The metaphysical vapors that wafted through Robert M. Pirsig’s phenomenally successful first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), have condensed into a pea-soup fog in his second, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. Largely devoted to expounding the ”Metaphysics of Quality,” in which Quality, or Value, is the Ultimate Stuff of the universe, Lila aims to cram the entire cosmos into one frail theory. Which is fine. Professional philosophers are no longer willing to risk spraining their reputations with armchair flights like this, and somebody has to do it. Besides, fog lends atmosphere to a suspense story, and there is a story lurking here, though what keeps you on the edge of your seat is mostly the question of when the author is going to get on with the plot.
It’s not as affecting as the father-and-son motorcycle trip, but Lila does have its own questing journey. Phaedrus (the name given to Pirsig’s philosophically obsessed self in Zen) takes a boat down the Hudson River accompanied by a hard-drinking, promiscuous blond named Lila whom he has picked up in a bar. The story is supposed to carry much of the philosophical freight of the book, and in the end is sunk by it. Still, it has its moments — enough to give some sense of the characters and the river and to bring the philosophical monologue that occupies three-fourths of the book down to earth. Phaedrus is clearly Pirsig. He’s written a famous book that continues to draw fan mail. On the boat he spends his time arranging 11,000 slips of paper into a book on the Metaphysics of Quality — that is, the book we are reading. As for Lila, Phaedrus is inclined to ponder his bedmate as a philosophical dilemma — ”Does Lila have Quality?” — but she soon proves to be much more than a philosophical problem, and in the process she briefly comes to bitter, resentful, deranged life.
As a self-portrait of the author, the book is frank and unflattering. The doleful impressions of New York City, the moments of doubt are unguarded and authentic: ”He was really on top of the world now, he supposed…at the opposite end of some kind of incredible social spectrum from where he had been twenty years ago, bouncing through South Chicago in that hard-sprung police truck on the way to the insane asylum. Was it any better now? He honestly didn’t know.” The book’s humorless earnestness can grate, but at least it’s bare of the polished defensive armor most authors use to cover themselves.
While pitching his metaphysics, however, Phaedrus often sounds like a crank, someone with all the intensity, boldness, and bad manners of genius and none of the genius. The prose is ungainly, the arguments slapdash: When not belaboring the obvious, the book belabors the nebulous. Yet there is some respectable philosophical merchandise here. Pirsig notes his affinities with the pragmatism of William James. He has even deeper affinities with Henri Bergson’s idea of Creative Evolution and the Neoplatonic notion of higher and lower emanations of the Good. It’s possible to spend a pleasant rainy afternoon entertaining these notions without wanting them to move in. When Pirsig applies his metaphysical formula to everything under the sun — American Indians, Victorians, psychotics, celebrities, New York — the results are also mixed. Sometimes he sounds like a sage, sometimes like the guy sitting next to you in a bar. But if the Metaphysics of Quality is somewhat lacking in quality, there is still Pirsig’s passionate conviction that the search for some ultimate meaning to life makes it worth living. You can give him full credit for that without giving much credence to his book. C