Robert M. Pirsig crossed the bar this week at age 88. He will always be remembered as the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which holds a Guinness record as the most rejected bestseller in history. One hundred and twenty-one publishers banged their heads on their desks as it sold 5 million copies worldwide in the years immediately after its 1974 publication.
Pirsig should also be remembered for his accomplishments as a lifelong bluewater sailor. In fact, he thought the sequel to Zen was the better of the two books. The protagonist of Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals does much of his philosophizing from the cockpit of a sailboat en route from the Great Lakes to New York City. This is heavy-duty stuff, as noted by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times in 1991.
Again and again, Phaedrus will be sitting in the cockpit of his boat, lift his eyes to the horizon and explain how, in defining a Metaphysics of Quality, he evolved his theory of Dynamic Quality, which neatly solves the problems of free will versus determinism, of the relation of mind to matter, of the discontinuity of matter at the subatomic level, of the apparent purposelessness of the universe and the life within it, all of which he sees as unnecessary puzzles created by subject-object metaphysics.
In 1975 Pirsig bought a cutter-rigged Westsail 32, which he christened Arête. Like Phaedrus, he sailed down the Hudson River to Florida and the Caribbean. Self-taught in celestial navigation, he crossed the Atlantic with his second wife, whom he met while cruising, and they lived aboard in the British Isles and Scandinavia, raising a young daughter.
Pirsig spent the last three decades living reclusively in South Berwick, a small Maine town on the Piscataqua River. In a 2006 Q&A posted on robertpersig.org, the author described the well-maintained Arête, which he continued to sail Down East into his 80s:
It's a Norwegian boat, a double-ender. It is famous for its ability to survive storms. We survived the Fastnet storm in 1979, when 15 people died. We got through without any trouble, though we were scared to death. I look after it well. I figure if you are going to write a book on maintenance, you better do something!
Much of his life Pirsig was afflicted with depression and schizophrenia. He was committed to an institution for a while. “When he was released, it only got worse,” Tim Adams, of The Guardian newspaper, wrote in 2006. “He was crazier; he pointed a gun at someone — he won't say who. He was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive shock treatment of the kind described by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.”
In the same interview with Adams, Pirsig talked about how depression influenced Lila, but also suggested that he was at least somewhat recovered.
The book is bleaker, messier than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though it carries a lot of the charge of Pirsig's restless mind. “If I wrote it today,” he said, “it would be a much more cheerful book. But I was resolving things in Lila; the sadness of the past, and particularly [his son] Chris’ death, is there. Zen was quite an inspiring book, I think, but I wanted to go in the other direction with Lila and do something that explored a more sordid, depressing life.”
I haven’t read Lila. But I did read “Cruising Blues and Their Cure,” an essay Pirsig wrote for Esquire magazine in 1977 about sailing under the influence of depression, which is brilliant beyond brilliant. Cruisers to the Caribbean are familiar with what you might call the “dream dies here” syndrome, when cruising couples realize they don’t really enjoy what they’re doing. When they realize the need to get back to the “reality” of suburban life.
An alternative — and better — definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components: air, sunlight, wind, water, the motion of waves, the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike 20th-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet, and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory lifestyles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to.If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have their understanding of sailing and reality backward. Sailing is not an escape, but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an Earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning.Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found radio, television, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the Earth and the Sun, the wind and the stars. Sailing returns to these ancient realities.
With big budgets and new technology, we may have been able to corrupt but not entirely destroy the essence of cruising as described above. You can read Pirsig’s essay in its entirety here. I urge you to do so.
And to you, Robert Pirsig, rest in peace.