I’ve been occupying my transit time with the reading of novels and other books that have nothing to do with stare decisis and substantive law. For the last week or so, I’ve been pulling out my copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.
This being San Francisco, at least three different people saw me reading it and decided to comment on how the book changed their lives and they now have the wisdom necessary to really feel at home with the soul of the world. I should have let that be a clue. I’ve had people recommend the book to me over the years and for whatever reason I just never got around to starting it. As a rule, I try to avoid works of literature that set out to be life-changing experiences. I find that sort of earnestness more than a little suspect.
And this is most certainly that type of book. As one of the blurbs on the back cover puts it, it attempts to have “a life-enchanting effect on millions of people” and I’m sure that even now it sits on the bookshelf of countless sensitive thinkers, absorbing the incense and patchoulii while getting pulled down every once in a while for a realignment with its message. The fact that the message is a mishmash of new age claptrap and ridiculous hokum of The Secret-like proportions only helps it along. People will fall for anything, even the patently absurd idea that the universe is obligated to grant your wishes and that desire is enough to get you the things you want. Coelho writes at great length in The Alchemist about the importance of following one’s Personal Legend (it is thus pretentiously capitalized throughout) and I can’t help but thinking that his own Personal Legend had something to do with getting millions of people to shell out their money for his book, which equates with vagueness with depth.
It’s no mean feat to deliver any sort of literary analysis of The Alchemist. The entire novel is more concerned with exploring the philosophical meanderings of Coelho’s particular brand of snake oil than in delivering any sort of plot or characterization. This is actually kind of a shame, because his spartan prose works well with the subject matter of the novel. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest to find a a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. He makes his way from southern Spain down to Tangier and sets out in search of his prophesied treasure. Along the way he works in a crystal shop, crosses the desert, and meets the titular sorcerer, an old man who doesn’t so much as teach young Santiago wisdom as he acknowledges the wisdom he picked up for himself by listening to the desert. We follow Santiago’s perspective and he loves to just let feel-good aphorisms slip.
“A grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.”
“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that we learned along the way.”
“Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World.”
“When you are loved, you can do anything in creation…there’s no need to understand what’s happening because everything happens within you, and men can turn themselves into the wind.”
And son. And so forth. I suppose if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, then the spiritual aspects of The Alchemist but keep you interested. I just kept wanting more. The notion that Coehlo stresses the most is that everyone has a Personal Legend, or possible destiny. It’s the things we want most. Okay. But he goes on to say that if we pursue it, whatever that may be, then the universe will make sure we get it. Along the way, we must (literally) listen to out hearts and thereby enter into The Soul of the World, which I’m not totally clear on but seems to basically be the Force. Once we have done this successfully, we may be able to transform ourselves into (metaphorical) wind creatures and we will find our treasure.
It just seems like balderdash to me. I’m annoyed by the idea that we are owed anything or that “the universe” will give us things if we just want them bad enough. Santiago loses any sense of agency, his pursuit of the alchemist has more to with creating a proper allegory than in telling a good story or exploring spirituality with any kind of depth or intellectual discipline. The Alchemist is short. If the story had been more engaging and delivered the theology as an organic part of the narrative rather than serving as an extended parable I might have been sorry. As it is, I’m glad to be done with it.