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Alchemist Book Discussion: Part 2

@failspy and I both finished reading The Alchemist over the weekend, so we reconvened today for philosophy part two.

Right away, Javair found the line that evokes ALC/alt.ed. philosophy: “There is only one way to learn and that’s through action” (p 125).

Ummmm….yes. Were we both newer to this actually-thinking-about-industrial-schooling business, we would probably have had a long and excited discussion about the implications of such an approach to learning. Instead, we smiled to see thoughts we share woven into the story, and then we moved on.

We discussed the nature of Personal Legends. The king teaches Santiago that all humans have them. The alchemist teaches that entities like the wind and objects like lead have them. We looked at the line on page 138 about the sea living in a shell in the middle of the desert until the sea returns, and we questioned whether the sea had a choice–like humans do–to abandon its quest in favor of comfort or riches or other distractions (though not love, since love is never an obstacle to the lover’s quest to achieve his or her personal legend…more on that later).

On a side note, I’ve joked for years that I’d like to come back to Earth as a jellyfish when I finish being a human, assuming that jellyfish always just are jellyfish. With all the thinking and choosing that being a human entails, I sometimes get tired and guess that after 80ish years jellyfishing will feel like a refreshing break. This is only half sincere…I’m happy to be a human and I’d love to donate my carbon to a tree someday. But determining that jellyfish have Personal Legend quests as fraught with danger-of-chasing-the-wrong-things as human quests would mean that I have to reconsider my half-joke. Jellyfish-Me is safe for now: we hesitatingly decided that objects don’t have a choice to reject their quests. But we cut the discussion short before we could really prove or disprove either side, and I’m not ready to stand behind our answer.

We cut the discussion short to take a tangential conversation path–to talk about whether humans actually have free will (the book says yes) and other kinds of power. When the Monk protests that the gold the Alchemist offers him is more than he deserves, the Alchemist replies that he shouldn’t say such things because “life might be listening,” hear that the Monk doesn’t want good fortune, and change the future to give him less (p 155). We extrapolated that this means Life conspires to help us, but also that our words and thoughts tell Life (a literalist apparently) what “helping us” means. So our words and thoughts have power (so if plants and rocks think then we might have to revisit our previous point…).

So what is Alchemy? The magic of turning non-gold into Au? On page 150, Santiago tells the sun that Alchemists strive to transform themselves for the better, knowing that when they do so everything around them will do the same. This leaves room for turning non-gold into Au and turning other non-golds into metaphorical gold (since the Alchemist shares that tradition holds gold to be the ideal state of metals). This definition of alchemy made much more sense to us as the title of the book than the more pedestrian definition did.

Then we started talking about love. Sort of. We quick-compared RomeoAndJuliet “love” to SantiagoAndFatima “love,” but then there were ghost chilies so the conversation fragmented before it got as juicy as I’d hoped. Even so—since it’s been on my mind // we have nifty blogs where the conversation could potentially continue // I learned recently that @themadhatter and @hatninja both just finished reading the same book and may have some thoughts—I’m going to quickly write up what struck me. We discussed how Romeo and Juliet “love” is immature and codependent. We talked a little about how their refusal to each live without the other implies a perspective in which each person’s Personal Legend consists completely of finding the other, so without the ability to share life with this one person there is no value in living. We talked a little about Rosaline (why doesn’t anyone remember she exists!?!); we didn’t get to talk about Romeo’s decision to kill himself being based in jealousy/possessiveness (he speculates that Death wants Juliet as a mistress and so…).

Can you tell it’s not a model of romantic love that I aspire to? We don’t really know how Santiago understands romantic love before he meets Fatima. He does talk about marriage as a primarily economic exchange, and then he seems surprised by how not-Juliet Fatima is. He worries about love being an obstacle to his quest, and he worries about how she will cope if he dies. Fatima teaches him that love is never an obstacle to fulfilling our Personal Legends (though what we do in the name of love might be). She also explains that the logical take on his death, following their shared belief that all life is connected and indestructable, would be that it means she sees him in everything and keeps living her life. She’s confident in herself, so her love is not possessive or fearful.

Of course, it’d be cool if her role as the-one-who-waits (a “woman of the desert” as she says) and his role as the-one-who-journeys were interchangeable and less gender-based.

In all, I’m really glad that we read this book and got to talk about it. Synchronicities abounded, Javair’s analysis’ were insightful, and now I’m thinking about what other fictional works have ALC values tucked into them. Quite satisfying.

The Alchemist: part 1 discussion

@failspy and I are reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s been seven years and several lives since I last read it, so Javair’s invitation to revisit and discuss it appealed to me immediately. Today we sat for an hour with the book, our notes (his mental, mine written), and Wikipedia for our first “mini-philosophy” about our reading.

I asked Javair to start, because I was curious to hear what he noticed in his reading. He first directed me to page 72:

“The boy knew what he was about to describe, though: the mysterious chain that links one thing to another, the same chain that had caused him to become a shepherd, that had caused his recurring dream, that had brought him to a city near Africa, to find a king, and to be robbed in order to meet a crystal merchant, and…”

Javair pointed to the ellipses I had barely noticed when I read the same page, which we immediately agreed were an instance of the author using the form of the text to illustrate a concept being discussed in the story. The ellipses end the sentence without closing it, as Santiago’s journey (as well as all life, according to his understanding of living beings as birthing from and dying to rejoin the “Soul of the World”) is filled with little endings that aren’t finite closings.

Did the author intentionally form the text to mirror its content? Javair found a second such instance in King Melchizedek’s disappointment that he had forgotten to repeat his name enough to ensure “the boy” would remember it. The story’s protagonist, Santiago, is named only on the first page. Thereafter he is referred to as “the boy,” allowing the reader to forget his name. We quickly looked up Melchizedek, then discussed why the author might have deliberately under-emphasized characters’ names. We decided that the main character matures through the story (after some discussion about whether he’s a man or “the boy” since he shaves like a man but has a child’s openness) as he chooses repeatedly to keep expanding his world and trying new things. In the process, he–and several other key characters–become known to us through what they do, rather than how others call them.

This strikes me as a major theme in the book. Javair characterized Santiago as “self-directed” (there’s definitely an Alchemist-ALC post coming in the near future); protagonists are usually dynamic, but Santiago seems especially so. Even when he isn’t choosing new paths, speaking with new people, or practicing new skills, he’s listening for his intuition, looking around for teachers, and reflecting on his choices. He has a growth mindset. His contentment and rest are active, because they are mindful. Of the protagonists I’ve walked inside through many different books, he’s one of the most soothing I’ve experienced, even in moments of suspense and struggle.

We flew through my notes, mapping the distance from Andalusia to Egypt, talking about the history of the Moors (and why Santiago would be prejudice against them before learning to respect and integrate with their culture), reading about the history of Urim and Thummim…even touching on colonization of Africa by Europeans // forced conversion of pagans by Christians // shared roots of the Peoples of the Book, and where all these things are visible in our lives today.

The highlight of the conversation for me was when Javair brought up the motif of the [transliterated] Arabic word maktub, which is approximately translated to “it is written.” It both compliments the idea in the book that each person has a “Personal Legend” laid out for them, yet simultaneously it could be interpreted fatalistically, thereby challenging the idea that people choose whether or not to follow their legend. It seems pretty clear that Coelho wrote with the former interpretation in mind, but the latter is one I’ve been hearing discussed since my years in Catholic School.

More interesting to us, though, was the existence of an untranslatable word–a “lexical gap” as Javair taught me it’s called. We philosophized a bit about what the existence of such words means (if we say “tree” in the same language, could one of us mistranslate the other’s implied image?), and then we found a nifty list of lexical gaps to tickle our brains with. It kindof made me want to reread Don Quixote 🙂

We ended talking about the ability to perceive signs from the “Soul of the World,” teachers in everyone/thing, and whether another person is following their heart or has missed their chance to live the Legend written for them. Or that they were written for. Or [lexical gap].

Can’t wait to discuss part 2 next week!