Written by Cab Ven Elk
Thank you for taking the time to read this review.
Let’s start at the end.
I find that this a very difficult book to talk about. Not because the events within it occur in reverse, from actions to dialogue. No, it’s something deeper. There is a sensation that this book provides you with as an experience that will be robbed of any meaning if it has to be narrowed down into words. As with all the most important feelings in life, words would only be a devaluing factor. There is an immense part of this book that is best left discovered subjectively, otherwise it will prejudicially shape the way you experience it.
But then again, isn’t that the same as what experiencing a lifetime is like? Filled to the brim with knowledge you can only gain from the subjective experience of actually going through it yourself.
This is the core truth that lies within the pages of Martin Amis’s 1991 masterpiece, Time’s Arrow or The Nature of the Offence.
This book has 3 parts, 8 chapters and consists of 165 pages. If you read the blurb on the back of the book you will learn that the main character is Dr. Tod T Friendly. This would falsely have you believe that there is a protagonist in this story, which Dr. Friendly certainly is not. He isn’t even the main character. In my subjective reading of this book, I found the narrator to be the main character. This isn’t a third-person narrative either, it’s first person subjective.
This might all come across as a bit bewildering or convoluted at first, and it might make this book sound too intellectual to be engrossing, but that is certainly not the case here. The main issue lies within the secret that experiencing the book fresh, without much prior knowledge, holds.
Therefore I’m not going to focus so much on telling you about Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, as what I will be going into the precious details about the background reasons why you should read this book.
In this story we have what’s known in modern literature as an unreliable narrator. I mentioned before that this narrator is not Dr. Tod T Friendly – but in a way it is him. The unreliability of the narrator of this book versus the unfolding events reminds me very much of the relationship between our ego and our subjective experience in this life. We constantly tell ourselves stories that do not always run parallel to our own reality, because they are controlled by the ego. The narrator of Time’s Arrow experiences a different life than Dr. Friendly lived, albeit merely in a different direction.
A great theme that this book leaves with you is the idea of our relationship with knowledge and each other within the objective reality we are roaming in on this planet.
Sounds rather deep doesn’t it?
Well, to fully comprehend the idea of this book, let’s go back a little deeper and look at three important other cultural ideas provided to us by three other vastly different individuals.
Four years after the release of this book a film by Richard Linklater was released, starring Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy. The film was titled Before Sunrise. In this film two strangers meet per chance while travelling in Europe, and the entire film is their conversation with each other up until the next morning, when they both have to depart. It is a thought-provoking art film that explored many facets of what it is to be human – love, life, loneliness, identity, etc. There would two more films in the trilogy, with the latest Before Midnight being released in 2013.
Richard Linklater is known for his interest in the less quantifiable aspects of existence. He often works it into the narrative or theme of his films. The Before trilogy featured these two characters and are, in themselves, engrossing dialogues. But it was my first experience with a later film of his titled Waking Life, where I first met these two characters. In this slightly psychedelic film, Linklater goes through a stream of consciousness narrative about the nature of reality and lucid dreaming, as well as our relationship with the idea of inertia and death. In one of the scenes, we cut to a couple lying in bed, with colourful rotoscopic-like animation creating a visually-subtle psychedelia.
This couple in Waking Life is Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, continuing a part of their conversation from the Before films.
In this conversation, Julie Delpy expresses her subjective experience of her own life. She reintroduces us to the scientific anomaly that is the brain at the moment of death. It has been said that those last few nanoseconds of brain activity at the moment of our death is comparable, in our minds, to an experience that might last for what feels like months or even years. In this scene, Julie Delpy expresses that she feels that her own entire life is simply the replaying memories of some old woman who is busy dying and experiencing those last few seconds of brain activity.
To the inexperienced mind tied to the arcane rules of time, this might sound like a depressing outlook to have. Yet, what Delpy’s character experiences is, in reality, the lack of that dissonance we have with our own mortality. Accepting your own aged self as living in a parallel reality to your own can be quite humbling. Something Dr. Tod T Friendly, the doctor in Time’s Arrow, clearly never did.
When it comes down to it, we experience the image of ourselves in instant snapshots of memory. We are never fully aware of how we have progressed as much as what we are fully aware of ourselves at any one given instant. You aren’t able to “see” your own growth as much as what you have two “visually comparable” instances of yourself in your mind. The “old you” and the “new you”. The one before and the one after. And yet, we are aware that there must be motion between these two versions of ourselves, because the progression occurred.
Which brings me to the second out of the three crucial iconic thinkers who contribute to understanding the theme of this book – Zeno of Elea, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher.
Born around 495 BC, Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialetic method. The dialetic method is a form of philosophy in which there is a discussion between two individuals, both of whom hold different points of view about a subject. Yet, they actively endeavour to resolve the matter through establishing the truth, using reasoned argumentation. Is this the same as debating? No. In the dialetic method there is no room for emotional subjectivity, because it is after the ultimate truth. Just like the two characters from Linklater’s Before trilogy.
What is the ultimate truth of life then? What is the secret behind a life lived outside of the constraints and rules of time – such as the narrator in Time’s Arrow?
We try to make sense of this life as we go through it and in many occurrences we stumble across certain paradoxes that challenge our ways of thinking or our beliefs, and they change us forever.
Just like the unpredictable ways in which Dr. Friendly, our supposed main character, changes by the end of the book. Neither you, nor the narrator, will believe it.
The word paradox comes from the Greek word paradoxon, which translates into “that which is distinct from our opinion”. A paradox usually occurs when we try to make sense of something through accurate and consistent logic and premises, but no matter how hard we try, fail to do so.
One of the most famous paradoxes, made by Zeno of Elea himself, is The Arrow paradox.
Zeno states that if one is to shoot an arrow from a bow into the air, once it is flying, it is actually at rest. That’s right, not moving. At rest.
Zeno argued that in every single instance of time that the arrow is flying, it is simply in a singular position of space, unmoving until the next moment where it is in the next position. In this supposed “moment” the arrow can not be moving toward where it is, because it is already there, nor can it be moving to where it is not, because no time has elapsed in this isolated moment. Much like when we try to fathom in our mind how we have progressed in time and can only see these snapshots of our former selves. The “old” us and the “new” us.
Zeno’s Arrow paradox seems to make sense if you completely disregard the knowledge we have gained as humanity about physics and the nature of motion and inertia in the mass amount of historical time since. Zeno’s arrow would finally be split by a certain philosopher who would be born over 2400 years later.
The year is 1908, and the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, the third critical mind in understanding Time’s Arrow, is born.
Quine later went on to ascribe that there are three different types of paradoxes. He would state that Zeno’s paradox is falsidical, meaning it appears to be true based on a certain logical assessment within a certain state of knowledge or condition of understanding, but that said state is fallacious in some sense – meaning there is no real insight into the paradox and it actually remains unresolved.
Think of how we perceived the earth to be flat before we had the means to traverse the globe.
“When we drive, we don’t look where we’re going. We look where we came from.” the narrator notes of Dr. Friendly’s driving.
If you’re a fast reader you can read a page in about a minute. If you consider that the average epic movie nowadays is on average 150 minutes or so, it would stand to reason that you could read this entire book in an afternoon. Right?
However, that would not be possible.
Despite its brevity, Time’s Arrow is meant to be read slowly. This is due to the fact that, just like in life, if you rush through it, there will be many helpful nuances that you will miss in the background. It would simply not make sense.
Take your time with this book.
This book’s events unfold as the narrator experiences it, and the narrator joins us at the start within those last few seconds of brain activity, as it escapes from Dr. Friendly’s dying body. The filter you have to read through has to also keep in mind that the entire rewinding events of the book unfold within this space of those last few seconds of brain activity.
“Wait a minute. Why am I walking backwards into the house?” the narrator notes of Dr. Friendly’s return to his home from the hospital.
Looking back, it goes without saying that every second writer worth their weight has attempted to write a holocaust novel. Time’s Arrow certainly takes a new approach at this subject, but it addresses so many bigger facets of existence within the concept of unfolding time and unreliable perception.
This is a book about about our relationship with time, knowledge and each other.
Not to mention the poetic approach to an incredible rewinding view of the world. In this world, doctors hurt, time rejuvenates, and caring forces maliciously encumber those who they seek to aid. Violence builds and love destroys. In one passage a moment of rage causes a pile of splinters on the floor to turn into a chair in Dr. Friendly’s hand “at the flick of a wrist”.
The narrator’s view is very much in line with how we view knowledge and how we view ourselves, and perceive of an “old me” and a “new me”. We are constantly evolving, just like the two main characters in this book. But, just as with them, we have no idea what version of ourselves is coming next and the two can’t communicate with one another. This is usually because these two versions of ourselves can never truly meet, as they live in different spaces, just like Zeno’s supposed slumbering arrow within its isolated moments.
So, the different versions of you in these moments of time are never able to perfectly collate decisions with repercussions, because one makes the decision to smoke for two more years and the other stands on fifteen years beyond the habit, but still has the repercussive chest ailments, for an example. And if there is a gap between these two entities what does that mean for morality within the concept of time?
If no action can be measured logically against a starting point, because on the very quantum level we are ever-changing, does this not mean that the morality of actions is an obsolete concept, if you know there is more to life than all of this? Perhaps not, but this murkiness, this “fugginess” of morality and reality is where Time’s Arrow takes us, as we traverse deeper into the shallower waters of Dr. Friendly’s life as a German practitioner in a concentration camp during World War 2.
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change…” our narrator in Time’s Arrow muses of Dr. Friendly’s life and interactions and observations.
“…Intellectually I can just about accept that violence is salutary, that violence is good… A child’s breathless wailing calmed by the firm slap of the father’s hand, a dead ant revived by the careless press of a passing sole, a wounded finger healed and sealed by the knife’s blade…”
One of the greatest morality paradoxes we face in modern history is the facet of the sheer magnitude of corporeal and spiritual damage of hundreds of thousands of people – not just during World War 2 but during any war – and the incidental knowledge we have gained from these atrocities, separating time and morality exclusively.
Such as microwave technology that has managed to make cooking a more affordable commodity for thousands today, being a result of accelerated innovation during the Cold War era and developments of nuclear technology that cost the lives of thousands. Not to mention the horrific experimental surgeries inflicted during World War 2 within these same camps where the likes of Dr. Friendly would have resided. The same horrific experiments that bore hundreds of pages in German notebooks that provided us with the precise surgical knowledge to be able to save the little girl’s leg that go trapped under the bus today. This proves that within the realm of time, morality is a mere coat of paint on the wall. It is a single resting arrow, not moving within context.
“Time passes. Cars are fatter and fewer, and imitate animals with their fins and wings. Syringes are no longer disposable… Last week they came and took away my colour TV. The gave me a black-and-white one… After the Moonshot, I remember, a little light went out in everybody’s head; suddenly the world seemed cosier, more local, fuggier. World opinion, on the other hand, disappeared slowly. Like dental self-consciousness. You see ogreish smiles all over the place these days, and nobody minds… Everyone becomes more innocent, constantly forgetting…”
It’s funny that Martin Amis chose to write Dr. Friendly as a character who is obsessed about his teeth. Amis himself paid a fortune to endure a painful capping of his own teeth when he moved to America. He, of course, is the son of the famous 1950’s writer Kingsley Amis. Martin’s father never really read any of his books, and although the two both share the unique instance of talent, they maintain a healthy creative distance. Whereas Kingsley’s work was considered cult classics and hilarious writing back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Martin has been compared to Flaubert and James Joyce by some. He has also been touted as one of fiction’s angriest writers, but it is all in self-awareness.
It is true that he tends to write about the less attractive aspects of humanity, but in Time’s Arrow we get a masterful reflection of something so much deeper than just depravity.
It’s interesting to note that Kingsley’s second wife, Martin’s stepmother Jane Howard, was also a celebrated British author. In her second novel The Long View the story was about a marriage, but the book’s plot was described in reverse chronology.
In later years, Martin would encourage her to write the series of books that she is still known for today, The Cazalet Chronicles.
It seems the inspiration cross-pollinated between Martin and his stepmother, which leaves me with the most heart-wrenching line in Time’s Arrow that I will leave you with today:
Read Time’s Arrow to find out why this line hits you in the gut. This book is an experience that will take time, but also obliterate it at the same time.
In the spirit of this book, let’s end at the beginning.
Have you read Time’s Arrow yet? You really should.
Written by Cab Van Elk
The year is 1908. The setting is Beirut, Lebanon.
You find yourself in the market square. Here, there is the sinister flickering of reflecting light dancing off of the rolls of silk on the stall table on your left. On your right, the waft of exotic scents from herbs and spices and Moroccan coffee play on the air under your nose, alongside the slightly burnt smell of raw vegetables from the stalls further ahead. At once, the interesting smell is swept away and the acrid stench of the burning night air fills your lungs.
You see some stalls are closed because the shopkeeper wanted to join in on the fandango that seems to be occurring in the centre of the market square. You hear passionate voices shout and chant and you can make out the clear sense of disgust, flailing arms and bearded chins flicking upward. You see the large flaming pyre of pages – the burning embers drifting skyward; the last remnants of hope reaching out, before disappearing into oblivion.
This is a gathering of hatred, and it’s all because of a recently published book. That’s right; this is not a tense scene from the book I am reviewing today. It is the milieu of reactions that flared up in this part of the world back when this book was first published.
Spirits Rebellious, by Kahlil Gibran is anachronism to its time. Yet it still strikes with solemn truths on very different levels today- even with all the supposed progress society has made in the eleven decades since the book was first written and published. So what exactly did Kahlil the Heretic write in this book to enrage the religious soldiers, who seemed to set alight any who choose to present an outlook contrary to their own rather than re-examine the nature of their own ways.
After all, Spirits Rebellious is a book about love, isn’t it?
It certainly seems so, looking at the very first story in the volume, titled after its female “omni”-tagonist – Warde Al-Hani. Let me explain what I mean by “omni”-tagonist, because Gibran manages to throw a complete perspective twist in this first story. Let’s simply say that the forlorn protagonist victim becomes the oppressive antagonist and capturer of another’s wild and woeful heart in the end. I recommend delving into this volume simply to experience it. Not for the twist, but for the language and the insights into the rebellious heart and soul.
One would think it would be the words of Rashid bey Nu’man that would, in the end, show the reality of this story. But it lands up being Warde Al-Hani’s poignant recollection of her own history and actions that opens up your mind.
“My spirit rebelled when I attempted to meditate a while, because the soul is like a flower that folds its petals when dark comes, and breathes not its fragrance into the phantoms of the night.”
It was interesting to read the same truths in the book now that first struck me when I read as a younger man, in my early twenties. When one is younger you look at love so objectively and thus feel it more intensely, because you don’t yet know yourself as well as you should and your egotistical projections of love serve as a reflection of you, instead of being the one solitude you really need. You are willing to give away parts of yourself and become malleable. As the years go by you forget your previous self, but the real world ripple effects of your choices remain as if etched in stone while your heart and mind follow their own subjective reality.
“Everything lives on earth according to the law, and from that law emerges the glory and joy of liberty, but man is denied his fortune, because he sets for the God-given soul a limited and earthly law of his own. He made for himself strict rules. Man built a narrow and painful prison in which he secluded his affections and desires. He dug out a deep grave in which he buried his heart and its purpose.”
In case you’re not familiar with his life yet, Kahlil Gibran was a revolutionary Lebanese author, philosopher and artist. He was born to Lebanese parents Kamila and Kahlil, six days into the new year of 1883. They had moved to the United States for a few years, where he was likely initially exposed to a world outside of the oppressive thinking of most of the Turkish-ruled men of his home country. He was soon sent back to Lebanon by his mother, where many years later he would go on to produce one of the most accessible and important philosophical works of the previous century.
I’m talking of course, about The Prophet.
However, fifteen years before his most seminal and unifying work, Spirits Rebellious would be a tiny tome of tumultuous circumstances in the wake of its local reception. Some were simply not ready to hear these thoughts out loud. It was these seemingly radical and contentious ideas that caused the very pyre of books whence we began this review.
“But is a woman permitted to purchase her happiness with her man’s mysery?”… “Is then a husband free to make a slave of his wife’s affections so that he may remain happy?”
In the second and third stories of this book, Cry of the Graves and The Bridal Couch, Gibran ventures even further into the human affliction of setting a prison for our own rebellious souls.
Something only some of you may know about Kahlil is that he was also a prolific artist. His paintings have been displayed in exhibitions the world over, and at one point his work was compared to the work of English painter and poet William Blake, although Blake was born in Soho and not in Lebanon, and passed on a full six years before Kahlil was born. Sadly, it was most especially in lack of recognition throughout their lives, where the two philosophers and artists would find their greatest similarity. Blake is now regarded as a seminal figure in Romantic Age art, which clearly shows its inspirations in Spirits Rebellious.
Blake’s best known work “Songs of Innocence” was itself revolutionary in thought. It showed a mirror to society and juxtapositioned the innocent and pastoral world of childhood, against the adult world of repression and corruption. One wanders what Blake would have to say in praise of the insights that Gibran has formed in this wonderful book.
This book of love for the eternal inner self, preaching the woes of not realising your own strength against the mechanical grating of systematic, religious and moral oppression, was way ahead of its time. Any book that gets burnt usually is.
“If one of his fellows rises and cuts himself off from society and law, the people say that such and such a one is a rebel and an evil one deserving of expulsion from their midst; one fallen and unclean and fit only for death…”
This brings us to the final tale in Spirits Rebellious, a mischievous imp of a story, disguising philosophical soap-boxing in the narrative of story. Although it is a thinly-veiled guise, as the main character in the story is Gibran himself. Kahlil the Heretic tells the tale of a monk who is expelled from his monastery after attempting to alight some ultimate truths upon his fellow men. This story of prosecution culminates in a beautiful section where Kahlil the Heretic goes through a monologue, addressing his accusatory audience. By the end of his speech, the monk is able to make these narrow-minded men realise that life is worth more than they are currently seeing it for. Kahlil the Heretic helps them to see their collective destiny and give them the strength to rise up against oppressive thought and strive for better lives.
“Must man remain eternally a slave of his own corrupt laws or shall the days free him to live in the Spirit for the Spirit? Must he remain looking ever on the ground or shall he lift his eyes to the sun lest he see the shadow of his body among the thorns and skulls?”
Khalil Gibran died in a New-York hospital on the 10th of April 1931, likely surrounded by a city gripped by material strife in the wake of the Great Depression. Gibran himself had sunk into a state of somewhat material obscurity, not leaving any financial wealth behind at all. It had been a long, hard life plagued by the disease of alcoholism, culminating in a liver-related cancer that caused his demise.
However, the rebellious spirit of his teachings became clear on the day of his funeral procession. It was great, ceremonious affair that saw the gathering of many opposing religions, caming together as one. In his final hour, Gibran managed to unify many in the name of reverence and a dedication to the spirit of peace for all mankind. He was buried in the grotto of the monestary of Mar Sarkis in Besheri, his childhood church.
I cannot put aside the praise that this earlier work is worthy of. If you want to experience the revolutionary insight Gibran recognised and blessed us with in Spirits Rebellious, it is now mostly available as a work within larger compendiums. Yet for any soul that has ever been governed by its heart, this should be your next read.
“I saw before me a single divine spirit in the two human bodies made beautiful by youth and clothed in unison. Between them stood the god of love, his wings spread to protect them from the anger and blame of people.”
“It’s strange. The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly…”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach and lusciously illustrated with photos by Russell Munson, was initially published a series of short stories in Flying Magazine and eventually as a novella in 1970, after the manuscript was rejected by several publishers.
It tells the tale of a seagull who is obsessed with flying, with understanding and attaining excellence in flight; flying faster and further, performing ever more complex and precise aerobatics. His passion and curiosity are all consuming; his is a life relentless experimentation and practice. Darkness, cold, hunger and repeated failure have little or no relevance. Out of concern, his parents try to persuade him from his flying practice and urge him rather to remain among the Flock, whose lives center entirely around scavenging and scrabbling for bread crumbs and fish parts left by the local fisherman’s boats. He makes an honest go of it, but finds the drudgery of a purely survival centric life insufferably pointless, and returns in short order to his far sky, alone but content. Jonathan flies for the sake of flight, whereas the other gulls fly only for the sake of food and see nothing beyond the day’s meal.
One morning he makes a mistake; while experimenting with high-speed flying, he rockets out of control right into the heart of the Breakfast Flock and it’s only by blind luck that he manages not to hurt himself or anyone else. He is exiled by the elder gulls after this incident. He is astonished by their lack of understanding, astonished by their lack of awe at the fact he had flown faster than any gull that ever lived, he cannot understand their lack of excitement about their own flying potential.
“… one day, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you shall learn that irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.”
Jonathan is saddened by his exile, but his practice continues and he keeps reaching for ever greater heights and speeds and precision aerobatics. Eventually his skill as a flyer means that he is able to dive deeper and reach delicious fish, and go farther inland to reach tasty insect. He learns to fly even while sleeping and covers huge distances in a single night. In these and other ways, his passion pays for itself, with interest, and he experiences a life of spacious freedom far beyond what his old friends and family could have imagined possible.
The journey continues and he eventually shifts into a dimension much higher than the one he was familiar with and in which he had learned so much. There he finds other gulls that are even better flyers than he is; kindred spirits. Awed by their incredible skill, he immediately puts himself under their tutelage without taking even a moment to feel amazed at this new place he has arrived in. More lessons, more practice, more possibilities, fewer limitations.
As his lesson progress, he begins to understand flight as means to experience and express his own freedom and limitlessness nature; he begins to understand that limitlessness is the true law of existence. The laws of his old Flock, by which the elders exiled him, are their laws only because they chose to live by them, whereas Jonathan lived freedom through flight. Jonathan attained freedom to the extent that he attained perfection in flying, or in other words, to the extent that he cast off the limitations of a flightless existence.
“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said. “There is no other.”
His teacher in this higher place, where all the gulls love to fly, teaches him to fly beyond flight and opens the way for Jonathan to practice going anywhere instantly, or more accurately, to practice expressing the truth that he is already there, already everywhere. But there is more beyond even that, and his teacher, Chiang, slowly guides him to ever higher and subtler truths.
“We can start working with time if you wish,” Chiang said, “till you can fly the past and the future. And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.”
As time goes by, Jonathan finds himself thinking again and again of his old Flock. Wondering whether there might be a gull there who is reaching for something higher, exploring excellence through flight, who might be ready to learn what he had to teach. Ultimately he decides to go back to his old world and share his knowledge, as a way to practice the kindness and love that his old teacher had begun to guide him to. He bids farewell to his friends and fellow students and makes his departure.
Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. “I think I’ll miss you, Jonathan,” was all he said. “Sully, for shame!” Jonathan said in reproach, “and don’t be foolish! What are we trying to practice 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?”
Upon returning to his old world he does indeed find gulls who are sufficiently awed by his flying skills to learn from him. First one, then one or two more, and eventually a small group of dedicated practitioners gather around him. However, they don’t initially have any interest in or understanding of the deeper truths he talks to them about; excellence, perfection, limitlessness… All they want to know is how to fly better, fly the way he flies and so he begins their tuition with what will soon become an old refrain, “Let’s begin with Level Flight.”
Eventually Jonathan, along with his small group of students end up holding their lessons right in the middle of the Flock, in full view of all. Some ignore them, some look furtively out of curiosity and the few truly courageous among Flock step boldly from their familiar existence and ask for lessons. Jonathan welcomes all and teaches each according to their capacity.
Slowly the more profound dimensions of his lessons in flight find willing ears and open minds and a larger transformation begins to happen within the Flock as more and more gulls find joy in flying for its own sake and commit themselves to the hard practice necessary to master it.
When the time is right Jonathan departs from this world and leaves the continued elevation of the Flock to his students. Grieved by his having left, but determined to keep growing and share what they learn, they greet each new gull as unconditionally as Jonathan himself had and start, thinking fondly of their teacher and understanding him a little more, with, “Let’s begin with Level Flight.”
The book as originally published had only three parts. When I first read it, some seventeen-odd years ago, that was all there was to it and it didn’t seem to me, as though there was anything missing. Bach actually wrote a fourth part as well, but decided to omit it. In 2013, he finally put out into the world. It deals with how, years after Jonathan and his students are no more, his message, that every gull’s inherent nature is limitlessness, is gradually misunderstood and then distorted and then ossified into ritual and ceremony until its essence is lost entirely and it becomes instead not a force for liberation, but for further superstitious bondage. One can understand why Bach decided that ours is the appropriate time to publish it. It’s a bleak final chapter for the most part, but ends, to my great relief with promise and optimism, it ends with, “Let’s begin with Level Flight.”
It’s a very small book; you could read the whole thing in less than two hours and fit it into your breast pocket. It’s richer and more potent for its brevity. There is a rhythm to it; a very few words interspersed with page upon page of photographs. That gives you the space to roll the words around in your mouth and really taste them, to let the words work on you, become a part of you. The language is simple, almost infantile and it reads like a children’s book. When I first picked it up I thought Bach was writing down to me, but thinking back on it now, I think that it wouldn’t have worked had he written it otherwise. It’s deep, subtle, and wise, but not complicated. Like the gull’s journey to perfection and limitlessness through flight, it takes diligent focus and work to digest the book. It may not be easy but it is simplicity itself. The gull after all, has nowhere to go; it’s already there.
It’s a great book. Read it. Then read it again.
All quotations and extracts are taken from Jonathan Livingston Seagull: A Story, Kindle Edition, 2013, HarperCollins Publishers.
Karl Marx spoke about the have and the have nots. A third kind always existed in Bharat (ancient India) since time immemorial and continues to this day – those who could have anything but wanted nothing. The Məsts. Remaining always in inner ecstasy and living in complete freedom and abandon, they walked the earth to remind us of our lost glory.
These amazing Masts are a rare breed. They are complete within yet strive and burn themselves like the proverbial candle to enlighten the world. Many have wondered about what makes them tick. Why would someone want to undertake this thankless task? What makes them do what they do? What is their trip? What is their story? This book answers these questions, through the fascinating life of Atmananda Chaitanya – from his humble beginnings to his glorious end. Through Atmananda’s life story, we are afforded a glimpse into the life of a spiritual Master in action and the grand Tradition he represents – the journey on the road less travelled, the ecstasy that absorbs him fully, the purpose of his existence, his life and teachings and his message to the world.
The story unfolds with the child Vamadeva’s unquenchable thirst to meet his master. The young unflinching Vamadeva displays remarkable levels of precocity and clarity far beyond his age of eight when he insists on seeking the tutorship of the Maharishi Shantananda of Varanasi, a place that is a month of exhausting travel away from their small village. We are even more amazed by his maturity as he deftly and consummately answers the questions of the great sage Shantananda. An excerpt from the book on the divine meeting between Vamadeva and his soon-to-be-Master Maharishi Shantananda:
“Vamadeva stepped forward, bowed his head and spoke, “Maha Guro, I seek your discipleship.”
Maharishi Shantananda glanced at the young boy. His eyes seemed to penetrate the young boy’s constitution, piercing through the visible into the invisible. There was a slight movement on his elegant face, perhaps the dawn of a faint smile, maybe a recognition from another life, or maybe due to what he saw in Vamadeva. Maharishi Shantananda was a man of few words. He observed silence and spoke only when it was extremely essential to communicate through words. He inclined his head forward and asked the boy in a very deep, booming voice:
– This param buddhu (most ignorant) is called Vamadeva, respected Master!
– What do you seek?
– Make me see my brightness so I can merge with the brightness, respected Master!
– The path is right here within you, why not walk?
– I am param buddhu. I don’t know the way, respected Master
– Final destination?
– My Self, the Supreme Self, respected Master
– Where shall you walk from? (read: Where will you start? When can you start?)
– At your Lotus Feet. (read: Right here! Right now!)
Saying thus, he prostrated again at Shantananda’s feet
Maharishi Shantananda smiled and merely said, “Walk” (read: Come with me). Saying thus, he turned to walk the steps of the ghat and return to his gurukul. Vamadeva had passed his test and was accepted!”
Vamadeva stayed at Shantananda’s ashram until the age of twenty-two. His training was unique – sans any mantra (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation), yantra (a geometrical diagram, or any object, used as an aid to meditation in worship), tantra (mystical or magical text) or even any initiation into spiritual practices. Neither were there any rigid lifestyles and rules in the ashram. The students were allowed to be themselves and were transformed by the Master’s powerful presence as per their unique orientation, capacity and dispensation. This amazing system of learning has to be experienced to be believed. When Vamadeva is ready, the Master gave him the monastic name of Atmananda Chaitanya and directed him to go out in the world to carry out the divine purpose of his incarnation.
After staying with his parents for a year, Atmananda travels as a true parivrajaka (spiritual wanderer), living no more than three days in any place, traveling mostly alone and occasionally giving lectures and spiritual discourses whenever needed. His astounding experiences with siddhas (realized Masters) as well as his personal experiences connect us to a plane of consciousness where we get to see the exquisite blend of the subtle and the powerful. Then, we are shown a window into Atmananda through the eyes of his disciples – both while in the body and after he left the world. He chose to shed His mortal coils when he was only forty nine years old, in spite of being healthy and strong as His consciousness was expanding far beyond the mortal frame.
Until his passing away, Atmananda breathed, lived and walked like the quintessential Mast. absorbed in the total silence and stillness of Shiva. Benevolence and benedictions flowed uninterruptedly but only through little signs or subtle gestures. As an epitome of stillness and bliss, his life journey gives us a rare insight into the expanded state of a Məst and the infinite dimensions of the soul. It is really fascinating to find seemingly trivial directions like, “gaze into the sky” or “stare at the cows”, give birth to an extraordinary unfolding and thereby give a glimpse into what is attainable when a Master’s words and a disciple’s implicit faith are triumphantly blended! Similarly, another riveting eye opener is the soul stirring journey of Raman packed with trials and tribulations, eventually finding consummation with the grand visitation of the Master.
It gives us a peek into the grand Tradition where the Master comes in search of the seeker when the seeker is ready. The Golden Tradition of Masters take into their fold a truly aspiring, eligible soul and ensure their eternity. Only a precious few could hold on to him in this transcendental part of the journey and needless to add, they all became complete Masters. After all, when the disciple is eligible, receptive and ready, the absolute Master not only ignites the fire of eternal love but more importantly sustains and consummates to the perfect finish. Finishing the game to perfection is a true Master’s goal and Atmananda’s life is a vibrant testimony to this eternal truth.
Even though the book says that this is a work of fiction, the authenticity of the story is left to the reader’s imagination, intuition or experience – whatever we may call it – to unravel whether the mystical story is fictional, surreal or an epitome of truth.
 A residential school system where students live as part of the Master’s family and serve and learn under him
Author: Rajesh Kamath