It's a Bird! It's a Dream! It's Supergull!
A BISHOP has denounced it for the sin of pride. The new director of the FBI is urging it on his top aides, explaining that he wants "their spirits to soar." A group of alcoholics in Ypsilanti, Mich., uses it to inspire members to recovery. The Christian Science Monitor has refused to carry ads for it. A manufacturer has declared that it encourages "ambition, attainment, leadership, exploration, excellence, growth, goals, imagination, courage, determination, loyalty, sharing, teaching, involvement and concern"—not to mention more aggressive salesmanship. Critics have variously classified it as Hinduism and Scientology. Recently, a columnist, dismissing the whole thing as "half-baked fantasy," offered its success as proof that America's brains are addled.
As it happens, all of these good people are more or less right. But what are they talking about? The Harry Emerson Fosdick-Norman Vincent Peale Reader! A new rendering of the Kama Sutra with footnotes by Mick Jagger? The Bhagavad-Gita as interpreted by the Rev. Billy Graham? Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Hereafter But Were Afraid to Ask? Not so. They are talking about an illustrated parable concerning a seagull who learns aerobatics. They are talking about a volume so small that Winnie the Pooh could carry it in his hip pocket, and so unfleshly that a vestal virgin might choose to read it at a church picnic. In short, about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the year's—and perhaps even the decade's—pop publishing miracle.
Two Feet Deep. Jonathan's history is already notorious as an almost cinematic cliché: how the infant Jonathan came to Aviation Writer Richard Bach in a kind of dream vision; how Jonathan was foolishly rejected by a flock of famous publishers (including Harper & Row, Random House and Morrow); how the book was finally, faintheartedly launched by Macmillan with no advertising budget and almost no reviews (Publishers' Weekly, hardly the most demanding medium in the world, called it "ickypoo"). How Jonathan rose slowly on its own merits or demerits, over 18 months, finding an audience—at first mainly youthful denizens of the ever hip West Coast. And then POW!—how in 1972 Jonathan sold over a million copies, breaking all hardback book records since Gone With the Wind.
This fall Jonathan is being offered in a new celestial blue and silver slipcase for $7.50, as well as in the original $4.95 model. All three of Author Richard Bach's other flying books are being reissued. Bach himself is busy with the film version of Jonathan. The paperback rights have been sold to Avon for a cool $1.1 million—another record. People are beginning to compare Jonathan to Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (favorably or not, according to taste) as a book likely to stay around forever. Says Bach, who does not exactly take Jonathan's commercial success with clench-jawed seriousness: "The way I figure, just by April 1975, the whole earth will be covered about two feet deep in copies of Jonathan L. Seagull." The question that itches away at all but the most ecstatic readers—and haunts the clever folk in publishing who turned the damned thing down—is why?
Jonathan occasionally sounds like a Boy Scout leader, a jet-fighter pilot and St. Paul, but, at least in Part 1, he is really just the gull next door. He yearns to learn to fly better and faster than any other gull. His mother urges him to act like the other gulls and eat better ("Son, you're bone and feathers!"). His father tells him that life is hard. Jonathan can't help himself. He keeps practicing high speed dives but fails to pull out properly because of his long wings. Temporarily, he gives up: "I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature. If I were meant to fly at speed, I'd have a falcon's short wings." A falcon's short wings! Light bulb! Jonathan dives with partly folded wings, hits 214 m.p.h. ("terminal velocity") and pulls out safely.
An incredible breakthrough. But the Flock is blind to the bright future Jonathan has opened to knowledge and perfect flight. They cast him out. Alone now, Jonathan improves his flying-night navigation, slow rolls, loops, the gull bunt. Eventually two radiant gulls who can fly precise formation with him appear and take him to what he (and the reader) at first thinks is heaven.
You Are Free. Studying up there with gulls named Sullivan and Chiang, Jonathan carries his quest for the joy of perfection to unimaginable flight skills and speeds. He finally learns to move from here to there instantly, just by thinking of it. He also learns that there is no heaven and no death. Existence is simply an infinite possibility of self-perfection through many different levels of consciousness. When he wonders why there are so few gulls at this level, he gets a heavy message from Sullivan. Unlike Jonathan, most gulls are interested only in eating, and so do not progress. "Learn nothing," says Sullivan, "and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome." Unwilling to abandon the Flock for this elitist salvation, Jonathan goes back to his old level and acquires seven flying disciples. Despite the old ban by the Elders in the Flock, he acquires more would-be acrobatic candidates. One has a crippled wing, but Jonathan says: "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."
"Are you saying I can fly?" squeaks poor little Maynard Gull.
"I say you are free," says Jonathan. Maynard flies. The Flock talks of miracles and says that Jonathan is the son of the Great Gull himself. Jonathan is distressed. It is only the idea of perfection that has done the work. Then Jonathan leaves, counseling his disciples to love the Flock, even in its stupidity.
Do Your Darndest. In his own ingenuous way, Richard Bach has explained the message of Jonathan: "Find out what you love to do, and do your darndest to make it happen." That urging is what most of the thousands of people who have written Bach seem to take to heart. ("Your book isn't about seagulls at all. It's about how a painter must find his own form whether the public will buy it or not.") Says Science Fiction Writer Ray Bradbury, a great friend and fan of Bach's: "Jonathan is a great Rorschach test. You read your own mystical principles into it." Rorschach test or not, Jonathan owes something to science fiction (thought movement, for example). It is also a mélange of contradictory religious messages. One is Hinduism (the goal of life is absolute perfection). Yet Jonathan emphasizes the self over all else, and that runs counter to Eastern religions. Insistence on the power of the self also undercuts the book's Christian overtones. For Jonathan is no fallen flyer needing God's help but an idea of perfection that can fulfill itself.
Until lately, Richard Bach was a reader in the Church of Christ, Scientist, and Christian Science is one of the strongest religious strains in Jonathan. Mary Baker Eddy taught that evil, death and birth are illusory. Her philosophy, like Jonathan's, projected man as a timeless being. The "real" person is the soul that has always existed, not the one we mistakenly think was born.
"I have been driven many times to my knees," Abraham Lincoln once admitted, "by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." Jonathan Livingston Seagull clearly speaks to some kind of need in America for words of inspiration that do not instantly turn to ashes on the tongue. The Catholic Mass has been largely shriven of ritual mystery. Protestant sermons are soggy with sociology. Occultism, though thriving (TIME, June 19), comes on too much like fraternity rites staged by the devil's disciple. The old maxims ("This above all: To thine own self be true"; "I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul," etc.) embarrass. Still, hardly anybody can live on irony and neo-stoicism for long. Even against what seems to be common sense, it is essential to believe in the possibilities of individual endeavor. There, suddenly, stands Jonathan Livingston Seagull, an Horatio Alger in feathers.
Beside him, increasingly, is Richard Bach. The book's jacket describes him in just 61 words. But this spring, Bach surfaced in a series of TV shows and autograph sessions. The result: Jonathan's sales soared from 5,000 a week to as high as 60,000 a day. Much of that jump derives from the Bach personality. A big, slope-shouldered, raw-wristed man, Bach wears a bushy mustache, a crinkly smile and a slightly bemused expression. He has a remarkable gift for saying tentatively, and with disarming humor, things that ought to sound pretentious or phony or both, but instead convince and captivate his listeners. The result is that after meeting Bach, even the veriest cynic is likely to find himself shamelessly rooting for Jonathan Livingston Seagull and curiously willing to forgive the book its literary trespasses.
Flapping Away. One of the things that readers ask Bach is "Are you Jonathan Livingston Seagull?" "No," he replies gravely. "I'm still way back down there flapping away like crazy toward freedom." Bach is 36. He has six children. He has been an Air Force jet-fighter pilot and a member of the Air National Guard. He has been an editor, a mailman, and a worldly failure—never holding the same civilian job for more than eleven months. He is also a refreshing throwback to a romantic passion for airplanes that most of us thought had vanished with the advent of the jet age. Since he was 17, Bach has almost literally lived to fly. Flight, in fact, is his secular religion, as well as the metaphor by which he studies the terms of life. He came to write about it partly to keep his family alive. But his three previous books as well as scores of articles bear rich witness to the peculiar joys and wisdom of flying. Jonathan Seagull's hot pursuit of aerial excellence at all costs and all his pronouncements about the search for perfection are made in abstract terms. But Bach, flapping down there below, has been set about with very non-abstract car repossessions and unpaid bills and children and boxes of wilted cornflakes—in brief, with all those grubby commitments and contingencies and divided loyalties that make exhortations about mind over matter and doing it all for your private freedom seem like sheer twaddle. "Jonathan Seagull," says one of Bach's flying friends from Iowa, "is Richard Bach with all bad parts left out." He has it backward. Richard Bach is Jonathan Seagull, but with all the really interesting parts left in.
Like Mario Puzo, who all but starved writing two thoughtful novels until he was commercially canonized for The Godfather, Bach has made it big with what in many ways is his worst book. Of course Bach feels that he did not really write the book, and his attitude toward the mysterious voice that revealed Jonathan to him is far more complex than any secular skeptic could at first imagine. "That voice," sighs Don Gold, Bach's ex-literary agent. He shrugs a helpless, worldly New York shrug. Then he says, "But when Dick tells me about it, I gotta believe him."
Bach believes in the voice totally. Almost everybody who has ever heard him tell about it has gone away impressed. Clearly one element in Bach's affection for the story parallels the comment of Tertullian, an early father of the church, who said of the Christian faith, "It is to be believed because it is absurd." In an airplane, Bach believes that every molecule, every rivet, every propeller or magneto or even a 9/16-in. end wrench is throbbing with some kind of life. He customarily pats an airplane, or a faithful piece of equipment, and thanks them out loud for stalwart service. He can even convince you that if a pilot begins to distrust his airplane, it will actually become untrustworthy. But just as we are all subject to the vagaries that come from collaborating with crotchety planes and wrenches, so in this day and age any voice that wants to pay your rent and maybe even do the country some good by laying a feathered parable on you might naturally go about it in all sorts of corny ways. "Lots of my life," Bach admits, "sounds like a very bad movie."
As Bach tells it, the year is 1959. He is married to his high school sweetheart Bette Franks, and at age 24 has 1½ children. He has already busted out of Long Beach State College after one year, trained as an Air Force jet-fighter pilot, but resigned 20 months after getting his wings because junior pilots were suddenly transferred to desk jobs (no chance to fly jets!). He has worked at Douglas Aircraft ("wall-to-wall white shirtsleeves"), done odd jobs for extra cash (delivering phone books, selling jewelry) while trying to scrape a living as a freelance aviation writer. Late one night he is strolling by a canal near the beach and he hears a voice "behind and to the right" say: "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (John Livingston is the name of a great racing pilot of the 1930s). The hair on Bach's neck rises. He turns his head. Nobody there. He walks home fast, enters his room and sits on the bed. After a few minutes he says aloud just what anyone who knows Dick Bach realizes he would say: "Look, voice. If you think I know what this means, you're absolutely out of your mind. If it means something, tell me." What follows is like a Ken Russell film version of The Messiah with George Frederick Handel composing away as flights of angels swarm over his harpsichord. The voice comes through to Bach like a three-dimensional movie, and as Bach writes it all down with a green ballpoint pen, it shows-and-tells the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Precisely at the moment when Jonathan is cast out by the Flock, it stops. For weeks young Bach tries to figure out ways of ending Jonathan by himself. "It sounds ridiculous," he admits easily, "but I just couldn't think of a way to finish it."
Flying and Flying. Eight years pass. Anyone who knows Bach's life may imagine these years cinematically like the kaleidoscopic scenes of old movie biographies. There are Bach and his tiny, dark-haired wife piling more and more children into a series of secondhand cars and planes as he moves: from Long Beach to Maplewood, N.J., for a job as associate editor of Flying magazine; back to Long Beach to become Flying's West Coast editor; from Long Beach to Ottumwa, Iowa, to become editor of The Antiquer, a magazine about old planes. There is Bach, funny and forbearing with nearly everyone, being oddly short-tempered with his children. Yet the very next image shows him (yes) fondly, unflappably delivering Bette's last child himself in their Iowa house. Sheets of typewritten paper flutter across the screen. They coalesce into the three books that Bach wrote before Jonathan—the first, Stranger to the Ground, fading into a Reader's Digest logo, with "condensed" written under it.
Through the book titles, then, we see Bach flying and flying and flying. But not before he appears in a flashback at age 17 polishing a friend's plane for flight lessons. Then he is off. In an F-84, thundering toward the target on a mock strafing run. In tight formation with the National Air Guard, tensely but proudly crowding in under his flight leader until the rudder of Bach's plane is blackened by the leader's exhaust. The voice of the late John F. Kennedy rises through a dissolve that shows a New Jersey Air Guard unit listening. When the President says he will activate Air Guard squadrons for a year because of the Berlin crisis, the flyers, including Bach, roar approval. Then Bach is strapped into the dark cockpit of a night fighter, gracefully throbbing back to base in Chaumont, France, after flying a winter mission with NATO forces.
Now comes Bach in goggles and scarf at the controls of a 1929 Parks P-2A biplane. His voice rises (from the superimposed title of his second book, Biplane), dulling the roar of the faithful old Wright Whirlwind. "Listen to that! The wind in the wires! And now it's here all around me. It isn't lost in dusty yellow books with dusty, browning photographs.
It's here for me now just as it was here for the first pilots, the same wind that carried their megaphoned words across the pastures of Illinois and the meadows of Iowa and the picnic grounds of Pennsylvania."
Far below him are farmhouses, and fields, distant, slow, idyllic, with one tiny new car the size of an ant winding along a highway. "That modern car," Bach thinks aloud. "That's the only way I can tell the passing of time. It isn't the calendar makers who give us our time and our modern days, but the designers of automobiles and dishwashers and television sets." Dissolve to Bach standing on the wing of the old Parks, shouting a barnstormer's pitch to a skeptical 1966 Kansas crowd: "Five dollars, folks, for five minutes! Five minutes in the land of the angels! See your town from the air!" Then Bach is bedding down beneath the wing of the biplane as a light rain starts to fall, and darkness. His sleepy words close the scene: "We found an America that some people believe is gone, but it isn't gone at all. We saw it brought alive and real and it was a good sight."
Except for a brief period due to the success of Stranger to the Ground, Bach's finances were calamitous. His job on The Antiquer folded. Barnstorming summers were full of learning and nostalgia, but brought in little more than gas and hamburger money. The family's secondhand car was repossessed by the bank. (To establish Bach's priorities a friend points out that at the time Bach still owned an airplane.) He freelanced more than a hundred aviation articles and was constantly trying to stir up larger writing projects, but his rhapsodic style made it hard to get reportorial assignments.
Dream of Gulls. Bach had not looked at the original Jonathan fragment for years. But one of his freelance articles was an attack on seagulls. (These birds, he wrote, were uniquely equipped for aerobatics—strong wings, low stall speed, extreme maneuverability. The only trouble, Bach concluded, was that gulls just are not aggressive enough at improving their flight skills.) Now, in the winter of 1967, Bach awoke in Ottumwa at 5 a.m. from a strange dream of seagulls. Another vision was in his mind. He leaped out of bed and recorded it. "This time on an electric typewriter," he says, with a grin mocking that symbol of professional progress. He added the new fragment to the first half and shot it off to Flying magazine in New York. Instant rejection. Then came acceptance in Private Pilot magazine. Before Jonathan was finally hatched between hard covers, a couple of years passed in negotiating and Bach received a further blizzard of rejection slips from book publishers who couldn't decide whether Jonathan was for adults or children.
Like a Rat. "I don't write like that," Bach says of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. His normal style is highly personal and full of description. As a parable, Jonathan is little more than a narrative skeleton supporting a number of inspirational and philosophic assertions. Bach also points out that he disagrees entirely with Jonathan's decision to abandon the pursuit of private perfection in favor of returning to the dumb old Flock and encouraging its members toward higher wisdom. "Self-sacrifice," says Bach, "is a word I cannot stand."
He believes that an individual has extraordinary powers that can only keep on growing if he develops himself at all costs. Bach means all costs. This is a doctrine given considerable lip service in the U.S., which likes to remember itself as the land of the rugged individualist. But such counsel is rarely followed, in part because of sentimentality and fear of ridicule. One of the funnier episodes in Bach's life was the moment a little over two years ago when Captain Richard Bach quit the Iowa Air Guard—and the weekend jet flying he loved —rather than trim his mustache one-quarter inch at each end and so comply with a new directive against "bushy-appearing" upper lips. Most of Ottumwa sympathized with Bach on that horrendous issue. But not long afterward he scandalized his congregation by withdrawing from the Church of Christ, Scientist, not because he disagrees with much of its teaching but because he has come to hate all religious labels and says flatly, "Organization can ruin anything." (Similarly, on a more frivolous matter, Bach stopped sending Christmas cards a few years back. "In the U.S.," he says mildly, "Christmas has become the rape of an idea.")
Then, well before Jonathan was published as a book, Bach left his wife and six children. "Part of me felt like a rat," he admits, "but I had to ask myself if I could live there any longer. And I couldn't." Recently he has settled a good deal of money on the family and established them in a large house near Lake Michigan. He and his wife Bette are on easier terms. Neither will discuss persistent rumors of another woman, though Bach says that freedom was the real issue and suggests that he will never again be able to live with the impingements of marriage.
However he feels about marriage, Bach is wedded to Jonathan and to its source of inspiration. Several times while flying, Bach has heard a voice give him a sharp command which he followed on instinct; it saved his life, he insists. Yet he admits to being nervous about acting as a vehicle for what he long thought of as the alien force that gave him Jonathan. Because he believes in most of what the book illustrates he has also been a bit worried that readers would refuse to take it seriously once they knew about its "kooky" origin.
One result has been a soft flirtation with the world of the occult. Bach began by skulking into occult bookstores and sampling the fare. "It took nerve," he recalls, "just to go in one of those places." Since then he has tried a few mediums, but found "all that crystal-ball stuff, spirit guides, music and the darkened rooms" hard to take. Recently, though, he discovered Jane Roberts, a poet and science-fiction writer, who since 1963 has been a conduit for the spoken words of a personality called Seth. "It's all done in daylight," says Bach. "There's just this one small, middle-aged woman in a rocking chair. When Seth speaks, her voice deepens and even the planes of her face seem to change."
Seth, in fact, sounds rather like the former Indian Defense Minister, crotchety Krishna Menon. He proved a great help to Bach. For one thing, he advised Bach not to worry about religions that claim Jonathan is preaching their doctrine. ("The seagull is free. How they think about him you cannot dictate.") He also told Bach that every individual consciousness has many aspects that move freely through time and space. Jonathan was not alien but came from one of Bach's aspects. "Information, then, becomes new and is reborn as it is interpreted through a new consciousness," Seth continued.
Jane Roberts and her husband Robert have recorded 6,800 pages of Seth's talk. Much of it has been put together into two Prentice-Hall books, The Seth Material (1970) and, this fall, Seth Speaks. Whoever he is or is not, Seth speaks with more cogency than most of the troubled spirits that find their way into print. To Bach's relief, the two Seth books outline a cosmology that coincides a good deal with his own way of viewing life and death. Though Bach would hate the labels, the final result, like Jonathan, seems to be a blend of Jung, Christian Science and theosophy. It assumes individuals exist as multidimensional personalities who do not die but simply change consciousness. Explicit too, are the great powers that reside in the individual, if he will only tap them, to evolve and to triumph over matter (and sickness) through thought control. Or, as Jonathan Livingston Seagull puts it: "A seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself."
Homing Widgeon. Such a philosophy requires being open to new learning. What Bach is mostly trying to learn right now is how to live with fame and fortune, and at the same time how to protect Jonathan from too grubby exploitation. For starters, Bach has vowed that there will be no Jonathan pop records, water wings, plastic dolls or seafood restaurants. He has retained all rights to the bird. Last spring he incorporated himself and Jonathan into something called Creature Enterprises, Inc., with renowned Lawyer Maury Greenbaum to give advice and consent. One of their first jobs was to squelch an incipient Jonathan restaurant in San Francisco and force Herb Alpert's A & M Records to give up distribution of a rock record called Fly, Jonathan, Fly.
For these new activities, Bach does not really have any home base. For eight months he has been renting a beach cottage—formerly inhabited by Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva—in Bridgehampton, L.I. It belongs to Eleanor Friede, the editor at Macmillan who originally accepted Bach's book and kept plugging for it. (For a while, Jonathan was known around Macmillan as "Friede's Folly.") But Bach is rarely in Bridgehampton. Whenever possible, he operates out of a charming buff and brown $46,000 Grumman Widgeon amphibian, one of the first fruits of Jonathan's success. Says Greenbaum: "He's always calling from airport phone booths. He never knows where he'll be next day." The Widgeon has two 300-h.p. radial Lycoming engines, a "jewel" of a new gyrocompass that Bach has just installed, a folding bed, a head, a desk, an LP stove and a 10-lb. Danforth anchor.
Bach likes to say the plane is the property of Trans Creature Airlines and has cheerfully supplied it with a two-man fantasy crew. T.C.A.'s chief mechanic is Slim Ptarmigan, an old biplane mail pilot who knows "the old ways of flying" and wears a battered leather jacket. Captain Ralph Pomme de Terre, a "somewhat humorless" spit-and-polish pilot who handled Pan Am Clipper ships in the '30s, does most of the instrument flying. "I can't run an airline all alone," explains Bach. In fact, despite his mysticism, he is a supremely rational pilot who carefully plots alternative airports for storm weather or gas shortages, and works out fallback landing techniques in case of faltering engines or radio failure.
Aboard, or showing you around his Widgeon, Bach is a completely happy man. He feels about the plane the same mixture of total freedom and fortress security that sailors have about a well-found cruising sailboat. "If there's too much trouble," Bach says, "I know there are good people out there" (he waves vaguely westward). "I could just fly out there and land and ask if they needed some help and they'd take me in."
For the Birds. On Bach's most recent cross-country hop in the Widgeon, fans in bookstores took him in all over the Midwest, mobbing him for autographs. But he could not flog the book too long because he was bound for California to work for the next three months with Producer Hall Bartlett on the film version of the book. Bartlett got the film rights by one of those coincidences that have attended Jonathan's progress all along. While waiting in a San Fernando Valley barbershop, he began reading the book, which a friend had given him. Halfway through Bartlett rushed out and called Macmillan, then got hold of Bach, who was on the verge of selling the rights to Wolper Productions. "As I see it," Bartlett pitched, "it has to be a very simple movie. Without animation and without people. Just like the book." That did it. Bach promptly sold Jonathan to Bartlett for a mere $100,000 and 50% of the profits, retaining final approval rights on the film and all advertising and merchandising gimmickry.
The movie has just gone into production. Ray Berwick, who trained the birds for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), was persuaded out of retirement. He is even now up in Carmel, capturing seagulls and testing them for brains and instructibility. On the tenth edition of Jonathan, Bach edited in a girl's name, Judy Lee, among the seagull disciples, because he got a letter from a California woman named Judy Favor, pointing out that Jonathan was a male chauvinist. He has also allowed the film script to "imply" a relationship between Jonathan and a chick named Maureen.
What Ray Berwick calls "the greatest bird picture ever" will be released next year—along with the paperback —so that one way or another Jonathan will still be coming in the windows in 1973. If it becomes more than ever the book (and film) some people love to love, it will also become, like Love Story, more than ever the book some people love to hate. Bach will never turn his back on Jonathan, as he feels that homonymic seagull (Erich) turned his back on Love Story. "It's not for everybody," says Bach. "But nobody's read Jonathan yet and said 'It stimulated me to go out and kill the pigs.' "
Looking beyond Jonathan, Richard Bach is working on a scheme to set up a combination flight school and graduate seminar for people who now fly just O.K. but hope like Bach to use flying as a gateway to joy and wisdom. Only Bach could think up such a thing. But if the track record means anything, it will probably become the most sought-after place of higher learning since applications to Harvard and Yale began to sag. Whether his book raises tingles at the back of your neck or curdles your vichysoisse, it is hard not to believe that somebody up there loves Richard Bach. Maybe even the Great Gull himself.