Sunday, April 09, 2006

Prospectus, Part III

"Essentialist critics ... think that philosophy tells them how to read nonphilosophy. Functionalist critics ... read philosophical treatises in the same way they read poetry--in search of excitement and hope." (Rorty, "The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature," p. 137 of Achieving Our Country)

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.


  1. Now that is the most interesting thing I've read about Pirsig and the MoQ in many years. Thanks to you and Rick.

    One immediate reaction - there may be more in time - but however sympathetic I find that reading of Lila, it doesn't actually tally with the biographical Pirsig as met through, ie the one who is pleased when a PhD is completed on the MoQ. Surely the Pirsig you describe would say that a PhD has missed the point? (Which I'm pretty sure he didn't!)

    Which raises the question, again, of self-consistency - of a 'good Pirsig' (anti-system) and a 'bad Pirsig' (pro-system, and the one who rationalises his own selfishness).


  2. "that is the most interesting thing I've read..."

    Those were almost the exact same words I used after Rick wrote me with the idea (which is what part 1 mostly is), except I might've used a few more F-bombs. Thank you to Rick.

    But you're absolutely right, Sam. The reading doesn't immediately jive with post-LILA Pirsig. That's something Rick and I talked about. One of the things in particular was when the Baggini interview came out: "'While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a skeleton of a philosophy enclosed within a full-bodied novel,' Pirsig told me, 'Lila is a skeleton of a novel enclosed within a full-bodied philosophy.'"

    Maybe that shoots the whole suggestion in the foot. But maybe it doesn't. I don't know. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde view of Pirsig that I've been promoting for years, that this reading continues to a certain extent, might be able to account for it. The Phaedrus side of Pirsig that wins at the end of ZMM writes Lila and then continues on. If it is indeed autobiographical, then it makes sense that Pirsig would continue with his systematic tendencies after Lila.

    My impression of Pirsig is that, at any given moment, either his anti-systematic side or his systematic side may show itself, all depending on what his situation is, what critical pressure is being pressed on him. I think that might be the most important message: Pirsig's conflicted. _He_ doesn't know whether it is insanity or mysticism. He may never be certain whether system is good or bad. Part of him is the analytic, professional logical positivist-type, the other half the mystic-type: his philosophy tries to split the difference of his personality.

  3. Makes sense. Part of my fascination with Pirsig is that I share the same attributes - except with me it's a bit more systematic theology than philosophy. Wittgenstein had some positive impact :o)

  4. BTW have you gone on MD with this? be interesting to know what reaction you got.

  5. Gone to the MD with it?

    Hell no.

    For one, its just too big. I could cut it down to size, but it would still be too big. Multi-part posts have never been a good idea.

    For two, its just too darn heretical. I think it may be fairly idiosyncratic and the kind of backlash I would probably get is just too boring for me to want to. My experience in that arena tells me to just stay away from it with this.

    For three, the reading still isn't totally worked out. The first objection would be the one you had and the one that Rick and I discussed: are we over-reaching? I think we might be to a certain extent, but I think the overreach might still show something about how far we can reach with it.

    But yeah, the stuff about intellectual instincts is terribly important. Because it shows us something which we all struggle with. That's why I like the romantic/classic split somewhat more than the DQ/sq split (at least how it is sometimes used).

    One of the things I went on about in a letter to Rick is how badly I most of all got tangled in the noose of reading LILA systematically--because I'm a pragmatist. I'm _anti_-system, but _that_, ironically, causes me to read things as system sometimes. Its an interesting tangle. Anthony and DMB have never been totally wrong when they tell me I'm reading Pirsig all wrong, through Western eyes and the like. Its just what they're saying doesn't sound totally right.

  6. Hey guys. Are we over reaching? Umm... yes, I'm 99.99% sure we are, certainly after that comment from the interview that Matt referenced above.

    But as to whether it squares with the biographical Pirsig, well, I guess that depends on how you read things. Yes, Pirsig is proud when a PhD in MoQ is awarded, but we're not necessarily saying that he isn't truly proud of the MoQ, only that it isn't the central truth of the novel LILA. The rest of it already presupposes that he deliberately lies about the autobiographical status of the narrative, so it wouldn't be unusual if that seemed to contradict the "biographical Pirsig".

    It doesn't matter one bit though, we're all pragmatists here (in one sense or another), so a strong misreading in an effort to find something that just works better should be sufficient. Like I said, 99.99% sure it's all bullshit.

    As for the MD, I have a feeling they'd look at us the way the college of cardinals must look at Dan Brown.

  7. On second thought, maybe we were saying that Pirsig isn't really that proud of the MOQ... damn it, this stuff just isn't clear enough in my head... this is why I didn't want to get into it any farther.

  8. Hey Rick - I think it's the other way round - we're the cardinals ;)

    And I disagree that it's 99.9% out - I think there's something crucial here. It could be something irreducibly ambiguous, but, like I said at the start, this is really interesting. Spins off into the whole question of where morality fits in (morality as conventionally understood).

  9. A couple of things stand out to me, on reflecting again about this:

    1) Sam's right, the amiguous place of conventional morality stands out on this reading. Sam and I have been railing against the distinction between the social and intellectual levels partly for that I reason, I think. Partly because language is social (our Wittgensteinianism), partly because Sam wants emotions to see their day (which I agree with, though I've never focused on the issue like Sam), and partly, I have to think, because there seems to be something wrong with splitting social morality away from intellectual symbol manipulation (i.e., rationality) as Pirsig does. It seems to me like the whole Platonic mistake of making justice kow-tow to philosophy, ethics to knowledge, the Good to the Truth.

    Pirsig makes tremendous strides towards fixing that mistake, but the question the reading forces us to look at is why Phaedrus (the character, if not Pirsig) never confronts the situation of his having cheated on his wife. The novel never says he's married (does it?), but it is heavily implied in the Rigel chapter. The fact that Phaedrus slept with Lila is hardly ever brought up again. That's why I hammer on the "dodging the real question" stuff, because it seems like Rigel is right: Phaedrus is hedonistic. He does what he wants, and then ignores the consequences by intellectualizing it away.

    I think this reading definitely raises the question of how Pirsig is treating "conventional" morality.

    2) The question of whether it is mysticism or insanity is still haunting me. It occured to me today that this question parallel's the question of whether it is DQ or degeneracy. They are more or less the same question by Pirsig's lights. And he doesn't answer the latter question.

    But that makes me wonder, considering he says in that footnote that not all mysticism is insanity and not all insanity is mysticism, but they do overlap, how Pirsig would say we are able to tell the difference. He doesn't answer that question, no less because the implied question was only raised after a particular reading of the novel. Is it as impossible as I've been making answering the DQ/degeneracy question?

    These two questions, about "social morality" and mysticism/insanity, loop together. For this is why Pirsig looks hedonistic. If DQ tops everything, that makes mysticism always best. But how do we tell if its mysticism? Does that just punch up the struggle of life? We never will be able to tell? Well then, what the hell does the MoQ help us with because _we've always known life is a struggle_?

    If Pirsig is just pointing out that crazy people saying crazy things (like the earth revolves around the sun or people evolved out of monkeys) sometimes push culture and life forward, then he isn't saying anything new. But if he isn't _just_ saying that, but he can't be telling us how to tell the mystics from the insane (because that's the impossibility of telling DQ from degeneracy), then is what Pirsig suggesting that we should follow our bouts of insanity more often? That we should break the rules more often? Isn't that what makes him look more hedonistic then?

  10. Hey, I just thought of something.

    Is there anything in Lila's name, like her _last_ name? Blewitt? Like, Pheadrus or Pirsig "Blew It"?

  11. Maybe it's meant to indicate that she gives great head.

  12. ROFLMAO!

    Actually that thought had occurred to me (Matt's, not Rick's). Link it with Lila meaning 'play' and - Pirsig played around and blew it....

  13. hey sam, sorry i missed your comment above. good to hear from you.

    I'm not sure about the whole name thing. If Lila's name is meaningful, what about Richard Rigel? His name carries the same alliterative RR as another character in the book, Robert Redford. Two double RRs in the same novel by accident? Both are used to mostly make points about the social level. Could just be coincidence... but if Blewitt is more than just a name, why not Rigel?

    What about Bill Capella? Or Fatso and Jamie (is that their names, you know from that weird section about Lila's her trying to get the Captain to hire her "friends")?

    You know, I think I might remember reading something by Pirsig about where Lila's name came from, maybe in a letter or something. Can't seem to find it now, but whatever... speculating is probably more fun anyway.

    PS. I read the first two chapters of your book, good stuff. had a couple of minor comments that i'm hoping to get out to you an email in the next couple of weeks, but as Kundert will attest, my follow through is piss poor, so, here's hoping.... :-)

  14. just re-read that conversation

    Rigel = Rigid?

    Richard Rigid, the stickler for the social level


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