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Sailing Eastward with Two Contrarians

LILA: An inquiry Into Morals
Reviewed by Dan Cryer, October 21, 1991

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (ZMM) emerged from obscurity to become the oddball literary hit of 1974. Rejected by countless publishers before it was accepted by Marrow, Robert Pirsig's first book combined elements of the road novel, autobiography and philosophical treatise. It was a quirky, mind-expanding American original that even today continues to attract hordes of readers uninterested in either Zen or motorcycles.

Why then has Pirsig tried to repeat the unrepeatable?

LILA: An inquiry Into Morals is part clone, part sequel. this nonfiction work chronicles in novelistic fashion another of the author's trips while recycling his ideas on the nature of reality. But in doing so, he unwittingly exposes their shallowness.

Like the village crank hanging out at the public library, the guy really believes he has discovered the secret of the universe.

Instead of riding a motorcycle westward from Minneapolis with his 11-year-old son, this time Pirsig is sailing eastward across the Great Lakes and then southward on the Hudson to New York City and beyond. His companion, picked up in a noisy bar along the way, is Lila Blewitt, a boozy, sluttish woman who offers to be his crew, cook and lover.

Does Lila, Pirsig wants to know, have quality? That is, is she moral? As we come to know her we see that though she may once have been a whore, she is also an admirable survivor and a scrapper, her own woman. And, like Pirsig himself, a onetime mental patient.

This continuing assessment of Lila drives the narrative into the realm of Pirsig’s eccentric and infuriatingly fuzzy theory of the Metaphysics of Quality. The former English composition teacher, technical writer and student of Western philosophy defines Quality (and/or the Moral) as "the source of all things, the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." In doing so, he renders his question about Lila ridiculous, since she, like everything else according to this definition, is made of Quality.

This notion of Quality is based Pirsig claims, not on mysticism but on 20th Century physics. Thus Quality becomes his magic wand for uniting the disparate realms of science and morality and for clearing up such ancient philosophical puzzles as mind-body dualism and free will versus determinism.

As a thinker, Pirsig is nothing if not grandiose. He is also preposterous.

In analyzing the conflict between freedom and order in US history, he equates the Indians with freedom and white Europeans with order. Take that, John Locke. He characterises America in the 1920s as "the new dominance of intellect over society." Does that include Jazz, sexual experimentation, the revived Klu Klutz Klan and religious fanaticism? Pirsig's take on mental illness vacilitates recklessly between the romantic (what's "madness" in one culture isn't in another) and the sober (some patients really do need to be medicated).

Despite the weighty subject matter, Pirsig's prose style is easy and colloquial, though slacker and more rambling than in the book's predecessor. It's fun to watch the author in the process of thinking, delighting in ideas that work for him and discarding those he dislikes. The river sections, however, lack the drama and eye-catching details that gave "Zen" its considerable elan.

Pirsig and Blewitt are both "contrarians" a term he uses to describe those who like to move against society's grain. As they berth at the 79th Street marina in New York, we sense however, that no matter what befalls him, she lacks the strength to deal with the city. For the author, in town to confer with Robert Redford about a possible movie version of "Zen," New York is at once vulgarly, noisy, dirty and untrustworthy and the epicenter of dynamic energy. For Lila, though, the city is a grim encounter with her former pimp and her present mental instability.

LILA is a tease of a book. We are constantly waiting for something significant to happen, and constantly being disappointed.

What is Pirsig to do with the once vibrant, feisty and now mute, doll-hugging Lila? How will her presence change his life? Not at all, it turns out. She will pass out of it as easily as she entered. So the book ends with a kind of passive shrug of the shoulders.

That's about the same way we feel, in the end, about the book's ideas. "Adolescent stuff" in search of "the secret of life," Pirsig scoffs at his high-school chemistry experiments. They were merely the beginning.

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