A Modern Evaluation of Robert Pirsig’s LILA
I often encourage people to start reading books in their middles. I do not read for plot and I have belief that every page of a good book should have its own kind of power. Such is the case with Robert Pirsig’s novel Lila. Like Pirsig’s surprise bestseller of 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Zen for short), Lila follows a similar structure. Man on a journey ponders the universe. With Zen it’s a motorcycle trip across the Midwest. In Lila it’s a sailing trip down the eastern shore. In both books this loose knit structure offers a stage for much personal thought, often making both books seem like philosophical works rather than novels. Lila has even less plot-structure than Zen does. In part this is because Lila offers a more sophisticated presentation of the philosophy that he first suggested in Zen; and as such, more emphasis and clarity are given to the significance and substance of his thought.
So why might one still consider or qualify Lila as a novel? Pirsig tackles this problem from many angles. He begins his book explaining that he’d wanted to write a work of anthropology, but knew such a notion would be rejected by that scientific community. Pirsig goes on to explain why this rejection is part of the problem he’s trying to solve. He is in turns grateful to academics for their interest in ideas, yet confounded by how they refuse to accept the ‘values’ inherent to their discipline. He calls most academic philosophers “philosophologists.” Arguing that they do philosophy the same way an art critic does art. The novel — the actions of characters, for Pirsig, give more freedom.
The lead character of Pirsig’s novel is our namesake Lila. A drinking, dancing, mentally ill lady who joins Pirsig’s character (how he describes himself in his novels, the pseudonym Phaedrus) on his boat. As we’ve learned from Zen, Phaedrus too, has had a mental break. He is well positioned to understand Lila. In fact, the whole novel is essentially a re-appraisal of what he found so memorable about her, even while (or, because) most of society was turning away from her. He tries to answer the question of how Lila embodies “Quality”– Pirsig’s own formulation; a value metaphysics that attempts to understand a biological-cultural-intellectual divide. He finds Lila compelling because she is at a point in her life where she is seeing that line where the cultural subject-object dichotomy starts to fray. Later in the novel he reflects on insanity. “The scientific laws of the universe are invented by sanity. There’s no way by which sanity, using the instruments of its own creation, can measure that which is outside of itself and its creations. Insanity isn’t an “object” of observation. It’s an alteration of observation itself. There is no such thing as a “disease” of patterns of intellect. There’s only heresy. And that’s what insanity really is.” (Lila pg 327)
If those sentences don’t turn your crank, Pirsig isn’t for you. Reading him I’m often reminded of the maxim; it’s not what you think, but how you think. There’s something in that how which I can understand so clearly. When I read his work I know exactly who Robert Pirsig is — and this hybridization of style, philosophy and character is exactly what I find compelling in a novel.
Authorial intent takes a back seat to ‘reader response theory’ these days. Yet, personally, I find intention a useful metric to measure a works poignancy. Pirsig’s intentional quality has a striking clarity for our current moment. He begins the book arguing with an acquaintance about his idea of what Quality means. He realizes that there are still some sticking points he needs to flush out. Quality was an idea that he established in Zen, 20 years earlier, but it’s a project of a lifetime. It’s a grand theory about human activity, or, “An Inquiry into Morals” as the subtitle explicitly states.
Like the concept of Zen itself, one doesn’t need to know precisely what “Quality” means. It’s often easier to describe what it isn’t. It’s not a socially enforced, arbitrary, set of rules. Quality is not an imposition of morality. Pirsig lays out for us the Dynamic Quality the intellect has to upend social codes. He details how 20th Century intellectualism and degeneracy (the hippie movement) took Victorian morality to task and he establishes the moral necessity of such thought. He acknowledges that Dynamic Quality is disruptive and that this close relationship with degeneracy is part or parcel of precisely what makes it dynamic. Of course a society cannot tolerate all forms of degeneracy, but if they don’t embrace any than there is an immoral oppression.
Pirsig then goes on to establish a kind of moral hierarchy. Distinguishing between biological morality, social morality and intellectual morality. He points out how “Intellect has its own patterns and goals that are as independent of society as society is of biology. A value metaphysics makes it possible to see that there’s a conflict between intellect and society that’s just as fierce as the conflict between society and biology or the conflict between biology and death. Biology beat death (the static state of non-life) billions of years ago. Society beat biology thousands of years ago. But intellect and society are still fighting it out.” (Lila pg 265)
In his value metaphysics each level needs a Dynamic moment that exudes a Quality which ‘transcends’ previous moral codes. But each moment of Dynamic Quality also needs a static period in order to retain the gains from this dynamism. This worries Pirsig at the end of the 20th Century. He sees all around him a fantastic intellectual growth, yet he has small lamentations for the end of Victorian morality. He knows to return to such a moral code would be against his value metaphysics, but degeneracy without some kind of social mechanism to restrain it is dangerous.
“Intellect is not an extension of society any more than society is an extension of biology. Intellect is going its own way, and in doing so is at war with society, seeking to subjugate society, to put society under lock and key. An evolutionary morality says it is moral for intellect to do so, but it also contains a warning: Just as a society that weakens its people’s physical health endangers its own stability, so does an intellectual pattern that weakens and destroys the health of its social base also endanger its own stability.
Better to say “has endangered.” It’s already happened. This (the 20th Century) has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction.”
Lila pg 164
This point about intellectual growth in the 20th Century is fascinating. In his essay “Don’t Become a Scientist”, Jonathan Katz lays out a simple counter-narrative to the culturally conceived notion of our intellectual development. How today — as compared to the 1970’s — many of the practical details about becoming a practicing scientist have worsened. Katz describes that as a physicist in our current climate and culture you probably won’t get to pursue ideas (to engage in the Dynamic Quality of ideas, answering questions for their own sake), you’ll be somebody’s lackey. Whatever fit the good qualifications for that job in the past (independence of thought, respect for the position, wage potential) was no longer in physics departments.
I have a different way of thinking about it compared to Dr. Katz. I think it’s remarkable that these kinds of jobs ever existed in that capacity. For most of history, intellectual dynamism has operated entirely on the periphery. In fact, I’ve found that to be one of the bizarre things about Pirsig. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sold millions of copies. When I first picked it up as a 20-year-old, I expected a breezy popular style novel. Instead, I encountered many sections which were as tough to deduce as a Wittgenstein-ian philosophical treatise. I still find it interesting that Pirsig ever got as popular as he was. I have to presume it had something to do with intellect’s reign — destructive reign as Pirsig puts it — in the 20th Century. I’ve often speculated that the 20th Century was a remarkable time to be a writer or physicist (in Pirsig’s words, to attempt to engage with “Dynamic Quality”). If true intellectual dynamism is at least loosely correlated with the degeneracy of a social idea, then “by definition” those ideas can not be significantly popular. Pirsig’s success coincided with a certain societal denigration that can only happen at certain periods of history — presumably, after society has had a static period to retain its intellectual gains.
I have a writer friend who loves to say, “Hemingway wouldn’t make it today.” And I don’t think he’s wrong. Though I often tell him that I find this statement functionally meaningless. Whats is or isn’t making it? Did the 20th Century’s intellectual growth give us an inflated sense of its importance?
“(The 20th Century was) a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction.”
I think what Pirsig wasn’t considering at the time of writing Lila was that very soon that growth would need its static latch, the mechanism for retaining its gains. And the way it seems to have done this was re-integrating society. Society co-opting intellect for its own means. In Lila Pirsig writes about the cultural movement away from the Victorian sense of culture through intellectual dynamism. What was left for modern society but to take such information to heart: to turn itself into a society based on intellect. Not how Pirsig might perceive intellect, but intellect as a social idea.
Many of us have been told our whole lives that any and all education will be worthwhile. And while to undercut such an idea seems fallacious, to notice that perhaps these were not suggestions about the pursuit of knowledge for its own reasons, but, a code of new social values, has helped me to think about it better. If it’s the social mechanisms that help us overcome biology, this new century is going to need society to answer our big questions.
I’ve heard (and basically agree with) the notion that the 21st Century will be mainly about biology. Moving to other planets is, in many ways, a biological question as much as a technological one. It will take a lot of minds doing a lot of research. And while it can and should be argued, as Pirsig does, that the Dynamism required for breakthroughs usually come from strange, degenerate and independent places; a social code based on the fundamentals of our intellectual pursuits from the 20th century was the more meaningful way to make progress. Can’t build a spaceship by yourself. The more intellects in the world, the more chances there are for discoveries. That’s the benefit of society adopting the intellect; that its precepts have spread to corners it couldn’t reach before. Yet, still, we cannot confuse the social and the intellectual.
What we have learned from the Theory of Evolution is that life is a series of useful mistakes. That the social code cannot abide by this wisdom is its obvious function, as protectorate to the whole. Yet crossing this social divide — letting the intellect engage with biology for its own reasons, has proved tricky (social complications in gene editing, cloning, risky medical procedures such as full head transplants. Ideas the intellect might pursue for its own reasons). As society has adopted the intellect (being the natural front line of defense against biology) it can often pretend towards dynamism. Most people want to be smart about their lives, but following a social code or idea is not engaging with the intellect. The tool we actually need to answer hard questions — space without public approval and where things are messy and often fail.
Society is not any longer trying to “restrain the truth” in the classic fashion of social codes. If anything, it’s sort of weirdly made the truth too true. We must never forget that the truth is a consequence of life and not life itself. Because the danger, it seems now, is that the social fear of biology runs the risk of overwhelming or eliminating the potential for Dynamic Quality.
We can wonder if Pirsig would have sold 20 million copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance today. Would his dynamic ideas have the kind of impact they seemed to have in the 1970's? It’s impossible to know but I would guess that they wouldn’t. Though the book still has many fans and this follow up, Lila, does deserve more. It’s difficult to leaf through new books and find anything quite like it. Hell, it’s even hard to find a place to go to leaf through new books.
But that seems to be ok. The 20th Century left behind plenty of material. If the 21st Century pursuer of intellectual dynamism doesn’t make it into all the shops, doesn’t sell thousands and thousands of copies, well, that’ll only be a reversion to the norm. Lila didn’t sell as well as Zen did, though I’d argue it’s the superior work. Perhaps part of the problem is the title. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sounds like a self help book. Its appreciation of the homespun craftsman in the face of rapid technological change felt timely. Though for predictive insight; I think Lila will stand the test of time better. It’s not quite as relatable to the everyman (in no small part because Pirsig has already found success with Zen and is now “famous”) but as a work of cultural anthropology it finds a wholeness which, at least for me, has helped immensely to contextualize feelings related to society and intelligence.