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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (II)

Updated: Jun 26, 2023


In Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he makes a division between “Classical knowledge” and “Quality knowledge”. “Classical” knowledge is Cartesian, really—it’s the subject-object divide; it’s about the scientific method and what goes on underneath the hood, whereas Quality is holistic and more ineffable (ultimately, unsayable I would say).

Pirsig sums up the difference as follows: “If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn't enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work....It's not just ‘intuition,’ not just unexplainable ‘skill’ or ‘talent.’ It's the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal."

This has salience for the left-right divide, because think about two cleavages between left and right: ethnicity / race | gender / sex. In essence, “ethnicity” and “gender” are leftist terms—these are about culture, about cultural signifiers that are moveable and mutable.

So you walk down a supermarket aisle and there’s a section called “ethnic food”—and it’s Mexican and Chinese; and yet it would never say “racial food”—you could become a chef who specialises in Chinese food whatever your race. In the same way, whether a skirt is male or female attire is conditioned by culture—a kilt is just a skirt, a skirt is for girls (except if you’re in Scotland, if you know anything about Scotland, a kilt is for men—and it’s not a skirt, although there is no material difference between a skirt and a kilt).

So Rishi Sunak, for example, is an ethnic Englishman—he speaks like a public schoolboy, and his hair is even slicked like an English schoolboy from the 1950s. He’s like a petty bureaucrat from 1930s India who you encounter at some remote railway junction, surrounded by natives, in oppressive heat but dressed in tweeds who says, “What-ho, Rishi Sunak, BA (Hons) from Calcutta Men’s Academy, at your service, sir. Jolly fine weather we’re having, what? Would you care to join my good lady wife, Akshata, for a G&T on the lawn this evening, light refreshments will be served?”

The left puts all the accent on what Pirsig calls “Quality”—it’s non-Cartesian, it’s holistic (the left even uses the word “holistic” quite often). For the left, particularly the progressive liberals, there’s just what Pirsig calls “Quality”—there’s just ethnicity and gender, and these are connected to signifiers and anyone can adopt these signifiers if they wish; and, indeed, for Rishi Sunak to adopt these “absolutely top hole” English signifiers means that he is, in fact, “oppressed”—alienated from some “authentic”, “decolonised” signifiers (and stuck with these “English imperialist” affectations).

When the contemporary right talks about “reality” what they tend to mean is what Pirsig would call “the subject-object divide”—now the right is recessional, so the mainstream right will not assert race over ethnicity; but they will assert sex over gender—they will claim “the science shows” there is sexual dimorphism between men and women (and yet that cannot, by definition, say anything about kilts and skirts—the ineffable “Quality” identified by Pirsig is not addressed; and that’s why left and right talk past each other on this issue).

Further, the “dissident right” tends just to express the parallel view as regards sex-gender in race-ethnicity terms—i.e. they say “genetics shows that races exist and have different capabilities”, just like mainstream conservatives say “genetics shows that sexes exist and have different capabilities”. Once again, Quality goes unaddressed.

There is a tiny, minuscule group—in the Evola-Spengler-Guénon camp—who would say that race and sex differences are qualitative; and that you know “your kind” not through verification by Cartesian science but by intuition (“He’s our people,” as aristocrats used to say—meaning an uncle or other relative, but also giving an intimation as to how an aristocracy leads a national family “our people”).

Pirsig is a “Classical man” trying to make sense of Quality—even to make the divide between “Classical thought” and “Quality thought” is Cartesian, it’s dualistic (it’s not seeing the whole—it’s cutting up the problem into parts). In the book, he rides with a friend, a drummer, who owns a beautiful BMW motorbike and thinks in a qualitative way instinctively—whereas Pirsig is always painstakingly running through the scientific method to diagnose problems and prefers to make a part from an old tin can himself rather than buy a polished ready-made spare from BMW (high-quality German engineering, though—and Pirsig doesn’t like it, that’s how we know he’s “left” really; he doesn’t perceive Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, to be on the left).

Indeed, Pirsig is annoyed by this drummer-friend, patronises him, because his friend really, really dislikes technology—feels oppressed by it, whereas Pirsig, with an engineer’s mindset, who set out at 17 to study biochemistry (before he switched to philosophy—with a few electro-shock treatments along the way), feels quite at home with the scientific method and says “the Buddha must be everywhere, even in my motorcycle”. Yet the drummer just “gets” Quality, high-quality German engineering, whereas Pirsig makes homespun repairs—and that musical divide is significant, I think.


It’s why you sometimes get this divide, particularly in American politics, where it looks like right = scientific (Classical) and left = religious (Quality). It’s the view that says “woolly leftists worship nature and qualitative ‘lived experience’ and ‘natural harmonies’ and feminine ‘wholeness’, like prissy Whole Foods, whereas what we need is more nuclear reactors—that’s reality”. It’s always struck me as odd, because the right putatively stands for religion (righteous)—yet in contemporary debates, especially since the 1960s, the left sounds like religion and the right sounds like science (“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”); and, indeed, in its concern for Quality the left is aesthetic—it’s arts versus STEM, left versus right (and yet, somehow, that feels the wrong way round).

If you’re a religious person you really should care about harmonies; natural harmonies, above all—religion is to harmonise yourself with that which is higher, not to cut taxes to make business more dynamic. Yet if I said to you today, “For me, it’s the natural harmonies we’re missing,” you’d peg me as some “hippy-dippy leftist” for sure. Reality means nuclear reactors, tax cuts, IQ tests—this is “reality”, this is being a “realistic person” (not mouldering on about “natural harmonies, cohesive forms, and holistic thinking” like Allen Ginsberg or something—OM-PADme-OM).

Well, obviously, I’m in the Evola-Spengler-Guénon camp—a camp unknown to Pirsig; so I’m for Quality, but it seems to me that what has happened is that Quality has become perverted due to Cartesian thought, aka “the reign of quantity”. As Pirsig observes in the above quote, you can’t do without Quality altogether even if you set out to build a factory—and I think it works vice versa, Quality must have a small “Classical” element in it to work (per the yin-yang symbol—just as Pirsig says, the Buddha is in his motorbike engine); and yet that “Classical” spot in Quality is the black spot in the symbol.

What has happened in our societies is that Quality has been perverted due to the domination of “Classical” thought; hence it is only found on the visible left, where it manifests as ideas about “ethnicity” and “gender”—often fused with semiotic or linguistic theory (the arts) that holds that these categories are malleable (so that you must “call me Deborah” if I decide my gender is female). This “qualitative” approach is opposed by a putative right that is really the root of the problem—because it thinks in Cartesian “Classical” terms, so divorcing us from Quality.


When Pirsig says “It's not just ‘intuition’, not just unexplainable ‘skill’ or ‘talent’…” doesn’t that sum up the mutual bafflement between left and right when the left tries to explain (“Would you please listen?”) that if you’re transgender your “inner identity” is feminine? Notably, the right ridicules this…yet it sounds suspiciously like what the left refers to when it talks about “my true identity” is the soul—and the right certainly doesn’t say “you mean the soul, but you’re confused as to what your soul is” but rather just ridicules the idea that there’s a soul at all. “Debroah is into crystals and all that shit, but I stick with *taps chemistry textbook on dashboard* reality.”

A similar dynamic exists with relation to “per capita”—the right will often point out, in Britain, that Asian Muslim men, per capita, are convicted of sex crimes more often than British men; and the right in America tells a similar story with blacks and crime in general—and then they say, incredulous, a bit like the man who finds Debroah is “into her crystals”, “how can you not understand basic math, like per capita?”. Yet isn’t the left engaged in a qualitative and holistic approach? Taken as a whole, not in numerical terms, British men commit more sex crimes than Asian Muslim men. Well, you’re not meant to think about it like that, that’s not the proper way to think about it…

Says who? Why can’t I approach it in a qualitative way? Why can’t I tackle it in qualitative terms? Do you realise, incidentally, that the “per capita” approach is amoral? It’s techno-science, pure quantity….there’s no religion or morality in it, you know…and yet the right is “righteous”, no? But you can’t make money with a qualitative approach—wish-washy, hippy-dippy…And, to continue, is not this approach, the Cartesian approach, ultimately synonymous with the left? It’s Descartes who advocated that old cities should be razed and replaced by “rational” geometric grid cities—and yet we know, from Milton Keynes to Brasilia, that the “rational plan city” is ugly compared to the “irrational” old country lane.

After all, the first point Descartes demands is that we proceed with no prior assumptions—that we abandon tradition, in other words. Hence this conforms to an observation I’ve made many times before that the left is “perverted religion”—it’s perverted Quality now instantiated in the feminine. Why is it only instantiated in the feminine, why is it “the feminine religion”? Because men have abandoned religion in a process that didn’t start with Descartes—is much older than that—but can be usefully exemplified by Descartes.


Pirsig is mystified by Quality—he says it isn’t “intuition” or “talent” or “skill”—it’s more ineffable than that. He speaks about it with regard to what he calls a “gumption trap”—this is a “stuck moment” in a mechanical process; let’s say you reassemble a u-bend but at a certain moment the process stops and you’re just stuck and the more you try to assemble the pieces the more stuck you become—it’s a gumption trap.

Pirsig “clears” these traps with a cigarette or a coke—during which, like a word on the tip of your tongue (another gumption trap), it all suddenly “clicks” and you go back and finish it in a few obvious steps. Yet no conscious “scientific” thought process occurred. And that’s where Pirsig points to Quality—though he can’t name it.

“Oh so when you take a break, when you take your mind off it…” I would say that what Pirsig means by “have a coke and a smoke” is to meditate—because you meditate on the cigarette cherry or on the bubbles in the drink. So Quality is silence, silent concentration—you can still the rational mind with the lotus position, a cigarette break, a coke.

You blank, then the answer *pops* in—which is genius, or inspiration; it’s not worked-through scientific method with a notebook, as Pirsig describes elsewhere. So Quality is silence—total cohesion and beauty; and harmonious music depends on timing, with time kept best when you appreciate the beat (which is facilitated by silence, by the “rest”).


This leads me to the final conclusion that the Western right—even the so-called “dissident right”—continues the left, since their view is in line with Pirsig’s Classical stance, techno-science, that rejects Quality.

In essence, man has rejected God to enrich himself in the age of iron and the only people to defend Quality are women and feminised men—who promulgate a perverted religion, “the left”, so attacked by a “right” that is, in fact, the cause of the dysfunction (we are between the prideful left and the greedy right); and the left is attacked with an appeal to the thought-mode that caused the problem in the first place—the answer to perverted Quality is more Cartesian analysis and disintegration (on a per capita basis, perhaps).

In short, race and sex should be determined in an intuitive way (unlike Pirsig, I think “intuition”, nous, covers it)—you look at a man and say, “Yes, he’s English”; and the same goes for a woman. It is to such “mystic, irrational” thought modes we must return in the end—because, in the end, Quality wins, the musician wins.


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