The My Dog Ate My Blog recently published a great piece called Eat, Pray, Love and our Perpetual Pursuit of Happiness where they raised the interesting and polarizing phenomenon that is the Elizabeth Gilbert book - they emailed me and invited me to comment on their post, so here goes ...
As their article rightly points, out some people (like me) love and feel inspired by the book and by the human fallibility that leads Gilbert around the world; others despise her apparent selfishness and lack of satisfaction with what seems to many people to be a pretty good life. From My Dog Ate My Blog:
One reviewer calls Elizabeth Gilbert “the most self-important, obtuse, boorish, annoying cretins ever to put pen to paper.” Another says that the book “epitomizes everything wrong with American culture today: worship of the mediocre, travel without seeing anything, polarizing of the Other and fake spirituality.”
Regardless of whether you liked or hated the book, the kind of vitriolic attacks spouted off in these reviews reminds me very much of the trolls who crawl about the web leaving nasty comments in their wake because some deep misery compels them to torture themselves with content they obviously dislike and to share that anger and contempt with its author instead of just clicking 'next', changing the channel or simply putting down the book. Criticism has a worthy place and can often bring us to a greater understand of a work of art, literature or film but it is only of value if its intent is to bring something new to the table rather than to just obliterate that which it is meant to be critiquing.
So what about Elizabeth Gilbert and her book fills people with this kind of hatred? I think it's probably the same thing that also makes people adore her: she is honest and unrepentant and selfish and human. Most of us who are in a position to read her book or watch the film, wherever we are living in the world, are probably doing okay: we have a disposable income that allows us to purchase books and see movies in the cinema and we have some amount of free time with which to indulge in these things. Yet, like Gilbert, many of us are also inexplicably unhappy despite having achieved a level of comfort that should be enviable.
In the opening scenes of the book when Gilbert is bawling alone in her bathroom because she can't force herself to feel good about a life that should make her happy, we are right there with her because misery loves company.* We are too afraid to change our lives drastically because that is scary and as long as Eat, Pray, Love validates the continual, sainted slog, we are rooting for her. But then, Gilbert changes the game. She decides to mix things up in a horrible, messy, selfish way - by blowing up the domestic bliss that we ourselves are complicit in trying to will into existence in our own lives. Instead of finding inspiration in what she does and appreciating her mistakes, her actions really make some people angry including the unhappy people who are too afraid to change, the unhappy people who are pretending everything is fine and the unhappy people who are worried that their unhappy spouse is going to leave them. And these unhappy people, who apparently also have a lot of free time, spend it writing mean, personal non-constructive reading much in to the nature of the author - never mind the quality of the book.
It's important to note that a lot of people just don't like the book: from the writing style to the story and characters. That's fine, it's not for everyone. But these people are probably not spending their time writing sentences about Gilbert's cretinous nature. These people likely have a life.
Perhaps as important as the question 'why do some people hate Gilbert' is: why do some people love her. In this I can only speak for myself but I think it's because her book gives us permission to make all kinds of mistakes in pursuit of something fulfilling. A few years ago, when I was in a seemingly perfect life in a long term relationship, with a house and a good job, Eat, Pray, Love articulated something that I had been feeling for a long time but was too afraid to admit out loud: there's more to life than this. I felt trapped by the goodness of the life I had chosen; there was no villain in my scenario, no horrible occurrence that I could use to justify turning my world upside down. The responsible thing would probably have been to tough it out, suck it up and do what so many generations have done before me - accept my lot and work with it. But at this particular junction in human history, in Canada anyway (where I'm from), I got to make a choice and I unabashedly and selfishly chose myself. I packed up a few suitcases and moved overseas and now I am a quarter of the way through a one year journey around the world with a man I love to bits, who applauds my stilted and awkward (read: boorish and obtuse) attempts to live my life courageously.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a good role model for someone like me because she is so deeply, deeply flawed. All those annoying qualities - boorishness, selfishness, self-importance - thank goodness that someone else is afflicted with these things too! We live in a society where we still like to imagine that the ultimate fulfillment is found in marriage and motherhood but the reality is that both of those things are hard work and they aren't for everyone. Gilbert gives us the permission to fail at the very things that are meant to define us, even today, and that is terrifying and exhilarating and yes, of course, it really makes some people angry.
I don't know if I'll see the Julia Roberts film mainly because I don't want to ruin my experience of the book with yet another lazy adaptation. I also think that Julia Roberts is always first and foremost herself and in everything I've ever seen her in, instead of being captivated by a film, I find myself just being constantly brought back to how very Julia-like she is. But whatever your experience with the book or movie versions of Eat, Pray, Love I think it's important to try to understand your reaction, whether you hate it, love it or feel complete ambivalence. Art shouldn't be just an abstract thing that exists out in the world; it should tell us something about ourselves at our deepest and sometimes ugliest.
What does your reaction say about you?
* To those of you (and I know there are many!) who are genuinely happy, whether married, single and with or without children: congratulations! This post isn't directed at you because I suspect you aren't spending hours hating on a woman who did what she wanted and ended up liking her life as a result.
Image Credit: Breath, Dream, Go