Paulo Coelho is inarguably one of the thought leaders of our age. He has been hailed as a spiritual advisor and philosopher and his works are full of very quotable and uplifting phrases and imagery. His most notable work was his his 1987 book The Alchemist. That was the prototypical story of the journey of self-discovery of his protagonist, a theme that continues through his other works.
I have read a few of his other works and looked forward to reading this one as well. I was lured into this book by my lovely girlfriend who read me this passage aloud and it spoke to me.
Wait patiently for the right moment to act.
Do not let the next opportunity slip by you.
Take pride in your scars.
Scars are medals branded on the flesh, and your enemies
will be frightened by them because they are proof of your long
experience of battle. Often this will lead them to seek
dialogue and avoid conflict.
Scars speak more loudly than the sword that caused them.
Having lived through some rough stuff, I knew I had to read this book. We all have hard times and these kinds of uplifting books and authors like Coelho are a great resource in tough times. They helped me through a few.
And Now, To The Premise…
The time, 1099. The place, Jerusalem. The French Crusaders have surrounded the gates of the city. The people inside the walls have chosen to stay and fight to the death, which will undoubtedly be the case. The Jews, Muslims, and Christians, who all live in relative peace, have gathered in their separate places of worship to await the inevitable.
But many have gone to seek the counsel of the wise and venerable Greek man known only as “The Copt.” The book does not actually tell us why he is so wise. According to the story, he was a young man who went on a quest to find money and adventures. He left Athens full of piss and vinegar, but ended up years later, penniless and starving, at the gates of the city of Jerusalem. He was taken in and cared for there, and thus, he abandoned his quest and stayed.
He became a shoemaker and for some reason decided to record everything he saw and heard for posterity’s sake. For that reason, and that reason alone, as far as I can tell, he became incredibly wise and the patriarchs of the three religions sought his council on matters of the divine. He must have made some pretty damn fine shoes.
In researching this book, I tried to find the accuracy of the preface and greeting scenario. I could not. Granted, I am no historical scholar, but to the best of my knowledge, the “manuscript” that was found does not exist. I am a sucker for cool revelation and new knowledge, so I was kind of hopeful for something interesting. Sadly, it’s a bunch of made up Indiana Jones-esque historical docu-drama.
In a nutshell, in 1945, two brothers looking for a place to rest found an urn full of scrolls in a cave in Egypt. They planned to sell them. Their mother intervened, burning several due to “negative energies” she believed they had. She then gave the rest to a priest. The priest apparently had no qualms with free enterprise and sold one to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Yadda yadda yadda, more showed up on the black market, etc, and one ended up with Carl Jung, and in the end, they all made it back to Cairo.
These papyruses are apparently Greek translations of the Apocryphal Gospels, works not included in the Bible because they did not adhere to the strict tenets of Christianity of the day. One of the scrolls was said to have the gospel according to Mary Magdalene. So far, so feasible.
Then in 1974, an archaeologist finds another manuscript in, oh, somewhere not mentioned in the book, and sends it to Cairo. Cairo sends it back because they have many copies apparently. Years later, Paulo meets the archaeologist’s son, and in 2011 is given said scroll and decides to transcribe it. Thus, the “Manuscript Found in Accra.”
Cue The Woo Woo
Now I like a good semi-spiritual, New Agey, positive thinking, self-help tome as much as the next guy. After all, I have been reading them for over 20 years. There are always some good positive aphorisms to be found in the pages of such works, and it is no different here. But the ideas and pronouncements of the Copt are rattled off one after another in a somewhat disjointed fashion. It sometimes seems to emanate from a staged dramatic reading of Chinese fortune cookies.
The Copt believes in Moira, as he calls his God. This is supposedly the Divine Energy that is responsible for a single law that will end the world, should it be broken. I still have no idea what that law is. The Copt also believes only in the present moment, an idea that is now being co-opted by Pepsi in their “Live For Now” campaign.
Even though he is all about Moira, he talks about Jesus, God, the Universe, etc. so we really don’t know where he stands in the theological arena per se, which is typical of the New Age arena. It seems odd to me that in Jerusalem 1099, the leaders of three major faiths of the world, in the holiest city in the world, would sit in rapt attention listening to a possibly agnostic old Greek shoemaker wax rhapsodic about the intricacies of human frailty. And all of this with an almost certain death to be delivered in hours. But that is the way of things, apparently.
The idea is to revel in the day-to-day life and all the little things we learn. These are the true moments that matter and become the fabric of a life well lived. So everyone explores all facets of life with the Copt on the eve of their destruction to ensure that this knowledge will not disappear from the earth and others can learn of his wisdom. One problem—they are inside the walls of a city under siege. Nobody’s getting out alive. Flaw in plan, no?
He keeps telling the people that history will record their lives and deeds and all this great knowledge. But history is written by the victorious. It seems that his pithy groundbreaking ideas will die in a pool of self-indulgent blood splatter. Reality is a cruel mistress indeed.
The Disney Effect
I’m all for using inanimate objects to get your point across. Disney has been doing it forever, supplying us with plenty of catchy show tunes. But in some cases it felt as if Coelho was reaching so far that he was just looking around his house or out the window and coming up with some simple fables designed to get his ideas in print. “A tree says to the leaf…” or “Ask the flower in the field…” and then some other such nonsense about how a vase feels about being a vase, etc.
This manner of speaking platitudes in strange flowing arcs, that sometimes truly made little sense, could bring to mind a brilliant uncle who would drink too much at family gatherings and blather sometimes incredibly witty yet disjointed ideas bordering on and sometimes blatantly being a cliché. Like when, on page 77, he states, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Hmm, where have I heard that before? And how do you argue with this little gem?: “Don’t give up. Remember, it’s always the last key on the key ring that opens the door.” Thank you, Uncle Paulo. Have another drink.
There are several more conversations with plants, the sun, etc. which get the point across, but it just leaves you with a question mark as to the validity of the statements. When you step back and truly analyze what has been said, instead of lapping it up without appraisal, you have to see that common sense sometimes dictates that, no, some of these sentiments can be ridiculous.
Things That Made Me Go, “Hmmmmmmm…”
As stated above, around page 77 (“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” ) is when my critical thought alarms started going off. I actually said aloud, “Did he just really say that?” Yes, yes he did. I figured he was leading to a point, but no, he let it stand alone as original wisdom. Okay, well, yes, I guess it is wise. Yet, I would add one of my favorite quotes from Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, when Will Smith blathers that exact line to him, he responds, “Try it!” To some, it may not seem so wise. That may be a point-of-view of contention and we can all discuss at lengths the merit of such an opinion.
Again, he presents so many obvious worn-out clichés as deep thought that at times I felt annoyed and even a bit betrayed. Here is this world-class thought leader and he is writing this:
“No one can go back, but everyone can go forward. And tomorrow, when the sun rises, all you have to say to yourselves is: I am going to think of this as the first day of my life.” Or the last, since you will more than likely die with a French Crusader’s spear through your frickin’ eye.
“I will pass someone trying to destroy a bridge. I might try to stop him, or I might realize that he is doing it because he has no one waiting for him on the other side. This is his way of fending off his loneliness.” Or maybe you should give this terrorist a spear through his frickin’ eye.
“When you forgive, the person who insulted you feels humbled in his error and becomes loyal…[Whaaa?] The true friend is not the one who says: ‘You wounded me today, and I am sad.’ He says, ‘You wounded me today for reasons unknown to me and possibly to you as well, but tomorrow I know that I will be able to count on your help. And so I will not be sad. And the friend responds: ‘You are a loyal friend, because you said what you felt. There is nothing worse than a friend who confuses loyalty with accepting our every fault.’” What the “friend” means is, “Sorry about the spear in the eye. I may or may not do it again tomorrow. But most likely I will, because I am a dick.”
“You will be loved and respected only if you love and respect yourself. Never try to please everyone; if you do, you will be respected by no one.” Sigh, spear… through my own eye.
The common thread of utopian thoughts like, “All weapons are instruments of evil because they are not the instruments of the wise man,” is simplistic and morally obtuse. The wise man knows having a battery of weapons to stave off the attacks of those who mean you harm is just common sense.
And other such nonsense that reads like “Occupy Coelho” is, “Show that you care about the poor, for they are an opportunity to display the virtue of charity. And care, too, about the rich, who distrust everything and everyone, keeping their granaries crammed with grain and their coffers full, but who, despite all that, cannot drive away loneliness.” So, displaying that you care about the poor is good, but having the money to actually help those in need is bad. I don’t know any poor people that give thousands to charities and employ others. And by the way, Mr. Coelho, aren’t you ridiculously wealthy and supposedly “giving back” through all your wisdom?
There are many many vapid statements that just stretch credulity throughout the book. To the discerning reader, the further you go, the more challenging staying open to the great wisdom becomes. But these declarations are swathed in many really great sentiments that won’t make you groan.
The Good Stuff
I know I am being critical here, but that is what a review is for. I like Paulo’s work, but after reading this type of writing for two decades, I have read just about every way you can package the latest regurgitation of The Secret. And to any ardent Coelho followers who are just now hearing these ideas, I highly recommend some good old-fashioned book learnin’ from Napoleon Hill, William Wattles, Og Mandino, and, of course, Jesus.
The biggest secret about The Secret is that there is no secret. The same goes for Manuscript. Every idea, every revelation, every syllable that flows from the Copt’s mouth has been said before. Nothing is new, it is simply repackaged. Sometimes it’s done well and marketed smartly. Sometimes it is a mishmash of semi-coherent ramblings that may or may not hit the mark. It will strike a chord with many. Several of the “teachings” were valuable to me as well. Not that I hadn’t heard them before, but we can always use some good positive mind feed from time to time.
Some of my favorite (valuable even though somewhat cliché) quotes are:
Pg. 54 “And to those who believe that adventures are dangerous, I say, try routine; that kills you far more quickly.”
Pg. 177 “Do not make yourself vulnerable to those weak spirits who cannot bear to encounter a strong spirit.”
Pg. 17 “Losing a battle or losing everything we thought we possessed will bring us moments of sadness. But when those moments pass, we will discover the hidden strength that exists in each of us, a strength that will surprise us and increase our self-respect.”
Pg. 30 “The act of discovering who we are will force us to accept that we can go further than we think.”
Pg. 40 “They don’t understand that religion was created in order to share the mystery and to worship, not to oppress or convert others. The greatest manifestation of God is life.”
Pg. 42 “Do one thing: Live the life you always wanted to live. Avoid criticizing others and concentrate on fulfilling your dreams.”
Pg. 126 “People who seek success rarely find it, because success is not an end, but a consequence.”
Pg. 78 “We don’t close our eyes to the Universe and then complain: ‘It’s dark.’”
There are plenty of other thought-provoking goodies inside, and I hope they will speak to you in your own reading.
Over-reaching For The Stars
Casey Kasem always told us to keep our feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. Sadly, I think, in this book, Coelho believes he has done just that. It has the feel of such self-important back patting, that even the really great sentiments and ideas tend to ring less than true and sometimes completely hollow. And I think that is a shame.
People turn to these books for inspiration. And I have little doubt that many will get some inspiration, but on a fairly shallow level. These ideas are simply retreads of so many before them, yet packaged in what attempts to be Biblical importance. The parallels between the simple shoemaker and a certain carpenter we all know is obvious. Yet one could walk on water, and one rambles incoherently and completely off-topic at times, while offering no salvation nor possibility of escaping death (aka “The Unwanted Visitor”—groan) at the hands of the invaders.
Coelho’s writings here, along with so many other New Age type utopian inklings, stress ideas that just aren’t realistic or practical. Yes, positive thinking and visualization works. I know, I do it daily. But just thinking does not make it so. Actions must be taken. Pragmatism dictates that if you want to survive a French Crusader attack, you have to win, surrender, or run like hell.
There just seems to be such a disconnect from reality at times during the read. We go from interesting insight to simpleminded mumbo jumbo in no time flat. This is a read that will go quickly and you will gain some nice quotes to throw on a T-shirt. But in the end, if you are well read in the Positive Thinking/New Age/Spiritual/Self-Help genre, this book may leave you flat and even a little irritated with the whole thing. But no matter what, always remember what Uncle Coelho says…
“Listen to the wind, but don’t forget about your horse.”