First, my apologies for writing something nonsensical to much of my readership. This one’s going to be a little hard to follow for those who haven’t read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which carries the subtitle: An Inquiry into Values, and his follow-up, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Maybe the percentage is higher among MOA members, but in my informal polling over the years I’ve found virtually every motorcyclist knows of ZAMM, but few have completed the arduous journey of actually reading it cover to cover. Fewer still could articulate what Pirsig was trying to say. It’s a challenging tome, to be sure, and Lila is even more difficult, since it lacks motorcycling stories to help a rider persevere through the dense philosophical expositions. I’ll do my best to explain the bits I reference, but there’s no way I can do them justice here—partly because of my own limited memory and understanding.
Listen to this column as Episode 5 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; the episode includes a Q&A session about the inestimable qualities of BMW motorcycles. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s also no way I can do justice to my own experiences with the R 1250 RS, a magnificent feat of Bavarian engineering I’m honored and humbled to now have in my garage. Although I admired this model from afar for years, we only became physically involved last month; the encounters since then have left me uncharacteristically speechless. I could easily ramble about the multitude of individual factors I’ve found thrilling and delightful, but such a love letter would fall short of what I really wish I could put into words. There’s something deeper, more essential—indeed, quintessential—about this machine that continues to elude me, like a mysteriously exotic lover who provokes my desire with nothing but misty hints and veiled clues.
I’ve owned and ridden a multitude of motorcycles over the past half-century, none of which have had quite this same effect on me. Many were on the cutting edge for their time and genre, and most were unquestionably well-engineered, with excellent performance, reliability and aesthetics. Obviously, I felt more affection for some than others, but in each case I could provide a reasonably good accounting of the contributing factors. There were bikes that delivered exhilarating acceleration, handled with incredible grace, were packed with fascinating and innovative technology, or perpetually rewarded my eyes and cerebrum with artfully crafted and startlingly clever design. All of those features are certainly present in the RS, yet something even more fundamentally important is still missing from the list. What, then, is this impalpable quality?
Hmmm, quality… no, not just an itemized element—as in something has this or that quality—but a category in its own right… also more than just a consumer rating, like this is a higher quality product than its competition, although that’s closer. I guess I mean Quality, with a capital “Q,” which could have myriad meanings, yet is inherently the same recognizable aspect across all applications. Sounds familiar. Where have I encountered this before? Of course! It’s the central concern of ZAMM! And, just as I have struggled to capture this element in language, Pirsig found the task relentlessly, maddeningly (in both meanings of the word) compelling—and ultimately impossible. He concluded Quality is a feature we perceive instantaneously, without analysis or any other conscious, logical processing; linear verbal conceptualizations cannot define or explain it without doing violence to it. We can only talk around it, with incomplete and necessarily inaccurate metaphors and analogies. When we do try to account for it intellectually, we’re really just rationalizing a foregone conclusion.
Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality is an intricately elaborate effort to integrate an assortment of monistic (Eastern and other) philosophical principles in contrast to the dualistic foundations of Western thought. Given our life-long immersion in the latter, it is a disruptively mind-bending ordeal to make the leap into such a radically different perspective. Pirsig’s own enlightenment came with much painful—almost lethal—thrashing around, a kind of torture his readers get to share all too vividly. While his books can be read as narrative literature, with character development, plot arcs, etc., they are only slightly fictionalized autobiographies in which he spells out his life’s work as a thinker who fled/was ejected from the hallowed confines of academia, where he was increasingly frustrated by the limits and contradictions of what he’d learned and taught. His pursuit of a more comprehensive Truth drove him crazy (literally) and later propelled him to piece together an approach to life he felt had more intellectual and moral integrity. In it, he came to view Quality as not some ethereal consideration, but the central driving, organizing force of the universe. Deep, yes, and a universe beyond the scope of this essay.
Back to the RS. The part of ZAMM relevant to my enthrallment is Pirsig’s assertion that Quality is a perception preceding rational thought. It’s worth noting he generally equates Quality with “good” (as a noun) and “value.” We perceive something and recognize its Quality/goodness/value immediately, at least to the extent we can grasp the object/relationship/process/idea/whatever; we may not appreciate something’s Quality until we achieve a fuller or clearer perception of it. The RS manifests Quality at some broad strata beneath any specific details I could enumerate or quantify. Even more abstract categorical descriptors, like “elegant” or “sophisticated,” don’t reach the goal, despite their accuracy.
This is not to say I consider the RS perfect; it’s definitely not. I’m seriously intimidated by, and therefore hate, its weight. I expect it will ravage my checkbook mercilessly, even if I avoid dropping it. I resent how much of a chore it will be to replace its thin, hard grips while preserving their heating function, or make any other modification not officially sanctioned and facilitated by its manufacturer. I could go on. Yet alongside my list of complaints and much longer list of accolades there is a phantom column containing only one item: Quality. Every time I gaze at it, touch it, interact with it in the garage or on the road, or simply savor the pleasure of riding it, my perception is always saturated with a “sense” of Quality. Before I get to any technical feature, performance aspect, bodywork contour, visceral sensation or other specifiable dimension, I feel something akin to awe.
I once wondered if I had only realized upon buying the RS what BMW’s faithful have known all along. However, I’d ridden other charming boxers and greatly enjoyed owning an F 800 GT, but they didn’t grabbed me like the RS has. Even though many of the adjectives I’d apply to the RS definitely characterized other bikes in my history, none of those had this magic, either. In the psychology of perception, a gestalt (a German term, appropriately enough) is an experiential phenomenon wherein the whole is more than, or different from, the sum of its parts. (This is separate from gestalt therapy, which is a related but distinct theoretical orientation to treatment.) It’s an apt concept here, and it leaves more room than Pirsig does for an idiosyncratic vantagepoint.
Maybe I just didn’t fully appreciate the Quality actually inherent in all those other motorcycles, but I find it more persuasive to incorporate something personal—more psychological and less philosophical—in reconciling my experience of the RS compared to all that came before it. It’s possible the RS is the pinnacle of Quality among the motorcycles I’ve sampled, but it’s also possible it somehow pulls together more elements that resonate more precisely with my own personal preferences and ideals at a subconscious level. In other words, my perception of the bike’s Quality is partly a function of me, rather than strictly a function of the RS or any superordinate principle it embodies. It just happens to be best aligned with icons in the shadowy corners of my psyche.
Of course, this is how I’d resolve the conceptual dilemma—I’ve solved the problem with typical Western dualism by splitting the event into object and observer. Pirsig and other monists would argue such a dichotomy is contrived, but I’m not facile enough to make their case here. I can offer this, however: Phenomenological psychology begins with the premise there is no object without an observer, attempting to heal the rift of Cartesian dualism by coming down squarely on the side of subjectivity, which is the basis of postmodernism’s rejection of any ultimate (objective) truth or reality. This collapsing of the duality is the best I can manage without re-reading Pirsig (yet again).
A person with zero knowledge of music theory can still recognize and be edified by the beauty of a well-done sonata, concerto or Led Zeppelin song. Likewise, I don’t need to be able to justify my enjoyment of the RS via any conceptual framework to feel ecstatic in its presence. In some way, that’s exactly Pirsig’s point, although it’s also a rejection of his obsessional quest to systematize the principles involved. Perhaps with more time, I’ll find I can articulate what it is about the RS I revere so highly. Until then, I’ll just have to live with the enigma of its inscrutable, transcendent Quality. There are worse fates.
Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.