The Alchemist and Orientalism

Orientalism is a faulty representation of the east conceptualized from the western world’s perception of what Asia and Africa look like and how the people of said origins behave.  Orientalism began as one person with misconstrued information providing a story of eastern countries and from there everyone developed their ideas and stereotypes of the east off of a false notion. Through the years this has only grown more prevalent and grounded in America and western societies as the “ideal other”. The ideal other is a group of people that is presented in a way to make the western world look better and more developed, an example would be shaping the middle east as barbaric, mysterious, and full of magic among other negative and/or misleading connotations to build a superiority complex on the western world.  The biggest culprits submitting to orientalism are various media such as film, television, and books. Some notorious media promoting these stereotypes are Aladdin, A Passage to India, and another big contributor is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist is in some aspects a self-help book, it follows a Spaniard Shepard through a journey to find a treasure under the pyramids in Egypt. A message about personal legends is enforced by an old king and so the Shepard sells his sheep and sets off on a journey to fulfill his personal legend( to find treasure under the pyramids). Towards the end of the book, the Shepard finds himself in a village in the middle of the “Arab desert” where they encounter alchemy, dangerous tribes, and thieves. Additionally, in a village, where the Shepard stays for a short while, he falls in love with a woman who has promised to wait for him as he continues on with his quest. All of the following depictions heavily align with the false characteristics of the Arab world. 

The Shepard from the west throughout the novel is seen as an observer, as though the east is something to be observed or to be labeled “fascinating” by a so-called superior European man. This notion objectifies people from the middle east and then continues to promote the idea that they should be observed as captivating to impressionable readers. Additionally, both the magical and savage tropes in the dessert are condescending and repetitive as they are often shown in European works when characterizing the east. This colonial attitude is shown most prominently when the Shepard is being taught to turn into sand and fly away to escape the savage and violent tribe he and the alchemist encounter during their travels together. Similar illustrations can be seen in the movie Aladin with the genie and magic carpet and also barbaric characters presented through the film.

Women in the east is another example of orientalism, in The Alchemist the woman, Fatima, is set to wait around for the Shepard to come back for her as if this is her only purpose. She is portrayed as submissive and nothing without a connection to a man, again playing into the classic western narrative of the east. This depiction of women extends past Fatima as all the women in the village are holding the fort and waiting fearfully for their husbands to return from the war on-going.

I believe that these false notions and characterizations are harmful to everyone who encounters it, however, it is arguably most destructive when orientalism in writing and film is targeted toward a European/western audience. It only advances the fabricated representation that is continuously being built upon each time another ill-informed European/America decides to write about or surrounding around “The East”.

King Lear and the Corruption that Comes with Status

King Lear, throughout the play, exhibits behaviors that correlate to his relationship to power and status as king. Lear first exhibits traits of narcissism and lack of empathy in the first scenes in the play, while his self-righteous personality subsides a little by the end, he continues to display crazed and erratic behavior.

It is from Chaya Bhuvaneswars, “The Madness of King Trump: On Being Unfit to Serve” That I noticed that the characteristics that make up an eighth-century BCE King and a modern-day political differ very slimly. Bhubaneswar introduces the reader to the comparison between Donald Trump, former U.S president, and Lear. In this article she highlights unfitness and self-serving, controlling behavior, she references the two impeachment trials of Trump which suggest his unfitness to be president, while Lear is continuously being pronounced as unfit by his daughters. I believe that in this way the two of them are similar, Trump is old and on multiple occasions was deemed inept to do his duties properly as president, he has had signs of decaying intellect and functionality for the duration of his term, as stated by observers in the white house. King Lear was similarly written off as too old to have any say as King, the royal court thought he was crazy and senseless. Both leaders display narcissism and almost cult-like behavior, working not for the people, but praise. We can see this through the former president’s incitement in the January 6th insurrection to possibly make a point and feel powerful despite his recent loss. The King does this by requesting to keep a posse of knights even though he has no use for them as he is no longer in power, he simply wants to keep his dignity and perceived status. He also demonstrates selfish actions when making his daughters use praise to gain his land even though he had already decided on how he would divvy it up at the beginning of the play.

I believe this connection between the President and the King is an interesting discussion, however, I find it obsolete. We the readers of King Lear can find a connection between the King and a large group of politicians and public officials/figures. I believe the correlation is not between two narcissistic politicians but rather should be a discussion of how holding power morphs one’s traits and morals. Power builds ego and a superiority complex, it taints the people who obtain it. This can be spotted in all areas of our society from a president’s demeanor and motives changing after their election or students with a new group of friends. I believe that having a newfound perception of importance alters a person and their awareness of others well being, they lose empathy. King Lear fits in this mold but in a different way than other examples, while most individuals climb the social/political ladder, he began at the top as King. After he fell from power he had a realization about his selfish and apathetic nature because he had a limited perspective of the citizens he was serving and the world he was ruling over, as seen when he is in the storm. Politicians on the other hand go into the race to the top fighting for power and authority, as much as they say they are for public sovereignty, they are at their core selfish no matter their demonstrated cause. If we look at Politicians in this way, Edmund or Goneril better reflect their behavior.

O Children

Both music and poetry say so much while saying so little. In reality, the only big difference between the two is that song is put over instrumentals, while poetry’s rhythm comes from strategic breaks in lines. Poetry is made to elicit an emotional response from the reader, to allow them to feel for the speaker and the situation they encounter. Similarly many songs, but certainly not all, pull emotion from the listener by connecting their own experience to the vague yet telling lyrics.  

Similar to both song and poetry, Harry Potter immerses you into its world, I first found O Children by Nick Cave and the Bad seeds when it was in the soundtrack of the last Harry Potter movie. However, It has become a song in my regular rotation and extends much more insight and meaning than just a song from a movie track.

“O Children” is a song that could be debated to tell the story of Jewish people during the Holocaust. It follows those at the camp as they watch their friends get sent off to the gas chambers and in the end, the narrator does too. This disgusting time is portrayed in an elaborate but simple way because the lyricist never explicitly explains that this is what this song is about, you must dive into the lyrics to best understand the premise of the song

The cleaners are coming one by one

They are knocking now upon your door

You don’t even want to let them start

They measure the room, they know the score. 

They’re mopping up the butcher’s floor

Of your broken little hearts

In the following excerpt, it can be seen that the song only eludes to the subject but will not spell out the meaning behind the words. A few examples of this are shown above, “cleaners” are the Nazis supposedly cleansing the population, going from house to house to “measure the room”, they look for secret rooms or hiding spots. This same metaphorical language continues throughout the song. 

Another reason this piece by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds is poetic is that its vague, interpretable language and word choice creates a picture and makes the listener imaginative. The lyrical choice and background music work together to effectively create a heavy and ominous feel to the entire piece. The diction is displayed best in the following lines with “dim”  and “weeping.

We’re older now, the light is dim

We’re all weeping now, weeping because

There ain’t nothing we can do to protect you

Like any good poem, this can be interpreted in different ways, it could be deemed to have nothing to do with the Holocaust but rather that it’s about the lyricist’s view on the detriment of generations and recovery. However, I believe that this is the clearest interpretation where the explanation does not contradict other parts of the song. By the end, the artists illustrate the speaker being sent off to the gas chambers by train, while this is a devastating end, it has a happier light to it than the rest of the song. The speaker is content with death, they are able to meet up with those who were lost before them and finally be free of the Nazi’s hold.  

Separate from the interpretation of the song, I would like to talk about the deliberate choice of the song in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. In the film, there was a war that draws many parallels to World War two, as “purebloods” attempt to wipe out “half-bloods” and those with non-magic parents to take control of the magical society. This song is played as Harry and Hermione slow dance after listening to radio reports of numerous fallen wizards and as tension was high within their trio and the wizarding society as a whole. The song fits very well with the circumstances that took place in the film and it pulls a lot more meaning and perspective into the scene.

Disconnect between Nadia and Saeed

In Exit West, Nadia and Saeed must make a tough decision regarding the question of safety and opportunity or comfort and danger. This being whether they should travel through magical doors that transport people to another part of the world, while they don’t know if the rumors are true, leaving their war-stricken country is the best option. Except Saeed’s father refuses to go with them, this causes regret and internal conflict in Saeed and tension in the relationship between him and Nadia. 

After Saeed and Nadia make it through the doors successfully, without Saeed’s father, and end up in Mykonos something is off between them. Saeed is acting much different and while they don’t address it, it is tugging at their relationship. Nadia explains that she, “had glimpsed in him a moment of bitterness” (108), something she had never seen in him before. 

It can be inferred that Saeed’s feelings of bitterness toward Nadia are due to his father being left behind. He is having trouble coming to terms with his father’s distance and possible circumstances. So he is blaming Nadia. I believe that he’s formed an idea that if not for Nadia his father would be safe, if not for Nadia he could protect his father, if not for Nadia he could still be with him. 

As Saeed and Nadia’s time on Mykonos grows longer we see more of their rocky relationship and the awkwardness of it. One night they go look out on the sea from atop a hill but, “…they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her (109). This tells us that they don’t feel comfort in each other as they had before their travels, heavily because Saeed has closed himself off and he was the one who directed the relationship and was more warm-hearted. 

It will be interesting to see how or if this dynamic changes, if they will bounce back or continue drifting apart as they enter a new part of the world.

The Stranger and No Longer Human

As I’ve been reading The Stranger by Albert Camus this last week or so, I have constantly been reflecting and comparing it to a previous book I´d read this summer, No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai.

Through further inspectional and revisiting of No Longer Human, I’ve found that the two books, especially the characters, are both opposites and somewhat parallel. 

The main character in No Longer Human, Oba Yozo, is a more sensitive and emotional person but feels no joy, only an overwhelming feeling of estrangement. While Meursault the narrator of The Stranger is very nonchalant and emotionally dull. However, both of these characters bring about a feeling of unease and emptiness to the reader. An aspect of these two characters that binds them together is their indifference to other people and life itself.

To grasp this better, the following are both books opening lines:

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

The Stranger

¨Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being. ¨

No Longer Human

Both these lines pull the reader in through uncomfortability, from the get-go they leave the impression of being an outsider and mentally peculiar, not being normal. 

The two books have the same destination, or rather these two characters have the same outlook on life but have different ways of getting there. I think this line from No Longer Human Shows their similar mental state well, “Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes. That is the one and only thing that I have thought resembled a truth in the society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell. Everything passes.”(169) Oba is a reflective person, Meursault just accepts his belief, “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”(122) Meursault feels too little and finds life meaningless and on the flip side, Oba Yozo feels too much, too inferior, that he finds life meaningless.  

 The approach to this mindset though is a stark difference, Meursault does not show or feel emotions. Oba cannot feel happiness, he is stuck in a deep depression to the point that nothing matters. By this same principle, Meursault sees nothing wrong with his nature, Oba understands that he is not normal, thinking of himself as other or not human, he’s a “clown”, acting in a way acceptable by society (laughing and joking around).

Both the Stranger and No Longer Human illustrate that life isn’t full but futile, by following abnormal figures through a span of time and observing the experience and insight they gain as rejects from society.

Is Meursault Really All That Bad?

When I read the first few infamous lines of The Stranger by Albert Camus, I took Meursault for a boring character. I stated in my thesis, only based on the beginning four pages, “In Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, he depicts the narrator, Meursault, as lackluster and having a dull approach to society.¨ A Lot of my stance prevails, he’s not expressive or very interested in others, but today as my classmates argue his nature negatively and almost describes him sociopathically, I had trouble not intervening. 

My newest interpretation of the narrator is that he struggles to feel comfortable confronting his emotions and avoids the vulnerability it brings. He is not the cold man others see him for.

  His reaction to his mothers’ death is the basis for much of his negative connotation and the first impression the reader gets of him.  However, there is a hidden emotion in this relationship. His resistance to opening the casket is because he earlier states “For now, it’s almost like Maman weren’t dead. After the funeral, though, the case will be closed, and  everything will have an official feel to it,”(3) and so he didn’t want to see her, to dodge the weight of her death. He later demonstrates signs of missing her that were neglected in the discussion amongst my classmates, ¨It was just the right size when Maman was here. Now it’s too big for me…¨(21) and he  “ate standing up,” (24) which I interpreted a being uncomfortable without her presence. 

Additionally, the Sunday after he got back home he sits the entire day watching the passersby, he alludes to the fact that this is how his Sundays are but the next Sunday he is much more active. This can be interpreted as an indication of mourning.  

We see a more lively bit of Meursault’s nature, with Marie at the beach, it is the first time we see him initiate human interaction. As the novel progresses we watch him become more opinionated and care for others (or be less indifferent)  in the internal dialogue about Marie  Stating “Marie told me I hadn’t kissed her since this morning. It was true, and yet I wanted to” (51) and other statements along those lines. He also follows Raymond to the beach, exhibiting concern for his new friend. 

While he is not very opinionated, it is clear that he is not as odd as he is depicted. This is only my perspective now, considering the ending of part one of the novel, I am almost positive my views on Meursault as a character will change again as his character adapts to his new circumstances.