Lila by Robert M. Pirsig — Chapter 3 Reading and Commentary


Chapter 3 is interesting because it presumably lays out what is going to be the theory of reality. I had difficulty interpreting this chapter, because there doesn’t appear to be much hidden. Let’s think about Zamm for a minute. Zamm is a lot of fingers pointing at the moon. While Pirsig spells things out in places, namely where he restructures his view of reality, and also Pheadrus’ detective work at getting to the core of the problem,

In many places in Lila, it’s as if Phaedrus is delivering a lecture on the metaphysics of Quality. In an interview shortly after Lila was published, he said he wrote Lila partly to explain in a more straightforward way what people said they could not understand even after multiple readings of Zamm. This frustrated him, because he says he wished people could just read Zamm once and get it. Which is funny.

The point is, chapter is not hard to understand, so I’m going to use a lot of quotes in this commentary edition, just to give a synopsis of what the chapter is about, with some interpretation, but not much, because it’s pretty straightforward and while it introduces important concepts, and ties in with ZAMM, it’s not really open to that much interpretation.

So about Dusenberry:

Academically he had long before been placed on the TOUGH pile of scholars whom the department would just as soon have gotten rid of. Tenure was all that saved him from the JUNK pile. He had little to do with the rest of the department socially. Other members seemed to be in various degrees of alienation from him.

Remember that Dusenberry was almost relegated to the junk pile in chapter 2. But now he emerges in full force.

…but when Phædrus had gotten to know him, Dusenberry was actually gabby in a high-spirited, gleeful, maiden-auntish sort of way. It was a slightly gay style; tart, and somewhat backbiting; and at first Phædrus thought this was why they were so down on him.

So the description of gay here is actually pretty apt, and if this was 1990 instead of 2020, I don’t think it would be met with offense. I went to art school in New York, and a lot of guys had this style, and they would have agreed with me and would have exaggerated it for laughs and as an art form. Nowadays of course, I feel trepidation saying that, for obvious reasons. But that’s not what bothered the staff at all, IT was Dusenberry’s overenthusiasm with the Indians

…particularly the Rocky Boy Indians, the Chippewa-Cree on the Canadian border about whom he was writing his Ph.D. thesis in anthropology.

Dusenberry had little interest in teaching English, but he immersed himself in the world of these Indians, becoming as much a part of their world as is possible. This of course made him an eccentric to his colleagues. But for Dusenberry, this was the only way to actually learn about the Indians. It was the only way to do anthropology. Certainly, sitting back, observing and taking notes was not doing anthropology.

The main part of his eccentricity seemed to be his refusal to accept objectivity as an anthropological criterion. He didn’t think objectivity had any place in the proper conduct of anthropological study…This is like saying the Pope has no place in the Catholic Church. In American anthropology that is the worst possible apostasy and Dusenberry was quickly informed of it.

This contrast in approaches will be an important element in this book

Subsequently, no University will take him for his phD. So he skirts around this by being admitted to Uppsala University in Sweden. But he fervently stands by his immersion approach:

The trouble with the objective approach, Dusenberry said, is that you don’t learn much that way… The only way to find out about Indians is to care for them and win their love and respect… then they’ll do almost anything for you… But if you don’t do that… He would shake his head and his thoughts would go trailing off.

I’ve seen these “objective” workers come on the reservations, he said, and get absolutely nowhere…

Remember in Zamm, there is a contrast between the ghost of the Indian and the ghost of the westerner – Newton. This gives some insight into an ongoing theme, which is the myth that the Western view of objectivity and rationality is somehow at the top of all knowledge and understanding and is the only true epistimology. Lately we’ve been talking about other ways of knowing, and these other ways fit in well with Pirsig. Dusenberry engages in participatory knowing.

There’s this pseudo-science myth that when you’re “objective” you just disappear from the face of the earth and see everything undistorted, as it really is, like God from heaven. But that’s rubbish. When a person’s objective his attitude is remote. He gets a sort of stony, distant look on his face.

Another observation is that objectivity can be a value trap. Sure, it’s necessary It can keep you from understanding and engaging with the values of the people you are studying – and since this way of seeing the world is based on Quality, on value, then it doesn’t make sense to try to be scientific about the ever-changing dynamics of a group of human beings and their particular social and cultural world. It’s respectful to engage with them this way. Dusenberry indicates that if you just sit back and study them, they don’t like it. Would you? So with the objective anthros, the Indians either dont’ tell them anything or tell the fairy tales.

which of course a lot of the anthros believe at first because they got it “objectively”… Some of these anthropologists make big names for themselves in their departments, Dusenberry said, because they know all that jargon.

So that’s why I’m not objective about Indians, he said. I believe in them and they believe in me and that makes all the difference.

Then what are the implications of not being objective, of immersing yourself in a culture. Well, it probably means you need to act in a way which that culture can accept, which means you have to adopt their values, or at least follow the protocol that come from those values. Dusenberry becomes their mascot and an honorary Indian pretty much. Of course this means he has to keep some of their secrets and not use them in his work, but it’s worth it to him.

Dusenberry, the misfit at Bozeman connects with Phaedrus for obvious reasons:

Here to Dusenberry’s surprise was someone who seemed even more alienated than he was, someone who had done graduate work in Hindu philosophy at Benares, India, for God’s sake, and knew something about cultural differences. Most important, Phædrus seemed to have a very analytic mind.

We certainly know about Phaedrus’ great mind from Zamm, so no surprise there, but what’s amusing here is that both of these guys are misfits and they find each other. Right before Pheadrus is about to leave Bozeman for another job, Dusenberry suggests he come to a ceremony on the reservation.

You’re going to convert me? Phædrus said facetiously.

Maybe, Dusenberry said.

Dusenberry describes the ceremony which ends with a ceremonial meal. And there’s an amusing anecdote he shares about how he was expecting venison and blueberries at the meal and instead they whipped out a canopener and 3 cans of Del Monte.

“No! No! No! Not canned corn,” and they laughed at me. They said, “Just like a white man. Has to have everything just right.” Then after that, all night long they did everything the way I said and they thought that was an even bigger joke because now they weren’t only using white man’s corn they were having a white man run the ceremony. And they were all laughing at me. They’re always doing stuff like that. We just love each other. I just have the best time when I’m down there.

And what better anthroplogy could you do than becoming one of them, so to speak. Dusenberry informs him that staying up all night will involve seekign visions with a “scramental food’ called peyote. Now, Nobody really knows about peyote at the time, about 1960, except anthropologists.

Indians who used it regarded it as a quicker and surer way of arriving at the condition reached in the traditional vision quest where an Indian goes out into isolation and fasts and prays and meditates for days in the darkness of a sealed lodge until the Great Spirit reveals itself to him and takes over his life.

And an interesting observation about hallucinogens which certainly makes sense, and shows how in fact the experience is a hyper-reality. That your day to day states of mind is influenced by a variety of factors, but it is really amplified in the hallucinogenic experience

The experience is determined by the person’s mental state, the structure of his or her personality, the physical setting, and cultural influences.

As hallucinogens grew in popularity, they were deemed unsafe and steps were taken to make it an other hallucinogens illegal. Dusenberry had to testify locally at one point, and regretted being unable to defend the Indian practice. But his hands were tied by his bosses. The battle was framed as a public health issue, but it was really moral. It was also the persecution of a religious minority

The majority opposition to peyote reflected a cultural bias, the belief, unsupported by scientific or historical evidence, that hallucinatory experience is automatically bad. Since hallucinations are a form of insanity, the term hallucinogen is clearly pejorative. Like early descriptions of Buddhism as a heathen religion and Islam as barbaric, it begs some metaphysical questions.

What is insanity is another theme explored in both books. And it is telling how our society feels about being out of control in this sense, out of line, by engaging in this kind of “insanity”. It’s illegal. It’s interesting how we had to actually go through the whole clinical problem of PTSD to finally come to some kind of understanding as to the utility of these vision quests. These substances it turns out actualy help people with major trauma disorders. But it’s only through their therapeutic utility, which other cultures have known about for millenia, that we are even beginning to find them remotely acceptible. And only through the ojective study of science. Well, whatever it takes.

The Indians who use it as part of their ceremony might with equal accuracy call it a de-hallucinogen, since it’s their claim that it removes the hallucinations of contemporary life and reveals the reality buried beneath them.

There is actually some scientific support for this Indian point of view. Experiments have shown that spiders fed LSD do not wander around doing purposeless things as one might expect a hallucination would cause them to do, but instead spin an abnormally perfect, symmetrical web. That would support the de-hallucinogen thesis. But politics seldom depends on facts for its decisions.

In trauma, the de hallucinogen would be that your trauma is your identity. Also, it allows the patient to be able to face and process the trauma instead of it hiding in the background through dissociation and hijacking the patient out of the blue everytime there’s some unconcious trigger.

The physical distance to that teepee from the highway was about two-hundred yards, but culturally the distance bridged with Dusenberry that night was more like thousands of years. Phædrus couldn’t have gone that distance without the peyote. He would have just sat there observing all this objectively like a well-trained anthropology student. But the peyote prevented that. He didn’t observe, he participated, exactly as Dusenberry had intended he should do.

So what this substance does is remove objectivity and immerse Pheadrus in the culture, more than that, into something much deeper

Sometime after midnight, after he had listened to the singing and beating on the drum for hours and hours, something began to change. The exotic aspects began to fade. Instead of being an onlooker, feeling greater and greater distance from all this, his perceptions began to go in the opposite direction. He began to feel a warmth toward the songs. He murmured to John Wooden Leg, the Indian sitting next to him, John, that’s a great song! and he meant it. John looked at him with surprise.

Why should he feel at home? This was the last place on earth where he should feel that.

He really didn’t. Only a part of him felt at home. The other part still felt estranged and analytic and watchful. It seemed as though he was splitting into two people, one of whom wanted to stay there forever, and the other wanted to leave immediately. The latter one he understood, but who was this first person? This first person was a mystery.

Why does he feel at home? Stay tuned for a revelation. But let’s go through this ceremony a little more.

This wild side was saying for the first time, stop wandering, and these are your real people, and that was what he began to see there, listening to the songs and drums and staring into the fire. Something about these people seemed to say to this bad side of himself, We know exactly how you feel. We feel this way ourselves.

The other side, the good analytic side, just watched, and before long it slowly began to spin an enormous symmetrical intellectual web, larger and more perfect than any it had ever spun before.

The division here is exactly Phaedrus and Robert in Zamm but in an odd way it’s close. One is the objective observer, Robert, who keeps at a distance and observes and says the right thing and keeps Phaedrus, the insane side, at bay…then there’s Pheadrus who is a renegade, shaking things up, stating that our mythos which puts truth over value has been wrong all along. Pheadrus is at home with the Sophists, and one could argue, could be at home with the Indians and their values. But we will soon see what this division really is.

The nucleus of this intellectual web was the observation that when the Indians entered the teepee, or went out, or added logs, or passed the ceremonial peyote, or pipe, or food, they just did these things. They didn’t go about doing them. They just did them. There was no waste motion.

There is a simplicity to this way, very much like Zen. Just drawing water and chopping wood.

They just said what they wanted to say. Then they stopped. It wasn’t just the way they pronounced the words. It was their attitude — plain-spoken, he thought…

Plains spoken. They were speaking in the language of the Plains…(both Indian and cowboy) laconic, understated, very little tonal change, no change of expression. Yet there was a warmth beneath the surface that you couldn’t point to the source of.

The web grew wider and wider. They were not imitating. If there’s one thing these people didn’t do it was imitate. Everything was coming straight from the heart. That seemed to be the whole idea — to get things down to a point where everything’s coming straight on, direct, no imitation. But if they weren’t imitating, why did they talk this way? Why were they imitating?

Then the huge peyote illumination came:

They’re the originators!

It expanded until he felt as though he had walked through the screen of a movie and for the first time watched the people who were projecting it from the other side.

Then what follows is a beautiful speech by a Comanche chief at a conference in Washinton in 1867, when the reservations were being set up that truly conveys this way of speaking and understanding. It is spare yet descriptive. What most people would regard as a speech of High Quality.

Any good thing you say to me shall not be forgotten. I shall carry it as near to my heart as my children and it shall be as often on my tongue as the name of the Great Spirit. I want no blood upon my land to stain the grass. I want it all clear and pure, and I wish it so, that all who go through among my people may find peace when they come in, and leave it when they go out.


…it was a damn sight better than cowboy speech — but it was still closer to the white Plains dialect than is the language of the European. Here were the straight, head-on, declarative sentences without stylistic ornamentation of any kind, but with a poetic force

It very much resembles the example of arete Zamm, from the Iliad.

Then you may live in Argos, and work at the loom in another womans house, or perhaps carry water for a woman of Messene or Hyperia, sore against your will: but hard compulsion will lie upon you. And then a man will say as he sees you weeping, This was the wife of Hector, who was the noblest in battle of the horse-taming Trojans, when they were fighting around Ilion.This is what they will say: and it will be fresh grief for you, to fight against slavery bereft of a husband like that. But may I be dead, may the earth be heaped over my grave before I hear your cries, and of the violence done to you.”

From that original perception of the Indians as the originators of the American style of speech had come an expansion: the Indians were the originators of the American style of life. The American personality is a mixture of European and Indian values. When you see this you begin to see a lot of things that have never been explained before.

Then Pheadrus talks about this scene at the very beginning of the movie, which I wanted to show you but they took it down for copywright, but look at the opening scene of Butch Cassidy

The voice of an unseen gambler says, Well, it looks like you cleaned everybody out, fella. You haven’t lost a hand since you got the deal.

There is no change in the Kid’s expression.

What’s the secret of your success? the gambler’s voice continues. It is threatening. Ominous.

Sundance looks down for a while as if thinking about it, then looks up unemotionally. Prayer, he says.

He doesn’t mean it but he doesn’t say it sarcastically either. It’s a statement poised on a knife edge of ambiguity.

What Phædrus wanted to do now was use just that one scene as an opening illustration. To it he would add just one explanation which no one ever notices, but which he was sure was true. What you have just seen, he would explain, is a rendition of the cultural style of an American Indian.

the point of Phædrus’ thesis was that the reason it came naturally and that audiences responded to it naturally was that the film reached into a root source of American feelings for what is good. It is this source of what is good, this historic cultural system of American values, which is Indian.

He then points out that the white American is a combination of European and Indian, and proves this by pointing out how an Indian resembles a cowboy, and shares a description of the Cheyenne male, who could just as easily be the Sundance Kid.

In the great depression, people loved to go to Westerns, and spend the little money that had this way

They did so because those movies were a confirmation of the values they believed in. Those movies were rituals, almost religious rituals, for transmitting the cultural values of America to the young and reconfirming them in the old. It wasn’t a deliberate, conscious process; people were just doing what they liked. It is only when one analyzes what they liked that one sees the assimilation of Indian values.

And then he gives some examples of these values. During WWII:

European military commanders rated the stability of American troops under fire as high, and that is also an Indian characteristic.

Then there is our impatience with flowery, manipulative speech:

these well-mannered circumlocutions of aristocratic European speech are forked-tongue talk to the Indian and are infuriating. They violate his morality. He wants you to either speak from the heart or keep quiet. This has been a source of Indian-white conflict for centuries and, although the modern white American personality is a compromise of that conflict, the conflict still exists.


This anti-snobbery of all Americans, particularly Western Americans, is derived from this Indian attitude.

And our politics as well:

The American politics of isolationism, in its refusal to become entangled in the meshes of European polities comes from this root, Phædrus thought. Most of American isolationism has come from regions that are closest to the American Indian.

. It’s still with us, and accounts for much of the restlessness and dissatisfaction found in America today. Within each American these conflicting sets of values still clash.

So you could argue that part of the problem around the Meaning Crisis, from an American point of view is being still bound to stale Victorian values. Much of the discussion of the origin of the meaning crisis is in stale social values, and that there needs to be an updating of

So how is it that these Indian values entered the culture of the white pioneers?

The early frontiersmen such as the Mountain Men deliberately and enthusiastically imitated Indians. They were delighted to be told that they were indistinguishable from Indians. Settlers who came later copied the Mountain Men’s frontier style but didn’t see its source, or if they did, denied it and credited it to their own hard work and isolation.

And here is where we see the true division that Pheadrus experiences, perspectivaly, during the ceremony. There has been for the modern man a domicide. With the conquering of the Indians was also the conquering of nauture and of individual freedom that implies.

But the clash between European and Indian values still exists, and Phædrus felt he himself was one of those in whom the battle was taking place. That was why he had the feeling of coming home at that peyote meeting. The division he’d felt within himself and thought was something wrong with himself was not within himself at all. What he was seeing was a source of himself that had never been formally acknowledged. It was a division within the entire American culture that he had projected upon himself. It was in many others too.

When it’s pointed out to you, you see this obvious division in two young men who are archetypes of these 2 sides of the american personality. Tom Sawyer and Huck finn. Tom is New Englander, reasonably comfortable in polite society and prone to cleverness,

Huck was a Western person, closer to the Indians, forever restless, unattached, unbelieving in the pompousness of society, wanting more than anything else just to be free.

Freedom. That was the topic that would drive home this whole understanding of Indians. Of all the topics his slips on Indians covered, freedom was the most important. Of all the contributions America has made to the history of the world, the idea of freedom from a social hierarchy has been the greatest. It was fought for in the American Revolution and confirmed in the Civil War. To this day it’s still the most powerful, compelling ideal holding the whole nation together.

Jean Jacques Rouseau is sometimes credited with this idea of freedom, but he got it from America. And the speech by the Comanche chief, an elegy to their freedom, so well exemplifies this.

He got it from the impact of the New World upon Europe and from contemplation of one particular kind of individual who lived in the New World, the person he called the Noble Savage.

The idea that all men are created equal is a gift to the world from the American Indian.

And as Phædrus’ studies got deeper and deeper he saw that it was to this conflict between European and Indian values, between freedom and order, that his study should be directed.

So this division, not beetween classic and romantic as in Zamm, but between freedom and order is where Pheadrus’ studies will go. So I hope that made sense, and I will see you next time.

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