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Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance Author Robert Pirsig Dead At 88

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Robert Pirsig, author of the best-selling 1974 philosophical non-fiction tome Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values has died.

Pirsig, who died at his home in Maine, was 88.

By the time he was ten, the Minnesota-born Pirsig had tested with a 170 IQ and at 14 he was a freshman majoring in Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota.

Frustrated by what he determined were the limitations of science, Pirsig left college and enlisted in the army. After a two-year tour, he finished his studies at the University of Minnesota. He also did graduate work at the University of Chicago and Banaras Hindu University in India .

Although the novel was rejected by close to 150 publishers, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values finally found a home with William Morrow, who paid Pirsig a $3000 advance. Centered around a cross country trip between a father and his son, the book, according to the New York times, is, “a dense and discursive novel of ideas.”  Incorporating Socratic philosophy, an examination of Western and Eastern culture and an inquiry into the meaning of quality, ZATAOMM became a kind of philosophical Catcher In The Rye, ruminating about the differences and similarities of humans, machines and the range of feeling.

The book sold over a million copies the first year of its release and it went on to become a perennial favorite, continuing to sell in the millions year after year.

Awarded a Guggenheim in 1974, Pirsig worked on the book’s follow up for the next 17 years. Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals was released in 1991.

Tragically, Pirsig’s son Chris, who featured prominently in ZATAOMM, was stabbed and killed in a violent mugging outside of the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979.

In the afterward of the ten-year anniversary of the book Pirsig wrote this about his son:

“I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else. At his funeral we learned that he had bought a ticket that morning for England, where my second wife and I lived aboard a sailboat. Then a letter from him arrived which said, strangely, “I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday.” His twenty-third birthday would have been in two weeks. 

After his funeral we packed all his things, including a secondhand motorcycle he had just bought, into an old pickup truck and headed back across some of the western mountain and desert roads described in this book. At this time of year the mountain forests and prairies were snow-covered and alone and beautiful. By the time we reached his grandfather’s house in Minnesota we were feeling more peaceful. There in his grandfather’s attic, his things are still stored.

I tend to become taken with philosophic questions, going over them and over them and over them again in loops that go round and round and round until they either produce an answer or become so repetitively locked on they become psychiatrically dangerous, and now the question became obsessive: “Where did he go?”

Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense.

It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn’t just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go?”