It’s pushing twenty years since I read The Alchemist.
I don’t really remember reading it first time around, to be honest, but I definitely did. A few little bits of memory are shaken loose here and there, but they’re flakes of peeling paint rather than chunks of crumbling masonry. After reading it this time, I kind of want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Not because I enjoyed it so much, or because I want to deepen my understanding of it, but because I feel there’s something I’m not getting.
Why was it such a monster best-seller? How does such wooden-legged prose travel so widely? What’s it really about? And what did I find in it that obviously touched me?
The Alchemist definitely made an impression on my life. It’s there in the black and white photograph that hangs on the wall behind the bust of Ivor Cutler – the photograph I’m taking down now, uncertain of what to do with it. I pause for a moment before I take it off its hook . . .
The photograph is of two stones, one positioned slightly behind the other. The image is composed in such a way that it looks as if they are sitting in a shaft of light or under a breath of air, like a blessing or a wish. It gives them a mystical aura, makes them come alive in the frame.
I feel bad taking the photo down because it was made for me with love by my artist pal A. She created it to be a companion piece to another larger photograph that hangs above it on, an image of a shepherd’s goat horn cup. They’re weird and brilliant and beautiful and I love them. The act of taking one of them away feels wrong, somehow, but I need to make room for a new thing I’ve made, so off it comes and I’m suddenly reminded that these images, the pairing of them specifically, was inspired by our shared enthusiasm for this book. In fact, I realise as I’m writing this, it might even have been A who recommended the book to me in the first place.
Both images have been on my wall since I moved into this flat over twelve years ago and have become kind of invisible to me. I understand there and then that I need to go on a bit of a journey with The Alchemist. Maybe by examining my relationship with this book, by tracing the influences it has had on my life across the years, will I be able to properly “see” these images again.
The stones in A’s photograph represent Urim and Thummim, stones imbued with magical properties which feature in the book as a kind of Macguffin. The story of The Alchemist concerns itself with a young boy called Santiago, a Spanish shepherd, and his personal quest which is instigated by an encounter with an old mystic.
“Take these,” said the old man, holding out a white stone and a black stone that had been embedded at the centre of [his golden] breastplate. “They are called Urim and Thummim. The black signifies ‘yes’ and the white ‘no’. When you are unable to read the omens, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.”
The mystic unleashes the boy’s latent thirst for knowledge, allows him to articulate his desire to see the Pyramids in Egypt, ultimately to find his treasure. Part of his quest is about learning to speak the Language of the World…
“There was a language in the world that everyone understood. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”
From here, Santiago learns to identify omens and portents that will save his life and shape his destiny, to listen to his heart, and eventually to understand “the principle that governs all things”.
“In alchemy, it’s called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, you are closest to the Soul of the World.”
A’s photograph, therefore, was nothing less than a magical aid to assist me in my life’s quest to find what it is I believe in and desire, the gift of being able to converse in the Language of the World.
Quite a gift.
I’m kind of overwhelmed by the buried associations this book unearths. Teacher training. Mum dying. Living with C. Doing the MPhil. I keep a tally in my notebook the whole way through, alongside notable phrases that might serve as a guide later to help me figure out what this book is actually about.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
There are more quotes here. It all seems so seductive and easy. The story of The Alchemist places the reader at the centre of the universe. Forget Galileo, forget Kopernicus, the sun is you and everything is aligned in your orbit. It’s a guilt-free pass on a high speed train to a shiny happy future where everything is dreamy and you are at liberty to do whatever you so desire, unencumbered by the desires of others.
It’s problematic on a number of levels and speaks of a kind of decadent western entitlement and rampant individualism. Maybe you could get away with this kind of stuff in the 1980s and 90s, but it’s a tough sell in 2018.
In the cascade of associations that The Alchemist triggers, I’m reminded of a course I went on around that time, at the turn of the millenium. The book still sits on my self-help shelf. Billed as “a Personal Development and Performance Improvement Programme”, MindStore communicates many of the same certainties about how the “universe” works, presented with the trappings of a corporate away day – with conference packs, flipcharts, nametags and all – swapping portentous allegorical mumbo-jumbo for portentous allegorical business jargon.
Both The Alchemist and MindStore have in common the idea of a personal, individual quest, of life-as-narrative. It requires no small degree of solipsistic jiggery-pokery on the part of both authors to thoroughly place oneself at the centre of the universe, rather than as a tiny part of it. There are no supporting roles in this quest, only heroes. No bit parts, no cameos, no crowd artists, no spear-carriers.
In both cases, the acquisition of personal wealth is the galvanising, life-shaping, quest-defining goal that “all the universe” supposedly bends itself towards helping you achieve, as long as you imagine, as long as you believe, as long as you want it hard enough.
As far as I can make out, the people who have done best out of this way of organising one’s inner imaginative life are the authors of these fictions.
Coelho’s genius is to create a protagonist blank enough, generic enough, for readers to project themselves into. The Alchemist is written in a sparse, flavourless prose that reads like white bread tastes. Perhaps even less so. The whole thing is heavy with import, stodgy with borrowed resonance, and stripped of any the usual literary nourishment – linguistic invention, colour, texture, nuance, all lacking. The short, stumpy, declarative sentences that define the book’s style call to mind the worst examples of much myth-lit, full of grandiloquent prognostications and oracular pronouncements.
But where Rumi sings and Gibran seduces, Coelho merely connives. Frankincense to snake oil.
MindStore sells a different perfume of snake oil, aimed at the stilted olfactory regions of the trudgers on the corporate treadmill sleepwalking to Neverland. It’s psychobabble posing as business sense. Right-brain/ left-brain guffscience. Motivational anecdote upon motivational anecdote bounces all rational thought right out of the room.
MindStore is presented on stage at the Concert Hall over two days by its creator, the garrulous Jack Black (ex-social worker from Cumbernauld, not the other one). He may not be an actor, but his performance is a winning one. He’s brilliant orator and a charismatic conjurer. His tricks with a fag and magic marker will have you believing almost anything. He’ll even convince you of the profound potential of renaming your alarm clock an Opportunity Clock.
A fucking opportunity clock.
I set my opportunity clock for three of these weekend seminars over a two year period. I bought right into it. “It only works”, he says. And for a time I was inclined to agree.
The particular genius of MindStore is the little bits of content in there that you can’t argue with. For example, when he says that action grows from strong desire, he’s reciting a truth that has echoed down the years since Aristotle.
When he says that the easiest and quickest way to kill the dreams of a child (or anyone, for that matter) is to ask them how they are going to achieve it, it resonates hard with me, deep and loud all the way back through every dream I ever had right to my childhood.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Aye? How you gony do that, then?
And the killer: What do you want to do that for?
Desires you once whispered to yourself then found the courage to articulate, wither on your tongue. You learn not to trust your instincts. You learn to fear your wildest imaginings. You stop dreaming. A life of boundless possibilities becomes curtailed by the limited life experience of those around you. You choose the well-trodden path. Your world shrinks. Your capacity for wonder dies. You take your place on the treadmill.
Then twenty, thirty years later, you read The Alchemist. Maybe you go on a motivational weekend seminar in a room of people dressed by Next.
Later still, maybe, you have a daughter, a brilliant funny loving daughter, whose capacity for imagination and invention astonishes you every time she’s with you and more and more each day. She’s a princess, she’s a superhero, she’s your mother, your best friend, your sidekick, your twin. She builds a castle, a burrow, a planet, a nest. Out of paper and ribbon and the magic of words. It’s your birthday every single day and she celebrates with a cake she made in an oven of air.
You wonder what she will make, do or be with this magical transformative power she possesses and you will do anything within your own limited life experience to help her grow it, use it, live it, be it.
You want her to find her treasure, whether it’s a trove of actual coins or the power to harness the boundless wealth that lives within her.
And I set aside my quarrels with The Alchemist. And I forgive Mr Black for daring us tired trudgers to get off the treadmill and to dream again.
And I think of my daughter’s dreams, my own dreams.
And I look at my photographs again and I think of the friendship that’s been lost but the best of which is recalled here in these images. I recall the love with which they were made and the gratitude with which they were received.
And I think of it all and I think maybe this time I get it.