No Philosopher’s Stone in The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Coelho, Paulo. Trans. Alan R. Clarke. The Alchemist. New York: HarperOne. 1998.

With stories like The Alchemist, it’s no wonder that so few of us self-actualize. Here’s the plot:
Spain. A young man who has rejected the seminary life and now herds his sheep seeks advice from a gypsy who foretells that he will find a treasure close to the Pyramids. Promising her a portion of the treasure, the boy ponders his next move when a King appears, telling him a story about focusing on the present while still taking care of his business. That story spurs the boy on his way. He sells his sheep and journeys to Tangiers where he helps a crystal shop owner become rich. From there, our young man journeys across Africa where he encourages an alchemist, falls in love with a dessert woman, encounters the oasis wars, converses with the dessert, turns himself into the wind, arrives at the Pyramids, and returns home to discover his treasure buried by his familiar village church. There’s no place like home.
According to the Introduction, this plot is about following your “personal calling,” which is described as “god’s blessing,” “the path that God chose for you here on Earth,” “our dream,” and “our legend.” The secular version of that is what this blog calls “self-actualization.” Before readers gets their hopes up, Coelho catalogues four “obstacles” that typically impede fulfilling personal callings. 1) As children, we’re discouraged that fulfilling our dream is impossible. 2) We privilege our love for others over our dream. 3) We are too afraid of defeat. 4) We are afraid of realizing our dream when we are about to fulfill it. Predictably, the young man journeys through each of these obstacles, surmounting them with a bit of assistance and advice, and ultimately, winding up rich back home.

Before pursuing the major gripe with the book, R&E would like to address one of the aforementioned proscriptions which–contrary to the book–actually enervates self-actualizing. Number 2: don’t allow your love for anyone to impede your pursuit of your dream. True, the candor may be refreshing, for who has not suspected that the likes of Socrates and Thoreau couldn’t possibly have led the examined life and the simplified life while changing nappies? Beyond that suspicion, self-actualizing mandates acting—from improving a relationship to changing the world. Self-actualizers, rather than shunning their relationships and responsibilities, nurture them. Think Aristotle. We must act generously to be generous people.  We must act gratefully to be grateful people. And with whom are we generous and to whom are we grateful? According to Aristotle, it takes human interaction to develop one’s character. It takes two, baby. Thus, self-actualizers don’t simply self-fashion, as the Humanists promoted. They self-improve while and because they authentically relate to others. To tell people who are searching for truth and ethic that pursuing their dreams absolves them of human interactions and responsibilities is to sit beside Thoreau counting his damn beans. But let’s not forget, that Henry David was traipsing over to Ma Emerson’s house many a night, depending on her hospitality for one meal after the next. Mr. Self-sufficient.

Now to the major problem with Coelho’s approach to what Maslow calls self-actualizing. Under the disguise of a coming-of-age story, the novel tosses at its reader prescriptions for living the good and prosperous life taken from many different and, often, competing philosophies. To convince you of this, R&E should, in proper graduate school fashion, illustrate each philosophy as Santiago allegedly comes of age. But, frankly, that’s more trouble than the author expended. Suffice to say that there’s a spatchcocking of Christianity, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Reductionism, Skeptical Fideism, Existentialism, Foundationalism, Neo-Platonism, and more. If you don’t subscribe to one, just read a few more pages because another will be coming along. By the end, like the dessert winds, the aphorisms become merely susurrus ramblings. So sloppily is this sciolism introduced and never developed, that it (ironically) prevents the reader from knowing which path to follow. Ever sample a cornucopia of foods at a state fair and ended up with a tummy ache?

The back cover of The Alchemist brags that Coelho’s books “have sold more than 65 million copies in 150 countries and have been translated into 60 languages.” If they’re all as turbid as The Alchemist, isn’t that a bit disgusting? ReadandExceed invites its readers to reject books that treat self-actualizing as a game of finding a prize: self-improvement could be behind door #1, door #2, or door #3. Take your pick; take your chances. But in the case of The Alchemist, it’s all the doors…and therefore, none of them. So although there’s no risk, there’s no payoff. You won’t have a clue how to be a better person.

What R&E wants to say–more than continuing to bash this book—is that Americans need to declare a fast on their self-help book hunger. They need to reject the corn dog, the cotton candy, and the caramel corn. Instead, they need to vigilantly scrutinize their reading options and select only quality products— those produced from carefully tended soil, culled for pests, and harvested when at their peak. Those that will provide for their nourishment. Let us prune our SH collections, considering that it’s time to recall philosophy’s foundations. R&E recommends a rereading of The Dialogues of Plato and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethic. No finer start could you make toward understanding the conversation of the good.

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3 thoughts on “No Philosopher’s Stone in The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

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