The Floating Operetta

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

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

Robert Pirsig
Robert Pirsig; drawing by David Levine

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…

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