The Alchemist Analysis – Religion, Romanticism, Entitlement (Why I Hate Paulo Coelho)Posted: October 3, 2011
Overview – To briefly summarize, the lessons in the novel are:
1) This book is wise, and if you can’t see that you’re a stupid barbarian
2) Nature gives you legitimate and accurate signals based on your personal affairs
3) The universe will conspire to give you what you want
4) You should act on your dreams (literally)
5) You become a part of the Soul of the Universe (?) by chasing these dreams
Hopefully this list alone has illustrated while I believe the novel to be a pile of sanctimonious crap. I want to clarify that I am not against people working toward achieving their goals; I myself have a passion and dreams I’d like to accomplish. However, that is not what I believe the book actually promotes.
Religion – “I realized that the symbolic language that used to irritate and disorient me so much was actually the only way of reaching the Soul of the World.” (Note that this and all of the following quotes are my own translations)
Coelho is little more than Ron Hubbard (creator of Scientology). He has consciously drawn from major religious to create a cult-like element to his “teachings.” From the Buddhists he has borrowed the use of vague language—such as their Om chant. From religions such as Wicca we have the story’s magic and soul of nature. For example, to become a member of the “alchemist-cult” you must learn to read the “signs” of the universe, which can be in the form of a fortune-teller, birds flying overhead, a horse’s braying, or the wrinkles on a stranger’s hands. There’s actually a clinical term for seeing meaning in meaningless actions—delusions.
One particular quote stood out to me: “He was penetrating the Language of the World and everything on this earth made sense, including the flight of the seagulls.” This almost harks back to the Romans examining pig intestines to determine if war would come to the Italian peninsula. It occurred to me more than once that the title should have been “If J.K. Rowling was a World Religions major.”
Seeing as he is from Brazil, and his works are immensely popular in the surrounding Latin American nations, he has drawn most heavily from Catholicism. Not only is the main character’s name Santiago (a Catholic saint), but he’s a shepherd (“The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” and of course we do see Coehlo say that nobody can ever want if they’re following their dream). His recruitment of the poor and needy is also taken from Christianity, seemingly giving purpose and meaning to their destitution.
Fascinatingly, however, Coehlo has updated these belief systems. If you’ll notice, most major religions require you to make a sacrifice in turn for getting something from the gods, whether it’s a blood sacrifice, following a rigid moral code, paying tithe, committing suicide, etc., but in Coehlo’s world, the only thing you have to do is chase your dreams in an all-encompassing way, and, of course, put a sanctimonious twist on your motivations. “Oh, no, I don’t want to be the richest man alive. I want to connect with the Soul of the Universe!” Another interesting thing about this cult is that at the very beginning of the book he lists one of the authors who has reached this state of consciousness is Ernest Hemingway. Who knew one of America’s most renowned drunkards was really a prophet?
Thus, with these elements taken together, it creates a belief system for Christians who aren’t satisfied with a miracle-free world and want more of the divine; it’s also for atheists who (knowingly or unknowingly) want more of the divine. The result is an interesting, if incoherent, amalgam of paganism and Christianity; or even mystic pantheism, perhaps (the universe is God and God is magical). I will admit the man is clever.
Aside from the overt religiosity of the novel, he also draws from various stock settings and figures from other books or films—the desert oasis, abandoned churches, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Narcissus, the lush fields of Spain, Egyptian pyramids, etc. For better or worse, his books sales show that he has indeed been successful in creating his own mythology.
Romanticism – “Dreams are the language of God. Only He speaks the language of the world, I just interpret it. But if you speak the language of your soul, only you can understand it.”
Over and over Coelho implies that books are worthless, though it’s really no wonder he thinks this given that he himself says he spent years and years reading books on magic, alchemy, and religion. The heroic characters are portrayed as trusting in their instincts and being in touch with the universe, while the intellectuals around them are like closed-circuit retards; it would seem only primitive mysticism can be trusted. This message has mobilized millions of people who are not regular readers (at least not of non-fiction) to buy his books.
Much of Latin America is still agricultural and many people, though they may not be farmers, are still linked to the countryside. It is more meaningful to this population to read that Santiago believes that his sheep can understand him and rejects the incomprehensible world of thick books. Of course, it also provides us with the overused (but successful) archetype of the simple guy dragged into the larger world for which he’s unprepared.
The romantic ideal is thus that the greater wisdom is that the greater wisdom is in simplicity, and a lack of education can be a virtue. People should be looking outward toward Nature, and not inward to their own intelligence and rationality. However, it’s simply an ideal, and I think in practice the result is that the population is dumbed down. (see: MTV reality shows, or perhaps more relevantly, the fact that dictators in Latin America tend to be celebrated, at least up until their plans of genocide kick in). Coelho writes, “If today I became a monster and decided to kill them all, one by one, they wouldn’t even realize what was happening until almost the whole heard was exterminated [or had bought my books].” Touche.
Entitlement – “Over time a “mysterious force tries to convince you that it’s impossible to realize your Personal Legend…they are forces that seem bad, but in reality are…preparing your spirit and your will, because a grand truth exists on this planet…it’s because of this desire that you were born in the Soul of the Universe.”
Santiago tells himself that his real life goal is just to travel. The story begins with him as a shepherd, which he originally thought would fulfill him but it does not. He then goes to live in Africa, and that’s not enough. He travels in a caravan and meets the girl of his dreams, and that’s not enough either. This behavioral pattern combined with the fact that he later settles down in the oasis, would seem to reveal that his real goal is not to travel, but to get his treasure. Isn’t the real lesson here that we can’t predict what will make us happy? If this were a true story, the ending would be that he goes to sleep on his wedding night and has another dream of treasure in the Americas.
Similarly, if Santiago is the romantic ideal of the adventurer looking for treasure, what’s the analogy in reality? The conquistadores, who raped, pillaged, and wrought mass destruction on the native peoples of the Americas, because of their own dreams of treasure. Honestly, how would this book have turned out if the Alchemist started to tell Coehlo he had to exterminate the Egyptians to get his treasure. He probably would have done so. I mean, the Soul of the Universe made him do it.
Speaking of which, the entire argument in the book between whether we have control over our lives, or if fate controls us makes absolutely no sense. We first learn that Santiago is a maverick who goes out to trek his own path, but then we learn that the universe conspires to make everything happen for him. I mean, he’s either taking control of his fate, or the universe is compelling him to a certain direction. You can’t have it both ways. I think the answer to this, in the logic of the novel, would be that it only steps in to help us when we really want something, not to hurt us (in the long run). I guess the people in Stalin’s Gulag, who have aids, and children who have died tragic deaths just didn’t want success enough. There are more graveyards than halls of fame in this world.
Thus, all that Coelho selling is optimism and entitlement. Welcome to the ranks of those who have enriched themselves off of other people’s blindness, dear Sir. The book should really be titled, “The Romance of the Sucker,” as our modern day Don Quixote 1) Buys into the appearance of numerous lifestyles only to be dissatisfied by them 2) Believes what gypsies say 3) Believes what random old men calling themselves kings say, and more. And at the end, Coehlo tries to sell us the message that life is fair.
Give me a break.