29 January 2011

Alchemy And Invisibilty

In the waiting area of Hannah and Her Sisters' nail salon, I was reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.   A woman about my age, but of experiences and circumstances entirely different from my own, was looking at Cosmopolitan or one of the other magazines one typically finds in a beauty parlor.  (Is that term archaic?  My grandmother used it; I can't recall when I last heard it.)  I probably wouldn't have paid her any more attention had she not asked what I thought of the book.

"Well, I'm not finished with it yet.  But I can see why so many people liked it."

I could see she was disappointed with my response.  She probably wanted me to echo what her friends said about The Alchemist.  Perhaps I would have, had I read it earlier in my life.  Much earlier.  Not earlier in years so much as in my own life experiences.  By that yardstick, most of what happened to me before the age of 45 could just as well have happened to some Phoenician.

Anyway, you can tell already that I'm not impressed with the book.  I'm close to the end of it; I'll probably finish it when I take my bath tonight.  That would be entirely appropriate:  I usually go to bed after taking a bath.

I get the feeling that what makes some people love this book so much is that it has just about the same effect on their minds as a warm bath has on their bodies.  It is to literature as the stuff one feeds toddlers is to food.  

Lest you think I'm being a snotty, snooty English professor, let me explain something about both the book and my proclivities.  Like some of you, I have always found most self-help books annoying at best.  Believe me, I've read more of them--usually under duress--than anyone should.  They talk at you about finding your bliss or realizing your personal myth or some such thing.  They always assure you that, yes, you can do it, but you have to want it.  And if you want it enough, God or The Force or whatever will be on your side.  

I guess they're telling the truth.  After all, at least some people realize their dreams through those books.  I'm talking about their authors who, I suspect, wanted to make a pile of money.  And they all seem to accomplish that.  After all, as several characters in The Alchemist say, when you decide to pursue your own Personal Legend, the universe conspires to support you in that quest.  Someone said exactly the same thing when he was trying to get me to enroll in EST and I said--truthfully--that I didn't have the money.  He told me of people who'd just ate their last can of sardines and, upon deciding to enroll, got letters informing them of trust funds they didn't know they had. I won't argue with him, or Coelho, on that point:  After all, when the authors of these books (or the creators of self-actualization "training seminiars") decide that they want to make money, the forces-that-be seem to line up thousands, or even millions of suckers, er, customers.

The Alchemist is one of those self-help books disguised as a novel.  That makes it all the more annoying because of the book's tone:  It reminds you that its narrator is indeed telling you a fable and that there's a moral in it that you're supposed to learn.  When I first started to read the book, I thought the writing seemed simplistic but told myself that it might just be a matter of something lost in translation.  But I've read enough to have an idea of whether or not something may have been good in the original.  I didn't have that impression of Coelho's writing, at least not in this novel.

But what's bothering me most, aside from its preachiness and mind-numbing repetitiveness, is something that, earlier in my life, I might have noticed but accepted as part of the story:  Its overwhelming sexism.  The males in the story include the protagonist, an Andalusian shepherd boy who decides to literally follow a dream that, according to some old woman in a long skirt, says he will find his "treasure" by the Pyramids.  Now, I know Andalusian and Arab cultures are very different from any in which I've lived.  But I simply can't believe that anyone in those cultures, or any other, would speak the way any of those characters spoke, in any language. Their dialogue reminded me of what I used to hear on Saturday morning cartoons about scimitar-wielding malevolents. 

But you hear it all from the male characters.  The female characters, you hardly hear at all.  I've mentioned one already.  Another is a beautiful young woman the protagonist meets along the way.  And the lines Coelho puts in her mouth are just as improbable as those we hear from the male characters.  But worst of all, she and the seer are exempt or excluded from pursuing their own Personal Legends.  (Coelho actually uses that phrase on every other page.) And what are those personal legends? They're all quests of some kind or another:  finding treasures, winning battles, being successful as businessmen or professionals of one kind or another.  If the legends aren't inherently male (and I don't mean "masculine," whatever that means), the ways in which they're expressed are.  

If Robert Bly got the inspiration for his Iron John retreats from reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, they might have been, or at least sounded, something like The Alchemist.  Or it's what JLS might've been like had it been written by Joseph Campbell.  

Now, to be fair, The Alchemist probably isn't any more sexist than JLS or anything Campbell or Bly wrote.  But I realized, in reading Coelho's work, that I could never be anything more than a spectator or an accessory in the world it depicts.  No other woman could fare, or hope for, any better.  

That, as much as anything else, disturbed me when reading the novel.  I had become aware, by degrees, of sexism in what I'd read and otherwise experienced long before I started my transition.   In fact, it was the first thing I disliked about Hemingway's work when I was in high school.  But what bothered me then was that the female characters weren't so deftly drawn. In other words, it was more of an aesthetic concern than anything else.  Even though I didn't care for much else about Hemingway's writing, I felt that at least it was a world I could enter and experience.  That is exactly what I didn't feel when reading "The Alchemist."  In fact, I think that for the first time in my life, I felt entirely outside of something I was reading.

Then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel as I do about The Alchemist. I suppose that my experiences can and should change the way (and, possibly, what) I read.  After all, as my students and I were reading and discussing Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man last week, I couldn't help but to feel I was reading a very different novel from the one with the same name, and by the same author, I'd read more than thirty years ago.  It's a very different book, thankfully, from The Alchemist, if for no other reason than Ellison is a much better writer.  

I can make such a judgment because while Invisible Man is at least as sexist as The Alchemist, I don't feel the same alienation from the story and its characters that I felt while reading The Alchemist.  In addition to his narrative style, Ellison's writing distinguishes itself from his seeming intimacy with the people (the men, anyway) and their motives.  I could actually empathise with the narrator/protagonist of the book, even when he seems foolish.  That may be because I have experienced treachery and betrayal, not to mention outright violence, from people who were supposed to be "friends" of some "community" to which I (at least in their minds) belong.  And, even though the protagonist isn't always what I expect, at least I find his words and reactions plausible in the situations in which he finds himself.  Even the misogyny--which, by the way, comes as much from the protagonist as anyone or anything else in the book--seems plausible, if not defensible.  That's a lot more than I can say for The Alchemist.  And it's the reason why I may read Invisible Man again, but I'll probably leave my copy of The Alchemist for whoever wants to take it.


Polychromatic Lilac said...

Your review of the book makes me feel a bit more sane. I read it at, I think, age 24, and had a similar distaste for it as you describe.

Justine Valinotti said...

Hi Alex,

I wish I were as aware at age 24 as you were!

When people think something has an "uplifting" message and you criticize it, they act as if you were killing puppies and kittens.