomach hurt. I thought: that's a true philosopher...
TA: A gut reaction...
RP: Exactly. He kept asking me questions year after year. It took him 12 years to complete his PhD, and during that time he would teach classes, and he would email me a question and I'd send him an answer. So he had absolute authority for a statement. [laughs]
TA: You must have had a lot of interest over the years, from people wanting to adapt the book and so on?
RP: I had a lot of film offers. Robert Redford made three different offers. But they insist on the right to change anything they please without asking me. I told Wendy [Pirsig's wife] she should sell it as soon as I die. I'm 78 now: someone might as well make some money from it. Redford I talked to twice. He's a brilliant guy. I liked him personally. I liked his liberalism. [pauses] You saw the [midterms] election result this morning? I think the world will be much happier place...
TA: I understand you were away last week, sailing. Do you still take the boat out a lot?
RP: We sailed this summer up into the islands of Maine. Very rocky and a lot of fog. It's the same old boat I describe in Lila - 32 years old now and in better shape than when I bought it. I modified a few things. It's a Norwegian boat, a double-ender. It is famous for its ability to survive storms. We survived the Fastnet storm in 1979, when 15 people died. We got through without any trouble, though we were scared to death. I look after it well. I figure if you are going to write a book on maintenance, you better do something!
TA: I guess it is in some ways the ultimate 'dynamic of quality', sailing - everything changing minute by minute?
RP: Yes everything is always moving. Our GPS quit last time.
TA: You were back on the stars...?
RP: Not quite. In the end I managed to rig something up with the computer. There is something about the sea, I can't be away from it too long. It's like the old Masefield poem [Sea Fever, which begins 'I must go down to the seas again']. It's to do with the fact no one owns it. And if you get out of the sight of land, something happens.
TA: You have crossed the Atlantic a few times?
RP: We went over to England from St Pierre in Newfoundland. After 21 days we arrived at the Isles of Scilly and stayed in Falmouth for the winter. This was 1979. Then our visa expired and we went to the Netherlands. Our daughter was born there and they kicked us out. So we went to Norway for a while, then Sweden. We had not much money then. Then Nell got a bit big for the boat. She was having trouble in school because everyone spoke Swedish. We sailed back through Denmark and into the canals of Germany. At one point, I will never forget, we were in Belgium at Liege, there was an English barge behind us and Nell got off and a little girl got off this barge and started speaking to her in English and Nell took her hands and would not let her go. She was about three and it was the first time she had met someone her own age whom she could understand. I thought then it was time to come home. So we took off through the canals to France, I didn't want Nell to cross the Atlantic, too dangerous, so she flew back with Wendy and a couple of friends helped me to get to the Caribbean.
TA: Did you keep a journal of all that? Do you write one now?
RP: I didn't but Wendy did. She still does write. I can't predict what Wendy will do when I am gone. But I am 22 years older than she is; when I met her I was on the boat. She was a newspaper reporter and wanted to interview me, so I said: Why don't you stay for a while? She's still here. So I guess she will write the authoritative biography. She knows everything. [laughs] We have had a wonderful time together.
TA: What about archive material for the books. It sounds in Lila that you were an obsessive note-taker?
RP: I took notes on Zen before I started to make the trip. I'm not sure now what I wrote on the trip but as soon as I got back I made these slips that I described at the beginning of Lila. I could recall it all very clearly.
TA: Have you ever retraced the journey?
RP: Not all the way through, but we have travelled those roads. The BBC did a trip there recently. A woman called Karen Whiteside wanted to do some films about the book. She came to Liverpool where we had a conference about the 'Metaphysics of Quality'.
TA: I read about it. It sounds like it was quite a special experience for you in Liverpool, the first academic conference dedicated to the books.
RP: It was. And Liverpool felt like a very dynamic town.
TA: It's like the wild west up there.
RP: That's right. We were just whisked along. I come from a working man's town, Minneapolis, so I felt right at home there, more so than in London.
TA: Are you surprised that there hasn't been similar academic attention to your work in America?
RP: Americans tend to be always just interested in the latest thing. The philosophic calibre of the British is way ahead of America, I think. When George Bush was asked who was the greatest philosopher in the world he said: Jesus Christ. Right there I thought: 'My God, we are going to need Jesus Christ if this guy gets elected!'
TA: It's a strange time to be American. Everything seems to be so polarised.
RP: It's a version of the old capital-versus-labour dispute, I guess. The Democrats, Al Gore, would have won without Lewinsky I think. I had a lot of time for Clinton but I still fault him for a lot of the stuff that has followed.
TA: Have your politics changed over the years?
RP: I have been a lifelong Democrat. I was born in the state of Hubert Humphrey who was, I believe, one of the most intelligent people ever to get into politics. My girlfriend lived across the street from him and I would see him from time to time. Speak to him. Like all ideas, though, the Democrat ideas need to be dynamic. It's like Lila, it needs to be kept current.
TA: Alma Books feels like a good publisher for it, small, dedicated.
RP: It is exactly the kind of publisher this book needs, it needs a niche. It looks beautiful too. They are perfectionists, and they are very serious about it. I want someone who can hold on to it for 20 years.
TA: I have the sense you think the book has been neglected by philosophers.
RP: Well, I have never seen a fatal argument against the Metaphysics of Quality. Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that Quality not be defined. I was asked recently to write a preface to a book on Plato. I remembered a quote from Alfred North Whitehead which read: 'The first thing you can learn about western philosophy is that it is all footnotes to Plato.' MoQ was not that. Plato and Socrates insisted on all terms being defined. If you start with a term that is undefined, like quality, it is no longer a footnote to Plato.
TA: I read your email conversation with Julian Baggini [for the Philosophy Magazine]. His line of questioning was pretty hostile.
RP: Some people saw it as an ambush. At first I thought he was just talking about the negative stuff so he could get to the positive stuff, but then I realised he wasn't ever going to get there. [laughs] Finally when he brought up that hoax paper [that was presented in Liverpool] I realised where he was going. He thought he was superior to the MoQ, I guess.
TA: It seemed to me odd to take on the philosophy in that way, suggesting that you hadn't read enough philosophy to be a philosopher. Your books seemed so clearly about a personal journey, more a quest than a statement, kind of one man against the world.
RP: Well, yes. Then the only question is: Where have I said anything that is untrue? Baggini jumped on a statement I had made about evolution, out of long chapter, about knowing the 'how' of things and not the 'why', and so on. I felt that I had answered that. I figured to start with he was devil's advocate, but then by the end I wasn't sure about the advocate part. I read a couple of his books, which were beautifully clearly written. He is doing really dynamic stuff. I have a lot of respect for him, even though he doesn't seem to have much for me. I would say he is typical of a lot of academic philosophers. They think: Here's this guy who doesn't even have an MA in philosophy, and he has written what they call a 'New Age' book, and the bias comes.
TA: Do you get invited to lecture at all?
RP: I don't do it. One of the reasons is I have always had a shyness. It doesn't sound like it now because once I start talking to someone I get going. But before I go on stage I have no sleep the night before, and it is just such and ordeal for me. That used to happen when I was teaching. I used to actually get so tense and nervous before I taught class that I would throw up beforehand. For the first few weeks of every quarter it was terrible, but by the end we had all gotten so close nobody wanted to leave.
TA: Are you still in touch with those pupils from back then?
RP: No I really am a recluse. I just enjoy watching the wind blow through the trees. In this country someone who sits around and does that is at the bottom of the ladder, but in Japan, say, someone who goes up into the mountains is accorded great respect. [laughs] I guess I am somewhere in between. I enjoy reclusion: it clears my mind. I don't think I could have written these books without it. People said: Why don't you go around and talk to other philosophers? To me that's not philosophy. It is like literary criticism. A real writer, like Hemingway, doesn't cast around for opinions, he goes off fishing somewhere, starts calming down. He said: 'I turn my flame down and down and down and down until it explodes.'
TA: You must miss the synthesising process of writing, the getting of things clear in your head.
RP: I'm still synthesising all the time. Wendy and I take a drive every morning. We don't want to lose track of each other, which can happen in a marriage that has lasted 30 years. So we make it a rule that we go driving around for a couple of hours each morning, just talking over every possible thing we can think of. You've got to keep close to your spouse I think, which is a very hard thing to do in America, with everything always pulling you away. I would advise all married people to spend two hours talking to each other. That's my moral for the day.
TA: When you look back on childhood now, does it seem like another life?
RP: It was a strange life. You saw my IQ? [170 aged 9] I didn't learn about that until I was 32. I just thought I was kind of a bad kid; I didn't relate to people at all. I was kind of a sissy at first, in a playground situation, and the kid who is scared is the one the bullies go after. I used to get beat up pretty badly. When I was five I was put up a couple of years and everyone was seven or eight and much bigger than I was. And the teacher made me write with my right hand, though I was left handed, to stop me smudging the page. I started to stammer. Fortunately the University of Minnesota, where my father taught, had one of the top psychology departments in the world. Someone there told him that the speech centres of the brain are all on one side, and if you are forced to use the wrong hand to do things it throws all that out. By then it had created a stammer so bad I could hardly get a word out. This professor went to the school and presented this to the teacher, and I was allowed to use my left hand and my stammer disappeared in a month.
TA: This was at Blake school?
RP: No that came later. That was what you would call a private school. Of my class in that school more than half went to Harvard. I did well there, was head of the class. The senior school was too far away however so I then went from this high-discipline school to a place where it was extremely liberal. Looking back I respect the discipline much more. Education should not be fun. You are being brought up into society and society has a way of doing things. It may not be pleasant but sooner or later you are going to have to do it anyway. These Blake kids knew how to discipline themselves, and so they could learn.
TA: I remember a great teacher of mine reading Zen to us in class. Did you have life-changing teachers?
RP: Well, no, I never had anyone I felt subordinate to.
TA: You were a self-contained child? Intense?
RP: The bullying forced me into my own world. I thought: They don't like me but I am going to do my own thing. I felt kind of Jewish, if that's not politically incorrect.
TA: You write in Lila of the famous prodigy William James Sidis. It sounds like you had a lot of sympathy for him?
RP: I knew what he went through certainly. They said he was burned out but he wasn't burned out he was just sick and tired of being a prodigy. He started taking jobs where no one knew who he was. After he graduated from Harvard [aged 16] he went to teach in Texas - a big mistake, because the culture was so hostile, and he was really oblivious to society. He didn't bathe, he started to smell, and got fat. They all took him out and scrubbed him down. I read one of his books - brilliant - on the Native Americans. I knew the kind of loneliness he felt. When someone comes up to you as a celebrity you feel that kind of loneliness too. I said something in Lila: 'They love you for being what they all want to be, but they hate you for being what they are not.' That's why I don't get involved too much. No one bothers me in New England. Our state motto is: Leave me Alone. [laughs] Robert Frost delivers the ethos very well: Good fences make good neighbours.
TA: Were you being pushed into an intellectual life by your father?
RP: Well, I grew up as a university child. It is my opinion that university faculty people are not very nice. They grade people every quarter, every year. That temperament develops. You know when you talk to them they are judging you. And their judgment is usually harsh. My father was Dean of the law school. He was very liberal on a general level, but on an individual level not quite so much... He was a very tough guy.
TA: You were at university at 15; you imagined you would follow in his footsteps in some way?
RP: I thought I would graduate when I was 20 or something and do research. But I was disappointed to find so much of it was about memorisation. If you want memory, buy a book - it's all there. I thought science would teach me everything. That is what I always wanted from the moment I could think. I wanted to know everything, with a passion, and I could see straight away that science could not do that. It could not teach me about girls sitting in my class even. I thought: Is this unimportant, then? Of course not.
TA: Did you feel let down by that?
RP: I was puzzled about the inability of any theory to establish itself permanently. The textbooks they gave us were completely at variance with the textbooks we had in high school. And physics was taking over from chemistry in a huge way. It was clear that the behaviour of chemicals was dependent on the behaviour of atoms, and on quantum theory and so on. Also, this was in 1945 or 46, and all the GIs were coming home, and they were 28, 29 and were knocking off these courses in their spare time, impatient to earn money; so the competition was just ferocious. These were men, and I was just this kid of 15. So I flunked out. I was lazy too. I used to play a lot of chess with myself. And pool, not with myself.
TA: As I understand it you were involved in some kind of high-IQ, genius experiment without your knowledge?
RP: When I was young I took these tests. IQ 170 is way off the scale. I didn't find out about that until 1961, when they were wrapping up this programme. I stopped the tests at about 14. I was really out of touch with everybody. At my high-school reunion no one could remember me. It's a little like [Peanuts cartoonist] Charles Schulz, who was also from Minneapolis/St Paul [in Minnesota] . Someone said: 'How did people treat you in high school?' and he answered: 'They didn't know I was there.'
TA: Jonathan Franzen [author of The Corrections] has just written a brilliant essay about Schulz. Franzen came from out there too, I believe.
RP: What you have to understand is the history of those places is so new. In 1850 Minneapolis and St Paul were forest. The history is that recent. Everything in the Midwest is concerned with getting ahead. Growing. My grandparents all came from peasant populations from Europe, first they farmed, then their kids were sent to school. My father was the first in his town to go to college. I always felt there was a ceiling that you could not rise above. It's a Lutheran state. Strong on morality at a social level.
TA: I'm doing this a bit chronologically, but it's as good a way as any. You joined the army.
RP: I was flunking out. The bill of rights was about to expire in 1946. The enlistment was only for 18 months, the war had ended and they allowed you four years of education. It was a solution in a way. I was a terrible soldier, though. I was very lazy, undisciplined. I barely took orders. In the army they don't really put up with that. [laughs]
TA: How did you get along in Korea? RP: Most of the army guys were horrible to Koreans, they called them gooks and beat them up whenever they could. And we were hated in turn. It was kind of like Iraq in a way. I was assigned to malarial control in charge of all these local labourers. The caretaker was a kid about 16, and he spoke perfect English. I said: How in hell did you learn English that well? And he said: I just picked it up. This guy was another of these prodigies, you know, but he had no school. So I paid for him to go to school - $16. This changed my relationship with the Koreans. I started to teach them English. The Koreans and I became good friends and they gave me a Korean chess set. I told them one time the most marvellous thing about the English language is that in 26 letters you can describe the whole universe. And they just said: 'No'. That was what started me thinking. In the East, the basis of experience is not definable. That 16 bucks set me on the road to Zen.
TA: I guess a lot of those ideas were in the air then, weren't they? With the beginning of the Beats and so on? Did you feel part of that?
RP: People were realising that there was something going on over there [in the East]. It comes and goes. The interest was there. But there was always this problem of commensurability between western and eastern. When I went to study in Benares, part of me just thought: These guys have got a screw loose. [laughs] It did not translate into western logic. I gave up and came back and got a degree in journalism.
TA: The time in Benares must have sowed some seeds for you, though?
RP: In Benares I got what I think of as a latent image, like in photography. You could not see it yet but the molecules had changed. And when I got into this intense teaching thing: sick in the morning and euphoric in the afternoon, it started to take shape; the students were so excited by what I was doing, I could have told them to jump out the window and they would have done it.
TA: You were married then, and raising a family?
RP: I was married, early thirties, my son Chris was about three, I guess, and Ted a baby.
TA: Did you see the teaching, the ideas, as some way an escape from domesticity?
RP: I'm not sure. It was certainly better than the job I had before, which was in the advertising industry, writing about mortuary cosmetics.
TA: I can see that.
RP: It was when I was teaching I started thinking about the ideas that were in Zen. One day in class this lady asked a question about quality and I was so intensive about it, I thought I had to solve it. That part of the book is Zen is extremely accurate. Then one of the professors asked me: Is quality in the subject, or is it in the object. That was considered the killer question. I thought a lot about that. And then I decided that the way through it was that quality was independent of the two. If I had not had that oriental background I would not have arrived at that conclusion. And it was kind of growing organically after that.
TA: Were you reading a lot then. Kerouac and so on? Did you feel part of that revolution in a way?
RP: I was having some of the same problems. I admired them, too [the Beats]. It was Eisenhower and the usual Republican stuff was going on, taxes went down for the rich and up for the poor, all the public projects disappeared, and people were angry. They were not hippies yet, they were beatniks. There was a generation gap; the guys who had come out of the War had rebuilt America, worked hard. But there was a new group. It's best parodied in The Graduate, you know, when someone says [in the film, to Dustin Hoffman]: 'Boy, you got to get into plastics'. If he had got into plastics of course he would have made a fortune because they were so good for all sorts of things. But not everyone wanted to do that. [laughs] When I read Kerouac's book the first time, I was very impressed. With all those early people. They were very idealistic. But it decayed quite rapidly. I remember someone saying there was one week in the summer of 1967 when everything was perfect. [laughs]
TA: Do you think the teaching you were doing was in line with that - subversive?
RP: It really was. I was doing all sorts of things with them that were not acceptable really. I never taught two classes the same way. I had a good one where I got them to criticise each other's work, and say nothing but bad. I had them all pick an unpopular thesis and defend it all quarter. That time I assigned the whole class to tell me what quality was, that is very carefully recorded. Everyone was really mad at me, trying to knock me down. But I was so intense - kind of like Rumsfeld [laughs] - I could overcome any anger they had.
TA: Alongside that I guess there was some depression setting in?
RP: There was fear. All these ideas were coming in to me too fast. There are crackpots with crazy ideas all over the world, and what evidence was I giving that I was not one of them? I have since read the students' reports from the school. And people were noticing that I was starting to behave very strangely. There's a record by a piano player named Toussaint that kept going through my head non-stop; I was getting more and more manic and saying more and more things. The president of the university gave a speech and I contradicted him right in the middle of it, shouted 'this school has no quality'. He did not know what I meant of course. Here I was a two-year teacher embarrassing the president in front of this audience. Then I wrote to the accreditation society, because they were getting instructions from the state legislature to pass everybody for political reasons. I objected to that.
TA: Did you have doubt yourself? You had this system of beliefs that seemed new, did you think they might just be crazy?
RP: Well at first I had a three-part system, of subject and object and value. It sounded weak. Low quality. I thought that through for months. And I saw that the only way out of it was to make quality the source of the subject and the object. If you think it through as I have done in Lila, it holds up.
TA: How did you think you would spread the ideas?
RP: I didn't care at first if no one listened. I was so manic. When I got to the University of Chicago the mania continued.
TA: Were there drugs around?
RP: I was taking sleeping pills. And I had taken peyote [an hallucinogen] which changes your serotonin levels and so on. I was definitely manic, anyway, but manics can tell the truth too. When I got to Chicago I was again making problems for people, and I could see I was coming to a dead end. That's when the depression took hold.
TA: What was the crisis point?
RP: Well they were going to throw me out of the University of Chicago. I was teaching at the same time. Then I had this event with my son Chris, in the car. I didn't know where to go. I was at an intersection and I had no idea what was going to happen next. The guy behind me was honking. But I had no idea which way to turn, I had to ask my boy, who was only six at the time to find out how to get back home.
TA: You lost all your bearings?
RP: Yes, after that it got very serious, really. I went up into my room and took some sleeping pills. That may have produced a certain trance-like effect where I could not sleep and I could not stay awake, and I just sat there cross-legged in the room. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers. I knew about it, but I did not respond to it. Soon a kind of chaos set in. I looked around and suddenly I realised that this person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. He did not deserve this. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either, in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to.
TA: How does it compare with experiences you have had from meditation?
RP: The thing about Zen is that if you try for enlightenment you can never achieve it. You have to give up everything. This guy had quit, all his ideas, all his hopes, all gone. There was a Christian hymn which I had never heard before to my knowledge: 'You got to cross a lonesome valley, you got to cross it by yourself.' That was going through my head. All this could be insane talk, and would be so judged by psychiatric people. But over the years I have maintained these two points of view. That's why the book is called Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and it can be judged in that way, though most people read that period as pure psychiatric insanity. Anyhow, I went to a University of Chicago hospital.
TA: In what kind of state were you when you got there?
RP: I felt I was being guided by a centredness. It is widely discussed in Buddhist literature. You are no longer directed by your mind or your body, but by a centredness. I avoid that term because it is easy to criticise. But if you ask a certified Zen master if there is such a thing as centredness he will undoubtedly answer 'yes'. It is a feeling that if your dharma takes you in front of an oncoming train, that is where you stand. People have said Zen had no Zen in it, but enlightened people know that every word of it is Zen. It was written in a centred way. If a sentence was throwing me off-centre I would change it. Though I guess every writer writes in that way, somehow.
TA: It's like finding your true voice in a way?
RP: Yes. That is never taught in college. You have to find that. But in Zen that is exactly what they teach. The story goes if you want to write a poem about bamboo, you go out in the forest at night and sit among the bamboo all night and then you might get a good poem. This is the most open I have ever been about that time in Chicago, but now I am 78, I guess I can get away with it. You can't master Zen, all you can do is give up and Zen masters you.
TA: You returned to teaching after your time in hospital?
RP: Yes, I was eventually let out of the hospital, and to ease my recuperation they assigned me a course to teach in business letter writing. [laughs] If nothing else could do it, that broke my spirit, so I quit. I had no job, no future in philosophy, my wife was mad at me, we had two small kids, I was at this midlife point. I was 34. I would never get a job teaching again. The world looked pretty bleak. I asked a guy to admit me to a place... [a psychiatric institution] I was just in tears all the time. This was not a high-class institute any more. This was a state-run thing. Lots of broken-down guys in white shirts and pants, and we all watched this one TV, it was American Bandstand. It was kind of crazy. Actually insane people have an honesty to them. They may be wrong, but they don't play games with you.
TA: You felt at home there?
RP: [laughs] Yes, I did. It was a crazy place, literally. I mention in Lila that when they gave you the Rorschach test and all you said was that you saw an ink blot that meant you were insane. Ha. Insane people see what they see, there's no tricks.
TA: Were you still holding onto the ideas you had before you went in?
RP: Well, Zen people do not cling to any fixed idea. I stopped clinging to quality.
TA: Do you think the sheer volume of information you had in your head, or the excitement of the idea itself, was a trigger to the insanity, the enlightenment?
RP: Well when you are pressing the envelope toward new ideas, just beyond the envelope lies insanity, you know. I pushed too hard, too soon. I should have kept my mouth shut, got my PhD a become a teacher and then started to push.
TA: Was therapy any use?
RP: I have been negative about psychiatrists in the past but they really don't take on that job unless they have a huge love of humanity. It really is one of the dirtiest jobs there is. I had this great guy at that time. The first time I saw him I was just lying down on this bed and he stared at me. I gave him a bland look and he looked back at me in the same way. And we stared at each other like that for about a quarter of an hour. And he said: 'You really don't want to say anything, do you?' And then he roared with laughter. After that we got along OK.
TA: Did they try talking cures?
RP: I was pretty violent when I was brought in. I was picked up by the police, I was swinging at people. They put me on thorazine, and they were astonished at how I was surviving that. That may be a characteristic of the Zen thing.
TA: Did you think of it at the time as a Zen experience?
RP: Not really. Though the meditation I have done since takes you to a similar place. If you stare at a wall from four in the morning until nine at night and you do that for a week, you are getting pretty close to nothingness. It's like a clock winding down. And you get a lot of opportunities for staring in an asylum. TA: It was your father that eventually put you in for shock treatment?
RP: My parents saw I wasn't getting any better, I lived across the street from them, and then things got worse and worse and worse with my wife and I was getting dangerous, really hostile, I was classified as homicidal.
TA: Did you have the sense you were capable of anything at that point?
RP: I was capable of homicide certainly. One policeman came to the front door and one to the back, and they knew I had a gun. But I had nothing against them so I went with them. I was committed by a court that time. And I immediately had this shock treatment.
TA: Do you remember the mechanics of that?
RP: Well they put a little rubber thing in your mouth and then they gave a drug like curare, used by South American Indians in their darts. It stops your lungs before it stops your mind. Before you go under you had a feeling like you were drowning. I woke up one time and I thought: 'Where the hell am I?' I had a feeling I was in my Aunt Flossie's house, which I had liked as a child. I thought I must have passed out drunk. I started walking around; a nurse looked at me nervously. And a doctor came up, and he said: 'Do you know who I am?' So I just read his name on the little name tag. He did not realise that and it freaked him out. He said: 'You are coming out of this really fast, too fast.' [laughs]. You want to see real insanity, go to one of those places. This was after the 14th treatment I think.
TA: Did you have a clear sense of your past?
RP: I said: 'Where is my wife?' My hypothesis that I had been drunk was fading. My impression that this was a mental institution was getting stronger. Eventually my wife came down to see me. Her face was very hostile. I knew something was wrong but I did not know what it was. I told the doctor I would make it my business to find out. At which point the nurse started to cry because they knew that my wife had divorced me while I had been undergoing the treatment.
TA: Did you feel anger toward your father for putting you through this?
RP: I did at the time. But I don't feel he had a choice. He was totally loyal to me. He had the head of the Psychiatric Unit come and diagnose me. It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody who goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself. People say mental hospitals are for the patients, in fact they are to protect society from them. They are justified in doing that. Society has to do what is best for itself.
TA: Do you really think they were justified in giving you Electroconvulsive Therapy?
RP: In my case, I wasn't telling them what I knew. I figured if I told them I was an enlightened Zen follower they would lock me up for 50 years or something. So they did not know what was wrong. The funny thing about insane people is that it is kind of the opposite of being a celebrity. Nobody envies you. The treatment of the mentally ill has got much better. Also some of the treatment I saw even then was amazing. There were World War One veterans who came to teach me carpentry, you know, out of a sense of humanity. The general feeling I got was that everyone was doing the best they could.
TA: Did you come across other people in your situation?
RP: Well I hope some day there will be a conference between, say, Japanese psychiatrists who have had some Zen experience and western psychiatrists, so they get this straightened out. There have been comments by Chinese and others on the website wondering how many other people went through Enlightenment and had the same experience, of shock treatment, and did not know. Or they were told to follow the psychiatrist's advice in order to be readmitted into society. I never had that. I was always: I got my society and you got yours. [laughs] I lived by my wits so to speak.
TA: Have you been in touch with others who had shock treatment?
RP: Not very many, though some have written to me. And there was Ken Kesey who wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, he saw what it was like. You have to remember, though, that insane people can do some horrors themselves. I had committed no crime, though. I hadn't shot anybody. Yet.
TA: Do you think you would have?
RP: I don't think so. The centre did not go that way. But I pointed the gun ...
TA: At who?
RP: I don't want to go into that ... But when that happens you have to be put away. They were completely justified, but still the Zen explanation remains.
TA: When you came out had all the blackness gone, the depression?
RP: The depression continued right up until an editor took on the book. [laughs]
TA: The book was another strategy to get out of it all?
RP: It was a compulsive thing. It started out of a little essay. I wanted to write about motorcycling because I was having such fun doing it, and it grew organically from there. One thing people don't know is that the book was completed and ready to send in when I thought there were too many 'I's in this book. I need another character. So: Phaedrus. He did not appear until the book was written.
TA: Also I guess you did not have a very stable sense of self. A clear sense of your 'I'.
RP: It is horrible in Zen to use 'I'. There is no 'I' in enlightened Zen. And when you see someone using 'I, I, I' in their work you think: Oh, dear... As a rule when I write I try to find a way around it.
TA: How much were you guided by Zen?
RP: I have to say, generally speaking it is not good to talk about 'Zen' because Zen is nothingness and the more you talk about it the further away you go from it. I'm completely justified in not saying anything all these years, but if this is the last interview I do, I ought to say something about that, because many people are wrong about who is the hero and who is the villain in the book. In a sense the culture is the villain, the narrator is the guy who got it wrong and Phaedrus is the guy who has it right, but was suppressed. But ultimately that was just because the culture had not arrived at the point he was at. It's changing, you see a lot of Zen activity happening these days.
TA: It is interesting to go back to the book. I have read it on and off over the years. In the beginning I felt it much more from Chris's point of view. Now I feel it much more from his father's point of view.
RP: A lot of people, including my mother, have objected to the narrator's cruelty to Chris.
TA: He doesn't get much of the narrator's attention I suppose, but I'm not sure it's cruelty.
RP: I was not aware of that when I was writing it. The New York Review of Books praised the relationship between father and son, saying there was not one thread of sentimentality in it.
TA: I guess even the idea of driving fast on a motorbike with your 12-year-old son on board these days would itself be cruelty.
RP: Is that right? I see a lot of fathers and sons on motorcycles.
TA: Maybe in Britain it would. Did your wife have a problem with you taking off with him?
RP: Well she was away in Europe on another holiday at the time. I should say that when I was a child in England [for a year] at the age of four my father had a motorcycle with a sidecar, and my mother and I would sit in that. It was very underpowered. Every time we came to a steep hill we would have to get out and push. Down hill, though, we were wonderful... [laughs]
TA: You lived in north London?
RP: Yes, the back fence of our house used to back on to Hendon aerodrome.
TA: When you look back on that English childhood does that seem like the same person to you, even after the dislocation of the shock treatment and so on?
RP: It's all together now. There is a sort of superstructure. If you are following the dharma no matter what you do it is moral. A person who follows the dharma is unpredictable because the dharma is unpredictable. I better get scholarly here. There are two dharmas. There is the written dharma which is all the laws and rules - and there are a lot of them - but Zen emphasises the unwritten dharma and to know that you have to forget the rule book. People naturally feel that Zen ritual is bullshit, and I remember Suzuki saying: Yeah, I know, but it's true anyway.
TA: How long did you commit yourself to being taught Zen?
RP: A friend called Beverly White, who was very enlightened, heard I was writing a book and she was alarmed, and I realised if I wanted to keep my back covered I better sit for a while, because those guys could be hard on you. It was a good job, because I was at a conference one time and I met Allen Ginsberg in a hallway, and he said: 'What do you know about Zen?' I said: 'Well, about as much as you do.' And he said: 'Who is your teacher?' And I said Katagiri Roshi. 'Oh, Katagiri,' he said, 'he's a great guy.' He was, too. While I sat with this Katagiri it was apparent that we were on the same wavelength. I put a downpayment on the Zen centre in Minnesota with him. I still support those people but I don't attend.
TA: Was there religion around when you were a kid?
RP: No, my parents were both atheists, so I had a lot of freedom. I was left with a religious vacuum, if you could call it that. The world as explained by science just does not get to it. But Zen is not religious at all in a western sense. The Buddha takes no position on gods, he suggests they may exist or they may not, but either way you can live a moral life.
TA: That makes life easier.
RP: I shouldn't really be saying this. If you talk about Zen you are always lying, and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there. So you are faced with an impossible dilemma. This is the first interview I have talked about it, maybe I will catch a lot of crap.
TA: I guess your relationship with the book has changed since Chris's death?
RP: I think about him, have dreams about him, miss him still. He wasn't a perfect kid, he did a lot of things wrong, but he was my son.
TA: What did he think of the book, when he was old enough to read it?
RP: He didn't like it. He said: 'Dad, I had a good time on that trip. It was all false.' It threw him terribly. There is stuff I can't talk about with Chris still. It was a very sad thing. Katagiri Roshi who helped me set up the Zen Centre took him in hand in San Francisco. And he became a true Zen [disciple]. Wherever Katagiri gave a lecture there would Chris be sitting in the front row. He just followed him all over the county. When Katagiri gave his funeral address tears were just running down his face. He suffered almost more than I did. Every father and son relationship is a different thing. The Japanese have a good saying and this would be a good answer to some of those people who condemn the treatment of Chris in the book. They say 'a good father is a bad father'. That is, a father who sacrifices discipline in order to have his son love him is a bad father. I sometimes think people who object most strongly to my relationship [with Chris in the book] are people who hated their own fathers and project it onto me. Also there was a chapter omitted from the final book, because it was getting too long, and the chapter was entirely about Chris and me fixing a motorbike wheel together. Some people have said if that chapter had been in the book then no one would have had a problem with the distance of the father from Chris.
What about your other son, Ted?
RP: When the divorce took place, and this happens in a lot of divorces, Chris and I were very close, and Ted and his mother were very close. Ted sided with her very strongly and got mad at me every time he saw me. He's OK, he's living in Hawaii but I haven't communicated with him for many years. Once when he was about 14 and in a lot of trouble I had him sit Za-Zen for a few months, we all sat together; I predicted his grades would go up, and his grades went up. That's the thing about sitting - it is extremely good for almost everything you do; you can't get better in one thing without getting better in everything else. I learned later, indirectly, that he has done a lot of Zen sitting since, and he has been to Japan. I wish him well, but we are on different wavelengths. Also I feel if I start mixing it up, it will put a little bit of a strain on my daughter, Nell, and on us. I don't want that. Right now things are probably as happy as I have ever been. I'm happy because this MoQ is going to continue. It's going to be slow progress. I need the intellectuals. I've got to convince some of these top people. You know 99 per cent of your life recognises things without definition, a baby recognises its mother's face without having it defined. It's just an arbitrary rule this rule of definition that Socrates set down.
TA: You mentioned at the outset that as a young man you always wanted a theory of everything. Do you feel you have that now, that your work is done in a sense?
RP: Yeah, I do in a way.
TA: Did you feel that Lila was written out of anger or grief at Chris's death?
RP: One reviewer suggested his death had cast a shadow over the book. I did not deliberately make it gloomy. If I wrote it today it would be a much more cheerful book. But I was resolving things in Lila; the sadness of the past, and particularly Chris's death, is there. Zen was quite an inspiring book, I think, but I wanted to go in the other direction with Lila and do something that explored a more sordid, depressing life.
TA: Was Lila based on anyone in particular?
RP: We've all known people like Lila, but I didn't have anyone in mind who could sue me. [laughs] The hardest part of writing that book was getting inside her mind. It was like that thing I had in college: Why are these women so impossible to understand? They smile and you are not sure they are really smiling. I did huge amounts of meditation to get into Lila's character to try to make her right within her own view.
TA: Zen is very much a male book, I suppose, and the response to it is male too.
RP: Well I suppose philosophy is historically not a woman's game, though that is changing.
TA: What do you like to read now?
RP: I almost read nothing at all. I had a book abut Lincoln for Christmas. I live in cyberspace. I have been discovering YouTube. And we have decided now I am 78 we should learn to tango. We are planning a trip to Argentina.
TA: Do you have any return of that dark, depressive period?
RP: I've been hit with depression lately. It did not seem related to my life in any way. I have money, fame, a happy wife, our daughter Nell. But I did for the first time go to a psychiatrist. He said it's a chemical imbalance and he prescribed some pills and the depression has gone. I have been on them three months.
TA: Do you fear death?
RP: I'm not depressed about it. If you read the 101 Zen stories you will see that is characteristic. I really don't mind dying because I figure I haven't wasted this life. Up until my first book was published I had all this potential, people would say, and I screwed up. After it, I could say: No, I didn't screw up. It was just that I was listening to a different drummer all along.
A Few of Pirsig's pearls
--The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain. --Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and no food. --Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It's good for seeing where you've been. It's good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can't tell you where you ought to go. --Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organise themselves into a professor of chemistry? What's the motive? --The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Now and Zen
Born 6 September 1928, Minneapolis. Family Father was a law lecturer and mother was Swedish-born. Pirsig married Nancy Ann James in 1954. They had two sons: Chris, and Ted, now 48. Now married to journalist Wendy Kimball, with whom he has a 25-year-old daughter, Nell. Education Judged to have an IQ of 170 at age nine. Went to University of Minneapolis at 15, but joined the army in 1946, serving in Korea before returning to the university to study philosophy. Then studied at Benares in India. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Appears in Guinness Book of Records as the bestselling book rejected by the largest number of publishers (121). Sold 5m copies worldwide. --Lila is published by Alma Books (£7.99). A slipcased, signed limited edition is available at selected Waterstone's (£45)
Guardian News and Media Limited 2006
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