Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Alchemy of "The Alchemist': The Treasure Beneath Our Feet

"The Alchemist," Paulo Coelho's synthetic myth of treasures, happenstance, destiny and endurance, is one of the bestselling books of the last century. It spread largely through word-of-mouth, affecting nations and tongues through its somewhat familiar tales and motifs regarding the high and the low, the meek and the mighty. I enjoyed reading it, but I read it more or less out of curiosity about why this book has been embraced by so many.

It is a familiar story, in more ways than one, which is one reason for its success. The tale is told in very short, simple sentences. It could happen any time, though it sounds both old and current, perhaps from a few decades ago. It mixes Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Eastern mystical images and ideas in one convenient package, so it gives the illusion of antiquity while at the same time sounding fresh. By doing so, it feeds into the popular idea that all religions, despite their internal discrepancies and contradictory aims, are all saying basically the same thing. It speaks of innocence and experience. Its characters spout lines that sound simple, easily memorable, and strike us as profound. Its big ideas come with repeatable phrases that are helpfully turned into proper names - Personal Legend, the Soul of the World, the Language of the World. We think we know what these concepts mean, and it would spoil the spell of the book to have them made concrete. In writing about it, I am not so much interested in an evangelical refutation of the ideas within as much as examining why they were chosen and what ramifications they have beyond the story.

The basic plot: A poor shepherd boy - an image that would affect the Jew, the Christian and even the ancient Greek - makes a journey from Spain to Egypt to see the pyramids, in search of a fading dream of treasure. Along the journey, through a series of chance meetings, the boy Santiago encounters the mystical and the scientific, only to find that the treasure he sought was back at his home. Along the way, he discovers true love, which will presumably never ask a person to sacrifice his or her Personal Legend.

Along the way, the shepherd boy, who prays to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, encounters several Biblical motifs - dreams, a woman at a well, Joseph of Egypt, the story of Jesus and the Centurion, Melchizedek, and the Urim and Thummim. Take Melchizedek, a very old man who identifies himself as the King of Salem and introduces Santiago to the idea of the Personal Legend. The book states that this is something different from destiny, which is presumably chosen for someone, perhaps by an impersonal will. Instead, the Personal Legend is what the person wants for himself, or perceives is attainable. Melchizedek, of course, was identified in the book of Genesis as Priest of God Most High, to whom Abraham gave 10 percent of his riches. Having no identification of where he came from, Melchizedek is later identified, in the Psalms and in Hebrews, as a precursor for the Messiah, Jesus. The Urim and Thummim were, according to Exodus, stones kept in the breastplate of the High Priest that were used to ask questions of God. So we are introduced to the idea that Santiago has been visited by something profound, and something grand awaits him out on the road.

But what does Santiago learn of God? The God that is portrayed in "The Alchemist" has a little more presence than The Force of Star Wars. Though He seems aloof at times, He is much more active than would seem at first glance. In fact, the story seems to be telling us, He is on the side of people who pursue their own Personal Legend. By incorporating these Biblical characters and devices into the story, Coelho gives his tale the authority of Scripture and legend to illustrate one facet of his story - life is sometimes a question of coincidences that are not coincidences. If we learn to read omens that are always around us, we will know what God wants us to do. And what does God want?

One facet of books like "The Alchemist" is that they feed into our suspicion that there is a secret to life that we have not yet discovered, a hidden rhythm to events that, if we could only discover it, would make our lives that much simpler. We sense that the answer might be found in ancient wisdom, if we had the patience for archaic texts. It might be in the Bible, but we never can manage to read past all those dietary laws in the Old Testament. It might be in philosophers, but their words are even harder than the King James English. It might be in politics, but the sought after ends are never completely arrived at, and there are the examples of the politicians themselves. It might be in pop songs, but look at what happened to all the singers? We are unable to shake the sense that life is comprehensible, but perhaps it has not yet been comprehended. Along comes a thin book with presumed profundities, and we nod when we hear something like, "When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed." Ministers for the last 20 centuries would agree, as would writers of would-be self-help bestsellers.

Alchemy was a largely-medieval belief that base metals could, by manipulation, be transformed into gold, and that immortality could be attained through certain chemical practices. In our age, it's one of those crank ideas we laugh about - sounds mystical, sounds fascinating even, but we have grown past that. "The Alchemist," though tells us, "Wait a second. You and I both know there's nothing to this, but what if that's not the whole story? Maybe there are little bits of wisdom in there. Wouldn't it be cool if there were?" It serves the same purpose as radioactivity in the origin stories of countless superheroes, just as magic used to in legends - we can't explain totally how such a thing would happen, but it helps us get to the action in the story. It also helps us add another layer beyond just the trappings of religion.

The Alchemist takes these familiar words of Jesus:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:19-21

And in its place, we get "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure." The difference? Jesus is talking about focusing our attention on the things that God is interested in - prayer, for example, the poor, showing love for others, forgiveness, the Gospel. It involves actively seeking the will of God - a little more complicated than simply the will to be a nicer person. But Santiago is on a journey toward a treasure. Of course, Coelho's indeterminate treasure is that the boy will accumulate experience, wisdom, love and meaning, things of infinite value. God is presumably part of that. But Jesus' equation puts God at the center, not at the margins. "The Alchemist" is, at its base, about a journey of self. One can believe that God tames Santiago's nature along the way, but that is done through the normal trials of a journey - the theft of money, for example, or the tortures of distance. But it is still, at its base, a journey of self. When Santiago encounters his love, Fatima, her presence only serves for his happiness. What are her dreams? What does she want, beyond Santiago?

One might also laugh at the idea that the world wants us to succeed, or that the Will of the World is bounded up in our happiness. We would think God would be behind this, but there is little in daily life for the majority of the human race to support the idea that a benign force wants us all to be happy. Instead, humans tend to find happiness where they can in the ways that they can, world be damned, and most of those avenues for happiness do not involve others as much as their own narrow concerns. Luck and endurance for those people usually pays off in other, darker ways. As for the mass of humanity - those who can't or don't have time to read books - they survive on faith in a benevolent force that perhaps has their best interests at heart but it doesn't serve much purpose to question. Faith teaches us that the outward trappings of suffering should not be confused with the ultimate aim of existence - not our dreams, but God's will. "The Alchemist" echoes this, but through the self.

"The Alchemist" also incorporates the story of Jesus and the Centurion in a novel, brilliant way. The title character of the novel tells the story of an anonymous Roman man who receives an angelic visitation, revealing that one of his two sons will be remembered for all time for his words. The father assumes it is his son the poet. But when he dies, he discovers it is the soldier son stationed in an obscure military post, who impressed Jesus with his faith. All the Centurion asks is that Jesus give the word that his servant is healed. The lesson: Every person's life plays a central role in the history of the world, and most are unaware of it. This is also a Gospel-sounding lesson, but it is only the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that proves its veracity.

Like other books with this kind of mystical, self-help aim, "The Alchemist" also talks of the illusion of time - the idea that we are too concerned with becoming instead of merely being. This chokes off the present possibilities of happiness with our own pressing expectations, which are inevitably frustrated, leaving us unsatisfied. We pass by people every day who live in the wreckage of their lives because they pursued dreams, in spite of all reason, and slowly watch themselves age bitterly. 

Even Santiago has a hard time learning this lesson about time, though he arrives at the pyramids to learn the secret - the treasure he sought was all the time buried beneath his feet back in Spain - the gold of a New World, buried beneath a ruined church. I have to confess this was a wonderful touch, a human comment on one of the oldest story tropes - the thing you seek is always right besides you, or even back where you started. You hardly had to leave home. But think of the treasure - some conquistador who forgot to tell his family of the gold he took from a distant land, following his own omens and dreams. That gold was forged by the slaves of a nation with its own omens and dreams and its own Personal Legend - a nation that no longer exists. Assume what you will about the Will of the World from their fate.

We read books like "The Alchemist" because we want to believe in something. It tells us, against our better judgment, that we can believe in ourselves. That the answer lies within us, if we can only find it. Through patience, persistent listening to our own dreams, we may yet reach our destination and our treasures. For some people, this is unmistakably true. But those people usually pay some price for what they seek, for hidden treasures rarely reveal themselves easily. And for the rest, they read books whispering fables that inspires a smile. Then the next day arrives, and they struggle to remember what it was they read that made them happy, staring into the morning coffee. 

It isn't the Gospel, but it gets us to the next thing, whatever that may be, for however long. The suspicion that there is more to life still persists, irritates and agonizes us, whether we read or not.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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