The book, whose title carries the name of its main character, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, relates the adventurous flights of a bird. It opens with a scene in which Jonathan is high up in the sky, all alone by himself, practicing low-speed and high-speed flights. Jonathan comes from a society of seagulls called the Breakfast Flock which is governed by a board of leaders called the Council Flock. In this brotherhood, only Jonathan is seized by an obsession to soar to heights where no one of his kind has ever dared to fly before, for he alone has come to the knowledge that there is more to life than just eating as it is for most seagulls. To him flying is what really matters.
Jonathan’s parents though are dismayed about the flying experiments which engage him whole days. His mother urges him to be like the rest of the flock, leave the flying business to pelicans or the albatross, and eat better (“Why don’t you eat? Son, you’re bone and feathers!) Similarly, his father tells him to be more down to earth: “If you must study, then study food, and how to get it…you can’t eat a glide….Don’t you forget the reason you fly is to eat.”
For the next few days he obeys his parents’ biddings. But soon after, he finds himself busy again with high-speed flight and aerobatics in the course of which he realizes to his dismay that his flying ability is severely limited by his being a seagull, that to fly at high speed, he should have the falcon’s short wings. It thus dawns on him that in plunging down at high speed, all he needs is to fold his forewings to his body, and fly on the wingtips. With this discovery, he dives straight down at the terminal velocity of two hundred fourteen miles per hour! With this breakthrough, he also discovers the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel.
He returns to the flock on the beach at night, thinking aloud his great discovery: “How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”
As Jonathan lands, the gulls are flocked into the Council Gathering. He is asked to stand to Center for Shame by the Elder “…for his reckless irresponsibility…violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family….” To be centered for shame means outright banishment from the gull society. He answers: “Irresponsibility? My brothers! Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For three thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live—to learn, to discover, to be free! Give me one chance, let me show you what I’ve found….” The flock refuses to listen and casts him out.
Thus, Jonathan is banished to a solitary life way out beyond the Far Cliffs. Yet he goes on learning new things each day like sleeping in the air, riding the high winds and flying through heavy sea-fogs. Eventually, two radiant gulls appear, taking him to some never-never land, a Shangri-La of sorts. So this is heaven, he thinks.
In that empyrean, Jonathan pursues his quest for perfect flight. He meets gulls named Sullivan and Chiang the Elder, his instructors. From the latter, he learns to fly from one place to another at the speed of thought—by simply thinking of it! And Chiang tells him there is no such thing as heaven. Heaven is not spatial. Nor should it be understood in the category of time. Heaven is being perfect. And for gulls, perfect speed is being there. Thus, death is not the final end. To die is merely to be transformed—into different and higher states of being or levels of consciousness. When Jonathan asks why very few gulls attain this level of perfection, Sullivan explains that for the flock of gulls, the end-all and be-all of existence is eating or other such trivialities. What they cannot see—because they refuse to learn—is that the purpose of living is to achieve perfection. “Learn nothing,” Sullivan says, “and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.” That is why “the gull sees furthest who flies highest.”
But what is the use of salvation if only one is saved while the many are damned? That would amount to elitism, pure and simple. Armed with the wisdom of his experience and without rancor in his heart Jonathan goes back on Earth despite the Law of the Flock to the contrary. He decides to help them see the truth he had seen, the truth that will save them, the truth that will make them free.
Soon he acquires flying disciples like Fletcher Lynd Seagull after making him swear to forgive and love and go back to the flock one day to help them understand. By the end of three months he has six other students, Outcasts all. Kirk Maynard Gull with a crippled wing comes along. Jonathan urges him:
“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”
“Are you saying I can fly?” asks Maynard.
“I say you are free,” says Jonathan. And indeed right then and there, Maynard flies.
Meanwhile the Flock is in the grip of wonder. They go as far as to suspect Jonathan to be the Son of the Great Gull Himself—or the Devil? At this, he sighs in distress, knowing that the trick, if they but realize, is not at all beyond their native power to do. He wonders why it is so hard to convince a bird of his own freedom, of his infinite possibilities for self-perfection. Then he feels it is high time that he should go. He bids his disciple Fletcher to go back and love the Flock enough to help it learn. Jonathan becomes transfigured, goes transparent and vanishes into the thin air.
That, in a nutshell, is the storyline of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. There is nothing so peculiar about the surface narrative which unfolds in a swift, straightforward fashion. One might even suppose that it is no more than a run-of-the-mill mythical fantasy not unlike those found in children’s literature. Some stocks-in-trade common to fairy tales or fables are found in it such as the attribution of human qualities to animals and using them as characters, mystical transubstantiation, and a simple narrative thread. One might thus dismiss the book as kid stuff. But to do so would be to overlook its real worth.
For all its fantastic elements which are in fact taken for granted in fiction, the story rises above the mere tale in the urgency of its appeal as well as in the artistry of its literary execution. It is told in a cut-to-the-bone prose and presents a fresh, original vision—the grand metaphor of a bird’s flight deftly employed to convey the philosophy of heroism, freedom and perfection. While ostensibly recounting to us a seagull’s adventure, the story tells us of something else which the author in a more explicit manner said: “Find out what you love to do, and do your darndest to make it happen.” This sounds like the credo of the Emersonian rugged individualist who does his own thing—to use a mod lingo—at all costs, or the injunction of Joseph Campbell who urged us to “follow your own bliss.” The book in fact exalts the individual self and its unlimited possibilities until near the end of Part Two.
The expulsion of Jonathan from the Breakfast Flock is a fate common to all those stubborn nonconformists who would not toe the line prescribed by the group. It is the price one pays for refusing to be bound by the deadening shackles of tradition and popular standards. The only way open for the fullest possible development of one’s potentials is nonconformity, that is, the rejection of anything that turns a person into a stereotype of mass society, the defiance of social, political or religious conventions which cripple an individual’s creative initiative and make him just like the rest, just one among the many, a mere cipher, nameless and unknown. This, in point of fact, is the protest of modern French existentialism.
Man is lost in the crowd, the herd, the human antheap. He needs to fight for his freedom, the freedom to be himself. In most contemporary Western countries where technological and industrial progress has created what is called as “culture lag,” the new mass-man becomes hopelessly alienated. Little wonder that in the USA alone the book became a cult reading and sold from 5,000 copies a week to 60,000 a day in 1972, breaking all paperback sales records. The secret of the book’s success? It broadcasts the clarion call to greatness, to insist on oneself, to live not according to the wishes of others but according to the inner law of one’s own being.
It might be mistakenly supposed that the book celebrates the cult of irresponsible individualism. But at the end of Part Two and in Part Three, Jonathan comes to believe that he should not claim the truth he discovers all for himself. What good is salvation if only one is saved? At this point, the story takes on a social dimension. After all, he is his brother’s keeper. So he plays the messiah to them, preaching at the cost of being misunderstood the gospel of ambition, perfection and freedom. He tells his disciples: “Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom…and precision flying is a step toward expressing our real nature. Everything that limits us we have to put aside…. Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip…is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see. Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body, too….”
It should be all too evident that Jonathan the reformer does not at all endorse an anti-social creed. The liberation he champions positively is the liberation from the bondage of one’s natural limitations, the cruel determinism from within and not so much the mere physical, artificial constraints imposed from without. Only when the chains of the mind and body are transcended, only then does the release necessary to achieve one’s infinite possibilities for perfection become really possible. Once the self which is a copy of the Eternal Self overcomes its imperfections, it attains the highest state of beatific bliss which involves union with the Eternal. Thus, Chiang the wisest Elder moves beyond this world by being transfigured, becoming radiantly bright as he suddenly disappears. The same thing happens to Jonathan. They have not really been reduced to nothingness but have evolved into the realm of being often referred to as Heaven. As Chiang tells Jonathan, “You will begin to touch heaven…in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”
Physical theory (relativity) tells us that the speed of light is the terminal velocity for all objects with mass. Any particle vibrating or traveling at the ultimate speed limit must have a proper mass of zero like light itself. Hence, unlimited perfect speed, if it is thinkable, amounts to a transformation into the Absolute Light itself. So the disappearance of the gulls in the story that have attained perfection is not after all a far-fetched science fiction fantasy. They have become one with the Infinite, the ultimate salvation and immortality of the Self.
One might disparagingly say that Jonathan’s story is nothing but a mélange of Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, Einstein or what have you. True enough. But Richard Bach had succeeded in crafting it into a coherent, artistic whole in which content and form blend in a beautiful harmony.