Book Review: Lila by Robert Pirsig

Everyone has a favorite cult book.  Maybe it’s Fight Club, maybe it’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, maybe it’s something else.  For me, it’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Robert Pirsig does an amazing job of exposing the less philosophy educated, but interested, in a whole new way of thinking about the world.  As a young man brought up in a Catholic household, his concept of “Quality” as the divine, in its way, was racy and delicious.

Fewer have read his effort: Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.  Lila delves deeper.  In the same way Atlas Shrugged was used as Ayn Rand’s soapbox after priming the pump with the superb “The Fountainhead,” Pirsig knows you’re bought in to an extent, so he’s going to dive in deep.  At one point he chirps “Metaphysics is a diner menu with 30,000 pages and no food” and thusly seems to wash his hands to the need for food in the text.  He weaves around a story down a river, as opposed to on a bike, with his own morality in his sights and that of other characters, be they real or created for the vehicle of the story.

Fundamentally, the problem with Lila becomes not that it fails to entertain; it is dense but appeals to the inquiring mind.  Rather it is that this text is a kind of basis for the same mysticism based new-age philosophies that become relative and in their relativity become dangerous.  Although Pirsig thankfully shies away from “The Cloud of Unknowing” concept in which any attempt to attach names to “the Divine” furthers us from understanding it, he still clings to the fact that connotation refracts the light of knowledge and thusly obfuscates the reality of experience.  Even in his oft-cited example about a hot stove and the “low quality experience” of sitting on it, he muddles something tangible and physical with conclusions much deeper than “that was uncomfortable” opting instead for the “dynamic” nature of realizing the issue andb amending it and the consequent “static” nature of writing into your mental code “do not sit on hot stove.”

Regardless, Pirsig’s writing is clean and anyone interested in the concepts will be satisfied not only by his execution, but by his elocution.  And besides this is the stuff that dorm common rooms were made for.


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  2. David Levins says:

    It’s been said that the world can be divided up into two types of people – those people who like to divide the world up and those people who don’t. I like dividing things up and found the concepts he develops in Lila helps whittle the world down into smaller, more understandable spaces.

    For example, I like the way Pirsig divided Quality up into four patterns – Inorganic, Biological, Social and Intellectual. He said that “social patterns” like New York City devour the energy of its inhabitants (biological) for its own sustenance.

    Looking through his prism allows one to unpack the meaning of words like “they”, as in “Why are ‘they’ screwing things up?”. By seeing “they” as a social pattern rather than a group of people brings new clarity.

    Pirsig said that life comes to us as an endless stream of puzzle pieces and I found the pieces he presented in Lila to be reusable in all sorts of puzzles.

  3. David,
    I agree with your assessment to a degree. Pirsig’s ability to take things apart, inspect them, and put them back together as they were but with a far better understanding is one of his best qualities.

    In terms of his use of “they” I think he got some help from Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” which is an excellent text in regards to something as simply complicated as our use of pronouns.

    In any event, as a New Yorker, I love his assessment there, and reading Lila would make anyone want to go on a boat trip; not because he romanticizes it, but rather because he can see the excursion for what it is: as much a journey into the self as down the Hudson River Valley.

  4. Louis Stockwell says:

    In a world of one, define ‘insanity’. This is an important point. Who is the real You? Douglas Harding also has a wonderful grasp of this question. i’ll bet Robert Pirsig has looked into this.

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