Being-in-Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerer's World/Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

Being-in-Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerer's World by Florinda Donner; Harper San Francisco. 1991; hardcover.

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig; Bantam. 1991; hardcover.

Reading Donner and Pirsig is uncannily like slipping into a time warp and rematerializing back in the mid 1970s without the least thread of identity remaining from the 1990s. Pirsig, an unknown philosophical iconoclast, stamped the 1970s with his quirky, passionate Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. a desperate inquiry into the nature of Quality as father and son motorcycle across the country; then he lasped into public silence for 17 years with-- almost unprecedented in hyperbolic, celebrity-idolizing America --no sequel, no talk shows, no follow-up. Donner, a German woman born in Venezuela and author of two previous neo-shamanic narratives, took initiation from the legendary Carlos Castaneda (and his guru, Don Juan Matus) twenty years ago, and his presence looms powerfully if enigmatically in this dreaming-awake chronicle of life in a house of Sonoran “sorcerers and witches” way beyond the confines of consensual reality. We're virtually back with Castaneda and his ontologically elusive Mexican cabal of shape-shifters and wind-born shamans as if the Yuppie 1980s had never happened. It's not a rerun either; it's grippingly fresh, as if it never stopped and we're only now re-establishing our attention after a long distraction. But since most of Donner's narrative takes place in the dreamtime, which is an atemporal virtual reality in which perception is completely manipulable, it doesn't matter at all.

That 's precisely what Pirsig and Donner/Castaneda are on about in these new books: manipulating perception, breaking free of the somnambulant bonds of ordinary, physical reality, “expanding the limits of normal perception and breaking the agreement that has defined reality,” as Donner puts it. Their strategy is to dissolve consensus reality, to “break that frail blanket of human assumptions,” that “culturally determined construct” called reality, to gain self mastery, to dream-awake into the detachment of silent knowledge and intent, to finally walk into the vastness of unbounded freedom.

Pirsig has high goals, too. He's looking for the philosophical basis of morality and for the cutting edge of Dynamic Quality, the spontaneous, unpatterned response to life. Pirsig’s narrator, Phaedrus, has been about as far as the Western philosophical agreement about reality allows one: insanity and institutionalization. Insanity is freedom, a heresy, an illegal value pattern, the end of role playing, an uncorroborable culture of one, argues Pirsig. But if sanity is culturally defined as the ability to see reality in a set way, “a geography of religious beliefs shows that this external reality can be just about any damn thing.” After all, the Balinese definition of a madman is “someone who, like an American, smiles when there is nothing to smile at.”

That's a fair description for the perceptually inconclusive adventures beyond the reality principle in which Donner, Castaneda, and company spend most of their time in quest of the sorcerer's profound freedom: to be awake in dreaming. They're inconclusive because neither Donner nor the reader ever gets quite enough explanation, but that's probably part of the initiation. This is far more than lucid dreaming; there are no psychedelic drugs, no ETs speaking through channels -just self-mastery. It 's more akin to the Alcheringa, or Dreamtime, of the Australian Aborigines, an intensely fluid, creative, world-making energetic domain where consciousness and manifestation co-exist seamlessly.

The young Donner is an anthropology graduate student at UCLA when she meets her dream sisters and Castaneda somewhere in Sonora, Mexico in 1970. She'd heard of the hermitic, dangerous Castaneda, but maybe wasn't too well versed on his sorcery of philosophy. Her taste in reading was more likely Vanity Fair than Journey to Ixtlan, and anyway, Donner thinks she is a liberated, smart American woman who doesn't need magicians. She just wants her chronic nightmares to go away. Her female cohorts strenuously try to convince her that women a priori are the slaves of men and male culture, they're “befogged by sex,” wasting their true power which lies in the tremendous potency and organic disposition to dream from the womb.

Between the band of dreamers, stalkers, and naguals, they skillfully divest Donner of all her presumptions about femininity, time, space, linearity, identity, and consciousness. They deftly play on her emotional reactivity like an electric piano and toss her about from ordinary waking consciousness to dreaming-awake adventures with such facility that she never knows where she is, and usually gets it backwards when she tries to guess. Identity is a hall of mirrors; time-space is a mutable fiction. Her principal teacher, Zuleica, has two other distinct dream selves, one of each gender, Castaneda is also called Joe Cortez, Charlie Spider, and Isidor Balthazar; even Don Juan has a couple aliases. It's an utterly unreliable, unpredictable, unsettling magic show on the other side of the daily world, a metaphysical cartoon entertainment, a Gilbert and Sullivan romp on the astral plane. Paradoxically, it all usefully confuses, edifies, even agitates us with relevance and glimpses of “other possibilities” outside of time and culture, something that won't leave us alone until we attain it ourselves.

Philosophy and sorcery are metaphysical siblings, says Donner. They're both “highly sophisticated forms of abstract knowledge,” and philosophers are “intellectual sorcerers.” Except that the sorcerer goes one step further than the philosopher by acting on his findings, and except that philosophers on the whole uphold the social order even if they don't agree with it-in short, they are sorcerers manqué; they might have been, but missed it, says Donner. That's largely true of Pirsig, whose passionately, intelligently-reasoned inquiry into what he calls the Metaphysics of Dynamic Quality as an intellectual basis for twentieth-century morality is somewhat stale and uncarbonated after Donner's effervescent dream jinks.

Pirsig wisely copies the successful literary structure of personalized Platonic dialogue in the context of a vividly realized road trip that worked so marvelously in his first book. Now it's not motorcycles but a yacht sailboat which he plies in solitary contemplation from Lake Superior through inland waterways to the Hudson River and down to the “Giant” at its mouth, New York City. Pirsig interrupts his philosophical ruminations and nearly ruins his reclusive lifestyle when he picks up and beds a “ bar lady” named Lila. It' s a flamboyant mismatch: Sherlock Holmes and Mae West arguing about dinner and existence on the Hudson. She's sexy, hostile, broke, and on the edge of insanity -not his type, surely, yet the perfect living, suffering, perplexing question mark he needs to have tossed disruptively into his neat stacks of 11,000 index cards filled with his thoughts on Victorian morality, static quotidian patterns versus spontaneous dynamism, the dead -end of anthropology, culturally static immune systems, a Peyote sweat lodge in Wyoming, the dialectic of native American Indian mysticism and European formalism in the American psyche, and his twenty-year search for the Good.

Regrettably, Pirsig's philosophy is far less engaging than his passionate narrative presence. Phaedrus is a character from Plato's dialogues and maybe the issues of Platonism in general are a little boring today. Pirsig's prose is vigorous and taut his story-line innately compelling, but the long excursions into the Metaphysics of Quality are more often tedious, digressive, and inconsequential than vita l. His specific inquiry is less riveting than the sheer energy and presence he imparts through his inquiry. Pirsig's Phaedrus is inquiry incarnate and this is irresistibly exciting. That he asks, and invites us livingly into his asking, that the energy and persistence of his inquiry is so alive and precious - that's the dynamic quality of his metaphysics, not his final revelation that Good is a noun. And anyway, it's probably all made up, a fictional conceit to serve a philosophical purpose.

Just because Donner says she's a blond-haired, blue-eyed attractive, intelligent anthropology student at UCLA doesn't mean anything. She could be another dream self of Castaneda. He's so protean he may have ghost-written, or dictated it while dreaming-awake. Many readers think “Castaneda” himself was made up by another writer. In a recent interview Pirsig admitted that Phaedrus, Lila, Richard Rigel (an antagonist in Lila), even the yacht, “is really me.” Lila is blond-haired and blue-eyed, too, and if Richard Rigel hadn't whisked her off for institutionalization again, she could have taken just one more step and have been “out of hell forever,” free of the cultural straitjacket of static patterns and “the righteousness of the sane.”

So both Pirsig and Donner-whether they're sorcerer-manqué in a river-faring yacht or sorcerer-nagual in a white Chevy van- have crafted for us a plausible cover story for a profound philosophical intent: the existential domain of pure freedom and some signposts on reaching it along the way. And for voracious readers accustomed to disappointment in each year's harvest of new books, it's gratifying, even nourishing, to encounter Pirsig and Donner/ Castaneda again, emerging from that time warp absolutely untainted by the new age narcissistic excesses of the 1980s and the profound uncertainties of the 1990s and bearing messages worth heeding.


Autumn 1992