Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t think she’s a genius.
Artistic geniuses tend to implode under the weight of their own expectations. Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t about to die young, so she thinks of genius as a spirit that moves past her, or through her, or visits her desk as she writes. She is a “mule” for genius. A lightning rod standing up bravely in the storm ready to channel the divine spirit.
Channeling the divine. How does she know she has already done so? This book that she thinks she has poured, or channeled, or muled genius into—why is she so confident that it worked?
“In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, ‘Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo,’ incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love struck me as more beach-hit-satisfying than glimpse-of-God-thrilling. But that’s just me. I’m a fan of the theory that the reader creates the text along with the author, and I can conceive of someone weaving a deeper experience with her words than I did. But that’s not what she’s laying claim to, here.
It seems to me (correct me, Gilbert, if I am wrong) that she is assuming her mad success is a sign that she has indisputably earned the kind of ‘Allah, olé’ she describes. So now I am torn between mentioning Twilight and steering away from an argument that attempts to pin down “real” literature as opposed to pop lit.
The perfect collision of the meritocracy myth and elitism, yes? The conundrum of the literary establishment. If you have it, you’ve earned it; if we like it, it’s good. But also if we can sell it. But if we sold it, you earned that by doing your job so well. Your writing job. Which means you’re one of the good ones. Writers, that is. And good people! Because you’ve earned it, by selling enough people a divine vessel.
The desire to hit the same numbers again and the desire to say something inspired by the divine are all but interchangeable throughout her speech. “I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now — it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me,” she says. And later: “If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”
That dichotomy, right? It’s either brilliant, or it bombs. If it bombs, it’s not brilliant. If it doesn’t, it is. How much distinction can (or should) we make between “Allah, olé” and the “consumer vote” of a dollar bill? What about “Likes” on Facebook? (You can buy Likes with dollar bills, you know.)
Rather than knocking Gilbert down from her pedestal, let’s take a moment of silence for all of the fierce divine light that never makes it to a proper audience in our quantity-over-quality world of connections.
This is the Kryptonite of my essay: I have no desire to claim that the urge to entertain is any less valid than the urge to ignite the intellect and/or soul, nor to make a value judgment on the production of either kind of writing. I don’t even really want to establish the so-called “priv-lit” bestseller as decidedly one kind of writing or the other. Yet I find Gilbert’s inability to distinguish between the materially successful word and the living word persistently disturbing.
Is this not, in a way, the outright worship of money? Instead of mass, should those in search of the divine hold mass-market paperbacks? Would Oprah’s Book Club be akin to Jesuits of this new religion?
Isn’t this just another way to herd us into a common arena? Another aggressive invalidation of our personal intuition? Aren’t these the same people teaching us not to trust or honor ourselves, like a date rapist, by aggressively courting our more primal desires and then shaming us for succumbing? Eat delicious McDonald’s, you fattie! Look at all of these addictive new television shows, you lazy, apathetic, trash-loving asshole! You can never be happy if you don’t have everything, you irresponsible, debt-ridden pauper!
Am I overthinking this? My tangents are all in a tangle. How about this: Rather than knocking Gilbert down from her pedestal, let’s take a moment of silence for all of the fierce divine light that never makes it to a proper audience in our quantity-over-quality world of connections. Let’s think for a moment of all of the readers out there, hungry for literature and taking someone’s word for it, eating at chain restaurants, so to speak, while the most artfully made and nourishing meals remain squirreled away expensively in fancy restaurants in Palo Alto.
Let’s feel sorrow that it does, it does, it really does matter just how popularly we can channel the divine. Because, Elizabeth Gilbert, (and you may have forgotten this, now that you’re safely out of the food chain) to say that authors die young purely because of their expectations is to ignore how much pressure is added by the constant demand to feed, clothe, and heal oneself in a world where most wordsmiths practice their craft largely for free.
To end on a positive note: Gilbert’s more recent TED talk avoids such upsetting conflation. Instead she recommends that everybody everywhere follow their passion, keep pursuing the things they cannot help but pursue, the things they cannot help but put before themselves, she is talking about true love, and now I think here it is, this is a message from the divine, this is something we’re already doing together all over the world—we are becoming atheists, waving goodbye to the Powers That Be, abandoning their shrines in favor of our own little dreams, making do without their blessings and learning all over again, but in new ways, that we don’t need arbiters for the divine at all, we are the divine, the divine is us.
Photos: Sinking of the Titanic, Willy Stöwer (1912) and The River, Aristide Maillol (1943), The Museum of Modern Art