Elizabeth Gilbert is interviewed at Jacket Copy, the LA Times book blog, where among a number of interesting things, she has this to say:
You said before that it’s a youthful impulse to think of oneself as exceptional. You’ve traveled a lot — is that also an American trait?
Very. Very very very very. That’s something I’m seeing more and more, being married to somebody who is South American versus North American. He marvels at it. And he thinks, as many people do, it’s the best, and most shocking, thing about Americans. That sense of exceptionalism, and the honest and earnest belief that so many of us seem to share that we are in charge of what happens in our lives, that we can take agency and arrange it however we like. I think that people who live in cultures without quite so much privilege, opportunity or grandiosity have a little bit more respect for the workings of destiny, and the limitations that people can find themselves in through no fault of their own.
While I thought Eat, Pray, Love was often a very good read, it drove me crazy. There was something so American about it, so suburban and privileged and unexamined. I mean, really, we could all get over our heartbreak if we could take a year off to go around the world. For me, the book embodied all of the worst elements of the postive thinking movement (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America for example).
However, I’ve been sort of intrigued by Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, and I found her TED talk on creativity really touching, and, although I hate to admit it, sort of inspirational.
But where I started this thought, and what I want to circle around to, is that what annoyed me so much about Eat, Pray, Love is a quality I’ve seen in a few other memoirs, a strange sense of outrage that life has not turned out the way the protagonist thought it was going to. I think it’s what annoyed people about Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia (about Cleaving the less said the better), and that same whiny quality is what made me sputter at the Anne Hathaway character all through The Devil Wears Prada. There’s an odd unexamined aspect to the expectations these characters all have, that their lives will be special, that they’ll have beautiful things and live in cool places and that somehow they deserve to have it all work out the way they want to. That because they are white, and well-educated, and went to good schools, and were raised in nice suburbs by parents who provided a certain privileged standard of living, they should swan out into the world and find that life is what they want it to be. (To her credit, Gilbert’s crisis in Eat, Pray, Love is precipitated by getting all that and finding herself hysterical with unhappiness).
Now, I hardly live the rough life, but I had such a weird and unstable upbringing, during which there was plenty of privilege but never any money at all — and when I went out into the world, it was made clear to me that there would be no help forthcoming from my parents, so I find the these writers’ struggle with their own expectations deeply strange. But from the size of their sales figures, I’m in the minority there. By a lot. And I wonder at this. Do most people really feel so pissy about their lives? I mean, I’m pretty grateful. I have a house. I have a car. I have a garden and a nice partner and good friends. I’m going to be really broke again because of the job thing, but even that looks like an opportunity to me right now (when I’m not lying awake nights worrying). But I wonder about what this sense of exceptionalism says about us as a nation. When did we start expecting so much? And why do we think we deserve so much bigger a piece of the pie than everyone else?