Reason can not coexist with inscrutability

coelho

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.

 

 

 

 

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Superficial wounds that run deep

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (Random House, 2008) is a fast-moving, smooth-reading, deceptively happy-ending narration. Taking cues from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, medieval Italian, Japanese, and Icelandic  tales of love, Davidson spins a post-modern tale set in unspecified contemporary North American city, interweaving episodes of gothic and romance literature with present-day scientific knowledge about the effects of burns, schizophrenia, as well as background histories of the major characters.

The novel offers numerous thematic elements whose prominence clearly emerges from the narration: everlasting true love even beyond the unexpected and bitter end, search for encyclopedic knowledge, life with cocaine and morphine dependency (the “snake”), artistic raptures, questions about actions and their earthly and after-life consequences, metempsychosis, need for continuity of human affairs through talismans and special objects. All of these add something particular to the plot.  Having grown up with drug-addicted foster parents, taking advantage of the library to quench his thirst for knowledge, and, later, on account of his good looks and lack of other skills, becoming a porn actor and director: all of these suddenly turn inconsequential thanks to one fateful Good Friday when he is about thirty years old (obvious echoes of Dante). He has a near-fatal car accident in which he is horribly burned (the gory details are spelled out in full) and deprived of his work tool, so to speak. Ending up in a hospital, he contemplates committing suicide as soon as he is released: his disfigurement, his lack of sexual organ, the loss of his livelihood and his film company mean that there is nothing left for him to do but end it all. The narration follows him in his hospital bed; he is taken care of conscientious doctors and nurses, and one uninvited character, Marianne Engel, the anchor which steadies the path of the narration.  She claims to have met the protagonist before (about 700 years before) and to have loved him then. At that time she worked in the Engelthal monastery as a scribe; he was a condottiero brought to the sisters since he was horribly burned. Marianne cures him now as she did then, and she keeps being in love with him through the centuries and now. At the hospital, Marianne’s tales of medieval romantic love, her artistic energy, kind disposition, nutritious food, make him abandon his desire to die. Once he is discharged, she takes him into her gothic-looking house, keeps taking care of him, and secures his future. She sculpts for a living: her grotesque stone sculptures resemble the strange medieval decorations on churches: gargoyles. She also starts to sculpt the protagonist.  Her artistic pursuit is spurred on by three special characters from her medieval life who assure her that she only has 27 more “hearts” to sculpt and then her last heart is to be given to her true love and let free. Having finished these “hearts”, she walks off into the sea never to be found again. Our protagonist passes his life writing his story.

The word “inferno” conjures images of raging fire burning the damned who deserve to be punished, because, in the Catholic tradition, they transgressed specific interdictions and rules.  Our nameless protagonist is not a believer and therefore he does not explain his predicament as a just retribution for his previous drug-filled debauched life.  In the novel, the role of Dante’s voyage through hell is only superficial: the protagonist has entered a hellish type of life, and he tries to understand it.  He too has a Virgil: it is Marianne who leads him – through narration of love stories –  to forget about his disfigured existence. There is no Beatrice, though, to lead him to God. Our protagonist lives his new post-burned life simply as a spectator:  unlike Dante who cries and is moved by the fate of the damned, he is not stirred by what happens around him, he does not seem to feel any gratitude to Marianne, or in fact even love. He is simply with her.              His pre-accident life was full of sex but devoid of love, full of drugs and alcohol but no moral signposts, no ethical concerns, no real friends, no real parents. He did not have healthy feelings of self-love or self-worth, but he demonstrated lots of vanity. The novel is a loud yearning cry for something to hold on to, something that would explain the consequences of one’s actions much like the deserved punishments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Alighieri’s epic poem, for a non-believer like the protagonist, is simply an imaginative tale, full of gory details; the connection between the literary work and the society that created it and the human stories underpinned by biblical teachings, philosophical works, scientific observations is totally lost. This is perhaps the significance of The Gargoyle: the protagonist’s cynical attitude of detached observer allows him the only activity that has a semblance of pleasure, that of reading anything and everything. However, this does not make him a wise man.

Every author inevitably toys with his/her readers. It is disconcerting, however, when the protagonist/author is cynically flippant about his readers, as is the case in The Gargoyle. This talking down to the reader happens also at special moments in the story, and it completely destroys the rich imagery that the reader was about to construct. Here are two examples:

“I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story.  You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked”. (p. 5)

In the middle of a long list of food items, he says “…guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” (p. 167.)

This meta-narrative ploy is not new, moreover, it too accentuates the novel’s postmodern construction.

In conclusion, the muddle created by juxtaposing  the past and the present, religious and secular images, imaginative tales and scientific descriptions of medical conditions perfectly illustrates the post-modern emptiness which underlies the result of the attitude “anything goes”. However, the nihilistic condition seems to drain out the protagonist  completely, and he stands out as a disfigured empty shell whose only real companion is a dog and whose only activity is writing. The sole effigies with a “heart” remain the heavy stone gargoyles, creations of an exalted artist.

*The top-right illustration comes from the 1487 edition of the  Commedia; printer: Boninus de Boninis (https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2017/11/10/tesori-darchivio-alcune-le-prime-edizioni-illustrate-della-divina-commedia-state-digitalizzate/).

Millennia of collective dreams shattered

pilgrim

Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim (Harper Perennial Canada, 1999) has all the characteristics of a grand gesture, encompassing historical and fictional characters, psychology and art history, sexuality and sainthood, all in the direction of questions rather than answers.  The narration follows Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, while he deals with Mr. Pilgrim, a patient at the clinic for mentally ill patients. Pilgrim claims not only that he has lived numerous previous lives, but that he cannot die, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide a number of times. Pilgrim’s letters, interviews, diaries give us glimpses of Jung’s work with this patient who was an art historian by profession. Jung’s own growing demons of depression, his insight into collective unconscious, his attempts to help the inmates of the hospital by trying to understand their fixations and going along with their obsessions weave together a complex and heavy blanket of pessimism which covers human history. The novel’s multifaceted narration gives many characters a full treatment on account of their relationship to Jung and/or to Pilgrim, and  they receive detailed descriptions of their past, their amusements and dislikes, substantially enriching the plot. In what follows, three themes have been chosen to illustrate Findley’s craftsmanship: 1) the role of art in human experience; 2) the nature of relationship; 3) the meaning of madness. These exemplify some of the novel’s preoccupations, but, above all, they shed light on the most perplexing, contradictory and unexplainable characteristics of human behaviour, violence.

  1. The role of art in human experience

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the stained-glass window Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere of the Chartres Cathedral play a crucial role in the construction of  Pilgrim’s past lives: in fact, he asserts that one of his previous lives he lived as Elisabetta Gherardini (Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo), whose first encounter with Da Vinci ended with her being raped by him. The other meetings resulted in her portrait being painted (the painting which is now known as Mona Lisa). Findley’s description of Pilgrim’s experiences as a strong and decisive woman and Vinci’s violence add to Pilgrim’s sense of doom. In another life (the word incarnation is not preferred), Pilgrim lived as the stain-glass worker who actually put together the stained glass Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, with its beautiful blue hues. According to Pilgrim, this life was one of the most satisfying, as he remembers the hard work with his hands but also the gratification received from the final work. This particular area of the Cathedral was the only one which survived the great fire of 1194. Clearly, these two examples (Mona Lisa and the stained-glass work) show that there are hidden complexities behind any artistic product. But that is not all: Pilgrim questions whether art is really useful in transforming human experience and behaviour, which for him are full of injustices, violence, and abuse. In a letter, Pilgrim writes:

Looking back, I am sorry I was ever the advocate of any form of art – but music is the worst of them. … Bach and Mozart indeed! Bach inevitably makes me think of fish in a barrel! Round and round and round they go and nothing ever happens. Nothing! … As for Mozart, his emotions did not mature beyond the age of twelve. He never even achieved  adolescence, let alone puberty. … Beethoven – pompous; Chopin – sickly sweet and given to tantrums… And Wagner – a self-centered bore.  And this young Turk Stravinsky – the name says it all: discordant, rude and blows his music through his nose!                                                      There.                                                                                                                                                 Shall I go on?                                                                                                                          Literature. Will it put an end to war? War and Peace itself is nothing better than enticement to create new battlefields. […] Tolstoy himself was a soldier at Sevastopol and gloried in it – then he pretends to hate it – after which he ends his life as a mad proponent of world peace, for God’s sake, while he drives his wife away from his death bed. And I am crazy? Me?                                                                                                                                           Yes. So they tell me. (p. 437-438)

The question, then, is whether art is capable of putting an end to war. The answer is evident. And yet, Pilgrim insists on certain upper-class style of the good life, and he is not adverse to enjoying beautiful views. All is not gloom, perhaps only up to the very end when it is Pilgrim’s desire to destroy the painting and the stained-glass window.

2. The nature of relationships: human to human, human to god(s)

In one of the previous lives, Pilgrim was admitted into to circle of Oscar Wild’s lovers and admirers, taking a stance against those who would vilify Wild’s homosexuality, such as Whistler.

Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma comes to a sour point after Emma discovers his infidelity to her with an ex-patient of his, Toni (the second one Emma is aware of). The important consideration is that Emma has a different take on marriage from the opinion Jung expresses about it. She saw herself as his companion, researcher, mother of his children, and he was the light of her life. After her discovery, she still loves him, but does not like him any longer; they do not share the matrimonial bed and they do not spend time with their children together. To Freud, Carl Gustav expresses his idea that extra-marital relationships are crucial for a good marriage. Jung continues his relationship with Toni without regard to Emma’s feelings.

Doctor/nurse to patient rapport in the clinic clearly reflects the superiority of the medical staff who hold the keys to the mental patients’ real and metaphorical cages.

But the most intriguing liaison is between humans and their god(s): according to Pilgrim, humans, having abandoned their gods, cling to the one who does not see.

3. The meaning of madness

Pilgrim believes that he cannot die, that his previous lives are real and that he can account for them: he was in Troy during the war, at Chartres during the construction of the Cathedral, in Florence with Da Vinci, in Avila with Teresa (not yet saint),  in London with Oscar Wilde; he lived as a man and as a woman; as a beautiful rich woman (Madonna del Giocondo), and as a poor cripple shepherd Manolo, as a dandy in London. He does not remember any of his lives before the age of 18 (i.e. childhood is not accounted for). At the outset, Jung does not believe that anyone can have such detailed recollections of particular previous lives, a belief which inches him closer to elaborating his idea of collective unconscious.

Teresa of Avila, as all saints, showed abnormal behaviour, and surely her acting would have made her end up in an asylum in the early 1900s. Findley’s description of her quest is thought-provoking:

This was the pattern of Teresa’s beliefs. To find the Holy Grail, to sail with the great explorers to America and the Orient, to climb through the sky to find the Almighty or to dig through the earth and drag the Devil into the light of day.  She read poetry. She read novels. She dressed as Queen Isabella.  She affected the robes of the Carmelites. She experimented with theatrical, even whorish cosmetics – and had once dyed her hair with henna. But the discovery of self had not so much to do with one’s destination as with one’s capacity to achieve it. Clearly, for Teresa de Cepeda, God was at the far end of all these dreamings – but could one reach Him? (p. 340)

So what is madness exactly? Luigi Pirandello’s dictum and the title of one of his plays, Così è, se vi pare (“It is so if you think so/ Right you are if you think so”) gives an indication of the complexity of human psychological networks which the novel describes in such detail: each character has certain beliefs about herself/himself which are rarely reflected in the opinions of others. Jung’s strategy is to “indulge” in the beliefs of his patients by attempting to understand their view of themselves. But this is a vicious circle, since even he makes a cage for himself (he is right if he believes in his convictions) and he lives in it accordingly, all the more so when he persists in his own certainties. Findley’s philosophical stance in this novel, therefore, can be described as Pirandellian, since the characters do not believe each other’s certainties. Granted, Pilgrim is condemned on account of his sacrilege having seen the mating of the Sacred Serpents (yet another imaginary human invention).

In conclusion, at the core of all of Findley’s naturalistic descriptions of various settings and the in-depth treatment of each character is the quest for the value of literature in human lives. This art form does not prevent humans from unthinkable violence, but it points to another, more profound direction, that of imagination. If we invented our god(s), the invention itself is not enough. We have to abide by this creation. In Pilgrim’s words,

No wonder the gods are departing, he thought. We have driven them away. Once, every tree out there was holy – every tree and every strand of grass and clod of earth. The very stones were holy and everything that lived, no matter how small or large…every elephant and every ant – every man and every woman. All were holy. Everything – the sea – the sky – the sun – the moon – the wind – the rain – the fairest and the worst of days. … All of it gone and only one deaf God, who cannot see, remains – claiming all of creation as His own. If people would invest one hundredth of their devotion to this God on the living brothers and sisters amongst whom they stand, we might have a chance of surviving one another. As it is…       (p. 479.)

Both Pilgrim and Jung had dream premonitions of the coming of the Great War. This is where Findley’s novel’s ends: in pessimism.

It could be argued that perhaps it is time to work on a different creation by our psyche, one that for sure will not allow the atrocities that continue those of the 20th century. Alternatively, we are condemned to the cage of our collective unconscious, yet knowing this does not alter our behaviour.