Eat Pray Love

>> Thursday, August 13, 2009

Buffy: Every single night the same arrangement
I go out and fight the fight
Still I always feel the strange estrangement
Nothing here is real
Nothing here is right

I've been making shows of trading blows
Just hoping no one knows
That I've been going through the motions
Walking through the part
Nothing seems to penetrate my heart

I was always brave and kind of righteous
Now I find I'm wavering
Crawl out of your grave you find this fight
Just doesn't mean a thing

Vamp: She ain't got that swing

Buffy: Thanks for noticing
I first attempted to read this a year and a half ago for my book club. I couldn't get a copy at the library, so I had to buy it. I got less than 50 pages into it. The paperback version is a little more than 300 pages, so I barely got into it. (I couldn't get through much of anything at that point, probably even a picture book.) So I couldn't contribute much at book club when we discussed the book, not that we always had long ranging conversations about the books we read. Anyway, the only thing I remember coming away from the discussion at book club about it was that Elizabeth Gilbert whined too much about her life and etc. One person brought a printed-off-the-internet critique that I thought was pretty interesting. I seem to remember it saying that "men wrote books about adventure travels prior to Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, so why is this book considered to be revolutionary?" Actually, I was just able to find it. Here's a snippet:
Of course, part of the reason Gilbert’s book is so popular is that she writes with charm and insight, even as she presents herself as an imbalanced and not entirely sympathetic narrator. What might be derided as a cliched and blatantly male “mid-life crisis narrative” seems honest and soulful when distilled through the sensibilities a woman. Through such a raw and fallible self-portrayal, Gilbert allows female readers to vicariously examine their own lack of satisfaction in their lives—and ponder how travel might bring them spiritual balance. (For men, who are less likely to empathize, reading “Eat, Pray, Love” is like traveling the world with a lovely and intelligent girlfriend who can’t stop talking about herself: You’ve come to admire this woman—and you wish the best for her—but you wish she’d stop yapping about emotional minutiae so you could both look out and enjoy the scenery from time to time.)
"Vicariously examine their own lack of satisfaction in their lives—and ponder how travel might bring them spiritual balance." Um, really? That's quite the sweeping generalization there. That's not why I read it. I read it because I had it and started reading it a year and a half ago and wanted to knock it off my books-I-plan-to-read list. Really.
Demons and Vamps: She does pretty well with fiends from hell
But lately we can tell
That she's just
Going through the motions
Faking it somehow
Demon: She's not even half the girl she--ow...
The paragraph by Rolf Potts above was predated by Maureen Callahan's piece in the New York Post, "Eat, Pray, Loathe," which helped fueled a "backlash" of sorts regarding this book. This is the passage I've seen most quoted around the internets, which details a woman who replicated Elizabeth Gilbert's travel:
"It was just very special and it made me feel like, you know, 'You can do anything.' And then when I got home, I realized I didn't need to go there, because all the work I need to do has to be done here. I need to say out loud what my problems are and what I want, 'cause I don't do that. . . . It can be embarrassing sometimes, when you've got everything but what you really want you don't have."

That statement, confused as it is, speaks to the most disturbing aspect of Gilbert's book: it is the worst in Western fetishization of Eastern thought and culture, assured in its answers to existential dilemmas that have confounded intellects greater than hers. You may be a well-off white woman, but if you are depressed, the answer can be found in the East, where the poor brown people are sages. Gilbert's nearly toothless, elderly medicine man often didn't recognize her, and her medicine woman nearly hustled her out of $18,000, but these are inconvenient details her worshipful fans similarly disregard.
This doesn't have anything to do with "Eastern thought and culture;" although, it provides an easy scapegoat for Callahan's piece with such statements like "where the poor brown people are sages." The majority of Callahan's piece is about the cult of Oprah, and how OPRAH cultivates followers to employ copycat tactics to find their "inner selves." Because that is Callahan's real gripe.
What is going on? Why is it that women, in overwhelming numbers, are now indulging in this silliness in a way that men are not? (To be fair, there was the equally unhinged "Iron John" movement in the '90s.) Oprah's audience has helped turn serious, artful literature like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and Elie Wiesel's "Night" into bestsellers. So why aren't they clamoring for more weight when it comes to Oprah's female authors? Where's the Joan Didion? Or Alice Munro?
Because you know that every time you pick up a book, it MUST be a "classic" and by a "good" author lest you ever read something you have an actual interest in reading something that YOU want to read. Callahan continues:
Instead, we are saddled with this narcissistic New Age reading, curated by Winfrey (who is responsible for turning "The Secret" into the year's best-selling book) and newly abetted by Gilbert, whose own book is 2007's second best-selling title. During her most recent appearance on Winfrey's show, Gilbert beamed beatifically while spouting stuff like: "If you take the word 'no' and put it backwards, it's almost 'om.' " "When you fill up your own skin with yourself, that alone becomes your offering." "There are days when I look at that meditation mat in the corner of my room and say, 'I'm gonna have to see you, like, Thursday, but I know you're there and we're coming back to each other.'"
I just consider watching Oprah to be a waste of my time, which is what Callahan should really try saying instead. But, you know, that would take actual guts rather half-assing your piece with quotes from Christopher Hitchens. But, of course, other people picked up on Callahan's piece and went a bit further, The Revealer:
The reality, of course, is that most readers of Eat, Pray, Love don't have everything, and certainly not the means to take the Gilbert cure of a year-long journey into the heart of indulgence. We see Gilbert readers on the subway everyday -- middle-aged, working class women reading the book as they stand crushed in the morning rush, young women riding in from the boroughs to do the underpaid work of "entry-level" jobs that as often as not lead to defeated departure from the city, young, poor mothers clutching the book in one hand and a kid in the other.

They're the victims of Gilbert's spiritual snake oil as surely as fans of The Secret or Joel Osteen's prosperity gospel who're encouraged to respond to economic woes with magical thinking. No health insurance? Forced to work double shifts? Can't afford enough heat? The problem, dear reader, is spiritual, not material. Join a union? Forget it. Work with a church group to demand legislative change? Stop worrying so much. All you need is love, and 15 bucks for a paperback to read on the train.
Victims? Spiritual snake oil? Are you fucking kidding me? When did this book become Mein Kampf? How do you make the jump from an anecdotal, travel memoir to saying those who read it are going to disengage from politics and the rest of their lives?
Buffy: Will I stay this way forever
Sleepwalk through my life's endeavor
Handsome Young Victim Man: How can I repay--
Buffy: --Whatever
I don't want to be
Going through the motions
Losing all my drive
I can't even see if this is really me
And I just want to be
I find a lot of these "backlash" critiques disingenuous, including the "adventure porn" one. I think it's pretty simple to understand what the book is about: Elizabeth Gilbert's sabbatical. Yes, a sabbatical. You know, those things college & university professors take from time to time so they can continue to excel at their jobs. Taking breaks are the same reasons farmers let fields lie fallow for a year or two: They function better.

She details what led her to take this sabbatical by talking about her emotional breakdown during her marriage and divorce. Topics that don't dominate the book even though they pop up from time to time depending upon...the topic. Wow, strange concept, eh? I can't imagine that ever happening in the history of writing. Personally, I think the Slate review of the book was the most accurate I stumbled across.
So why then is my affection for Eat, Pray, Love so furtive? In part it is because of the inevitable arc of recovery built into the story. When I picked up Eat, Pray, Love, with its pretty, inviting cover, I was reaching for a happy ending: There would be no book if Gilbert returned from her travels tanned but confused. The memoir lacks the ambiguity we associate with a more literary effort. It feels like there is something inherently trashy about reading for that redemption, for a happyish ending in a tropical place. But there is a rich and compelling strand here: a story of how Gilbert goes from a very serious depression to being basically all right that has nothing to do with pasta and gurus. How does one get better? If one has the stamina to narrate the process, to write frank and chatty postcards from this immensely difficult transition, then one is in fact putting rare and valuable information out into the world. And so I would say for summer, Eat, Pray, Love is a transcendently great beach book.
Eh. Gilbert could still have had a book had there not been a happy ending. She had a book contract signed as she stated at the beginning of the book, which provided her the money to take this year long expedition. Something many critics seem to forget when they start talking about "adventure porn" and Oprah's lemmings.

I don't consider this book to be particularly "spiritual." Gilbert may relate some "spiritual" insights/anecdotes/stories from time to time, but it's full of so many other varying anecdotes that describing it as "spiritual" really is far fetched. But labeling it as "spiritual" is what has clearly driven so many people mad as noted above. (I guess these people are unaware of what marketing campaigns are made of. Appearing on Oprah hocking your book is a promotional appearance. Free advertising for your book. If Oprah read your book and found it "spiritual," then it's not too far fetched for Oprah to frame the book that way on her show. Fucking duh!)

And what does a "Buffy" song have to do with this? Two things. First, I happened to listen to the song when I started reading this two weeks ago. I think it nails the emotional burnout that Gilbert was describing at the beginning. The wanting not to feel a certain way. Not knowing how to fix it. Stuck in some kind of weird purgatory. Not everyone has experienced burnout so deep that they have no idea how to fix their lives other than to just run away and do nothing for a year. Second, I thought I could split my post up into three sections with it just like the book is split into three sections. Ha!

"Going Through the Motions" written by Joss Whedon. (This was the best version I could find on You Tube.)


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