17 December 2003

Animals in Literature

I haven't read much fiction in my life. Even as a child, I read history. It mattered to me that what I was reading had happened, not merely that it could happen. How odd that I ended up a philosopher, concerned with possibility rather than actuality! I have, however, read a few novels, and all of them moved me profoundly. One novel that had a lifelong effect on me was Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull: A Story. I read it in high school in the early 1970s, not long after its publication. Here, for those who haven't read it, or haven't read it in three decades, is a snippet (from pages 63-5):
One evening the gulls that were not night-flying stood together on the sand, thinking. Jonathan took all his courage in hand and walked to the Elder Gull, who, it was said, was soon to be moving beyond this world.

"Chiang . . ." he said, a little nervously.

The old seagull looked at him kindly. "Yes, my son?" Instead of being enfeebled by age, the Elder had been empowered by it; he could outfly any gull in the Flock, and he had learned skills that the others were only gradually coming to know.

"Chiang, this world isn't heaven at all, is it?"

The Elder smiled in the moonlight. "You are learning again, Jonathan Seagull," he said.

"Well, what happens from here? Where are we going? Is there no such place as heaven?"

"No, Jonathan, there is no such place. Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect." He was silent for a moment. "You are a very fast flier, aren't you?"

"I . . . I enjoy speed," Jonathan said, taken aback but proud that the Elder had noticed.

"You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, 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."

Without warning, Chiang vanished and appeared at the water's edge fifty feet away, all in the flicker of an instant. Then he vanished again and stood, in the same millisecond, at Jonathan's shoulder. "It's kind of fun," he said.
Everyone should read this book. Find the time.