Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Chapter 1: Impressions


Oddly-named book.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Perhaps chapter 1 will point the way…
And that it does, points. It hints and suggests but does not explain, not yet. This is only chapter 1.
Words I would use to describe the first chapter?


Idyllic…the story, the narrative, is about a motorcycle trip through the Great Plains in the summertime. Descriptions of the countryside abound, birds, flowers, stifling heat, great descriptions, I feel like I’m laying there in a field of grass watching the sky hover by.


Reassessment/longing…our nameless Narrator laments modernization, romanticizes the past, ruminates upon the Chautauqua, one of the last American entertainment forms which didn’t require an antenna or AC power. Juxtaposing this wandering and displaced art form against the morbid frenzy of our day, the contrast is obvious and his sentiments very clear. And on that note…


Ambivalence…the Narrator spends a good portion of the chapter trying to wrap his head around the motivations and genesis of the behavior and actions of his riding buddies, John and Sylvia Sutherland. During the short evolution of this mind exercise as outlined in chapter 1, we come to realize his conclusion is that the Sutherland’s are driven by a common dislike and distrust of one thing: technology. In an epiphanous moment, it dawns on him. He recollects their actions and expressions as far back as he’s known them and it’s clear that they are adverse to technology. Meanwhile, the Narrator, while idealizing the slow-paced life and the historical Chautauqua movement, nevertheless seems to frown upon the Sutherland’s fixation and appears open to some measure of technological advancement. At the end of the chapter he writes something which I believe will be a guiding principle throughout the book:


The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha–which is to demean oneself.


The Zen of the title emerges. Mankind’s beauty resides in that which he creates. Man’s nature is a constant and weathers the changes of society. Perhaps?


And in much of the change that the Narrator contends with, there is the inherent generational change that arises. This is most notably displayed early in the book when his attention is captured by a red-winged blackbird while cruising along the highway. He finds magic and wonder in that sight; it conjures memories and a past and an appreciation of natural tranquility, and in his excitement, he taps his son’s knee to point it out. His son, unrattled, yells back, “I’ve seen lots of those dad!” The narrator dismisses it a little too conveniently. “At age eleven, you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds” he writes. I suppose, but in light of what he relates throughout the remainder of the chapter, I can’t help but suspect that the Narrator’s appreciation of a red-winged blackbird is his verion of the Chautauqua and his son’s lack of amazement is the modern day version of television. Generational transmutation. And no one is immune.


So there we have it, Zen and motorcycle maintenance, two sides of the same spiritual coin. Motorcycle maintenance symbolizing cultural evolution and change. Zen symbolizing the constant human nature. And the story, everything in between. He best summarizes the blueprint of the novel in these paragraphs:


Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them…thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling your’e losing time.

What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.


Bold emphasis is my own.


Onwards to chapter 2!