'American seekers of happiness are in danger," Eric Wilson writes in his new book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (reviewed in Books on April 12), "of deluding themselves into believing that only one part of the world exists, the part that gladdens their egos." This observation - that it is narcissistic to believe that one is entitled to have the world conform to one's needs - is a fitting summation of Elizabeth Gilbert's mega-selling Eat Pray Love (2006). This autobiographical travel narrative is a post-divorce search for the role that spirituality could play in a successful young writer's comfortable but unhappy existence. Gilbert is also author of a novel, short stories and a story in GQ that became the film Coyote Ugly.
As of last week, Eat Pray Love once again topped The Globe and Mail bestseller list, where it has resided for 59 weeks, and has enjoyed a tenure almost exactly as long on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list, sitting in the No. 1 spot when I checked last.
After mediocre hardcover sales, Penguin U.S. began a massive hype campaign by ordering a first printing of 170,000 (more than the book had sold in hardcover, and a very large run for a non-fiction title). With every member of Penguin's sales and marketing team asked to read and promote it, the paperback had high visibility in big bookstores, and ads in prominent media.
"The goal," according to a Wall Street Journal article, "was to create so much buzz that the book would quickly become a New York Times bestseller - which it did." Then came the excerpt in Oprah's magazine, televised interviews and a cover article in the New York Times Book Review. The result: at least $20-million in sales so far.
A slight backlash ensued: Many found the book's infidelity, glossed-over divorce and appropriation of Eastern religion offensive or boring, particularly combined with Gilbert's social privilege and self-described micro-managerial thinking patterns.
This is one of the worst books I've read. While Gilbert does admit that her journey of self-discovery was paid for through an advance from her publisher, the book is less than honest when it refuses to acknowledge that travel to foreign destinations is at best a temporary escape from one's own neuroses. Gilbert only skims the surface in her travels, and her tourist-like observations of local traditions in Italy, India and Bali are combined with simultaneous indifference to local poverty and with slightly condescending observations of the physiognomy of local ethnic groups.
In addition, the chatter Gilbert offers about her experiences while in meditation (e.g. paragraph-length banalities such as, "my neck feels like it wants to stretch and twist, so I let it, and then I'm sitting there in the strangest position") renders soulless what ought to be the mystical thrust of a book about spirituality.
But these objections don't account for the book's more sinister attributes. Subtitled One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Eat Pray Love is an exemplar of the kind of narcissism that the late social theorist Christopher Lasch defined so astutely in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) and The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984). Lasch theorized that the social conditions spawned by late capitalism created a beleaguered sense of self, and a preoccupation with personal growth.
These are precisely Gilbert's problems: She has a siege mentality; is unable to understand or explore the roots of emotional pain (she leaves her marriage only because she no longer wants to be married); is fascinated by extreme situations (the rigours of the ashram in India); and is wary of intimate, long-term relationships (she meets a new man, falls in love and vows never to marry).
Gilbert's ashram experience tries to show how difficult it is to shed Western self-preoccupation in such an ascetic environment. She ostensibly finds union with her transplanted environment; one mantra is, "I am not separate, I am not alone, I am not this limited illusion of an individual." But ironically, in writing the book, she makes herself an exception and brings into relief the very tendency she hopes to neuter. Any self-erasure or humility she may have gained is cancelled.
Gilbert takes up yoga as "self-mastery"; she explains that it is the route to "a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise." Rather than simply viewing yoga and meditation as a good way to gain relief from stress, along with achieving some insight into neurotic thinking patterns, the book heralds it as liberation from an apparently unhealthy attachment to others.
Gilbert's pervasive suspicion that intimacy entails unwelcome emotional vulnerability and dependence is a hallmark of the minimal self; dependence, for the narcissist, is a trigger of infantile rage. Fittingly, Lasch noted that narcissism's longing for "the absence of longing" is "upheld as the highest state of spiritual perfection in so many mystical traditions."
With regard to her new lover, Felipe, like a classic commitment-phobe, Gilbert believes that asking him to "be the centre of her life" is somehow arrogant. Felipe agrees, and says that he loves her and will love her even if they never see one another again. While in the end, the couple does eke out some ill-defined compromise to stay together in various geographic locations, Gilbert's relations with men seem to be laboratories that weigh in on the men's capacity to fulfill her constellation of needs.
Think of the Slice Network, a set of reality TV shows that scrutinize peoples' lives on wedding plans, weight-loss attempts, family budgeting and the surface self-improvements of a more chic wardrobe. Such attention to every aspect of the individual, as her/his life is catalogued as a set of consumer choices, is the best analogy for the narcissism in this book. Travel, consume (eat), meditate (pray), and watch me (love me) doing it. Read my book about it! Watch me on TV! Please look at me.
Toronto writer Nyla Matuk once wrote a thesis on Sources of the Self, by philosopher Charles Taylor