Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
New York: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede ©1977
Testament to the strong appeal of Illusions is the fact that it's still in print more than thirty years after its original publication. I can't even count the number of times I've read it — and here I am re-reading and reviewing it again. Why? Well, it's a good story, it's an intriguing premise, and, if I let it, it nudges me to expand my perceptions of the world and what's happening in it. Not bad for just over 190 pages and a few hours of investment. Of course, after that, you'll want to read it again....
Bach — yes, he's actually related to Johann Sebastian — authored the phenomenally successful and critically maligned Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He's also a pilot and aviation aficionado who incorporates as many mechanical and aeronautical elements into his writing as possible. Before the Seagull landed, Bach's books dealt primarily with flying (Stranger to the Ground; Biplane; Nothing by Chance). And he knows his biplanes. In Illusions, his descriptive prose puts you in the passenger seat and along on the ride as he barnstorms through a Midwestern summer. That's also where he meets Donald Shimoda, who turns out to have a lesson to learn from and many to teach the eager student.
But flying, airplanes, barnstorming, and even the Shimoda character are just the framework for Bach to share his philosophy of life. Noting in a brief foreword to Illusions that people kept asking him what he was going to write about after Jonathan, he responded that he didn't have to write another word. But an idea kept nagging at him, and he's refreshingly candid, especially for a writer, about how Illusions came to be:
"I do not enjoy writing at all. If I can turn my back on an idea, out there in the dark, if I can avoid opening the door to it, I won't even reach for a pencil. But once in a while there's a great dynamite-burst of flying glass and brick and splinters through the front wall and somebody stalks over the rubble, seizes me by the throat and gently says, 'I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.' That's how I met Illusions."
Bach wondered "...what if a Siddhartha or a Jesus came into our time, with power over the illusions of the world because he knew the reality behind them? And what if I could meet him in person, if he were flying a biplane and landed in the same meadow with me? What would he say, what would he be like?"
Inside the story of Donald and Richard flying across a small section of a simpler time and place are a number of intriguing and pithy observations, collected in what Bach titles the Messiah's Handbook: Reminders for the Advanced Soul. It's these trenchant aphorisms that spark both story character and reader to think more and beyond wherever they are now. Distilling philosophy into bits that are both meaningful and enjoyable to read, Bach encouraged his readers to explore their internal space at a time when such sentiments were just emerging in society. What seems commonplace in conversation today was, in the 1970s, merely flickering in many separated spaces and minds.
Quotations from Bach's writing have now become part of our culture. Throughout Illusions, he's careful to remind us to seek the right balance between seriousness and fun in our exploration. The Messiah's Handbook offers ideas such as:
- "Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know it just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, teachers."
- "Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah."
- "You teach best what you most need to learn."
- "There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts."
- "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours."
- "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."
Illuminating the premise that we are each responsible for our own lives, the choices we make, and the consequences that result, Bach's character Shimoda uses the movies as an analogy. They're illusions, just flickering light, but it's easy to get caught up in the story, in the drama, in the action and activity. Or we can be bored by it all. We watch films to learn or to have fun — and that's what we do with our lives. Why would someone choose a bad or boring lifetime? For the same reason that some people like horror movies.
We don't have to watch each other's films, and we each learn whatever we need to learn in our own ways. As Shimoda reminds: "...a lot of people stay with the illusion, even if it is boring, and they don't want the lights turned on early."
No, it's not always easy to grab hold of life and realize you have everything you need within. But this little story can carry you a long way toward learning to fly.