Delusions of the profound

If your Tuesday is not sufficiently depressing, allow me to present serial tree-squanderer Paulo Coelho, a self-proclaimed philosopher whose love of wisdom seems not to extend to his own writing, which bristles with bird-brained observations taking flight in one of the following forms:

1. A fatuous gobbet of New Age toss wrapped in a cloying blanket of lyricism, as if Gwyneth Paltrow had unconsciously coupled with that pretentious bore in sixth form who always wore a trench coat and banged on about Jim Morrison’s poetry.

2. A cheesy platitude phrased in such a way that at first glance it appears profound, but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Often found on motivational posters, scrawled in winsome cursive over an ethereal waterfall, with the obligatory attention-seeking Facebook status not far behind.

This dastardly duo has mysteriously helped Coelho shift millions of sentimental self-help manuals whose unifying theme can be encapsulated by this beacon of ignorance:

to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.

Never mind our other obligations, the crass selfishness, or the inconvenient fact that none of us has ever been allocated a cosmic burrow at the end of which quivers a predetermined fate, because if you cheerfully abandon reason the universe will totes look after you. Of course. More of that nonsense later.

First, let’s start by nervously sniffing a few deepities from The Alchemist:

All things are one.

Whoa, easy there Keanu. Sure, if I were able to group together all the things in existence, I could in a literal sense refer to this collection in the singular. Linguistically true, but hardly a revelation. Meanwhile, the illusion of profundity is provided by the false implication that everything in the universe is somehow interconnected by blue string pudding, or what prosperous vendor of quantum flatulence Deepak Chopra would call “cosmic consciousness”. As eminent rationalist Summer Roberts from The OC so aptly puts it: “Eww!

Oh how I miss Marissa’s imprecise diction and Ryan seething. Anyway…

There is always a right moment to stop something.

Stop holding your finger in a candle flame when it starts to hurt. Stop your car at a red light. Stop dressing up your cat as Dorothy. Yes, stop that right now. Banal and obvious. But again, reading from another angle, that slippery “always” also hints at a non-existent “grand plan”, in which, say, it is absolutely crucial that I stop typing right now and draw eyes on the bin so it looks like it’s nomming the potato peelings.

Granted, perhaps delaying this momentous decision by five seconds might actually make a surprisingly positive difference to my life, but that scintilla of chance pales in comparison to the number of times it won’t. Either way, my wife’s subsequent hollow laugh and filing for divorce certainly won’t be the result of divine orchestration.

…keep reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason.

A vintage deepity especially beloved of dippy teenaged girls and as hurtful to a functioning brain as it is ubiquitous. A part of me dies every time I hear it. Like, literally. Of course everything happens for a reason, but only in the self-evident sense that chains of cause and effect interact within the physical world: the cat rears on her hind legs because I am holding a sardine above her nose. But also implied is that my producing fish at that precise moment is somehow part of the cosmos’ fiendish plan to shape her little furry destiny. Sigh.

My favourite extract, which kicks off with a deepity and moves on to a barefaced lie, is so egregious it is tempting to give him the benefit of doubt and allow that it has been mistranslated:

Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.

It’s gratifying that by being wrong twice within this very aphorism he has already disproved the first part of it. One hardly need point out that something that happens twice must by definition have happened once. As for thrice? My boy cat has sired two children. Sadly one of them was orange, which swiftly earned him the snip and a sackful of consolation catnip. Just kidding! I love redheads and their preternatural affinity for cobalt blue, but sadly he won’t be fathering another. However, I’ve no doubt that our muddle-headed maestro will be silly a third time. One doesn’t have to wait long. Here he switches effortlessly to the first form:

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Supersize that sick bag and pass it over pronto. Seriously, Paulo, it doesn’t.  A handful of people and perhaps a well-disposed opossum might conceivably do so, but the remainder is obviously incapable of thought, let alone conspiracy. Though feel free to suggest a plausible mechanism by which it might, turn decades of rigorous scientific enquiry on its head and claim your Nobel prize. No?

Though the bag is in danger of overflowing, he continues in the same vein:

There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.

Ah, so it not only “conspires” in helping you achieve your desire, but also thought of it first. Such prescience from an unconscious void! And there was I thinking my unrequited longing to domesticate a rotund Pallas’ cat was due to a series of electrochemical reactions limited to my body. How prosaic and narrow-minded of me. After being subjected to this simpering rubbish, I really really want some China White to soften the pain, so presumably my “mission on earth” is to become a heroin addict? Nice touch, Pollo.

A helpful consequence of conjuring up this inexplicably sentient universe—a feat sadly shared with Rhonda “Victim-Blamer” Byrne’s breathtakingly hateful “The Secret” (beautifully eviscerated here)—seems to be the ability to convert any desire into reality using the power of thought alone. Hark at this whimsical pair of bollocks:

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of
[…] And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream.

Except of course those who aren’t capable, for whom the dream is never fulfilled, for whom the land of reality suddenly fails to conform to Coelho’s mendacious, cosseting optimism.

Now, please don’t get me wrong:  cherished aspirations can certainly be pursued, provided that they are realistic. If you yearn to travel, teach, grow out your bangs (please don’t do that), learn a foreign language or raise several litters of ragdoll kittens and have the wherewithal to do so, then damned well go for it. I hope that goes without saying.

The trouble is, Coelho’s interpretation admits no boundaries or restrictions on the aspirant. Indeed, it typifies the second OED definition: “an unrealistic or self-deluding fantasy.” We are forewarned of this when the hapless shepherd Santiago is told that “dreams are a language used by the Soul of the World to communicate with people.” Oh dear. The reach of this type of dream tends to exceed the grasp of reality, in every sense.

To claim that anyone (which, if you think about it, implies ‘everyone’) can achieve the exalted heights of a pop star, president or, god forbid, Paris Hilton, merely with the application of positive (as opposed to actual) thinking, is stupid and cruel. Personal limitations and the structure of society simply don’t allow it. However, Coelho blithely rejects this inconvenience: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”. If only that were true. On second thoughts…

If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man […] Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.

Yes, let’s totally ignore the consequences of our actions. Let’s ignore women. Let’s not learn from past mistakes. Fuck the future! If Don Draper took on a crack dealer’s account, he could do worse than that for copy. Credit card companies already use a variation of it. It’s a relief to know that, like Paulo (net worth $20m), they’re looking after our best interests.

The irony is that as soon as one accepts the fact that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” and harbours no ultimate purpose or sympathies, the chance of enjoying a fulfilled life actually increases, as it becomes grounded in reality not flim-flam fantasy where every dream—however lofty—is worth pursuing cause, y’know, with the universe as wing man anyone can do anything. No they fucking can’t, Paulo!

It’s also hard to ignore the questionable morality of the tale. At one point our protagonist temporarily pokes his shaggy head above the mystical nonsense to pause his quest with a delightful (if conveniently subservient) lady. In a rare moment of clarity, he realises he has found his “treasure” at last. This would be a sensible place to end, but unfortunately Coelho—failing to realise his book’s brevity is its greatest asset—soon makes him abandon her in favour of the tawdry pot of jewels he eventually finds at the end. So much for the “spiritual” message: just follow the money, bitches! The book is also suspiciously Randian in its relentless worship of the individual. Concerns for the lives, doubts and criticisms of others? No mate, it’s all about you you you.

Anyway, I’d best not continue or I’ll start reliving the upsetting experience of being stranded on a train in which I had only the choice of The Alchemist or Chopra’s latest rectal emission (definitely a Type 6) as potential company. Staring disconsolately at this brace of bullshit-artists pouting pensively from their book jackets, I was struck by the horrible thought that they might one day join forces. Coelho believes “Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong”. I sincerely hope I am.