This is a review of Paulo Coelho's Brida (HarperCollins, London, 2009 -first published in English in 2008).
This review is in two related parts:
Part I is a general impressions statement.
Part II is a more thematic review of Brida, with a few quotes.
Even Part II is also a statement of my impressions, of course.
Note that, below, Brida means the book, and Brida means the main character in that book
I have read many Paul Coelho books, but this is only the second one I want to say something about in terms of a review. As I noted in my review of Coelho's Eleven Minutes my favorite was then, and still is now, Coelho's By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. I realize that I need to explain why Piedra is my favorite, and it is simply the imagery that I was very familair with and to which I could relate, just as I could relate to the love story that inhabits that book. I visited a beautiful spot on the river Piedra and took my all-time favorite photo of a waterfall seen through trees there.
Imagine my surprise at finding what appeared to be a new book by Coelho when I had hours upon hours to wait for a connection out of Charles de Gaulle Airport (Paris). That is where I found Brida. So over the next few nights, when jet lag kept me awake at strange hours, I read and dog-eared that little paperback. Read the whole thing. Did I like it? Yes, but not as much as I had hoped.
The book seemed basic, and naive in a 60-ish sort of way. Sex of a uniquely sensuous variety with one’s Soulmate, especially if that Soulmate is spiritually adept, opens the door into the other world that usually remains invisible to us. Our heroine wants to gain the insights of a Witch, and the key to her becoming a Witch is to have this other-world-opening sexual experience. The steps she takes to get her to this enlightened state had several side-steps and an almost amusing complication: an unlikely case of multiple-Soulmates. This seemed to delay her awakening, but it did not prevent it, and may actually, in the end, have enhanced it. A nice twist adding suspense into the storyline.
The thematic content of the book very much reminded me of a more civil version of a Carlos Castaneda-type book. In Castaneda’s books, the teacher was always gruff and never explained, and left the student in some uncomfortable predicaments from which to learn. At the start there was some of this in Brida, but soon the teacher(s) gave explanations and were actually kind, although still exacting and demanding in their instructions.
When I got to the very end I could see why I made these connections to the 60s and to Castaneda. At the very end Brida has a biographical sketch that explains that Paulo was a follower of Castaneda and that he wrote this book very early in his writing career. It was his third novel and its fame and notoriety is what caused his previous two books to sell, and put him on the map as an author. It is an old book, in other words, it is only the English translation that is new, 2008.
In the 60's, a book with ritualized sex described in it, leading to enlightenment, would fit right into the hippie subculture and cause a significant stir in the non-hippie community that would like to see a book like this banned, after they have their copy.
I can remember people in the 60's (one woman-friend in particular) who were on this quest of finding enlightenment through perfect sex, but kept getting the partner wrong or the dosage of their hallucinogenic drug of choice wrong. This one woman told me, after she brought back my car, which I had foolishly loaned her, that she knew she was pregnant because she and her man had done it under LSD which had let her see a little man enter her womb.
So why did she need my car for a few hours? To not waste that good acid, she loved driving under the golden fall trees in the sunlight and watch the light and color change and sparkle as if she were driving in a different world. Shortly after this she was off to a new boyfriend, and had a cute little girl. I never loaned her my car again. I am narrow minded and mean.
Of course Coelho’s Brida does not get her partners wrong, or does she? Right or wrong she has great revelatory experiences, without chemical enhancement, and more than once. She is really a good girl, I liked her.
So after reading this, and believing some of it to have some basis in reality, why aren’t I just totally enthralled and enthused and sampling like mad to find my Soulmate to have 5-sense-stimulating other-world-opening sex with? Why am I having some difficulty with this? Am I a prude? Yes.
It bothers me that sex would be engaged in for a purpose, with a relative stranger, even though he is marked supernaturally as a Soulmate. This is sex for the sake of gaining knowledge from its climax's opening doors and windows into otherworlds. It seems utilitarian to me, and not the act of sharing love that makes sex a very good thing in our human experience.
BUT, the author anticipated this reaction and made sure that a reader like me knows that when two Soulmates join in sacred union as one, it is Love by definition, and it plays out something designed by the Creator of the Universe that keeps the world alive. This reminds me of the justification I have hears for some heinous actions in scripture: "God commanded it." Oh, well then, OK!
OK, if the Creator is made happy I should be happy too. But there are still some sour grapes I am chewing in this review. I have for many years been on the other side of this notion of sex as the key to revelation. I have been a devotee of ‘courtly love’ where it is the tension of UN-requited love, a devotional, worshipful love without the closure that sexual coupling brings, which creates a tension that opens windows into other dimensions beyond the normal ones we are typically aware of.
I have likened it to putting a charge into a capacitor. Close the circuit and the capacitor discharges with a very nice flash, sexually speaking. And you can always re-charge a capacitor if the devotional nature of the underlying love is not changed either over time or especially by this discharge.
A rather lengthy and fanciful discussion of an experience of this capacitor-aspect of courtly love is here on this site.
In Coelho’s book it is not the desire to celebrate mutual love that leads to union in one of the instances (but it is in another instance). What it is instead is knowing this is part of the path that has to be trodden to reach a personal, although spiritual, goal. A goal pleasing to the Creator, as already noted.
Is it the only path to enlightenment? There is something in the book about a really dedicated auto mechanic finding his skill with these mechanical contraptions to be supernatural and the key to his/her enlightenment. So let me get this straight: love or a car that needs fixing. I’ll take love. Thank you.
But the point is that there are other avenues, and for some who are not as human as we are, there is a different path altogether. Pages 169-170 may help, they tell how a mechanic can discover truth in his work, and hints that in fact there are a multitude of paths.
So am I just chagrined at Coelho saying that requited love is the key, and me saying that unrequited love is? Nah. Maybe it is one way for some people, and the other way for others. Like some are nourished by peanuts and other people it kills? Something like that.
Beyond the sex/spirituality connection (also addressed in Part II below), there were other things in this book that seemed 60-ish to me, such as the easy way that parts of the surrounding Catholic culture are wrapped into this world view of the magicians that populate this book.
It was not a bad book at all. It certainly worked to fill up my wide-awake jet-lag hours. (Don’t fight such unwanted but lucid times, fill them, is my approach.) But I find Coelho’s later books to be more complex and thought-full than this one was.
But we must also take into account who I am at this juncture in time. I am at a rather advanced age –a couple of years older than Coelho, if you must know. So disregard this old fart and go out and buy Brida. Brida is a very likable young woman. If I met her on the street and she told me I was her Soulmate, I would have to obey. The Creator would be pleased.
Theme 1: Souls and Soulmates
I was surprised, on page 62, to find out that as a man I could be described in this manner. This is not the generic use of “man:”
. . . ‘The whole of man’s life on the face of Earth can be summed up by that search for his Soulmate. He may pretend to be running after wisdom, money or power, but none of that matters. Whatever he achieves will be incomplete if he fails to find his Soulmate.
‘With the exception of a few creatures who are descended from angels - and who need solitude in order to encounter God - the rest of humanity will only achieve Union with God if, at some point in their life, they manage to commune with their Soulmate.’
Later in the book it is reinforced that celibate religious persons may be descended from angels, so they are not like us. This is an absurdity of the first order, but we will just let it slide right on by as we look closer at what Souls and Soulmates are.
The gist of pages 36 through 40 is that Souls divide as they incarnate, always into a male and female soul, and over many incarnations the Soulmates, formerly parts of our selves, become numerous.
This sets off another alarm bell in me. In the 60s there was not yet a liberation of women in many countries, and the religious notion of there being such a thing as a male and a female soul took the idea of “separate spheres” for men and women from the Victorian age right into the modern age. It is not clear at all if individual Souls are eternal in Coelho’s universe, but if they are, or even last a long time before being recombined perhaps, it projects "separate spheres” into the next life at the very least, even if not into the eternities.
I once accused (and still accuse) Mormonism of taking Victorian “separate spheres” ideals from the time of the religion’s origin, which is based soundly in patriarchy –man in charge– and then explicitly projecting these ideals into the eternities. Separate Spheres Forever was the name of a book I once started to write to call attention to this absurdity. The book got up to 400 pages and was beginning to bore even me. So then the internet came along and I changed some key chapters to articles to post on this website. I condensed the first few chapters of that book-that-never-was into a somewhat humerous confessional, and posted it on this site.
But let’s be perfectly clear about this: despite the trappings of patriarchy in these arcana that Coelho is mining and polishing, Brida is a liberated woman. She supports herself and initiates the two sexual encounters that help lead her to enlightenment. Plus, at the end she sees on her own that the instructions she has received in the context of the men’s Tradition of the Sun, and the women’s Tradition of the Moon, are overlapping and have a common basis. She is not a victim, she is in charge of her life and chooses to share it with one of her Soulmates. There is more than one Soulmate that she runs across in this incarnation, and you will have to read the book to see which she chooses.
Finding more than one such Soulmate in a lifetime, is possible, but not likely, the book suggests, and the design is to find that one special Soulmate in a given incarnation, the one Soulmate
. . . ‘who is sure to cross our path. Even if it is only for a matter of moments, because those moments bring with them a Love so intense that it justifies the rest of our days.’
In the context of explaining how souls split at incarnation, and the importance of recombining with a soulmate at least once in one's life, it is made clear that the story of Adam splitting into Adam and Eve was a Biblical hint at such a soul-splitting, and that in each of our lives
. . . ‘we feel a mysterious obligation to find at least one of those Soulmates. The Greater Love that separated them feels pleased with the love that brings them together again.’
How does one find this Soulmate in one’s incarnation?
‘By taking risks,’ . . . ‘By risking failure, disappointment, disillusion, but never ceasing in your search for Love. As long as you keep looking, you will triumph in the end.’
To me this suggests that the monogamy that is our societal ideal, though not often lived up to, is the wrong way to live if your partner is not also your Soulmate. To carry it a bit further, it seems to imply that when we choose a mate in our youth and pledge our sexual fidelity forever, and we find he or she is not our one Soulmate for this incarnation, we had better look for outside sexual encounters. Take the needed risks to find that one special Soulmate to seek enlightenment. This reminds me of the contest between ‘free love’ and ‘open marriage’ against the traditional marriage ideals in the 60s.
It also reminds me that sexual liberation, as far as I saw it in action, was liberty for men more than women, given where the consequences and obligations usually landed. Unsupported motherhood, and unsupported venereal disease, was often there for women to deal with, alone, as far as I saw.
Sexual liberation in a society without women’s liberation (and universal health-care) is a one-way freedom, with women at risk for severe poverty if pregnant and/or diseased.
There is another derivative idea that flows from this ideal, and this is one I like very much: the splitting of souls over and over makes us
. . . ‘responsible for the whole Earth because we do not know where they might be, those Soulmates we were from the beginning of time. If they are well, then we, too, will be happy. If they are not well, we will suffer, however unconsciously, a portion of their pain.’ . . .
The book continues this description of the role we play in the world, as Souls:
‘We form part of . . . the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World,’ . . . . To keep that soul vibrant and strong the dividing must be balanced by the continual recombination of Soulmates, in Love.’
Speaking of “separate spheres” as a basis for the separation of women and men in terms of rights, the book Brida contains notions typical of the 60s mind-set on page 63 where the separate contributions of men and women are described. The ‘glory of man’ is gaining and preserving knowledge– knowledge being
. . .’the power that kept the Universe in its place and the stars turning in their orbits.’
Women provide the transforming power that allows knowledge to make sense.
The given illustration is that men make soil fertile, women plant seeds, and the result of the joint effort is life.
‘When male knowledge joins with female transformation, then the great magical union is created, and its name is Wisdom. Wisdom means both to know and to transform.’
I am sorry, but this is a bit too 60-ish and traditional for me. Having known women scientists, engineers and writers of astounding intelligence, wisdom, and depth of knowledge, I know better.
There are no separate spheres at this level of working in the world. There are differences between men and women, differences that can be celebrated in the context of diversity, but ought not be used to classify and pigeonhole potential contributions to the greater good of the world on the basis of sex.
Theme 2: Cathars Again
This website has so many pages devoted to the Cathars that I won't try to provide a link to one here. The point is that I feel I somewhat understand their beliefs and history, and I am always intrigued whan Cathar history or belief is used to make a point in a book.
Brida has a past-life dream on pages 70 to 83, in which she is a Cathar woman witnessing, and dying during, the last gasp of Catharism at Montsegur. It is an interestingly told and well imagined account, but several times the idea of predestination in the Calvinist sense is alluded to as if it were a Cathar belief. This is not something I have run across in my own Cathar readings. I frankly doubt this was a belief of theirs. For an example, on page 77 the Cathars
. . . ‘believed that the good were good, the bad were bad, and that no force in the Universe could change this.’
On page 83 we learn that in that past life Brida had discovered the ‘wisdom of the world’ through the wrong path: the path of the Martyr and it was not her path. The other three paths for women are those of the Virgin, Saint, and Witch. This lifetime, she will select the correct path, for her, which is to be a Witch. Else there would not be this book of course.
Pages 88-89 return once more to the Cathar experience and reiterate that they believed there was no sense trying to convert people since they were either good or bad and nothing could change one into the other.
Theme 3: Limits on Ultimate Knowledge
Pages 171-173 have an interesting discussion that I will quote at length to allow Coelho’s point to be made at length. It is an important point given how often pretenders to having ultimate knowledge arise even in our own time and place:
‘I know how to travel between the present and the past. I know the world of the spirits, and I’ve communed with forces so amazing that no words in any language could describe them. I could perhaps say that I possess the silent knowledge of the journey that has brought the human race to where it is at this moment.
‘But because I know all this, and because I am a Teacher, I also know that we will never ever know the ultimate reason for our existence. We might know the how, where and when of being here, but the why will always be a question that remains unanswered. The main objective of the great Architect of the Universe is known to Him alone, and to no one else.’
. . .
‘Only the brave and those who understand the Traditions of the Sun and the Moon are aware that the only possible answer to the question is I DON’T KNOW.
‘This might, at first, seem frightening, leaving us terribly vulnerable in our dealings with the world, with the things of the world and with our own sense of our existence. Once we’ve got over that initial fear, however, we gradually become accustomed to the only possible solution: to follow our dreams. Having the courage to take the steps we always wanted to take is the only way of showing that we trust in God.
‘As soon as we accept this, life takes on a sacred meaning, . . . the greatest thing a human being can do is to accept the Mystery.’
Brida is next cited pondering the implications of this statement and then asks the obvious question, which receives an answer:
‘So what’s the point of looking for an answer then?’
“We don’t look for an answer, we accept, and then life becomes much more intense, much more brilliant, because we understand that each minute, each step that we take, has a meaning that goes far beyond us as individuals. We realise that somewhere in time and space this question does have an answer. We realise that there is a reason for us being here, and for us, that is enough.
‘We plunge into the Dark Night with faith, we fulfil what the ancient alchemists used to call our Personal Legend and we surrender ourselves fully to each moment, knowing there is always a hand to guide us, and whether we accept it or not is entirely up to us.’
This is a marvelous restatement of the position I have come to, decades after losing my religious moorings. Moorings that, once upon a time, had me believing there was an answer and I was approaching ‘knowing ‘. Then I lost my moorings and found a new life and a new freedom in not knowing. The so-called “cloud of unknowing” is vibrant and restores awe and wonder to life, giving it mystery, and color, and an intensity it did not have before. I wholeheartedly agree with Coelho's characters on this theme.
Theme 4: Sex as the Key to Enlightenment
This was partly addressed under Part I above. But there are two delicious and enthralling descriptions of Brida having revelations as a consequence of becoming one with her Soulmate. Pages 163-164 and 197 tell these stories very, very well, and it would be a disservice to Coelho to cite too much here.
Page 197's account includes this:
She had known love before, but . . . at that moment, with her Soulmate there before her, she understood that love was a feeling completely bound up with colour, like thousands of rainbows superimposed one on top of the other. . . . She was lying down, and the luminous being was on top of her, with a point of light above his left shoulder and filaments of light pouring forth from his head and his navel.
This was similar to what my friend who borrowed my car told me. All that is missing is a vision of a young man trying to enter the womb. Now that I have read Brida I see that there is no contradiction or error in that vision, because at the moment of a Soul entering a new body it is split into a male and female Soul, and obviously my friend carried the female one, someone else at the same time must have carried the male one. Maybe they will meet again in this life as Soulmates??
The other account on pages 163-164 was of interest to me because it includes the vision-door being open as a function of sexual tension, just like in my conceptual model for how “courtly love” works:
Brida knew she was close to orgasm, but it was still a very remote feeling, because she was entirely connected to the world: . . . . She remained in that state as long as possible, . . . . What she was feeling . . . was the bringing together once more of herself and the meaning of life; it was a return to the Garden of Eden; it was the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation.
Of course I liked that, it supports my 'courtly love' notions, but then she releases her control and this is when the real revelation occurs:
. . . As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world . . . disappeared, and in . . . [its] . . . place appeared a vast golden light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy.
Of course we had been prepared for this event on page 152 when it was explained that at the moment of orgasm the world disappears yet we sense, but we sense realities apart from our usual five senses. Mystics might or might not be surprised at the declaration that follows this explanation:
‘During those long seconds everything disappears, to be replaced by ecstasy. It is exactly the same ecstasy attained by mystics after years of renunciation and discipline.’
Theme 5: The Bible and Religion
Several times the Bible and religion are alluded to in this book, always in a surprisingly gentle and even supportive way. In one place (page 123) it is said that the Bible has within it all the ancient secret knowledge, and in another place the Bible is said to support the idea of Souls dividing into male and female Souls upon their incarnation, as already noted in Theme 1.
I got a chuckle out of two places where Coelho had his characters be critical of accepted Biblical interpretations and had them say things that, in concept if not in the words, could easily fall from the lips of any Mormon missionary during their lessons. On page 253, for example, the character says that Adam and Eve were supposed to touch that tree of Life, . . . ‘In order to set the Universe in motion.’ Similarly, Coelho’s character says on page 140 that the cross is a symbol of torture, not of holiness.
Other statements were also made that touched on Christian beliefs. On page 123 Paul is cited respectfully on the many gifts of the spirit, and on page 129 it is noted that at the crucifixion, the women stayed with Jesus and the men left.
On that same page a subtle connection is made between the Virgin and the "Religion of Love," which surprised me a little since the Religion of Love was a close ally of the Cathars and was declared heretical. Further, the fiery demise of Joan of Arc is related to her having worn men’s clothes. Historically correct.
These are nice women’s liberation themes: women are entitled to all gifts of the spirit, women by staying with Jesus proved to be the more faithful and one ended up being the messenger (=apostle) to the apostles. The Religion of Love is widely recognized as having had the effect of lifting women out of the dark place the contemporary Catholic Church of the High Middle Ages had assigned them to.
But at the same time, the old idea of male and female Souls with different spheres of action is brought onto the stage and into this play. Very 60-ish. Very naive in my view in that is simply takes what is observed here (through patriarchal glasses to an extent) and projects it both forward and backward into previous and afterlife existences.
As I said before, read Brida, you will not dislike it. It is impossible to dislike Brida.
And good luck finding your one special Soulmate. Or two, or three, or more maybe if you live long enough. But when you read Brida you will see that she chose wisely. You do the same.
Post-Script on Soulmates
I personally find the Soulmate idea to be next to useless. If we are, as souls, like leaves on trees, and those on our branch are the more closely related and more likely therefore to be soulmates, then anyone of any age and any sex, living or dead, can be an actual soulmate and the idea that it has to be someone from the sex that happens to attract us and that this explosive sex will blow away our senses and awaken us to a new life with a new vision is wondrously woven myth.
Soulmates can also be hell on wheels, I have written elesewhere, like fighting siblings can be to each other. So simply finding those few moments of ecstatic clarity during sex may be very costly in terms of your overall enjoyment of the rest of your life.
My opinion is this: If you and your life-partner are living a loving life, if you are living in a state of love, then count yourself very blessed and stop searching. There are many paths to enlightenment. Brida says so.
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