||When Publisher's Weekly reviewed "Place of Mirrors" the reviewer implied that my book was a copy-cat of "Celestine Prophecy". Considering the phenominal success of that novel, I guess I should have been pleased with such a comparrison, but in fact it really upset me. You see, I really didn't like "Celestine Prophecy"! Here's why...
A Questionable Quest
In Redfield's bestseller, The Celestine Prophecy, we are told about a mysterious manuscript, found in Peru, that portends to offer numbered insights into the meaning of life. The "First Insight" concerns events that appear to be coincidental, but are actually the result of the power of the mind; thought becomes reality. Not an original concept, still, I found it interesting that a number of "coincidental" events brought me to this book.
The Celestine Prophecy first came to my attention in 1994 when an editor compared my manuscript for "Place of Mirrors" (a novel about the ancient Maya) to The Celestine Prophecy". Distracted by the usual confusions of daily life, I never got around to running out to my local bookstore and eventually, I forgot about both the book. It wasn't until several months later that I noticed the title in a book club mailing and ordered it. Strangely enough, my book club never shipped The Celestine Prophecy. Instead, the novel found its way to me as a Christmas present from my son.
At long last, I would find out about this book that had gained so much attention. I eagerly pored over the first few chapters, but it was soon apparent that The Celestine Prophecy was simply an effort to present New Age philosophy in a palatable form, by packaging it within a "quest". The ideas presented were hardly original, and I found the story enveloping those ideas seriously lacking in the promised "narrative drive". Losing interest, I put the book aside and probably would have never picked it up again were it not for a letter that appeared in my e-mail some time later. Quite "coincidentally," someone had read The Celestine Prophecy and searched eWorld's member profiles for people interested in the Maya, to send them this question: "Do you know whether the references to the Maya in The Celestine Prophecy have any historical or archeological basis?" Being what I consider somewhat of an expert on the Maya, I was now compelled to go back to finish the book, since I hadn't noticed any references to the Maya in the few chapters I'd read.
So motivated, I wadded through The Celestine Prophecy. Because the references to the Maya don't occur until the final chapter, I had to finish the entire saga. By then I had plenty of fuel for a less then complimentary critique. The basic philosophical message presented here is a conglomeration and over-simplification of new age spiritual teachings and modern psychology. At the risk of sounding like one of the "Intimidator" characters Redfield describes in the book, I have a problem with the way these ideas were presented. The ridiculous references to the Maya, as well as the fact that an ancient manuscript, written in Aramaic, is found in Peru, tells me that Redfield failed to do his homework.
Consider the manuscript. We are never offered an explanation for its Babylonian script. My guess is that Redfield originally described the manuscript as an Inca text until he was enlightened to the fact that the ancient Peruvians didn't have a written language. He could have made the manuscript Mayan, because the Maya had a complex written language and, although we know of only a few codices that survived the purges of the conquistadors, the possibility that a Spanish priest or fortune hunter squirreled away a Maya manuscript in Peru is at least plausible. Since epigraphers have now become proficient at deciphering the Mayan glyphs, translating would not have created an insurmountable problem in The Celestine Prophecy. Instead, by resorting to Aramaic, Redfield implies that the insights he's revealing throughout the story came from the Old World. Lest he be accused of insinuating that the indigenous people of the Americas were incapable of authoring the mysterious work, Redfield ascribes the final Insight to the Maya.
Once again, here is evidence of a failure to perform adequate research. In the final chapter we are told about a site called the Celestine Ruins near Iquitos, Peru. According to the author, the ruins were originally built by the Maya and later occupied by the Inca. Even a cursory glance at a map of Central and South America will demonstrate how ludicrous this is. The Maya civilization flourished in Mesoamerica-the Yucatan peninsula and Peten jungles of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. It is possible, although I'm unaware of any artifact that would support the theory, that Maya merchants could have navigated the 1500 miles of Pacific coastline from Guatemala to Peru, perhaps for trading purposes. But I seriously doubt they would have settled at a site 500 miles inland, which is where you'll find Iquitos!
This is not a harmless error. Redfield did a great disservice to the Maya people, not by erroneously throwing their ancestors into this story, but by saying that the Maya civilization mysteriously vanished by raising their level of energy to a vibration that made them invisible! With that nonsense he invalidates everything he's tried to teach in his book. First, the Maya civilization did not disappear. We now know that between 800 and 900 AD (got your dates wrong too, Redfield), many Maya sites in the Peten region ceased to record events on their stone monuments. Most likely, continual warfare resulted in the collapse of the status quo that supported the construction of these monuments. But the Maya people did not vanish any more than did the inhabitants of Italy disappear after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Archeological evidence indicates that Maya sites in the northern Yucatan were actually expanding at the same time that their relatives were abandoning their cities in the southwest. It's theorized that the inhabitants of these northern sites were refugees from the old sites, bringing their skills and knowledge with them.
In any case, the Maya civilization eventually suffered the fate of all civilizations throughout recorded history-it failed. And there are many valuable lessons we can glean from that failure, if we are willing to exercise our intellect enough to learn the truth. What Redfield offers us instead, is the lazy way out. His tale is a worthless smoke screen of pseudo-facts that gives us nothing of value because they simply are not valid. What's more, this misinformation isn't fair to the Maya people who are still very much alive today, with a culture that is rich in spirituality and values we would do well to study. The civilization collapsed, but the people did not disappear. Unfortunately, today the Maya, and all that they can teach us, are at risk of truly vanishing, not by "vibrating highly enough" but by the systematic genocide of the Guatemalan and Mexican governments.
So much for the references to the Maya. Unfortunately I also have a serious problem with The Celestine Prophecy that concerns the "free-spirit" mentality in the story. I'm not against personal freedom, but at some point we must temper our pursuit of happiness with responsibility, if not for anyone else, then at least for ourselves. In the story, the main character apparently has quit his job working with emotionally disturbed adolescents, and is living in a cabin by a lake, when an old friend shows up to tell him about a mysterious manuscript in Peru. Off he goes to Peru in search of the manuscript, and I assume that he has charged the cost of his flight, etc. with a credit card, which he will have to eventually pay.
But how will he do this without a job? Is he independently wealthy? In his pursuit of the elusive manuscript, he travels through a country where most people are desperately poor. Yet, throughout the story, one stranger after another takes care of our friend. His food and lodging seem to magically appear. Who buys this food, who cooks it, who cleans up the dishes? Does our character assume that all of these people who assist him in his quest and survival have enough money to feed an American freeloader? Does our hero rent a car when he arrives at the airport in Lima, like any other tourist? Of course not people just show up and rescue him from all kinds of situations and offer to drive him from one place to the next so that he can pursue his quest. Can we assume that our character offers to pay them for their gasoline? There's actually a scene where a priest, Father Carl, gives him his truck! What would the poor people of his parish have to say about that!
Not only is this aspect of the story unrealistic, I think that promoting this kind of irresponsible attitude is downright dangerous to the survival of our civilization. Look around our cities and even our suburbs and notice how many homeless people are young adults. Why is it that so many healthy, young people can't manage to provide for themselves in even their most basic needs-a roof over their heads and three meals a day? If humanity is supposed to be evolving, as The Celestine Prophecy proclaims, shouldn't the first commandment of spiritual awakening have something to do with personal responsibility? In this book, it seems that Redfield has gleaned his philosophy of life from television sitcoms, where no one ever has to work for a living. We have a whole generation of young adults living at home with their parents because nobody is making it clear that somebody has to pay the rent and purchase the groceries.
Speaking of rent, who is paying the main character's rent, electric and phone bills back home, while he's wandering around in Peru? Not to worry, we are assured in The Celestine Prophecy that in the next millennium people will give us money "for the insights we provide". In the case of James Redfield, this is already happening. This sloppy piece of philosophical nonsense was on the bestseller list for years! But ask those lost souls living on the sidewalks of your hometown if anybody is offering to feed them for their insights?
As for the philosophical message offered in The Celestine Prophecy, I'd like to suggest a book that may be slightly more challenging to the intellect, but which provides more "insightful" explanations of the concepts Redfield presents. Rupert Sheldrake's Rebirth of Nature provides a clear, intelligent rationale for the energy fields described by Redfield and accepted by many. His explanation of "morphic resonance" offers exciting prospects for the evolution of humanity. I agree with Redfield that there is a level of consciousness which we can learn to tap into in order to affect our outcomes. This is a widely held belief that is usually referred to as the power of positive thinking. Perhaps the popularity of The Celestine Prophecy comes from the fact that it makes the concept of positive thinking easy enough for the masses to understand. All the more unfortunate that it's not tempered with a good, healthy dose of reality.