Edward's Reviews > Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals

Lila by Robert M. Pirsig
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Oct 03, 12

Read in March, 2012

It’s been 21 years since I read this book, and much longer since I read its predecessor, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE (1974), Persig’s only two books. I kept seeing LILA on my bookshelf and decided it might be worth rereading, both for its sake and to put ZEN in perspective. It was, on both counts. I think LILA is every bit as interesting as ZEN and may be clearer in expressing its central concerns about what makes life good or worthwhile.

LILA has some obvious similarities with ZEN. Both books are travel books about an extended trip. In ZEN it’s on a motorcycle and in Lila it‘s on a small boat which makes its way down the Hudson River and through New York City to the ocean. Phaedrus is a stand-in for the narrator in both books , a man who is obsessed with metaphysical concepts of “quality”, both in the abstract and in his personal life. Phaedrus in ZEN is accompanied by his son, and in LILA he spends much of the journey on his boat with Lila, a woman he has picked up in a riverside tavern. Both are foils, objects of study,for Phaedrus and his speculations about constitutes quality in life.

At the heart of the book is an attempt to explain the world in other than subject-object terms, a notion that is at the core of language itself. When we use words we create a false dichotomy which fails to get at or to “know” reality. We rely on verbal and intellectual concepts to create a sense of order, but it’s a clumsy and arbitrary order. Zen Buddhism recognizes this fact and warns us not to mistake our verbal approximations for the truth. As one Zen koan has it,” if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”, suggesting that if you think you’re “enlightened”, you’re not. All verbal constructs are illusory (even this sentence).

Now, it’s true that for ordinary purposes, the subject-object division works well, and it is at the heart of ordinary living and the bedrock on which the scientific method and western civilization rests. That in turn has led to all of the inventions that make up our lives in the west. Persig/Phaedrus has no problem with this; it’s just that he wants something more inclusive so that we can incorporate “quality” into our lives. He works out a theory that society operates with two patterns. There is a society that he calls “static” – it regulates our lives and allows us to function in predictable ways. Without it, we’d have chaos.

But there is another type of pattern that he calls “dynamic” and it occurs when exceptional, often charismatic, humans appear. Artists, visionary political leaders, sometimes truly revolutionary religious figures such as Christ, Mohammed, and Buddha, see reality in a different way, so different that it shatters normally static society patterns and shifts society into new directions. The point here is that these people, if they functioned in normal “static” ways would never have made these breakthroughs. Where do they come from? Not from the intellect, limited by rigid subject-object perceptions, but from the mysterious realms of “quality” – if it were not mysterious and unexplainable, it would not be quality.

The difficulty, though, is that what is termed “insanity” is also part of a “dynamic” pattern. Insane people, however, are unable to function in a a static society, a condition that Phaedrus has experienced in his past life (mentioned in both books) as what is commonly called a nervous breakdown. In LILA, the woman he picks up teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and part of the dilemma of this book, and something that gives it narrative interest and momentum, is whether her dynamic “quality” is going to prove to be a dead end or a break through.

These remarks are sketchy but I think they suggest some of the important ideas that the book takes up. Persig, I understand from biographical information about him, has a background in philosophy, but he is often dismissed by academic philosophers as of little consequence. The criticism is that Persig can’t make up his mind if he’s writing philosophy or fiction. True, but I think Pirsig would contend he’s trying to bridge the gap between the mental world and the physical world. Not easy to do.

The essential problem is summed up in conversations he had (apparently these really took place) with Robert Redford about exercising the movie rights to ZEN. How can you make a movie that combines action with abstract thought? It’s almost impossible to do, and for that reason, has not been attempted. And I suspect for many readers, both of ZEN and LILA, that they will have experienced the same frustration – the philosophic ideas are interesting, if hard to follow, and the plot or the story, in the real world, while tantalizing, really doesn’t arrive at any destination. Trying to combine the two – well, it’s the elusive matter of “quality” again.

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