This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.
So wrote Dorothy Parker of a book remembered only for her disdain of it. I've always wished that I could have been the one to have said that; and if I had been, I would like to have said it about James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy. One may very rightly ask why, if I think that the book is such utter tripe (which I do) and if it is so dismissible (which it is), I am wasting valuable time and disk space writing about it. The reason is that it is wonderfully remarkable tripe: remarkable for the sheer tripeliness of its prose and philosophy, as well as for the fact that, despite its ineffable tripehood, it has been on the New York Times best-sellers list for 98 weeks at the time of this writing (ranked second only to its sequel, The Tenth Insight). When a novel so ideologically loopy and artistically flat is so phenomenally successful a closer look is surely in order. It really is child's play to tear the book apart, and it's so very tempting to just wade in, mix my metaphors and start ripping, but remembering my mother's admonition about not saying anything at all if I can't say anything nice, I will say some nice things about The Celestine Prophecy before I go on to say some things that aren't at all nice. And out of consideration of the many people who've made this novel the success that it is I'll finish off by saying a few more nice things before a final self-indulgent burst of vulgar invective.
The Celestine Prophecy is printed on nice, sturdy paper. The typeface is large and clear, and the lines of text are well spaced. Redfield was considerate enough to ensure that each chapter contains a brief summary of the insights elucidated in all previous chapters, and his novel is the first that I've read in about ten years that hasn't put me to the trouble of getting out of my chair, even once, to fetch a dictionary. There now; having said something nice, I proceed with maternal sanction to explain why it is that Redfield's acephalic brainchild sets me off so.
The Celestine Prophecy is, ostensibly, a novel. There is a plot (a nameless social worker in the middle of a career crisis travels to Peru to find an ancient prophetic manuscript which the Peruvian government and Roman Catholic Church seek to suppress and destroy), and there are fictional characters (one can't get any more fictional than a Latin American priest named Father Carl, a Peruvian official called Hinton, and a Scandinavian professor by the name of Edmond Connor, not to mention a whole city of Mayans living in Peru rather than the more conventional Mayan stomping grounds of Central America). But for all intents and purposes this is not a novel but rather a New-Age religious tract. The unengaging plot is the merest pretense for the point-per-chapter explanation of the author's ideas about human destiny and the nature of the cosmos. The characters (who might, with the help of a capable ghost writer, be fleshed out to a full two dimensions) are featureless mouthpieces for the monotone authorial voice. Of course a weak plot and insubstantial characters don't necessarily ruin a novel; recent works by Martin Amis and Stephen Fry come to mind as thoroughly enjoyable examples of such books. But Fry and Amis happen to be gifted wordsmiths, whose novels are wonderful for the sheer brilliance of expression, insight and humour of their prose. Redfield's prose, on the other hand, is monotonous, bland, repetitive and, well, prosaic; better writing may be found in an average issue of TV Guide.
Given that The Celestine Prophecy is neither plot driven nor character driven, nor yet good writing by any post-elementary standard, what does it present to the reader? Let us, as an act of charity, call the book "a novel of ideas." Redfield's purpose is to impart the Nine Insights which the anonymous hero finds in an ancient Mayan manuscript (a document written, inexplicably and without explanation, in Aramaic). Each Insight is a revelation about the physical universe, human nature, the benefit of eating vegetables, conflict resolution, or the eventual transcorporeal evolution of our species; those interested may find a one-page summary of all nine insights on-line. Given the improbable metaphysics of the Nine Insights, it might be assumed that one is meant to approach the ideas of this novel as one would those of a work of science-fiction or an allegorical tale. On behalf of Redfield's legions of fans and followers, I was quite eager to give him the benefit of this doubt. Then I read The Celestine Prophecy: An Experiential Guide. This run-of-the-mill, New-Age spiritual-self-help book, co-written by Redfield himself, made it quite plain that he meant every word of the Nine Insights far more literally than I could ever have imagined. We have in The Celestine Prophecy not a novel, but simply an artless tract conveying the author's guiding message for foundering humanity; it is on the merits of these ideas alone that one must judge this book and its popularity.
The essence of Redfield's message is that the universe is made up of energy which is evolving into ever higher and higher forms or states of vibration: pure energy to hydrogen atoms to multivalent atoms to molecules to organic matter to life to humanity and eventually to some state of intelligent transcorporeal being. The final stage involves humans being able to consciously direct this evolution, learning to acquire psychic energy by connecting to pristine nature rather than from interpersonal conflict (interpersonal conflict resulting solely from people competing for each other's psychic energy). The last 50 years have been the prelude to the dawn of this final stage, as society regains awareness of the spiritual, the mystical, and the purposive significance of the apparently co-incidental.
As I trudged my way though the arid, jargon-mined desert that is Redfield's novel, buffetted by barrage upon barrage of brutally prosaic, 80's self-help clichˇs, wincing at the glare of the shiny, shifting, new-age platitudes, I couldn't help but ask myself time and again: What in God's name do people see in this banal, grating screed? But by the time I closed the book on the final, sequel-priming page I think that I understood why so many people have been inspired by this poorly written new-age soul candy. The Celestine Prophecy speaks to discontentment with reductionist thinking and dissatisfaction with materialism (of both the philosophical and commercial sort). It offers seductively rare optimism about the future and human nature. There is the promise of an easy, natural "spiritual self-enhancement", which can be acquired without the structure, discipline and delayed gratification of traditional religion. And perhaps most appealingly, Redfield promises that the strife and uncertainties of life and love in the late 20th century are only the birthing pains of the coming spiritual re-awakening. Questions of existence and purpose with which thinkers and artists and writers have struggled for the last century are here given answers in guileless, direct, everyday language, gift-wrapped in promise of universal attainability and hope.
The Celestine Prophecy touches real, widely experienced problems: weariness of rationalism, ideological disorientation, existential angst, hunger for mystery, mourning for God, the desire for hope and purpose and human goodness. Redfield indeed addresses important questions, questions with which I sympathize deeply, but his answers are thin and ridiculous. And because he addresses these problems in such simple, easy-to-digest terms, he has captured the imagination of thousands who had never, before The Celestine Prophecy, had their concerns brought into focus and utterability for them. Though I'm glad to know that more and more people are thinking about these spiritual and existential questions, I worry that for every person who is inspired to follow the concerns Redfield addresses to sounder spiritual pastures there will be ten who either will buy into the unsustaining nonsense of his answers or will just be put off the questions altogether.
In all fairness, I must admit that one could do worse than follow the concrete, quotidian teachings found in The Celestine Prophecy: love your neighbour; eat more fresh vegetables; reduce consumption; meditate; preserve unspoilt nature; reach out to people; don't respond to apathy or anger in kind. But Redfield's spirituality, or philosophy, or cosmogony, or whatever it is, is just too naive, shallow and fantastic to provide lasting sustenance.
not bothered by The Celestine Prophecy simply because it
presents an easy-to-use approach to complex issues. Any
religion or philosophical system should have a shallow end in
which people may splash about and get their feet wet before being
eased, coaxed or thrown into the deeper, more difficult waters in
which enlightenment, growth and strength are truly found. I find The
Celestine Prophecy bothersome because it lacks any depth at
all; it is a philosophical wading pool, full of children's
laughter and sparkling sunshine and bright pictures of pretty
fish and piss-warmed water.
Copyright © Kenneth Moyle
First published on the Web June 23, 1996
"What is Enlightenment?" is a magazine devoted to thoughtful investigation and discussion of spirituality, religion and mysticism, western and eastern, old and new. If you care enough about things numinous and matters metaphysical to be excited to anger or agreement or amusement by my review, I highly recommend having a look at some of their on-line articles. A slightly altered reprint of this review appeared in their Fall/Winter 1997 issue And, no, I'm not getting a cent for my recommendation.
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