Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Aburdity and Injustice

Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love draws on Gilbert's experience with absurd situations both in the United States and abroad. However, because Gilbert's descriptions of the absurd rest on cultural assumptions of justice already shared by her readers, her humor cannot lead to profound change.

Reading Eat, Pray, Love, I was often reminded of Kierkegaard's connection between humor and faith, especially in the face of the absurd. As Kierkegaard says, "the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction" (Traditional Theories of Laughter and Humor, 83). The introduction to this excerpt of Kierkegaard quotes him also saying that "Humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith" (83). Elizabeth Gilbert's experience of faith (or "devotion") which she experiences in India is preceded by her suffering in the face of absurdity, pleasure despite this absurdity, and an eventual ability to laugh at the absurd. I will attempt to walk through a few instances of this, although I know that there are many more.

Chapter 4 includes one of this book's most famous scenes, in which, after nights of sobbing on her bathroom floor, Gilbert's is moved out of her despair and into prayer. Her crying abruptly ends, and she finally hears a voice: "Go back to bed, Liz" (Gilbert 16). What makes this passage humorous is that it is not the expected form of divine revelation or of conversion, as Gilbert notes.

Although this scene begins her journey towards God, Gilbert continues to encounter the absurd as she divorces her husband. All Gilbert wants to say to the judge is, "Hey, listen, it was a really complicated relationship, and I made huge mistakes, too, and I'm very sorry about that, but all I want is to be allowed to leave" (30). Instead, she is forced to apply immense legal pressure and draft documents that detail her husband's cruelty. "Here, I pause to offer a prayer for my gentle reader," she says, "May you never, ever, have to get a divorce in New York" (30). For Gilbert, New York divorce laws are an encounter with the absurd.

Part of what makes even the most depressing moments of this story so appealing is that Gilbert is reflecting back on her darkest moments, her tragedies, from a place of happiness. As Kierkegaard notes, "The comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless. The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out" (Traditional Theories of Laughter and Humor 84). Having already suffered through life's absurdities, Gilbert is able to reflect on her experiences with a smile, and, as Kierkegaard suggests, this humor even leads to faith.

I think it's important to recognize that we might share Gilbert's own definitions of absurdity, which relates to questions of justice. Situations of profound and irresolvable injustice or unfairness are often "absurd." Gilbert's Western liberal values (and, she presumes, her reader's) find absurdity in New York's divorce laws (which were not yet, at the time of Gilbert's divorce, "no fault"). She also finds absurdity in Indian marriage culture--as does Tulsi, who shares our Western values (Gilbert 181). Gilbert finds even more absurdity in Wayan's inability to enter the temple because she is menstruating, even though she doesn't question Wayan's desire to consult the priests in order to buy land (309). Gilbert and Felipe can do nothing but laugh at Wayan's explanation for her cure for male infertility (302). In this patriarchal culture, laughter and pleasure (on the part of both the "drivers" and presumably even the wives) is one's only chance for rebellion. For Gilbert, one of the most extreme injustices is restriction on liberty, especially a woman's liberty (although she is also frustrated for Yudhi's inability to return to New York). Notable for Gilbert is that Tulsi's religion frees her from the familial obligation to be married off (or at least gives her an excuse in her rebellion), whereas Wayan's religion restricts her desire, not only to purchase the land but even to ask a priest for advice!

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that humor can be difficult to translate across cultures. Soon after Gilbert's arrival in Rome, she encounters Celeste, who walks away after Gilbert tells her, regarding her marriage, "L'abbiamo rotto" (39). Although Gilbert doesn't have an explanation, she seems to suggest that this "tiny old woman" may not have approved of Gilbert's divorce. Celeste would not have appreciated the absurdity of New York's antiquated divorce laws and so would be unable to laugh with Gilbert and her readers at Gilbert's suffering through the system. One of the book's profound absurdities is that Gilbert lives out her liberal freedoms in three relatively conservative nations--Catholic Italy (although, I know from my time there that it is a thin cultural veneer); India, with its caste system and arranged marriages; and Indonesia, "the largest Islamic nation on earth" (308). The characters that Gilbert connects with mainly share her assumptions of justice and equality--some, like Wayan, are miniature rebels within their own culture, but others, like Felipe, "managed to live in Bali for five years without getting too entwined in the personal lives and complex rituals of the Balinese" (310).

In many ways, Gilbert continues the tradition of fighting cultural norms with satire. But ultimately I don't think that Gilbert's humor can lead to change in anything but New York State's divorce laws. Why? Because her audience primarily shares her own assumptions of justice. This book was not written with Italian, Indian, or Indonesian readers in mind (although, it apparently has been translated into 30 languages, and so must have been popular for some foreign readers). Gilbert finds the assumptions of other cultures to often be absurd, but that is because she's an outsider, who doesn't stay too long (a mere four months) in any one country. At the end of the book, I think that we find many of our own assumptions about the world confirmed rather than challenged. To close on this point, Gilbert even feels the need to explain how her definition of "GOD" encompasses anything you want Him (or Her, or "That") to be, "just so that people can decide right away how offended they need to get" (13). Reading this book, unlike some other pieces which I think truly brought light to injustices through humor, I wasn't led to conversion.

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