Gorge, Covet, Spend
Tonight, thousands of Oprah’s Book Club members will flock to theaters in the hopes that Julia Roberts will give their middle years more meaning and help them to unlock that special orb of potential enlightenment that glows within us all.
I’m talking about Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling cash cow memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, whose film adaptation opens in theaters today, starring the Pretty Woman as Gilbert.
If you haven’t read it, I’ll shed some light. Gilbert is a magazine writer working in Manhattan. She is married to an equally successful man and living between a beautiful home upstate New York and a tony apartment in the city. But she’s not happy, feeling suffocated by her marital obligations and the need to reconnect with herself and… whatever.
That’s when God (yep, big G) speaks to her and gives her license to embark on a decidedly self-centered journey for inner peace. Stay with me.
After a costly divorce and a destructive whirlwind rebound relationship, Gilbert sets out on a three-part vacation across Italy, India and Indonesia, funded by a handsome advance from her publisher, to nourish her body and soul and help her find the Divine in her everyday life. For a year she stuffs her face with pizza in Naples, “meditates” in a remote ashram in India and makes it with a Brazilian gentleman in Bali.
Life is so, so hard.
Interspersed throughout, and in short paragraphs, Gilbert articulates what yogis, monks and gurus have spent a thousand lifetimes searching for, and what many have yet to attain. Somehow, even in her self-serving pursuits (and they are all highly narcissistic), after a few weeks of meditation in India (where she admits she spent more time talking about her failed relationships than actually meditating) she — get ready for this — “finds herself transported to God’s palm.”
Eat, Pray, Love is a decidedly cloying tale about a very wealthy, very affluent, very white woman’s extravagant and wordy quest for self-confidence. Gilbert is an eloquent and funny writer, and at times even relatable in the broad-stroke-experiences-way, i.e., feeling like shit when you end a relationship, being out of place in a different country, etc. That said, her background, her present-day life and this fantastical cross-continental pilgrimage are so esoteric that they in no way represent most women.
And yet, women across the country — women whose most luxurious experiences involve a Sandals resort (there’s nothing wrong with that) are eating it up like low-cal yogurt. Somehow, most likely due to Gilbert’s gift for coming off like your richer, more refined best friend who doesn’t really look down on you and Oprah’s insistent shilling, it’s become a how-to guide for personal exploration and discovery.
This all fits nicely with with Oprah’s one-woman campaign to brainwash women into “living their best life” which, translated, means to purchase Oprah-approved products like pillow shams and spa weekends and chrome plated salad spinners, neatly quantifying the price of happiness. The glaring omission, of course, is that Oprah has an amazing life because she’s worth more money than her viewers will make in a lifetime… collectively.
In Oprah’s world, there is a notion that “living better” or attaining inner peace is somehow achievable through consumption, an idea exacerbated by the film and its glossy, hyper-attractive, sun-kissed portrayal of the main character’s already-fetishized account of her own experiences.
Elizabeth Gilbert had the extreme fortune to travel the globe, staying in posh townhouses and out-of-the-way ashrams because she had the money to do so and a cavalcade of wealthy friends and family members to fall back on if she didn’t. But no matter how many anecdotes about all-carb diets and their relation to pants size, or sex (or the lack thereof) or bladder infections, the bottom line is that this is not your average woman, and her “search for divinity” has little more real depth than a drop-in hatha yoga class.
This superficiality isn’t driven by Ms. Gilbert’s affluence or life station, but by her own oversimplification of life’s weightiest ideas. And to be fair, it’s unlikely she set out to write an everywoman’s guide to personal enlightenment. But her life circumstances become significant when her experiences are being marketed as universal truths.
Just as troubling is the fervor over Eat, Pray, Love and the imitation it has bred — thousands of middle-aged women in gauzy frocks have overtaken the small town in Bali where Gilbert stayed, shacked up in posh guesthouses and bent over their laptops as they write their own memoirs about how hard life is for women of a certain age. The very notion of buying enlightenment from one’s travel agent demonstrates a key problem with how Eastern religion and medicine are continuously compartmentalized by Western culture.
Eat, Pray, Love has created a craving among the acolytes of privileged women like Gilbert (and Oprah), and reinforced that the surest way to satiate that craving is through your wallet. The film, replete with Julia Roberts’ toothy grin and contrived affability, will spawn a whole new breed of New-Age hangers-on, dripping in chunky jewelery, empty Moleskines in hand.
Quick survey: If you had to guess, how many “yoga retreats” to exotic destinations do you think will be booked by Sunday? I shudder to think.