Seagulls and Spirituality

April 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Posted in christian fiction, genre fiction, new age, pop culture, sidekick | Leave a comment

bach.jpg

  “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect”. new-age-heelas.jpg

         “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”.  

Bach, Richard. Photos by Russell Munson (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.New York: Macmillan.

 Heelas, Paul (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.   

 Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about the self-actualizing seagull is a spirituality classic of new age fiction. It is a three-part fable about the rare individual/bird that refuses to accept the limits imposed by nature and society. Jonathan Livingston Seagull seeks perfection from within, with da-vinci-flight.jpgultimate mastery of flight as the metaphor for attaining the highest purpose in life.  Whereas, his cohort is preoccupied with basic survival, Jonathan denounces the traditional gull path to explore new ways of flying.

Jonathan’s actions represent the first step to enlightenment presented in most new age works, This element is described by Heelas (1996) as the acceptance that “your lives are not working. You’re brainwashed”. The high-flying Jonathan later discovers from his teachers, Chiang and Sullivan, that each being is born with the innate ability to attain perfection. However, it is up to the individual to find the desire and take the steps to reach it. This message– perfection is the responsibility of the individual, not of an external supreme being–conveys another defining element of the new age philosophy (Heelas, 1996).

Bach’s text embraces the mystical eclecticism of many new age texts, interweaving religious beliefs from the East and West with empowerment messages from popular psychology. Hellas, in The New Age Movement, dubs this “Perennialism”. This theory contends there are unifying truths spanning diverse religions which must be discovered to attain wisdom.  In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as our hero awakens at the start of Part 2 in a remote land. The seagull is changed, imbued with new insights and enhanced flying ability.

seagull-flight.jpgOr, you can read the tiny tract as a Christian fable reflecting the life of Jesus. Jonathan is born and lives like any other bird until he accepts his unique gift. Then he’s banished by a mob for being different, ascends to a heaven-like state, forgives his tormentors and returns to help guide the repentant flock. The roles of leader and teacher are accepted reluctantly by Jonathan, who sardonically refers to himself as the “Son of the Great Gull”, to chide his skeptical flock. This strong spiritual leader role is present in most texts and communes following new age principles, despite the theoretical exhortations that “you are your own authority” (Heelas).

 Jonathan reminds the flock that they must lead themselves, setting aside any law or ritual which restricts their freedom to become their “true self”. The message that “freedom is valued” is another new age cornerstone (Heelas). This 10,000 word fable presents Hindu, Muslim and Quaker communal messages of pacifism and love as thematic undercurrents at the book’s end. The teacher Sullivan’s last words to Jonathan are to “keep working on love”. The challenge is to see the good in every creature. This sentiment is another of the 7 new age elements outlined by Heelas : the self is intrinsically good.   

Finally, there are those who read Bach’s work more literally as a tale about the rewards of dedication and self-sacrifice. At this level, it is the classic self help message conveyed in “The Little Engine Who Could”: if you believe it, you can do it. “Nothing is impossible”.  

There is a sidekick in Bach’s work, “rough young Fletcher Gull”, an Outcast who becomes Jonathan’s first and best student disciple. Fletcher is 4-gulls.jpgan eager daredevil, who gives voice to the doubts Jonathan battled pre-transcendence. In the group of gulls, Fletcher is the first to conquer barriers of speed and time, yet he does so in a stumbling, dazed way. Fletcher represents the reader, with his challenge to Jonathan: “How do you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you?”  Although Fletcher is flawed, he remains loyal to Jonathan when others accuse his teacher of being a demon. 

 I would recommend this book for inclusion in a public library collection of new age works. It offers an excellent introduction to some defining new age concepts, such as Perennialism, self-actualization, brainwashing, and the importance of freedom and individual responsibility. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 2007. I warmed to the book’s gentle simplicity and was impressed by its innocent yet earnest tone. Bach’s work was totally lacking in artifice. In contrast, today’s self help or new age books are so slickly packaged and marketed, I often feel like the author came up with the promotional hook before he or she wrote the first draft.  

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Demon Sidekick: Frankenstein

April 2, 2007 at 4:06 am | Posted in genre fiction, horror, monsters, sidekick | Leave a comment

frankenstein-movie.jpgCameron, Ann (2002). Sidekicks in American Literature. Series in American Literature . Volume 55:  New York:  The Edwin Mellen Press.  

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1818). Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Random House.             

The Oxford dictionary declares that “sidekick” was derived from “side-kicker”, 17th Century gambling slang for a “strong card held in reserve”. Thus, it is the sidekick’s role to serve as support or backup for a fictional hero. The sidekick assumes subservient status because of his inferior intelligence, class or power (e.g. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote). Despite this subordinate position, the sidekick represents a powerful force for good. He personifies integrity and the voice of reason, tempering the hero’s idealistic exuberance. The sidekick serves as a mediator between realms of good and evil, shielding the hero from danger.             

Although the sidekick is typically a positive character, there is also the literary tradition of the “demon sidekick”. As Cameron (2002) explains in Sidekicks in American Literature, the demon sidekick has a threefold role: “probe for the truth, punish the guilty, and call into question the established order”. The demon sidekick can run the emotional gamut from prankster or mischievous sprite (like Shakespeare’s Puck) to evil incarnate (like a fallen archangel). According to Cameron, the demon sidekick is an outcast, morally corrupt and physically repulsive. Like all sidekicks, these characters provides insight into hidden aspects of the hero’s scarlet-letter.jpgpersonality. What the demon sidekick reveals are the hero’s dark side, weaknesses and perhaps a flawed alter ego. This revelation will provoke a power struggle between hero and demon, as illustrated by the confrontation in The Scarlet Letter between Reverend Dimmesdale and evil Roger Chillingworth.              

Within the horror genre, the monster in Frankenstein is the classic demon sidekick. The monster transforms from yearning innocent to vengeful villain after years of abuse from humans. What twists the monster’s instincts from good to evil is Dr. Frankenstein’s failure to accept the horrid creature as his own. The monster’s external physical deformity spreads to a deformity of spirit when faced with the truth: the scientist will not accept responsibility for his selfish violation of nature’s laws. At first, the monster is just a stalker, lurking close to where Frankenstein is living. Next, the monster taunts and threatens his creator.When the sidekick is still ignored, the monster seeks revenge, punishing Frankenstein by murdering his loved ones. Murdered first is the scientist’s young brother, then his guileless bride Elizabeth and finally Henry, his dear friend and exemplar of the “good sidekick”.  

mini-me.jpgThe creature challenges the established order by trying to coerce Frankenstein into creating a female monster as a mate. When the scientist rejects its proposal, the monster goes on a rampage of death and destruction that can have only one end. The novel’s climax reflects the standard fate described by Cameron (2002): the hero/master dies, and with him, dies the demon sidekick. What does vary is whether either character expresses remorse for his actions. In Frankenstein, the monster reacts to his creator’s death with surprise, anger, satisfaction, remorse and finally self-loathing. 

Sidekicks as genre theme

January 22, 2007 at 11:00 am | Posted in Genreflecting, Novelist, sidekick | Leave a comment

One thrust for this online journal will be to explore the role of the “sidekick”  in various genres. In dictionaries and encyclopedias, the sidekick is defined as a friend or companion who supports the activities of a heroic main character.

holmes1.jpgFor my analysis, “sidekick” is defined by Random House’s Dictionary.com:

  1. 1. A close friend and helper- (Ron Weasley, Dr. Watson, Jughead) ;
  2. 2.  A confederate or assistant (Archie Goodwin, Sancho Panza) 

 I prefer this dual-facet definition because it recognizes that, while a sidekick is always a hero’s confidante and helper, he or she can be either a social peer or a hired hand /subordinate.  This adds a complexity to the interpersonal dynamics that I find fascinating. The cinematic sidekick is allowed to express emotions, to be lovably imperfect and funny, to humanize and contrast with the stoic, driven hero. It will be interesting to explore how literary sidekicks add texture to genre works. 

Since I’m a novice genre reader, I’m assuming that it will be straightforward to identify one or two primary sidekicks in a novel. I don’t intend to analyze all the secondary characters. There is also latitude to include variations such as animal sidekicks (Braun’s cat detective) or alien sidekicks (Chewbacca). But, can a blood relative be a sidekick? 

As a start, I’ve tagged some cross-genre titles in Novelist using the keyword “sidekick”. I plan to check Genreflecting to identify sidekicks as a theme .  I’ve also found a link from Wikipedia to a list of literary sidekicks (genres unspecified). 

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