Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Alchemist and Ayn Rand

I've been pondering this subject on and off and I think it's time I put this to rest.

Ok, first up, I'm a fan of Ayn Rand and her "Objectivism" philosophy, but like with all things in Life, I don't go overboard with it, meaning I do realize there are certain shortcomings in the way she deals with a few things (idea for a future post?).

That done, I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho a long time back and even as I was reading it, what struck me was how everything that he says in the book is incongruous with what Ms. Rand has to say. And much as I'm against contradictions in Life, I liked the book. So this post is an attempt to see why people can like both the authors and why they don't.

Firstly where do the two agree and where do they differ?

The Alchemist, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are all books dealing with the single most important question Man faces in Life, which is: what to do in Life, and how to go about doing it. The authors, through their books, do agree, in principle at least, that it's all in your hands -- you make your destiny, you bring your dreams alive. The protagonists in these books are fairly strong beings, and coincidentally, have mentors to show them their way (note: the exceptions being Howard Roark and John Galt).

So much for how the books are similar. But the differences are too obvious and too glaring to ignore.

Firstly the characters. With Coelho's characters, there's always this air of "There's more to me than meets the eye", whereas with Rand, what you see is always what you get. Amusingly, this works both for and against both the authors. With Coelho, this aspect makes the characters endearingly human as in you can never predict how they'll behave in a given situation, but then cloaks them in mysticism, and this makes it difficult for a rational reader to take them seriously (admitted it's a fable and that you should not look for reason, but then the more 'unreal' the characters are, the more difficult it is to take them seriously). On the other hand, the WYSIWYG nature of Rand's characters reinforces your faith in the idealistic, but at the same time, makes them too heroic and such wonders of moral evolution that those who are not at the same strata of thought find them intimidating. This is what splits readers who've read both the authors into opposing camps.

Where Coelho consoles his readers by saying that destiny will not be denied even to the flawed man(by flawed I mean philosophically flawed), Rand vehemently advocates that destiny is the sole -- and even holy -- proprietary of the philosophically right.

And then there's always this thing about how Coelho leaves himself open to the "rationalist" attack. Phrases like "Language of the world", "universe conspires" and words like "signs" are nice to read in the book but they have as much practical value as a flashlight without batteries during a power-cut. On the other hand Rand is so bloody straightforward in her books that it hurts (if you're not ready for her), and this scores in her favour.

Simply put, the difference between them can be summed up with one question:
In times of crisis, when you're down, do you look inward or outward for strength?

Where Rand calls for unyielding will and enormous self-belief, Coelho falters in suggesting that apart from inner strength, you should also look towards "signs" for encouragement, guidance and help in your quest. That these "signs" can be interpreted in any way -- both positive and negative, and that it is virtually impossible to define a "sign" is what most people who hail The Alchemist miss out on. Like a friend once said, it's just subjective interpretation of objective reality.

Come to think of it, if you look at it in a certain way, the books are really self-improvement at a higher level. The only difference is in the degree of mental fortitude that they demand from their readers. While Rand's books appeal to those who have cultivated a good level of philosophical vigour in their thinking, The Alchemist -- as philosophy abounding in mysticism -- tends to appeal to those who seek safety and inspiration in the simple and the unknown.

What The Alchemist does -- and does well -- is to interpret chance as having a pattern, and meaning, to it, and this is where I have misgivings about the book. As a fable, as fantasy, I found it fascinating, its metaphors and symbolism do appeal to the romantic in me, but only at a "story" level. To carry its effect over into the realm of daily life is just stretching it a bit too far.

What is random should be treated as random. Unless we know otherwise.

But it is still possible to enjoy both the authors despite their conflicting view-points. All that it needs is to know where to draw the line.


Vulturo said...

This post is a serious insult to Ayn Rand :-)

musafir said...

@ vulturo: Haha ... yeah, I guess you could say that! And I do agree with you :)

I wrote this primarily because I needed to articulate to myself why I could like The Alchemist even though it clashes with a lot of what I believe in.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting -- appreciate it.

Ashmant said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ashmant said...

Paulo Cohelo becomes predictable after a coupla books.

With Ayn Rand,though the "extremely strong character" stuff is always expected,she leaves a mark,and more importantly,forces one to think and requestion his believes.

Ayn Rand:1,Paulo Cohelo:0

More voters game? ;)

catch 22 said...

I agree with vulturo but the purpose given by Musafir is fair enough and I think you have been fairly successful in figuring out why you like both these books, Yes I agree when you say that the Alchemist appeals the romantic in you, but Alchemist as a Philosophical book doesnt make sense more of a fairy tale, nothing heroic about the chracters, doesnt appeal much to a rational mind.

musafir said...

@ ashmant: Don't know about Paulo Coelho being predictable, decided to stay away from him after reading The Alchemist :) ... and you do make a valid point when you say she makes you revisit your beliefs. That, I think, is reason enough to read her even if one finds oneself disagreeing with her.

Thanks for the comment -- do come by again!

@ catch22: Now, now, look who comes visitng :) -- glad you could see why I wrote this post. It is quite easy to be intellectually snobbish and dump The Alchemist as a useless fairy tale, but I needed to examine what it said closely from a pro-con angle. There are lots that you can take home from the book, but then again you don't need The Alchemist to tell you that.

catch 22 said...

In one dimension, the reason why Alchemist is popular is same as why religion is popular, replace God with Universe.

musafir said...

@ catch 22: Hmm I think you mean "believe" when you say "popular", because religion is not what one would call "popular".

The only common ground that I can see between religion and The Alchemist being popular is that they are not exactly what appeal to a rational mind. But casting the two of them together just because of that is too sweeping a generalization to make. Then we would have to include everything that science cannot disprove -- like ESP, astrology etc (not that I "believe"). The point is to try and keep an open mind and say,"Show me proof and I'll believe."

catch 22 said...

The commonality which I was talking about is not that both dont appeal to rational mind thats true but what I had in mind was that both ask you to look outward in case of crisis rather than look within oneself for strength.

musafir said...

@ catch22: Does religion ask that you do so? Hmmm from the limited knowledge of religion I have, it does both, depending upon how you choose to interpret it. If you look to religion as just a means of explaining Creation, then it really does not say you have to look outward for strength, I'm sure you know quite a few "inwardly looking" religious people. On the other hand, if you look to religion as something that you would want to explain everything, then I'm sure you'll find it asks you to look outward for strength. Interpretation and individual perspective matter a lot when it comes to religion.

In fact, I remember a lot of stuff from the Gita saying otherwise. Take for example this line from the Gita:"Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is." To me, that line is encouraging free will and rational thought, that you make your destiny. And then this: "A man's own self is his friend. A man's own self is his foe." -- where does any of this say you have to look outward?

Like I said it depends on how you choose to interpret it. To say that religion asks you to look outward for strength is too broad an assessment and not fair comment on religion. Personally I think there is a point in each person's evolution when they can choose if they want religion to tell them what is right and what is wrong. If you think you can do that on your own, then there really is no need for religion.

catch 22 said...

Explain GOD da. We aint discussing the necessity of religion in human lives here. Doesnt religion demand faith in GOD, correct me if I am wrong.

musafir said...

I think without looking at the need for religion in people's lives, we really can't say if religion demands that you look outward or inward. It depends on what you expect from it, that's why I talked about interpretation and individual perspective. That is why I said -- and I repeat -- if you look at it just for explaining Creation, then religion does not say you look outward for strength (take Buddhism for example). But on the other hand, if you're looking for a soft way out, by looking for a universal answer, then religion is straight up your alley.

There are many dimensions to religion apart from the God angle. The issue here is not about me explaining God -- I can't explain God except for saying that, right now, from whatever science has found, and from whatever I've experienced, God, as in the comventional definition of an omnipotent, omnipresent being, does not exist. The issue here is that I believe, on well-founded evidence, that religion does not demand that you look outward for strength.