Monday, September 01, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love, Repeat

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?"

6 comments:

Mike K. said...

True words at the end, Dave. Could it be said that the question "What do I really, really want?' and the drive to fulfill that answer no matter the cost is what has defined the American Dream as bloated and self-serving above all else? I wonder how the Sermon on the Mount would have been different if Jesus used the author's question as a theme of His message. Or how the oppressed & poor Jewish people would have responded to Him. I assume the author thinks that the "really really want" question will change you for the better, but I think the whole "seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you" idea might just trump that. Good post, sir.

Bob/Sir Pent said...

I want to Zigga-Zig Ahhh
(You DID ask me to tell you what I want, what I really really want.)

L.L. Barkat said...

Great review from someone who hasn't read the book. ;-)

I'm 2/3 of the way through; I only read it when I travel alone. Which is about four times a year. Maybe I will finish it next spring. Or summer.

Why have I really, really not finished it? I have asked myself that question quite a few times. Let's just say that Gilbert often strikes me as completely self-focused but then she comes up behind me with some kind of awesome enlightenment. So I find myself vacillating between intense dislike of her and her thoughts and wondrous surprise and delight in her and her thoughts.

stillsingle said...

Dave, read the book! I knew nothing of it until I received a copy for Christmas last year, and from a glance at page one I was entranced. This is EXCELLENT writing. It's out loud restoration (you should appreciate that). It's as if Gilbert, 100+ years after Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening, had the same story to tell; only Gilbert's story was real life, and only instead of dying she decided to live. There must be something terribly significant in the themes that Chopin and Gilbert have selected that they reach women in such a deep place. I think both authors are speaking to the same issue that Proverbs does when it speaks of "the unloved woman who is married." And the question Gilbert poses, "What do you really, really, really want?", is the right one, because it gets women thinking and believing that life holds more for them than the mere image of love/peace/joy. Even if the answers are superficial and self-centered at the beginning, the continual asking of "What do you really want?" ought to result in the realization of the difference between what satisfies and what doesn't, especially if we, the church, walk alongside and put our two bits in. This question might lead one of these searching women straight to Jesus. Or at least eventually to Jesus. I predict that this very great book is going to be with us for a while (Chopin's is still in print over 100 years later), so this time around we might as well address the core issues, and make the most of the opportunity.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Still Single, that is a fascinating insight into Eat Pray Love. I know people who are raving fans of the book, and last night I met a book club full of women who detested the book. I suppose I too quickly fall into the evangelical sin of impatience, although I still maintain that the second question simply must follow the first, even if the first is doing its own good work.

Bob, you're simply a weird dude.

L. L. It's been too long. Great to hear from you.

And Mike, nice counterpoint. Still waiting for Oprah's rebuttal.

Kami Rice said...

This is the book my book group is reading this month, mostly because we're all curious to see what all the buzz is about. I'm only about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way into it and find myself generally enjoying the author and her style more than anticipated after all the effusive rave reviews. I'm interested to see where the rest of the book heads and am hopeful my own travel preparations don't keep my focus so much elsewhere that I can't have an opinion about the book at its end.

Interestingly, the book's early pages include an account of an Italian guy she did a language exchange with...she helps him with English and he helps her with Italian. I thought that sounded like a really nice idea and then stumbled upon a website offering just such exchanges. And now I think I've found a native French speaker to converse with while I'm in London...her French for my English, even if it isn't British English. I suppose I sort of have Elizabeth Gilbert to thank if I become more fluent in French this fall.