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Lone man on high seas

Lila by Robert Pirsig
Reviewed by Galen Strawson, 27 October 1991

In 1974 Robert M Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZMM), a drifter's travelogue and hesitant soul-manual that opened with great charm and sold more than three million copies. It was benign in its influence, but it was mind-numbingly unclear in its philosophical message, and no one who read it in the seventies (according to my brief sampling) seems to be able to remember what they thought they had learnt from it.

In LILA as in ZMM, Pirsig is his own hero. He is Phædrus, big-nosed and poor-postured, deep-souled, modest, very honest and imperfect. As in ZMM he is travelling and thinking, having exchanged his motorcycle for a small ocean-going boat. He is sailing from Lake Superior to Florida via the Great lakes, the New York State canals and the Hudson River.

He wants to watch the world go by and measure out his philosophy, his "Metaphysics of Quality". Then he meets Lila, a loser. They get drunk and plan to go to Florida together , in spite of a great deal of mutual suspicion. But in New York she succumbs to mental illness -- she finds a doll floating downriver and takes it to be her long-dead child -- and Phaedrus leaves her behind with a friend.

LILA the book begins clumsily, with great stylistic anxiety, but after a a few over-processed pages it settles down to the studied narrative simplicity of ZMM -- flat, methodical descriptions of boat chores and river scenes, fragments of life with Lila. These are interlarded with heavy slabs of historical anthropological-philosophical ruminations which vary from the worthless to the plausible but rigorously unoriginal. In this way Pirsig pursues the obscure question he raised in ZMM. What is Quality? Does Lila with her ruinous life have Quality? Unfortunately he has little to add to the first book except for some dud taxonomy.

His problems begin with his polemics. He keeps attacking something called "subject-object metaphysics". But this is a straw man, a position held by no one. And since his own position is partly defined by its contrast with a straw man, it appears equally brittle and insubstantial. Nor does his positive definition help much. At first he says that "Quality is the primary reality of the world"; it is the directly experienced what-it's-likeness of everything. And here he sounds like a good old-fashioned strict empiricist, a neo-Humean extremist of the sort common in the Thirties.

But then he adds on an ethical dimension, announcing that "Quality is morality", that "moral judgements are the fundamental ground-stuff of the world", and that "the world is composed of nothing but value". He completes his heavily hierarchical proto-Hegelian theory by dividing value into two sorts -- static and dynamic -- and four levels: inorganic ("the value that holds a glass of water together"), biological, social, and intellectual ...

Pirsig thinks that his scheme introduces a fabulous new coherence into metaphysics, and that he has found a better way to talk in very general terms about reality. He is surely wrong. I can't see one advantage in his way of putting things, so far as I can understand it. His excitement about his theory makes me suspect that he is a little mad. But perhaps I am trapped in some dead theoretical outlook; perhaps Pirsig won't be properly understood for 50 years yet.

Meanwhile gentle Phædrus leaves New York and chugs out into the ocean, happy to be alone, making endless notes on cards, writing his book and writing about writing his book. The result is oddly inert, and it is a philosophical mess; but it is very well intentioned, and even mildly edifying. There is a nice song to New York, a funny matt account of his meeting with Robert Redford, and sustained meditation on the Victorians and the American Indians, and on the way their moral styles clash and combine in the modern American soul.

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