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on 30 May 2007
This twist on the way we see reality, thinly disguised as a journey down the Hudson River with an amoral woman (although a lot hangs on whether or not she is amoral ) is absorbing. His investigation of her is both intellectual and biological. This is told against a background of Native American culture v the European view complete with hallucinogens and teepees. It is, of course, a continuation of Pirsig's unique perspective on Quality (his capitalisation not mine) as started in "Zen and the Art".
Phaedrus rides again. While the characters are fascinating it is the narrator who really capture your interest - more hang ups than Bowie's wardrobe. His take on Quality is quirky and, while I get much of it, other chunks just don't quite hang together for me. However, there are themes and ideas that seem so blatantly right that you have to consider all his assertions for nuggets of obscure truth. I only saw the end coming 'cause I counted the pages. Wow! Is this genius or flawed-genius? It's a good read\rant anyway and prods mercilessly at the grey matter.
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on 25 April 2017
Quickly delivered and a good read so far.
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on 15 August 2017
I've been obsessed with this book for years. While I've also obviously read Zen, it never gripped me in the same way as Lila.
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This book is a sequel to Pirsig's famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974. Both books are technically novels; but in fact the thin story-line - the account of a journey - is the thread on which is strung a strenuous metaphysical investigation of ultimate reality. This investigation is couched in a ruminative, discursive and colloquial style which, given the difficulty of the subject matter, is easier to follow than would be a dry and austere academic presentation of the conclusions which Pirsig has reached. In Zen Pirsig managed to make this search by his central character, Phaedrus, read like a tense and rather desperate detective story, with no less than the sanity of the investigator being at stake - and Phaedrus does succumb for a while and has to spend a period in a mental hospital.
Lila again has Phaedrus as the central character, though this time he speaks in the third and not the first person singular, and he is presented as the author of the earlier book. This time he is travelling on a sailing boat instead of on a motor-cycle - and although at one point the sailing boat is used to underline the fact that he is a loner, it is not otherwise used as a trigger for an investigation into the nature of things as the motor-cycle had been used in the previous book. The tension and suspense of the first book is missing, and from that point of view Lila is less gripping than Zen was. The reason for this is not that Pirsig's narrative skills have deserted him, but that, whereas Zen had ended with Phaedrus' solution to the problem of what was the ultimate nature of reality, Lila merely works out some implications of this solution. In order to make the later book a self-contained work, the conclusions which Phaedrus had reached in the first book need to be restated. Pirsig is too much of a craftsman to do this by mere repetition of what he had said in Zen; even so, those who have read the earlier book will perhaps feel a certain sense of déja vu.
What, then, had Phaedrus discovered as the ultimate nature of reality? He had felt that the two modes of western thinking, the classical and the romantic, were both unsatisfactory. The romantic, which will not come to grips with the underlying meaning of phenomena, is basically superficial. The classical mode, with its analytical procedures, often destroys what it investigates. The romantic mode stresses the subjective impact on the observer; the classical stresses the objective nature of the things observed. Both are part of what, in Lila, Phaedrus calls the subject-object metaphysic; and the concept that the world can be understood in terms simply of subject and object has been deeply embedded in western thought ever since classical Greek philosophy. However, the pre-classical Greeks, through their concept of arete, held out the possibility of a richer understanding. Phaedrus translates arete as "Quality" (and sometimes as "Value"), and it is by Quality that the conclusions reached by the classical or the romantic processes need to be judged.
What had, in the first book, driven Phaedrus into temporary insanity was the difficulty of defining what exactly this Quality was. If you are capable of responding to Quality, you know what it is. It is what you perceive in a work of art (in the romantic mode) or in the elegance of a rational construct (in the classical mode); and where it is absent, the art or the rational construct convey a defective understanding of the world. But because (as Phaedrus believed) this Quality is pre-intellectual, it vanishes the moment you try to pin it down by definitions; and if you cannot define it, you are at the mercy of the scoffing of such as Rigel (another character in Lila).
Besides, Quality is perceived in different ways by different cultures. Is it therefore a purely relative concept? Phaedrus thinks not. In Lila he conceives it in evolutionary terms. The relativism, therefore, is not absolute: in all societies Quality is that which leads to improvement. It is therefore Dynamic (always spelt with a capital D) and not static.
Phaedrus describes evolution as going through four phases: the inorganic; the biological; the social; and the intellectual. Mankind originates at the biological level. The biological level then "invents" the social level, and it does this for the benefit of the biological level; therefore every development that leads from the lower to the higher level has Dynamic Quality, and, in that context, has Moral Quality, too. Nothing that threatens to sacrifice a higher to a lower level is moral.
At the social level new patterns or codes are developed which eventually become static. The social codes regulate the society and so protect it from slipping back to a lower level; but at the same time their rigidity is often intolerant of intellectual criticism. That intolerance is immoral when intellectual criticism is Dynamic, i.e. when it is trying to move mankind along to a higher level than the social one. Intellectual criticism is, however, degenerative and lacking in Moral Quality if, as it were, it allies with the biological level against the social level and would thereby produce a slipping back rather than a moving forward. In this connection Phaedrus has a trenchant analysis of the hippy culture of the 'seventies.
In fact, the applications of Phaedrus' rather abstract scheme constantly enliven the book. The Metaphysics of Quality is applied to such varied subjects as the work of anthropologists; sexual behaviour; the megalopolis; the free market; the cult of celebrity; the making of movies based on books; Victorian "hypocrisy"; the significance of the New Deal and of fascism; Islamic fundamentalism; cultural discrimination; the nature of mental illness and the attitudes of psychiatrists.
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on 20 November 2007
More than enough for a lifetime's meditations...

Pirsig's book spans a phenomenal range of subject matter - biology, society, the Victorians, World War I, the hippie movement, intellectualism, celebrity culture, cities, capitalism, 'insanity', 'sanity' - and encapsulates the whole thing in a well-argued framework that shows how the otherwise vague terms of value and morals work apply to 'reality' in its broadest sense, and how the whole thing is totally relative. And it's an enlightening journey, and by no means stuffy or academic.

As a long-term student of Buddhism, the book provides a welcome and refreshing Western take on the subject (although Zen Buddhism is only a very small part of the book's scope), showing how Buddhist values are just as important in the development of Western society and thinking, albeit 'filtered out' of mainstream conscious.

I would highly recommend LILA to anyone who likes to think about what they're reading. It's not essential to read "Zen and the Arts of Motorcycle Maintenance" in advance of approaching this book, but it does give a good introduction to the concepts on show.

This is a compelling and witty book with vast scope, that celebrates the diversity of consciousness, whilst audaciously trying to capture the breadth of human achievement and thought within a framework that is more open and persuasive than anything I've seen put forward before now.

The result is a book that celebrates humanity, rather than trying to diminish its achievements, and which deserve serious consideration by those that claim to decipher 'truth' - be they philosophers, advocates for religion, anthropologists or scientists.

One of the most thought-provoking books out there - timely, and even more radical and far-reaching than Pirsig's first book in its implications for humanity.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 February 2015
How can I rate this book? I love it and hate it. Like many people, I read 'Zen and the Art' many years ago and was fascinated by it. Persig seemed perhaps to be on to something, but what? I didn't have the knowledge back then, or the time, to get to the bottom of it. In 1980 I could even be seen alongside my partner on our exhibition stand in London, with the slogan 'zen and the art of audio maintenance' in big red letters on the wall behind us! Success in our business, making instruments that measure audio quality, and growing dissatisfaction with 'normal' life led me to devote more and more time to studies and writing over the last two decades, to understanding life, and perhaps 'Zen' played a part in that shift. That's the problem - Pirsig goes where other's don't and he makes you think, but he also leaves you confused - good and bad. My search took me into Psychology, and Genetics, and Sociology, not philosophy, and I now understand. Understanding came particularly from the field of Evolutionary Psychology.

A 'one star' reviewer here says that Pirsig has 'mental health issues'. Yes, I'd say he has 'borderline psychosis' if such a thing existed! But I'd also say that I've been frustrated all my life by an awareness that most of the population have this to some degree - hence the appeal of the books and the cult following. It all comes down to two different ways of thinking. Pirsig thinks in words and facts. He takes the facts and re-arranges them using language to try to make sense - early in the book his troubled character writes things on cards in a huge filing system and then tries to correlate everything. You might call it 'top down thinking' and Religious people do it, going over and over texts trying in vain to extract more meaning; and I'm afraid our schools encourage thinking along those lines too (thank goodness for my good science teachers). Since the 'Scientific Enlightenment', which changed Europe in the 1700s, some of us have have cultivated a different way of thinking; systematic thinking, using 'reductionism'. It works amazingly - witness all the things around you made possible by engineers and scientists that are part of modern life, but because, in it's early days, it didn't seem able to explain many aspects of life, especially feelings, there was a backlash from 'arty types' which was called 'postmodernism' - and it got things wrong and helped bring 'enlightenment' to a standstill.

But back to Pirsig's thinking. Persig is obsessed with what he calls 'quality', and he gets into futile debates with himself about it. But his difficulty all comes down to the fact that he is using a word to represent something which it doesn't represent. My products measured audio quality, meaning that they measured how close the sound from a system came to the original (they also came with excellent instruction manuals which Persig's Phaedrus would have approved of!). Persig says, 'does Lila have quality,' but what sort of a question is that. There is no original to compare her with. We also talk of the quality of a product of course, meaning how well it is made; does it have rough edges, will it last, does it show craftsmanship? This is a different use, though we could say we are asking 'how close is it to what we imagine an ideal version of the product would be', an extension of the first use. If we talk of a painting though, we enter a minefield because we cannot really talk of the quality of a painting without defining which aspects of the painting we are judging - the technical excellence, it's ability to convey emotion, or perhaps it's closeness to reality. The same goes for a person. Most people know this instinctively - they sense that quality is a word that needs further qualification. It's just a word, not a real thing. And language is a very strange thing because the words we use are only the basic level; their interpretation in our brains uses another level; roughly speaking, context, but it's cleverer than that. Persig and his characters seem to lack this other level, as psychotics do. He tries to find answers at the level of words alone. Where does this other level come from? I think that, like language, it is probably acquired early in life, and is not genetically determined. Readers should be aware that in real life Persig did have a breakdown, spent time in a mental hospital, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and 'Zen' is very much based on his real life. Though he started out studying biochemistry, he dropped out, obsessed with the fact that there are an infinite number of hypothesese about a scientific process. So what, there are an infinite number of things I could do next, it doesn't stop me choosing. He later studied eastern philosophy (a long way from science), became a professor and taught creative writing.

To understand Lila, or any of Persig's problems, we have to understand that there are facts and there are feelings. Feelings are evolution's way of steering us away from things that threaten us and towards things that enable us, and they are based on subconscious memories of earlier events. Facts are absolute. If a tree falls in a forest it really does fall, whether anyone it watching or not. A scientist could produce evidence to that effect - a prior photograph, a sound captured far away, even a seismic record etc. Persig though lives in a world that confuses facts and 'internal facts'. Facts have no meaning, they just are. Facts only acquire meaning when our brain imposes feelings on them. Feelings from the subconscious mind which bias us according to earlier things that happened in a similar context.

I reviewed an excellent book recently, 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind', by Gregory Bateson, which contains an article on 'The Double Bind' which became a key idea in Psychiatrist R D Laing's theories of mental illness in the 60s, in particular Schizophrenia. Bateson is not easy to follow, but he has the real answers, and he talks of the higher level processing necessary to our understanding of language. A simple example would be the misunderstanding in the sentence, 'a cat is an animal', a dog is an animal, 'so a dog is a cat'. There is nothing in the words, or any rules taught in school, or even capable of being expressed by most people, to tell us that this is not a proper deduction, yet most people do know. Languages are crude tools, and in this case we could well invent a word to replace 'is' and say the dog beinclass animal. But we don't, though it's interesting that some languages do contain words and tenses that convey things that English can't. Bateson explains the hidden rules with words like 'a member of a class is not the class, and a class cannot be a member of itself'. Were you taught this at school? No! The rules are internalised from experience and context, and applied automatically by our brain. Bateson's book also gives a very credible theory of schizophrenia based on the idea of the 'double bind'. A double bind typically occurs when a child is told one thing in words, but the apparent meaning of the words is contradicted by context. Something along the lines of 'if you loved me you wouldn't say that', which puts the child in the position of having to give up rational thought or risk losing the love of the parent! This happens a lot! I can't fully explain here how this theory explains Persig's character's dilemma; it could be the topic for an interesting thesis thesis, analysing the book word by word, but I hope I give you some idea. Bateson also has interesting ideas on humour. He says that humour arises when we become aware of a deliberate incompatibility between literal and contextual meanings, or something like that! It makes sense, and poetry ventures into this area too.

So does Lila have quality? Sorry, does not compute! Lila has a personality, which is governed by her subconscious memories of past experiences and causes her to act in the way she does to facts and events - an internal transform. This internal process is in all of us to help us to survive. In some of us it 'make sense' in that it is consistent, but it can be inconsistent, and inconsistency creates problems when people come together - sometimes we call them mad. Don't be fooled by Persig. His books make you think, but they lack consistent thought. I recommend reading some evolutionary psychology, or Bateson, or Laing.
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on 14 May 2017
All is fine. Fast, no fuzz.
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on 29 May 2017
Great book
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on 28 July 2000
This book is stunningly good. It goes much further than Zen and delves into the fundamental properties of Quality, opening up whole new vistas in your perception of the world. It is very well written, again taking the form of a journey (this time in a boat) interspersed with insightful passages on the book's main topics. Somehow this makes the book much easier to read than a "normal" philosophy book, giving you time to rest before the author continues down his personal river of enlightenment.I'm not entirely sure why Amazon only have a weird US version of this book when many bookshops have it in stock for a much more reasonable 7ukp or so.
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on 3 June 2016
pretentious crap
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