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Pirsig's Quotes on Insanity

from his

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Bantam Paperback
28th printing

Extracted by Doug Renselle
Quote marks added to prose, not to dialogue.

"I doubt if a single individual could be found from the whole of mankind free from some form of insanity.
The only difference is one of degree. A man who sees a gourd and
takes it for his wife is called insane because this happens to very few people."

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
Dutch humanist.
Praise of Folly, ch. 38 (1509).

Erasmus shows us that 'insanity' is just another classical perspective of Quantum Tells. Doug 23Dec2000.
It is worth your while to consider how classical dichons like dichon(wife, gourd) offer a classically perceived "absolute"
Pirsigean platypus (i.e., logical either/or) exposing opportune culpability for both judgment and hegemony.

  1. Society says Phædrus is insane
  2. Romantic split makes us insane
  3. Loss of memory
  4. Motorcycles are not insane
  5. Motorcycles are insane
  6. Insanity escapes province
  7. Realms beyond reason
  8. Quality is insane
  9. The Poincaréan Complement
  10. Insanity outside of mythos
  11. Chris too?
  12. No, I was not insane!

p. 62/373 of ZMM — Society says Phædrus is insane

"And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture...two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself. No one wants it really...despite what his antagonists in the other dimension might think.

"It is within this context that what Phædrus thought and said is significant. But no one was listening at that time and they only thought him eccentric at first, then undesirable, then slightly mad, and then genuinely insane. There seems little doubt that he was insane, but much of his writing at the time indicates that what was driving him insane was this hostile opinion of him. Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phædrus' case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society." Back

p. 71/373 of ZMM — Romantic split makes us insane

"All this talk so far about classic and romantic understanding must seem a strangely oblique way of describing him, but to get at Phædrus, this oblique route is the only one to take. To describe his physical appearance or the statistics of his life would be to dwell on misleading superficialities. And to come at him directly would be to invite disaster.

"He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he's insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way. There is only one access to him that I can see as passable and we still have a way to go." Back

pp. 76-7/373 of ZMM — Loss of memory

"It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?

"It was explained to me finally that "You have a new personality now." But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any "old" personality. If they had said, "You are a new personality," it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.

"But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?

"This was my first inkling of the existence of Phædrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I've learned much more.

"He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as "Annihilation ECS." A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will." Back

p. 84/373 of ZMM — Motorcycles are not insane

"Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it's some kind of a "knack" or some kind of "affinity for machines" in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason, and most of the troubles are caused by what old time radio men called a "short between the earphones," failures to use the head properly. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. I said yesterday that the ghost of rationality was what Phædrus pursued and what led to his insanity, but to get into that it's vital to stay with down-to-earth examples of rationality, so as not to get lost in generalities no one else can understand. Talk about rationality can get very confusing unless the things with which rationality deals are also included.

"We are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately...and this is an important way of seeing it...and where on the other side we can begin to see it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form...and this is an important way of seeing things too. These tools for example...this wrench...has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It's designed to change the underlying form of the machine." Back

p. 88/373 of ZMM — Motorcycles are insane

"That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There's no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone's mind — number three tappet is right on too. One more to go. This had better be it — .I've noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this...that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes...pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts...all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees "steel" as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone's mind. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's "potential"? That's also in someone's mind! — Ghosts. [Our quantonics quantum~metaphor CeodE 2009 of Pirsig's "ghosts" is quantum~isofluxes' real complementationings of actual quantum~flux. See our QELR of potential. Doug - 5May2009.]

"That's really what Phædrus was talking about when he said it's all in the mind. It sounds insane when you just jump up and say it without reference to anything specific like an engine. But when you tie it down to something specific and concrete, the insane sound tends to disappear and you see he could have been saying something of importance." Back

pp. 105-6/373 of ZMM — Insanity escapes province

"He would use this route to get into the high country, then backpack in from the road for three or four or five days, then come back out for more food and head back in again, needing these mountains in an almost physio- logical way. The train of his abstractions became so long and so involved he had to have the surroundings of silence and space here to hold it straight. It was as though hours of constructions would have been shattered by the least distraction of other thought or other duty. It wasn't like other people's thinking, even then, before his insanity. It was at a level at which everything shifts and changes, at which institutional values and verities are gone and there is nothing but one's own spirit to keep one going. His early failure had released him from any felt obligation to think along institutional lines and his thoughts were already independent to a degree few people are familiar with. He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions. He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very trap-wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time. He didn't see these things and think this way at first, however, only later on. I'm getting way out of sequence here. This all came much later." Back

pp. 151-2/373 of ZMM — Realms beyond reason

"Columbus has become such a schoolbook stereotype it's almost impossible to imagine him as a living human being anymore. But if you really try to hold back your present knowledge about the consequences of his trip and project yourself into his situation, then sometimes you can begin to see that our present moon exploration must be like a tea party compared to what he went through. Moon exploration doesn't involve real root expansions of thought. We've no reason to doubt that existing forms of thought are adequate to handle it. It's really just a branch extension of what Columbus did. A really new exploration, one that would look to us today the way the world looked to Columbus, would have to be in an entirely new direction."

"Like what?"

"Like into realms beyond reason. I think present-day reason is an analogue of the flat earth of the medieval period. If you go too far beyond it you're presumed to fall off, into insanity. And people are very much afraid of that. I think this fear of insanity is comparable to the fear people once had of falling off the edge of the world. Or the fear of heretics. There's a very close analogue there.

"But what's happening is that each year our old flat earth of conventional reason becomes less and less adequate to handle the experiences we have and this is creating widespread feelings of topsy-turviness. As a result we're getting more and more people in irrational areas of thought...occultism, mysticism, drug changes and the like...because they feel the inadequacy of classical reason to handle what they know are real experiences."

"I'm not sure what you mean by classical reason."

"Analytic reason, dialectic reason. Reason which at the University is sometimes considered to be the whole of understanding. You've never had to understand it really. It's always been completely bankrupt with regard to abstract art. Nonrepresentative art is one of the root experiences I'm talking about. Some people still condemn it because it doesn't make 'sense.' But what's really wrong is not the art but the 'sense,' the classical reason, which can't grasp it. People keep looking for branch extensions of reason that will cover art's more recent occurrences, but the answers aren't in the branches, they're at the roots."

A rush of wind comes furiously now, down from the mountaintop. "The ancient Greeks," I say, "who were the inventors of classical reason, knew better than to use it exclusively to foretell the future. They listened to the wind and predicted the future from that. That sounds insane now. But why should the inventors of reason sound insane?"

DeWeese squints. "How could they tell the future from the wind?"

"I don't know, maybe the same way a painter can tell the future of his painting by staring at the canvas. Our whole system of knowledge stems from their results. We've yet to understand the methods that produced these results."

I think for a while, then say, "When I was last here, did I talk much about the Church of Reason?"

"Yes, you talked a lot about that."

"Did I ever talk about an individual named Phædrus?"


"Who was he?" Gennie asks.

"He was an ancient Greek — a rhetorician — a 'composition major' of his time. He was one of those present when reason was being invented."

"You never talked about that, I don't think." Back

pp. 225-6/373 of ZMM — Quality is insane

"In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.

"Now, to take that which has caused us to create the world, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself."

"I remember this fragment more vividly than any of the others, possibly because it is the most important of all. When he wrote it he felt momentary fright and was about to strike out the words "All of it. Every last bit of it." Madness there. I think he saw it. But he couldn't see any logical reason to strike these words out and it was too late now for faintheartedness. He ignored his warning and let the words stand.

"He put his pencil down and then — felt something let go. As though something internal had been strained too hard and had given way. Then it was too late." Back

p. 233/373 of ZMM — The Poincaréan Complement (See Quantonics' recent c¤mplement.)

"Eventually I came to Poincaré. Here again there was little duplication but another kind of phenomenon. Phædrus follows a long and tortuous path into the highest abstractions, seems about to come down and then stops. Poincaré starts with the most basic scientific verities, works up to the same abstractions and then stops. Both trails stop right at each other's end! There is perfect continuity between them. When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event. Like Robinson Crusoe's discovery of footprints on the sand." Back

[Site author's note: Comsider whether a c¤mplement of where Pirsig "stopped" and where Poincaré "stopped" has a quantum included-middle. Doug - 28Jan2002.]

pp. 316-8/373 of ZMM — Insanity outside of mythos

"The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neandertal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is.

"There is only one kind of person, Phædrus said, who accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos, Phædrus said, is "insane." To go outside the mythos is to become insane. —

"My God, that just came to me now. I never knew that before.

"He knew! He must have known what was about to happen. It's starting to open up.

"You have all these fragments, like pieces of a puzzle, and you can place them together into large groups, but the groups don't go together no matter how you try, and then suddenly you get one fragment and it fits two different groups and then suddenly the two great groups are one. The relation of the mythos to insanity. That's a key fragment. I doubt whether anyone ever said that before. Insanity is the terra incognita surrounding the mythos. And he knew! He knew the Quality he talked about lay outside the mythos.

"Now it comes! Because Quality is the generator of the mythos. That's it. That's what he meant when he said, "Quality is the continuing stimulus which causes us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it."...The mythos is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues. These fill the collective consciousness of all communicating mankind. Every last bit of it. The Quality is the track that directs the train. What is outside the train, to either side...that is the terra incognita of the insane. He knew that to understand Quality he would have to leave the mythos. That's why he felt that slippage. He knew something was about to happen.


"— How can I love all this so much and be insane? —

"— I don't believe it!

"The mythos. The mythos is insane. That's what he believed. The mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality of this world is unreal, that is insane!

"And in Aristotle and the ancient Greeks he believed he had found the villains who had so shaped the mythos as to cause us to accept this insanity as reality.

"That. That now. That ties it all together. It feels relieving when that happens. It's so hard sometimes to conjure all this up, a strange sort of exhaustion follows. Sometimes I think I'm just making it up myself. Sometimes I'm not sure. And sometimes I know I'm not. But the mythos and insanity, and the centrality of this...this I'm sure is from him." Back

pp. 367-8/373 of ZMMChris too?

"The fog opens for a moment, revealing the cliff we are on, then closes again, and a sense of inevitability about what is happening comes over me. I'm being pushed toward something and the objects in the corner of the eye and the objects in the center of the vision are all of equal intensity now, all together in one, and I say, "Chris, I think it's time to talk about some things you don't know about."

"He listens a little. He senses something is coming.

"Chris, you're looking at a father who was insane for a long time, and is close to it again."

And not just close anymore. It's here. The bottom of the ocean.

"I'm sending you home not because I'm angry with you but because I'm afraid of what can happen if I continue to take responsibility for you."

His face doesn't show any change of expression. He doesn't understand yet what I'm saying.

"So this is going to be good-bye, Chris, and I'm not sure we'll see each other anymore."

That's it. It's done. And now the rest will follow naturally.

He looks at me so strangely. I think he still doesn't understand. That gaze — I've seen it somewhere — somewhere — somewhere. —

In the fog of an early morning in the marshes there was a small duck, a teal that gazed like this. — I'd winged it and now it couldn't fly and I'd run up on it and seized it by the neck and before killing it had stopped and from some sense of the mystery of the universe had stared into its eyes, and they gazed like this — so calm and uncomprehending — and yet so aware. Then I closed my hands around its eyes and twisted the neck until it broke and I felt the snap between my fingers.

Then I opened my hand. The eyes still gazed at me but they stared into nothing and no longer followed my movements.

"Chris, they're saying it about you."

He gazes at me.

"That all these troubles are in your mind."

He shakes his head no.

"They seem real and feel real but they aren't."

His eyes become wide. He continues to shake his head no, but comprehension overtakes him.

"Things have gone from bad to worse. Trouble in school, trouble with the neighbors, trouble with your family, trouble with your friends — trouble everywhere you turn. Chris, I was the only one holding them all back, saying, 'He's all right,' and now there won't be anyone. Do you understand?"

He stares stunned. His eyes still track but they begin to falter. I'm not giving him strength. I never have been. I'm killing him. Back

pp. 369-70/373 of ZMMNo, I was not insane!

I am Phædrus, that is who I am, and they are going to destroy me for speaking the Truth.


It has all come together.

Chris cries softly now. Cries and cries and cries. The wind from the ocean blows through the tall stems of grass all around us and the fog begins to lift.

"Don't cry, Chris. Crying is just for children."

After a long time I give him a rag to wipe his face with. We gather up our stuff and pack it on the motorcycle. Now the fog suddenly lifts and I see the sun on his face makes his expression open in a way I've never seen it before. He puts on his helmet, tightens the strap, then looks up.

"Were you really insane?"

Why should he ask that?


Astonishment hits. But Chris's eyes sparkle.

"I knew it," he says.

Then he climbs on the cycle and we are off. Back

Return to February, 1999 Quantonic Question and Answer

(23Dec2000 rev - Add Erasmus quote on insanity at page top.)
(1Jun2001 rev - Move link list anchor to top of list for easier use of this page. Above rev moved it down too far to see on 'back.')
(1Jun2001 rev - Add link under 'Quality is insane,' to Problematic Pirsigean Memes: Quality indefinable?)
(28Aug2001 rev - Add anchor to Erasmus quote.)
(14Dec2001 rev - Add top of page frame-breaker.)
(28Jan2002 rev - Add c¤mplement link and site author note to our
Poincaréan Complement.)
(21Jul2002 rev - Change QELR links to A-Z pages.)
(1Jan2005 rev - Repair Poincare link.)
(5May2009 rev - Reset legacy markups. Make page current. Change wingdings font to gif. Enter Doug commentary under 'Motorcycles are Insane.')