Eat Pray Love : When Ruin is Not a Gift

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by Joseph Natoli

A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day. It’s called the Augusteum. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains...I looked around the place, at the chaos it has endured—the way it has been adapted, burned, pillaged and found a way to build itself back up again. And I was reassured, maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.

—Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert, voice over in Eat Pray Love

With so much of the middle class and the rest of working America tapped out, there is not enough consumer demand for the goods and services that the U.S. economy is capable of producing. Without that demand, there are precious few prospects for a robust recovery.

—Bob Herbert, “A Recovery’s Long Odds,” New York Times September 14, 2010

I doubt that President Obama will adopt the line “Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation” as he and his party head toward the November Congressional elections. But Julia Roberts’s character, Liz, in the film Eat Pray Love is speaking of a personal transformation and not an economic transformation of the U.S. after the 2008 Great Recession. Getting attached to that—the U.S.’s economic collapse —is, in terms of a personal transformation—a “real trap.”

I wonder why Americans, who have gotten attached to this film in a big way, would get attached to this film? I suppose my underlying question is this: when will the curtain drop on the drama of personal transformation so that Americans can face and attach themselves to the surrounding ruin?

The so-called Oprah sponsored “Secret” that a projection of personal will upon the world is somehow a social policy is not a social policy but an illusion. Like you, I was moved by Julia Roberts’ “robust recovery,” or, more exactly, her “discovery” that “God dwells within me”, but in what way does the metrics of this sort of recovery measure up against the present bloody tragic and carnivalesque moment in US history? I mean, how can this travelogue retreat to Italian dolce far niente, Indian “Karma Cola,”(the title of a book by Gita Mehta) and a Balinese psychic balancing act which brings it all together relate to Bob Herbert's words:
The middle class is finally on its knees. Jobs are scarce and good jobs even scarcer. Government and corporate policies have been whacking working Americans every which way for the past three or four decades. While globalization and technological wizardry were wreaking employment havoc, the movers and shakers in government and in the board rooms of the great corporations were embracing privatization and deregulation with the fervor of fanatics. The safety net was shredded, unions were brutally attacked and demonized, employment training and jobs programs were eliminated, higher education costs skyrocketed, and the nation’s infrastructure...deteriorated.

That covers the tragedy, but the carnival is revealed in every reality TV show (Jersey Shore being the capstone in demotic idiocy), in every spurious “Fair and Balanced” Fox News Channel delivery, in the “Faith, Hope and Charity” ludic breakdowns of buffoon Glenn Beck, in the arrogant hypocrisy of Bill O’Reilley’s “No Spin Zone, in the inexplicable magnetism of the blank-minded Sarah Palin, the “Mother Grizzly,” and, most especially, in the truly mad Tea Partiers’ targeting of Federal government actions as the cause of all woes since Adam took a bite of an apple. Where else but in a carnivalesque world would we find attacks on Obama as both Fascist and Socialist, the persistent belief of 20% of the American population that Obama is a Muslim, the persistent belief of 40% of the American population that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act creates a “death panel,” and the enduring life of “Trickle Down” and tax rebates to the wealthy rivaling that of Dracula?

Eat, pray, love: bumper sticker talk, which Liz herself pronounces when she’s had enough of Richard’s, well, bumper sticker talk. Time out “for the Spirit” as Oprah would declare on her show. Time to ascend to a higher level of reckoning, time to transcend the dark, evil cabal of Congressional power, time to close your eyes to what around you has brought you to your knees. We should go with Liz to Italy and eat some of the finest Roman cuisine and then go to Naples and eat pizza margherita with the volgo popolo. Journey away from fast food, a foreclosed home and a usurious interest laden credit card bill. Pray with Glenn Beck that your priest doesn’t mention social justice and that you don’t forget it is God and not the Federal government that gives you your rights. Pray with Christine O’Donnell that schools return to Creationism, the Bible, prayer, and a close watch on masturbators. Go to the Pray for Sarah Palin website and pray for peace, protection and wisdom for Sarah Palin and her family for she has been thrust into the limelight as a future leader of our country.

Journey to India to pray, to Italy to eat and to Bali to love. Take a year off from your job. You could remain in the U.S. and pray for Sarah Palin but there’s too much fundamentalism in American Christianity while Hindu meditation has a fetching mystique to it. If you could, as Richard tells Liz, “clear all that space in your mind, you would have a doorway. And you know what the universe would do? Rush in.” “Universe” here is not, of course, the everyday world that has you, if you work for wages in the U.S., or, once upon a time did work for wages, on your knees. No, the Universe that rushes in has an illuminating Nothingness to it, a locus where you can feel joined to everything that lives in breathes. Just don’t sing L’Internationale. You are meditating away from that kind of connectedness.

Allow me to connect the “love” requirement of this physics of transformation with my real interest in this film: first, as yet another showcase of self-absorption and the illusions of individualism, this time extended to a balancing of physical and spiritual needs, and second, as an indication that spectacle and reality are seriously out of joint at this moment when a “Great Recession . . . has hobbled the U.S. economy and darkened the future of younger Americans.” I would amend that to darkened the future not only of those seeking to begin their careers but those unemployed in their forties who may never find work again as well as those close to retirement or already retired whose savings have been looted by globalized financial chicanery.

Self-absorption first: Liz comes to think that God dwells in her as her. She could have remained in the U.S. and become acquainted with this apotheosis of the self. The Universe you want to open a door to is the YOUniverse. This works well in a politics of personal everything: justice, freedom, choice, will and so on, and not a politics of social justice, public good, and common wealth. In order for Liz to find love, she must first learn to love herself and then, as Felipe tells her, not allow “anyone to love you less than you love yourself.” This amour de soiwhich has its caveat emptor, is not an end in itself as Goethe reveals in his Apprenticeship and Travels of Wilhelm Meister: the selfhood dissolves its own amour de soi as it travels into the lives of others and develops an amour-propre, a social evaluation and review of the YOU.

A love, however, which has no social dimension but remains enclosed within the selfhood works well with an economics of maximized personal consumption. Both God and love find you as you find new ways to fulfill your love of self, your struggle to free yourself of what is not you and to find YOU. What Bob Herbert points an accusatory finger at, namely, “globalization and technological wizardy” are no more than agents of transformation: transforming an under-appreciated, unfulfilled YOU into someone balanced because you have learned to love yourself.

There are all manner of signs surrounding us now, on TV, in the movies, in cyberspace, in commercial advertisements and so on that play meaningfully to the “richest one-tenth of 1 percent, representing just 13,000 households [that] took in more than 11 percent of total income in 2007” but make no sense, or, should make no sense, to the remainder of the population. Let’s extend that meaningfulness to the entire top 1 percent which take in more than 23 percent of all income. Let’s extend it further to the top 20 percent of income earners, a professional or “equestrian” class as Lewis Lapham would put it.

What has meaning and what is senseless? What Liz does, or is able to do, and what “balance” she discovers has meaning for her because she is positioned to pursue that kind of meaning, recognize it when she sees it, and adopt it as she wishes. That meaningfulness vanishes when one considers how the huge mass of Americans are now positioned. Even the unemployed, you will discover, find no meaning in a dolce far niente pose. There is no sweetness on the unemployment or food pantry lines. Among this tribe a hope of balance goes no further than a checkbook. Ironically, when one’s meditation begins with having nothing, it is almost impossible to ascend to an awareness “of one same thought” that is anything other than the thought that one has nothing. What now occupies us in “a definite length of time” and remains “steady and vivid”—what meditation strives for—is what enrages the Tea Partiers at this moment.

Until a poll showed differently, it was assumed that the Tea Partiers represented the “crushed poor” and unemployed and foreclosed middle class now “on their knees.” Perhaps they have pre-empted the anger of the crushed and detoured it to represent their particular frustrations and discontent. Consider how havoc, since the Reagan presidency, wreaked upon everyone but the top 20 percent, has stymied the “re-gentrification” dreams of the equestrian class. There’s a limit as to how far private schools, private compounds and retreats, private jets, private security, and so on can remove this class from the growing havoc surrounding them. Their anger is focused on immigrants, Muslims, Welfare Queens, anti-war protesters, environmentalists, atheists, Liberals, Socialist, Social Democrats, Obama, every entitlement program, and all those who look to the Federal Government for assistance and not to their stock portfolio. This movie is meaningful to them. They are positioned to take the Eat Pray Love journey that Liz takes or support their fellow Tea Party Candidates. So despite their rebellious anger, Tea Partiers will find the movie Eat Pray Love meaningful; it represents something they can do. There’s no glitch between spectacle and reality.

How to explain why those now on their knees and facing a dark future continue to be treated with what is for them meaningless? And why do they continue to respond? Why respond to multi-millionaire Donald Trump’s abuse of his “apprentices”? Or, Gordon Ramsey’s abuse of kitchen staff? Why indeed all this “top chef” extravagant food fare TV shows when these Americans are struggling to buy Happy Meals for a family of five? Why follow the lives of so-called Celebrities as if you found their extravagances somehow appropriate and respectful while you can’t afford to pay for a movie ticket and buy popcorn? Why put up with Oprah’s demand that you celebrate people just because they’re in the limelight and you aren’t? Why stand back and celebrate a “re-gentrification” of your neighborhood, your former factory, your lifestyle when it was never “gentrified” in the first place but just “the neighborhood,” your neighborhood? Why vote for those who just want to delete the word “public” from every sign, every law, every goal and objective when you are “the public”? Why extol the rich and famous when the country was grounded in the notion of “commonwealth,” of neither aristocracy nor gentry nor worship of celebrities? It is transparently clear that at this moment there is a huge divide, an unfathomable rift, between the existing conditions of the American masses and what spectacle, in every form, is put before them.

It also seems clear that we are fast approaching a moment when such spectacle will no longer ignore and insult, not the disingenuous Tea Partiers, but the many who have experienced neither recovery nor transformation and cannot journey to Italy, Bali and India in search of what is meaningless to them.

Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009) where he tried to arrange an early edited collection of BAD SUBJECTS pieces.

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