Many years ago I read his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It seems to be an accessible account of ancient Greek philosophy, however I cannot be sure that I understood it, at least not properly. Rejected by many publishers who had no category for it and hence could not appreciate its value, the book, when eventually it emerged from a lengthy gestation, became a best-seller.
It chronicles a journey by Persig on a motorbike with his son Chris, and with friends riding another bike. The travelling is a state of becoming, with an apparent destination, and yet the journey itself, the presence in the current moment – the now, is of greater quality than the arrival.
The author has been to the brink of insanity and beyond, his struggle for some sort of resolution to deep and troubling questions hanging over from two millennia ago exercise his mind. A sense of stuckness, an unresolved difficulty, may seem frustrating and to us an undesirable state to inhabit, and yet we learn that such an existence is to be cherished. A state of non-doing. In western culture there is a sense that if you are not actively doing something then there is a problem. This is the wrong way to see it.
During the journey the tension between father and son reached a climax of unresponsiveness and anger, of stuckness, and then it gradually loosened.
Chris: “Were you really insane?”
Chris: “I knew it!”
Later in the journey, as they became more at ease with each other, more understanding and accepting, the conversation takes on a fresh quality.
“Dad, can I have a motorcycle when I get old enough?”
“If you take care of it.”
“What do you have to do?”
“Lots of things. You’ve been watching me.”
“Will you show me all of them?”
“Is it hard?”
“Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”
After a while: “Dad, will I have the right attitudes?”
“I think so. I don’t think that will be any problem at all.”
The Mythos and the Logos have been recognised as conflicting, described in the first person voice of Robert himself in the now, and yet catapulting back to his ancient alter ego Phaedrus. They are still conflicting today, albeit that the details differ. The ancient Greek heroic warrior who knew that he was about to be defeated and yet did not mourn for his own passing. The Mythos, encapsulating a promise of some sort of Valhalla, Paradise, or Elysian Fields can make a man careless of his own continuing physical existence. More terrible for him was the knowledge that his wife and his child would soon be taken captive and face a life as slaves, and that he could do absolutely nothing to prevent it.
Reading the book is a struggle for me, it isn’t always making much sense, for example: “Religion isn’t invented by man. Men are invented by religion.” Discuss… Surely it is both?
The author and his young son Chris rode the same motorbike, they made the same physical journey and yet they were battling different demons. Some years later as a young adult, Chris was senselessly murdered by muggers for hardly a few dollars; his pulmonary artery was severed.
Can Logos have the ultimate victory? I am not so sure. Ancient Greece fell in the end, despite its considerable achievements. Despite, or maybe because, it had invented democracy. Is it always the case that the strong retrograde force of Mythos, full of passionate intensity and senseless anger will destroy the bonds held by the Logos at the centre?
Right now, it is not looking too hopeful for western civilisation. As a society we are being stabbed through the heart, and our lifeblood is spilling onto the ground, and soon without urgent skillful treatment we will collapse and die, just as the young man did.