The book is written in third person and tells the story of Jonathan Livingston, who is a seagull living with a pack of his own kind. But this is where his similarity with other seagulls ends, as he is essentially different from the rest. Seagulls as a species do not concern themselves with pursuits beyond their daily existence. But Jonathan wants to fly – and fly not just enough to catch the daily fish and muddle through a mundane life – but fly at a speed beyond the imagination of any seagull.
He wishes to fly at a sinful speed. And learn how to stall in mid-air, how to swerve like a fireball and glide effortlessly through the morning sky. The very first page of the book rivets our attention by the skillful presentation of both the fine details about flying and the single-minded determination of our protagonist. The former derives mainly from Bach’s experience as a US Air Force pilot and the latter from his personal fascination with flight. The writing style is direct and without any superfluous details. This is not to say that the work lacks in descriptiveness. Quite the contrary – it gives a fascinating account of the way Jonathan tips his feathers and folds his wing to achieve the necessary control for flying at extra-ordinary speed. But the description is always precise and bangs the head of the nail with one solid stroke.
The book is philosophical. Jonathan realizes that his pattern of thinking “is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds“. Bach describes the many facets of resistance that Jonathan faces. The episodes are uncomfortably close to ordinary life. Jon’s father admonishes him with practical epithets on survival. His mother beseeches him to conform to the rest and for a moment Jon makes a genuine effort to mix in. But his feeling of disgust for the ordinary soon overcomes his obedience and he reverts back to his old ways.
This part of the story about Jon making a desperate effort to “join in” adds the wonderful touch of reality to his character. He is not the grand idealist who is beyond feelings and temptations but an ordinary individual who is motivated by an ideal higher than mere existence. In particular, I liked the way in which Bach describes the final act of him giving up on his effort to confirm. Jon deliberately drops a “hard won anchovy to a hungry old gull chasing him“. By doing so, he raises himself above the incessant bickering of the ordinary and symbolizes free thinkers who deliberately step out of the rat race engulfing their neighbours.
Jonathan dreams big. He climbs a thousand feet and launches into a vertical dive. He is relentless in his pursuit of an over-arching purpose. Ten times he tries and ten times he bursts into a churning mass of feathers crashing down into the water. He keeps learning, stalls his feathers and attains a speed of ninety miles an hour – setting a world record for seagulls. Jonathan now climbs two thousand feet. He wants to learn more, to fly faster and to touch the edges of possibilities. Basking in his own success is not a part of Jonathan’s DNA.
Bach is extremely adroit with words and when he expresses the frustrations, joys and incremental victories of Jonathan; he makes the reader travel across space and time to experience the emotions themselves. “He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his fore-wings, extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged directly toward the sea.” Jonathan conquers terminal velocity and masters the art of turning in mid air with the slightest movement of a single wingtip feather.
He joins the Flock filled with ideas and dreams of a life built on reason and a higher purpose. To his utter amazement however, the elders and other seagulls in the flock banish him as a shameful outcast who has encroached upon the sacred lines of order. Jonathan is dumbfounded. He tries to reason with them but he might as well have reasoned with deaf walls. Bach captures this moment perfectly. Jonathan finds it very difficult to understand the frame of mind and line of reasoning that causes his kinsmen to reject the idea of a better life. He is not sorry for his solitude but feels pity for their ignorance. He is comfortable in his own skin and finds it ridiculous to seek approval from others. In fact, this lack of need to seek approval is what differentiates Jonathan from the rest of the pack. “He learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.”
Had the author ended the story here, the book would have gone down as a fine, well written fable with a distinct moral lesson served in a convincing narrative. But the genius of Bach had just started and what follows from this point, raises the level of the book to heights scaled by timeless classics.
One day, after his ostracism from the flock, Jonathan is accosted by two magnificent seagulls that are as skilled as he is in the art of flying. Upon questioning, they inform Jonathan about a different place where people like him live and practice the art of perfect flight. Understanding dawns on our protagonist yet again. He takes one long look across the sea at the place where he had learned so much and rises with the duo to reach a place where he would be welcome – a place which he can call his home. Jonathan Livingston Seagull reaches heaven.
“So this is heaven, he thought, and he had to smile at himself.”
Bach gives a beautiful description of the place. There are seagulls like him practicing towards achieving perfection. Bach’s idea of heaven is not an idle place where angels roam around singing praises for an Almighty God. His idea is more evolved. Heaven is a place where the idealist struggles uphill, beleaguered but without the antipathy that such a conviction generates from inhabitants of our un-heavenly earth. In fact Bach’s idea of heaven is even more evolved which we discover shortly as the story proceeds.
Jonathan realizes that in heaven, he can fly at speeds as high as two hundred and seventy three miles an hour. But the moment he realizes this, he begins to question the validity of a heaven where there are limits on the speed at which a seagull can fly. He notices that there is lot more to learn. The seagulls accompanying him have more control over their flight than he does. He yearns to learn their skill immediately but tired and exhausted with all that has happened over the day collapses into a deep slumber.
Upon waking up, Jonathan surveys his new companions. He feels sad for the limited number of seagulls who could reach here and questions his friend, Sullivan about it. Sullivan then describes a cycle of life that seems to be inspired by the Hindu belief of Karma and rebirth. He says that Jonathan is one in a million seagulls who has achieved so much in a single life. For the rest, it took them thousands of life to even understand that there was more to achieve than living on daily crumbs. Bach’s idea of rebirth is strikingly similar to the Hindu philosophy. A seagull accumulates knowledge over his life and is reborn with that accumulated stock over and over again, till he achieves perfection. And that perfection is heaven. The Hindu philosophy calls this achievement of perfection “Moksha” or salvation where the entity joins with Brahma and becomes a part of this cosmic endlessness. His soul, which is in fact the true measure of his identity, then becomes free from the endless cycle of life and death.
Jonathan continues to learn more techniques and ends up meeting Chiang, the eldest of the flock. Chiang is described as a seagull who has achieved near perfection and is about to depart from the cycle of life and death. Jonathan confronts him with the question that the place they are in cannot be heaven with all its limitations and Chiang nods approvingly in reply. He explains that heaven is a state of being. “Heaven is not a place. Heaven is not a time. Heaven is being perfect.”
He continues by informing Jonathan that “you will begin to touch heaven in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that is not flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit and perfection does not have any limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there”. And saying so, Chiang vanishes from his spot and reappears on another spot. Jonathan is astounded. He entreats the master to teach him the art and Chiang agrees with a smile. “The trick, according to Chiang, was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body that had a forty-two-inch wingspan and performance that could be plotted on a chart. The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time”. Here again we see that the teachings of Chiang acquire an Oriental mystique and a Hindu wisdom.
Jonathan practices the art ferociously, day in and day out, but is unable to learn it. And one day, just like that, understanding dawns on him and he comprehends his master’s words in a flash of enlightenment. The incident is reminiscence of the ‘koan’ tradition in Zen Buddhism. The master gives his disciple a short verse (known as a koan) which appears nonsensical at the first glance. The disciple is expected to meditate on the verse day and night until understanding dawns on him and he grasps the message behind the verse.
Jonathan is delighted about his accomplishment. He can now travel across space instantaneously. Chiang continues commenting on the finer points of his skill serenely and asks Jonathan to start working with time. The next level of skill would involve travelling across time at will. And when Jonathan has mastered that skill, Chiang says, he would be able to fly up and learn the most beautiful and the most difficult of all flights – the flight of kindness and love.
Chiang’s day of departure arrives and he exhorts Jonathan to continue working on love. Jonathan keeps meditating on it and recognizes a longing in his heart for those at Earth whom he had left behind. He confides his uneasiness to Sullivan who prevents Jonathan from leaving for Earth by reminding him of the narrow-mindedness that reigns there. Sullivan contends that Jonathan is much better off staying where he is and teaching seagulls who think like him. “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”, he says and for a moment Jonathan is convinced to stay put.
But the longing to return home and teach someone like him continues to haunt Jonathan. He now starts understanding the power of love and kindness and decides to leave for Earth. Sullivan becomes sad on hearing this decision but does not stop Jonathan again. I think I’ll miss you Jonathan, is all that he says. At this moment Jonathan gives a reply that is my favourite quotation from the book. He says, “Sully for shame! And don’t be foolish! What are we trying to practise every day? If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice“. The message shows that Jonathan has finally grasped the idea of limitless freedom and has ceased to be constrained by space and time.
Far away from this heavenly abode, Fletcher Seagull is treading the path that Jonathan walked on not a long time ago. He has been cast out from the flock because he wished to fly and wanted more from life than just “flapping around”. In a moment of utter disappointment, Fletcher Seagull hears a voice inside him and when he looks around in astonishment, he notices the heavenly body of Jon who is flying with utter ease. Jonathan asks Fletcher to cast away his unkind feelings for the flock and forgive them with a noble heart. He then starts instructing Fletcher in the skills of flying and begins his lessons with ‘Level Flight’.
Jonathan continues teaching Fletcher the different levels of flying with precision and is soon joined by six other students who were thrown out of the Flock for wanting to learn the skills of flight. Jonathan teaches them all and in between his instructions, gives them lessons in life and morality and on the overarching purpose of a gull.
“Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom, Jonathan would say in the evenings on the beach, and precision flying is a step toward expressing our real nature. Everything that limits us we have to put aside. That’s why all this high speed practice, and low speed, and aerobatics…“
The other gulls are not up on ideas of unlimited freedom and would unmistakably doze off in the middle of Jonathan’s speech. Then one day, Jon informs them that the time had come for them to return to the Flock. The disciples protest vehemently but Jonathan flies off alone which leaves them with no choice but to join him. Fletcher gets concerned about the safety of Jonathan and braces himself for a fight.
The formation arrives home and performs amazing acrobatics to the astonishment of the entire flock. They watch as the six disciples perform feats which were hitherto impossible and Jonathan quietly critiques them and teaches them to further heights in mastering flight. They turn their back against the mavericks and for some days this pattern continues with Jonathan’s crew practicing flight and the flock of gull ignoring their performance. At night, Jonathan would notice a group of curious gulls standing in the darkness listening to his instructions but too afraid to get noticed by others in the flock.
Then finally, after a month it happens. Terrence Lowell Gull crosses the line and is immediately ostracized from the flock. He is soon joined by Kirk Maynard Gull whose left wing is badly hurt. Jonathan exhorts him to free himself from the limitations of his body and Maynard is transformed by Jon’s instructions. This sends off an electrifying wave across the flock and the next day, a thousand gulls cross line.
Jonathan accepts them all and teaches simple things like freeing the self from all limitations. The other gulls hail him as divine and this disappoints Jon exceedingly. He sighs at the price of being misunderstood. “They call you devil or they call you god”. Fletcher quips that they are merely ahead of the fashion.
A week later, Fletcher is instructing other gulls in high speed flying and in between the lessons, is about to collide with a young gull who comes in his way. He swerves sharply and blasts off into a solid rock. Fletcher opens his eyes in another world with Jonathan gliding beside him. He is amazed at having escaped death and asks Jonathan about the place they are in. Jonathan informs Fletcher that in the moment of urgency, Fletcher had learnt the skill of flying past objects. He gives Fletcher the choice of continuing to learn from this level or returning back to Earth and building up from his previous level. Fletcher agrees to the latter and they return back to the flock.
Upon arrival, they notice four thousand gulls screeching and walking towards them menacingly with blood in their eyes. Jonathan is dismayed to see such hatred and vanishes with Fletcher to another spot half a mile away.
Jonathan now decides to leave the Flock and gives Fletcher the task of leading them to truth. Fletcher is amazed at how Jon continues to love a mob that just tried to kill him. His instructions in the lessons of love have now begun.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of the few books that touch the core philosophy of three very distinct religions. It talks about “karma” and rebirth drawing parallels with Hindu ideas regarding the same. Its emphasis on love and forgiveness are reminiscent of Christian virtues. The underlying theme of the book and the nature of its characters also draw attention to the importance of “focus” and “non judgemental understanding” which form a cornerstone of the Zen philosophy.
The font size and display of text is minimalist and the book is able to get its message across without being centered on melodramatic experiences or other forms of ornamentation. There is a sense of quietness in the attitude of its characters. This degree of minimalism is one of the core virtues of Buddhist traditions. One incident that stands out in this regard is the mode of communication in the world of Chiang and Sullivan. The author mentions that gulls like Sullivan communicated via telepathy instead of screes and gracks. Such a fine attention to detail can only have one explanation - that Richard Bach himself was a deep philosopher and understood the subtle nature of things as they are and as they ought to be.
The overarching attitude that gets reflected in every page of this book is a highly developed sense of perseverance. The feats performed by Jonathan and Chiang are nothing short of miraculous but the author continues to stress that they are the natural outcome of a relentless practice. For instance, when Jonathan is learning formation point rolls from Sullivan and keeps failing, we do not see any judgement being passed on Jon’s ability. Instead Sullivan continues saying “Let’s try it again” like a chant until Jonathan is able to master the art. This ritual of intense focus on the task at hand is almost like a prayer and it places a very high emphasis on action and on the ability of an individual to overcome all barriers.
This is a very likeable idea because our society today places an exaggerated amount of importance on IQ and natural abilities. We instinctively admire the guy who smokes pot all night and still manages to score an A+ in the examination next day. Such a disposition breeds an unconscious contempt towards hard work which is very unhealthy for development. Richard Bach places absolutely no limits on what an individual can achieve given the right directions and the right amount of hard work. This contrasts very sharply with the attitude of authors like Ayn Rand (or Nietzsche) who consider the majority of human race as “social ballast”. It is this departure from the existentialists that places Richard Bach on a more Christian path which, I personally feel, is a step up in the development of an individual’s paradigm.
Another incident that stands out in its relevance is the attitude of the flock towards Jonathan and his disciple when they return back and show their flying skills. The flock either damns Jonathan by calling him a devil or they put him on a different plane by calling him a “Son of God”. This response is very characteristic of the society towards those who create breakthroughs in science and technology. Part of the explanation can be the insecurity that Jonathan engenders in the minds of other seagulls. Should they admit that Jon is as ordinary as they are, the utter failure of their life would stare them back in their face. The ostracism of Jonathan then serves as a defense mechanism that allows them to maintain inertia and continue living as they are with a moral compass that validates their point of view. Clearly such an attitude disappoints Jonathan acutely. As Fyodor Dostevsky remarks, “Man, so long as he remains free, has no more constant and agonizing anxiety than find as quickly as possible someone to worship.”
The genius of Bach goes one step further when he outlines a clear and simple response to this attitude. He advocates love and forgiveness. Loving and forgiving those who damn your soul can only come from a highly developed sense of understanding and empathy. It is precisely for this reason that Chiang describes kindness and love as the most difficult lessons and the last step towards achieving perfection. This attitude is out and out Christian and is also present in many other philosophies. The great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change”. That Richard Bach was able to advocate this path to someone who has clearly outperformed the rest is what gives Jonathan Livingston Seagull a fitting end and makes it a wonderful source of inspiration.