For a third time, I'd like to represent this idiosyncratic and possibly controversial reading of Lila. And this time, I'm going to use numbers.
1. If we read Lila as a novel, the story (rather than being about a philosophy called the "Metaphysics of Quality") is about a guy who cheated on his wife.
2. Read this way, we see the Great Author, Phaedrus, struggling to answer the question, "Does Lila have Quality?".
3. Phaedrus answers this question (yes), but spends most of the novel explaining what exactly he means.
4. By the end of the novel, we reach the narrative's conclusion in which Lila is taken away by a returned Rigel. Rigel and Phaedrus argue as to the fate of Lila, Lila chooses Rigel, and Phaedrus takes a stroll down the beach with the "idol." The idol says strangely, "You did one moral thing on this whole trip, which saved you. ... You told Rigel that Lila had Quality."
5. This one line turns the novel completely on its head. On the surface, the novel was seemingly about the explication of a philosophy, the MoQ, a means by which we may answer the question, "Does Lila have Quality?", but now it seems that the whole MoQ was a red herring.
6. Now we see Phaedrus as someone who is dodging the real, pertinent question "Does Lila have Quality?" Phaedrus answers the question intellectually to back up his reflexive response, but now his answer, which takes up most of the book, begins to haunt us as being besides the point--it doesn't answer the question or connect up to the reality of the situation. "Does Lila have Quality?" "Sure, she has biological quality, social quality...." "No, does she have Quality?" "Sure, she, like every person, is a locus of Dynamic Quality, of the possibility of moral behavior." "Yeah, but is she worth getting a divorce over? Do you love her?" "Well, ...." Too late, you've already slept with her and ruined your marriage.
7. Pirsig says that Lila has Quality without thinking, and while we were watching the MoQ take shape, somewhere in the same world, Richard Rigel was sailing along, minding his own business, but in the back of his head, there was this voice saying, "How did he know? She was once a good person. Is it possible she still is? Is that why he said she had quality? Because he saw something in her? Something of the old Lila? Nah. He was just talking out of his ass. Or was he? I've got to know. I can catch up with them if I turn around now." And he did, and if not that, Phaedrus would have been stuck with Lila. He would have talked himself into taking care of her for the rest of her life as sure as he had talked himself into believing that he was right to say she had quality because chairs are composed of static inorganic patterns of value.
8. The MoQ is now seen as a red herring to dodge responsibility for the action. It is made, in fact, by Phaedrus to justify his actions, but we see it as failing in that justification because all it justifies is the ability to give justification (along the lines of biological, social, intellectual, Dynamic). That saying a girl has high biological quality, but next to no social or intellectual quality is a philosopher's way of saying that he'd tap that ass, but she ain't dating material. Phaedrus wins by default, pretty much by accident, not because of his justification, but because he says Lila has Quality (though what this means aside from the explanation/justification is left somewhat obscure).
9. And now Lila's resonance with the first book becomes too tremendous to ignore and we begin to wonder how fictional this book really is.
10. We remember that Phaedrus is described by Rigel as the Great Author and Phaedrus talks about his first book, which is obviously ZMM. Pirsig, in fact, does little to try and cloak Phaedrus in anything but his own clothes.
11. This is where philosophy becomes autobiography. The MoQ becomes not so much a red herring as it is a personal response by Pirsig.
12. As too how autobiographical Lila is, how literally true it is, this almost becomes a side point in itself. We can establish much resonance between facts of Pirsig's life and the narrative of Lila to establish how personal Lila is. But literalness we don't need. It is obviously based on his life. And in this sense it becomes his own personal vision of his life.
13. Who we are now in the present is partly because of the way we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves.
14. The MoQ becomes something else, now again. Not only is it a personal response, if perhaps misguided and a clue to Pirsig's psychological makeup, but we can now see it as a ladder by again focusing on the text, the narrative. In the closing chapter, after Pirsig tosses the idol, he says, "He had a feeling of freshness as he walked back to the boat. ... How many people are ever lucky enough to clean the slate like this?" Clean the slate? What slate is he talking about? I think the slate he's talking about is not Lila and Rigel, but the MoQ. The MoQ was a ladder he climbed up to deal with his situation, his life. He got to the top and the culmination of that long trip was the idol. The idol is the incarnation of the MoQ. It tells him, just as the MoQ would, that the one moral thing he did was the Dynamic thing, the non-intellectual thing. And then--he tosses the idol into the ocean. And says that he's cleaned the slate.
15. In this way, Lila should be read as what Stanley Fish calls a "self-consuming artifact." A self-consuming artifact is one that leads you down a path while slowly and subtlely calling that path into question, before finally the path just traveled is consumed and burned away, leaving the reader in a different place, but no longer able to follow the path that led him there. And what's more, not only is Lila a self-consuming artifact, but the book itself, both by philosophical doctrine and (now) by narrative, is a model and suggestion for how we should think of the "self," the "ego," the "subject": we should think of the self as a self-consuming artifact. The self is a set of static patterns we inherit from our culture--our self is an artifact of culture. As these patterns swim through life, they consume themselves by dealing with tensions within themselves and the new tensions of new experiences. The self is an artifact that consumes itself until we are a self who is no longer our old self but something new. Which, in its own turn, requires a new narrative to explain how we got there since we've just burned away the old one.
16. Lila is a self-consuming artifact so that when you reach the end, and have absorbed its message (the message just adumbrated), you will never read Lila the same way again because you are a different reader then you were before. Lila works its magic on the reader not in doctrine but by the effort of reading it. But once you've read it, it has no more magic to work. Lila is a different book because you are a different reader because having read Lila has put you in a different place, made you a different person.
17. The self is a self-consuming artifact because once you've absorbed an experience you revise your self to include that experience so that that experience is no longer the same experience you just had. The story of how you got to be you changes as you go along because you've changed. And if the story of your life is a piece of the changing of your life, then the story is a ladder to be dispensed with once its told so that it can be replaced with a better story to show how you got to where you are by the telling of the story.
18. That is the relationship of ZMM to Lila. Lila is a novel about ZMM. Lila is to ZMM what the later books of Don Quixote are to the early. Lila is about Pirsig, the author of ZMM, the creator of Quality. Lila is about a different Pirsig responding to a different life situation.
In Fish's magnificent book, Self-Consuming Artifacts, he gives us a handle on Pirsig and what he is up to, calling it the "aesthetic of the good physician":
It follows then ... that a dialectical presentation succeeds at its own expense; for by conveying those who experience it to a point where they are beyond the aid that discursive or rational forms can offer, it becomes the vehicle of its own abandonment. Hence, the title of this study, Self-Consuming Artifacts, which is intended in two senses: the reader's self (or at least his inferior self) is consumed as he responds to the medicinal purging of the dialectician's art, and that art, like other medicines, is consumed in the workings of its own best effects. The good-physician aesthetic, then, is finally an anti-aesthetic, for it disallows to its productions the claims usually made for verbal art--that they reflect, or contain or express Truth--and transfers the pressure and attention from the work to its effects, from what is happening on the page to what is happening in the reader. A self-consuming artifact signifies most successfully when it fails, when it points away from itself to something its forms cannot capture. If this is not anti-art, it is surely anti-art-for-art's-sake because it is concerned less with the making of better poems than with the making of better persons.And what is Fish's first example of this aesthetic? Plato's Phaedrus:
In short, the Phaedrus is what it urges: "a discourse which is inscribed with genuine knowledge in the soul of the learner." Although a piece of writing itself, it escapes the criticism leveled at written artifacts because it does not exhibit the characteristics of those artifacts. Specifically, its words do not "go on telling you the same thing over and over," for as a result of passing through them, the reader is altered to such an extent that if he were to go back they would mean quite differently.
Is Lila about a systematic philosophy or a systematic philosopher?
We need to answer both. There is nothing wrong with reading Lila as the exposition of a systematic philosophy. There is as much to be learned about life and philosophy by exploring (and generating) the interstices of the Metaphysics of Quality as there is to be learned from developing Plato's dialogues into a systematic metaphysics. What both Pirsig and Plato (and if not Plato, then Socrates) want us to realize concurrently is the limitations of systematic philosophy, of theory. The dialectical encounter with ourselves that both ZMM and Lila generates raises the question of who the audience of these books are supposed to be. The Sophists taught that it was very important to have an audience in mind and Pirsig is no lesser a rhetorician then they. If ZMM and Lila both fall within the range of Fish's aesthetic of the good physician, then who is the patient in need of the treatment? Both ZMM and Lila clearly have a broad range of medicine for many people, but Lila might also be more narrowly directed then its predecessor.
Who is the medicine directed towards? Us, the amateur philosophers who took Pirsig seriously. We were the main targets of Lila's medicine. Don't take system too seriously. Don't take philosophers too seriously, especially the professionals. As Wittgenstein suggested, be able to stop philosophizing when you want. That's the danger Phaedrus warns us of by example.