Cruel Mysticism: The Construction of the Spiritual Consumer in Eat Pray Love

(from a talk I did in I think 2015 on travel writing(?))

It’s a weirdly affecting experience to browse the Amazon reviews for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. For many people, this book has obviously been extremely meaningful: many reviewers refer to Gilbert as “Liz”, and expound the virtues of her extremely personal narrative, which, as one reviewer instructively suggests, leaves one feeling “inspired, entertained, and hopeful”. Indeed, this sense of unimpeded inspiration and hope seems to be one of the central appeals of the book, as another reviewer suggests that this memoir functions as proof that “one can live one’s life in an ever expanding circle of vitality and joy”. So, with that in mind, this morning I’d like to examine how Gilbert uses this sense of personal inspiration throughout Eat Pray Love to subtly endorse individualist consumerism as a vehicle for spiritual fulfilment.

From the outset of the narrative, it is clear that Gilbert’s primary objective is to establish a sense of trust and complicity between the narrator and her readers, such that when she introduces the reason for her unhappiness, readers are encouraged to consider her situation in relation to their own. Note, for example, the bland generalities she employs to describe her discontent at the opening of the narrative: “I was supposed to want to have a baby. My husband and I…had built our entire life around the common expectation that after the doddering old age of thirty…I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop” (10). In this way, Gilbert aims squarely at the hidden fears of other middle aged women who find themselves disinterested in the heteronormative American Dream, and invites them to reflect on exactly why the normative family unit is an unfulfilling imposition on their agency as individuals.

In this sense, Gilbert offers a valuable and easily-accessible first-hand account of what Lauren Berlant would call “cruel optimism”, or, the phenomenon in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). For Berlant, Liz Gilbert’s anxiety would be understood as the disconcerting tension between her attachment to the pursuit of what she has been lead to believe is the “good life”, and her aversion to the normative domestic role of women within that life (i.e., rearing children, tending a garden, making stew). And this tension is really the crucial thing, as it activates Gilbert — and therefore, her trusting readers — to an awareness of the cruelty of their attachments. As Berlant goes on to argue, “if the cruelty of an attachment is experienced by someone…even in a subtle fashion, the fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything” (24). This is to say, the sudden revelation of the paradoxical cruelty of one’s attachments also reveals the precarity of one’s being-in-life, as the subject is forced to find new objects toward which she can orient herself, or else risks a complete loss of attachment to anything and becomes disillusioned with the world as a whole. Thus, an awareness of the cruelty of one’s attachments is both a risk and an opportunity, wherein one’s normative attachments are productively disturbed and the potential to locate new and more fulfilling attachments is activated.

But this is where Berlant and Gilbert’s projects diverge. Where Berlant explicitly lays out the roots of cruel optimism in the reductive logic of consumer capitalism and goes on pursue more productive modes of “being in life without wanting the world”, Gilbert subtly re-inscribes her briefly disillusioned reader back within the logic of consumer capitalism. For Gilbert, the language of female empowerment is employed only so far as to encourage her trusting reader that self-interested consumption is actually a viable method of rebelling against the oppressive norms of their patriarchal society. Thus, when Gilbert goes on to allow herself to “express little baby-step wants” (23), she’s simultaneously granting a kind of permission to her reader as well: her admissions that “I want to go to a Yoga Class”, or “I want to buy myself a new pencil box” (23) are rendered not as fairly straightforward impulses toward consumerism, but as very real personal victories against a society that demands female selflessness. When she first sees the photograph of David’s “spiritual teacher”, she writes, “My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ‘I want a spiritual teacher’ ” (25). While there is obviously nothing particularly radical about this statement, it’s framed to suggest a new “spiritually active” mode of being in the world. Gilbert’s “heart” heroically brushes itself off from the imposition of selflessness and demands a new set of “spiritual”, or self-interested consumer goods toward which she can orient herself. Thus, the entirety of the narrative that follows, despite what appear to be very real moments of “spirituality”, are always already couched within the logic of personal consumption. This new “spiritual” mode of being is predicated on a slight shift from the normative domestic consumerism that Gilbert defiantly eschews, into the superficially distinct mode of empowering self-interest.

Indeed, the whole text of Eat Pray Love is self-consciously presented as an artifact of consumerism, as the spiritual journey that Gilbert enjoys is entirely enabled by a $200,000 publisher’s advance. As Gilbert describes: “I can actually afford to do this because of a staggering personal miracle: in advance, my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels” (35). Personal miracle or not, the advance reminds us that this text and the “spiritual content” it contains are already products that have been purchased, and will be sold. Thus, to buy into its message of self-empowering spirituality is to confirm the legitimacy of the mechanisms that enabled its production. Again, this does not undermine the very real spiritual experiences that Gilbert describes: spending one fifth of a million dollars and a year abroad to explicitly indulge in self-discovery would doubtlessly be a very transformative experience. But by explicitly embedding that experience within the logic of consumption, Gilbert is subtly reaffirming the ostensibly irrefutable centrality of consumerism as the mediator of human experience: Thus, her trusting reader, who deeply identifies with Liz Gilbert’s disillusionment in the cruelly optimistic “good life fantasy” of house, husband, children, and domestic duties, is seduced by an even greater consumer fantasy of spiritual fulfilment: as Ruth Williams succinctly describes, “the EPL brand purports to allow women to ‘buy’ a piece of Gilbert’s spiritual journey” (615), which, of course, presupposes that spiritual fulfilment is something that can be purchased at all.

Thus, unlike Berlant, who envisions a mode of being beyond “The Good Life fantasy” in which “one would achieve both mental health and a commitment to equality [by embracing] precarity as the condition of being and belonging” (194), Gilbert simply expands what “the good life fantasy” entails: she affirms the inherent value of the heteronormative relationship and its accompanying set of consumer goods, and then appends the additional fantasy of spiritual fulfilment through self-indulgent consumption, a fantasy which the marketplace is eager to accommodate.

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