The Price of Enlightenment

Critics have pointed to two seemingly-valid points about the book and movie, Eat, Pray, Love. The first is that the story is a self-indulgent tale of privilege, the second that no one would complain if such a tale were written by a man.

Travel narrative, memoir, story of self-help and inspiration aimed at women, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” is a bona-fide sensation. The 2006 book, chronicling a post-divorce journey which jolted Gilbert out of midlife depression, was again perched at #1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list this summer. It had sat on the list for nearly 200 weeks. The film adaptation, released last week, coaxed the semiretired Julia Roberts back onto the screen in the Gilbert role and had a respectably profitable opening weekend.

Throughout the tale, divided into three sections based on the words comprising its  title, Gilbert indulges her senses in Italy, meditates seriously in India, and tries to find some balance in Bali–where she ends up falling in love.

Gilbert’s story describes the recovery of  a woman with surprisingly few of the ties that bind most of her contemporaries. She has no financial difficulties, no family members old or young to care for, and is saddled with no other burdens, no obstacles to devoting an entire year to pulling herself back together. Perhaps it’s this fantasy, that of having the freedom to find yourself sans credit card debt or childcare, which holds such tremendous appeal. It’s related to an appeal that the travel narrative has long held for men–a drop-everything-and-run avenue to a kind of emotional and spiritual succor that the everyday grind cannot offer men or women. It’s both aspirational and escapist.

And the fact that the story somewhat glosses over the gory details of its heroine’s depression and ennui to revel in the healing, the eating, and the loving enables women to envision themselves in Gilbert’s place, to replace her discontent with their own.

Gilbert’s like-able style, many critics have noted, practically begs to be embodied by an America’s sweetheart like Roberts, and its hard not to enjoy parts of the lush film in which she stars. Particularly enjoyable are the Italy scenes which feel less culturally insensitive and more “Food Channel” indulgent. Although it’s quite ridiculous to watch lithe Hollywood actresses moan about gaining weight from all those carbs, the message that letting go of our socially-ingrained anxiety about feeding and pleasure is a pleasant and innocuous one. Besides, the exchange between America and Europe is one which very much goes both ways (they give us food and culture, we give them jeans and MTV or something like that), whereas once Roberts/Gilbert arrives in an Indian ashram longing for the spiritual breakthrough that will allow her to forgive herself at last, the feelings of icky exploitation begin, and they continue through Bali–where she meets a group of wise locals who issue profound life advice in exchange for sundry services.

Ariel Gore, author of “Bluebird: Thoughts on Women and Happiness” who has critiqued books that target the supposed misery of the modern women–and who teaches memoir-writing classes–finds that Gilbert’s story differs from traditional travel lit: “the adventure that ensues is not climbing Mt. Everest, it’s not the same kind of adventure stories that are traditionally more popular for a male audience,” she says.

Gore’s critique–that Gilbert’s brand of adventure involves too much consuming and flaunting of economic privilege–is at the heart of a progressive uneasiness with “Eat, Pray, Love,” whose author is herself an avowedly progressive woman.

The book, and now movie, has been a cause of frustration for those who believe that Gilbert is, perhaps unwittingly, packaging a moneyed fantasy, a new-age alternative to the “Sex and the City” creed of empowerment via unrealistic purchasing power.

In a 2010 article in Bitch magazine, authors Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown used the term “Priv-Lit” to describe a new kind of self-help literature hawked by Oprah–whose book club helped launch Gilbert to stardom–and exemplified by “Eat, Pray, Love. “Priv-lit” the authors write, means ”literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work… but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial.”

Times critic AO Scott takes issue with this critique, saying that no one ever counts the cash spent when it comes to male self-actualization. He writes that “the kind of class consciousness that would blame Liz for feeling bad about her life and then taking a year abroad to cure what ails her strikes me as a bit disingenuous–a way of trivializing her trouble on the grounds of gender without having to come out and say so.”

I went to the film (having read chunks of the book), like Gilbert, attempting to find balance. I was torn between these two seemingly-valid points: the first being that the story is a self-indulgent tale of privilege, the second that no one would complain if such a tale were written by a man.

After soaking up the scenery and the journey with dozens of other women at a matinee, I came to my decision. To me, the latter point is valid insofar as the story is Gilbert’s and Gilbert’s alone. She can’t change who she is, and the time-honored tradition of embarking on external journeys to find internal truths is a valid, and clearly resonant one for her to have tapped into. The problem comes when the tale is taken as prescriptive, as a philosophy rather than a narrative. Because this particular story omits some hard truths about both life at home and abroad, it’s easily manipulable as a packaged formula for enlightenment than as the light and ripping good yarn it should remain.

The packaging of “Priv-Lit” as self-help preaches the idea that an awakening like Gilbert’s has to be achieved via desire and effort. But this “you, too, can do it” message is belied by the fact that even initiating such an effort often costs a good deal of money and time.

In Gilbert’s case, that money came from a book advance–she’d pitched her tale of self-actualization before embarking on the journey. Ariel Gore recalls hearing Gilbert speak about previous travels she’d achieved on her waitressing tips, and wonders wistfully what that memoir would look like.

“It’s unfair that when we do get narratives about women travelling or women doing something adventurous, that it has to be padded with money,” she says. “We don’t get stories about a waitress traveling on tips or a mom pulling her kids out of school and spending a year on the road. These kinds of narratives would be more complex and more attainable.”