My having read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” has recently been a source of numerous incredulous stares among my acquaintances, and when I finally manage to dispel the disbelief over the fact that I really did read the book, it tends to get replaced with a deep suspicion over my motives of having done so. Of course, I stand by my initial comment that we’re not talking about immortal work of the future literary canon here, but I have to say that “Eat, Pray, Love” has given me a lot to think about — and while the book itself may indeed be trivial, the wider implications of its popularity and reception are anything but.
There is a whole range of different contexts, both literary as well as more broadly cultural, that the book falls into — quite conceivably perhaps unbeknownst to its author. Yes, it is chick-lit, travelogue and self-help, but that’s not all there is to it by far. When I was reading another scene of Gilbert crying her heart out on a bathroom floor and then reaching for her pen and notebook, I was reminded of “Confessions”, written in fifth century by St. Augustine, who was having very similar deeply personal written conversations with his God and who came to see his life as a mysterious pilgrimage of faith in search of grace. This means, however, both for St. Augustine as well as St. Elizabeth, that their spiritual journeys are not simply personal, but stem from a universal and transcendent yearning for the contact with divine, without which we remain incomplete. But there is more.
“Eat, Pray, Love” can be read as a contemporary take on a particular mode of travel — a journey of self-discovery (a confessional genre of its own) — that has a long tradition both in the West as well as East. Structurally, the book is a triptych, with it’s three parts being divided between Italy, India and Indonesia, each of which is meant to reflect one aspect of Gilbert’s contemporary take on the tripartite motto of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) that was supposed to define a woman in 19th century Germany. Gilbert’s own hendiatris (that replaces kids with love, kitchen with eating and church with whatever is her idiosyncratic idea of the personal relationship to the divine through prayer) in fact works within precisely the same categories, inverting them from the original social and institutionalized contexts to frame the model of modern, empancipated western woman of the 21st century.
While the year-long trip narrated in the book nominally takes Elizabeth Gilbert half across the world, in fact her journey is an entirely internalized one. Whereever she goes, Gilbert doesn’t really visit a place, which is always almost completely bracketed off. The experience of the whole subcontinent of India in the novel is distilled into two nightime taxi rides (back and fro between the Mumbai airport and an ashram in a “rural village”) and a daring dash into the gentle night, where Gilbert runs from ashram gates to the valley below, to hug a tree (I kid you not). So instead of three places she goes to, Gilbert explores three aspects of the self, defined by the hendiatris. Although there is an implied sense of adventure and perhaps even danger, the real fear — or even simply a confusion at the face of alterity — never shines through, because in truth, there isn’t any. Gilbert finds all the places the way she expects them to be, there is zero surprise, and, in a rather Coelhoesque manner, the world often seems to conspire on her behalf. This stands in sharp contrast with the train wreck of her spiritual state and personal life — which, as readers are being constantly assured, is the real issue. This is where the real dangers lurk and it is by confronting the inner daemons that a true test of character is passed, as is hinted at when Gilbert speaks of the courage of the group of people, arriving at her ashram for a week-long solitary meditation.
This would lead one to ask: why then travel at all, why not have the spiritual journey from the comfort of one’s home? Perhaps the answer would be that it is by traveling away from home that Gilbert is able to break free, to establish control over her social environs that she cannot do back home. Back home, one needs to fit in, to be considerate of other people’s expectations, to conform with the norms of one’s own culture. The East, however, provides Gilbert a culturally blank canvas to project her “true self”, whatever that is, onto. The only real expectations to live up to are those of being filthy rich and having no obligations, or, as Gilbert points out herself in case of her co-expats in Ubud, basically not being expected anything of. Trying to escape the world of Kinder, Küche and Kirche, Elizabeth Gilbert journeys into another world, where the rules (that no doubt do exist locally) do not apply for her, so that she can suspend them and recreate herself. She can cherry-pick not only her religious views (discussed in chapter 70), but also her anxieties. She can agonize in clear conscience over the dangers of losing her libido or creativity, or not being perceived as young or attractive enough by cream-puff-eating Italian hunks, but not to worry about the social pressure to stay married, settle down and have children.
And ultimately, in its 7 million (and counting) paper copies, “Eat, Pray, Love” allows countless women to travel along, although for a vast majority of them it no doubt remains a travel of the armchair variety, both literally as well as metaphorically.