Arts  •  January 11, 2002

The Alchemist

“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is a great book that incorporates various schools of thought, some very esoteric, like Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Gurdjieff / Ouspensky / Collin’s concept of time in universe, as well as the teachings of more mainstream religions and myths. It even echoes some of the sentiments of the popular happiness peddlers like Anthony Robbins and Alan Watts. The book successfully combines all these ideas into one neat mythical tale. What it tries to ultimately achieve is to shed some light on the eternal question of human race: the meaning of life. Unlike the Existentialists, Coelho apparently believes that each one of us have a purpose of our own called “Personal Legend.” The book illustrates the process of achieving it.

What interests me more than the book itself is the varying responses of the readers. I could think of at least four different reactions:

Inspired, because you are now encouraged to pursue your own “Personal Legend.”

Affirmed, because you have already been practicing his teachings.

Depressed, because you realized that the way you have lived your life so far was completely wrong.

Disagree, because you do not agree with his view that our lives have a purpose, or because you have already practiced his teachings and have found that they are flawed.

There are probably many more. How we respond to this book reveals how we perceive our own lives.

I would imagine that most of the readers are either inspired or affirmed. Their lives are probably on the right track, or at the beginning of the track. In contrast, if you are a 60-year old alcoholic with no passions in your life, reading a book like this would not be helpful. The book in fact advocates the view that most people give up their Personal Legends early on for superficial reasons, and that they forever become trapped by them.

For those over 30 who felt inspired or affirmed, this is essentially a feel-good book. The ideal audience of this book is a teenager. It is designed to inspire them. If you are one, and felt affirmed, I would say you are either a genius or full of yourself. The audience that interests me the most is the one who disagrees with the book. Below, I would like to explore some of the reasons for disagreement.

Firstly, I cannot help but to notice the narcissism of the writer. Being a writer has a certain cachet in our society; it is just the kind of occupation that deserves a label like “Personal Legend.” In our culture, being a writer is perceived as courageous. In this sense, he is tooting his own horn. Young kids would simply assume that “Personal Legend” means something of this nature: artistic, imaginative, and risky. But, what would happen to our society if everyone pursued to be an artist, musician, or writer? It would be a disaster.

This view is quite discouraging for kids who are inspired to be an accountant, a lawyer, a salesman, a dentist, or a computer programmer. It caters to the myth that the riskier your pursuit is, the more meaningful it is. This is a fallacy. Sometimes one has a passion for something anyone can easily attain. Just because anyone could be a waiter, does not mean that it is superficial to be passionate about it. Those who have mundane jobs are often made to feel guilty by this type of romanticism. Our society would not function effectively if we had no accountants, salespersons, or farmers. I have great respect for accountants who are passionate, honest, and sincere about accounting, because it is very rare. Personally, if the book was written by a life-long accountant in his spare time, it would have been much more compelling.

The best part of the book is not so much the main message of it, but the bits and pieces of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book. The one intrigued me the most was his analogy of spoon full of oil. A wise man tells a boy to go enjoy looking around his house and his garden, but there is a catch. He has to carry a spoon with two drops of oil while he does so without spilling the oil. He is unable to enjoy the view because he is too worried about the oil. Then he is told to simply enjoy it, but he comes back with an empty spoon. The wise man says, “The secret to happiness is to see all marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil in the spoon.”

This is a very apt analogy, but many unhappy people have no choice but to be consumed by their concerns for not spilling the oil. This has nothing to do with their lack of courage; their economic predicaments necessitate it. There are many people who can barely pay their rents, student loans, food, and medical expenses, even though they work 24/7. They are doomed to be unhappy. On the other hand, many happy people do not have to hold spoons because of their inheritance, support from relatives, or pure luck like lottery. Ironically, they often pursue artistic and creative paths.

What we call “happiness” is quite independent of a true sense of contentment, or peace of mind. “Happy” people who have succeeded in their artistic and risky careers are often mentally disastrous. They are held together by a constant dose of anti-depressants and weekly visits to their shrinks. On the other hand, many “unhappy” people who are stuck with mundane jobs are emotionally and psychologically stable. In other words, contentment is independent of the path you choose.

When I was in college. I was the happiest man on earth. I went to art school on my parents’ gold credit card. When most of my friends were working hard after school to pay off their tuitions monthly, I simply went to the bursar’s office at the beginning of each semester and said, “Charge it to this.” I had no spoon in my hand, and all I did was to enjoy studying and creating art. During that period of my life, I actually felt “happy” but discontent. Why? Because I didn’t know if I was capable of holding a spoon, and that scared me. I actually could not wait to get out of college so that I can know for sure what it is like to hold a spoon on my own.

For the first several years of holding my own spoon, I was quite unhappy. It was a typical post-graduation syndrome. I was working long hours and making just enough money to survive. My job would tire me out so much to the point that I had no energy left to do anything else. My weekends were taken up by household chores such as cleaning, shopping, and fixing. At this age, you have no choice but to assume that this will go on for the rest of your life, so you fall into despair. Although, for some unfortunate people, this is actually true, for most of us in the industrialized nations, sooner or later, we manage to hold the spoon and enjoy life at the same time.

But, what if you are one of those unfortunate people? What would life mean then? There is a Chinese proverb that goes like this:

“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.”

But what if you only had one penny? Bread or lily? Bread and survive, or lily and die. Which one? If I knew that I would only get bread and never any lily for the rest of my life, it seems pointless to survive for the sake of surviving. There isn’t any logical answer to this, although many Christians would probably give a moral answer: the former, because the latter constitutes suicide, a sin.

“How is it that one knows this is what I’m put on the planet to do?” Questions like this assume the existence of “Personal Legend”, the purpose of life. I have met many people who apparently have their own Personal Legends, but to claim that absolutely all of us are born with one is rather presumptuous.

I have met some people who, at no apparent fault of their own, had no passion for anything. I believe that many are born that way. Most kids are interested in everything, but there are some who are not interested in anything. We are tempted to assume that there is something wrong with them, but I do not agree that this is necessarily the case. If we project problems onto them, they will end up with a complex, an unnecessary feeling of guilt for not feeling passionate. “The Alchemist” was written by someone who had the passion, “Personal Legend,” but it would be a stretch to claim that absolutely everyone is born with one. How would he know?

I find those who live like a floating cork in the ocean to be very peaceful and pleasant. No pursuit, no goal, no purpose. Eat when hungry, sleep when sleepy. Goals and purpose in life tend to cause internal conflicts, which explains why many successful people I know are some of the most miserable people, and those who do not have any goals, are most peaceful with themselves. When you are concerned about your immediate survival, the question of the meaning of life does not come into your mind. The purpose becomes self-evident. You don’t “have” a purpose; it’s just there.

In my mid-twenties, when I was trying to figure out the meaning of life in my own way, I approached the problem in the exact opposite way from “The Alchemist.” I challenged myself to give up everything. Soon I found that it was much harder and more painful to give up goals, purposes, and ideals than to pursue them. I spent all my spare time sitting on a park bench, or sitting at home staring at a wall. I had no TV. I gave away all my CDs. At one point, I didn’t even allow myself to read. I wanted to know if I could do nothing and have no conflict within myself. If this could be accomplished, anything I do should be a joy, I figured. Nothing would be taken for granted. I wouldn’t have to have a nice apartment, car, girlfriend, fun job, good food, or vacation. I would not need a feeling of accomplishment, success, pride, confidence, fame, or talent. I wanted to attain nothingness and be peaceful with it. But eventually I was faced with a paradox of having the goal of not having one. So, to be consciously purposeless was a matter of impossibility. I realized that it had to lie outside of my consciousness.

For those who are logically inclined, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his “Tractatus” dealt with the riddle of life in the most profound way:

When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said.

From his perspective, the purpose of life cannot be put into words, not even whether it exists or not. I feel that this is the most rational answer. Why assume for others what one happens to have for oneself? For me, Wittgenstein was a true alchemist.