At last, I have begun to fulfil my intention of January 2013 to read the famous philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had obviously understood very little before acquiring the book and beginning to read it. Last weekend, I had a lot of time to kill, waiting at the port to board the ferry, the two-hour crossing and whilst eating alone.
It was quite a surprise to me that this book has nothing to do with young people in the 1960’s going to the far east to look for the ideal mystical religion or philosophy. It is a tale of the narrator and his son together with two friends on a long journey by motorcycle in America. I related immediately to the book, since a motorcyclist has to be completely autonomous on roads where there are few professional motorcycle mechanics. It is the same in a boat at sea, where you find few professional riggers and ship-chandlers. In most situations of difficulty, you find your own solution, and only in the extreme of dire necessity would a sailor call to be rescued.
What the book is really about, at least so far – and this is what I really relate to – is the reconciliation of the classicist and the romantic within ourselves and the discovery of what life is really about. The author of this book argues that it is possible to reconcile the rational world of technology and science with the intuitive universe of the heart, the imagination, love of beauty and the spirit. History has oscillated between these two extremes, and I have often written on the end of the “age of reason” and the era of William Blake, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. He appeals to the notion of bridging the chasm between reason and emotion, classicism and romanticism, subjective and objective.
This has been the history of my life in which I have found it very hard to find a unifying point between two conflicting parts of my personality, essentially a romantic, yet with a love of mechanical things, the pipe organ, working with my hands and solving problems. I love navigation by dead reckoning – the least reliance of charts and instruments and the greatest scope given to my sense of spatial perception. Places have to be recognised, but there are forces to compensate for – the leeward drift of the boat and the tidal current. With all that, we do need to have checked the weather forecast, the tides and planned our route. I always have a chart and a sighting compass in my kit together with safety items. I have always been fascinated by technology and science, which are a part of my being from my earliest childhood. Yet, I warmed to music, churches, prayer, beauty in both art and nature, my constant daydreaming.
I relate very intensely to what I am reading. I am not very interested in motorcycles. I rode one when I was twenty years old, and my longest distance was London to York via Oxford. I find internal combustion engines filthy and tedious. I change my own oil for my van, because it is a lot cheaper than what the garage takes. I have two metal ramps onto which I drive the front wheels of the vehicle. With the vehicle in first gear and the handbrake firmly on, there is no danger of getting crushed as when using a mechanical or hydraulic jack. There are three things to replace each time: the engine oil, the copper sump seal and the oil filter. I have the correct references written down in my maintenance logbook. The old oil has to be disposed of into a plastic drum and periodically taken to the municipal dump for proper disposal. Apart from that, I change my own pre-heater plugs when needed. I leave the rest to my professional mechanic, especially the stuff that requires special skills and tools. Each man to his own trade!
On the technical side, my first love on leaving school was organ building, and I have always taken pride in playing the instrument as well as working on the mechanical parts, tuning and regulation. More recently, when I took up sailing, I made it my business to learn about rigging, sails, the balance of the boat (weather helm and lee helm) – and making modifications using parts and materials I could find at affordable prices. I owe so much to the intrepid dinghy cruisers David Sumner and Roger Barnes, as I do to my instructors at the FFV school in Veulettes sur Mer and the Glénans.
The stereotype romantic is a person devoid of any manual aptitude, skill or interest in anything technological or practical. Most women switch off when hearing men talk about science or technology, yet many will operate a complex sewing machine and use domestic appliances at home – and drive a car. I have known men at seminary who claimed to be pure intellectuals and were incapable of anything mechanical or manual. It is the same with musicians and the man in Zen who eschewed using bits of metal from beer cans to repair a problem on his expensive motorcycle. I prefer playing the organ to repairing it, sailing a boat to making a replacement mast. I am certainly more of a romantic than a classical rationalist, but I do see rationalism as important, indeed essential. As a theology student, I sympathised with Thomas Aquinas’ primacy of the reason over the passions and the will, the antithesis of Francis of Assisi and the later Jesuits. On seeing the limits of scholasticism, I began to resonate more easily with patristics and German idealism. Thomist rationalism has its limits, as for the Saint himself when he said of his theological works that it was all straw in comparison with the mystery of God.
I will doubtlessly have more to write on this subject as I progress through the book.