Lila by Robert M. Pirsig — Chapter 2 Reading and Commentary

This is my 2d 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.



When Phædrus awoke he saw through the hatch that the sky had become less black. Dawn was coming.

Then he realized he wasn’t alone. In fact he was blocked physically from getting out of the bunk by a body between him and the boat’s passage way. This was Lila, he remembered.

So Pheadrus’ task is not to wake her up. And what is described here is how you have to maneuver your body on a boat. There are all sorts of limitations on a boat, such as the fact its usually moving, and it’s very cramped. It requires real finesse to negotiate.

It was a grace he’d acquired the hard way. When he first got the boat he walked around like it was a house, slipped on some diesel oil, plunged head-first down the companionway ladder, and broke a collar bone. Now he’d learned to move like a spider monkey, particularly in storms when the whole boat rose and pitched and rolled like a flying trapeze.

So think about that grace and how it works with the real experience of being on a boat. It’s interesting that his human body becomes like that of his ancestor who was so much part of nature. The boat, while being a technological apparatus, is subject to a natural force which it flows through and flows through it. So much like the motorcycle and the road, the boat is in relationship with the water. So you can’t just walk around on it like the bow is a flat surface. You have to move in harmony with the water. With nature. Just like a monkey. Phaedrus had to come in contact with that force in order to align with it. The result of that alignment is a Quality relationship between him and the water…coming out in the form of an animal precursor to a human.

It felt good not to be related to this harbor in any way. He didn’t know what was above the banks of the river or behind the harbor buildings or where the roads led to or who the houses belonged to or what people would appear here today or what people they would meet. It was like a picture-book and he was a child, watching it, waiting for a page to be turned.

So this describes a freeing of a bond with the harbor. Remember he was in the locks and he was stuck there going down the Hudson towards the harbor, and now, he’s away from that binding harbor and out in the open. From this free vantage point, he can disengage from it and he’s able to observe the world go by without being attached to anything. Is that metaphorical?

He needs to heat the place up, and on a boat, this is a bit of a procedure involving alcohol and charcoal and a little stove. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit in perfect comfort on the shore, barely realizing that our comfort is manufactured…we just forget. It takes actually pulling out of that, like camping, to remember.

On the picture-book shore out there everything was done by magic. They got their heat and electricity without even thinking about it. But in this little floating world, whatever you needed you had to get for yourself.

So by being disengaged from the harbor, you see it as a totality. The harbor world and its automatic comforts. Viewing it like a picture book, you can see it in a different way, like you know where the old buildings are, where the gentrification is. Pheadrus notes a pseudo-Victorian flavor to the gentrification. Certainly this phenomenon hit most waterfronts along the East coast really hard in the past couple decades. Could anyone imagine for example what would end up happening to the Baltimore harbor?

As the alcohol fog lifts, and the cold orients him back into the reality of this morning, he finds a large suitcase on his deck.

He saw that her suitcase had shoved all his trays of slips over to one side of the pilot berth. They were for a book he was working on and one of the four long card-catalog-type trays was by an edge where it could fall off. That’s all he needed, he thought, about three thousand four-by-six slips of note pad paper all over the floor.

So here’s where we are going to get some fascinating insight into Pirsig’s actual writing organizational method. He writes on 4×6 pieces of notepaper rather than on pads or in book. And now, as this scene unfolds, he says he’s been working on these for 4 years and that there are 11thousand of them.

Their overall subject he called a Metaphysics of Quality, or sometimes a Metaphysics of Value, or sometimes just MOQ to save time.

The buildings out there on shore were in one world and these slips were in another. This slip-world was quite a world and he’d almost lost it once because he hadn’t written any of it down and incidents came along that had destroyed his memory of it.

So, from ZaMM we know what these incidents were. For those of you who haven’t, It was about 30 sessions of electroshock therapy for his delusions. A lot of severe mental illness was handled with that or lobotomy a the time. The latter was something that almost happened to him. But now that he is Pheadrus again and is back on track with his Quality project, the ideas just keep coming in to the point they are unmanageable unless they can be offloaded.

Now the main purpose of the slips was not to help him remember anything. It was to help him to forget it.

One thing you probably noticed in ZaMM and that you will see here in Lila is that many of the statements Pirsig makes are analogies to describe the underlying principles of his philosophy. This is one of them

There’s an old analogy to a cup of tea. If you want to drink new tea you have to get rid of the old tea that’s in your cup, otherwise your cup just overflows and you get a wet mess. Your head is like that cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it. It’s very easy to spend your whole life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it’s great stuff because you’ve never really tried anything new, because you could never get it in, because the old stuff prevented its entry because you were so sure the old stuff was so good, because you never really tried anything new… on and on in an endless circular pattern.

The concept of offloading becomes really important here, because you really need to let things go in order to grow. Remember some of the gumption traps? Being stuck in an old value system that you were reluctant to discard is rather described by this tea cup analogy. A value trap. And remember that this is the most problematic barrier to accessing Quality

Here is the whole paragraph describing his system.

The reason Phædrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It’s better, for example, to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please. It’s worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn’t care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is deadly.

So of course Joe is the symbol for that rigid way of thinking that prevents any kind of update to the system. Remember all those rhetoric teachers in ZaMM who were stuck in the Aristotelian mode of enforcing a so called Quality from the top down in the form of rules and regulations concering writing, rather than the bottom up method of allowing Quality to guide the writing. Joes rules

Random access is likely the first actual term that we will be able to identify as a the philosophy that has now been named — the Metaphysics of Quality

Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it. A library is one of civilization’s most powerful tools precisely because of its card-catalog trays. Without the Dewey Decimal System allowing the number of cards in the main catalog to grow or shrink at any point the whole library would soon grow stale and useless and die.

His system allows for any idea to be considered, and we shall soon see, there is a place for all ideas. The important aspect of this system is it dispenses with any preconceived notions of what is the Metaphysics of Quality. Just like the Dewey Decimal system accommodates the books that come in rather than only allowing certain books to be placed in the library based on the categories that are already in place.

There were no ideological Joes to kill an idea because it didn’t fit into what he was already thinking…Because he didn’t pre-judge the fittingness of new ideas or try to put them in order but just let them flow in, these ideas sometimes came in so fast he couldn’t write them down quickly enough.

But obviously there’s a downside

There’d been times when an urge surfaced to take the slips, pile by pile, and file them into the door of the coal stove on top of the glowing charcoal briquets and then close the door and listen to the cricking of the metal as they turned into smoke. Then it would all be gone and he would be really free again.

Except that he wouldn’t be free. It would still be there in his mind to do.

And remember in ZaMM what was said about the church or the university. That even when the building is gone, the spirit of the institution still stands. When a revolution tears down an established government, the paradigm doesn’t get torn down, it just gets repopulated with a new hierarchy. Like the Czar is replaced with Stalin and people at the bottom still suffer.

Much of this section deals with the specifics of working with this system, and some of these challenges anyone who has any kind of system will recognize. And this section mirrors a little the frustrations of Gumption Chautauqua. Things that flatten you mostly because you have to start all over again.

One interesting aspect of this is how his being able to articulate and write about this new Metaphysics (a very difficult topic) emerges from this dynamic system of organization. For example, when he’s organizing these cards, and this illustrates the brilliance of this system, he will look at the cards and say “which comes first” Then the next, until you have the cards organized in sequence. Imagine doing that with a bunch of pages or even cutting and pasting on the computer. This is actually more useful than the computer. Even now.

Then what he notices is topics start emerging on their own. Then he can section off the cards with little tabs each for the topic. So instead of making topics and filling them, the topics emerge naturally. This alone illustrates the benefit of this system.

Because his topic is so vast — a new metaphysics, it’s nearly impossible to organize from the top down.

It was fascinating to watch this thing grow. No one that he knew had ever written a whole metaphysics before and there were no rules for doing it and no way of predicting how it would progress.

So yes, it is an entirely new thing, and so this method almost was necessary. But he didn’t have to do it this way, he could have just made a lot of categories he thought would comprise a metaphysics of Quality and filled them in. But he didn’t do that.

So besides the categories that emerge, there are 5 other categories, and we will talk about them, because they are what allows this system to take in any and all ideas

The first was UNASSIMILATED.

These are ideas that come in at the wrong time, when you’re not working or doing something else. Normally your mind says to these ideas, Go away, I’m busy, but that attitude is deadly to Quality.

Now this really hits hard, because just think of all the great ideas you’ve lost because you were to lazy or busy to record them. So already aren’t you beginning to get sold on his system?

PROGRAM slips were instructions for what to do with the rest of the slips…

What made them so powerful was that they too were on slips, one slip for each instruction. This meant the PROGRAM slips were random access too and could be changed and resequenced as the need arose without any difficulty. He remembered reading that John Von Neumann, an inventor of the computer, had said the single thing that makes a computer so powerful is that the program is data and can be treated like any other data. That seemed a little obscure when Phædrus had read it but now it was making sense.

So you can actually restructure your entire system as you are working and the fact you can do this keeps your system open to change, and that’s not going to negate anything you’ve already done, because the categories have emerged independently of the program. If you made the program rigid, you’d be commiting the same mistake. You’d have a bunch of mailboxes that you can acess anytime, but the ones used the most might be stuck in the back of the room. So maybe sometimes you need to change where the boxes are.

The next slips were the CRIT slips.

This is the Festivus pole of the system. These are for airing grievances when the author is in a bad mood. It substitutes for throwing things away. Like when you throw away all your exes clothing, but you realize later that you really liked wearing that one shirt to be, and another thing you threw away was a brand new pair of designer jeans that you could get $120 on Ebay.

The next to the last group was the TOUGH category. This contained slips that seemed to say something of importance but didn’t fit into any topic he could think of. It prevented getting stuck on some slip whose place might become obvious later on.

The final category was JUNK. These were slips that seemed of high value when he wrote them down but which now seemed awful.

The JUNK and TOUGH, end up being the ones that bother him, for obvious reasons and his impulse is to shove them under the rug.

These were the underdogs, the outsiders, the pariahs, the sinners of his system. But the reason he was so concerned about them was that he felt the quality and strength of his entire system of organization depended on how he treated them. If he treated the pariahs well he would have a good system. If he treated them badly he would have a weak one.

So this is an example of the shadow of the system, and we already know that if you don‘t address the entirety of anything, you will lose what could be an important route to the thing you need. So even if these things that look on the surface rationally to be things to throw away, you may need them later.

The hundreds of topics had organized themselves into larger sections, the sections into chapters, and chapters into parts; so that what the slips had organized themselves into finally was the contents of a book; but it was a book whose organization was from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He hadn’t started with a master idea and then selected in joe-fashion only those slips that would fit. In this case, Joe, the organizing principle, had been democratically elected by the slips themselves.

And as we saw, Joe can be voted out if need be.

The JUNK and TOUGH slips didn’t participate in this election, and that created an underlying dissatisfaction. But he felt that you can’t expect a perfect system of organization of anything. He’d kept the JUNK pile as small as possible without deliberately suppressing it and that was the most anyone could ask.

You always have to deal with your shadow. I think this concept drives people crazy who are trying to find spiritual peace. You will always have to deal with a little bit of the devil. AS Alan watts said, the element of irreducible rascality. So as simple as the system sounds, it often caused him a lot of problems. Like a slip fitting into a lot of categories, or slips so odd they fit nowhere. Sometimes the negative piles get too large, meaning the program Joe needs to be re-elected. Etc. on down the line. Nothing worth doing is easy. This book took 19 years to write. But one thing about Pirsig’s writing is that everything ties together. There is not one wasted line. I think this system is partially responsible.

During this sort of review of his system, Phaedrus picks up a tray.

This tray was the oldest one. It had slips he hadn’t looked at for more than a year now.

He brought it over to the table with him.

The first topic, at the very front of the tray, was DUSENBERRY. He looked at it nostalgically. At one time he had thought DUSENBERRY was going to be at the center of the whole book.

And we will read about Dusenberry in Chapter 3. This is one of the real elements, one of the autobiographical elements in this novel. Dusenberry was real. You can look up Verne Dusenberry right now on google.

After a while he took a blank pad from the back of the tray and wrote on the top slip, PROGRAM, and then under it, Hang up everything until Lila gone.

Probably a good idea. Lila has already demonstrated that she’s a big presence on a small boat.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: