Sunday, May 27

Johnathan Livingston Seagul

by Richard Back
photographs by Russel Munson
Macmillan 1970

Is this a book for children?

I received this book as a gift when I was a boy, I believe as a birthday present, possibly from a family friend who was also a librarian. I might have been twelve, the memory is hazy, but I didn't remember reading it.

So I read it.

Jonathan is a seagull unlike the others in that he would prefer to perfect and test the limits of flying over scrounging for food and fighting among the flock. His unique spirit and singular focus upsets the elders in the flock and as he reaches the physical limits of his speed diving experiments he is cast out of the flock.

Free of his societal constraints he flies off alone, only to be joined by two ethereal gulls who guide him to another place, a place where he will be understood and embraced.

"So this is heaven," Jonathan thinks, having found the home of gulls who have freed themselves of weight of the physical world. He meets another gull named Sullivan who becomes his flight instructor and guide, showing him the levels of perfection he had previously only dreamed of. Quickly Jonathan learns and surpasses his instructor to the point where he is introduced to the new flock's elder, a gull named Chiang. Chiang may be the eldest but he has so perfected his abilities that he can actually transport himself through time and space without flight, the ultimate in enlightenment. He takes on Jonathan as his pupil and in short order Jonathan has become a master in his own right.

Because he is still young and idealistic Jonathan decides that mastering flight isn't enough, that he hears a higher calling. Despite the confusion of his new flock he decides to return to the old world, to his old flock, and to show them the way and the light. The elders of his old flock are not impressed and insist that those who even speak with Jonathan will themselves be outcast. But Johnathan's message and abilities are too powerful and soon he has taken on disciples and begun to teach him what he knows. They even go so far as to call him the Son of the Great Gull. Once his followers have all the knowledge he could impart Jonathan turns the teaching over to them, to spread the word and continue to seek out a life without limits.

Wow. What a mess. Who gives this kind of a book to a boy, and what are they expecting from him when they give it?

I'm glad I never read it then, or abandoned it, or whatever I did to block it from my mind. The story is a mess of theologies, a veritable smorgasbord of free-wheeling 70's pop-psych and religious cherry-picking. Jonathan's aesthetic of flight-for-flight's-sake reads a bit like a zen novice attempting to reach nirvana the hard way. Shut out of society, he takes the mythological night journey to the shaman flock where he is given rudimentary training in preparation for (or as prerequisite to) meeting his master. The master finds Jonathan an eager student and puts him through his paces toward total enlightenment. But like Jesus learning at the feet of the Eastern ascetics he realizes that his people need to be guided from their darkness more than his own needs and returns to become their rabbi. In time he has gathered his disciples (including a lone female gull) and, his lessons finished, leaves them to explore the possibilities of an enlightened existence.

There's just enough ideas strewn throughout to suggest that Bach might have been trying to appease all crowds. Depending on the reader's personal philosophies one could find some sort of comfort in the message. The outsider as the ultimate insider, the spiritual found in the purity of action, the student becoming the master... all that was missing was a true Death and Resurrection Show to make the shaman's circle complete.

This was another one of those 25 cent library sale finds that also qualifies as a part of rebuilding my childhood library, which becomes my justification for dropping a quarter. I am forever in love with libraries for any number of reasons, but rebuilding my own childhood library from their detritus has been one of the best.

I'm glad I finally read this, and I am probably the right age for it now. Back when I was twelve I probably wrote it off as a stupid book about a seagull. I know it was a hugely popular book when it came out and that every household had an obligatory copy (ours sat next to some of my mom's collections of Rod McKuen poetry) I only wonder what it was about me that caused someone to think I would have enjoyed it.
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