I finally had a look in on Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that sold 4 milllions copies in paperback and this summer became a movie starring Julia Roberts. (I know I am late to this, but, as an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture, I’m trying to keep up with everything.)
Three things struck me.
1. This book is tremor material. It begins with a repudiation.
Wasn’t I proud of all we [Gilbert and husband had] accomplished–the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life–so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper, and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and — somewhere in my stolen moments–a writer…?
This is a thoroughgoing "no" to the consumer society, and I couldn’t help wondering whether we shouldn’t read the immense popularity of Eat, Pray, Love as an indicator of seditious thoughts and impending realities.
No one is very keen on revolution in a downturn, but come the return to prosperity, it’s just possible we will have fewer takers than usual. We may be looking at what Mohamed El-Erian, a prince of the investment markets, calls the "new normal," a time in which people swear off material goods. I’m on record as arguing that there will be no enduring new normal, but Gilbert’s book gave me pause, as tremors will.
But Gilbert is saying "no" to more than the consumer society. She is actually saying "no" to husbands, babies and suburbs, and "yes" to a spiritual quest. And if this is what speaks to 4 million readers, then we are could be on the verge of cultural revolution that resembles in the late 60s or the early 90s.
Wow! In our culture, many things are possible. So the anthropologist (and fellow traveller) must keep track of everything happening at the moment AND all the alternatives this present will smuggle as stow-aways into the future. At the moment, it feels like we live in a relatively orthodox cultural moment, but then the present always has this "home field" advantage.
The "now" comes equipped with its own feeling of inevitability. But let’s not give in to this feeling. It’s a trickster in our midst. The trickster that pretends it isn’t. Or to borrow, and adapt, the immortal language of The Usual Suspects, ‘the greatest trick that culture ever played was to persuade us that it doesn’t exist.’
2. Gilbert, a creature of her time. Gilbert’s quest feels to me a little like the traditional mission of the avant-garde artist. She is keen to discover her real self, the one concealed by a middle class commitment to husbands, babies and suburbs. But it’s not long before we see that she is also a postmodernist. For she is searching not for a single self, but for several of them.
This is a book about eating, praying AND loving. Gilbert seeks her self in Italy, India AND Indonesia. Gilbert is tempted along the way to cultivate one of these existential modalities. But no. She refuses to choose.
The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life. If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness. Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught. … What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing. … I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence–the dual glories of a human life.
This is the postmodern voice. When told that one ‘life choice,’ one ‘self choice,’ must cost us the other, the postmodernist says, "I refuse to choose. I will have them all."
Thus when Elvis Mitchell asked Steven Soderbergh how he prepared for the movie Out of Sight, the director said he said to himself, "If you blow this, you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things. I wanted to do both." Choosing between art house and big budget, this was the cross on which filmmakers of a previous generation had crucified themselves. Because in those days you had to choose. Not Soderbergh, and not Gilbert. Not any of us. Postmodernists don’t.
3. Gilbert, perhaps an architect of her time? Understanding Steven Soderbergh and people like him was the mission of a book I published a couple of years ago called Transformations: constructing identity in contemporary culture. My anthropological mission was to figure out how to describe a culture in which people claimed this kind of latitude and liberty for themselves.
This book ends with my account of something I call "expansionary individualism." This is too grand a term, to be sure. It came to me while sitting in Central Park beside the reflecting pool. Some guy was sending a small wooden sailing ship out across the water, and just as it was about to crash into the concrete lip of the pool, he would catch it and push it out again. And I thought to myself, "Hey, c’est moi. My life in a nut shell (and reflecting pool). Journeys don’t end neatly. Moments before disaster, I just push off again."
This is what it’s like to live lives in a culture of expansionary individualism: selves accumulate, experiments come and go, things get messy and stay messy. We just keep going. My favorite description came from someone, I forget who, who said, "my self is like a low rent motel. There are many people living here, we are not all on speaking terms, and frankly everyone’s a little alarmed by the guy in 2C." (It seemed to me apt that so much of Christopher Nolan’s Memento was shot in a motel.)
Perfect. Postmodernism would have to result, I supposed, in disorder, multiciplity in mess. But that’s not how Gilbert sees it. Her mission was a quest not just for many selves but for a harmony between them. Hey, presto. Artist to the rescue. No sooner have we invented a culture of commotion than an artist steps up and suggests a way we might return to order. That is, I guess, what we pay them for.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. 2010. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin. (Kindle location 360-374 for first quote, 686-699 for second)
McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press.
Rich, Motoko. 2009. “Eat, Pray, Love. Then What? Get Married.” The New York Times, August 20 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/books/20book.html?_r=1 (Accessed August 3, 2010). (source for sales figures.)
I can’t find the source for the Soderbergh / Mitchell quote.
There’s another analogy that we use here in Brazil reflecting the self and life:
“life is like a boat, you should have a safe harbor, but as you are a boat you are made to travel and discover new harbors.”
I think there is a growing trend toward rejecting the consumer society (or at least appearing to, on some level). Did you see in 2008 when Oprah did a series of webcasts about Ekhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth?” Millions of viewers joined in to meditate on and discuss being happy with their lives, as they were, without needing things. She has since hosted several radio shows and Oprah episodes about similar topics pertaining to spirituality and happiness. A spiritual revolution, gaining steam?
You are feeling the tremor and seeing the trend. I offer two other observations to add to your insight.
How HSN and ‘Eat Pray Love” Turn Content into Commerce
A post I wrote on Salt (as evidence of the postmodern multiple self.)
Interesting, and I really do hope this is a tremor, but I can’t help being skeptical.
In my mind I’m comparing (and contrasting) this book against the stories that appear from time to time – both books and articles in papers/magazine – about people who have cast off the shackles of the contemporary rat race to pursue some simpler existence (which I think is one output of attempting to rationalize beliefs with identity). Typically these stories involve the purchase of a farm, vineyard, property in Tuscany, or an extended period of “walk-about” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkabout).
I guess my skepticism stems form the fact that I think we hear about these stories, and enjoy them, because they are outliers. Don’t we admire the people in these stories because they are doing something 99% of us can’t (or won’t) do? To quote Braveheart (no fear of quoting a Mel Gibson movie here) “uncompromising people are easy to admire”. Do these journeys, whether that of the artist to explore identity, or people casting off one aspect of their identity for another, really make any difference to the rest of us in a tangible way? In other words, will it create enough change in our attitudes to begin changing our behaviors?
Yes Eat, Pray, Love has 4 million readers, plus however many will see Julia Roberts in the movie, and it may even get people thinking, and maybe even pledging (a la New Years Eve). But I’m not sure that it will be enough come the metaphorical February when the excitement of new beginnings dies down, and the hard work of remaining committed to working towards our goals begins.
I sure would love to be wrong though.
On the tremor: Gilbert, Ekhart, Deepak Chopra and for that matter, the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul series are at the front edge of this wave, but there are thousands of others making for a long tail indeed…
We just keep going… I think that is indeed the norm, new or old. And the messy part, is it really more messy now than say, the 50s, or is the mess just more externalized? We keep going and maybe we are just a bit more conscious and accepting of the randomness of our path?
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ps: still can’t get the RSS feed working through your blog or yahoo
I must be even more skeptical than Alex. I don’t think there’s evern a metaphorical February to come. I suspect that the four million readers are just as likely to reject consumerism and go on spiritual quests as the millions of Food Network viewers are to actually cook anything they see on one of the programs they watch.
Some will, for sure, but I think that most of the people who do are doing that regardless of Gilbert’s book. And the vast majority are part of the pervasive spectator culture.
Like Alex, I dearly hope I’m wrong.
If you have a lot of stuff, more stuff is less appealing. So sure, this woman is going all anti-materialist on us (although her adventures seem like pretty expensive experiences). Diminishing marginal utility, baby–it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
Sorry, have to disagree with you on this one. This book isn’t about repudiating consumerism…it’s about swapping to a “more meaningful & aesthetically elevated” version of consumerism.
( a la David Brook’s “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class & How They Got There” — also about expansionary identities, btw: how some ppl want to be both the hippie anti-establishment bohemian & the rich successful entrepreneur)
(I do agree there’s some anti-consumer/Simplicity stuff going on in the broader culture…I just don’ think this book is a great example of that)
This book is inherently about the material things & experiences that money can buy. It fits right in w/ all the research saying people want cool show-off experiences more than they want physical goods…experiences have become as expensive & (in some ways) harder to obtain than just buying a piece of bling. You can buy six-figure bling online 24/7 these days while sitting around the house in your underwear…how is that exotic & cool anymore?
Other evidence of consumerism related to the book:
– the author now runs a chic home goods store near NYC :-O
– boyfriend/future husband is a jewelry designer
– tons of product tie-ins: Cost Plus World Market, Republic of Tea, designer clothing etc http://www.bit.ly/anEkRy
– tour companies & guidebooks hawking “Eat Pray Love” tours & books http://www.bit.ly/9ZJoM9 (including one tour for “just” $19k+)
To me it’s not anti-consumerist…it’s a romance novel/female fantasy. One Amazon reviewer likened it to a literary version of “Sex in the City” (& I enjoy that show so I don’t mean that as a slam). The author starts out exhausted — she’s the primary breadwinner, homemaker, social coordinator, dog caretaker, husband caretaker, caretaker of future child. No wonder she feels bled dry — who wouldn’t? (According to a non-statistical sample of my female friends who are working, married & of middling age: this is a *very common* feeling.)
Fantasy solution: she gets a book deal to get paid to spend a year traveling in lovely places having wonderful experiences….gets a sexy Euro-style boyfriend who’s creative & an artisan & crazy about her & convinces her that men & marriage are OK after all….she writes a best-selling novel about her Search for a Meaningful Life — & people *love* the novel & make her even more famous & wealthy than she was originally — & Julia Roberts plays her in the movie!
Now *that’* a *hell* of a female fantasy…who *wouldn’t* want that life? But it’s not inherently anti-consumerist, IMO. YMMV
The ‘episodic’ vs ‘narrative’ distinction adds something to this picture too I think: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204886304574308530848197684.html and also an attempt to reclaim Weber’s “Faustian universality of man”, to escape the “iron cage”.
But the additional thing with this genre (and one might say the insidious aspect of it) is that it serves as not as a provocation to change one’s life but mollifies this urge by vicarious experience. So I think in that way it’s a very traditional format, and doesn’t do what you describe in Transformations, of providing a habitable template for others to follow.
Reader, she said “yes” to husbands and suburbs…
The success of EPL as a fantasy rests partially in the fact that Liz Gilbert rejected a level of material success that most of her readers will never achieve. Most of her readers don’t have two homes, eight phone lines, etc. Many of them don’t have husbands, either. The fact that Liz Gilbert felt so unsatisfied by her material and marital success made her more appealing to her readers who could now feel better about how their accomplishments stacked up to the protagonist of EPL. By “throwing it all away”, LG was in a sense saying “not to worry if you haven’t got all this, girls, you wouldn’t want it if you did.” LG’s age is also relevant: like most of her readers, she is 30+. The fantasy of going on a Grand Tour at 30+ is so decadent and so out-of-the-question expensive for most of her readers that it was truly a fantasy that only a wealthy woman could afford.
But the fantasy could not be more traditional or bourgeois. After all, it ends with the finding of a new man for her to love. And they don’t stay anywhere exotic, or keep traveling. Instead they move somewhere like NJ or PA and sell imported furniture—which the whole EPL phenomenon helps to market. Could not be more materialistic or commercial! Reinvention indeed:-)