Reason can not coexist with inscrutability


The main theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (transl. Alan R. Clarke; HarperOne, 2014, first ed. 1988) can be summed up in the following sentence: To attain your dreams, you need money. In other words, this fable-like, deceptively simple narration hides a complex web of philosophical assumptions, historical knowledge, religious and traditional beliefs. All of these, however, are by-products of one aspect of the modernist grand narrative: that of money.

The plot follows the journey of an unusual shepherd “boy” (his age is never given – maybe for a purpose), Santiago, who dreams the same dream twice. This dream urges him to go to the Egyptian pyramids to find a treasure. He consults a gypsy and Melchizedek (both for a fee) who simply tell him to follow his heart’s desires, which become his Personal Legend.  From his native Andalusia he travels to Tangier where he is robbed so he has to earn money to be able to join a caravan headed for the pyramids. The desert gives him a chance to meditate on his life and learn about alchemy (which does not make an impression on him). In a forced rest on account of tribal wars the caravan has to stop at the Al Fayoum oasis where he falls in love with Fatima, meets a real alchemist, and almost becomes the oasis counselor. This is thanks to this reading of two hawks as an omen of war. Despite the war, the alchemist takes him close to the pyramids where is is robbed again; but the  alchemist makes gold and gives some to Santiago. He then returns to Andalusia, and digs under a tree where he once rested with his sheep. There he finds a treasure and heads back to Al Fayoum to Fatima.

Coelho, through his artistic skill,  has the reader fall for the fairy-tale atmospheres, mythical Arab wisdom, pyramids, do-what-your-heart-tells-you attitude, so that the protagonist’s “Personal Legend” (dream? purpose in life?), the Universal Language of the World Spirit, and the accoutrements of the mystery of life are prominently foregrounded. The messages are clear: listen to your heart, fulfill your childhood desires, interpret your dreams as omens,  follow the ancient traditions and religions, travel, don’t rock the boat, keep making money.  Under this surface patina, so attractive to countless readers, there are, however,  troubling undertones which make these feel-good concepts look incomplete. Here is just a sample of these bothersome undercurrents, contradictions, and not fully-exploited themes.

1. The novel is set during an undefined era, in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. The protagonist never feels hunger, and although he’s robbed twice, the first time he earns money by working in a crystal shop and the second time the alchemist provides him with gold. His father gives him enough money to buy sheep, in order that he can embark on the occupation of shepherd.  So the message here seems to be “believe your lottery ticket is the winning one”, and if you are middle class, so much the better. And therefore, the underlying message often exemplified in the novel says that the universe conspires to help you to achieve your Personal Legend. The fact that giving oneself up to occult and hidden forces is not the reasonable answer is never considered in the novel. Reason is defeated and inscrutability takes charge.

2. The name of the protagonist, Santiago, is highly interesting.  Santiago (Saint James, also called Santiago Matamoros) is now the patron saint of Spain (and Portugal and many other nations). One of the legends narrates of his miraculous apparition and help given the Spaniards in their battle against the Moors (battle of Clavijo, 844). When Santiago meets the alchemist for the first time,  he “was reminded of the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed.” (p. 113) Now he is the infidel who waits for the blow of the sword, but it does not come. In the book, Santiago is asked to become the counselor of the group that governs the oasis, an offer which he declines. Clearly, Christian-Muslim relations are one of the latent themes of the book, but never exploited in full. For example, the concept of Maktub (it is written) is mentioned a few times, and reason does not prevail: Tradition is taken as the measuring stick, inscrutability wins again.

3.   One of the most prominent conceits in the novel is expressed by the alchemist when Santiago is supposed to perform his metamorphosis and become the wind that sweeps the oasis to show the Arabs that he has mysterious powers (so that they would fear him and let him and the alchemist go). Santiago is doubting that he can perform this miracle, and the alchemist says: “Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.” (p. 146) This statement, smug as it is, contradicts something stated before: children (presumably all children) know what their heart wants, so everyone know their Personal Legend is.

4. Accepting armed conflict as the inevitable result of keeping tradition alive means not challenging the status quo. When the oasis is attacked by a group of Arabs (which is against the Tradition – oases should not be violated in this way), the attackers are killed, their leader hanged from a dead palm tree (death without honor). But the whole battle rests on the reason for the fight: the invading group was starving and thirsty. There seems to be a contradiction here: all religions urge believers to engage in acts of generosity towards those who are less fortunate – but the episode says just the opposite, kill the unfortunate ones, never mind sharing food with them. So Maktub (it is written) makes for contradictory behaviour. Reasoning was not even considered before the conflict started.

5. In the fight between reason and emotion, emotion wins. This is clearly seen from the way verbal language is devalued and disregarded. According to the alchemist, “people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World.” (p. 90) The word language is used often, but with the meaning of non-linguistic communication, especially that of omens, dreams, such as “true language of the universe” (68) ,  “language of enthusiasm” (64), “language that doesn’t depend on words” (46), even the caravan and desert “speak the same language” (81). The novel does not attempt to build a bridge between reason and emotion, intuition, mystification. On the other hand, it is ironic that novels are written using verbal language, a means that is devalued in this book.

6. Omens form the backbone of the plot, and the Englishman who wants to become an alchemist goes so far as to say that “Everything in life is an omen. … There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.” (74) The camel driver “knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things.”  (104)  The interpretation of omens, though, is mostly the purview of “specialists” (gypsies, old Testament characters, alchemists). Santiago has to rely on Urim and Tummim to give him answers. He is not urged to think on his own, abandoning reason to mystery, intuition, and feeling.

7. Last but not least, the plot of the novel would not exist without the necessary monetary support for the protagonist. There is nothing that happens without money: dreams of traveling, Personal Legend of finding a treasure, looking for help in interpreting his dream, joining a caravan, all depend on his ability to pay. Money is the conduit to the protagonist’s happiness. Although the meaning of the word treasure  can be metaphorical, it is the gold and money treasure he finds at last under the tree in Andalusia that allows him to go back to the desert to join his love, Fatima. The only two characters  who give him money without asking, in fact, are his father and the alchemist.

In conclusion, The Alchemist is a nice fable, a respite from violence and gore and other unpleasantness. But it is also a great example of the unseen power of the pull of money. Dreams can be fulfilled, but this fulfillment depends on one’s ability to pay. Trusting one’s intuition and heart is not sufficient. The beauty of a fable is that even here there is one dissenting voice, that of the crystal salesman, who tells “the boy”: “I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.” (60) In other words, to each his/her/its own Personal Legend.






Against learner-centered pedagogy


Although the learner-centered bandwagon has been with us for quite a while, there are three main reasons why this teaching strategy should undergo a reanalysis and re-thinking, providing the future will still entertain the idea of human-to-human formal teaching and learning.

  1. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners get out of their comfort zones both from the perspective of content and that of learning styles.
  2. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners stretch their imagination and do not open their eyes to what’s beyond their horizon.
  3. Learner-centered approaches end up with learners who are reaffirmed in their world view without an ability to pose probing questions about their own perspective.

It is instructive to view learner-centered pedagogy as a stepping-stone to machine teaching, big data algorithms, and a sedate, hedonistic citizenry. One of the fall-outs of learner-centered teaching has been the unceasing lack of abilities to ask probing questions about even the most frequent and matter-of-fact developments. Students who major in sciences are dashing headlong to innovate, technologize everything, seemingly without thinking about the real reasons for innovations, and technological breakthroughs. Distractions, rather than focus, tend to be created: “immersive computing” is a perfect illustration of this tendency. Why do we need immersive  gadgets? What will be they good for? Are they just another means to create trash (both real and metaphorical)?  These questions do not even touch the surface of the technological developments written about in “Google has a new favorite phrase” .

Media algorithms are another result of the drive to a “learner-centered” world. My computer informs me of newly-published articles about topics which according to the algorithm, I was interested in previously. But my interests are not circumscribed to those topics, far from it! The algorithm’s limiting abilities to really find out where all my interests reside is appallingly myopic. Since the digital technology satisfies the supposedly personal interest, it may be more useful for schools to actually bring previously unseen topics to the classrooms. It may be important for the machine-learning computer designers to know that learning is subconscious: Is Language Learning A Subconscious Process?.

In conclusion, if the world needs engaged and concerned citizenry, learner-centered pedagogy is not the way to proceed. Computers can deliver massive amounts of data on any given topic of personal interest, but human teachers can do much more than that: they can expand learners’ interests to where they have not even imagined to wonder/wander and nudge them to comparison, analyses, syntheses of topics hereto not encountered.


“Good Omens”: sublime and trite?

god omens

Good Omens is a novel which braids together a number of separate developing strands  whose ends meet one Saturday, the chosen day for the Apocalypse. One strand narrates why the end of the world does not happen,  since both the devil (Crawley – yes, there is nomen in omen!) and the angel (Aziraphale), having fallen in love with life on earth and wanting to appear to honor their respective duties, conspire to raise the Antichrist child (Adam) so that he does not obey what he was destined for. The trouble is that they raise the wrong child (Warlock), Adam having been exchanged in the hospital with another boy. The second strand forms the consequences of a book, of which only one copy exists, entitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,  Witch.  Agnes Nutter’s progeny, Anathema Nutter, possesses the detailed explanations of each prophesy written by the witch’s descendants through three hundred years of history. The third strand deals with the vicissitudes of witch-hunting by a descendant of the man who actually was responsible for Agnes Nutter’s  burning at the stake. Yet another strand brings us to the small village of Tadfield and the gang of four young children headed by Adam and including a converted Hell-hound.  The fifth strand follows the four symbols of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, Pollution)  embodied in four Bikers (Hell’s Angels, so to speak) who wreak havoc on London’s traffic and do not really destroy the world completely. Each of them is followed on their duties (for ex., War, embodied as a read-head, is involved in arms contraband).  The endearing parts of the book are surely the comical manner in which technology is made to exasperate humans (initially Crawley’s doing, but later perfected by humans); fun with Crawley and Aziraphale having lunch at the Ritz, both giving financial support to the Witch-finders Army, etc. There are the appealing traits of Crawley (for ex., he loves his Bentley); the ironic look at dieters (Famine has a hand in that), and many more unforgettable images which make reading this book so much fun.

Any book which attempts to come to terms with the Apocalypse/Revelation of St. John has to be both sublime and trite. Sublime since it must face/describe/conquer/critique the future as prophesied; trite since the end is really unknowable, so anything goes. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett collaborated to give the end of the world a different spin, a spin which makes us laugh, forces us to define good and evil, leads us to consider human beings for all they are: capable of evil which no devil can ever conjure up. However, the book is lacking in the parallel thought giving humans “goodness which not even an angel can construct”. In other words, as usual, evil is more interesting than good.  On the surface, there seems to be only evil and good. To make things more complex, the devil sometimes acts for the good, and the angel now and then does evil. Moreover, as Crawley’s internal monologue indicates (p. 93), matters are not so clear:

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

And, further on,

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

So, if humans are humans, what about concepts such as God, the divine plan, faith, belief in heaven and hell? Crawley’s answer is that he has to follow the plan and obey it (he is scared of remaining in hell for all eternity, as it is a boring place, as boring as heaven).  If pressed, Aziraphale has only one answer: “ineffable”. That is, whatever God is and wills, is ineffable, i.e. unutterable, as well as forbidden to be uttered. In other words, unknowable because humans don’t and can’t express it in words. Without language, we cannot know; with language, we create our conceptual toolbox. The trouble is that this toolbox is being modified constantly. The subtitle of the book is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. The word “nice” used to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless” (13c to 16c), then it meant “precise, careful”, then “agreeable, delightful” (18c); and now it means “kind, thoughtful” (1830 -today). Depending on your reading, then, Agnes’ prophecies may be foolish, or precise, or agreeable, or kind: you take your pick.

In Good Omens, Armageddon is nowhere near: the disaster has been averted by four children and a few adults, as well as by a devil and an angel. The four Bikers of the Apocalypse, however, did not perish, offering the possibility that the Revelation may as yet come true. As Aziraphale would have it, “it was all in the plan”, that is, if you believe in the ineffable plan. But how can you believe something that is ineffable? There is no answer to this question in the book, but the attempt at an answer is enjoyable.


Design fiction and designing future


The following are critical comments on the content of the YouTube video of a presentation given by Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling entitled Future Domestic Robots: Design Fiction and the Home of the Future. Although theirs is not the only way of looking at design fiction and designing future, it is a starting point and a rich mine full of bits and pieces of thought. You can watch it here:

While the idea of design fiction, defined by Bruce Sterling as “a form of design that has an audience”, seems intriguing and full of promise, in actuality the gist of the design production of fiction and its connection to designing future is problematic. Designing things that are fictional, mythological, futuristic right now creates more problems than it solves. My take on design fiction belongs to the realistic and critical camp, rather than that of unquestioning acceptance and adoption, not to mention adoration. Three main ideas are the foundation of what follows: 1) the generation of waste 2) the false sense of “anything is possible by anyone” 3) conscientious and conscious language use.

1) The generation of waste

Anyone who has designed and produced something knows that the way to a finished product is punctuated with waste, garbage, junk: only one prototype remains and even that does not guarantee its adoption by everyone. The saddest part of design fiction is that the people who are involved in this enterprise know that they are producing an exorbitant amount of garbage but they just shrug it off and laugh about it. In the video program, there was an example of the OCAD group inventing things which may be in use in 2025: all of them were made of plastic! Where will these “invented things” end up? There seems to be no sense of the finiteness of  natural resources. And, needless to say, the extollment of  3D printing has no bounds, again, without awareness of the fact that the machine will “print” 99.9% of things which are waste.

2) The false sense of “anything is possible by anyone”

It is customary in the post-modern world to accept the fact that “the burden is on the user” and “do-it-yourself” is praised as the epitome of human creativity. In the video program, Sterling exclaims: “Just go and do a project!”, “Make your own stuff!”. However, talking about Casa Jasmina, both Tesanovic and Sterling fail to mention where their financial backing comes from: granted, they may be independently wealthy (after all, they are “married emigres” as Sterling puts it) and the abandoned factory in Torino may not have costed much, but they do have to have robotic technology (lots of it and of an up-to-date kind), pay taxes, so they do need money. They do not mention the amount of free (?) help they get from the “squatters” who apparently use open source information. Their works presented in an installation version are sought after by museums (who also do their own de-accessing, i.e. separation of what stays and what is junk: see 1) above), and certainly the installation costs the museum a nice sum. Furthermore, they “do not want to be depended on Google”. This is simply to underline the fact that projects such as these look beautiful on the outside, doable, and accessible to anyone; the truth is that unless the individual is backed by an institution, a university, a museum, and paid by these, the design fiction works would not be realizable.

3)  Conscientious and conscious language use

The language used  especially by Sterling (writer, novelist, lecturer) is really thought-provoking without being accountable.   He uses the adjective “moral” in two phrases: “our work has moral effects on society” and “ours is a moral gesture”, and yet nowhere in this video program there is an explanation of what these “moral” effects and “moral” gestures really signify. As if social responsibility and social awareness were a side-product of design fiction.

Tesanovic notes: “The stuff you have determines your lifestyle.” The assumption is therefore, “have more robotically-supported stuff , so you will have a better lifestyle”. The consumption’s doors have opened yet more widely…   She is also surprised that a UN group wants to use the Casa Jasmina: theirs is not a business but an avocation.

They both claim that they do not want to be anyone’s “users” or “clients”. Nevertheless, they are users of technology and clients of Arduino and internet providers.

In conclusion, to design things that so far exist only in the imagination and fiction must surely be extremely satisfying. However, as these designs are also projected into the future, it looks like humanity must elaborate and generate different fictions in order to design a more creative future.  It may be true, as Sterling claims at the end of the video, that technological breakthroughs are chipping away at the fine metaphysical line between what is real and what is imaginary, but technology by itself will not solve the more pressing problems humanity is facing right now.