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The Unbearable Dudeliness of Quests

Bro Bibles: ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

Facing elimination by the Boston Celtics in this year’s NBA Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James tried to project an air of serenity by reading a novel during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ morning shootaround. That slim book was The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer who does not shy away from name-dropping the famous and influential men who have gravitated toward it: His foreword to the 25th anniversary edition brags that Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, and Will Smith have all journeyed through the exotic world of this precious little fable. (Madonna is the token woman on this list of admirers.) Perhaps on the strength of its sales alone — initially a flop, at least 65 million copies have been bought around the world — Coelho is also smug enough to tell us before we read it ourselves that The Alchemist “is widely considered one of the ten best books of the twentieth century.” Watch out, Virginia Woolf!

Oddly enough, I’d never heard of The Alchemist myself until I asked an experienced bookseller and literary friend, Amy Stephenson, if she had any recommendations for the Bro Bibles series. This was her immediate pick. “In my opinion (and maybe this is just our store), it is the broiest of bro-ey summer reads,” she said, noting that the paperbacks move exceptionally fast, all snapped up by “dudes with questionable facial hair.” Some additional poking around on my part revealed that The Alchemist is not uncommonly taught in school, which left me wondering if its popularity could be down to what I think of as the “Great Gatsby Delusion.” You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that many Americans reflexively cite The Great Gatsby as their favorite novel, despite a fairly tenuous grasp of its subtext or unreliable narrator — likely because it was among the last novels they were compelled to read by a teacher before they stopped reading fiction entirely.

What I found in The Alchemist was more disturbing, however, than the mild and embarrassed pretension of a fake Fitzgerald fan. A redditor may have said it best in response to the question of why Coelho’s tale has the sparkling reputation it does, answering with another question: “Why are Instagram inspirational quotes so popular?” Indeed, Coelho has a manner of making everything way too easy and spiritually mushy — even the hero’s alleged journey. To put it another way: he rids the narrative of any suspense or conflict you might reasonably expect from literature, leaving a string of faux profundities and queasy exoticism in their place. Despite the promises of treasure, adventure, desert marauders, mystical omens, and literal magic, he can’t even match the stakes of a lesser Goosebumps. It is one long corny metaphor of the ego.

The Alchemist piggybacks on a myth dating back to A Thousand and One Nights, one better adapted by no less than Jorge Luis Borges as a short story. Coelho’s contribution is to lard the quest with a lot of shit on finding yourself and “listening to your heart.” We follow a young Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, as he decides to act upon a dream of recovering gold and riches at the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way to Giza, receives help and guidance from people either impressed with his idealism or mysteriously invested in his so-called “Personal Legend.” This is the most common and pompous of several annoying phrases that crop up repeatedly, including “the Language of the World,” “the Soul of the World,” and “the Soul of God,” but I’m not as concerned with these, since Coelho uses them interchangeably, to no effect. Still, here’s a typical insight for you: “If you know about love, you must also know about the Soul of the World, because it’s made of love.” I swear I’ve seen Minions memes that are better than this.

Anyway, the “Personal Legend” — this is what LeBron and Will Smith and Lewinsky scandal-era Bill Clinton are into. (By the way, for a superior read, look no further than Nicholson Baker’s Vox, a hilarious and steamy phone sex novel that Monica gave Bill as a gift. Thank god someone in the White House back then had taste.) One’s “Personal Legend,” as the boys who bought The Alchemist from Amy’s bookstore were surely delighted to learn, is exactly what it sounds like: the promise of grandly achieved destiny. Those who recognize their Personal Legend and pursue its completion are a rare, specialized class of human, set apart from “people who know what their dreams are but don’t want to realize them.” Santiago is informed early on by one of his guides, the phantom figure of a disguised king, that desire is all he really needs, because “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

This is something akin to prosperity gospel, which holds that the poor and disadvantaged just haven’t tried or believed hard enough to succeed. It has the related stink of conservative bootstrap ideology: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure,” the eponymous alchemist, Santiago’s last tutor, falsely declares toward the end of the book. But the best analogue for The Alchemist as a self-help text is The Secret, a bygone fad and very profitable multimedia franchise based on the dubious premise that simply imagining material reward will manifest it. The Center for Inquiry’s skeptical critique of The Secret as “a time-worn trick of mixing banal truisms with magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge” applies only too well to Coelho’s weightless wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why does it appeal to dudes, whereas The Secret’s guru, Rhonda Byrne, seemed to tap a feminine audience through influencers like Oprah? Oh, I’m confident you already have an inkling.

For starters, there’s the masculine focus on empire, which runs from romanticized mentions of “Moorish conquerors,” to Santiago’s feeling that he “could conquer the world,” to his eventual discovery of the “spoils of a conquest” that “some conquistador had failed to tell his children about.” Everywhere you see this formula: to take what is rightfully “yours” is to take what belongs to someone else.

But if that’s a touch too abstract, let’s examine Santiago’s theoretical love for Fatima, a woman he meets in a Saharan oasis. Almost as soon as Fatima appears, she’s telling Santiago, “I have become a part of you,” and “I am a part of your dream, a part of your Personal Legend, as you call it.” She’s emphatic that he not settle for a life with her but continue to the pyramids: “I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes.” When Santiago wonders, again, if Fatima is not the treasure he seeks, the alchemist likewise exhorts him to leave the oasis, insisting that “she already has her treasure; it’s you.” It’s hard to avoid the implication that men need more than domestic bliss to be happy, while women are satisfied with only that. Moreover, women don’t get a Personal Legend — they are to be absorbed into a man’s. This would be insulting even if Coelho didn’t later wax on about how stones and shells follow Personal Legends of their own. In his philosophy, women are not even afforded the complexity of inanimate objects. Is that why Harvey Weinstein sought to produce a film adaptation? Only he knows for certain.

I’ll argue, though, that the sexism of The Alchemist is trumped by its self-absorption. In a gesture that amounts to snitching on himself, Coelho opens The Alchemist with a retelling of the myth of Narcissus, who is said to have drowned in a lake after becoming fascinated with his own reflection. It’s my guess that when an A-list actor or president of the United States or superhuman athlete reads The Alchemist (LeBron has apparently read it more than once) and identifies with Santiago, they are falling prey to that same narcissism — to the vision of themselves as a “chosen one” who transformed a dream into reality as others succumbed to fear and sleep.

Luck and opportunity are elements of Santiago’s journey, but they’re depicted as the symptoms of his resolve. All external forces bend to his will. Where is the humility in that? I’d hate to be one of the regular guys “inspired” by this book, amounting as it does to a friendly pat on the back and a fond assurance that the reader deserves everything he has. Or, as the back cover quote has it, that “to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” Step on some necks on your way to the top? Personal Legend. Abandoned your morals for power? Personal Legend! If anyone tells Trump what a Personal Legend is, Twitter could get a whole lot worse.

Coelho, meanwhile, basks in his Personal Legend by re-reading The Alchemist “regularly,” per the foreword. Curious, given that the now 30-year-old book, his crowning accomplishment as an author, cannot see past a moment of triumph to something more meaningful. The Alchemist’s acolytes say it’s about locating splendor within, not without, but it nonetheless ends on that chest of imperial gold. And so Coelho’s attachment to it comes to resemble a miser’s pose — locked away in a dusty room, always counting a hoard of coins he never spent.