Good Literature Is Not Self Help: A Critique of ‘The Alchemist’

Near my apartment there is a cemetery sandwiched between the river and a main road. If you walk long enough hugging the path near the river you will see a gravestone partially obscured by flowers. If you push aside the leaves, you find a black and white picture of a young couple smiling warmly at the camera. Below, it states that the man was killed in the Italian Theatre during World War II and the woman died two years later. With a single picture and a few words it tells a tragedy of a dream and a future run aground by the circumstances of the world the two lived in.

I can’t help but think of that couple when examining The Alchemist—which in itself is a dream fulfilled. It was written in a fit of passion, with the author struggling for years to finally get a publisher. Since that time it’s sold over 65 million copies, was atop the New York Times best seller list for 315 weeks, and has been translated into 80 languages. It’s inspired people like Bill Clinton and Oprah, and has enjoyed a run of success few books get. The story is about an Andalusian shepherd who goes to visit the Pyramids in search of a treasure and tells a feel good message about pursuing one’s dreams. But feel good does not always mean right, and the author’s approach to dreams falls into self-help, in the end denigrating what he tries so hard to enshrine.

This is hard to see initially with only the broad strokes laid out. In the beginning it’s easy to root for Santiago as he leaves his quiet home with wanderlust in his heart. In the early chapters he encounters a number of people who have either given up on their own dreams or hope to convince him to abandon his journey. So many people in the real world struggle to pursue their ambitions, and this is where Mr. Coelho gets things right. The barriers blocking our success are often smaller than we think, and our own mindset often is what truly holds us back. Fear of disapproval or failure drive us just as much as logistical or monetary concerns. The message of finding our own happiness even when it goes against the grain is a noble one, especially in a society where so many people find their jobs unfulfilling.

The Alchemist is right in that pursuing dreams is good, but past that it seems to have no idea of how one goes about achieving a dream. Santiago is single-minded and foolish and makes his journey harder because of it. He is swindled out of his entire inheritance the moment he enters Africa. He willingly enters a desert during armed conflict where civilians are being attacked. He’s held captive by bandits and beaten up by grave robbers because he doesn’t even contemplate being discrete or trying to protect himself. Dangerous journeys make for great stories, but it’s hard to make sense of traveling through a war zone when there’s a safe sea route right next to it.

This is okay, though, because according to the author the “how” of the dream is less important than the pursuit. According to him, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”—which implies luck and circumstances will always be on your side no matter what choices you make. This treads dangerously close to the prosperity gospel in a new age spiritual wrapper as it implies that a person’s failure was due to not wanting it bad enough. Caught up in the language of the story we can be tricked into believing this for a time, but it just doesn’t hold up in the real world. People die from war and famine and disease all the time, and it would be callous to argue that their lack of faith kept them from self fulfillment instead of bullets or cancer. If there’s some grand secular conspiracy headed by the universe to fulfill dreams, it did a lackluster job for the couple buried near my apartment.

Furthermore, the author sees the achievement of a dream as the end all be all of life, with the back cover proudly proclaiming, “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” This is completely nonsensical. Everyone has obligations and duties that pull them away from self-fulfillment but are important nonetheless. The young mother dreaming to be a singer must also take care of her child. The man who dreams of traveling the world must also care for his aging parents. The lovers who dream of being together must find jobs in the same town. Earnestly applied, this philosophy devalues friends, family, and anything else that could distract us from our “true goal” in life. It’s like the napsack speech in Up in the Air that Anna Kendrick spends the rest of the movie picking apart. It might be easier to ignore everyone who cares about you as you shoot for the stars, but it would be difficult to call it noble in any way.

But of course, the author doesn’t want us to contemplate nobility, or really much of anything. The Alchemist himself states, in reference to Santiago leaving the girl he’s fallen for, “Don’t think about what you’ve left behind. If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back.” This is the part where Nick from The Great Gatsby would point out that you can’t repeat the past. The author by being in control of the story can make Santiago’s lover wait for him, but in the real world long distance relationships fall apart all the time. Friends, family, and lovers won’t always wait for you when paths diverge, regardless of purity. Mr. Coelho seems to think the best option for living is to put blinders on ourselves and charge forward, even though a lot of living is done outside the race.

These deviations from reality are important because they all build up to one big lie that can’t be sustained. It’s the deeper problem of most self-help books. They appeal to use because they seem so simple, but they seem simple because they are incomplete (and often unworkable) solutions. Literature, on the other hand, relishes the gritty details and texture of life and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Rather than an endpoint reached through blind faith, our dreams are fragile, difficult, and complicated things. But this fragility also gives them beauty. We should not be so quick to debase them like Mr. Coelho does.

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