On Robert Pirsig’s Inquiry into Morals

Robert Pirsig’s sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZMM) is titled Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (for a recap of ZMM and Quality — start here). The novel espouses an ambitious goal — to map out a Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ). While the reasons Pirsig gives for developing a MOQ leave readers wondering at the novel’s purpose— there is a more compelling story at the heart of the book: a reemergence of self-imposed isolation that can only be addressed by revisiting Quality.

Lila progresses as follows: Robert Pirsig is divided between an intellect which isolates him from others and his desire for authentic connection. He sets off on a journey with a companion he initially cannot relate to. After a series of mental calisthenics sufficiently exhaust his intellect, he suddenly finds himself relating to someone he had previously dismissed and feared. Authentic relation plucks him out of isolation and returns him to the wholeness of Quality.

If this sounds familiar, it is because Lila is guided by the same purpose as ZMM: pursuing Quality. The primary difference between the novels is that in Lila, we would expect to find a more aware narrator. Yet, as described below, we find Pirsig to be just as if not even more unsure of himself.

In the first chapter, Pirsig introduces both Lila the person and lila the idea:

“There is Lila, this single private person who slept beside him now, who was born and now lived and tossed in her dreams and will soon enough die and then there is someone else — call her lila — who is immortal, who inhabits Lila for a while and then moves on. The sleeping Lila he had just met tonight. But the waking Lila, who never sleeps, had been watching him and he had been watching her for a long time.”

Lila is a sentinel, just as Chris had been in ZMM. He is at once drawn to and threatened by this foreign surveillance. Moreover, Lila is more than the woman next to him — she is the idea of a woman he met many years before but hadn’t had the courage to confidently engage.

He first meets Lila at a bar and, sufficiently intoxicated, decides to hit on her. She takes the bait and invites him to the dance floor. Eventually they end up back at his boat. Reflecting on this later, he finds the whole night to be puzzling:

“It’s so strange, he thought. All the tricks and games and lines and promises to get them into bed with you and you work so hard at it and nothing happens. And then someone like this comes along and you don’t try much of anything at all and then she’s the one you wake up next to.”

Despite the connection he had with Lila as they danced in each other’s arms, he doesn’t say anything about Quality. He seems suspicious of the whole experience.

Over the ensuing chapters, we notice that the sharp clarity he gained at the end of ZMM has been compromised. When challenged by one of Lila’s acquaintances on whether Lila has Quality, Pirsig disappoints. He says she does, but cannot explain why. Pirsig broods over the exchange for several days. He doesn’t seem convinced by his response.

Seeing how Lila has nowhere to go, Pirsig allows her to accompany him on his journey to New York. He rationalizes this decision by concluding that her presence will help him collect evidence for the project he is working on.

This project is of course an inquiry into morals which he hopes will lead him to the Metaphysics of Quality. It’s worth examining his reasoning for developing the MOQ. He addresses the need as follows:

“What made this so formidable to Phaedrus was that he himself has insisted in his book [ZMM] that Quality cannot be defined. Yet here he was about to define it. Was this some kind of sell-out? His mind when over it many times.”

And then he damningly admits:

“There was another part of him 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 the refrigerator, or an alcoholic to stay out of the bar. To the intellect the process of defining Quality has a compulsive quality of its own.”

By his measure, the inquiry into morals is akin to an addict’s unchecked compulsion. And given what we know about Pirsig, his intellectual compulsions, and where the have landed him, this is no exaggeration. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he concludes:

Writing a metaphysics is, in the strictest mystic sense, a degenerate activity.”

If we are being generous, we could imagine that deliberating on the MOQ is a pilgrimage back to Quality. He fires up his intellect to tackle this “interesting” question so he can recommit himself to the experience.

There is more evidence of an unorganized mania in Lila reminiscent of ZMM. Pirsig indulgences in describing parallels he has found between his observations on American culture and ideas other intellectuals have offered. He spins up theories on how to measure Quality by dividing it into static and Dynamic buckets and then relating these to evolutionary patterns. But often we feel that Pirsig is droning on so he may hide behind his intellect, thereby rejecting the Native Americans’ “plains spoken” attitude he spends some chapters describing. Therefore, while many of his digressions are absorbing, those that do not pertain to Quality do not convincingly belong in the novel.

While ZMM asked “What’s best?” and arrived at Quality, the only clear question Pirsig raises in Lila is “Does Lila have Quality?” And instead of an answer, we are left with an untidy trail of justifications.

After that first night, Lila is cast as a biological pattern. When they make love for the second time, Pirsig confusingly asserts that there were no people involved:

That was the only good thing that had happened all day, the way their bodies paid no attention to all their social and intellectual differences and had done on in as if these “people” that “owned” them didn’t exist at all. That had been at this business of life for too long.

Where people are present, there can be an authentic relation, but because he hasn’t found a way to relate to Lila, he senses an absence of “people” when they come together. The reason for this alienation is that he perceives that Lila condemns him. As he describes:

Lila is a judge….and in the eyes of this judge, he was nobody very important.

Shortly after noting this, he raises a conversation he had with Lila to assert her condescension:

“Sad Sack.” That was the term she used. It had no intellectual meaning, but it had plenty of meaning nevertheless. It meant that in the eyes of this biological judge all his intelligence was some kind of deformity.

So there it is: Pirsig is concerned about his compulsion to intellectualize and is transferring this insecurity onto Lila. Since he is an unreliable narrator, we cannot know whether this is justified. We can only surmise that he resents her because he feels that she denigrates his intellect. Perhaps he senses that she can see the compulsion he carries and that she judges him for it.

As the story develops, Lila escapes the confines of biological pattern and becomes someone Pirsig can relate to. This change is precipitated by her devolving mental faculties. As Lila becomes more unstable, Pirsig is better able to connect with her. Having traveled a similar distance to isolation, Pirsig feels compelled to help Lila arrive back to a shared reality. This identification with insanity rekindles his ability to care for her. Suddenly, there is the possibility for Lila to have Quality.

Thus, Part Two ends with Lila’s delusions and Part Three opens as follows:

“Does Lila have Quality?” The question seems inexhaustible. The answer Pirsig had thought of before, “Biologically she does, socially she doesn’t,” still didn’t get all the way to the bottom of it. There was more than society and biology involved.

After having split ways for a day in New York, Pirsig returns to his boat to find Lila given over to a psychotic episode. She is cradling a doll on her lap and doesn’t seem to recognize him. But instead of calling the police and having her committed, he takes her in, feeds and shelters her. In doing so, he hopes to gently help her break through her catatonic state. Pirsig is at his most wise, generous, and human over the course of this event.

Sadly, he is unable to deliver her from her insanity. For unclear reasons, she resists him and takes off with the same acquaintance who had challenged Pirsig earlier in the novel. When she leaves, the empathy he had summoned to help Lila lingers. Using this emotional awareness, he takes her doll, adopts it as a symbol of his own madness, and engages it. He treats it as a divine idol of the religion of one Lila had created for herself. The conversation he has with the idol delivers the reader the same relief as the exchange at the end of ZMM. There is no intellect at work here; he is giving in to authentic relation and in doing so, becoming whole again.

Lila diligently follows the pattern of many sequels: a known character in an unknown land fights a familiar enemy. ZMM and Lila both begin with a conflicted soul and end with a man made whole again. Chris and Lila first are seen as foreign enemies, but later become vehicles that deliver Pirsig passage to emotional connection and self-acceptance.

The pursuit of a MOQ is a means not an end. It mattered insofar as it ground down Pirsig’s intellect, blunted it enough so he could stop feeling the discomfort of unknowing and return to relation again. Both Pirsig’s inquiry into values and his inquiry into morals converge on the same points: authentic relation and peace of mind, those sacred preconditions for Quality to make itself known.

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