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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2177

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.

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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 Nyack, thence to New York City, and, finally, to Sandy Hook, just beyond Manhattan.

Into the philosophical and nautical voyaging of Phaedrus intrudes Lila Blewitt, sometime waitress and prostitute, who picks him up in a bar in Kingston and who literally upsets the neat trays of ideas that had been accumulating in the pilot’s berth—and in Phaedrus’ mind. She and Phaedrus become wildly intoxicated in the bar, performing a dance of Dionysian excess, finally collapsing in a drunken stupor on Phaedrus’ boat. Like Phaedrus, Lila is unnervingly direct and terrifyingly candid. Her very presence becomes a catalyst, especially since another sailor named Richard Rigel, a boyhood acquaintance of Lila, has challenged Phaedrus to prove how Lila could be considered a person of quality. In spite of her unpredictable behavior, vulgar jewelry, and utter lack of sexual restraint, Phaedrus finds her fascinating. He immediately recognizes that in solving the puzzle of Lila he will simultaneously solve the riddle of quality, the idea that has been hounding him during his entire voyage.

Phaedrus and Lila do experience some precious moments together. The boat provides a lulling and beautiful ambience, and she seems to adapt to this small, compartmentalized world of berths, buoys, sails, and hatches with an unconscious grace and natural delight. Phaedrus describes one memorable evening when Lila prepares a dinner of steak, fried potatoes, and salad. They are both famished, and the prospect of eating is almost as pleasurable as the food itself. Lila experiences moments of Zen-like intensity as she directs her total concentration on simple acts such as slicing and frying each sliver of potato as if it were a perfect little work of art. Later that evening, she visits his bed and makes love to him in a way that is at once tenderly erotic and painfully vulnerable.

Lila forces Phaedrus to focus on society and the great social codes that seem to govern even the smallest details of day-to-day life. Although his thinking about quality, morality, and society will eventually result in a fairly coherent system of ideas, Phaedrus wants the reader to think along with him and to share the various steps that lead to his personal metaphysics of quality. This personal philosophy is really an attempt to explain why people change and why society is always lagging behind those changes. Phaedrus expresses this idea again and again, with different examples, by using the antipodal words “static” and “dynamic.” Lila is dynamic, but Richard Rigel (her critic) is clearly static, passing judgment on her with a set of antiquated moral ideas that do not apply to her situation or to the twentieth century as a whole.

Lila is one of many misfits whom Phaedrus admires profoundly. The first is a child prodigy named William James Sidis, who read classical Greek and other languages by the age of five, entered Harvard at eleven years of age, and then led a life of apparent obscurity. Phaedrus discovered through his reading, however, that Sidis had left many manuscripts and had published widely under a pen name. Among other ideas, Sidis had successfully predicted the existence of black holes at a time when no one had dreamed of such things and had shown how white American social values of independence and freedom depended heavily on the values of the American Indians who had just been conquered.

This focus on Native American Indians is critical because one of Phaedrus’ mentors, Verne Dusenberry, had introduced him to the peyote rituals of the Northern Cheyenne at the same time that he had pointed out the inconsistencies in standard anthropological practice, which tended to treat Indians as objects. A more human-centered anthropology was what Phaedrus found in the work of Ruth Benedict, who told the anecdote of a Zuni Indian who was banished and punished for violating tribal customs but who, nevertheless, returned to save the tribe from extinction. Social codes, Phaedrus concluded, are always in need of reformation; there is an important dynamic quality in people that facilitates these changes. Phaedrus wanted a theory that would describe such changes accurately, hence the need for his metaphysics of quality. “Quality” was only a name for the activity of seeking improvements in society. For that reason, Phaedrus also admired the philosopher William James, who had grown mightily impatient of the subject-object distinction in science and whose work, Phaedrus believed, tended toward more advanced notions such as relativity.

All these sublime philosophical speculations are rudely interrupted when Lila and Phaedrus dock the boat in New York City. She tries to recruit a former friend to serve as a deckhand on the boat, an undertaking that manages to enrage all the participants. Phaedrus leaves to keep an appointment with Robert Redford, and while they are discussing a possible film deal, Lila wanders around the city without her much-needed tranquilizers—or her wallet. Ultimately, Phaedrus finds her waiting on the boat, rain-soaked and catatonic, holding a rubber doll that she mistakes for Dawn, her long-dead daughter and the cause of the collapse of her marriage.

Lila’s condition prompts Phaedrus to recall his own experience in the mental hospital and to philosophize about sanity and insanity. At this point, he shocks the reader with the admission that he was never actually cured but simply played the part of the sane man in order to escape the horrors of the asylum. In his metaphysics, the insane are simply playing by a different set of rules. He offers many examples of alternate realties that are routinely ignored by supposedly rational people. This meditation on sanity concludes a whole series of internal dialogues in which Phaedrus condemns various aspects of society. The Victorians, in his view, operated entirely by social convention without any regard for intellectual honesty. Their culture was replaced by the Modernists of the 1920’s, who emphasized intellect and reason to such an extent that a counterrevolution occurred in the excesses of the Hippies during the 1960’s. The emotional excesses of those turbulent days persisted into the 1970’s and 1980’s as drugs, street violence, gangs, and urban problems increased on a year-to-year basis. A metaphysics of quality, which Phaedrus finally equates with a search for the good, might very well be a panacea for all these tragic social ills.

In the end, Phaedrus determines that all life can be divided into four systems of value: the inorganic, the biological, the social, and the intellectual. Quality is the engine that drives existence, the dynamic force that strains to improve and revolutionize the four systems (as in the process of evolution) toward something that resembles Plato’s idea of the good. Quality, Phaedrus says, is the true meaning of the Greek word for goodness or virtue, arete, and the Sanskrit root Rta, which produced such modern English words as “right” and “ritual.”

Sadly, when Phaedrus comes to these profound conclusions, Lila has seemingly lost all touch with any kind of reality. Richard Rigel anchors beside them at Sandy Hook, and Lila insists on leaving with him. Like Lila, the reader has come to the end of the voyage, an experience that has somehow been palpably physical and utterly metaphysical, strangely beautiful and painfully tragic. Pirsig succeeds in writing a brilliant novel of ideas, uniting in one voice the inner and outer realities of experience. It is almost impossible to forget Phaedrus. His haunting and enchanting voice, with all its questions and observations, becomes a lasting touchstone for the quality of life itself.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 13, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 5, 1991, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 27, 1991, p. 2.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, December 19, 1991, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 13, 1991, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 44.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, October 19, 1991, p. 39.

Time. CXXXVIII, October 28, 1991, p. 93.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 1991, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 13, 1991, p. 3.

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