I’ve now finished the first of three sections in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and although at first I found the writing style a bit glib and Gilbert’s sense of humor a little silly, I now find myself completely won over. The book is about how Gilbert decided to spend a year traveling after suffering through a bitter divorce and a heart-wrenching affair; she travels first to Italy to find pleasure, then to India to practice devotion, and then to Indonesia to try to find a balance between the two.
In the Italian section, Gilbert finds pleasure mainly by eating the best food possible in Rome and every other Italian city she travels to. She also takes joy in learning Italian, first through lessons at a language school and then simply by talking to as many Italians as she can.
Part of what won me over was simply the forthright honesty with which Gilbert tells her story — she describes her horrendous divorce in ways that make it clear just how awful it was but that also don’t ask for your pity and don’t sound whiny or self-indulgent. I think her light, almost glib tone works better when she’s describing something serious; somehow the serious subject matter modulates the voice so that it comes across as brave rather than annoyingly light.
But I also like the ideas she’s exploring, and, as I understand it, the next section on prayer and devotion are even more idea-driven, so I’m looking forward to it. In the Italian section, she writes a lot about the pursuit of pleasure and why she and Americans generally have such a hard time with it. These passages really spoke to me:
Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment … Americans don’t really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype — the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax.
For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too — the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness. Planet Advertising in American orbits completely around the need to convince the uncertain consumer that yes, you have actually warranted a special treat.
I can be like this — not able to enjoy myself and relax and do nothing because I’m haunted by this feeling that I need to be using my time productively, need to be doing something worthwhile, need to be improving myself in some way. I am very much an inheritor of that Puritan guilt, the mindset and work-ethic that turns pleasure-seeking into a sin.
Towards the end of the section, Gilbert writes this:
It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.
Isn’t that last sentence beautiful? Seeking beauty in life is not a bad goal to have at all.