Note: I urge against first-time readers reading this thread. It will only hurt the discussion if your opinions are influenced by those of others.
Here I'll be including critical opinions of EPL by others around the internet. Please feel free to add to these and to comment on what's been written. Use quotations from the posted material that you find pertinent to the overall discussion.
I have not seen Eat Pray Love and have no plans to see it. (I’m pretty sure I’d rather be water-boarded.) I am simply commenting on the “still” from the movie posted in the recent entry. “Narcissism” is technically the right word for designating the psychological state that generates this image – of how people who think of themselves as “cool,” “sophisticated,” and “deeply spiritual” want to be seen – but by itself it is too clinical to do justice to the jejuneness of the mise-en-scène. Notice how Roberts and her actor-partner Javier Bardem are central to the tableau. The tableau itself is non-Western; it looks vaguely Indian or Ceylonese, but in a thoroughly scrubbed-up way. It is, in other words, nothing but a decorative scrim whose purpose is to set the mutual fixation of the two “stars” in an exotic (really, a faux exotic) context. Now consider the fixation, as such. Neither party is smiling, which one would expect if they were contemplating one another in a pitch of romantic emotion. So what exactly does the mutual absorption signify? I borrow a few ideas from René Girard, the world’s leading theoretician of narcissism, coquetry, self-involvement, and resentment. Roberts is looking at Bardem looking at her, and vice versa. Both are therefore looking at themselves, each using the other as a mirror. (This is the etymological narcissism: Narcissus glimpsed his reflection in a lily-pond and was so entranced by his own good looks that he fell in and drowned.)
Consider the sartorial characters of the two chief figures, starting with Bardem. He is a frat-boy in a singles bar, dangling his designer-brand three hundred dollar sunglasses in the V of his unbuttoned polo shirt and topping himself off with a hat whose familiarity struck me. It is the type of hat worn by Barack Obama in one of the photographs that has surfaced of his Occidental College days, when he was dedicated to being “cool” in addition to being Marxist. Notice also the glinting gold of an expensive wristwatch on Bardem’s left arm, the one draped over Roberts’ shoulders. As for Roberts, she is trying, I imagine, to look profound and serious, but the ponytail is a college-girl accoutrement, which abolishes the effect. The more or less sari-like dress and the fan are reminiscent of the fashion adopted by women of Theosophical inclination in the 1920s and 30s. As we know, all wisdom comes from the Infinitely Wise East.
As an account of the general Western attitude towards “the Orient,” the late Eduard Said’s book Orientalism is nasty and without merit. It occurs to me, however, that Said’s charges of fantasizing and condescension apply perfectly to this image – the self-projection of an industry dominated by politically besotted narcissists like Julia Roberts, who, in their spiritual vacuity, have the gall to tell us how to pray and love.
I am surprised by how much in common Gilbert's detractors have with each other. Aside from that horrible dig at the excellent work by Said on Orientalism, the ridiculous comment about Obama and the hat, some haute colonial arrogance (ie, the dismissal of Eastern philosophy etc... but after all these are Western Cultural Supremacists) the feminist and anti-feminist criticism of this work is on many of the same grounds.
Let’s pretend, for purely rhetorical purposes, that I—an American male journalist—wrote a travel book about a quest for sensuality and spiritual growth. Let’s say that the plot of my book could be briefly summarized as follows:
As I enter my 30s, I find myself emotionally unsatisfied. I have achieved professional success as a writer, I own a new house, and my wife is ready to have kids, but somehow it all just feels wrong in a way I can’t quite identify. Thus befuddled—and given to random jags of weeping and self-pity—I elect to assuage my unhappiness by shacking up with a cuter, younger writer-actress woman from New York.
Soon, I come to love the cute, young writer-actress in a way I could never love my wife. But then, due to social and personal uncertainty, I start picking fights with the writer-actress, who isn’t reciprocating my emotional intensity or sexual appetite. Meanwhile, my wife is making the divorce contentious because (for reasons I can’t seem to fully grasp) she is angry, and wants my assets and royalties. Since sparring with the increasingly disinterested writer-actress isn’t yielding the love and satisfaction I want from the relationship, I decide—amid further jags of weeping and self-pity—to settle my divorce, quit my job, take a year off and wander the world in search of sensual pleasure and spiritual epiphany.
I start by going to Italy, where I eat a lot of pasta, drive around and take some naps. I also study the language with a cute, younger Italian woman, and I frequently fantasize about having sex with her and her equally cute twin sister. I extol the virtues of these Italian women, who know how to treat their men—selflessly lavishing them with love and making them the center of attention. I pointedly ponder how nice it would be if the American women in my life had had the awareness to treat me that way.
At the end of my Italian sojourn, I shell out for a new wardrobe and go to India to explore spirituality. Once in India, I go directly from the airport to an ashram to study meditation under the guidance of a Guru. I occasionally ponder the terrible poverty of India outside the ashram walls, but I can’t bring myself to actually leave the retreat for any substantial period of time because I’m enjoying my meditation studies—and travel in India can be darned uncomfortable! Fortunately, neglecting to experience the cultural context of my spiritual discipline does not keep me from having many fabulous spiritual epiphanies. Slowly, I see that I am learning tons about how to better live through a life that has been lacerated with the painful emotional legacy of success, wealth and leisure.
I end my journey by looking for “balance” in Bali, where I make many charming friends who constantly assure me how handsome and wonderful I am (one of them is poor—so I raise money to buy him a house, but I’m forced to get tough with him when he tries to finagle more money out of me). I have a wise old Guru in Bali, too, but I eventually stop seeing this Guru because I meet a lovely Brazilian divorcee businesswoman who wants nothing more than to have sex all day, drone on about how handsome I am and make declarations of unconditional love.
Finally happy, I congratulate myself for having the inner fortitude to travel into the world and solve my problems.
Do you think American women would embrace this book and turn it into a bestseller? Or do you think American women would react with hostility at such a self-absorbed, culturally oblivious and vaguely sexist narrative? No doubt it would be the latter reaction—and I would be reduced to dodging rotten fruit at book readings.
Reverse the genders on this synopsis, however—turn the protagonist female—and you get the essential (if somewhat snarkily summarized) plot of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling American travel narrative of the last couple years. Since an enthusiastic female readership has driven the success of “Eat, Pray, Love,” it’s tempting to conclude that women have serious double standards when it comes to defining acceptable behavior.
Of course, part of the reason Gilbert’s book is so popular is that she writes with charm and insight, even as she presents herself as an imbalanced and not entirely sympathetic narrator. What might be derided as a cliched and blatantly male “mid-life crisis narrative” seems honest and soulful when distilled through the sensibilities a woman. Through such a raw and fallible self-portrayal, Gilbert allows female readers to vicariously examine their own lack of satisfaction in their lives—and ponder how travel might bring them spiritual balance. (For men, who are less likely to empathize, reading “Eat, Pray, Love” is like traveling the world with a lovely and intelligent girlfriend who can’t stop talking about herself: You’ve come to admire this woman—and you wish the best for her—but you wish she’d stop yapping about emotional minutiae so you could both look out and enjoy the scenery from time to time.)
At this point, I could probably dust off some evolutionary psychology and examine all manner of male/female behavioral expectations, but I think this is less about behavior than the difference in how men and women read. In “Why We Read Fiction,” cognitive literary critic Lisa Zunshine argues that the pleasure of reading fiction is that it “lets us try on different mental states.” According to Zunshine, women read more novels than men do because novels explain people’s behavior through their feelings, beliefs, thoughts and desires. “They want to experience other ‘minds in action’—which is another way of defining ‘empathy’—much more than men do,” she writes.
Even though Zunshine was referring to fiction, the same idea could be applied to travel literature: In broad demographic terms, men like their travel protagonists to pursue outward journeys and physical challenges; women prefer the traveler’s inner journey, her emotional challenges. Thus, for those seeking a vicarious emotional experience, “Eat, Pray, Love” reads like a survival tale, every bit as harrowing and inspirational as a north-face ascent of K2.
So while Gilbert’s tale is nonfiction, the appeal of “Eat, Pray, Love” lies in its sense of fantasy. Around the middle of the 20th century, pulpy American men’s magazines published what has come to be known as “adventure porn”—breathlessly told tales that involved hairy-chested men fighting crocodiles, exploring rivers and surviving diseases in far-off lands. Women characters didn’t figure much in these stories, unless they were helpless victims, hot-blooded savage-vixens or hookers. Though this era of men’s travel writing has been ridiculed, these stories no doubt lent a sense of escape to the working stiffs who read them—men who weren’t likely to ever leave the country, but enjoyed the vicarious problem-solving that came with the pulpy adventure.
The legacy of “adventure porn,” I think, is not the kind of adventure writing you see in Outside magazine, but books like “Eat, Pray, Love.” Instead of wrestling crocodiles in distant lands, our protagonist wrestles despair; instead of exploring rivers, she explores emotions; instead of surviving disease, she survives heartbreak. Men occasionally appear in this survivor’s tale, but they are as one-dimensional as adventure-porn wenches, and mainly serve as a sounding board for the protagonist’s feelings. When these men are giving our heroine love and help, she gushes with admiration; when they can’t intuit her emotional needs, she reacts with despair (and vague contempt). Rarely does she ponder what—besides emotional availability to her—might motivate these men in day-to-day life.
Fortunately, I don’t think women read “Eat, Pray, Love” as a prescription for practical behavior. As with adventure porn, the pleasure of reading lies in its vicarious problem solving—the passive joy of projecting yourself into the protagonist’s shoes, pondering how you might hold up from situation to situation, and hanging on for the happy ending.
Call it “travel porn for women.” Just don’t expect me to relate.
I think that this perspective is spot-on. He goes on to mention that once upon a time men who were stuck in their respective jobs read adventure porn the same way that women read this book: to escape from their hole-in-the-wall lives the same way that men from the fifties escaped theirs to "civilize the natives" and seduce a few of the white women caught on the wrong side of the cultural divide.