An Introduction to Pirsig’s Lila

I doubt that many English teachers will be teaching Lila in their classes. Though Pirsig tries to provide a plot to tie his ideas together, the plot line is not nearly as interesting as the one in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I think the audience for this work is going to be almost exclusively readers of ZAMM who want to know more about Pirsig’s underlying philosophy, his Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ).

I know I was convinced that there’s more to the MOQ than I originally thought after reading ZAMM, though I still think Pirsig’s reasoning seems rather fuzzy for a philosophical argument and I’m still irritated by his attempts to address everything from the true nature of insanity to the American Indian influence on American culture, many of which seem to serve more as distractions than as convincing arguments.

It’s been as hard for me to start writing about this book as it was to write about ZAMM because Pirsig touches on so many different ideas, as suggested by his description of how he collected ideas for this book

It would actually be easier to lose the boat than it would be to lose those slips. There were about eleven thousand of them. They’d grown out of almost four years of organizing and reorganizing and reorganizing so many times he’d become dizzy trying to fit them all together. He’d just about given up.

Their overall subject he called a “Metaphysics of Quality,” or sometimes a “Metaphysics of Value,” or sometimes just “MOQ” to save time.

The buildings out there on shore were in one world and these slips were in another. This “slipworld” was quite a world and he’d almost lost it once because he hadn’t written any of it down and incidents came along that had destroyed his memory of it. Now he had reconstructed what seemed like most of it on these slips and he didn’t want to lose it again.

But maybe it was a good thing that he had lost it because now, in the reconstruction of it, all sorts of new material was flooding inso much that his main task was to get it processed before it logjammed his head into some kind of a block that he couldn’t get out of. Now the main purpose of the slips was not to help him remember anything. It was to help him to forget it. That sounded contradictory but the purpose was to keep his head empty, to put all his ideas of the past four years on that pilot berth where he didn’t have to think of them. That was what he wanted.

I won’t fault Pirsig’s method because it’s the same method I used to write research papers in graduate school. Heck, I would love to find a computer program that would allow me to print out numbered ideas on separate pieces of paper, re-sort the pieces, and then re-order the ideas by simply typing new numbers next to the old list of numbers. When I used to do this, I found that I sometimes threw away two-thirds of the material I’d collected because I couldn’t work it into a coherent argument. For me, Pirsig tries to include too many ideas in Lila to do most of them justice.

Trying to offer expertise in so many fields, seems to me to undercut, rather than strengthen, his overall argument, though he appears to be trying to prove that his MOQ theory provides a better framework to understand the world than our present theories. At the very least, he makes us question traditional ways of thinking and offers a new approach to consider when examining the enormous problems that confront us.

For me, the heart of Lila can be found in this rather long quotation:

The Metaphysics of Quality subscribes to what is called empiricism. It claims that all legitimate human knowledge arises from the senses or by thinking about what the senses provide. Most empiricists deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical reasoning. They regard fields such as art, morality, religion, and metaphysics as unverifiable. The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable, and that in the past they have been excluded for metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons. They have been excluded because of the metaphysical assumption that all the universe is composed of subjects and objects and anything that can’t be classified as a subject or an object isn’t real. There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all. It is just an assumption.

It is an assumption that flies outrageously in the face of common experience. The low value that can be derived from sitting on a hot stove is obviously an experience even though it is not an object and even though it is not subjective. The low value comes first, then the subjective thoughts that include such things as stove and heat and pain come second. The value is the reality that brings the thoughts to mind.

There’s a principle in physics that if a thing can’t be distinguished from anything else it doesn’t exist. To this the Metaphysics of Quality adds a second principle: if a thing has no value it isn’t distinguished from anything else. Then, putting the two together, a thing that has no value does not exist. The thing has not created the value. The value has created the thing. When it is seen that value is the front edge of experience, there is no problem for empiricists here. It simply restates the empiricists’ belief that experience is the starting point of all reality. The only problem is for a subject-object metaphysics that calls itself empiricism.

This may sound as though a purpose of the Metaphysics of Quality is to trash all subject-object thought but that’s not true. Unlike subject-object metaphysics the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single exclusive truth. If subjects and objects are held to be the ultimate reality then we’re permitted only one construction of things that which corresponds to the “objective” world and all other constructions are unreal. But if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist. Then one doesn’t seek the absolute “Truth.” One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along. One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value. There are many sets of intellectual reality in existence and we can perceive some to have more quality than others, but that we do so is, in part, the result of our history and current patterns of values.

Of course, it probably comes as no surprise that an English major who rejected a career in math and science would agree with Pirsig’s argument that “the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable.” If that were not so, why would they have played such a role in every culture throughout history?

However, even I was a little surprised to find that I began to agree with Pirsig that science with its subject-object emphasis misses much of the point. Things are important or unimportant either because they have value or lack value. While there are certainly times when we need to see things objectively, and only objectively, more often than not we want to be able to judge them by their value.

And though I’m still not quite willing to concede that Quality is the “ultimate reality,” I do agree that it is wise to see that it is “possible for more than one set of truths to exist” and that one should “ examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings.” For me, one of the greatest strengths of the work was that it helped me to begin to see value systems from a new perspective. In fact, I began to see Pirsig as a sophisticated system analyst, and seeing value systems from this perspective made me begin to rethink some of my own ideas, and that’s about as much as anyone can expect from a book.

8 thoughts on “An Introduction to Pirsig’s Lila”

  1. As much as I loved ZAAMM, I couldn’t stand Lila. As a woman, I was too distracted/outraged by the narrator’s sexual exploitation of the emotionally vulnerable eponymous character to believe anything philosophical he said. It’s all fine & good to talk about the metaphysics of Quality while you’re getting your jollies with a woman who’s in no mental state to say “no” and mean it. The hypocrisy of the narrator’s philosophical pontificating and his abuse of sexual power dynamics made it impossible for me to critique the book in any objective way. Where in Pirsig’s metaphysics of Quality is any talk of ethics?

  2. It’s even more surprising when the subtitle is “An Inquiry into Morals,” isn’t it, Lorianne?

    I must admit that I always considered the introduction of Lila more of a rhetorical device than a real person, but it is probably even more disturbing if it was a real live person.

    To be fair, though, it almost seems that Lila is using the narrator more than he is using her at the beginning of the novel, and at the end he seems willing to take on her long-term care rather than discarding her beside the road as most men who’ve just picked someone up would do.

  3. The novel sounds quite interesting. I might be way off base here, but I suspect the recognition that the subject/object divide is an illusion of consciousness might one day become a cornerstone for reconciling the arts, humanities and sciences.

  4. Actually, I think the book I read wasn’t Lila, but a novel by Luke Rhinehart called The Diceman, apparently modeled after ZAMM in some ways and derived largely from what the author saw as implicit in Pirsig’s philosophy. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t value a verb?

  5. When LILA was first published, I didn’t read past the first few pages. This spring, though, I decided to give the book another try. I kept reading this time, after having listened to some NPR interviews with Robert Pirsig and having re-read ZAMM. I came to think of the character, Lila, as one and the same as Phaedrus. I didn’t think that the narrative in LILA held together very well, but I was willing to go along in order to listen to the ideas that Pirsig presents. This for example, which you quoted:

    “Now the main purpose of the slips was not to help him remember anything. It was to help him to forget it. That sounded contradictory but the purpose was to keep his head empty . . .”


    “One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value.”

    Along with agonizing over ideas and experiences, I learned from Robert Pirsig that I can play with them. That is what I heard Pirsig doing in LILA. That is also what I heard in the quality of his voice in the NPR interviews — a vigorousness and a playfulness. He laughed frequently. As I understand, the name “Lila” is from a Sanskrit word that could be translated as playfulness.

    Of note, too, is that he is presently married to a woman who literally visited his boat a long time ago (to do an interview, I believe) and stayed on.

  6. I didn’t have that quite right about how Robert Pirsig met his second wife, Wendy. Here is a clarification.

    Under “1976” in the biographical timeline:

    Bob continues single-handed towards Miami, Florida. On another boat en-route, he meets Wendy Kimball, a freelance journalist who wants to interview him.

  7. I have no doubt that Lila could/should be read as a symbolic character, but… One of the things I loved about Z&AMM was the fact that, like a good poem, it worked on both a literal & metaphysical level. You can read Z&AMM as a work of philosophy, or you can read it “just” as a book about a guy riding a motorcycle across the country with his son. The narrative works (and is quite powerful in its own right) apart from the metaphysical part.

    Lila didn’t strike me as being as powerful in this way. The story/narrative simply wasn’t as resonant; you kind of had to read it as philosophy in order for the book to “work.” And for me, the distraction of the narrative impeded that work. In Z&AMM, the narrative propelled the philosophy; in Lila, in my opinion, the narrative interfered with the philosophy.

    I’ve no doubt that Lila was using the narrator in the same/similar way he was using her…but that doesn’t make it right. I’ve no problem reading books in which characters use one another; it just struck me as ethically dishonest to present such behavior as being “moral.” I would have respected the narrator (and perhaps the book) more had he said, “My behavior often belies my own metaphysics.”

  8. I agree with most of what you say here, Lorianne, as I hope I suggested in the opening paragraph of this entry.

    Philosophically, though, I think it’s more interesting than ZAMM, though I think I would have preferred the philosophy in well-developed essays rather than spread throughout a novel that really doesn’t hold together very well.

    Heck, Lila even introduces a Zen aspect that seemed almost non-existent in ZAMM.

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