Finding Quality

The latter part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great cascade of opinions and philosophical abstractions, but I felt it was all bound together by one question: the question of Quality. Quality drives Phaedrus to madness and permeates the very fabric of existence. The narrator/Phaedrus explains that “Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects” (Pirsig 247). It is what unites the world. Saying this about Quality, however, may be construed as an act of definition. Perhaps it’s an intellectual’s way of attempting to define what, according to the narrator/Phaedrus, should never be defined. According to him, “Any attempt to develop an organized reason around an undefined quality defeats its own purpose. The organization of the reason itself defeats the quality” (Pirsig 395). This exhortation not to create a structure of reason in an attempt to understand Quality is an interesting one. It suggests that we limit and cripple Quality when we attempt to encapsulate its meaning in our words. But how can one lecture on Quality or teach its ways to others if describing it is impossible? How can writers be taught to write with Quality?

A professor can teach his or her students about grammar. Students’ writing can be graded to indicate whether a professor believes that a certain creation is of Quality. Comments can be offered for the improvement of certain uses of language. But can one teach Quality? The narrator/Phaedrus argues that teachers cannot directly instill Quality in their students and attempts of establishing principles of Quality are ineffective. He says, ” Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries-the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason” (Pirsig 360). Some professors attempt to teach using principles and methods, and some take a less methodical approach. I don’t think either group can directly teach Quality as it is discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That Quality isn’t one thing, and it can’t be given a definition. Even the greatest professors aren’t capable of imparting such an amorphous and complex concept to others.

Perhaps a professor is better described as a mentor. The narrator/Phaedrus describes the true search for Quality as one that must be undertaken alone (Pirsig 396). Although I agree that we have to support our own weight and forge our own trails, I do not think that means a writer can’t be urged on by the guidance of his fellows. Maybe a professor can be a mentor who seeks to motivate a writer to search for Quality and helps him to see through the mist of his self-involvement to recognize when he has found it.

However, I don’t think a mentor has to be a professor. Writing students pay tens of thousands of dollars for the specialized mentors known as professors, but couldn’t they receive motivation and guidance from less expensive mentors who may be willing to invest more time in them than the average professor? There is certainly an argument to be made that college is only one of many ways to be successful. So why do we go to college? For me, the answer is that employers care whether you have a college degree and I need a graduate degree to be given a chance in my chosen field. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about learning or my education. I care about both deeply. However, I could read much of what my professors tell me in books or learn it through personal experience. In fact, most of what I learn in school seems to be through personal experience anyway. If I didn’t need accreditation to gain employment and the respect of my peers, I think it’s unlikely I would choose mentors who cost $10,000 a year to assist me. Professors are great mentors, but a good supervisor in an employment situation can be as well. Also, people get paid when they work hard for an employer or supervisor. People have to pay for the honor of working hard for professors.

Since we can find mentors everywhere, I don’t think it’s an institution that makes someone a good writer. Luckily, the narrator/Phaedrus offers another explanation for what can help people succeed. He suggests, “We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (Pirsig 358). Different variations of this sentiment are echoed on nearly every site that offers advice about ideal employees. Even if I somehow fail to succeed in my chosen career, I still think such ideals are what will help me find my own Quality as a writer. I think seeking to embody these ideals is a very worthy goal and essential to maximizing my potential.

If integrity, self-reliance, and old-fashioned gumption are really as vital as I believe them to be, I think they also reveal one possible method of passing on ideas about Quality that all the best mentors use. They display it. I have always found the best mentors to be the ones that are walking displays of their own versions of Quality. These people have traveled through my life and left impressions like enormous craters that I will never forget. One is a grandfather who never attended high school but, through sheer gumption and self-reliance, financially supported a wife and three children who all became college graduates. Another is a friend who gave two years of his life to be a missionary for his religious community in a country he had never visited and whose inhabitants speak a language he was not even familiar with because he felt it was his calling. I can’t define such people’s Quality, and I think it would be doing them a disservice to try. What I can say is that they make me want to find my Quality in writing and elsewhere each and every day. If I don’t, I have no business counting myself as an equal with those who do.


Robert Pirsig, you are PURE GOLD!

I found the second part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance nothing short of astounding in its messages and their implications. I have read quite a few things during my college education and throughout the rest of my life that I have found impactful, but very few have been as influential as Pirsig’s work. Do I agree with every point that Pirsig makes? Of course not. For example, I dislike the way he sets boundaries by grouping things in ways that I believe they do not need to be grouped. Nevertheless, his narrator unflinchingly brings a parade of complex subjects before readers in a volume I have never seen before. Whether I agree with him or not, he forces me to confront topics I usually avoid and to consider the validity of enduring assumptions. I like it. It also helps that many of the subjects discussed apply directly to the craft of writers, and nowhere is this application as direct as in his discussion of rhetoric and quality.

The narrator summarizes the thoughts Phaedrus had concerning rhetoric in a few sentences. He says, “The crushing teaching load was bad enough, but what for him was far worse was that he understood in his precise analytic way that the subject he was teaching was undoubtedly the most unprecise, unanalytic, amorphous area in the entire Church of Reason. That’s why he was thinking so hard. To a methodical, laboratory-trained mind, rhetoric is just completely hopeless. It’s like a huge Sargasso Sea of stagnated logic” (Pirsig 175-176).

First, the sheer power of these lines must be acknowledged. The description is powerful and followed by one of the best metaphors I have ever encountered. The narrator compares rhetoric to the only sea without a land border; its borders are instead formed by dynamic boundary currents. However, the sea also sustains a great variety of life forms. Rhetoric is just as undefined and significant. That is why I share many of the views of Phaedrus and the narrator concerning rhetoric. I think it is amorphous and always changing. No two writers respond to a rhetorical situation in exactly the same way, and no two situations are exactly alike. There is no equation to memorize when it comes to rhetoric. Just as the narrator’s words suggest, all I can do as a writer is use my experience to determine which of the endless number of rhetorical strategies to use in a given situation. However, I differ slightly with the narrator in thoughts on analytics and precision. Without careful (though often rapid) analysis, how can someone employing rhetoric determine an effective strategy to follow in the rhetorical situation ahead? I think a writer or speaker must also be careful to present a powerful and precise rhetorical argument or his chances of being persuasive diminish rapidly. Without the narrator’s prompting, however, I would not be forced to describe the source of our conflicting views. I learn from the narrator even while disagreeing with him.

I think the narrator’s discussion of quality in writing is just as thought provoking. He says, “Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about” (Pirsig 184). He follows up these observations by asking the question that so often circulates in my mind when I think of quality. He asks, “What the hell is quality? What is it?” (Pirsig 184)

Ah, one of the unanswerable questions of writing. What is quality? Sometimes I think I have found an element of writing that makes some of it superior, such as ample citing in academic papers. Then, I promptly find an example of writing that contradicts my earlier thoughts about quality. In this case, it could be a paper that uses about the same amount of sourcing but seems to grossly overwhelm readers. I feel as impotent while attempting to define quality writing as Justice Stewart was in the famous pornography case of Jacobellis v. Ohio when he could not come up with a definition for pornography and therefore was forced to find an alternative method to explain his feelings. He said, “I know it when I see it.” When evaluating literature, I think I know quality when I see it. However, I am about as near to discovering a theory of universal writing quality as the narrator. Like rhetoric, writing quality standards are amorphous and shifting. What is beautiful and of great quality in one context can be inappropriate and disastrous in another.

These short examinations of rhetoric and quality only serve as abbreviated versions of what is offered by Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a veritable mine of information about philosophy, writing, science, rhetoric, and more. Sometimes Pirsig and his narrator offer answers, but more often than not they leave their audience with questions. That is why I think Robert Pirsig is pure gold. Even while registering his confusion about rhetoric and writing quality, he produces a work of art that brings questions to mind and focuses to bear. As a reader, I do not feel as though I could ask for more.

Classifying the Unclassifiable

My first impression of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was that of encountering a new kind of philosophy. The brisk breezes, natural images, interpersonal evaluations, and autobiographical approach of Robert Pirsig’s creation seemed fresh and new; I suppose it has remained so as I have read further. However, its beauty has already been marred for me. What, you might ask, could I find so distasteful that it could change my perspective on the entire piece of writing? It is the introduction of a pervasive and foundational dichotomy. Pirsig writes, “What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another” (61). He even goes so far as to claim that “there is no point at which these visions of reality are unified” (Pirsig 75). I can never help but feel what can only be described as a deeply ingrained and pervasive distaste for such sweeping and generalizing categorizations. I just can’t stomach them. They limit what should not be limited and categorize what cannot be categorized.

It seems, however, that I can never escape the categorizations that permeate our culture. People seem to satisfy their human need to classify by grouping nearly everything they can. If you are in a STEM field, you inhabit a reality that cannot be reached by artists. The Democratic Party and Republican Party can almost never agree on anything. Followers of Catholicism and Islam fight often because their foundational beliefs cannot be reconciled. These common and heartbreaking refrains are everywhere, and they often seem to be true. Why? I believe we are raised in an environment where people join factions like they are gangs. We learn that we should join certain groups and be loyal to them. We perpetuate the continued existence of polarizing grouping by our very willingness to identify ourselves through classifications.

In spite of these groupings, however, endless complexities do exist. Human beings are not automatons, and they are not programmed to adhere to societal rules without deviation. Luckily, collaboration amongst seemingly opposed groups is not dead. Pirsig’s notion of an unbridgeable gap between science and art has proven to be inaccurate; a little research quickly reveals that scientists and artists do work together. This is possible because they are not locked in different forms of reality and can be analytical artists or intuitive scientists. When I write, I do not just type whatever words happen to emerge from the murky innards of mind. I evaluate the words I use and ask myself why I am using them; I often change my mind and make alterations to my choices of structure and words. Then, I go back and make additions or eliminate unnecessary or ungainly contributions. I think most decent writers are as analytical as they are intuitive.

Some influential professionals have recognized that dichotomies and classifications like those put forth by Pirsig are potentially damaging, and they have spoken out for change. They argue that we can produce greater results by acknowledging what intuition and analysis can glean from each other and striving to consciously utilize the connection. Check out the inspiring video below to hear a more beautiful rendering of this sentiment.


Classification makes it easier for speakers to utter sweeping generalizations, but I think a great deal of inspiring complexity and important distinctions are lost at the same time. Although it seems impossible in modern society, I still cherish the hope that there will come a day when nearly everyone understands that labels do not and have never been adequate to serve as representations of all that humans are and can be. Classifications would probably still be used, but their meanings would at least be considered limited instead of definitive. Until then, I will just keep refuting sweeping generalizations like those offered to us by Pirsig while trying not to put too much faith in them myself.