Throughout the course, we’ve read a few works that have derived their humor from cultural difference. On the first day in class, we read a short excerpt from Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, where he talks about the peculiarities of Australian national culture. Obviously, the central idea here is difference: we find it amusing to witness societies functioning in a way different from our own. With Bryson, the difference (between Australian and English/American cultures) is kind of innocuous, but cultural difference can become contentious and even violent. With that in mind, I wonder if the way Elizabeth Gilbert treats difference is responsible. The humor of the book rests on the assumption that we can sympathize with Gilbert and her point of view, and I don’t think I can. She uses the East as a conceit for her own personal development and subtly mocks the customs and practices as quaint or exotic. She tells us, for instance, that her Indonesian medicine man, Ketut, “spoke a scattered and thoroughly entertaining kind of English.” I don’t think Gilbert really engages with these people, but sees them as instruments for her own inner happiness. I think a lot of the humor of the book comes from this “Look at me, a white woman, doing all these weird Eastern things,” and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable with the whole premise. She is only interested in Eastern spirituality insofar as it benefits her.
I think this is the memoir’s greatest shortcoming: the specters of wealth and privilege follow Gilbert wherever she goes. The initial conflict of the book is common for many privileged white people: she doesn’t want to sacrifice her exciting, free lifestyle for a stable and responsible “adult” life. Instead of settling down into a “normal” life, she needs to rediscover herself. And, to rediscover yourself, all you need is a $200,000 book advance. As an American living a comfortable life, Gilbert travels to places like India and Indonesia not to recontextualize her problems in the grand scheme of things, but to learn something from poor people who might be “rich at heart.” Eastern religions offer her relief because (for her, at least) the symbolize inner contentment and self-reliance, free from all the external sacrifices that are required of responsible adults.
Maybe she forgets that the time to meditate, the time to pray, the time to contemplate one’s own happiness come at a great price; relatively little of the world can take time off to do these things. She asks:
Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite fountain? And then to do it again the next day?
Actually, yeah, it is awful. I think Gilbert, on her search for “balance,” fails to recognize how imbalanced the world is. This quasi-Orientalist belief in spiritual balance has become a trend recently among the world’s elite. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently “told a conference of women in tech… that they should not ask for a raise, but trust “faith” and “karma” to reward them appropriately…” This emphasis on inner balance, inner happiness, inner peace blinds people like Nadella and Gilbert to real, existing, political imbalances that leave so many in abject poverty. While some people can use their $200,000 book advance (roughly the cost of four years at Loyola) to find balance and self-fulfillment, most of the world cannot.