Review of Richard Bach's "Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah"  
Review of Richard Bach's "Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah"

by Stevan Harnad

First, what RB should have written:


Richard: OK. Enough of this game. I'll repeat what I have "learned" from you and then I have some harder questions for you than what I've asked so far.

Don: OK, but remember that I'm not answering the questions, you are.

R: That's even truer than you think (and it's a symptom of bad dialogue-writing!). But here goes: You are one of a long series of "messiahs." You have miraculous powers but the main reason you don't like using them (a reason you call "boredom," but it's not really boredom: "boredom" is just your way of making it sound cuter and lighter) is that your "message" is that everyone can do those "miraculous" things themselves: Everything is an illusion that we each create, and to change it, all we need to do is to want to. Now I realize I've over-simplified, but is that roughly it?

D: So far. But the devil is in the details. I'll correct you if you go wrong.

R: But I'm almost there! Do you know what I think your "Illusions" are? They are the comfortable daydreams of people who have no real problems. Plus the desperate daydreams of people who have real problems (but no solutions).

D: You are wrong. It applies to everyone, with or without problems. It's just that most people don't realize it.

R: So to have a problem you cannot solve by just feeling that you can solve it is simply ignorance (or cowardice) about your own powers -- or about the "illusory" nature of problems?

D: Thou sayst it. Go on.

R: Ok, I just saw a TV programme about childhood leukemia. It showed a 4-year-old child who had looked perfectly healthy from birth, loses weight, loses his hair, starts to look like an old man, falls into a coma, and dies in the arms of his parents, on-screen. Now I consider this a problem, do you agree?

D: Whose problem?

R: Several people's, but let's consider the child first: Did that child die of leukemia at 4 because he was too ignorant (or cowardly) to realize that he had the power to dispel the illusion that he had leukemia?

D: That's one way to look at it. The other way is that it was only his parents' illusion that he was suffering; the child's own illusion may have been a happier one.

R: David, I rest my case (and I have to add that you make me sick, and that's no illusion!): This is not a formula for wisdom or self-help. This is smug satisfaction -- by someone comfortably free of leukemia, or of having a child with leukemia -- about the miseries of others, and as false a message of "hope" as the one that is purveyed by the TV televangelists and miracle-drug salesmen.

D: You are right again. And that is the real reason I wanted to get out of this "messiah" business: I knew I really wasn't doing anything, but merely playing off the suggestiveness of others. There were people with psychological ailments (even paralysis and blindness) that the mere "suggestion" that they were cured (as long as it was taken to be a miracle) could cure. And there were other people with nothing wrong with them, for whom witnessing these "miracles" was enough to inspire them. And all the time I knew I wasn't really the one doing it; it was their own suggestibility.

R: Is that the whole story? I have a feeling it isn't.

D: You're right again: I could have lived with that much. But there were other types of people too. People who were paralyzed and blind whom my "powers" couldn't cure. I told them, and the witnesses, and myself, that it was because they did not want to be cured (yet), but I never felt entirely comfortable with that -- and many witnesses didn't either. Especially because the statistics were about 20% cures and 80% non-cures.

R: That number sounds familiar.

D: 20/80?

R: Yes. I've heard that number before.

D: I know. I realized the same thing myself, and no matter how I tried to create or alter the "illusion," I couldn't escape that number...

R: That's the stage-hypnotist's statistically guaranteed one-in-five "super-subjects" -- the kind of person for whom every suggestion works: sleep, rigidity, amnesia, age-regression, pain-killing: all the "illusions" these stage-artists can perform.

D: But I told you it was no more "magic" than the magic of stage-magicians: All just tricks.

R: But you told a lie too.

D: Which one?

R: That it works for everyone, and for everything. Not just for the hypersuggestible 20% of the population, and not just for the limited number of "illusions" that can be created and dispelled by suggestion: You cannot really "cure" leukemia in everyone, can you?

D: No, but...

R: And it's not true that everyone can cure leukemia in themselves...

D: Only if...

R: Only if they WANT to? Shall I pick a less convenient example? It's not true that everyone can cure unbearable, intractable, nonstop pain in themselves: Surely you aren't going to say that those (80%) who can't (yet!), really WANT unbearable, intractable, nonstop pain? For to believe that, I would have to believe that they are all lying when they say, rather desperately, that that is utterly false.

D: But maybe the illusion there is not theirs, but ours...

R: You mean we just THINK they are suffering? In reality they are having a jolly old time? Or maybe there is no reality, just my illusion that there are a lot of OTHERS out there besides myself? Or could the "illusion" perhaps instead be the reverse, a delusion of mine? Could it be that everyone else is NOT just part of a personal dream of mine after all, and that some of them (80%) really are suffering, and NOT just because they want to? Illusions cut both ways, you know...

D: You know, on my bad days, I sometimes had thoughts like that. But, really, that's an illusion too. Only depressed people have such thoughts, and if they want to cure their depression...

R: Spare me. I'm going to fly off in my plane now, and this time I'm not coming back.

D: Suit yourself. One day you'll come to your senses.

R: And perhaps one day so will you. Because you don't seem to realize (yet) that it just might not be you and me who matter in this "illusion" delusion -- and that that's the point!

Now some pieces of wisdom from the book RH actually did write, with Quote/Comments...

Don't turn away from possible futures before you're certain you don't have anything to learn from them.
What does this mean? Try every possibility, even dark, risky ones, because, who knows...?
You're always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past.
Except if it's too late. (This is such vague nonsense! It's so easy to find millions and millions of counter-examples. It's just self-delusion. I suppose one can squeeze hermeneutic wisdom out of the pages of a telephone book or a driver's manual too, but this is almost worse, because it is so blatantly false, and unreflective.)
Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.
(This is the only one that's not bad -- but I don't think he meant it that way!)
Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.
(Yech: that's just poached from Polonius in Hamlet "To thine own self be true" -- except there Shakespeare is deliberately poking fun at an over-garrulous old man's words of pseudo-wisdom! But because Sh. is a genius, he manages to make the words be at the same time pseudo-wise and wise too!)
Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a false messiah.
That's right. Under no circumstance pay any attention to that 4-year-old in the corner, with the (illusory) leukemia: This is not about him, it's about YOU. Focus on you, and that's the way you'll help everybody (even him!) [This is worthy of the trickle-down theory of Capitalism which is that it is a mistake to be a Socialist. The only way you can help others is by helping yourself. If everyone tries to help himself, we are all more prosperous than if we instead try to help one another.... yech...]
The simplest questions are the most profound.
Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing?
And why are you asking these profound questions?...

[Some of the innocent precusors of this book [not to be blamed]): Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, St Exupery's Le Petit PrinceHesse's Siddhartha...]

Think about these once in awhile, and watch your answers change.
In fact, just think: "The time right now is..." and watch your answers change...
You are never given a wish without being given the power to make it true.
This is the biggest lie anyone ever told anyone.
You may have to work for it, however.
And this is the hermeneutic escape-clause that makes the lie seem to fit every case. (It works for horoscopes too.)
Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there.
The second biggest lie. (Tell that to the 4-yearold leukemic, for example...)
What you choose to do with them is up to you.
This is getting repetitious...
A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed, it feels an impulsion....this is the place to go now.
But the sky knows the reason and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons..
Tell that to the leukemic 4-year-olds, and their parents...
Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you.
Umm, does this apply to learning the formula for extracting the roots of quadratic equations: -b+/- SQRT(b**2 - 4ac)/2a ?

Just checking whether the above piece of wisdom was meant to be about all learning, or just some...

You are all learners, doers, teachers.
Safe enough generalization, also eaters, sleepers, etc...
There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.
Yet another version of the biggest lie...
You seek problems because you need their gifts.
Never mind the comfortable problems. Go tell that to the leukemic toddler again, and his family...
Imagine the universe beautiful and just and perfect.
Ok. Now what?
Then be sure of one thing:
The Is has imagined it quite a bit better than you have.
Good. That makes two of us with a nice image. Now what?
The world is your exercise-book, the pages on which you do your sums.
It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish.
You are also free to write nonsense, or lies, or to tear the pages.
Ok, as usual, for the comfortable cases, successful self-help authors, etc. Now what?
The truth you speak has no past and no future.
What on earth is this really meant to mean, if we take it seriously? Yes, 2 + 2 = 4 is and always was true. In a way, "It's 9:45 pm Sept 1 2001 in the UK right now" also has no past or future: It's true right now, and that's it. But it does have a past in that it was not true a minute ago, and is no longer true a minute later, if "now" refers to those times instead. And it is again timeless if we say "It is whatever time it is, now."

But these are all empty exercises.

It is, and that's all it needs to be.
And this is even emptier: 2 + 2 "needs to" equal 4, for reasons of logic. Now needs to be now, for similar reasons. But did the 4-year-old need to have leukemia? And is that "all it needs to be"?

Masturbation fantasies for the comfortable...

Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:
If you're alive, it isn't.
That too will be very comforting for the leukemic. (For the comfortable, it of course means there's still tomorrow's adventure to look forward to...)
Don't be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again.
And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.
Tell that to the leukemic and his perents, if you like, but it's a lie.
The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.
Which is of course why I keep perversely bringing up leukemia, instead of clouds:
A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed, it feels an impulsion....this is the place to go now.But the sky knows the reason and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons...
Right. So stop fussing about injustice and tragedy! First, you're spoiling the party for everybody. Second, you're not making yourself any happier. Just pretend it's all a birthday-cake, and wish, wish, wish...
What the catepillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.
Tell that to the leukemic boy...
Everything above may be wrong!
Ha-ha. Cold comfort for the leukemic, that these myths about wishful thinking were in reality just jokes by the comfortable...


Stevan Harnad