(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the most familiar and powerful patterns in world literature is that of the journey. Typically, the journey features the complicated wanderings of a hero who undergoes some sort of spiritual or psychological transformation in the process of wandering. The journey always proceeds simultaneously on the physical and the spiritual levels, because the hero inevitably discovers a new reality, one that necessitates a change in personal values. This archetypal pattern would include such familiar figures as Gilgamesh, Jonah, Odysseus, Robinson Crusoe, Captain Ahab, and Huckleberry Finn.

In his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974), Robert Pirsig made extensive use of the journey pattern as he recounted a dramatic motorcycle trip that he and his son, Chris, took across the western United States. The story of that journey formed the core of one of the most influential and oft-quoted books in twentieth century America, catapulting its author to celebrity status and making the book a kind of instant classic. The book deals with repairing motorcycles and other broken objects as a metaphor for taking control of one’s life. Pirsig relied heavily on the ideas of Plato and on the meditative and aesthetic techniques of Zen Buddhism. He also introduced the reader to his alter ego, a philosophical character named Phaedrus. It was as Phaedrus that Robert Pirsig spent time in a mental hospital. His recovery and the subsequent writing of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance all depended upon his discovery of the crucial importance of quality in day-to-day living. That preoccupation with quality, and all of its moral and social implications, inspired him to write Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

But Lila does not take up where Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance left off. It is not intended to be a sequel, and the reader can pick up Lila and read it profitably without having been immersed in the previous book. Pirsig makes no attempt to fill in the gaps between the two works, but he does make use of Phaedrus again, letting him tell the story. The celebrity status Pirsig achieved from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is important, however, because it explains Pirsig’s desire to escape from the limelight, buy a large sailboat, and begin a voyage that would take him from the Great Lakes, down the Hudson River, around Manhattan, and down the Eastern Seaboard. Again, the voyage itself is a critical part of the learning process, and Pirsig emphasizes that the solitude and relative invisibility of life on a boat is precisely what he needs to carry on his philosophical inquiries. Richard Rigel, one of his sailing acquaintances, frequently needles Pirsig because of that celebrity status. When Pirsig meets his publisher during a brief stopover in New York City, he picks up two large canvas sacks of fan mail, proof positive that the world outside is still waiting for him.

For Pirsig—or Phaedrus, as he styles himself—the journey is a learning device, and the boat becomes a kind of floating study. Phaedrus explains that he had become impatient with most ways of taking notes or making journal entries. He wanted a nonlinear, infinitely expandable tool that could include all of his ongoing thoughts and revisions. So he hit upon the simple expedient of using slips of paper each of which contained a note about some important idea. When slips began to cohere logically under some heading or topic, he would group them together under a plastic tab attached to an index card. The advantage of this system was that it guaranteed random access and flexibility. Phaedrus could add, subtract, or rearrange slips or topics as his thinking progressed.

His ultimate goal was to arrive at a metaphysics of quality, the one megatopic that implied or subsumed all the subordinate ones. Eventually, Phaedrus accumulated some eleven thousand slips of paper with scores of topic headings or categories. These slips were collected in library card-catalog trays and stored in the pilot berth of the sailboat, always within easy reach of Phaedrus.

In addition, Phaedrus designed five special categories to make the system as personal and flexible as possible: “Unassimilated,” a category for spur-of-the-moment thoughts and ideas; “Program,” a category that contained instructions for processing the other slips, a kind of software package for the computer of his mind; “Crit,” a category that listed all the slips that could be destroyed (the category also provided a mandatory waiting period to guarantee that no slips were destroyed in a moment of extreme anger or frustration); “Tough,” a category for ideas that were unique or just didn’t belong in any other grouping; and “Junk,” a category for duplicates of previous slips or ideas that needed more refinement.

Phaedrus spends a considerable amount of time describing this methodology to the reader because he expects close attention and participation in the process of creating the resultant book. Lila is an unusually interactive work: The reader will have to create a system of mental slips and card trays to process the immense amount of thought that occurs on the boat journey from Kingston, New York, on the Hudson River, down to...

(The entire section is 2177 words.)