Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Bloomsbury, London 2006
Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm
This book was made into a movie in 2010. I saw it some years ago and remember the occasional detail: the landlady in Rome insisting that Elizabeth not have any male guests stay overnight; Richard in the Ashram in India calling her Groceries because she had such a prodigious appetite. My overall impression wasn’t positive; the heroine seemed like a wealthy, entitled American on a self-centred quest that most of us could only dream of. The plot also seemed very schematic; equal parts culinary excess, ascetic withdrawal at an Indian Ashram and falling in love in Bali. See bitchmedia.org/article/eat-pray-spend
for a a review that takes a similarly critical line.
Then I happened upon a copy at a library sale and snapped it up for 50 cents. The cover proclaims loudly that the book has sold 10 million copies world-wide, so it has evidently struck a chord with many people. One of the first things I discovered is that the book is autobiographical, not fiction; it handles Elizabeth’s quest for happiness and meaning after the collapse of her marriage.
There must indeed be few of us who could become divorced, let our ex-partner keep all the marital assets, and still afford to take a year out from ordinary life, eating at restaurants, travelling to the most desirable places on earth and paying for temporary accommodation. No doubt the $200,000 advance from her publisher helped.
Her affluence didn’t trouble me so much when reading the book. Sure, she was able to do her eating, meditating and falling in love in wonderfully exotic and beautiful locations. This helps her to function as a model for us ordinary mortals to follow in humbler ways when our own relationships are in trouble. We hear her glamorous story and can at least visit a yoga class at the local gym or have a great night out with friends at a local restaurant. This modelling function helps to explain the book’s extraordinary success. There is also a sequel, Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, in which a variety of people tell the story of their journeys that were inspired by the book.
It’s easy to look down our nose at this work and wish for a more theological or less self-centred world view. But Gilbert gives hints that there is rather more to her than one might suppose. See page 9 for an example. No doubt there was a tendency to make the story more dramatic than its actual reality but her book has given the ashram and the Balinese healer great popularity.
Elizabeth Gilbert on God
“What happened was that I started to pray. You know – like, to God.
Now this was a first for me. And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded word – GOD- into my book…it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.
Saving for later the argument about whether God exists at all (no-here’s a better idea: let’s skip that argument completely), let me first explain why I use the word God, when I could just as easily use the words, Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, or Zeus. Alternatively, I could call God “That” which is how the ancient Sanskrit scriptures say it, and which I think comes close to the all-inclusive and unspeakable entity I have sometimes experienced. But that “That” feels impersonal to me – a thing, not a being-and I myself cannot pray to a That. I need a proper name, in order to fully sense a personal attendance. For this same reason, when I pray, I do not address my prayers to The Universe, The Great Void, The Force, The Supreme Self, The Whole, The Creator, The Light, The Higher Power, or even the most poetic manifestation of God’s name, taken I believe from the Gnostic gospels: “The Shadow of the Turning.”
I have nothing against any of these terms. I feel they are all equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribable. But we each do need a functional name for this indescribability, and “God” is the name that feels the most warm to me, so that’s what I use…
Traditionally, I have responded to the transcendent mystics of all religions. I have always responded with breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God does not live in a dogmatic scripture or in a distant throne in the sky, but instead abides very close to us indeed-much closer that we can imagine, breathing right through our own hearts. I respond with gratitude to anyone who has ever voyaged to the center of that heart, and who has then returned to the world with a report for the rest of us that God is an experience of extreme love. In every religious tradition on earth, there have always been mystical saints and transcendents who report exactly this experience. Unfortunately many of them have ended up arrested and killed. Still, I think very highly of them.” (Eat Pray Love, p13-15)