Sunday, April 09, 2006

Prospectus for an Idiosyncratic and Possibly Controversial Reading of Lila

Firstly, let me say up front that this was originally not my idea. Rick Budd gets sole credit and bears total responsibility (and blame) for hatching it. He wrote me with it and we exchanged a number of letters about it and the initial intention was that we would work on developing it together. In the end, however, Rick decided, probably because he was too chickenshit to attach his name to it (I'm calling you out, bitch), that I should take it and run with it. So as the thesis is worked out, I bear more and more freight and responsibility for where it goes. Rick should only be blamed for giving me the idea (though, probably for bequething it to me, too, and allowing me to run wild and unchecked).

Secondly, as the title announces, this is not what I would call a full, persuasive reading of the book. It is only a suggestion for one, an angle that could be more fully explored. In what follows, I do not stray very far from what our letters hatched. So, in that sense, Rick and I are co-authors (though I didn't ask him for permission to put it together and present it publicly, so in that sense, I bear responsibility).

What if Lila is more autobiographical than it seems? That's the question that popped into Rick's head one day and launched a number of interesting angles and insights. We are led to such a question when we stop and wonder why certain shifts occur between ZMM and Lila and within the story of Lila itself. For instance, it isn't at all questioned that when Phaedrus opens his mouth in Lila that the philosophy he spins is the philosophy of Pirsig himself. The irony of ZMM is seemingly displaced in Lila for a clear window into Pirsig's mind. So in that sense Lila is autobiographical, it tells Pirsig's philosophy as he wants it. But, we might ask ourselves, why the shift to the creation of a systematic metaphysics in Lila? And why did he drop his "pesky Indians" project in favor of it? Why does Pirsig suddenly see the need for a moral foundation, which towards the end of Lila reveals itself as a strong motivation, as seen in his reaction, for instance, to James' pragmatism and the sloppy "soup of sentiments"?

Pirsig sometimes says that Lila and Rigel are creations of his to service the story, yet on the other hand he does say that they represent himself in some way, though just as every character a novelist creates takes some part of the creator with them. But we know that not all the characters in Lila are completely fictional. Dusenberry is real, Robert Redford is real, even the boat is real. We know that Dusenberry was a real anthropologist that studied the things Pirsig says he did, we know that Redford was interested in making ZMM into a movie and that the project had moved some way towards that goal, and we know that Pirsig is a sailor with a small yacht of some kind. And what's more, from Ian Glendinning's work on the Pirsig timeline we know that the timelines of both books line up very closely to Pirsig's actual biographical timeline.

From Ian's timeline, it seems that Bob and his wife Nancy were planning to sail around the world together after he took the boat down the canal--the trip recounted in Lila. They separate almost immediately after the events of the novel end. The suggestion that turns the tide of the way we read this book is that, after reading the work Ian has done in lining up Pirsig's biographical timeline with the events of Lila, we ask ourselves: what if Lila is based on a real woman who got mixed up with Pirsig and, in some way, destroyed his marriage (as adultery tends to do)? And what if Rigel, if not based on someone real, is the voice in Pirsig that still feels guilty about what happened? Remember that Lila's character has been said to be allegorically connected to biological static patterns and Rigel to social static patterns. And now turn to Lila and reread the Rigel confrontation in the beginning of the book. With that in mind, certain passages flair up with different, ambiguous meanings.

"It's not a public matter," Rigel said. "And I won't mention his name… or you'd recognize it." (85)
"Are you trying to tell me his wife had no right to be angry?" (86)
"The person we are talking about dishonored his wife and he dishonored his children and he dishonored everyone who put trust in him, as well as himself. People forgave him for his weakness, but they lost respect for him and that was what finished him for any position of responsibility." (ibid.)
"And I don't know what the circumstances of your own personal family are my friend, but I warn you, if you're not careful she'll do it to you."
As an afterthought he added, "If she hasn't already." (87) [Is it significant that he added this as an afterthought?]
"Well there are some of us left," he said, returning to the author, "who are still holding out against your hedonistic 'Quality' philosophy or whatever it is." (ibid.)
"Well, we've been talking in a rather general way so far, now let me ask a rather specific question: Did the universal source of things, that is responsible for the creation of Heaven and Earth, broadcast on your radio receiver as you stumbled across my boat at two a. m. this morning that the woman you were stumbling with was an Angel of Quality?"
"What?" the author asked.
"I'll repeat," he said. "Did God tell you that Miss Lila M. Blewitt of Rochester, New York, with whom you stumbled across my deck at two this morning, has Quality?"
"What God?"
"Forget God. Do you personally think Miss Lila M. Blewitt is a Woman of Quality?"
Richard Rigel stopped. He hadn't expected this answer.
Could the Great Author really be so stupid? . . . Maybe he had some trick up his sleeve . . . . Richard Rigel waited but nothing came. (88-9)
"I find quality ... is found in values I've learned in childhood and grown up with and used all my life and have found nothing wrong with. Those are values that are shared by personal friends and family ... and other companions. Because we believe in these common values we're able to act morally toward one another." (90)
"Now you may argue, and many do, that the values of the community and the laws they produce are all wrong. That's permissible. The law of the land guarantees you the right to hold that opinion. And moreover, the laws provide you with political and judicial recourses by which to change the 'bad' laws of the community. But as long as those recourses are there and until those laws are changed neither you or Lila or anyone else can just go acting as you please in disregard of everyone else, deciding what does and what does not have 'Quality.' You do have a moral and legal obligation to obey the same rules others do." (90-1)
"Well, do you see what happens when you get all involved in fine-sounding words that nobody can define? That's why we have laws, to define what quality is. These definitions may not be as perfect as you'd like them, but I can promise you they're a whole lot better than having everybody run around doing as he pleases. We've seen the results of that." (91-2)
[Could Pirsig have actually seen the results himself by the time he wrote this?]
"Tell me," he said, "do you really and sincerely believe that Lila Blewitt has quality?"
The author thought for a long time. "Yes," he said.
"Well why don't you just try to explain to us how on earth you can possibly think that Lila has quality. Do you think you can do that?"
"No, I don't think I can." (92)

Is Pirsig talking to himself through Rigel? Scolding himself for ruining his marriage? Blaming his "moral failure" on his old view of quality? Is this what sends him searching for a moral foundation with which to make moral judgments with greater clarity? Or does his guilt reignite the metaphysical madness of Phaedrus, sending him back into his old obsessions for psychological shelter? This certainly gives a whole new tone to the part where he's trying to decide whether or not he should pursue a metaphysics of Quality and says: "His mind went over this many times. A part of it said, 'Don't do it. You'll get into nothing but trouble'" (74) Was this the author-character of ZMM? "The trouble was, this was only one part of himself talking. There was another part that kept saying, ‘Ahh, do it anyway. It's interesting.’ This was the intellectual part that didn't like undefined things, and telling it not to define Quality was like telling a fat man to stay out of the refrigerator, or an alcoholic to stay out of bars. To the intellect the process of defining Quality has a compulsive quality of its own." (ibid.) And was this Phaedrus?

Is this the real story of Lila? The moral failing that sent an otherwise stable Pirsig back down the road of madness? And then, with the Rigel chapter in our minds, when we turn to the conclusion of Lila, we realize that the MoQ, as a systematic philosophy, has nothing really to do at all with the resolution of the story. Rigel saves him plain and simple. Rigel explains that he came back to find Phaedrus because he was curious about why Phaedrus thought Lila had quality. He knew Lila as a child and knew she was a quality person then (she stood up for him against other kids) and thought that maybe Phaedrus had somehow seen a glimmer of that in her and came to find out what it was. Phaedrus writes this off as a "savior" complex of some kind, but from Rigel’s own words we see that it was in fact his desire to find the quality in Lila that leads to the resolution. The metaphysics was besides the point the whole time. It turns out Rigel was the one who really knew about the quality in Lila the whole time and it was Phaedrus who was grasping around the darkness of his own metaphysics to justify the comment he had made defensively, without reason....

"You're the winner, you know," the idol said. ". . . by default."
"How so?"
"You did one moral thing on this whole trip, which saved you."
"What was that?"
"You told Rigel that Lila had Quality."
"You mean in Kingston?"
"Yes, and the only reason you did that was because he caught you by surprise and you couldn't think of your usual intellectual answer, but you turned him around. He wouldn't have come here if it hadn't been for that. Before then he had no respect for her and a lot for you. After that he had no respect for you, but some for her. So you gave something to her, and that's what saved you. If it hadn't been for that one moral act you'd be headed down the coast tomorrow with a lifetime of Lila ahead of you." (462)
Pirsig sets sail down the Hudson planning to write an academic text on anthropology. Along the way, he has an affair and destroys his marriage. The guilt puts him in a moral crisis, which gets him reconsidering quite how in tune with quality he really is. Between the guilt, and the reconsideration, he descends back into his compulsion to define Quality. It consumes him to the point where the earlier project is abandoned completely and in the end he's left talking to a plastic doll that talks back to him, twirling madly, alone on a beach in glee over his metaphysics while the destruction of his marriage is only weeks down the road. Was the MoQ just a giant red-herring all along?

We find the MoQ as a red-herring because the book doesn't end with Pirsig's metaphysics, the book ends with Pirsig's doll telling him his gut reaction was moral. And what was that "gut reaction"? According to the terms of the novel, the terms of the philosophy Pirsig has laid out through it, it was Dynamic Quality, Whitehead's "dim apprehension", mystical apprehension itself. But was it? Or was it Pirsig's old insanity rising up again? Is there a difference?

One of the most important things we have to remember about Lila are the ways in which Pirsig uses points of view to write the narrative. Much of the book is from Phaedrus' point of view, but we get some from Lila and one from Rigel. We need to remember how Pirsig enjoys manipulating points of view to conceal as much as to reveal (as evident from Pirsig's letter to Robert Redford). When we read Lila as the quasi-reenactment of his moral crisis, several other things start falling into place: the dreariness of the "Cruising Blues" essay, the harshness of the "Husband without a Wife" book review (written only months before his own divorce), his sudden "right wing" turn on hippies and criminals (a metaphysical reaction to Chris's murder?).

In Pirsig's letter to Redford, he says:

Here [ZMM] ends for most readers, leaving them a little puzzled and a little haunted by it all, wanting to discuss it with someone and ask questions. A few perceptive readers and one lone British critic kept on going beyond the end of the book into a whole other interpretation which the narrator never really gives you. John and Sylvia, the bourgeois butts of the narrator's criticism, are now seen as tolerant friends. Chris, the troubled brat of the narrator's tale, now appears as almost saintly, and the benign, omniscient narrator, whose point of view the reader has had to accept as true until now is seen as Phaedrus himself, broken, his mind half-destroyed, struggling desperately to recover.

What really happened? In the end Phaedrus said he wasn't insane. But the court ruled he was, and his symptoms through the book are classic textbook symptoms of schizophrenia. What is wrong here?

I think the effect of ending the book on this question rather than an answer to it is correct. Questions can be stories too. Even though the audience is not consciously aware of another possible story, something in their subliminal minds responds to it, and that is why the story lingers with them so.... (Guidebook, 231)

Pirsig goes on to suggest in his letter that there is an "alternative, Zen explanation" of what happened in Chicago: it "was not insanity but enlightenment as it has been understood for thousands of years in China, India, and Japan..." (ibid., 231-2) Pirsig, however, says that the book couldn't say that "because to do so would sink it completely and would in fact be bad Zen to bring up. But the question of what really happened to Phaedrus is taken up again in the book I am now working on...." (ibid., italics mine) And in a buried footnote to the Redford letter, we find this from a letter to Ronald DiSanto: "I don't think all insanity is a form of enlightenment nor do I think all enlightenment a form of insanity, but I think that there is an area of overlap between the two where identical phenomena can be interpreted either way depending upon which culture one is looking out of." (ibid., fn. 3, 239)

Just as ZMM does not end with final closure, but ends with the opening up of questions the question of whether it's all been insanity or mystic apprehension is the point itself.

Almost the last thing Phaedrus says to the doll is " may be right and you may wrong but we're coming to the end of the road here."

To Part II

*Almost all of the above is work Rick did digging out his idea. In fact, partly because of my laziness but mostly because Rick did such an excellent job of presenting it, I mainly copied and pasted what Rick wrote to me. As much as Rick might not want it, he certainly gets writing and research credit for this project.


  1. I guess it's not so important that the theory itself is right, but the idea is to try and find real historical context to explain the shift in philosophical tone from ZMM to LILA. What is it that so exacerbated his cartesian anxiety? Also, I meant to try and find more coherence between the philosophical action and and the narrative action. Pirsig is a skilled writer and I think the MOQ has unfortunately overshadowed a much larger and more interesting complete work. Anyway, thanks Matt for getting this out. (And PS: any man who calls me a chickenshit better be prepared to come to NYC and say it to my face... because I'll down a 12 pack and go all drunken kung fu kickboxing on your ass.)

  2. I like that idea of developing the parallels between the philosophy and the narrative. There's a great essay about Pirsig that traces some of these things in ZMM by Geoffry G. Harpham in Contemporary Literature 29 (1988) "Rhetoric and the Madness of Philosophy in Plato and Pirsig". That essay expresses quite expertly some things I've been dancing around for the last few years. I think the same thing could be done for LILA.

    (And PS: word on the street is that I'm not "Eastern" enough to take you up on your kung fu invitation. I get the impression from the MD that they think I'd either show up to a fight with an essay about fighting or I'd be wearing a knight's full body armor with longsword and lance.)

  3. Ok, if truth be told, after downing a 12 pack I'd be lucky if I could _say_ "drunken kung fu kickboxing". I'm trying to master the art slowly and so far I've spent my first few decades working on the 'downing a 12 pack' part. All things in time.

    As for the MD, they think you'd say "punch" instead of punching, say "dodge" instead of dodging, say "kick" instead of kicking... etc.

  4. Hi Matt, came here following the link from the megalomaina post. Hadn't noticed this one before.

    I'm pretty certain there is more autobiography (and guilt) in Lila than Pirsig admits so far, even if the individuals are strictly fictional. He has used "pastiches" of real events elsewhere to make his points. There is no doubt, and no surprise surely after the Chicago period and the ZMM trip - (knowing remarks from Sylvia etc) - that the relationship with Nancy is already very strained.

    I'm as interested in the narrative structures as parallels to his philsophical structures too. In fact I think his "evolving psychology" comes through if you take the whole content as biographical. He had to pass through the social moral level to get to the "open water" of the intellect.

  5. Matt, do you have a copy / link to that Harpman essay ?



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