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Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on the motorcycle they rode to Montana, an event Robert wrote about in his 1974 book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

Montana State University News Service - Montana State University will host a conference Dec. 7-9 honoring Robert Pirsig, writer and philosopher whose book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," published in 1974, is one of the best-selling popular philosophy book of all time.

The three-day event held at various locations on campus will include appearances by national and internationally known speakers and teachers, philosophers and artists, filmmakers and motorcycle enthusiasts who will convene to discuss Pirsig's work, its meaning, and its legacy.

The MSU events will be called a "Chautauqua," which organizers say is fitting because it was a term that Pirsig himself used to describe "Zen," an unorthodox but enduringly popular look at life and "quality."

"Formal recognition of Robert Pirsig's importance as a writer and thinker, and as a significant part of the history of Montana State University is long overdue," said Charles Pinkava, one of the event organizers and a teacher of critical thinking at MSU. He said that Chautauqua is an old-fashioned word for a popular traveling lecture, and that Pirsig used the term to describe the odd make-up of "Zen," that is "at once a ghost story, a travelogue, a romantic adventure, and a series of philosophical observations intended to entertain and edify an ordinary audience."

Pinkava explained that Montana State played a key role in Pirsig's philosophies and in the book. As a teacher of rhetoric in the late 1950s at Montana State College, Pirsig was intrigued by a Montana State colleague's remark about whether he was teaching quality to his students.

"This was the 'seed crystal' moment that led to Pirsig's relocation to the University of Chicago where he suffered a mental breakdown, a recovery, and a resolve to return to Montana to visit the ghost of himself," Pinkava said. The pilgrimage of Pirsig, his son, Chris, and two friends that was detailed in "Zen" has since become the most celebrated motorcycle trip in literary history, he added.

"Millions of readers throughout the world have been gripped by this story, seeing in it their own journey to find quality in their lives and in the world," Pinkava said.

Pinkava said that that many readers have been so moved by the book and its message that they imitate the motorcycle journey themselves. Every year "Pirsig Pilgrims" appear regularly, often on motorcycles, riding to MSU's Montana Hall, where Pirsig once had an office, and to the DeWeese home in Cottonwood Canyon near Bozeman.

The first day of the Chautauqua will be devoted to lectures by MSU teachers and students as well as an internationally known Pirsig scholar. According to MSU English Professor Michael Sexson, who will host the session, the talks will cover a range of issues from "consciousness and quality" to "Pirsig as a Distinctly American Philosopher."

The second day of the Chautauqua will showcase travelers who will give testimonials about how "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" influenced and sometimes transformed their lives. It is expected that many of the "Pirsig Pilgrims" will be on hand to tell their own stories and to be involved in an open forum for all attendees. In addition, the premiere showing of "Meridian," a film inspired by Pirsig's book, will be shown by its creator, Lee Glover. The event will be hosted by Tina DeWeese, daughter of the late Gennie and Bob DeWeese, Bozeman artists who figured prominently in "Zen" as Pirsig's friends and mentors.

On the third day, Pinkava will conduct an open forum on reflections and meanings of the three-day event, as well as discuss future possibilities.

All Pirsig Chautauqua events are free and open to the public.


Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.