Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Individuals in Community

            Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a self-indulgent travelogue and diary about the search for Self. The author takes readers into her mind and gives them a complete tour, disclosing her deepest depressions and her most exuberant elations in thoughtful, witty prose. Gilbert cites no substantial difficulties in her life. She has resources with which to maintain two expensive properties, a wholesome family life and a sense of personal safety. Yet she is woefully unhappy. She can point to nothing as the particular cause of her despair, only that her life is not what she wants. Self-actualization is low on the hierarchy of needs, so it is only once her physical needs are fulfilled that she begins to notice the hole that she spends the rest of the book filling in. She wants to lend meaning to a life she seems to feel is rather vacuous, and so she looks inward and strikes out to Eat, Pray and Love her way to fulfillment.

When carefully detailed and personified loneliness or depression sweep over the author, there is not much for the reader to laugh at. The humor comes instead from Gilbert’s mastery of language. She employs the Mark Twain storytelling method and pretends not to find herself funny. She pauses in the right places and uses vivid, seemingly incongruous examples that suck one into her story. She writes what she knows, uses some slightly humorous self-debasement and writes an ultimately serious account of an individualistic search.

This kind of internal, individualistic approach to writing only finds success where readers can relate in some degree. Why should we care about the personal, internal musings of one mind? Readers must find some mirror of their own experiences in these pages. When we find something universal in the musings, a book has new meaning and importance. Anyone can relate to this Search for the Meaning of Life, and that makes Gilbert’s book successful. It works even better when Gilbert’s individual account details her journey to align herself and her will with that of a higher power. By documenting her internal musings, she is giving up her individual existence, choosing instead to exist in a community. She finds a community of pleasure-seekers in Italy, of spiritual souls in India and of balanced personalities in Bali, and ultimately aligns her individualism with service to a thing beyond herself. When she pools all her resources to buy a house for Wayan, she tells her friends that sometimes, when one sets out to help herself, she ends up helping everyone. Perhaps this is the lesson here; individualism is important, but it is even more important to align with a human community.

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