Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

By: Robert M. Persig

Lila is Robert Persig’s follow-up to one of my all-time favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While “Zen” enjoyed massive commercial success, Lila didn’t. For years, I falsely assumed this book wasn’t worth the read. Curiosity eventually prevailed and I picked a copy of Lila up last spring to read on a west coast of the USA road trip. Utterly enrapt, I was unable to put the book down, reading the last 100 pages straight on a rainy day at a Burger King in Oregon.

Perhaps an overzealous claim, I found Lila nothing short of revolutionary: a reality-quaking contribution to human understanding that was filtered out by the very cultural immune-system it defines.

Lila explores a variety of insights, but what is most important is Persig’s “Metaphysics of Quality,” this Inorganic vs. Biological vs. Societal vs. Intellectual march toward greater complexity in the universe and the relationship between dynamic and static quality, something I have personally felt, and even been guided by the past few years, but was unable to fully conceptualize until I read this book.

Read it and I doubt you’ll see the world the same.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

There’s an old analogy of a cup of tea. If you want to drink a new cup of 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 about 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 really 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 reason for hammering on this so hard is that we have a culturally inherited blind spot here. Our culture teaches us to think it is the hot stove that directly causes the oaths. It teaches that the low values are a property of the person uttering the oaths. Not so. The value is between the stove and the oaths. Between the subject and the object lies the value. This value is more immediate, more directly sensed than any “self” or “object” to which it might be later assigned. It is more real than the stove. Whether the stove is the cause of the low quality or whether possibly something else is the cause is not yet absolutely certain. It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed.
But if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist. Then one doesn’t seek the absolute “Truth.” One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explaination of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide of the future this explaination must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along. One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value.
These are haunting questions, but with Quality divided into Dynamic and Static components, a way of approaching them emerges. A home in suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon is filled with static patterns. A hurricane in Key Largo promises a Dynamic relief from static patterns. The man who suffers a heart attack and is taken off the train at New Rochelle has had all his static patterns shattered, he can’t find them, and in that moment only Dynamic Quality is available to him. That is why he gazes at his own hand with a sense of wonder and delight.
Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other.
How do you tell the saviors from the degenerates? Particularly when they look alike, talk alike and break all the rules alike? Freedoms that save the saviors also save the degenerates and allow them to tear the whole of society apart. But restrictions that stop the degenerates also stop the creative Dynamic forces of evolution.
But the Paradise was always somewhere pointed to, always somewhere else. Paradise was never here. Paradise was always at the end of some intellectual, technological ride, but you knew that when you got there paradise wouldn’t be there either. You would just see another sign saying:

PARADISE > PARADISE > PARADISE
The idea that, “man is born free but is everywhere in chains” was never true. There are no chains more vicious than the chains of biological necessity into which every child is born. Society exists primarily to free people from these biological chains. It has done that job so stunningly well intellectuals forget the fact and turn upon society with a shameful ingratitude for what society has done.
If you eliminate suffering from this world you eliminate life. There’s no evolution. Those species that don’t suffer don’t survive. Suffering is the negative face of the Quality that drives the whole process.
It says the subject-object people are almost right when they identify religious mysticism with insanity. The two are almost the same. Both lunatics and mystics have freed themselves from the conventional static intellectual patterns of their culture. The only difference is that the lunatic has shifted over to a private static patterns of his own, whereas the mystic has abandoned all static patterns in favor of pure Dynamic Quality.

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