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Critical thoughts on "The Alchemist"

A stupid philosophy

[Notes from 2006.] Reading The Alchemist, the novel that has sold tens of millions of copies. “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” “God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.” “There is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend.” “Whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.” In short, try to achieve your dreams. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Life has meaning, and God cares about you. Every person has a destiny. The only thing to fear is fear itself. If you love yourself you can accomplish anything. --Cheap New Age “wisdom.” There are no coincidences, everything is meaningful, everyone is special, the universe is teleological, we are all part of the One, each person is the center of the universe, blah blah. No wonder the book is so popular: it’s self-help in the form of a novel. I’m reading a fucking self-help book. I won’t deny that the writing is good—though there’s no characterization, of course; it’s a simple allegory—but I will deny that the book deserves its fame. The author, Paulo Coelho, isn’t a profound thinker; his philosophy is the superficial religious one. It’s the sort of ideological, individualistic thinking that reconciles people to the social order. Requires no penetration beneath appearances—is in fact the appearance itself. ‘Life is a matter of will. If you don’t realize your dreams, it’s your own damn fault. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ It’s the fucking American capitalist ideology spiritualized. If people find these ideas remotely plausible, it’s because they’re ignorant of the millions, billions, of people who yearn passionately for their dreams but have no chance of achieving them. The world is more or less just? What a joke. This book implies that the world is just. No wonder the establishment loves it.

“Unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them—the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” Wow. The world wouldn’t be threatening if I didn’t see it as threatening? That’s one of those thoughts—the book is full of them—that sound profound but are actually asinine. In a few privileged areas of the world, for a few privileged people, it may be partly true that esse est percipi. Coelho’s idealist philosophy may be not completely absurd. But in most of the world, it is. And sometimes your dreams are not objectively within the realm of possibility. No one really creates his world; he is in large part created by it. Humans are not perfectly free: Sartre’s existentialism is ultimately simple-minded, despite its appearance of profundity.


Finished the book. I have to admit, it’s a wonderful story. It left me feeling high. And I see now that the falsity of its New Age propositions is, to some extent, beside the point: myths are what sustain people in their quests, in life itself, and to that extent are good and necessary. By refusing to let the world’s injustice stifle you, the world indeed becomes a less threatening place (for you). Attitude is not everything, but it is, or can be, a lot.


[Here are some semi-related thoughts, from around the same time.] If you think about it, the idea of karma is rather offensive. Or, since I’m not offended by anything, at least it’s morally and logically problematic. It amounts to the claim that everyone gets his just deserts. The real is the rational, and the rational is the real. Or, this is the best of all possible worlds. “One truth is clear,” as Pope writes in his Essay on Man; “whatever is, is right.” But we all know that this Leibnizian, Hegelian—and Spinozistic—doctrine is not only ethically dubious but downright dangerous: it can be used to justify any sort of injustice. Stalinism? Hitlerism? Pol Pot? The oppression of minorities? The real is rational! Progress works in mysterious ways! Everything is determined, everything is necessary! Inevitable, like logic itself! Quietism, conservatism, is the logical conclusion of this attitude of amor fati. It’s a quintessentially religious attitude: faith in the eternal, in the beyond, in historical logic or evolution, as if it’s God, with the result that you accept the world as it is. Great faith = great equanimity, great love for the natural unfolding of fate. If you vigorously throw yourself into action it’s because you don’t have faith that everything is as it should be: the world could be different, the world as it is is flawed, which means that people don’t get their just deserts, we’re not all wholly responsible for our destinies, karma is at best only partly true, much of reality is irrational, and God (who, of course, doesn’t exist) is not perfectly good or worthy of blind faith. His work has to be corrected.

In other words, there is such a thing as chance and free will. This fact is what logically justifies social activism. (Is it any wonder that power-structures throughout the world and history have propagated the same deterministic, necessitarian, consoling dogmas about the justice of fate, everyone’s essential place in the hierarchical social order—“duties,” as in the Bhagavad-Gita—and eternal rewards, compensations for present hardship? Look at any metaphysically minded regime from ancient India to the Soviet Union. Secular regimes like America’s have different versions of the same ‘philosophy of consolation.’)

On the other hand, there is something compelling about the idea of karma. To an extent each person does create his own reality. But only to an extent.


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