Lately I’ve been reading a few Paulo Coelho books. I won’t say they are beyond feminist criticism, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on this post; but as always, feel free to say in the comments why/if you find them problematic. I expect and welcome it because it might be another layer of this conversation that I don’t have time or am not yet emotionally ready for myself.
What I want to focus on is the solution the author seems to advance in each of his books, at least those I’ve read, to our perpetual unhappiness despite the evidence that everything is fine, better than might otherwise be.
Adultery: I never finished this one, actually. I had to take it back to the library the last time I had to leave Ireland, but I’m sure I will find it again and read the rest of it soon. So I can’t say what the ending revealed, but what sticks in my mind was the predicament of the main character. She, from her perspective, had it all: wealth, an interesting career she liked, an attractive husband who was attentive and kind, a family, health. This was why she was so confused that she was unhappy. This is the premise of many of his books: the person who doesn’t know why they are unhappy. Also, the observation that no one is really happy.
It is from some religious literature, Buddhist for example, that a great deal of suffering is caused by ourselves, and not our circumstances. While Coelho clearly has a spiritual stake in Eastern philosophy concerning mindfulness and the pursuit of inner peace, I feel that he advances a seemingly tangible, material, even practical solution to this self-induced suffering that is not outside of practicing non-attachment and meditating, seeking something within, even though his characters often need or think they need to go on a physical journey.
Coelho’s most popular book is The Alchemist, a story about a shepherd who, despite his parents’ reservations based on fear, sells his sheep and embarks on an adventure to see the Pyramids in Egypt. He deals with self-doubt, insecurity, trusting other people, and the potential difficulty of having both love and freedom. Ultimately it is the journey that is necessary and liberating for Santiago, the former shepherd, for the treasure he was looking for was in the place he started.
In The Zahir, a book I had started and finished in Ireland, having broken an egg on it in Sicily and so only reading some of it there, Coelho opens with a poem by the 19th century Greek poet from Egypt, Constantine Cavafy:
When you set out on your journey to Ithica,/ pray that the road is long,/ full of adventure, full of knowledge./ [. . .]/ Ithica has given you the beautiful voyage./ [. . .]/ And if you find her poor, Ithica has not deceived you./ Wise as you have become, with so much experience,/ you must already have understood what Ithicas mean.
The actual story is about a man and woman who are married but separate. The wife leaves or disappears. Her husband journeys to find her. But early in the book, they are having a discussion about what makes people happy. What I think the message of all his books and probably the author’s life is highlighted by something the husband says: “We just don’t all have the courage to follow our dreams and to follow the signs. Perhaps that’s where the sadness comes from” (45).
To be free means to have courage . . . to speak the uncomfortable truth to those who love us, perhaps, to get up and go somewhere even though we might feel guilty abandoning people or doing something “reckless,” something not status quo. To keep taking risks so that we keep searching for our limits of love, desire, perhaps even sadness and anger.
I have just concluded Veronika Decides to Die, and its thesis is that we’re all a little mad; if we could release our grip on that madness just a little, then we might feel free and begin to know our limits. Again, if we take an adventure, take a risk. It is also, as The Alchemist more clearly states, perhaps, to go on our own path regardless of what others say. Veronika wanted to be a famous pianist, but that just wasn’t appropriate according to her mother. Something her future husband might like, sure, but as a hobby. For Coelho, as well, as he writes in the afterword to this book, he wanted to be an artist early on, and his parents sent him to a mental illness institute to “cure” him. He writes, “In 1966, the beginning of the blackest period of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-89), [. . .] middle-class families found it simply unacceptable that their children or grandchildren should want to be ‘artists’. In Brazil at the time, the word ‘artist’ was synonymous with homosexual, communist, drug addict and layabout” (192-93).
Perhaps ‘adventure’ does not have to mean we drop everything and travel the world, but it is an adventure we take ourselves on if we speak and do, if at all possible, more what is in alignment with our passions. Sometimes, in a world that speaks so loudly what and who we should be, perhaps part of the journey is experimenting, being a bit of a rebel, and doubting ourselves less vs. needing outside validation.
Part of the Buddhist precept of finding peace within is also knowing we can find wisdom within. To know/discover and then to follow can be liberating. But will it make us happier? I think it will because we surprise ourselves when we are courageous.
Lache S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches online composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a chapbook of poetry and traveling through Iceland, Spain, and Ireland.