If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s leaving projects in the can – by which I mean unpublished posts. They gnaw at me. They keep me up at night asking “what gives?” And while this post is unforgivably long and is probably going to alienate some percentage of the people who happen upon it, I really am proud of this essay, which has been lying in draft this past week, and so have spent this rainy Saturday finishing it off and cutting the fat out of the text. The question that comes with a post like this is: Am I writing for other people or am I writing for myself?
Here be spoilers.
You can take your pick of notable 20th Century events – two world wars, globalization, the invention of the internet, the Arms Race and Mutually Assured Destruction just for starters. In the arts you can choose from Modernism, Surrealism, Pop Art, Jackson Pollack, Rock and Roll, etc, etc. Compared to all that, the adoption by Westerners of the Eastern concept of enlightenment and the accompanying shift in what the fable is meant to illustrate might not get much notice.
Fables, from the time of Aesop, were meant to illustrate in memorable ways how a person should or should not behave. They were showcases of behaviour, easily remembered, easily recited, occasionally satirical. This form of fable has carried forward from antiquity relatively unscathed – look at Animal Farm (1945).
Then there’s the enlightenment fable, not to be confused with a fable of the Enlightenment, such as Candide (1759). Enlightenment fables, at least in the west, appear to be a uniquely 20th century construct. You know them by name if nothing else. Siddhartha. The Alchemist. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They’re easy to spot, selling in the millions, clocking in at little more than a hundred pages each and they are, as the publishers will gladly tell you, “beloved by many.” Publishing quotes for these books include:
“It is a book that will linger in your mind and spirit for a lifetime.”
“Every few decades a book comes along that changes the lives of its readers forever.”
“The extraordinary experience shared by over a million hardcover readers!”
Well, speaking from personal experience, not one of those three books changed my life in any meaningful way. That does sound rather petty, doesn’t it? But listen, this is not a complaint so much as it is an inquiry. What “experience” do these three fables mean to give? They obviously mean to communicate a message to readers. So I’m now going to examine them one by one in the order in which I read them and with no regard whatever to spoilers. I’ll see if any light can be shed.
The Alchemist. Paulo Coelho. 1988.
Brazilian writer Coelho’s fable, translated by Alan R. Clarke, has the trappings of a fairy tale. An Andalusian shepherd boy sets out on a quest, gets the girl, gets the gold, learns wisdom and lives happily ever after. The story is based on an old Sufi legend so enlightenment is never named as such, but in the boy’s behaviour it can clearly be inferred. However, by far most of the book’s events do not have to be inferred, the tone set by the early scene when the boy has a Gypsy woman interpret his recurring dream for him. The dream has a small child take him to the pyramids and tell him if he comes there he will find a “hidden treasure.”
The Gypsy interprets this to mean he should go to the pyramids, where he will find a hidden treasure and get rich.
So the boy sets out on his journey, which takes (and this is only a rough calculation) about two years. His main instructor is the titular character who insists, along with most of the rest of the cast, that the boy follow his heart rather than live discontented as so many people do. Following the heart seems to universally mean travel, either to Mecca or in search of an alchemist or just wherever curiosity leads. The boy, now gifted with magical powers, becomes somewhat arrogant in his certainty of the path which he’s on. “I am following my Personal Legend. It’s not something you would understand.”
Meanwhile learning is dismissed out of hand. The boy, after setting out on his quest, quickly forsakes books and when traveling with a scholar, who is depicted as unfriendly and myopic, they attempt to learn each other’s ways of viewing the world to no success. Nearby was the Englishman, reading a book. He… looked irritated when the boy had entered. They might even have become friends, but the Englishman closed off the conversation. The Boy closed his book. He felt that he didn’t want to do anything that might make him look like the Englishman.
Later on, the Alchemist ruminates on why he has to teach his apprentices by word of mouth. He had only one explanation for this fact: things have to be transmitted this way because they were made up from the pure life, and this kind of life cannot be captured in pictures or words. Because people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World. This begs the question why Coelho decided to write his book in the first place, but I’ll ignore that.
Fantasy is often drawn upon over the course of the book, in various guises from prophetic dreams to transfiguration. It’s a fable; none of this bothered me. On the other hand, after interpreting an omen when the two magical rocks in his pouch fall out, the boy didn’t consider mending the hole – the stones could fall through any time they wanted. Coelho never follows this scene up, the stones are never called into play again and the boy does not learn that being zen is not always enough and it’s bad for business to have holes in one’s traveling clothes. This is because, as far as this book indicates, Paulo Coelho has no sense of humour whatsoever.
The finale is a conversation between the boy, the elements and God. The message boils down to the interplay between “follow your heart,” “seek and ye shall find” and “love the world.” The boy discovers within himself the ability to create miracles. It’s a fine cinematic moment. Shortly after this he arrives at the pyramids. I won’t spoil the final twist about where the treasure is, I will only say it turns out to be a literal treasure, which was most disappointing to me. I had in all confidence expected him to discover that the treasure was within himself, but like I said, The Alchemist has all the trappings of the fairy tale.
Before I go on I must in all fairness point out the possibility that the book could be lost in translation, that perhaps whatever rough edges or subtleties the original possessed were smoothed out for the American market, turning wine into water as it were. For the book as it stands is definitely the literary equivalent of water – clear, mild and easily digestible.
Siddhartha. Hermann Hesse. 1922.
The great irony of German literature is that, from the research I’ve done (admittedly not a lot), Siddhartha appears to be in translation the best-selling and most widely read of all German novels. I find this amusing because this tiny volume, set in India during the time of the Buddha, has absolutely nothing Germanic about it.
Let’s examine that statement for a second. True, all the cultural trappings of Germany dissolve away upon opening the book – Hesse did his research and, other than his odd choice of naming the protagonist ‘Siddhartha’ (which was another of the Buddha’s names), most of his Indian facts seem to gel. Hesse had been living in Switzerland a good decade already (with a break for WWI) and was to receive Swiss citizenship the year after Siddhartha‘s publication. Meanwhile, Germany between the wars was a depressing and decadent place to be and if there’s one thing you can say about this novel, it’s a dismal little read.
Siddhartha’s life is set up as a parallel to the life of the Buddha, and unlike him and Coelho’s boy, Siddhartha spends his whole life chasing enlightenment, sweating blood, moving from place to place in constant dissatisfaction and depression, not achieving his end until an old man. Along the way he learns not to follow leaders, as when he rejects the Buddha (to his face, no less), saying of the Buddha’s enlightenment “You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through mediation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment… That is why I am going on my own way – not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone – or die.”
So Siddhartha traipses through his life alone and comfortless, refusing to fall prey to any more religious orders, rejecting the life of the ascetic. The chapter called Awakening is in fact a lovely little pearl of wisdom and had the story ended there I’d like the novel much better than I do. But while it is by far the best written and most difficult and thought-provoking of this triptych, it’s also the one I like by far the least. Why? Because Siddhartha is a complete jerk, before and after enlightenment, one of the most unpleasant, selfish, downright creepy excuses for a human being I’ve ever come across.
I’ll skip all his early actions and point out just a few post-enlightenment problems. Following an excellent depiction of a mid-life crisis, visceral and affecting despite its brevity, Siddhartha makes the acquaintance of a peaceable ferryman, who trains him in on both his profession and his hermetic way of life, and as time elapses, Siddhartha learns the peace he’s coveted from day one. He comes to reject words and learning, finding in them only distractions, much like the earlier quote from The Alchemist.
Then the lover from his youth, a courtesan with their eleven-year-old son in tow, approaches the river crossing and is bitten by a fatal snake on the way. Reunited and comforted by Siddhartha on her deathbed; after a silent overnight vigil, this little exchange takes place between him and his fellow ferryman Vasudeva:
“You have suffered, Siddhartha, yet I see that sadness has not entered your heart.”
“No, my dear friend. Why should I be sad? I who was rich and happy have become still richer and happier. My son has been given to me.”
Pollyanna has nothing on this guy. Ah, but what about his son? Raised in a large town, traumatically separated from his entire way of life, living with a father he’s never met before and who wants him to live the life of a hermit in a little hut. Naturally he doesn’t take this well. Vasudeva suggests Siddhartha take the kid back to town and leave him there, as he’ll never be able to adapt and is too disruptive. Nice. Siddhartha refuses this idea, but also refuses to make any concessions toward the boy, unwilling to take seven years out of his enlightened life and maybe raise the kid in civilization, or for that matter even take him in for a visit. Eventually, in desperation, the kid runs off. Siddhartha goes out looking, but decides that no harm can come to his son and returns home to nurse his broken heart.
According to this book, then, enlightenment is learned through non-participation, a very Indian notion and why I’ve never cottoned to the idea. Siddhartha comes to view all as one; therefore, he approves everything from the rock to the newborn to the murderer and reserves moral judgement on all things. Vasudeva goes off into the woods to die and Siddhartha is all alone.
His childhood friend Govinda comes visiting and, having followed the Buddha religiously, is no closer to enlightenment than he was in his youth. Seeing his friend has achieved everything, feeling reminded of everything that he had ever loved in his life, he begins to weep. So the last image of the book is of these old friends facing each other: Govinda, unenlightened and in tears, and Siddhartha, enlightened and smiling.
And all these things I’m taking issue with make it far and away the best of the three, as it really does raise some sticky objections and makes an interesting study. I pretty much hated the book, but that was a far stronger reaction than Coelho was capable of inducing and I’ll probably be reading some of Hesse’s more Germanic writing somewhere down the line, because his stuff seems as interesting as it is disagreeable. The book seems to make a virtue of selfishness and I find it suspicious that it became such a bible to the hippie movement. Personally, if Siddhartha‘s depiction really is “enlightenment” you can count me out of the party. I’ll remain firmly within the veil of maya, thank you.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Richard Bach. 1970.
The last of the trio, hereafter abbreviated to JLS. If nothing else, you’ll get some nice photographs of seagulls in flight, and there’s almost more pictures than text. The only American of the bunch, Bach went one step further and used the traditional characters of fables: Animals. JLS is an anthropomorphic fable, telling the enlightenment story in 63 out of 127 pages (the rest are visual). Enlightenment is, as with Coelho, inferred, but since the audience was post-60s America, it would have rung out clear as a bell.
In stark opposition to Coelho and Hesse, Bach’s version of the quest thoroughly approves of learning and practice. Naturally, being seagulls, the characters can only study flight, which Jonathan becomes obsessed with. Many pages are devoted to his attempts at aerobatics, which are more interesting than you might think. Upon learning how to travel safely at 200 miles per hour and how to fly every which way (even inverse), Jonathan believes he has discovered a method to improve the lives of gulls everywhere. Flight becomes the equivalent of knowledge and art as well as the first step to enlightenment, as without it Jonathan sees a gull’s life as short, nasty and spent in constant search for food. However, his flock doesn’t want to hear it. He’s a weirdo and is promptly ousted.
Like Siddhartha and the boy, Jonathan is left to find his own way to enlightenment and like Siddhartha, it takes his whole life. His long, happy hermit life. Then one day he’s visited by two glowing white seagulls who tell him “We’ve come to take you higher, to take you home,” and fly with him up to what he at first assumes is heaven, presumably leaving his old body to plummet back to earth. At any rate, he gains the same glow and gets to live in a happy land where all the gulls practice flight and the best have mastered the art of teleportation. Yeah, it sounds silly, doesn’t it?
Then comes the abrupt deviation from the standards set by the other two. Jonathan, quite unlike the boy and Siddhartha, decides to return to his unenlightened brethren and teach them the way to higher ascendency. Next thing you know, this odd little fable has gone on a Jesus Christ bender. This circumstance is saved by another radical shift: Richard Bach actually seems to have a rueful sense of humour. So while Jonathan gathers his disciples, heals a cripple, raises Fletcher Lynd Seagull from the dead after a bad wipeout (straight into a cliff) and is attacked by a mob, there’s a wry quality to proceedings. This particular messiah is no son of god and is exasperated by the thought. From the Lazarus episode:
“The trick, Fletcher, is that we are trying to overcome our limitations in order, patiently. We don’t tackle flying through rock until a little later in the program.”
“Also known as the Son of the Great Gull,” his instructor said dryly.
Meanwhile, the death mob is equated a zombie-like status. Eyes glazed, beaks sharp, they closed in to destroy. And when Jonathan decides his work is done and teleports off, Fletcher learns firsthand that his mentor was no more divine in nature than he is himself. Jonathan’s last lesson ties into The Alchemist‘s line about listening to the heart. “You need to keep finding yourself, a little more each day, that real, unlimited Fletcher Seagull. He’s your instructor. You need to understand him and to practice him.” He also preaches tolerance and love of fellow – shall we say gulls? I think we’ll say gulls.
Yes, it’s a fantasy. Wildly dated, what with all the cries of “hey, man.” But it is irreverent about enlightenment, treating it as no big deal once you’ve acquired it. It’s irreverent about Christ, for that matter. It’s not as dense as Siddhartha, but it was a lot more fun for me to read.
All this is a personal thing. I read these three books seemingly by accident. They simply fell into my hands, one after another. As I compared them while reading, I thought I would compare them now I’m done. They refract different elements of the same story and that seems to me more interesting put together than any of them are when standing alone. If you’re going to read just one, by all means make it Siddhartha. The one disappointment in this study was learning that the book owned by the most people on LibraryThing (my book cataloging site) is The Alchemist with 18,707 people. Siddhartha comes in with 14,636.