Another week, another airport purchase: this time, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. It seemed time to pick up a book that has sold over 150 million copies worldwide, in 80 different languages, since its publication in 1998. What magic lies therein?
A young Spanish shepherd, inspired by a dream of treasure, sells his sheep and sets out on a journey. He believes he must leave his home and make his way to across the sea to the Pyramids to find what he seeks. Along the way he gains and loses several fortunes; meets a king, an Englishman, and an alchemist; and falls in love. Will he turn back? Will he survive the deadly dangers of his quest? Will he find what he seeks?
Coelho has said that he wrote The Alchemist in two weeks in a kind of inspired frenzy. A small Brazilian publisher ran an initial print of 900 copies in 1988 but after lackluster sales released the rights back to Coelho. In anguish, Coelho spent 40 days in the desert. Then he found another publisher.
The Alchemist has been called many things including “spiritual fiction”; self-help; an adventure story; and a fable. One of its main messages is that the universe conspires to help you on your journey when you seek your own particular treasure with all your heart.
I would have loved The Alchemist at age 17, when the world was still so new. I found it fascinating at my current age, as a cultural and historical phenomenon, and, I suppose, on its own terms. Perhaps part of its success is based on what people want to believe: that the universe (or God) is on our side, whispering messages to us in the form of instincts, people, dreams, and signs.
Alternatively, or also: people have observed that the universe (or God) guides us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and this book tells that story in a fresh way. There’s a reason Jesus spoke in Parables.
Today, I’d love to share a passage about self-knowledge. It gives you a sense of the tenor of the book and also, in my mind, conveys something quite important.
The boy and the alchemist, at this point in the story, are crossing a desert, on their journey. They’re in dangerous territory, as warring tribes bloody each other and don’t look kindly on strangers…
They crossed the desert for another two days in silence. The alchemist had become much more cautious, because they were approaching the area where the most violent battles were being waged. As they moved along, the boy tried to listen to his heart.
It was not easy to do; in earlier times, his heart had always been ready to tell its story, but lately that wasn’t true. There had been times when his heart spent hours telling of its sadness, and at other times it became so emotional over the desert sunrise that the boy had to hide his tears. His heart beat fastest when it spoke to the boy of treasure, and more slowly when the boy stared entranced at the endless horizons of the desert. But his heart was never quiet, even when the boy and the alchemist had fallen into silence.
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked, when they had made camp that day.
“Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.”
“But my heart is agitated,” the boy said. “It has its dreams, it gets emotional, and it’s become passionate over a woman of the desert. It asks things of me, and it keeps me from sleeping many nights, when I’m thinking about her.”
“Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say.”
During the next three days, the two travelers passed by a number of armed tribesmen, and saw others on the horizon. The boys’ heart began to speak of fear. It told him stories it had heard from the Soul of the World, stories of men who sought to find their treasure and never succeeded. Sometimes it frightened the boy with the idea that he might not find his treasure, or that he might die there in the desert. At other times, it told the boy that it was satisfied: it had found love and riches.
“My heart is a traitor,” the boy said to the alchemist, when they had paused to rest the horses. “It doesn’t want me to go on.”
“That makes sense,” the alchemist answered. “Naturally, it’s afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you’ve won.”
“Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?”
“Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.”
‘You mean I should listen, even if it’s treasonous?”
“Treason is a blow that comes unexpectedly. If you know your heart well, it will never be able to do that to you. Because you’ll know its dreams and wishes, and will know how to deal with them.
“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say. That way, you’ll never have to fear an unanticipated blow.”
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