One Man’s Odyssey into ‘Eat, Pray, Love’
Travel Books: Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling trans-global travel book is a fun read -- but don't expect Rolf Potts to embrace the fantasy
02.11.08 | 1:33 PM ET
Let’s pretend, for purely rhetorical purposes, that I—an American male journalist—wrote a travel book about a quest for sensuality and spiritual growth. Let’s say that the plot of my book could be briefly summarized as follows:
As I enter my 30s, I find myself emotionally unsatisfied. I have achieved professional success as a writer, I own a new house, and my wife is ready to have kids, but somehow it all just feels wrong in a way I can’t quite identify. Thus befuddled—and given to random jags of weeping and self-pity—I elect to assuage my unhappiness by shacking up with a cuter, younger writer-actress woman from New York.
Soon, I come to love the cute, young writer-actress in a way I could never love my wife. But then, due to social and personal uncertainty, I start picking fights with the writer-actress, who isn’t reciprocating my emotional intensity or sexual appetite. Meanwhile, my wife is making the divorce contentious because (for reasons I can’t seem to fully grasp) she is angry, and wants my assets and royalties. Since sparring with the increasingly disinterested writer-actress isn’t yielding the love and satisfaction I want from the relationship, I decide—amid further jags of weeping and self-pity—to settle my divorce, quit my job, take a year off and wander the world in search of sensual pleasure and spiritual epiphany.
I start by going to Italy, where I eat a lot of pasta, drive around and take some naps. I also study the language with a cute, younger Italian woman, and I frequently fantasize about having sex with her and her equally cute twin sister. I extol the virtues of these Italian women, who know how to treat their men—selflessly lavishing them with love and making them the center of attention. I pointedly ponder how nice it would be if the American women in my life had had the awareness to treat me that way.
At the end of my Italian sojourn, I shell out for a new wardrobe and go to India to explore spirituality. Once in India, I go directly from the airport to an ashram to study meditation under the guidance of a Guru. I occasionally ponder the terrible poverty of India outside the ashram walls, but I can’t bring myself to actually leave the retreat for any substantial period of time because I’m enjoying my meditation studies—and travel in India can be darned uncomfortable! Fortunately, neglecting to experience the cultural context of my spiritual discipline does not keep me from having many fabulous spiritual epiphanies. Slowly, I see that I am learning tons about how to better live through a life that has been lacerated with the painful emotional legacy of success, wealth and leisure.
I end my journey by looking for “balance” in Bali, where I make many charming friends who constantly assure me how handsome and wonderful I am (one of them is poor—so I raise money to buy him a house, but I’m forced to get tough with him when he tries to finagle more money out of me). I have a wise old Guru in Bali, too, but I eventually stop seeing this Guru because I meet a lovely Brazilian divorcee businesswoman who wants nothing more than to have sex all day, drone on about how handsome I am and make declarations of unconditional love.
Finally happy, I congratulate myself for having the inner fortitude to travel into the world and solve my problems.
Do you think American women would embrace this book and turn it into a bestseller? Or do you think American women would react with hostility at such a self-absorbed, culturally oblivious and vaguely sexist narrative? No doubt it would be the latter reaction—and I would be reduced to dodging rotten fruit at book readings.
Reverse the genders on this synopsis, however—turn the protagonist female—and you get the essential (if somewhat snarkily summarized) plot of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling American travel narrative of the last couple years. Since an enthusiastic female readership has driven the success of “Eat, Pray, Love,” it’s tempting to conclude that women have serious double standards when it comes to defining acceptable behavior.
Of course, part of the reason Gilbert’s book is so popular is that she writes with charm and insight, even as she presents herself as an imbalanced and not entirely sympathetic narrator. What might be derided as a cliched and blatantly male “mid-life crisis narrative” seems honest and soulful when distilled through the sensibilities a woman. Through such a raw and fallible self-portrayal, Gilbert allows female readers to vicariously examine their own lack of satisfaction in their lives—and ponder how travel might bring them spiritual balance. (For men, who are less likely to empathize, reading “Eat, Pray, Love” is like traveling the world with a lovely and intelligent girlfriend who can’t stop talking about herself: You’ve come to admire this woman—and you wish the best for her—but you wish she’d stop yapping about emotional minutiae so you could both look out and enjoy the scenery from time to time.)
At this point, I could probably dust off some evolutionary psychology and examine all manner of male/female behavioral expectations, but I think this is less about behavior than the difference in how men and women read. In “Why We Read Fiction,” cognitive literary critic Lisa Zunshine argues that the pleasure of reading fiction is that it “lets us try on different mental states.” According to Zunshine, women read more novels than men do because novels explain people’s behavior through their feelings, beliefs, thoughts and desires. “They want to experience other ‘minds in action’—which is another way of defining ‘empathy’—much more than men do,” she writes.
Even though Zunshine was referring to fiction, the same idea could be applied to travel literature: In broad demographic terms, men like their travel protagonists to pursue outward journeys and physical challenges; women prefer the traveler’s inner journey, her emotional challenges. Thus, for those seeking a vicarious emotional experience, “Eat, Pray, Love” reads like a survival tale, every bit as harrowing and inspirational as a north-face ascent of K2.
So while Gilbert’s tale is nonfiction, the appeal of “Eat, Pray, Love” lies in its sense of fantasy. Around the middle of the 20th century, pulpy American men’s magazines published what has come to be known as “adventure porn”—breathlessly told tales that involved hairy-chested men fighting crocodiles, exploring rivers and surviving diseases in far-off lands. Women characters didn’t figure much in these stories, unless they were helpless victims, hot-blooded savage-vixens or hookers. Though this era of men’s travel writing has been ridiculed, these stories no doubt lent a sense of escape to the working stiffs who read them—men who weren’t likely to ever leave the country, but enjoyed the vicarious problem-solving that came with the pulpy adventure.
The legacy of “adventure porn,” I think, is not the kind of adventure writing you see in Outside magazine, but books like “Eat, Pray, Love.” Instead of wrestling crocodiles in distant lands, our protagonist wrestles despair; instead of exploring rivers, she explores emotions; instead of surviving disease, she survives heartbreak. Men occasionally appear in this survivor’s tale, but they are as one-dimensional as adventure-porn wenches, and mainly serve as a sounding board for the protagonist’s feelings. When these men are giving our heroine love and help, she gushes with admiration; when they can’t intuit her emotional needs, she reacts with despair (and vague contempt). Rarely does she ponder what—besides emotional availability to her—might motivate these men in day-to-day life.
Fortunately, I don’t think women read “Eat, Pray, Love” as a prescription for practical behavior. As with adventure porn, the pleasure of reading lies in its vicarious problem solving—the passive joy of projecting yourself into the protagonist’s shoes, pondering how you might hold up from situation to situation, and hanging on for the happy ending.
Call it “travel porn for women.” Just don’t expect me to relate.