In the book and movie adaptation of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert swans through Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year-long emotional and spiritual journey to find herself.
Gilbert makes an admirable effort towards inclusiveness. She describes the Hindu, Buddhist, and Catholic practice of using a physical object ( japa mala/rosary) to ground meditations.
She nods to religious pluralism, saying that when talking about “God… [she] could just as easily use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus” or the ancient Sanskrit “That” or “even the most poetic manifestation of God’s name… “The Shadow of the Turning””*
However, the text also falls into typical 21st century traps when talking religion and spirituality: the a la carte approach, cherry-picking what is beautiful and sublime and glossing over theological complexities and thorny issues, and the conflation of religion and spirituality.
Cultural appropriation abound: for Gilbert, yoga is a spiritual discipline–just not a Hindu one. She may be a pluralist when naming the divine, but she’s not seeking God–rather, Elizabeth Gilbert.
She seeks and finds herself, as well as a charming Brazilian, Felipe, in a nice narrative about a woman traveling alone abroad, but in her vision, she has a few blind spots.
Writing for New American Media, Sandip Roy makes a trenchant point about Gilbert’s involvement with local culture in her travels, as depicted in the movie:
She tries not to be the foreign tourist but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it’s the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives’ lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.
Concisely, exotic culture appropriated as a consumable, as a commodity.
Roy ends his article with an anecdote: on the way out of the theater, he heard his fellow moviegoers gush excitedly about the movie, how they related to it, and how it inspired them. Still excited by what they had seen, they exited the the theater complex. But no one held the door open for one woman, who was in a wheelchair.
Self discovery through self-absorption sounds easy. Social justice, service and active compassion for others is an important tenet of many religions, including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
It’s escapism, wish-fulfillment, enlightenment-lite. It’s an indulgent, effulgent spirituality without self-sacrifice or self-denial.
*The Shepherd Project has provided this comprehensive list of quotes and concepts for discussion.
The Catholic News Service wishes Liz Gilbert had prayed in Rome too.
Gilbert will lobby on behalf on gay marriage.
“Isn’t that what all tourists want? Five-star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in?”: Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, an English/Bollywood 101 hybrid, considers the cultural appropriation issue as one character rebukes another for wanting to turn India into a “theme park” in this clip (sorry this unfortunate quality was what I was able to find on YouTube; things get going at 2:18).