Tuesday, May 28, 2013

1.5 of 20 Favorite Books: A Review of Lila: An Inquiry into Morals by Robert Pirsig

When I re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance last December, it became first on my list of Top Twenty Favorite Books (which I see that I haven’t completed posting). Absent from that list is Lila, Pirsig’s second and only other book. Of it, Pirsig writes: 

            Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was like a first child. Maybe that will always be the best-loved one. But this second child is the bright one. I think a lot of people will argue with some of the ideas in Lila. There may be controversy. But if people are still reading these two books a hundred years from now, I predict that Lila will be the one they consider the more important. 

After re-reading Lila, published in 1991 (ZAMM was published in 1974), I see his point. ZAMM is a more intensely personal and compelling narrative: a motorcycle trip with a young son across the western United States. It includes a mystery, or rather several. Who is “Phaedrus”? What is Phaedrus? How is Phaedrus related to the narrator and Chris, the son? What is the narrator looking for? And so on. The journey and the mysteries serve to create a compelling narrative. Interspaced within the narrative, we find “Chautauquas”, brief discourses on topics, often philosophical, that the narrator shares with us. 

In Lila, we join in on another trip, but one gets the feeling that the trip, as interesting as we may find the scenery traveling down the Hudson River to NYC and on to Sandy Hook, seems less compelling than the trip in ZAMM. Lila, the title character, joins the journey as a passenger at the same time that the reader joins the story. Lila is a more complex and troubling—and perhaps less sympathetic—figure than the Pirsig’s son Chris. And Lila appears more overtly as a foil for the narrator’s reflections and is perhaps a bit too convenient for the narration. (Pirsig has said that Lila is a fictional creation.) But the narration in many ways only serves to set the scene and to allow us to follow the path of Pirsig’s mind (now comfortably referring to himself as “Phaedrus”), and in this the book he takes us many interesting places. 

Pirsig, early in Lila, reports on his project that continues the initial work of Phaedrus and his reconstruction and resolution of that body of work in ZAMM. When we join him on his boat near Kingston, he’s been at work attempting to formulate a “Metaphysics of Quality”. With this setting introduced, and the introduction of the character Lila, we are again taken back into the earlier life of Phaedrus in Montana. Phaedrus explores American Indian life with a colleague who teaches English but is seeking a doctorate in anthropology. For both the friend and Phaedrus, there’s something fundementally wrong with most anthropology: the subject-object split. Phaedrus takes us to Indian reservations and a peyote session, a reflection on classical anthropology (Boas, Benedict, Mead, etc.), and into the effect of American Indian traits on the European settlers. In the course of this, we learn that another ostracized genius, William James Sidis, whom the press mocked and scorned for his failure to turn his outsized intellect to an accepted body of work, has visited this issue as well. Phaedrus notes that Sidis reached similar conclusions about how American Indians affected the settlers well before Phaedrus began to consider the issue. 

The reflections set forth above, plus all of the issues involving Lila, a woman with a past, we might say, take us well into the journey. This gives us a sense of how Pirsig weaves narrative, memoir, and philosophical reflection into one book. By the time we reach New York City, Phaedrus shares his reflections on the “the Giant”, celebrity (after meeting with Robert Redford about the film rights for ZAMM), and the relationship between four levels of being: inorganic, organic, social, and intellectual, as considered though an evolutionary perspective. (In this regard, Pirsig is thinking along lines that Ken Wilber developed and popularized, and one that I think quite fertile.) 

After leaving NYC abruptly (Lila’s doing), Phaedrus, while considering her plight, once again reflects upon American Indians, William James and his affinity to James (including his shared disdain for what James branded “philosology”), and the nature of mental illness. As someone who suffered from mental illness, including involuntary commitment and electro-convulsive therapy (shock treatment), he knows mental illness first-hand. He sees mental illness as a “culture of one”, and this insight ties back to his initial considerations about anthropology. His understanding of mental illness, including his acknowledgement of the physical components, displays great sophistication and presents worthwhile conjectures. I don’t think many philosophers or psychiatrists have ever given his ideas serious consideration. (Although in one of the reading synchronicities that I love to experience, I think he fits neatly with the Liah Greenfeld perspective that I discussed in this blog entry.) He explicitly distinguishes his understanding from the more radical theories of R.D. Laing or Thomas Szaz, which I think that he appropriately dismisses. As we approach the end of the book, he reflects on another interesting comparison: religious mysticism and mental illness. How are these two manifestations of extreme human conduct related, if at all? Pirsig suggests that they are related and that some forms of mysticism in other cultures that are valued (key word) would be simple madness in other  cultures. He doesn’t name cultures where attributes of religious mysticism would clearly be labeled madness, but he’s referring, I believe, the Western countries where the natural science serves as the dominant paradigm and that includes the subject-object split.

One topic that I find intriguing, as I mentioned above, is his hierarchy of levels of development: inorganic-organic-social-intellectual. On the whole, I agree with this typology and think it very useful. Also, I agree of the application of this perspective can help us to understand ethics. The perspective posits that a lower order should not limit or trump a high order. As a part of his critique of subject-object metaphysics and as a part of coming to his understanding of a hierarchy of being, he suggests that the whole of evolution has been an effort for higher orders to overcome lower orders. For instance, gravity serves as one example of a higher level of development to overcome a lower one. First jumping, then flying, now humans traveling to the moon: the war on gravity (to paraphrase an awful original) serves as an example of a higher order value overcoming a lower order value. I find this way of thinking insightful and intriguing. 

But this leads us to the limits of this book. As in ZAMM, Pirsig is like a trail guide who leads you on a main trail through his narration, but he stops and explores side paths for a ways, and then says, in effect, “I think that you’ll find such-and-such up there if you follow it to the end.” Of course, that’s one of the challenges of this book—to follow his leads to where they take us. For instance, while his hierarchy provides a sound basis for an ethical perspective, he doesn’t explore the limits. Under his scheme, the intellectual (which certainly includes culture as a whole) trumps lower levels, but given the rather poor performance—if not outright disastrous consequences—of most ideas, this seems too generous. For instance, of the great “isms” of the 20th century, which ones do we to anoint as definitive? Nationalism? Communism? Socialism? National socialism? Racialism? Liberalism? (My favorite, within bounds.) Too many millions were slaughtered in the name of ideas (and perhaps with the basest of motivations), so I think that this attitude would require the utmost caution. We see the same thing in in personal morality, too. When we look at ascetics who attempt to overcome the body through extreme austerities, I, for one, think that Buddha got it right with the “middle way”. Train the body, don’t destroy it. 

The issue of intellect uber alles is just one path that I’ve explored a bit further on my own. Pirsig pointed it out, and my benefit was to explore it. In the end, I suppose that the highest compliment that I can pay to any book, which certainly includes this one, is “it got me thinking”. Oh, and by the way, in the list of Top 20 Favorite Books, we now have a new designation after ZAMM. Favorite 1.5: Lila.

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