Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: Chapter 3: Impressions

Chapter 3 is the chapter in which this novel takes a turn for the mysterious and lunatic.

Whereas chapters 1 & 2 followed a roughly understandable, albeit peculiar, storyline, chapter 3 introduced a new surreal vibe. Philosophical musings, dotted with whiskey and gray skies, are paraded for us, the reader.

When I first bought this book, I was under the impression it was a philosophical tract. In fact, I found the book on the philosophy shelf at Borders. The first 2 chapters were thoughtful and inherently pensive but nevertheless they could hardly be called truly Philosophical in the academic sense.

In the third chapter, Pirsig throws off the gloves off and comes out ideologically swinging.

In a gloomy buildup, we watch as the Narrator and company head into a small town just as rain begins to fall and the race begins. The town promises to provide shelter, warmth and dry from the onrushing storm, the layers of gray which sink and hide the outline of the town from the distance. And the rain falls harder. In an effort to make haste, they step on it and fly down the road at 90mph in the face of all good reason. There is a cresendo affect as you realize that this may not be the safest route. Once lightning begins striking the land around, you know it’s not the safest route. One of the lightning strikes lights up a farmhouse and a water tower…and appears to provide an epiphanous moment for the Narrator because he suddenly ratchets down the speed.

…and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse…the windmill…oh my God, he’s been here…throttle off…this is his road…a fence and trees…

Thus begins a chain of events which put the Narrator through an overwhelming series of deja vu incidents. The mysterious “he” remains a mystery.

Many of the references are so oblique that the reader must accept that chapter 3 will not answer, only ask. All one can do in such a situation is continue reading while weathering the storm of bizarre and esoteric references while storing them for future reference.

The sense the reader experiences early in the chapter is one of familiarity, of a previous unspoken occurrence or period of time in the Narrator’s history, and that the act of entering this town’s city limits is a “homecoming” of sorts. Or more appropriately, the discovery of a trail, an electric presence, left behind by the recent passage of someone known only to the Narrator.

They disembark and check into a hotel where they have dinner.

Afterwards they retire to the courtyard where they rest and share a bottle of whiskey. This puts Chris in a campfire mood and he begins talking about ghosts. Therein begins the true essence of this chapter. Like any good author of philosophy knows, the best way to bring a philosophical subtext to life is through dialogue. Give the character something to say, a speech, which clearly explains the author’s philosophic message. And that the Narrator does, at first hesitantly…but the whiskey works wonders.

Chris asks his father if he believes in ghosts.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“No,” I say.
“Why not?”
“Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”

Is the Narrator being facetious?

Ah, but now the Narrator blames a multitude of factors (the whiskey, fatigue, and the wind in the trees) for the loosening of his rigidity.

“…the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science.”

Chris relates how one of his classmates, an Indian child, believes in ghosts, and the Narrator laughs, changes his skeptical tone, and says he was talking about European ghosts, not Indian ghost. Chris asks for the difference.

“Well Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong.”

The dichotomy revealed that whereas past generations viewed ghosts as real and endowed them with the quality of existence. The scientific point of view has replaced much of that “primitive” superstition, bringing with it its own brand of knowledge and supposed wisdom. In spite of this, modern man still has his own ghosts. And here the Narrator equates belief in ghosts with belief in atoms. He tells Chris that modern man has his ghosts and spirits also:

“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic…the number system…the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

The Narrator begins to tackle the puzzle of the greatest unseen natural force known…gravity. He wonders if gravity could have existed eons ago, in the time before light and matter and the universe, or as he called it, before the primal generation of anything. If the laws of gravity, in the absence of anything, could have existed as we know them today.

“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere–this law of gravity still existed?”

And the Narrator tells us that if indeed the law of gravity existed, then it has in fact passed every law of nonexistence there is; and conversely, it lacks the scientific proof for every trait of existence needed to prove that as well. He presses the issue and concludes that if examined deeply enough, the only possible conclusion that anyone could logically reach given the evidence is that the law of gravity did not exist before Isaac Newton. And he takes it even further:

“And what that means…and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

And if you think this is where the Narrator lays it all out, you are wrong. He continues like an engine without the ability to shut down. He calls human scientific assumptions to task. He deliberates over the belief that scientific principles are ascendant. He persists in deconstructing and whittling away at all reason and logic until he’s left us only slivers of barely recognizable facts which have been so excised of reality that they appear irrefutable on the surface. If something is questioned continuously in the face of all known factual evidence, eventually you’re left with a prime fact which can not be reduced further, just like you can’t divide the number 11 by any whole numbers.

The Narrator concludes:

“Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.”

The conversation wraps up uneasily and everyone goes to their room. And the reader is left with the trail of relativistic destruction left behind by the Narrator.

As a reader, I disagreed entirely with his skepticism. I’ve never been able to parse out reality so easily. When the question “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” was asked, I always answered, of course it does. Even as a child I felt this strongly. I’ve instinctively believed all my life that certain laws and characteristics of the physical world are immutable and irrefutable. I’ve never doubted this. I believe our planet is a physical body which obeys laws of physical science…physical characters which exist in and of themselves and depend on nothing for this very existence other than the simple equation which is a blueprint which justifies their reality.

If every man, woman and child (and animal) on this planet suddenly vanished and you were left with a large, blue planet, a very empty planet, but a planet known as Earth (or what we called it in our human language which is our invention), the clouds would still drift and leaves would still dot the ground and the sun would still shine. These are intrinsic traits embodied in the physical model of the planet. The fact that no one exists to call gravity gravity does not mean rocks will suddenly start flying upwards into the heavens. We are mere inhabitants on a large mass and the laws of nature surround us and coax us and prompt us…we do not flaunt them because we do not control them, we do not own them. Our scientists have learned to harness many of them and control many outcomes, but the laws never change.

The Narrator indulges in some strange semantic relativism and he would have you believe that the act of naming natural laws brings them into existence from nothing. I cannot accept that, ever. Of course the law of gravity pre-dated Isaac Newton. Was Isaac Newton floating through the sky like a feather only to come crashing down to earth with his apple when he penned the concept of gravity?

We are an intelligent, sentient race with the ability to name. We name everything. And yes, human language is an invention and in that sense, all scientific query is invented…that is, the human concept is invented, but the physical law exists outside our minds and our reality. We are observers and interpreters; the laws of science transcend all level of our existence.

This is the scary contemplation, and that which is most troubling to the most virulent anti-spiritual atheists…that the world is direly impersonal. That gravity is a known and measurable variable. We can call it anything we want in our very limited and finite perspective.

I appreciate the Narrator’s reference to ghosts and his skeptical appraisal of the self-aggrandizing modern scientific eye. We do have many ghosts as a modern society and the laws of science are not the playing field where we should be testing that observation or belief.