Sunday, April 09, 2006

Prospectus, Part II

To sum up the story I was telling: Pirsig writes Lila because he has a moral crisis after his divorce from Nancy. Pirsig falls in with a woman, has an affair, gets the divorce, and now is faced with being a bad person. Pirsig, however, doesn't think he's a bad person, and so tries to rectify his moral crisis by justifying his illegitimate-in-the-eyes-of-the-court affair with "Lila". This justification takes the form of the MoQ. By the end, though, we realize that the MoQ has been besides the point. The justification that Pirsig recieves is from Rigel, that Rigel could see that Lila had quality, even back in the beginning of the book (because of his history with her), but Phaedrus could not, so how could Phaedrus justify his calling her a woman of quality? He couldn't. The only way to do it was to construct an elaborate metaphysics enshrining an indefinable grasp of Quality itself that everyone has. That way, he could argue that he really did see Quality in Lila.

Of course, by that point, he doesn't have to argue that he did, because arguing, a.k.a. metaphysics, is besides the point. It's the mystical apprehension that's important. But, the end puts into question the very idea that we could have this apprehension, or at least that he did. Even after the doll has let him off the hook and told him that the only moral thing he did was defensively saying Lila had quality (not dreaming up the MoQ), and after he has danced in celebration of his freedom on the beach, he goes right back into the "good is a noun" thing. He may be free from Lila, but is he trapped by insanity again? Is that why Lila thought he was trying to kill her? Because he was going crazy? He thinks she's lying to get Rigel's sympathy, but it's his thoughts we see, carefully controled by the author giving us only his perspective. Can his thoughts be trusted? Did he apprehend Lila's Quality, her true nature, or has Pirsig slipped back into the insanity that led him to the Chicago institutions those many years ago? Or, is there any difference?

Rigel (Pirsig's social conscience) confronts him about Lila having quality, Phaedrus insists she does, Phaedrus constructs the MoQ to justify that response, Rigel saves Phaedrus from Lila and confirms that she does have quality, but Phaedrus realizes--through the doll--that he didn't need to have his sight confirmed--he had it all along and it was the only moral breakthrough he had the whole trip. The question at the end continues to pursue us: is he a mystic or insane? Did he apprehend Quality or was he just reflexively defending his immoral act?

Reaching this position, its useful to wonder what convinces us that Phaedrus was right? Phaedrus' MoQ? No. It was Rigel. Rigel convinces us that Phaedrus apprehended Lila's Quality by confirming it. "Yes, Phaedrus, she has Quality, but not because of any mystic apprehension, it was because she did the banal things good people do, like defend me as a kid." So, at that point, we begin to question what the apprehension does for us. It didn't prove anything. What if Lila hadn't had any Quality? Things could have just as easily have gone the other way. Pirsig wrote it to confirm his apprehension, but life isn't like that. So, we may have Whitehead's "dim apprehension," but all that does is point us in a direction that we then have to travel. And the traveling is then what justifies the fruitfulness of the pointed direction--but it doesn't always prove to be fruitful. Sometimes you're wrong.

Instead of Lila being a lesser work, a lesser piece of literary masterfulness, this reading gives us every reason to believe that Lila is actually a greater, even more subtle piece of genius. Think of it this way--people who enjoyed ZMM as a book, usually for the detective like layout, the mind adventure that takes place, don't get into Lila because it just sits there--and the ending proves to be a little lame. Much of it is philosophical mosaics, pieces of essays arrayed amongst a narrative that proves to not really engage us. There's no detective story except to answer the question, "Does Lila have quality?" But who cares? She's a tramp who doesn't capture our attention. There's nothing obvious or superficial in Lila that pulls us through like in ZMM. So the only people who like Lila are amatuer philosophers who love ZMM--an already very small, select crowd. (And we pretty much know who each other are.) Professionals don't like Lila because, again, the story isn't engaging and neither is the philosophy. The philosophy is in an idiom that's been out of style for a hundred years and it doesn't make itself immediately accessible to the work others have been doing, to their problems or concerns, it simply spins itself out in relative isolation from the evolved concerns of the intervening hundred years since William James wrote. Laypeople don't like Lila because the story isn't engaging and neither is philosophy in general.

So, amatuers in love with ZMM, that's Pirsig's audience. Now comes the trick, the subtle piece of craftwork and genius--the amatuers think the same thing of the narrative as everyone else, its dung, just sits there stinking (that's a little much, but the narrative doesn't compel our attention). So, because they're amatuer philosophers in love with ZMM, they focus on the MoQ. That was Pirsig's trick. By focusing on the MoQ, readers let the metaphysics devour the narrative rather than seeing the metaphysics as a part of the narrative itself. It's not that the characters serve the philosophy, it's that the philosophy serves the characters by directing the readers mind to a place a bit more like the mind of the protagonist (and occasionally one a bit more like the mind of Lila and Rigel). When we see Lila's thoughts, she has her own ideas about quality. When we see Rigel's, he has his own ideas about quality. We see how their ideas shape their actions and the story. It was Pirsig's trick to get the only people who would like Lila to fall in love with it for the system when the moral of the story, ever so subtlely threaded into the narrative, is that love of the system, any system, is cracked and perverse. It was, in a way, a parody, a lie. Flushing out those who need the moral more than anyone else. And read this way, the ending suddenly means a lot more and ceases to be lame.

Chris died, his marriage suffered, he had his affair, he ended his marriage, he met Wendy, had a kid, and settled down to write about it. Pirsig tells us his story in his terms, Quality (well, term anyway). He dazzles us, as he did in ZMM, with elaborate metaphysical gymnastics, mysterious tales of ancient history and a whiff of something revolutionary. But in the end, ZMM was the story of a father and his relationship to his son. In the end, Lila is the story of a man who has bottomed out and is desperate to re-establish his relationship to what is good.

Lila is a parable. The moral of the story is the ditching of system, Phaedrus' "usual intellectual answer," and through this we can save mysticism. What we also have, though, is an indication that Phaedrus' metaphysics is something that he does, though not everyone else has to. It's his obsession, his way of ordering and presenting his thoughts. There's nothing inherently desirable about this presentation, though. Others reading him are suggested to take what they want and can from the book (as suggested by his preface to Marian Mountain's Zen Environment), but not to read him as systematic, despite his own systematic tendencies.

For all Pirsig's apparent straightforwardness, much of his philosophy is linked indelibly to his narratives, creating a situation in which finding his philosophy is not as easy as just quoting him. Pirsig’s philosophy is found in the experience of reading him. Part of the point of this narrative analysis is that philosophical theses are perhaps somewhat inappropriate to Pirsig's philosophy. That to get Pirsig to have philosophical theses that are consistent, you need to gloss Pirsig, but to just get Pirsig to be consistent, all you need to do is disregard philosophical theses. To take Pirsig seriously as a philosopher, one cannot take his philosophy seriously.

You can't take Pirsig seriously as a professional philosopher advancing theses. He fails in that respect. But that's only because Pirsig isn't supposed to be taken seriously as a philosopher. Pirsig creates the context in which he is to be taken seriously, and that's not in the professional model. He writes novels. That's the context. And, by giving us insight and wisdom, he is a philosopher. Just not a professional one. It is only by trying to treat him as a professional that Pirsig looks confused and convoluted. If we treat him as a wiseman, though, then he comes into his own. Part of the strain, of course, is that part of Pirsig wants to be a professional. That's his Phaedrus side. But on the other side, the Zen side, he just wants to dispense wisdom from his own life. Both ZMM and Lila are less about the philosophical problems created by metaphysical dualities as they are about the personal conflicts created by a man's conflicting intellectual instincts. The drama is in watching how the story of his life leads him to gravitate towards one instinct or another.

To Part III

1 comment:

  1. quick query: 'dispense with wisdom' or 'dispense wisdom'? The latter seems to make more sense.


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