I have made so many notes to myself over the years as to books to add or possibly add to my Reading List, that I not infrequently have no idea how I ended up in my chair with a certain author’s work in my hands. That just happened to me again with Paulo Coelho. Somehow, somewhere, and at some time, Coelho’s name was added to my list as a writer to check out. I have a suspicion that I read a short-story of his, and if it’s the short-story I’m vaguely recalling, it would fit– for it was about a boy in the desert, and today’s spotlighted book is about… a boy in the desert. So maybe that’s how it happened.
I will say that I didn’t find the right book first. I first picked up Eleven Minutes, which I did not like (I published a response to the book HERE). But the jacket of that book clued me in that Coelho was beloved and world-famous for another book. That book is The Alchemist, to which I respond today.
Coelho writes in his Brazilan home-language of Portuguese, and then his works are translated into dozens of languages around the globe. Portuguese writers work under the disadvantage (as far as access to the global market goes) that Portuguese is not, let’s be honest here, a language of world literature. Thus, it is arguably harder for a Brazilian to reach a world audience, and also harder for readers to get a real feeling for the text as it originally poured forth from the artist’s soul.
By the way, I’m thinking, since Latin is dead and Greek ain’t feeling so good, itself, that the Languages Of World Literature would be: English, French, and Russian? Is it unfair (or just plain wrong) to suppose, as I do, that over half the world’s great poems, novels, and plays have been written in one of these three languages? Or are the “great” works chosen more for political reasons than artistic merit? Or could it be that the world is just CONDITIONED by historical developments to regard certain styles as beautiful and certain subject matters as important?
Someone could easily write a whole book exploring these questions. For instance, I’d be curious to know: do certain languages dominate “great books” lists because the conquering armies spread those languages widely across the planet– or because the conquerors spread a certain way of viewing the world? For example, I’ve noticed that “epic” stories are often about war, or at least violence and death. I mean, they don’t write many epics about gardening. Could this have anything to do with the fact that, in every time and clime, the war-mongers rule over the peaceful-minded?… that the aggressive dominate the passive? It has been said, recall, that the slave will take-on the morality of the master, that he will begin to pass judgment upon himself and others according to the master’s rules and ethical codes. I know that in my own country, the poor man often comes to feel, at some level (perhaps even subconsciously) that he is somehow MORALLY inferior because he is poor, that he in some way DESERVES his poverty. And, obviously, many a rich man feels superior for his wealth.
I considered adding other important languages to the clique of “Languages Of World Literature,” but ended-up dismissing them for one reason or another. The great German works seem to be mostly in the fields of philosophy and science, no offense to Schiller or others (including Nietszche who I believe is an underrated poet– not to mention a misjudged philosopher). It’s tempting to add Spanish, but as someone who is constantly on the lookout for good lit written in Spanish so as not to lose what little grasp of the Spanish language I have, I can tell you that I, personally, sometimes grow jealous of those friends of mine who studied French instead. Ow. That statement’s gonna hurt some feelings, isn’t it? Lo siento, amigos.]
But to digress back from my long digression… what I was getting-to was that a very important term in The Alchemist (and thus, a term important to the millions of Coelho’s fans) is the term, “Personal Legend.” I simultaneously read The Alchemist in its Spanish translation, and in that copy, what appears as “Personal Legend” in English shows up as “Historia Personal” in Spanish, which unless I’m mistaken, is a less grand-sounding term, something like “Personal Story.” Since Spanish does indeed HAVE a word for legend (“leyenda”), and since Portuguese is closely related to Spanish, my guess is that the original Portuguese version spoke of a “Personal Story”… admittedly, not as catchy of a term to English-accustomed ears as Personal Legend.
So what is this great concept, one’s Personal Legend? According to some prefatory remarks entitled “Diez anos despues” or “Ten Years Later” which appeared in my Spanish version (and not my English one), Coelho defines one’s Personal Legend, in my own translation this way: “Each time that a person does something which fills them with enthusiasm, he is following his Personal Legend.” Interestingly, the term “Leyenda Personal” IS used in the preface. It could be that a different translator translated the preface, or it could be that the author switched terms.
The main character of The Alchemist is a shepherd boy. A recurrent dream triggers a change in his life. Or rather, his RESPONSE to this recurrent dream is the trigger. A dream is just a dream. As Jeff Bridges’ character says in The Giver, dreams are a mixture of memories, desires and other emotions– and what you had for dinner.
We humans have this quirk (among numerous others): we frequently do not grasp all the significance of a particular situation, and yet at other times, we will see more significance present than is there. Dreams are one notorious example. Coincidences are another, as well as those incidents taken as “signs” or “omens.”
In my experience, it seems the female spirit is more inclined (at least in my country, in my century) to allow herself to believe in the magical meaning of coincidence. I’m not proud to say that I have, on occasion, allowed a woman to believe what she wanted to believe when it came to coincidence– if she wanted to believe that there was some magical, meaningful coincidence to our meeting again so soon– who am I to correct her? However, invariably, if the relationship went on long enough, the woman’s tendency to extract meaning from coincidence would come back to haunt me. As in, some later “coincidence” would occur which would lead her to doubt our relationship or else otherwise lead her away. And there is no reasoning with believers in superstition or other magics. Trust me, fellas… Meaningful coincidence is a double-edged sword.
Eventually– getting back to the book at hand– the shepherd boy meets a man calling himself the King Of Salem. He convinces the boy that his recurrent dream is related to the boy’s specific Personal Legend, and that it is telling him that it’s time for the boy to go on his own personal quest. The boy is daunted by the notion, but the King encourages him: “When you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The King maintains that deep desires are implanted in us from beyond, and that when we feel a very strong pull toward something, we should follow it, for it is our destiny. “Whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do,” he explains, “when you really want something, it is because that desire originated in the soul of the Universe. It is your mission on Earth.”
Some people are suckers for this sort of malarkey, and our shepherd boy is one them. Good thing, too; otherwise it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Some of what the King says could be applied to instinct (instinctual thirsts seem to universally be quenchable, so in that way, one could say the Universe “conspires” to assist us in attaining our desires). My bone of contention with the King’s fuzzy phrases is that such grandiose phrasing encourages people to apply them to a much broader realm of desires and coincidences than is justifiable.
The King Of Salem goes on to defend his thesis against the numerous counter-examples one can easily find which show that, in reality, the Universe sure seems less-than-helpful sometimes when it comes to assisting us in getting what we want. Suchobstacles –says the King dismissively–when seen correctly, are actually aids to our struggle. What appears to us to be yet another obstacle in our path, is really there to help us. Each obstacle “prepares your spirit and your will” for accomplishing your Personal Legend.
What can I say? Any good belief-system will have these sort of backstops. If not, they would eventually be rejected, even by those prone to believe in them, probably in favor of a similar belief-system, but one with better fortifications against doubt, contradiction, and reality.
The King goes so far as to say that ALL the myriad things we deal with are merely facets of ONE thing: you guessed, it our Personal Legend.
The goal of the quest for achieving one’s Personal Legend is to obtain one’s treasure, with “treasure” signifying whatever is crucially important to each life. Later, when the shepherd boy meets the titular Alchemist, the Alchemist tells him that “you’ve got to find the treasure so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.” In this way, it sounds a bit like the capstone to an arch (or is it keystone? same thing?). “Wherever your heart is,” says the Alchemist, there will you find your treasure.” I think he’s taking a Biblical expression and reversing it here, but I’m too lazy to do the easy Google-check which would correct or confirm me.
Coelho’s characters, not surprisingly considering their author, believe in Omens. The assumption is that: We each have a path, and it is marked with omens. “God created the world,” asserts the Alchemist, “so that, through its visible objects, men could understand His spiritual teachings and the marvels of His wisdom.” In this view, “coincidences” are basically just one form that the signs may take.
And signs, or omens, are part of something even bigger and more general, something the Alchemist calls “The Language Of The World.” The Language Of The World, states the Alchemist, is… “the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.” Being able to read signs is part of understanding the World’s Language.
This idea that we are speaking the Language Of The World and following our destiny when we are doing those things we are enthusiastic about– well, it makes me sad. I am sad because I know (setting aside my aversion to such fuzzy language language) that there is truth in what the Alchemist is saying. I know that some of our most contented moments occur when we are occupied with some task pleasant to us, and I know that we human beings could be so happy and mentally balanced if only we could be left to accomplish the work which excites us. But I also know that Life provides the OPPOSITE of this for most of us. Most people spend most of their waking hours doing things they don’t exactly burn with desire to do. Dreams of escaping this trap provide us with just enough oxygen to keep us alive, but those dreams will never become reality for most of us. I suppose Coelho’s point is that we should all TRY HARDER to achieve these dreams– at least the main one, our Personal Legend.
One of things that Coelho believes can hold us down in life, if we allow it, is Love. Yes, that’s right, the very thing which can also, when it’s healthy, give us wings. The problem, the Alchemist tells the shepherd boy, occurs when people enter into a relationship which they think is Love, but which is actually just a four-letter cover-word for “shackles.” The Alchemist contends that love, True Love, should always encourage, never hold back. “Love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend,” he explains. “If he abandons his pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t True Love… the love that speaks The Language Of The World.”
The shepherd boy comes to believe that one of the major wrong turns Love can take is when one person starts wanting to control or change the other. I’m thinking the boy is right, and that nagging is probably a sign that a relationship has gotten off the path of True Love. Maybe after we have loved someone a long time, we start to think of them as part of us, more than metaphorically, but almost physically– like an arm or hand. And like an arm or hand, we want them to move how and when we want them to move; we may even start expecting it. I’m not saying we consciously think this. But perhaps at some subconscious level we start viewing loved ones as means for our own happiness instead of ends in themselves.
Lastly, there’s a prologue to the story in which a Lake speaks of missing Narcissus, the young boy-beauty, who used to sit for hours beside the Lake’s waters gazing at his reflection before he eventually drowned. The Lake doesn’t miss Narcissus because of his beauty, however. Rather, it misses Narcissus because as Narcissus stared into the still waters of the Lake, the Lake stared into the shining eyes of Narcissus. Each saw in the other their own beauty reflected.
Perhaps that’s what True Love is… When two people bring out the Beauty in each other.