I first read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my second year as an undergraduate at Cambridge; I was studying the History of Philosophy of Science so it was perfect timing. I found the book unbelievably brilliant. It is about a narrator on a motorcycle trip with his son Chris, travelling across America. As he travels he remembers his past life as a person he calls Phaedrus who was a lecturer and student at University, a period which led to his discovery of a new concept in philosophy and to his nervous breakdown. The concept is Quality. When we look at a work of Art, he argues, we can see whether it has Quality or not. This Quality does not reside in the Object but in our Subjective response to it; at the same time it cannot be purely Subjective because there is a wide inter-personal agreement as to what great Art is. Therefore Quality is found in the interaction between a Subject and an Object.
Now in Lila, Phaedrus is a famous author who is sailing a boat from the Great Lakes to Florida. He picks up Lila in a bar; they have sex and she joins him on his journey. But his friend Richard Rigel, who knew Lila in the past, warns him to keep away and asks, in an attack on Phaedrus and his book, whether Lila has Quality. Yes, replies Phaedrus, but he then spends most of the next few days, sailing down to New York with Lila, whether she does or not. This then leads him to develop his Metaphysics of Quality.
Sequels can rarely live up to the original. Zen and the Art is probably my favourite book ever so Lila didn't really have a chance. After the initial shiver up my spine when I encountered the magic name Phaedrus on the third page, I realised that there was a certain amount of sameness: a journey across America while the narrator spouts philosophy. While the concept of Quality was liberating the development of the Metaphysics of Quality seemed rather laboured and sometimes a little silly.
However, there are passages in the book where the story takes over, and there was genuine dramatic tension here. Furthermore, there were innumerable insights along the way which made the philosophy full of sparkles even if it did not convince as a system. Regrettably the end was rather weak (whilst the end of Zen and the Art is stunning).
A good book, worth reading for the philosophical insight, but it was inevitably unable to live up to the magic promise of its progenitor.
November 2014; 443 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57