The Alchemist

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.

mindstoreIn 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.

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Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.

I send you this Cadmium Red…

John Berger & John Christie
Actar (2000)

I Send You This Cadmium RedI must have been feeling flush when I bought this. It’s a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, impeccably realised. It feels expensive.

Essentially, it’s a dialogue, an exchange of correspondence, between two exemplary artists on the subject of colour: John Berger, the novelist, critic, painter, poet; and John Christie, the filmmaker and artist.

Berger I’d heard of. His Ways of Seeing was a key text in my studies, first as a student of Media and Communication, then later as a student of English literature and linguistics. The university course that most shaped my learning, that best trained my mind, that forever changed the way I looked at the world, was called Ways of Reading, after Berger. I have a few of his books of essays on my shelves, and as much as I love his voice I do find him a difficult read.

I send you this Cadmium Red… is a book that requires no prior knowledge, no specialist learning, no fancy vocab. Just a bit of time to call your own for a while. Big thoughts like the ones contained in here need space to land. I think about this book from time to time for lots of reasons: as an example of the best in mass print reproduction; as a text that sings the virtues of a fine editor; as a paragon of the kind of connection I tend to seek out in friendships; and as an inspiration for the kinds of places quiet, mindful contemplation can take you when artfully applied.

In a series of letters, Berger and Christie discuss colour in all its complexity and variety: where colour comes from (crushed beetles, rust, chlorophyll); its qualities (“slippery” gold, “luminous” blue, “liquid, undulating, mobile, pushy” green); and its application by various painters (a Caravaggio red, a Joseph Beuys brown, an Yves Klein blue), alongside anecdotes, life stories, quotations, allusions, associations. It’s a quirky history of 20th Century western art written up as an epistolary chinwag. It so happens that the chinwags in question are learned, erudite, insightful, candid and make for joyful company. You just want to hang out with them all the time. You want to be part of their gang. As well as the letters they exchange, sometimes, they send poems, or pictures, or – best of all – unique, hand-made artists’ books.

I bought Cadmium Red… when I was getting into making my own books. I think perhaps because I was getting into making my own books. And I got into making books around the same time I was thinking about getting into writing more seriously. As such, making books and the writing that goes into them have always been inextricably entwined for me. I feel happier when the two things come together.

In 2001, at the suggestion of a close friend, A-, we both went up to Aberdeen for the weekend to attend a crash course in book-binding at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen. A- had studied fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and already knew a wee bit about making books. I was a total newbie.

Marking. Measuring. Cutting. Scoring. Folding. Stitching. Gluing. Pressing. The tutor took us through all the basic bookbinding techniques. I learned that paper has a grain, which you can use (or choose to work against) when folding. I learned how to stitch stacks of sheets laid flat, how to stitch pamphlets. I learned what a folio is and how to stitch several of them together to make a hard-back book block. I learned the astonishing versatility of the bone folder: a genius piece of technology and, of the many tools in the bookbinder’s arsenal, weapon of first resort.

I came away from that weekend with the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of making art. That art was something I could do. Imagine that.

A- I and I embarked on a project soon after our Peacock weekend called Praties is Tatties, a series of six hand-stitched books incorporating A-‘s photography and my text on the subject of, well, potatoes. We sold a few at the Glasgow Art Fair and returned to Peacock a year later with another project called Inventories, where I interviewed various people about an object and A- photographed it.

I’ve made countless books since. When I studied for my Masters in creative writing, my submissions were always presented as hand-made books. I continue to make books when the situation seems to require one and I think the intended recipient might enjoy it. I’ve made books for many of my friends. I made many for a difficult girl I once loved. I made one earlier this year for my dad’s 70th birthday celebration – a collection of postcards from guests at his birthday lunch last year, recalling a memorable event with him, accompanied by three words to describe him. Recently, a dear friend from the old country whom I hadn’t heard from for over 20 years sent me a letter. I was surprised and touched and delighted. It seemed fitting – inevitable, really – to respond with a book.

And, looking back, I realise that the act of making books as a way of connecting in a very personal way with people I hold dear comes from the correspondence collected in I send you this Cadmium Red.

Ideas take shape in infinite ways. And sometimes the best way is with a book.