It's Labor Day, and to celebrate I watched Oprah. Her guest was Elizabeth Gilbert--not from TV's Little House on the Prairie; that's Melissa Gilbert. Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the enormously successful memoir of Eat Pray Love, which recounts her travels through Italy, India and Bali in search of transcendence. Apparently she found it, and now bazillions of middle-aged women are finding it too.
I haven't read Eat Pray Love, so I write this post only as an observer of the book's impact on Oprah's audience. I should also mention that I know a number of women who found the book enormously appealing, and I tend to trust their instincts and insights. So I'm not critiquing the book. What I want to comment on is the elevation of this memoir to the status of "Bible," to quote at least one woman in Oprah's audience. I'd like to argue that it's not Gilbert's achievement as some kind of zen master but her aptitude as a writer that makes this book so significant in the lives of so many people.
Not everyone, the author freely acknowledges, can make the kind of pilgrimage she made--four months in Italy, a similar jaunt to India and a final stint in Bali. She comes from the ranks of American aristocracy, and so can afford the luxury of the extravagant spiritual quest. Moreover, not all the ideas in the book that have captured the imaginations of so many readers are especially novel. Oprah devoted a fair bit of space to Gilbert's concept of building "a wall of no's" in order to protect space for reflection and self-discovery, but that idea fits very comfortably alongside countless voices arguing against a lifestyle of excess or busyness. And when pressed Gilbert defined God not by her own insight but by using the language of the Gnostics--a socially acceptable modern fundamentalism.
Gilbert actually struck me as quite humble. She sums up her book as a "ladder of words that I built to pull myself out of a very deep hole," and she is honored by the notion that her ladder of words is now enabling other women to facilitate their own escape. It's that ladder of words that, I think, is the unique contribution of this book.
Gilbert is a great writer in both an aesthetic and an ethical sense. She articulates things that other people struggle and fail to articulate, and so she establishes a solidarity with (and among) her readers that they might not otherwise have established. She also encapsulates exotic, sometimes arcane ideas into wearable language, so that her transcendent experience has an elegant earthiness to it. Above all, while many of us are fearful of the kind of honesty and transparency that a pilgrimage--both in the geographic and the spiritual sense--demands, she is willing to be an icon of honesty; she observes herself thinking and living in a way that emboldens her audience to observe first her and then themselves.
I'm troubled by some of the testimonials that came from Oprah's audience. This roomful of women had each absorbed the book, and those with the best transformative stories were given a microphone. Most of them went from reading the book to writing themselves a "bucket list." From the comfort of my family room, the overall message of these testimonials amounted to an embrace of self-absorption. The one testimonial that involved self-sacrifice--volunteer work on the gulf coast and in tribal Africa--gave equal attention to jumping out of a plane and running a half-marathon. Check, check, check and check.
These lifestyle changes were based on the author's (I think) very wise counsel to ask themselves each day "What do I really, really, really want." But that question doesn't confront us so much as it cajoles us. What if what someone really, really, really wants can only be achieved by the neglect or the exploitation of another? But even if I really, really, really want some ice cream, to then get some ice cream is not to achieve transcendence or even know myself better; it doesn't advance a quest but actually shuts it down prematurely. A second question I'm not sure that Gilbert offered or that her audience pursued, but that I think is perhaps more essential on the pilgrimage to the self and a more ethical posture toward the world is this: "Why do I really, really, really want it?"