Lila by Robert M. Pirsig - Chapter 1 Reading and Commentary

This is my first entry into the “Lila Project”, which will include a full reading of Robert Pirsig’s second novel, as well as my own commentary based on following the work of Robert Pirsig for a couple of years now, since I fell in love with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and began incorporating elements of the philosophy into my psychotherapy practice, and into my own psychological/spiritual/philosophical development. This project will include a reading and commentary, each approximately every other week, until the book is concluded.

On my channel, you will find my layman’s exploration of ZaMM.




In this second and final novel by Robert Maynard Pirsig, we notice some contrasts with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZaMM). For one, this is more of novel, not an autobiography that has been changed for narrative purposes, but a situation in which the main narrative of the novel did not actually occur in the way it’s presented. There are of course a lot of other parts of the book that did happen, but not the main narrative.
Pirsig did have a boat which did become like the motorcycle for him in terms of the Zen and the Art of Sailing. His boat’s name was Arête. However, his partner on this journey was his wife Wendy, not a troubled bar denizen named Lila.

Another difference, which I think is more significant, between this book an ZaMM is that in ZaMM, the journey is very wholesome. It’s a father and son traveling with his married friends. Here in Lila, we encounter a sordidness that was no where to be found in ZaMM. We open the journey of Phaedrus with him waking up in a likely hung-over daze, with a floozie called Lila, who he picked up in a dive bar.
So there are several themes in this chapter that I will explore here, beginning with:

Lila as archetype: child-whore-goddess, synchronicity

Lila is depicted as series of archetypes –

She is this floozie, the whore, who is used to picking up men and then trying figure out how to escape the next morning in a hung-over daze.

There’s the innocent child Lila, who Lila still bears resemblance to in moments and when she’s asleep, or when the light catches her a certain way unawares. The child she once was before whatever life threw at her.

There’s the eternal Lila, the Goddess, who I think he’s referring to as Leela, the embodiment of the dynamic creative activity of God, that which cycles through and animates then goes on its way.

These half-forgotten images are strange, he thought, like dreams. This sleeping Lila whom he had just met tonight was someone else too. Or not someone else exactly, but someone less specific, less individual. 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.

The waking Lila expresses herself through her baby-blue eyes which in turn, evoke the child she once was and hold a pure illumination through her x-rated adult self.
He remembers the times he thinks he saw her in the past, and these have a profound effect on him.

But that was so long ago - years and years ago. She would have changed. There was no chance that this was the same person. And he didn’t know her anyway. What difference did it make? Why should he remember such an insignificant incident like that all these years?

Perhaps it’s because these times become all the more important in retrospect, that these memories become significant when they are linked together by this present Lila. Synchronicity? As it turns out, Lila hasn’t been to the midwest.
One thing she does tell him: A lot of people look like me.

Time & Space

Time and space are addressed individually, but they are also interrelated. Time opens up space and vice versa.

There is not much time, says Phaedrus. He needs to get south before cold weather causes trouble for sailing, but time’s also running out in some other ways. He’s a middle aged guy and time is passing. Maybe pushing him to briefly act like a teenager while he still can.

An unexpected gap of time had opened up. The reaction of everyone at first was frustration. To sit around and do nothing, that was just terrible. The yachtsmen had been busy about their own private cruises not really wanting very much to speak to anyone else, but now they had nothing better to do than sit around on their boats and talk to each other day after day after day. Not trivially. In depth. Soon everyone was visiting somebody on somebody else’s boat. Parties broke out everywhere, simultaneously, all night long…

Being forced to take time that you think you can’t take opens up opportunity as it did in what the captains of all the boats thought they were facing catastrophe, really turned around into something everyone probably needed. Time to just be with one and other and connect

Tides! he had thought. That meant sea-level. It meant that all the inland man-made locks were gone. Now only the passage of the moon over the ocean controlled the rise and fall of the boat.

All the way to Kingston this feeling of being connected without barriers to the ocean gave him a huge new feeling of space.

The space was really what this sailing was all about

‘I think what we’re buying with these boats is space, nothingness, emptiness… huge sweeps of open water… and sweeps of time with nothing to do… That’s worth a lot of money. You can’t hardly find that stuff any more.’

Rigel doesn’t buy Pheadrus’ assessment of space.

There’s no space here… It’s all crowded with history. It’s all dead now but if you knew this region you’d see there’s no space. It’s full of old secrets. Everyone covers up around here.

He asked Rigel, What secrets?

Nothing’s the way it seems, Rigel said. This little creek we’re on here, do you know where it leads? You wouldn’t think it goes back more than a few hundred yards after it completes that turn back there, would you? How far would you guess you could go, on this little tiny creek here, before it stops?

Phædrus guessed twenty miles.

Rigel smiled. In the old days, you’d go forever, he said. It goes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. People don’t know that any more.

For Rigel, there is no space because everything is crowded with the residue of time, and it’s important to see that residue, because the past is a force that needs to be acknowledged. His own family had been here since the Revolutionary war, only moved away 30 years ago (about the time ZaMM was written). To think that there is all this space where there isn’t would be to discount the past. And the past of Rigel’s family is respectable. He’s got the DAR cred and his family were successful turn-of-the-century businessmen.

Time and space are also indicated in the ties to the land. The space between Europe and the American Frontier are apparent.

As the boat moved south he’d seen a growing aura of social structure, particularly in the mansions that had become more numerous. Their styles were getting more and more removed from the frontier. They were getting closer and closer to Europe.

Rigel’s Morality

Rigel He has a stodgy quality about him, he seems to think in black and white terms, and he indicates clearly that we Americans of today are not moral…not like the Canadians

Two of the Canadians at the bar were a man and a woman up against each other so close you couldn’t have slipped a letter-opener between them. When the music stopped Phædrus motioned to Rigel and Capella to notice them. The man had his hand on the woman’s thigh and the woman was smiling and drinking as though nothing was happening.

Phædrus asked Rigel, Are these some of your moral Canadians?”

…at least the ones who think our culture is junky, because he has to backtrack from his absolute statement to the duality that there are some Canadians who like that. He certainly doesn’t approve of Lila who he has known a long time. She’s worse than tacky, she’s from the sewer, says Rigel.

Light as States of Mind

Here’s a map of where he was:


and here is a picture of the locks just so you can get a sense of how chaotic, how hellish it might have been to be coming down these in the middle of the night having to navigate.:


His chart had shown a series of locks close together but they didn’t show altitude and they didn’t show how confusing things could get when distances have been miscalculated and you are running late and are exhausted. It wasn’t until he was actually in the locks that danger was apparent as he tried to sort out green lights and red lights and white lights and lights of locktenders’ houses and lights of other boats coming the other way and lights of bridges and abutments and God knows what else was out there in that black that he didn’t want to hit in the middle of the darkness or go aground either. He’d never seen them before and it was a tense experience, and it was amidst all this tension that he seemed to remember seeing her on another boat.

Lila appears like a beacon n the midst of all those lights, at least in his memory. The waking, eternal Lila, appears as an illumination that radiates from behind the face of our Lila when she’s talking to him at the bar.

She said, Where have I seen you before?

A cliché, he thought,…God, it was her, the one on the streetcar and she’s asking, Where have I seen you before? and that was what started the illumination.

It was stronger toward the center of her face but it didn’t come from her face. It was as though her face were on the center of a screen and the light came from behind the screen.

But that illumination fades as eternal Lila recedes into the background, and present day Lila, manifests in front of him. The flesh and blood Lila who really has none of the magic of Lila.

There are also the lights of the disco function attached to the jukebox, that, along with several cans of ale, put him into a liminal state of not knowing or caring - just getting caught up in the reverie of dancing and drinking with Lila. Is she the one? Yes she is…She is the one. She has been for a long time, she has been in his soul, his anima. And now definitely in the flesh, tonight.

…all he could see was Lila and the lights whirling around and around.

Around and around. And around and around - red and blue and pink and orange and gold. They were all over the room and they moved across the ceiling and sometimes they shined on her face and sometimes they shined in his eyes - red and pink and gold.”

Sex and Biology

There is a lot about the lure of sex on a primal level. You could call it biological. The biological urges rise to the surface as the highest Quality thing to do.

He studied Lila some more: her legs were crossed and her skirt was above her knees. Wide hips. Shiny satin blouse. V-necked and tucked tight into a belt. Under it was a bustline that was hard to look away from. It was a defiant kind of vulgarity, a kind of Mae West thing. She looked a little like Mae West. C’mon and do something, if you’ve got the nerve, she seemed to say.

Some X-rated thoughts passed through his mind. Whatever it is that’s aroused by these cues isn’t put off by any lack of originality. They were doing all kinds of things to his endocrine system. He’d been alone on the water a long time.


Impact of Music

The biological urges are further enhanced by the song that plays on the jukebox. It seems like a black sermon in its presentation, but not a call to come to Jesus, it’s a call to “get it together”. It is an immoral sermon - one that calls people to guilt-free sex. So a question - Are these two middle aged people finally “getting together” after all these years, on the first night they meet each other, immoral?

The song pervades throughout the scene in the bar as Pheadrus leaves the world of consciousness and enters that liminal state of intoxication. The music further and further suggesting his next course of action.

So Pheadrus falls asleep at the end of chapter 1 musing on how, when you don’t try, sometimes you get what you have been hoping for for years. Him of all people! With his big nose and social awkwardness Will this be a good thing? We shall see.


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