That's enough out of you, Elizabeth Gilbert
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Updated: Thursday, October 14, 2010 19:10
Let me preface this by saying that I want to go abroad and am probably just really bitter and envious of her opportunities.
Elizabeth Gilbert has issues. I haven't read all of "Eat, Pray, Love" (I've skimmed through passages and read the New York Times book review of it, as well as the Wikipedia entry devoted to it), but I'm disturbed by her book concept as a whole, which, I think, is exactly the opposite reaction I'm supposed to have. She pitched an idea, got a book advance and used that advance to fulfill her idea. With me so far? I'm perfectly fine with receiving grants for projects. Heck, I'm applying to several fellowships right now to fund travel or to further my education after I graduate (gosh, senior year is a freak show). But when that project is the abstract, psychologically engaging and draining process of finding yourself, it becomes awfully close to bolstering the permeating, pandemic belief that money can buy you happiness.
The thesis, if one can extract one from Gilbert's memoir, is that one must find a balance in one's life to achieve true happiness and fulfillment. I agree with that. She goes to Italy to eat and enjoy art—an aesthetic lifestyle—and to India to find prayer and peace—a spiritual, ethically grounded lifestyle. So Gilbert ventured across the globe to "leave behind her baggage" and start afresh. And then Advice from the Ancientswe know how the book is going to end from the beginning. I didn't even have to read much of it and I know exactly how it ends: a messed-up lady, battle-scarred from life finds fulfillment and a fairy-tale romance. But the baggage is still there. Maybe with all the eating, praying and loving she's done, she'll be able to confront her remaining problems with a more open mind and fresher spirit. She thrives in being a non-traditional woman, who frees herself from an unfulfilling marriage, enjoys writing freelance and "experiencing" that which she writes about. She even fashions herself as a bit of a Gonzo journalist—but then again, I think Hunter S. Thompson might just rise from the grave, kill her and return to being dead if he ever heard his coined phrase being used in such a context. She acts like this adventure to "find herself" is something groundbreaking that will change the way she looks at life. But if you look at her work, this is what she does for a living. She inserts herself into situations in order to write about them—she has lived as a waitress/bartender for the first Coyote Ugly bar, as the cook on a "dude ranch"— and then she writes about her experiences.
Even more, Gilbert has no other attachments: she has no children and writing is her occupation. Though she must be courageous for her willingness to "drop everything and go," she has the luxury of being able to drop everything, without shirking any responsibilities. Call me an idealist (and apparently an angry one at that) but life happens when you're not planning it, when you're not getting an advance to write about something that has been contrived. Where do the facts of her story end and the fiction begin in order to make good on all that planning?
I know I'm simplifying things. I could be just a stupid Bostonian, but Gilbert is from New York, correct? If I'm not mistaken, there are close to one-hundred museums in the city and hundreds of spaces reserved for prayer and worship. By leaving her home behind, she gets a chance to leave that which is plaguing her and start afresh, but isn't she, to some extent, running away from her problems as well? I know she doesn't like her life and wants to inspire others to change if they need it; but most people have neither the time nor the capital to leave everything and "find themselves" in lush countrysides. Most people have to work with what they've got. Shouldn't she be confronting issues within herself and her society, endemic to her life as she knows it? Wouldn't that be fulfilling enough? Or if she were to go to these places, couldn't she find fulfillment in helping people? India suffers from crippling poverty, but she wants to go there and "find herself". (I'm sorry, this is getting personal. It just really annoys me).
Then again, I know I would not be immune to the charms of travel if given the chance to write about it. If I was given a large amount of money to run away for the year, here's what I'd do: I'd rent out the most fabulous manor house in Britain that I could find, learn how to ride a horse, pretend I'm in "Brideshead Revisited" and find myself reinvented as a pretty darn cool member of the aristocracy.
Then, after falling in love with the cranky but honorable and loveable lord of the manor, we would get married and live in rural England, alongside our children and antiques. They would make a Merchant Ivory film about us, entitled "Gosford Park 2: Rise of the Americans" or "The Window by the Door" or something really clichéd and poetic like that. Colin Firth would play my potential husband. I would play myself (I might have gotten the lord of the manor, but as an award-winning writer, I want to keep my options open). I have this entirely planned out. Now think of Gilbert's book: it feels as if she already had everything planned out. She went to find herself: what happened if she didn't? What happened if she went to Italy, got food poisoning, got mugged and ended up thoroughly depressed and never even made it to India or Indonesia? Or worse, what if she went to Italy and nothing happened? It seems as if she never took this into consideration, because she is determined to "have a life changing experience." And all power to her: she worked to change her life and it happened. I understand that she needed a book advance fulfill this project of "finding herself" overseas. But let's not pretend that this was anything organic, any sort of serendipitous event, or that money had nothing to do with it : she was given a lot of money, and she used it to eat and buy her way to happiness. That is what this was. What if she didn't get the money to go overseas? Would she then have been able to "find herself"? Or would the project have fallen flat? What about the mother, or father, or small business owner, or teacher, or dentist who wants a reinvented life? How can this be of inspiration, when you really deconstruct it?