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The Floating Operetta

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

by Robert M. Pirsig
Bantam, 409 pp., $22.50

Robert Pirsig’s first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance(here-after ZAAMM), appeared in 1974—seventeen years ago—and the memory of it still lingers, green and cheerful, in the mind. It was a byproduct of thatlow-tech, do-it-yourself movement which produced, under the auspices of The Whole Earth Catalogue, a rash of adventuresome lifestyles and fantasies of thesame. Pirsig, his motorcycle, andhis son formed a peripatetic commune of three—a triangular—motorized polis, en route from a nonorigin to a nondestination,snatching along the way at philosophical problems allied with the phantom of self-definition.

One of the most ingratiating things about the narrative was that it declined to take itself altogether seriously. Pirsig (though he had attended philosophy courses in India) disavowed any scholarly acquaintance with Zen Buddhism, and (though clearly a handy fellow with wrench and screwdriver) wore lightly his mechanical aptitudes. It was an outdoor, high-speed book—a set of philosophical lectures (Chautauquas, the author called them, only half-mockingly) delivered by the driver of a motorcycle to a passenger clinging precariously behind him.

Between the muffling effect of helmets, the whistling of the wind, and the distractions of the landscape, one didn’t always catch more than a fraction of the lay sermon. But that was all right too; the Chautauquas included a good deal of homespun philosophy along with practical advice and cranky opinions, much more suggestive when taken on the fly than when subjected to painstaking analysis. Both Zen and motorcycle maintenance were metaphors for tinkering with oneself, and that is a topic on which everyone is entitled to his opinion, none much better than the others.

And yet under this apparently light-hearted account of a summer jaunt, there lurked a dark and menacing pool of awareness. In recapitulating his academic career (alternately brilliant and fractious, opinionated and indifferent) Pirsig comes to a point where he was judged certifiably insane and placed in an asylum—for how long we don’t know. About this time he left, or was left by, his first wife, the mother of the mostly silent and clearly unhappy boy who rides behind the careening, self-absorbed philosopher on his way to—somewhere. The book ended without resolving a reader’s question whether its author was the victim of obsession or an enlightened and liberated reconciler of humane values and technology.

ZAAMM bore the subtitle “An Inquiry into Values”; Pirsig’s new book titled simply Lila asserts its continuity with the first in a parallel subtitle, “An Inquiry into Morals.” Like the first book, it is a travelogue generously laced with Chautauqua lectures on a copious miscellany of topics. The interlocutor, thinly disguised as “Phaedrus,” is still Robert Pirsig, perceptibly modified by the experience of a best seller but even more footloose and discursively pedagogic than before.

Specifically, the scene is a small boat moving east along the Erie Canal and then descending the Hudson River toward New York City with a possible further destination in Florida. The inquiry into morals comes up when “Phaedrus” with some other amateur boatmen pauses for an overnight stop near Kingston. The layover provides occasion for the philosopher to take up with the lady of the title, Lila. At the moment she is a battered but still gamy tramp who somehow reminds him of a girl he once saw on a trolleycar somewhere; and on the basis of an affinity no stronger than this they join forces. (Both are cockeyed drunk.) She has been on her way south on another boat with another fellow; but he has offended her self-esteem by dancing with another girl. In a drunken rage, without much ceremony, she transfers to “Phaedrus’ ” boat, and invites him to transport her at least as far as New York, maybe further.

Another yachtsman, named Rigel, who is well-acquainted with the district and with Lila herself, now takes on himself to warn “Phaedrus” that the lady is thoroughly bad news. He is extremely stuffy about this, having previously acquainted himself with ZAAMM and decided on that basis that the author is a moral contaminant and a corrupting influence. But this does not lead him to think, as one might anticipate, that the two bad eggs deserve each other. Rather, he denounces Lila as a homewrecker, an unscrupulous underminer of domestic proprieties. Not unnaturally, this leads to words, and finally to a direct challenge from Rigel to say whether Lila has “Quality” or not. The philosopher says flatly that she does, and then is obliged to speculate (for a good deal of the rest of the book) on the sort and quantity of “Quality” she has.

This word “Quality” is a crucial one for “Phaedrus,” on which he has meditated and written at length; indeed, his pseudonym comes from Plato’s well-known dialogue, on the strength of a short passage in which Socrates tells Phaedrus that we do not need anyone to tell us what is well or badlywritten. With little or no warrant from Plato, Pirsig-Phaedrus decides that the mysterious, indefinable ingredient of good writing (and of human virtue generally) is to be called “Quality.” There was a great deal about “Quality” in ZAAMM, which Rigel evidently picked up from that book—hence his challenge to say whether Lila has “Quality” or not.

If Plato bears no responsibility for the word “Quality,” and the immense importance that Pirsig assigns to it (not to mention the encyclopedic applications he makes of it), then who does? Someone more accessible and a good deal less distinguished than Socrates, to wit, Sarah. The crucial moment involving Sarah is described on page 160 of ZAAMM. Pirsig, then an instructor in composition at Montana State College in Bozeman, was sitting in his office looking out the window when Sarah Adams came “trotting” by (it is the favorite gait of little old ladies), on her way to water her office plants, and remarked casually, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” Many pages later, we learn that Sarah was a professor of Greek on the verge of retirement; on another occasion she repeats her question, but never elaborates on it or tries to discriminate varieties or causes of “Quality.”

Pirsig himself seems to have settled immediately that Quality was ineffable and indescribable—either inherent in things or totally absent from them. For all these reasons, Rigel places a central difficulty before “Phaedrus” by posing Lila as a test case. Given his very limited acquaintance with her, the philosopher might be excused for paltering or equivocating a bit. But his answer is a bold “Yes,” and toward the end of the book that “Yes” is flatly described as the only moral thing he did on the trip. How this is demonstrated by the narrative as written is often hard to see.

Actually, “Quality” as a touchstone for moral judgment (sometimes inflated to “Metaphysics of Quality”) leads “Phaedrus” from the first into some uncomfortable predicaments. In a preliminary discussion of an aspect of his subject called “Dynamic Quality,” Pirsig comes up with a particularly heavy-handed version of Social Darwinism. As between two alternatives, the rule is laid down that the moral choice is at a “higher level of evolution.” Thus, “a primitive isolated village threatened by brigands has a moral right and obligation to kill them in self-defense, since a village is a higher form of evolution.”

This is very much the logic that white settlers used throughout the history of the Americas to dispossess or exterminate the aborigines. It would have struck a familiar chord in colonial Africa, and Hitler would have understood just what “Dynamic Quality” in this context was about. In fact, Pirsig is by no means a jingo imperialist; Lila opens with affectionate recollections of a visit to an Indian tribe in Montana, and concludes with resolutions to write something some day that will widen the white culture’s understanding of Indian values. But somewhere on the way Dynamic Quality has derailed the mental traveler.

Painful as some of them are, the conclusions that Pirsig reaches in the course of his rambling discourses are often less distressing than the thought processes that go into them. The virtues of American Indians are generic; all red men seem to descend from Fenimore Cooper by way of Carlos Castenada. Pirsig likes to generalize about “Easterners,” “Victorians,” “the rich,” and of course those vague numerical neutralities, “the Sixties,” “the Seventies,” etc. The adventures of “Phaedrus” with Lila should be a means of approaching, by way of a concrete narrative, that “inquiry into morals” which the subtitle promised; but a summary of the book’s concluding episodes will indicate how far we remain from an understanding of morals, of “Quality,” or of the book’s major characters.

Having transferred her favors to “Phaedrus,” Lila wants to renew her acquaintance with yet another friend who lives in New York somewhere. More surprisingly, “Phaedrus” is to meet with Robert Redford to discuss making a movie out of ZAAMM. This is odd because he has never dropped a word about this meeting or given a thought to arranging it; he hasn’t in fact been anywhere that people could get in touch with him. But no matter; the two travelers have their objectives and in the event neither encounter amounts to much.

Robert Redford does indeed turn up, but has only inconclusive commonplaces to exchange before going on his way. Lila’s boyfriend is more questionable; Jamie is a black hoodlum, truculent, sinister, and unfeeling.While “Phaedrus” is off meeting with Redford, Jamie and Lila arrange in a couple of sentences that he will join the cruise as first mate, and at some convenient point murder “Phaedrus” for his boat and his money. Though Jamie thinks of himself as a hard case, he is gleefully surprised to find that Lila outdoes even him in professional villainy. This might well be thought to settle the question of Lila’s “Quality,” unless the word is to have some completely unexpected significance.

To be sure, “Phaedrus” himself is absent from the scene of the plot, so the whole thing may be authorial omniscience—in other words, imagination. More evidence against the plot is Jamie’s unscrupulous behavior at the scene of the conspiracy. He arranges with a furtive accomplice to pick Lila’s purse and then leaves her to make her way home (or anywhere) on a rainy night in New York without a penny. This is hardly the way one treats a co-conspirator in a plot dangerous enough that one’s life may shortly depend on her good will.

Next morning brings new confusion. Lila has made her way—cold, wretched, fearful, and rain-soaked—to the boat, where she collapses, a soggy, shivering mass of catatonic misery. No sooner has “Phaedrus” got her below decks and put her to bed than Jamie turns up, blustering loudly and ready to take charge on his mission, apparently, of murder. Lila must therefore have told him where to find the boat; so the conspiracy is real. His first act, however, is to smash her face—and the conspiracy isn’t real, after all. But she slashes his face with a convenient knife—and we don’t know what to think. Rigel turns up (how and why there’s no guessing) and pushes Jamie onto the dock. The marina personnel intervene; and in the turmoil that ensues, “Phaedrus” casts off and makes with his disconsolate, wordless passenger for an anchorage off Sandy Hook suggested by the officious Rigel. The anchorage is reached without incident. While “Phaedrus” is ashore purchasing supplies, Rigel turns up once more, in his own boat, with a plan to propose. It is drastically practical. He will take Lila off “Phaedrus’ ” hands, transport her back to upstate New York, and there commit her, i.e., to an asylum.

Pressed to explain this plan, Rigel says Lila herself wants to go with him (and, presumably, commit herself) because she believes “Phaedrus” wants to kill her. This charge the philosopher of course denies; but he does not oppose Rigel very strongly, because (as we know from his previous meditations), he is severely embarrassed over what to do with Lila. So he talks briefly with the sullen and depressed lady, and while avoiding two important points (her story that he wants to kill her, and Rigel’s intention to put her away), does extract from her the assertion that she would rather go with the other guy. It is a somber prospect for her—not far short of suicidal. But “Phaedrus” puts up only token opposition, mainly because the Metaphysics of Quality provide him with some notably weak rationalizations for taking what must appeal to the reader as the easy way out. Accordingly, the two boats go their separate ways, and the story of Lila is over.

Whether Lila in the course of the story provides any signal evidence of moral Quality is a test for the analytical reader. For Pirsig himself there seems to be no doubt; but on the surface, for the average reader, the outlook isn’t very promising. The laws of the land look dimly on murder, robbery, and piracy; treachery does not rank high on the list of moral virtues. To be sure, there are more generous codes, according to which everything that lives is holy; under that dispensation, Lila and Jamie could certainly qualify, along with Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. There are other scales, which invite us to admire the dynamic, defiant sinner—supreme energy incarnate; but that’s a part for which Lila can hardly be rigged. If she’s a criminal at all, she’s a very common criminal indeed.

But the more interesting problems involve “Phaedrus”—or Pirsig? He is the philosopher of “Quality,” who claims to recognize it in other people, who discourses on it as an authority. Does he show any signs of it himself? Not, as they say, so you could notice. Whether he doesn’t have it or failed to dramatize it, his behavior hardly exemplifies it. Twice he abandons Lila, the person of whose Quality heis most positive—once to the tender mercies of Jamie, once to the no less cruel destiny arranged for her by Rigel. He never speaks a word of personal affection for her, or for anyone else in the book.

With all due respect to Sarah, who first dropped into Pirsig’s expectant ear the crucial word “Quality,” this reader remains skeptical. Since it cannot be defined, described, or effectively discussed, this single word can hardly explain the various effects of various kinds of good writing, which is the problem raised by Socrates’ original statement. Still less can it be used to summarize the moral dimensions of an entire person, for instance, Lila. People are good and bad (generally good from some angles, bad from others) by virtue of their actions, their circumstances, their intentions, their conditioning, and other factors too numerous to list. Their moral character is determined, as well, by the character of the observer—his expectations, his prepossessions. Reducing these several calculations to a single word, however generic, seems to this reader self-defeating. It doesn’t preclude but it radically inhibits recognition of the nuances and complexities without which moral discourse is mere verbal bricklaying.

Some of the vitality of ZAAMM remains in Lila, though the dynamism of the motorcycle is sorely missed. Where the narrative does not turn on incomprehensible or unexplained decisions, it moves vigorously toward a violent and surprising resolution. When not entangled in his private arguments, Pirsig writes crisp descriptive prose: even the arguments are lightened by boyish enthusiasms and anticipations: “Boy, we’re getting into something really big here!!”—that sort of thing. No doubt the flaws of the book are easier to recognize than its virtues; but the discriminating reader will find within the same garden patch a generous assortment of both.

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