In 1984, Robert Pirsig wrote an afterword to later editions of his now classic book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I want to take a moment to include an excerpt here from that afterword and then write a few thoughts of my own.
This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.
When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?
Ten years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Ancient Greek perspective is certainly appropriate. What sort of future is coming up from behind I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.
Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.
That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail…week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.
There really hasn’t been any “all” to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all. But as time recedes ahead and the perspective surrounding the book grows larger, a somewhat more detailed answer becomes possible.
There is a Swedish word, kulturbärer, which can be translated as “culture-bearer” but still doesn’t mean much. It’s not a concept that has much American use, although it should have.
A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down to write one deliberately. Culture-bearing books occur almost accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are an part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren’t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that’s the standard cultural attitude. But they don’t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy.
Culture-bearing books challenge cultural value assumptions and often do so at a time when the culture is changing in favor of their challenge. The books are not necessarily of high quality. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was no literary masterpiece but it was a culture-bearing book. It came at a time when the entire culture was about to reject slavery. People seized upon it as a portrayal of their own new values and it became an overwhelming success.
The success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems the result of this culture-bearing phenomenon. The involuntary shock treatment described here is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed.
The book also appeared at a time of cultural upheaval on the matter of material success. Hippies were having none of it. Conservatives were baffled. Material success was the American dream. Millions of European peasants had longed for it all their lives and come to America to find it…a world in which they and their descendants would at last have enough. Now their spoiled descendants were throwing that whole dream in their faces, saying it wasn’t any good. What did they want?
The hippies had in mind something that they wanted, and were calling it “freedom,” but in the final analysis “freedom” is a purely negative goal. It just says something is bad. Hippies weren’t really offering any alternatives other than colorful short-term ones, and some of these were looking more and more like pure degeneracy. Degeneracy can be fun but it’s hard to keep up as a serious lifetime occupation.
This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer. That is the sense in which it is a culture-bearer.
As I read these words I got to thinking about the art of the book collection. Those who collect these culture-bearing books are in reality putting together a history of the collective past. To hold, for example, a first edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is to hold a little piece of that time period. So often in this modern world we think we are facing forward in the path to the future, but the ancient Greek view is a much more accurate picture. We can only see the past. We can never see the future. We can only learn from the past. We may desire to look towards to future, but no matter how great that desire is, we can never really see it. It sneaks up on us. We may have hopes for the future, we may make plans and set schedules, but the reality is that the future is an unpredictable place and no matter what our plans are, we can never know it for certain.
The past can also be a little fuzzy. There are many different interpretations of the past and it is sometimes difficult to know what the truth really is. If we only took one perspective on the past, it may not be an accurate one. The thing about great literature, however, is that through these different writings, they provide a clearer picture. Just having one book and one author’s account may not be entirely truthful in the portrayal of the past – but when we have a whole body of different works to look to and when we collect an entire library of those works, it is like putting together pieces of the puzzle.
Although we can never know the future, perhaps by gaining a greater understanding of the past, we can learn to take what the future holds with greater strides. In some ways, that is what Zen is all about. It is about understanding our place in the universe. It is about understanding that ‘east’ and ‘west’ are really two interpretations of the same thing.
One of Pirsig’s famous quotes from the book is “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called `yourself’.” Like motorcycle maintenance or any other hobby or pursuit, your collection and the quest of the collection is a representation of your interests, passions, and ideals. Therefore, I would like to revise that quote to say “The real book collection you’re working on is a collection called ‘yourself’.”