We dream, and sometimes we realize those dreams, although not quite in the way we hoped we would.
In 2009, I rented an apartment for the summer in Paris, in Montmartre, down a side street off Rue Lepic, in a building on a quiet garden, from a schoolteacher at the American high school. Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain was still big tourist stuff in Montmartre; “Amelie’s” café was just up the street, Amelie posters were on the walls or for sale in most shops, and the film’s director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, was my next-door neighbor, with his hot actress girlfriend. Romantic dreams of the impossible everywhere! Mornings with croissants and coffee overlooking the garden, afternoons wandering the streets of Paris a la flaneur, evenings cooking dinner and drinking bottles of Haut Medoc, St Emilion, and Bordeaux Supérieur, the occasional nod from Jean-Pierre— le plus magique l’été de ma vie. One advantage of subletting is that you get access to the owner’s book and media collection. Among the usual paperback bestsellers and Oprah tomes was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Several people had recommended it to me as “the book that changed my life,” and since a book had once changed the course of my life (Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer…another story), I sat down one afternoon and started to read. After about five pages the simplistic prose and fableistic tone got on my nerves, so I went back to my reading Robert Heinlein’s great novel of free market capitalism, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
Flash forward to the following summer. I’m on an ONCF train traveling from Casablanca to Marrakech, pursuing another dream. On yet another recommendation, I’m listening to the iTunes audio book version of The Alchemist, which, coincidentally, is all about pursuing your dreams. “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure,” the voice droned inside my Bose headphones. Fear, courage, fate, destiny, suffering, the heart’s treasure, nearly each sentence touching all of the tags of the metaphysical quest. “In his pursuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage.” Well, that part was certainly true. I’d been told that my patience would eventually be rewarded, which was why I had flown halfway across the world to experience what would become one of the worst weeks of my life (yep…another story). That fucking Paulo Coelho, egging me on with his shamanistic sayings and heartfelt hocus-pocus. I don’t even believe in the metaphysical; I’m more of a Nietzschean (although if you really believe in Nietzsche’s anti-philosophy, you can’t really be a Nietzschean).
After that summer, it hit me: the reason this Coelho guy is so popular is not because all of us who’ve “lived our dream” go out and buy his books but because all of us who’ve failed to live our dream seek consolation in his books. Madame Blavatsky, the Yeats of A Vision, Aldous Huxley and his doors of perception, Carlos Castaneda and his Don Juan, every age has its literature of metaphysical “inspiration,” reinforcing the idea that the crazier you act in pursuit of the unattainable, the more normal you are. Sure. Worked for Nick Drake.
Some of us eventually do get to live our dreams, some of us don’t, but I doubt that it’s because we’ve followed some vision quest or made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or some other “path” to a preselected destiny. If we live that dream, more than not it’s simple luck, coincidence, or the ability to take a risk by letting go of the safety net. If you still think there’s some spiritual “plot” that all you have to do is follow to the “treasure” in your own heart, put down The Alchemist and pick up Beyond Good and Evil, a book that really will change your life: “Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its inventors! All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.”