The True Meaning of Alchemy (“The Alchemist” – Paulo Coelho)

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream“. – The Alchemist.

The Alchemist is a book that may easily deceive the casual observer with its small size and its fable-like look. It is a fable, alright, but it goes way deeper than that. And yet, it is something easily missed, if I am to believe some of the reviews I read on Amazon, one of which focused more on the seemingly simple language and ‘humble’ quality than on the meaning between the lines. To me, the book is small because it needs not be larger in order to convey its message. Many messages, in fact.

I was fortunate to receive this book as a present, recently, from a close friend, and this one comes with an introduction by the author himself which, depending on your perception or point of view, it can either sound as idealistic drivel or as inspiring words. Personally I could relate to many of the things he writes. “We who fight for our dream suffer far more when it doesn’t work out“, says Coelho, “because we cannot fall back on the old excuse: ‘Oh well, I didn’t really want it anyway’ “. I know full well the meaning of this. I know how it feels to crash time and again, and how it can weigh one down; and I know I am not the only one. So why do it?, Coelho asks, and his response struck a chord with me as well: “Because, once we have overcome the defeats -and we always do-, we are filled by a greater sense of euphoria and confidence […] each day, each hour, is part of the good fight“. And this is what I want to achieve. I want to conquer my dreams, to make all the pain and failure of the past (and present) into something wonderful instead of time wasted suffering.

The book’s initial premise is, follow your heart, follow the omens. And that’s what you get to thinking early on in the story, that this is as far as it gets. You might be tempted to put the book aside and dismiss it before even getting to the shepherd’s first chance encounter, thinking you already got the gist of it. I will not tell you much about it, but I can say your perspective about the seemingly simple premise of the book will be cemented when you read:

The greatest lie is that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.”

And this is one of the things that can be easily dismissed as a fable’s hocus-pocus, and yet it resonated powerfully with me. This is one of the things that I have intuitively held as truth, that I am the master of my own destiny and I can aim high and fly high. It can be scary of course, as I have discussed in the past. And that is something else that got me closer to Coelho and his message: We both have the same dream, being writers. He achieved it, but he started much earlier than me and he suffered more than many people would be willing to in order to reach their dreams. As for me, I don’t know if I would be willing to go through what he did. I really hope that I already paid my dues in suffering, but… one never knows.

If you, in spite of your first impression, keep reading, you will begin to realize there is much more depth to it than you initially thought. Even in the simplest of things you can find a message if you look close enough; like looking at a caravan as it moves through the desert, how it often changes course to go around obstacles, but it always returns to its path. And that is how we should be: change direction if we must, but always return to our chosen road. As you advance on the book, well, of course there had to be something about Alchemy; but it is completely different from what you have heard or read. Oh sure, there is mention of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s stone. There is even a fellow actively seeking to become an alchemist, and no, it is not the boy. But, as the friend who gifted me the book put it, “it turns the traditional definition (of alchemy) on its head”. And upon reading the book, you sense that you have truly gained insight into what alchemy and transmutation truly mean. It is not about turning everything to gold, it is not about living forever; the sum of its knowledge needs not piles of books and complex laboratories, being such as to fit upon the surface of an emerald. And only understanding the Language of the World will you be able to interpret it. A romantic notion? Perhaps. But it is something that really gets some of us thinking.

A story with such deep messages should be expected to touch on the meaning of love, and this one does in a way that might feel surprising. The boy does talk of women here and there, but the defining moment when he actually finds the woman might seem out of the blue, and yet it is so well done. Does it happen for real like the novel depicts? I choose to believe it does. I choose to believe that nothing happens as a coincidence and nobody walks into my path or out of it on accident. Whatever maybe the case however, Coelho uses the moment to answer a question many of us have probably had in the past:

“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”

It’s difficult sometimes, when you love someone, you wonder, am I being stupid for loving this man / woman? What am I doing, opening myself up to be hurt again, trusting almost without reserve out of the blue? It’s irrational! But it is how love should be. Because the greatest things in life and the universe are those which cannot be grasped by reason. I can’t remember if this was in the book, but it’s something I keep hearing and reading and something I believe to be true. Thus, I continue my reading trip, and stumble upon another lesson that rings quite true:

“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World.”

The Soul of the World, the well where all things converge, where all creation comes from and where it returns. Again, it may sound as something out of fantasy, but whatever the stand on this concept, the book is right in one thing: sometimes your heart may betray you, sometimes it echoes your fears and complaints. Surely you have experienced it at times; I know I have. For years I have tried to listen to my heart’s voice, I have struggled to fine-tune my perception. And often when I follow my instincts, even as I plunge headfirst into the unknown, when I change my path drastically, I wonder if I did the right thing, if I might not be being led by fear and one of its mirages. And yet, Coelho gives the human heart a voice, and among many other things, the boy’s heart gives him a surefire clue that all of us might do well to heed:

“Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears. That’s where I am, and that’s where your treasure is.”

And that is all you need to know for now. If you are into novels with a friendly language and a colorful canvas, I daresay you will enjoy The Alchemist, and you might change the way you look at some things (or not). As for me, I am making ready to continue carving my path. It will soon be time for me to leave the surroundings that I once knew and venture into the unknown, to travel way farther than I ever have before. Because I know the place where my heart is moved to tears, and thus I know the path I must take. Because I keep hope that there is someone awaiting me, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in some great city; someone that is willing to accompany me in my journey and will let me accompany her on hers. And perhaps some day, perhaps sooner than later, I will stand before that someone and as I look her in the eye we will speak the language without words, the language that everyone on earth is capable of understanding in their heart… and in my eyes she would read:

“I love you because the entire Universe conspired to help me find you.”

See you next week.

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2 Responses to “The True Meaning of Alchemy (“The Alchemist” – Paulo Coelho)”

  1. I find this review so heartwarming and I’m able to picture and watch as you read the book.

    It is such a pleasure that see that you have teased out so many lessons and words of wisdom; words that often enough speak to our own lives. Such a great read both the book and this review.

  2. […] year that ended, and later I even dared to dabble in reviews by talking about Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (honestly, I’m pretty proud of how that one came out. I want to do more reviews in the […]

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