For many of its devotees, disliking Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is on par with kicking a puppy. How can a person dislike a simple parable of a shepherd boy following his dream? How can you have a problem with a story that tells you to listen to your heart? What is wrong with believing that you are special and the universe has a wonderful plan for your life? Would someone have to be inhuman to take issue with the statement that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”?
Call me a humanoid alien, Common Liners, for I have got issues. Perhaps you too did not like The Alchemist, but you are having trouble articulating why. Well, this is why...
Let’s start at the beginning. Writers usually use the introduction of their book to set the tone. Coelho does this by having the eponymous Alchemist read an alternate version of the Narcissus story. According to ancient Greek legend, Narcissus was a youth of astonishing beauty. He was entranced with his own image and spent day after day staring at his reflection in a lake. One day he fell in and drowned. A beautiful flower grew at the site, and we call the blossom a narcissus. In Coelho’s version, a nymph arrives and finds that the lake has turned to salt-water. The lake informs her that it is mourning Narcissus, but not because it misses his beauty. It mourns because when Narcissus stared at it day after day, the lake saw its own beauty reflected in his eyes. The Alchemist thinks this is a beautiful story. He is portrayed as one of the wisest men living, so readers are meant to believe it is an admirable story.
Coelho gets points here for writing style, by the way. He writes an introduction that definitely summarizes the main point of his book and establishes the tone.
My issues are not with the writing but with the psychology. This introduction left an odd taste in my mouth. On the surface we are supposed to see that instead of chasing after someone else’s beauty, we ought to be completely content with our own. Yet by making his point using Narcissus, and by making the lake just as self-absorbed in using Narcissus the same way Narcissus was using it, Coelho portrays solipsism as a good thing.
This is not the only instance of Coelho advocating a form of solipsism in his book. As I said, he definitely summarized the main point – it is everywhere. The wise king Melchizadek informs the shepherd boy that in order to live out one’s own Personal Legend, we must forsake the people who depend on us. They are weights holding us down and form the basis for the excuses we tell ourselves to avoid having to try for our special purpose, our “Personal Legend.”
They are sheep. Literally. Santiago the shepherd boy muses several times that “sheep” only live day to day, that are only concerned with stuffing themselves with food and water, and they don’t much care about anything except having someone to lead them. This is a not-so-subtle nudge to re-examine one’s own life.
To be fair, from a humanistic or existential psychology perspective, finding personal freedom is important. So is taking responsibility for your own life, and figuring out what really is your responsibility. Quite often we do impose limits on ourselves disguised as responsibilities. Few people know this as well as a mental health worker, which I was for several years.
So what is wrong with Coelho’s version? Let us compare Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, which made a similar point in a subtler way. Metamorphosis was complex and sad because the main character’s family – who are barely seen – have rich lives of their own that the man-turned-beetle hears through the walls. If he had left them behind to do what he’d wanted, they would each have their own little dreams to follow. Now he is drifting away from them and they are trying to move on, to each their own, beyond this weird secret. In a few sketched lines, Kafka establishes a world and people outside. Meanwhile “sheep” are basically a conglomerate entity and Santiago is not missing anything by leaving them behind. This is not all. Even the human characters come across like mirages in the desert. They show up to speak for a while before vanishing.
One might argue that this is a result of the “spare” writing style. It is true that parables are simple by design, but this goes deeper. No one in this world has seems to have a life outside of interacting with Santiago or thinking about him. That is unusual even for very “spare” writing. Compare Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain or Coatzee’s Disgrace. These writers quickly yet evocatively breathe life into secondary and even tertiary characters.
This is one dimension of what I mean by solipsism in this book. In its own way it is as creepy as Metamorphosis, but in an inside-out way because it is intended to be light-filled. The Alchemist would make a great existential ghost story if it turned out that Santiago was wandering around the desert talking to himself.
Devotees might say that Coelho “meant” that we all have our own Personal Legend, so we are all bright stars. I maintain that this is still creepy because if we are all the solipsistic star of our Personal Legend, entranced with ourselves and seeing our own beauty in everything as the wise Alchemist thinks is right, we all reduce each other to ghostly side-characters.
Read Disgrace. The Nobel Prize-winning author Coatzee shows better than I ever could what happens when people reduce others to side-characters in their personal story.
The other main point in The Alchemist is that "If you are following your Personal Legend, then the entire universe will make an effort to help you succeed." So the old king Melchizadek tells Santiago – and Coelho tells us that the old king could not be wrong. If you missed it the first time, do not worry. Coelho will repeat this for you every few pages. He will also remind you that both your heart and the universe speak a Universal Language that will not only tell you what your Personal Legend is, but how to achieve it. Usually this happens in the form of omens.
My issues with this are based in both writing and the science of psychology.
If this were the backdrop of a story I would not have a problem with it, because it is magic. Some people can feel it, listen to it, and interpret these universal signals because they have a bit more intuition or practice or a knack for it. It is a pretty common type of magic and can be found in books for all ages. Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote a children’s book called The Changeling, about two girls who discover this kind of mysterious yet everyday magic while discovering who they really are. They find that they do not have to be another iteration of their respective families.
Except that is not the backdrop of the story in The Alchemist. That is the story. That is the whole thing. It reminds me a bit of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael in that Coelho takes an entire book explaining this concept of “here is how you can do magic” to people. This is very obviously a parable that people are intended to take seriously and apply to their real life. That is, in fact, the point of the story.
Yet to take this seriously is to endorse another dimension of solipsism. To live this way is to believe that the universe is full of messages directed toward you, and you should be watching for your own omens in the flight of birds, in the fall of water, and in the behavior of others.
To explain my issues with this will involve explaining some basic psychological science. I would not normally bring the science of psychology into a book about magic. Jungian archetypes usually make for a more productive and interesting discussion of a fable than scientific analysis does. However, because we are clearly meant to apply this kind of magic to real life, I am allowed to apply this kind of psychology to it.
Coelho claims that if you follow your Personal Legend and you believe hard enough, you will see signs and omens that you are on the right path. The harder you believe, the more you’ll see them. This actually works. Sure it does. The Alchemist also claims that the secret to being able to interpret the language of the universe is so simple it could be carved on a single emerald. This is also true. Here it is:
If you are always looking for and thinking about certain things, you will see them everywhere. However, this is not the universe sending you messages. This is just confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a well-known psychological phenomenon. Simply put, if you want to see certain things or get certain results, you’ll tend to see them or get those results, regardless of whether they’re actually there. You may also ignore evidence to the contrary. You probably aren’t even aware that you are doing it.
This is the very definition of why scientists do double-blind tests – they randomly select participants to be in their control versus experimental groups. Then, neither the participants nor the experimenters are allowed to know who got the treatment and who got the placebo (pill that looks real but does nothing) until after the test is done. Both participants and experimenters are “blind.” This way the scientists will not unconsciously skew the results of their research. Experiments susceptible to confirmation bias are considered dubious at best.
Confirmation bias also takes the more everyday form of “only counting the hits.” If you really believe a ritual works, you’ll perform it and then count your successes in life as proof that the ritual really does have power. When it doesn’t work, you’ll either disregard it or count it as a user error. I could go into things like pattern-recognition, attributing intentionality, etc. that contribute to the omen effect. Instead I will simply recommend Sagan’s gentle book The Demon-Haunted World or Dawkins’s more pointed Unweaving the Rainbow for those interested in digging deeper.
Again, I normally would not unweave the rainbow for books about magic; not unless the author clearly intends for his magic to be applied to real life.
Nor am I saying that intuition has no value. Quite the contrary. People should slow down and listen to the quiet, insistent thoughts percolating up from their unconscious. Sometimes looking within yourself with meditation or prayer or spacing out while arranging marbles on the carpet is a good way to connect to that deep-rooted wisdom. Sometimes looking out at the world is a good way, too, like watching a flock of birds. There are certain images, sounds, and signs that strike a primal chord within us all and you can certainly choose to imbue them with meaning.
However, the way birds fly reminding you of various things that help you to make an important decision is one thing. Believing that the entire universe is taking a break from creating solar systems in order to bend down and rearrange some birds for you is another thing. Believing that other human beings are manipulated as if they were part of the landscape in order to send you a signal, is yet another level of solipsism.
Except according to Coelho, you are not only the main character in your own Personal Legend, you are the center of the entire universe, one geared specifically toward helping you. If this sounds like Narcissism on a grand scale, that is because it is. At the end of the book Santiago speaks to the desert, the wind, the sun and to big-G God. He looks at the soul of God and finds that it is own soul. So yes, each of us is the soul of God within our own universe. I do not merely contain a universe inside of me— I am also the external universe and so can impose myself on everything and everyone I see, the way Narcissus and the Lake did to each other. Again, the wise Alchemist thought this was right and proper.
Our mission is to improve the universe by becoming better than we are. This is how we turn the “lead” of our lives into “gold.” Hence the title. I am all for striving upward but this story does not provide a healthy or realistic way to do that. All these things, added to the mirage-like characters, make the story feel strangely sinister like the Metamorphosis. Although we are shown wide-open desert spaces instead of four walls, we are enclosed within the “I” of Santiago as he turns into the god of his own world. Ironically, readers are shown a scarab (a god-beetle) scuttle across the sand in the place where Santiago undergoes the final stage of his transformation.
The Alchemist is a moral parable for a narcissistic society. It makes self-absorption not merely justified, but the best way to be happy. The fact that it has a huge following in an increasingly individualistic world culture is unsurprising.
The Editor has been published in Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and has poems scheduled for publication in Poetry Pacific Magazine.