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ON ELIZABETH GILBERT

by Miles Mathis



I could interpret between you and your love
if I could see the puppets dallying.—Shakespeare


This critique of Elizabeth Gilbert was born from watching her 2009 TED lecture, but it has been filled out from reading her book Eat, Pray, Love. My main thesis will be that Ms. Gilbert is an attractive, smart, funny person; a good speaker with a calming voice; a talented writer with great organizational skills; and a complete phony.

For those who don’t know, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Three of my least favorite things. If they had included Economics, they could have had a full house. In fact, I recommend they do so, and change the name to TEDEUS. Technology, Entertainment, Design, and Economics in the United States. The most tedious, mind-numbing fake categories of achievement and study, for the misdirection of all modern effort.

TED conferences have been around since the 1980’s, and from the beginning the organizers have invited the crème de la crème of upwardly mobile phonies to speak, including Bill Gates, Jimmy Wales, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Helen Fisher, Aubrey de Grey, Lee Smolin, Brian Greene, Yves Behar, Ben Saunders, Keith Barry, J.J. Abrams, Eve Ensler, and on and on. It could be said, either in a positive way or a negative way, that society is what it is today due to the influence of people like this. The TED conferences act as the positive answer, allowing these people to further promote their ideas and creations (for just $6,000 you can attend the conference and be the beneficiary of this boosterism). I intend to supply the negative answer. My critique of Elizabeth Gilbert could be translated as a critique of almost any lecturer for TED, with only a few tweeks. These lecturers have different interests and projects, but they have a clear commonality in being polished surfaces with no substance. With a few exceptions (like Jane Goodall) the TED lecturers are symbolic of a culture that has utterly lost its soul, that has replaced the éclat of true brilliance with the glare of public relations. TED tries very hard to sell itself as a gathering of genius, but it comes off as another advertising awards dinner.

The subject of Ms. Gilbert’s lecture is “a different way to think about creative genius.” She leads the lecture by telling the audience that her latest book became a “mega-sensation international bestseller thing.” She repeats this later in the lecture, just in case we missed it the first time. Although she doesn’t seem to be especially shy in tooting her own horn, she does avoid coming out and telling us she is a genius. She doesn’t really need to, since the subject of the lecture does that for her. Why would she be talking about genius if she had no experience of it? Obviously, she needed to spend long hours on this question of genius, because it was so central to her method and to the side-effects of her method… of writing self-help books.

She reminds us in her lecture of the cliché of the creative person, tormented and self-destructive, possibly alcoholic and probably suicidal. Ms. Gilbert does not look suicidal or otherwise imbalanced, but we are to understand that, just beneath this shiny surface, the waves are crashing very hard. She tells us she got past this danger by thinking of creative genius in a different way. She thinks of genius like an elf that lives in the wall, jumping into her head whenever she sits at the computer. Because it is the elf that does the real work, and has the real genius, she is saved from being such a towering egomaniac.

Of course, as she admits, this is not a “different” or even a new way of thinking of genius. It is the old, pre-TED way of thinking about genius. Only the moderns are shallow enough to think that they are responsible for themselves: their minds, their bodies, and their actions. The “ancients,” up to the time of, say, Rodin, thought the gods or Muses blessed the artist with his or her ability or inspiration. These pre-Modern artists did not think this way to save themselves from egomania: they really believed it. They really believed that outside forces were at work, that real mystery was involved. If they spoke to these forces or gods or Muses, they did not do it as some sort of psychic joke, to release tension or for other therapeutic reasons: they did it to thank them.

For example, Ms. Gilbert tells us a story about Tom Waits shouting at the Muses to come back when he is not driving: can’t they see that he is busy? This story gets a big laugh, and it is telling in two ways: one, we get to hear from another towering egomaniac phony, Tom Waits, pretending to be a genius. Ms. Gilbert betrays her real level: she thinks Tom Waits is an example of real genius, and so does her audience. They have never considered the possibility that it is not hard to sing bad songs with gravel in your voice, as long as you don’t care if you trash your larynx. These are people constitutionally unable to tell the difference between a real artist and a fake artist [here is a real musical genius], between real art and what Tolstoy called “a simulacrum of art.” Two, this story is telling in that we know it is fake: if the Muses had really been floating over Tom Waits at this point, they would have replied by grabbing the steering wheel and driving the smug bastard over a cliff. I have had moments of inspiration while driving, and you know what I do? I pull over and grab my fucking Big Chief tablet out of the glove compartment and put my hand to my ear. I turn off the radio, roll up the windows, and listen very very carefully. I write it all down verbatim, and then ask humbly if that is all. The Muse knows when and where to arrive: it is not up to me to question these things. Her schedule is a little bit more important than mine, I imagine.

In fact, the Muse is writing this right now. When I first heard Ms. Gilbert’s lecture, it didn’t offend me much, to be honest. Her voice took me by the balls and caressed me into a state of non-judgment. Unfortunately for her, the Muse overheard the lecture. Erato flew down from her perch upon the roof and roused me from my slumbers and told me to get my fingers loosened up: it was time for another lesson.

The Muse said to me: “Don’t you see what a sacrilege it is for this woman to be joking about genius or inspiration, and to be bringing that sack of bagshot Waits into it? I haven’t spent a second with either person, and neither have any of my sisters, and I don’t like her telling fibs. You haven’t yet read her book, but I have, and I can tell you that it takes no large or small amount of genius to write such a book. It takes an advance from a greedy publisher and few months of proper calculation. You ask yourself what the average shallow female most wants to read, and you write it. Do you think the publisher looked at this book proposal and thought, ‘wow, this would be a great spiritual quest—well-thought-out, rigorous, real, and likely to bring true transcendence. Let us hope that dear Elizabeth finds herself’? Of course not. The publisher thought, ‘wow, this sounds like a cash cow. Oprah will be all over this book like a fat lady on a tub of double-buttered popcorn.’ Well, just as the publisher thought, we may assume Ms. Gilbert thought. Look at her subtitle: ‘One woman’s search for everything.’ Does a person on a true spiritual quest subtitle her book something like that? It is offensive to any and all spirits to begin a quest with such demands or desires. Sorry, human female-girl thing, but not even the gods find everything. Even Zeus gets thwarted in his lusts by Hera. Even Bacchus has pains he must drown with wine. Even Demeter loses a crop now and then. Athena gets to wear armor and hunt with beautiful dogs, but she doesn’t also get to be Aphrodite. No one gets everything. We Muses do not grant such wishes, nor do we get involved with books with subtitles like that. Only the Fates get involved in such cases, since we are dealing with hubris here. Ms. Gilbert was not seeking inspiration or genius, she was seeking the ‘mega-sensation international best seller thing.’ She has it, and now we will see how it feeds her soul. We already see her unwinding a bit here onstage, joking about drinking gin in the morning. It is only a matter of time before the joke becomes the JOKE. So, boy, read the book, do some research and then open your ears for another terrible tongue-lashing.”

Well, I must admit that my ears are always ready for a tongue-lashing from the lovely Erato, the wetter the better. She is the one lady whose requests I never question, and whose lessons I never regret.

Not only did I read (parts of) the book, I listened to a discussion that lasted almost as long as the book, between Stephen Metcalf, Katie Roiphe, and Julie Turner, at Slate magazine. Mr. Metcalf took the side against and the women took the side for the book. Now, I remember Ms. Roiphe fondly for her defense of men in the 90’s, when almost no one else but Camille Paglia and she were doing it (men were, and are, not allowed to defend themselves). But here she doesn’t score many points. She defends the book because it is better than “Prozac Nation,” which is like defending Ted Bundy because he didn’t eat as many people as Jeffrey Dahmer. She also finds Ms. Gilbert brave, since women always get attacked for writing fluffy self-analysis. Yes, it takes incredible bravery for a writer for GQ magazine to dare to write a fluffy bestseller, since now it will be so hard for her to be voted onto the Pantheon with Shakespeare and Dante and Jane Austen. Julie Turner’s comments are even less to the point, if possible: she likes the book because Ms. Gilbert ate at some places in Rome at which she also ate. Ms. Turner is only worried that the book will make these places so popular she won’t be able to get reservations next time.

Mr. Metcalf clearly hates the book, but he is kept in check by his desire not to appear too Grinchy. Being at a table with two “intellectual” women who like the book, he cannot just come out and say that the book is a horrible piece of effluvium, a pox upon the history of literature, and a measure of all who read it. He reads outloud a few passages with apparent disgust, hoping the words will speak for themselves, but the words don’t speak for themselves with the ladies present, who seem unable to contextualize the sentences beyond the periods at the end. They like Ms. Gilbert, for interior reasons of their own, and they will defend her no matter what idiocy she is caught saying in print.

Despite being outnumbered, Mr. Metcalf clearly won the argument, if only because he was the only one who attempted to make some objective and substantive points. But Erato was not at all satisfied with his performance, nonetheless. Ms. Roiphe asked him if his problem was with Ms. Gilbert or with the project in general, and he hedged by saying that someone might have made something of it. But this is false. The project was offensive on the face of it, and neither Isaiah nor Sappho could have done anything with it.

To prove this, let us begin with the backstory. Ms. Gilbert, coming off a nasty divorce, for which she felt some guilt, needed to do some serious soul searching. She had cried herself out, on the floors of a thousand bathrooms, and now she needed to really answer some questions. She says she had gotten too skinny, in her misery, and so wanted to put on a few pounds before she hit the ashrams and bamboo mats and the bread and water fasts. So what did she do (and this is our first big clue): She wrote up a book proposal, got an advance, and then went to Italy for four months to pig out on pizza!

Aha! Yes, just what Jesus or the Buddha would have done. You don’t want to head for the wilderness until you have gotten your trip underwritten and insured, with a few hundred grand for pocket money and pork, and a guarantee of 15% of profits (not including paperback and movie rights).

Now, Ms. Gilbert’s readers don’t see it this way, of course. They are pulled in by that whole weight issue thing. She doesn’t want to be skinny! She wants to be a big beautiful woman, with rolls of good American fat hanging loosely from her middle, and jiggly triceps, and knees like little balloons. Goodness, that is so liberating!

Yes, we may think of Ms. Gilbert’s audience as an audience of Charlotte Hazes (you remember, Lolita’s mother?), whom Nabokov skewered thusly:

She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or a bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her own soul; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversation, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished.

And later

…fat Haze suddenly spoiled everything by turning to me and asking me for a light, and starting a make-believe conversation about a fake book by some popular fraud.

The legion of Charlotte Hazes who read Eat, Pray, Love don’t care that it is full of bald inconsistencies, bad advice, temptations to sloth, greed, gluttony, and moral solipsism; they don’t care that the only discipline it contains is a shrewd slavery to the reader’s every shallow need; they don’t care that it flings slights intended and unintended to every god, muse, daemon, and clear thinker in history; they only care that the woman gets fed, burped by hairy gurus, and in the end bedded by a dark Brazilian. This is porn for women, in the guise of a penitent prayer book.

And that is the whole problem. I have no quarrel with fluffy entertainment or porn. Neither I nor any Muse require that any male or female spend the whole day or night in a posture of repentance. If Ms. Gilbert wants to get fed, burped and bedded, with a bestseller to greet her at home, fine, good for her. But for god’s sake, deary, don’t pretend you are on some spiritual quest, that you have seen God in the pizza, or that you give a rat’s ass for meditation. If you prefer writing fluff to meditating, go to it. You will not offend Erato or Buddha or Vishnu or Zeus or Frigga in the least. The offense only comes with the pretense that you are doing what you are not doing. You were clearly not pursuing any sort of spirituality, since normally when people go to Rome on a spiritual quest, they don’t spend all their time at the cafes, looking for God in the pizza. They spend some time in the museums, or at the Forum, or in the libraries, or in the catacombs, or in the countryside.

If Ms. Gilbert had really been in search of even one truth beyond food and sex, she might have stayed home and re-read her Thoreau. Henry would have told her that “it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” She could have got that wisdom without reading past the first few pages. Henry is known for importing some Eastern philosophy, but he makes fun of gurus on page 2:

What I have heard of Brahmins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging with their heads suspended, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders, “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or, measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars….

Ms. Gilbert’s entire trip, if not an act of career, was an act of desperation. There is no need to go to Rome for pizza. If you need to put on a few pounds, there is good food to be had in Connecticut or New York City. Other equally clueless people travel tens of thousands of miles from Europe and Asia to gain a few expensive pounds in the restaurants of New York City. The Italians have been good enough to come live in the Big Apple, even, and they have brought their famous pizzas with them, just for the benefit of rich folks from Waterbury. If God really does hang out in pizza toppings, we must assume he does it worldwide, not just in Rome.

And for meditation, Henry will tell you that you don’t have to travel for that either.

One hastens to South Africa to chase the giraffe, but surely that is not the game he would be after…. Is not our own interior white on the chart, black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered?

You would think a writer should know this, since writers are paid to sail their own interior seas. Beyond that, you don’t need to go to India to look within. India has not cornered the market in quietude or routes to the holy. All Ms. Gilbert had to do was quit crying in one of those bathrooms, stare instead at the ceiling tiles above her, and stay awhile. No chants or postures are necessary. No candles, no masters, no breathing rates, no mantras, no mandalas, no incense, no drugs, no smoke, no mats, nothing. If the bathroom floor is cold, go to bed and sleep an extra two hours in the morning. It will accomplish the same thing. Your mind will sort itself out, with no conscious help from you. The greatest mistake in becoming holy is trying to be holy. Just fucking relax.

In conclusion, I want to return to Ms. Gilbert’s TED lecture. She tells us that contemporary artists are unstable because the pressure of their own genius is too much for them. Because they think the genius is in themselves, instead of in the elves in the wall, they can’t handle the enormity of it, and they crack up. Or, she says, they crack up because they have one big success and then dry up. The elf gives them one book or painting or song and then flits off. Their glory days behind them, they take to drink and implode.

But once again, Ms. Gilbert has it all wrong. This is not the trajectory of the artist. This is the trajectory of the non-artist. The elves do not leave real artists. The Muse is always on the roof. Fame is not fleeting for artists, since artists don’t give a damn about fame. Fame is fleeting for media phenoms, for PR gurus, pop bands and Hollywood stars. These are the people that crack up from not being able to produce the goods anymore. The David Hasselhofs who can’t come up with a Baywatch spin-off, the Britneys who can’t buy another hit from P-Diddy (since he is selling to younger girls who haven’t blown out their bellies or faces yet).

Ms. Gilbert is not talking about “creative people,” she is talking about herself. She is not worried for the contemporary artist, in general, she is worried about herself. Can she follow up her hit? Has she peaked? She actually asks herself these questions on stage. I have an answer for her. Who cares? Erato and her sisters have bigger things to push along than the next self-help book for the shallow set. For them, Eat, Pray, Love is no peak of anything, so there can be no fall off, no downhill side.

If Ms. Gilbert really had any integrity, she could admit that. She could say to herself, “Hey, I made some money and had some fun. Now is the time to write a real book. I don’t have to worry about paying the bills for, say, three hundred years, so now is the time to write something genuine--that is, something that has no popular appeal and no chance of being published. I don’t have to care anymore what the publishers want or what Oprah likes. I can write a real book for real people: which means I will have an audience about the size of Jane Goodall’s troop of mountain gorillas.

No, artists don’t crack up because the elves are silent. They don’t crack up because they can’t handle being the font of so much wisdom. They crack up because they have to live in a society of non-artists and fake artists—people who claim to care about art and holiness and depth and subtlety and beauty and transcendence, but really don’t. People who will read a mountain of trashy Oprah books but who won’t read a page of real literature or poetry or art. People who give lectures on the Muse without ever getting within ten miles of a Muse. People who create lecture series about great ideas, and then invite jugglers and magicians and politicians and economists and administrators and self-help novelists to speak. Artists crack up because they are surrounded by huge piles of awful non-art, promoted to the skies as poignant and thrilling by ever-growing companies of plastic people. They take to drink to soothe their souls from this daily battering by the evermore bold and strident salesmen and saleswomen of the future, selling us a stripped down model of humanity as a form of progress and progressivism. They fall into fatal funks and depressions from a chronic deficiency in beauty and truth. Everywhere the falsehoods are published as novelties while the truth is ignored as a nuisance. Everywhere the monstrosities are exhibited as edifying, while the lovelinesses are ignored as passe.

You will say the real artist has always been a weird minority, damned by the numbers, and this much is true. But at least in the past the artist did not have to countenance the fake artist in his place. Leonardo was the odd man out, in almost all ways, but he did not have to watch Damien Hirst take his place, and steal the very bread from his lips, the wine from his glass. Tolstoy finally quit the field of literature, but that was his own choice. He did not have to watch Jacqueline Suzanne and Louis L’Amour waltz in and replace him as premier novelist, permanently bankrupting him and sending him to work at Walmart. Thoreau never tried very hard to sell books, but at least he didn’t have to see Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil outselling him a thousand to one. Those things hurt, not as a matter of fame or money, but as a matter of influence. Isaiah didn’t write for fame or money, but he wouldn’t have wanted to see his prophecies ignored in favor of the Celestine Prophecies, or the prophecies of Bill Gates. Why? Because his prophecies were true, from the mouths of the angels, and because Bill Gates is a schmuck who uses Leonardo’s drawings to sell computers.

For the individual artists, these unfairnesses are a personal tragedy, but for the culture the tragedy is even greater. In the past, the real artist was often ignored but rarely buried. Think of Van Gogh. Van Gogh, though a personal tragedy of epic proportions, was only a temporary loss to society: he was eventually unearthed. But now the possibility of such a life has been diminished to the point of extinction. Real artists are not just undiscovered now, they are eradicated. Van Gogh, born now, would be born into a world of TED lectures and Getty Center pamphlets and MOMA propaganda and New York Times OpEds and ARTnews magazines and Vagina Monologues and FoxNews and CNN and Oprah and American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and the whole ubiquitous smorgasbord of shit and shite that passes for contemporary culture. He would be brought up in one of these perpetual kindergartens of agitprop we call public schools, where he could be indoctrinated from the cradle by the Pentagon and the CIA, hanging yellow ribbons every time some soldier farts in the Middle East. He could graduate from there into some college where the football team gets a billion dollar endowment for free weights, the business school hires three thousand instructors for thirty thousand undergrads, and the humanities department is held in a tent under a tree. He could join the art history department, which places five thousand graduates in administrative jobs throughout the country, or he could join the art department, which is held together by duct tape. In this art department, which has no easels or chairs, he would be left alone of meddling instructors, trying to mold him. Instead, he would be free to blow his nose and scratch his ass to any extent required by his genius.

I hope you can see that it is very unlikely that our little Vincent would be the tragic figure we know and love. No, if he wanted to “make it” in art, he would have to be the faux-tragic fake artist, slouching about in his laceless Doc Martens, pissing in the fire and throwing his feces out the window. Every other month he would kick some cast-off effluvium of his ersatz life into a pile and hit it with the glue gun, then put it in a cardboard box and Fedex it to Gagosian or PaceWildenstein, where they would mount it on an expensive flying trapeze and dangle it from the ceiling, with flashing lights or Tom Waits gargling in the background. One of our TED lecturers could then plug it at the $6,000 symposium of the clueless, and the market is complete.

This means that while art was rare in the past, it is now endangered. Van Gogh was teetering on the edge of an abyss at the end of the 19th century, but now he would be leaning on the lip of the black hole. You can teeter away from an abyss, with some luck and effort, but the suction of the black hole is inexorable. The suction of contemporary society—of which the TED lecture is only one hose—has become a hydra-like vacuum, sucking every last possibility of art and beauty and truth into its maw. But you will not hear this fact in any of these consortiums of genius, since the extinction of the artist has been no accident of culture, no committee oversight. These fake geniuses are the beneficiaries of this extinction, and they revel in it. You will see no defense of art at TED, only the subtle grin of the usurper.*

*See, for example, Lee Smolin’s defense of democracy in a lecture that is supposed to be about physics. Science is not democratic, and only a poor thinker would want it to be, just as only a short person would want basketball to be democratic. But Smolin cannot tell his squishy audience this: they do not want to hear that.


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