One of the writing projects I’ll be turning to in the near future is a review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things. I thought that made this an appropriate time to revisit her earlier work. I also wrote a bit about Committed, which I ended up not liking as much as Eat, Pray, Love.
Eat, Pray, Love was not one of the books I specifically had in mind to read this month. In fact, until recently it wasn’t a book I ever intended to read–but the positive reviews of Committed at Tales from the Reading Room and Of Books and Bicycles made me curious, so I put holds on the digital copies of both of Gilbert’s books at the public library and lo and behold, this weekend, just as I was despairing at the difficulty of reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, I got to the head of the queue for Eat, Pray, Love. Rescued! Because after all, I own The Man Who Loved Children, so there’s no rush there, whereas Eat, Pray, Love will expire on my Sony Reader in just a few (well, about 12) more days! So I simply had to put everything else aside and read it. Right?
And you know, the thing that surprised me (because of various prejudices I had going into this) is that once I’d started reading it, I really did want to put other things aside and keep going. One reason is that Gilbert makes the reading so easy: her prose is lively, conversational, personal, colloquial. It’s also full of vivid details, entertaining anecdotes, and genuinely funny quips–for some reason I didn’t expect the book to be quite so funny, but for the first time in a while (since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I think) I was chortling merrily through a book, which actually was a nice change after all the gloomy Catholics and grim police inspectors I’ve been hanging out with this term. La Vendée is no laughing matter either, and as for Agnes Grey, which I whisked through last week–why, the kid who likes to torture baby birds is delightfully cheering, really!
To be sure, there is some serious stuff in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s struggles with divorce and depression are not, in themselves, funny at all, and though I had trouble taking Gilbert’s spiritual quests and episodes of transcendence quite as seriously as she does, they too are not intrinsically comical. But Gilbert has a gift for finding the irony or just the plain old silliness in any situation, and she relates even her most profound spiritual experiences with enough self-deprecation and unpretentiousness that it didn’t matter much to me that much of what she said about religion was pretty much all feel-good evasions and platitudes.
It’s not altogether complimentary, of course, for me to say that I basically gave the book a pass on this because it was fun to read. Usually I’m more stringent than that! So why aren’t I railing at Gilbert for peddling comfortable truisms? I did do a little rueful head-shaking, but mostly I just moved on to the next “good” part, mainly because Gilbert is really just talking about herself, and she seems perfectly sincere. She comes across as someone who is smart but kind of flaky, and the book–which is a memoir, after all, not a a treatise, not even really a self-help book (since she’s too smart to insist that what worked for her will work for anyone else)–speaks in her voice and tells her story. She is who she is, so the book is what it is.
But that doesn’t quite do justice to the book: it sounds more condescending than I think is altogether fair. Though the book is not a deep intellectual or philosophical exploration of the meaning of life in general, I did find it unexpectedly thought-provoking about life more particularly. In her review of Committed, litlove remarked that the book “makes you consider your own life, and those of the friends and family around you. Her vivid emotional honesty encourages you to look clear-sightedly at yourself, and the range of information she provides, as well as the stories she tells, provide a rich tapestry of experiences against which to measure your own.” I haven’t read Committed yet (I’m still in the queue!) but this description really fits Eat, Pray, Love as well. For instance, Gilbert talks about her (first) marriage and her reasons for finally leaving it in terms that probe the nature of the demands and expectations of marriage and family (an encouraging sign for Committed, which obviously continues these themes). I doubt that anyone who is or has been married can read someone else’s frank analysis of their own relationship without holding the mirror up to themselves. But some of the more abstract issues that arise as Gilbert makes her own voyage of self-discovery and self-affirmation were ultimately the most interesting to me.
One thing she talks about a lot, for example, in the context of her four months in Italy, is pleasure or beauty. She learns Italian in the first place because she thinks the language is so beautiful, and her Italian experience (the “eat” part of the book!) is full of sensuality (but not, as she repeatedly reminds us, sexuality, or at least not shared sexuality, as she has committed to celibacy–no easy commitment to keep, as she also often reminds us, when surrounded by beautiful Italian men). A lot of this sensuality is expressed through food. I particularly relished her description of the pizza she and her Swedish friend eat in Naples, which may well be “the best pizza in the world” –because the pizzeria is the best in Naples, which has the best pizza in Italy, which has the best pizza in the world:
I love my pizza so much…that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair. Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do they even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm? Why do we even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?”
…I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust–thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yumy, chewy, salty, pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a high contact of glamour to everyone around her. . . . really, the pizza is so good we can barely cope.
But pizza, even the best pizza in the world, is still pizza. Her most amazing meal is in a little trattoria in Sicily:
It’s pasta, but a shape of pasta I’ve never before seen–big, fresh, sheets of pasta folded ravioli-like into the shape…of the pope’s hat, stuffed with a hot, aromatic puree of crustaceans and octopus and squid, served tossed like a hot salad with fresh cockles and strips of julienned vegetables, all swimming in an olivey, oceany broth.
And the next night, in another “little restaurant with no name,” “the waiter brings me airy clouds of ricotta sprinkled with pistachio, bread chunks floating in aromatic oils, tiny plates of sliced meats and olives, a salad of chilled oranges tossed in a dressing of raw onion and parsley. This is before I even hear about the calamari house specialty.” (Mmm, calamari!)
Gilbert is in love, enraptured, with the sights and smells and flavours of Italy; her pleasure is palpable. But what is it worth? She’s perfectly aware that what she’s doing might seem–might actually be–sheer self-indulgence. “A major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure,” she herself remarks, “was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure?” And in Sicily especially, where “you can still find yourself picking your steps through World War II rubble, … is it maybe a little shallow to be thinking only about your next wonderful meal?” The meditation on the human value of pleasure and beauty thus provoked was, to me, one of the most thoughtful and convincing parts of the book. Gilbert understands how privileged she is to be able to seek pleasure deliberately, exclusively, as she is doing, but it still seems fair to propose that “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity,” a reflection of “individual human dignity.” The juxtaposition of beauty and degradation does create a tension, one she is honest enough to admit, but to turn away from beauty out of guilt would be what Will Ladislaw calls, in Dorothea, “the fanaticism of sympathy.”*
I was less convinced by her yogic experiences–or I guess I should say, since I can hardly dispute her experiences, by their underlying philosophy of acceptance. Gilbert talks a lot about her battle to overcome discontent and dissatisfaction, and she can be eloquent or, again, very funny about the damaging effects of these negative emotions on her life and her relationships. But there’s a fundamental passivity in all that embracing the wrongs and the injustices and the hurts and the insults and the failings–letting them into your heart and just living with them, or letting go of them. At a difficult time in my own life, someone recommended the book Full Catastrophe Living, which preaches a similar philosophy. But what if you don’t want to accept the things that are wrong, but rather to change them? to fight against them? I’ve long been a believer in the importance of dissatisfaction: it drives political change and social transformation, after all! Without people who refused to accept things the way they were–well, we can all put together a catalogue of the advances in social justice that would never have been made. Isn’t something similar true at a personal level? Acceptance may be the path to mental quiet, but it has always seemed to me the path, also, at least potentially, to self-suppression (which is, I suppose, actually the point), and also, again at least potentially, to unacceptable levels of self-sacrifice. It’s just not an ethos I can embrace. As a consequence, I have not found lasting mental quiet, and I continue to struggle against and complain about and be dissatisfied with some aspects of my life that I may ultimately never be able to change–or maybe I shouldn’t even aspire to change, who knows. Of course I’m always conscious that all things considered, I have it pretty good (I must say that seems especially true in a week full of overwhelmingly bad news from all corners of the globe). So I often feel guilty about my own mental chafing (meta-self-criticism!), and I wondered, as I read Gilbert’s rapturous accounts of learning meditation (and of the aftermath, in which she is both happier and, of course, much prettier) whether I should go down that road and seek contentment and inner peace through acceptance. I still have Full Catastrophe Living, after all. Gilbert isn’t really that specific, though, about the long-term benefits, or even about the real-world implications of her training. Maybe Committed will clarify for me what learning to just live with (or even embrace) life’s imperfections and disappointments means for her in practice. How do you find the balance between that acceptance and standing up for what you (or others) want, need, or deserve?
So that’s eating, and praying. The final part of the book is, of course, about loving–including her eventual abandoment of that vow of celibacy. Though I found her account of life in Bali as lively and entertaining as the rest of the book (at least, the rest of the travel and eating parts), the happy romantic conclusion seemed pretty pat to me. If it were a novel, I would have been disappointed at the descent into cliché, and at the way yet another story ostensibly about a woman’s self-discovery ends with her finding Mr Right. But I guess it really happened that way! And in the end, it doesn’t much change my overall response to the book. It made me laugh and it made me think. Both are good things in a book!
*For some interesting comments about Eat, Pray, Love as an example of “priv lit,” see these posts from zunguzungu and MillicentandCarlaFran about the film adaptation. I haven’t looked into the wider debate they reference–but I did follow up the link in the comments to Historiann’s post “Selfish! Selfish! Selfish!” which is well worth a read in this context.
Originally published March 16, 2011.
I think the despising backlash about Elizabeth Gilbert tends to posit this book as prescriptive (which it isn’t) rather than descriptive (which it is). She isn’t saying she’s found the solution to all of life’s problems for everyone; or even for her. I think the book could be a total privileged catastrophe of a book, and it isn’t for just the reasons you say–she’s laughing at herself the entire time about the things she did and thought. So I can respect that. And the book is awfully funny. :p
This is a great essay, Rohan. I haven’t read Gilbert’s book (have had trepidations similar to those you described pre-reading), but saw her TED talk a few years and was astonished at how impressive she was. I also enjoyed your reflections on pleasure and beauty and Italy because I am actually going to Italy in September. I’ve found myself almost embarrassed to tell people, because the place we’re going–Lake Maggiore, in the Italian Alps–sounds so luscious (and looks so from the photos). And at the same time, am stewing about all the bad news in the world, and how I got so lucky, and have been thinking a lot about Ahdaf Soueif, and wondering whether you have any news of her in the midst of all that is going on in her city.
Jenny: Yes – it’s a near miss at times, but the difference between descriptive and prescriptive really saved the book for me.
Susan — Italy! Lucky you indeed, and you should just treasure the opportunity. Beauty is good for the soul! I think one reason I find winter here so hard is that everything really gets very ugly. Sure, there’s the occasional sunny day right after a new snowfall when there’s that icy crisp winter wonderland effect, but within hours the snow is piled up and covered with grime. And the trees are denuded for months. Even on a good day in summer a lot of this city is pretty drab (after almost 20 years I’m still shocked at the amount of litter) and in winter there’s just nothing to compensate for it all. On my recent trip to Vancouver I could just feel the gorgeous landscape replenishing my spirit.
I follow Soueif on Twitter and see the occasional update from her but I haven’t seen any extended commentary from her about what’s been going on, though there may have been something, maybe in the Guardian — I should go look. I was thinking again about the optimism in her book about Cairo and the revolution, and wondering how she looks back on that now.
A quick update to your question about Soueif, Susan: she just posted this link to Twitter:
I am presently reading EG Eat Pray & Love. Personally her love of food in Italy and the reason for it gives me something to ponder. Like there is something in her needing to surface that is caught. Something in her deep psyche (all of our deep psyche’s) she’s not getting in touch with. Maybe she’s does later in India and Bali. (I’m not there yet) The writing is excellent yet I think there was something more to her eating than just eating for pure pleasure. After depression deprived her of most everything for years especially the taste of food I think her copious amounts of food intake in Italy could have been feeding her prior emptiness or something inside of soul thus giving her the pleasure she describes. Instead of alcohol her pleasure is food. Instead of sex it’s food. In every town she has the urge, this drive, almost manic like to hunt down the best food in it. Similar to a heroin addict hunting down his fix in every new town. Funny I haven’t read anything that denotes my sense of this. Yet if someone describes their quest for alcohol and drugs like Ms. Gilbert does for food they’d be certainly called an addict but it’s never been suggested that perhaps her time in Italy was spent addicted to food.
I don’t mean this harshly nor judgmentally of EG. Merely observing my thoughts as I read her tale.
May we all live in the light and search it as earnestly as Elizabeth did and probably still does.
Maybe I’m way off so I’d love to hear your replies.