Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Connection to A Doll's House

           After finishing A Doll’s House by Henry Ibsen, in my Junior year high school English class, the teacher asked us about possible scenarios for the protagonist beyond the end of the play. The play ends with the protagonist, Nora, leaving her husband to “make sense of herself and everyone around her.” Instead of excitement about Nora’s new freedom, many of my classmates and I felt disturbed by the fact that she was also leaving her children behind. I conveniently remembered a story where a woman also leaves her present life behind to “find herself,” Eat, Pray Love. I offered the idea of an extended trip with self-exploratory intentions to the class as an alternative to Nora leaving her children behind forever. I phrased this offer as “Well, what if she tried the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing?” I asked this question seriously and didn’t expect the chuckles that several of my classmates responded with. The idea of a modern and extravagantly privileged solution to the protagonist’s woes did sound absurd, but after some discussion, my classmates approved of this idea as a solid medium between Nora staying in an unhappy marriage or completely abandoning her family. Then a classmate had the nerve to ask “What if she comes back just as unhappy as she was before?” Just by someone suggesting an all-too-possible outcome, my brilliant idea was thwarted.

            If I had more time to answer that question, I would have said that securing a book deal about the trip would offer a fail-proof plan: Either explore vibrant places and discover profound truths about oneself or write a terrible book that wouldn’t sell. Gilbert’s novel is successful and humorous for a number of reasons. On her trip, she develops an independent sense of self from someone who is always in a relationship through delicious food, spirituality, and a deep connection another. The descriptions of the places and the people she encounters are bright and moving. She creates a picture that I would want to put myself in at most points of the journey. Ultimately, humor is what gives the novel its spark. She has a series of running jokes between us and her, which add to the intimacy of reading the novel, such as her obsession with the Italian language and quips about being divorced. It may be a self-fulfilling journey, but it’s a fairly enjoyable one. 

Italian Humor

     Gilbert’s memoirs are almost a kind of self-help book in that she shares the teachings she has learned to improve herself and find peace. Despite the fact that struggling to escape from depression and feeling lost in life are fairly heavy subjects, Gilbert keeps the tone light, partly by introducing us to quirky characters and partly through her own self-deprecating humor. The latter is particularly useful in that this type of self-help book could easily come across as too preachy; Gilbert’s humor, however, knocks her self-serious journey down a peg.  As in many of the other works we’ve read, here humor has a uniquely palatable nature—in fact, humor as a tone even makes the content of what is said more acceptable to us, or rather makes us more receptive to it.

     The Italian section was the most lighthearted, given its description of life’s pleasures. I studied abroad in Rome last year, and I felt that Gilbert’s portrayal of the Italians as easygoing and pleasure-loving was pretty accurate. Gilbert says that when she told Italians of her plans to enjoy herself in Rome, “they didn’t have any hang-ups about it…Congratulations, they would say. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Be our guest. Nobody once said, ‘How completely irresponsible of you,’ or ‘What a self-indulgent luxury’” (62). I myself remember being struck by the mid-day siesta in Naples and by how many Italians took long coffee breaks in Rome in the middle of working; Italians generally have a much more lighthearted sensibility about enjoying themselves. They can even poke fun at themselves about this, cheerfully talking about how work takes a long time to get done because of this cultural quirk. I felt that this related to humor in that humor is also about allowing yourself to relax and enjoy life even imperfectly, which is the message Gilbert learns in Italy. Pleasures and humor are perhaps good in and of themselves if you allow yourself to let go of self-seriousness and embrace the easy humility of humor, and Gilbert's self-deprecating tone is a good expression of this.

How to Self-Govern Your Life Through Humor

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and been translated into 30 different language. Gilbert’s memoir has found an impossibly wide audience, yet few readers have been through a draining divorce or had the opportunity to drop everything and travel around Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year. So why do so many people identify with Eat, Pray, Love? It turns out the answer isn’t in the pizza she ate in Italy or the insight she received in India. The answer is in her action to leave her old life behind and realize that her life doesn’t have to look a certain way anymore. Many people responded to Eat, Pray, love because it is a self-governing story in which Gilbert proves that any individual has the power to take charge of their life. Gilbert reinforces this idea through her use of humor. Throughout her narrative Gilbert interjects bits of comedy during moments of despair to show how one can use humor to find inner freedom and gain control over their life.

Gilbert certainly uses humor to makes her audience more comfortable as she exposes intimate details about her divorce, depression, and loneliness, but she also uses humor to direct her audience to the little windows of hope that exist no matter how bad the situation is. When Liz describes her state of depression she was in when she first arrived in Italy she says her symptoms included “loss of sleep, appetite, and libido, uncontrollable weeping, chronic backaches and stomachaches, alienation and despair, trouble concentrating on work, inability to even get upset that the Republicans had just stolen a presidential election… it went on and on” (Gilbert 53). Even though Gilbert is presenting a rather dark moment in her life, she adds a taste of comedy to show her audience how they can take control of their life through their outlook. Gilbert does not allow herself to feel shameful for her past nor does she ignore it. She embraces the truth then copes with it by making a joke about it. The way that Gilbert deals with hardship follows the larger narrative that any individual has the power to self-govern their life. 

Gilbert as A Protagonist

     In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert uses humor, sarcasm, and wit to make her biographical story more relatable. Because she is not afraid to describe and share the humorous and sometimes embarrassing things that happen to her on her journey through Italy, India, and Indonesia, we are able to find not only her journey, but also Elizabeth herself, more relatable.
     Elizabeth arrives in Bali to fulfil the prophesy of the medicine man and to balance the pleasure experienced in Italy and the devotion experienced in India. But she quickly realizes that travelling to a completely different country to live with a complete stranger requires more than just a name. In her own words, Elizabeth realizes “Maybe I should have though all this through better.” (216). It is humorous to think about not only her experiences navigating Bali with nothing more than a name of a supposed spiritual healer, as well as her witty descriptions of the people and places of Italy and India. These tidbits of humor that appear in her thoughts make her travels and experiences more universal. We can’t all be paid to travel to three different countries to eat, meditate, and write about our experiences, but all relate to being in an unfamiliar place and not knowing what we are doing. For example, when I was 7, my family visited Epcot in Orlando. It was such an amazing experience, walking through the different “countries” of the world. But the humor associated with travelling was present when my father and I split from my mom and got lost. We were in Morocco, but he believed we were in Mexico, leading to my mom’s relentless search for us in the wrong country.
     I also found Gilbert’s use of self-depreciating humor to make her a more relatable protagonist. Her funny comments about her incompetence help remind the reader that the purpose of her book is less to discuss her travels but more to talk about her personal growth in a time of extreme struggle. Through wit, she shows the reader her flaws. She is not the perfect world traveler, speaking the language of the places she visits. Instead, she travels through Italy for the sheer purpose of fulfilling her desire to learn something new and enjoy doing it. The humorous story about her first day in Italian school, where she “smugly [walks] past all those Level One students” and then begs “in very clear English” (43) to be moved down into that Level One class shows that she is nowhere near perfect. As a matter of fact, this example shows that she is struggling academically and emotionally, as well as being a bit judgmental. Because of the flaws she humorously describes to the reader in the form of stories and random thoughts in her head, her audience wants to keep reading to watch Elizabeth grow emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.
     Overall, the humor based from Gilbert’s flaws is what makes Eat, Pray, Love a success. The relatable-ness of her totally un-relatable journey is what keeps her audience coming back for more.

Eat, Pray Fetishize

A few weeks ago the wonderful “Hark, a Vagrant” comics were brought up in class. One of the more humorous comics examined dealt with the Bronte sisters and, as I’m sure we all remember, the willingness of Charlotte and Elizabeth to be attracted to men Ann Bronte terms more than a little unsavory. Comic appears. We laugh. A room full of English students, of course, will get the joke. To a large extent, however, it’s something of an inside joke, relatable only to us or those like us. The number of prerequisites required to view and then laugh at the comic make both it and the joke it makes pretty exclusive. One must first have a computer, internet, literacy. One must also have a working knowledge of the major players in mid 19th century English literature. Possession of these things from the computer to the knowledge implies a certain level of privilege in both an economic and social sense; a privilege that is needed to get the joke even though the comic does address a universal issue: individuals’ romantic attraction to those who are all wrong for them. The universality of the issue addressed does not negate the privilege required to get the joke. In this sense, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love is one very long “Hark, a Vagrant” Bronte sisters comic.
Gilbert speaks to an understandable restlessness, an intense dissatisfaction with one’s position in life. She is stuck but she is trying to be happy and she isn’t. Sure, the universality of her discontent cannot be denied, it manifests itself in any number of ways across the human spectrum. In this instance, it manifests itself as an upper class, working, straight, American white woman. An inside joke indeed. It’s this privilege that allows her to appropriate, indulgently and shamelessly, other cultures without fear of consequence. She begins by stating, “when the medieval Crusaders drove East for the holy wars, they witnessed worshippers praying with these japa malas, admired the technique, and brought the idea home to Europe as rosary.” This, early on the recognitions section of the book, illustrates to the reader exactly the type of privilege required. The Crusaders went “east” (this must mean India! though they did not actually deal with India) for “holy wars” (a tidy means of describing the Crusades) and admired the technique of the japa mala (the Crusaders fought Muslims who are not, as it would turn out, Indian Hindus although which sect of Hinduism she doesn’t quite say. It doesn’t really matter it’s all very exotic.)
Her premise is based on indulging her privileged sensibilities and her attempts at humor, specifically early on when she states:
I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy. To which the savvy observer might inquire: “Then why did you come to Italy?” To which I can only reply—especially when looking across the table at handsome Giovanni—“Excellent question.”

The laugh track that is inevitably supposed to follow this wry observation is based on indulging stereotypes of Italian males as highly sexual beings. Stereotyping is perpetually problematic and all the more so when it results in the fetishizaiton of an entire country. I have to say, there are clearly jokes being made, and there is a human experiences being exposed but her indulgent propagation of problematic notions of cultural others, I don’t know, it’s a comic strip I just didn’t get.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gilbert, Inside Jokes, and Speed Racer

This past Sunday night, my housemate Rachel and I stayed up late watching a quaint made-for-TV mystery movie series instead of completing the various readings we each had to do. We were so deep in procrastination, it seemed, that we were actively doing something we really didn’t want to do instead. The heroine’s name was Aurora Teagarden, if that gives any indication. (There is no word that can aptly describe the experience of watching a Hallmark Movies and Mysteries “Aurora Teagarden” adaptation at midnight—no word that can encompass the experience of watching a spunky, blonde librarian somehow outsmart the entire police force of her town, solve murders where the body is never actually shown, and interact with her sorta-boyfriend as though she were not, in fact, a grown thirty-something woman, but instead a middleschooler with a crush. All set to a bizarrely inappropriate light-hearted soundtrack. Yet we watched on.)
We were on the second Aurora Teagarden mystery when what I can only call delirium set in. Some background is necessary, though; during the snow day the previous Tuesday, the same friend and I had spent the day off having an extended movie night. I chose my favorite ridiculous high school-summer blockbuster (Pacific Rim), our other friend chose the bizarre 2008 Wachowski siblings’ Speed Racer, and Rachel chose Fifty Shades Darker. (The fact that it was the clean cut of the last one only added to the experience, as did the fact that the stream had obviously been filmed in a movie theater and people in the audience kept standing up and blocking the screen.)
But the delirium. The movies were all fresh in our minds, which may explain it, as may madness brought on by over-exposure to Ms. Teagarden’s twee charms, or simply being over-tired, but somehow we ended up spending the next two hours photoshopping lines of poetry over screenshots of Speed Racer and Fifty Shades via a “Meme Generator” and laughing until we couldn’t breathe. The results are, objectively, not funny to anyone but the two of us. Examples follow:

          It wasn’t until I had begun to edit Byron over a screencap of Charlie Day’s character mind-melding with a giant alien in Pacific Rim, and Rachel continued our Ginsberg trend but now over the plucky Aurora Teagarden, that she stopped, looked at me, and said “This is would be totally incomprehensible to anyone but us. It’s like a secret spy code.” I’d spent most of my childhood wanting to be a spy, and now I was finally getting my wish granted through lines of verse and Jamie Dornan’s brooding looks into the distance. It was poetic.
            But the code part is not the part that struck me; it was what she said about our bad edits being incomprehensible to literally anyone else. She was right. They were incredibly niche; absurd. Not only was it necessary to have seen the movies, but it was also necessary to have seen them enough to associate feelings with the certain scenes that could then be summarized in lines of famous poetry. (And recognition of the poetry itself was also required for the full experience.) In short, it was a standard “inside joke” experience.
            It got me thinking about humor on the larger scale, particularly the kind we’ve been discussing in class lately. When we read the Sedaris essays, we talked a lot about relatability and the need to have some sort of emotional understanding of the situation in order to find it truly funny. The same could be said for Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings; at times “Madea” commented on how you needed be black to fully understand what she was talking about (and if you weren’t, to go ask one of your black friends). I don’t presume to inflate a mutual fascination with a movie to the scale of actual life experiences, of course, but there is the same underlying idea throughout: you must have a basic understanding, if not a basic relationship, with the stuff that makes up the humor.
            I think the same could be said for a lot of the humor in Eat, Pray, Love as well. As a sophomore in college, I haven’t gone through nearly as much as Gilbert has. I haven’t been married for eight years and subsequently gone through a bitter divorce, been a published author, been outside the country, or lived in New York City. I’m also nineteen as opposed to her mid-thirties status in the memoir. There are some aspects of Eat, Pray, Love, I feel, that require this shared understanding in order to be funny. For example—I couldn’t fully grasp the homesickness that Gilbert discussed in regard to NYC while she was abroad, nor her helplessness and ennui when she felt trapped in her marriage and the expectations for her to have a baby. Gilbert discussed, and ultimately joked, about both, and they both seemed like occasions in which an experience of the situation (or a similar one) was necessary to fully understand. However—on the other hand, so much of what Gilbert talked about was universally relatable. While what is most likely a very small portion of us have traveled to India to find a solution for it, nearly everyone has struggled with finding peace with themselves. Nearly everyone has struggled with loneliness, or depression, or heartbreak; nearly everyone has struggled with the nature, or existence, of a higher power. It’s the emotional experiences Gilbert describes with a humorous tone, not necessarily the physical ones, which can make the book relatable. It’s a shared understanding.

            So it is like an inside joke, in that sense. Things can, of course, still be funny even if you don’t necessarily understand or relate to every single aspect behind it. I’ve never meditated or been to the Ashram, but Gilbert’s humorous description of her struggle with this experience still made me laugh occasionally; I’m not black, but I still thought that Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings was funny; likewise, you don’t have to watch Speed Racer to realize that there’s something inherently absurd in applying works of literary merit to it. You can still recognize the humor in something even if it doesn’t directly appeal to some physical or emotional experience you’ve had, or an aspect of your identity—but it certainly adds to the experience of the humor if you do.

Richard from Texas Ruins Everything: Failing Subtlety in Eat, Pray, Love

            This past weekend, I participated in my first Evergreen Lock-In.  The Lock-In has a theme and every Evergreen needs to wear a costume that fits that theme.  This year, the theme was the Olympics.  I was paired with another person to represent the French track and field team.  This was difficult for me; I am not currently, nor have I ever been an extremely athletic person.  I did not know what a track star would wear, so I settled on a pair of running shorts and a t-shirt with FRANCE screen-printed boldly on the front.  My partner ran track in high school.  He showed up in a full spandex running outfit (Uniform? Costume? I don’t know the terminology).  A stack of first place medals hung around his neck, all engraved with his name and the events he ran.  He handed me one so we would match a bit better.  I found our pairing to be comical in itself because we were so obviously different, yet we were meant to be the same team.  Early in the evening, we were asked to introduce ourselves in our pairs, saying our name, year, and sport we were representing. When my partner and I stepped forward, he went first. As he said he was representing track, he ran in place, jumped up, and landed in a perfect starting position as if he were about to race.  I looked down at him, then back at my fellow Evergreens.  I paused after saying my name and added, “I’m representing the uhhh field events.” I shrugged and everyone started laughing.  My partner and I were extremely different, and the incongruity of our introductions caused everyone to laugh.  None of this was done on purpose, and the humor in our actions was very subtle so that it made the most sense in the context of that particular event.  If someone were to try and present the moment with different people in a different context, it would likely not have the same level of humor.
            Subtlety in humor is a major part of the humor that is at work in Gilbert’s memoir.  The work itself is not meant to be primarily; in fact, it covers a host of more serious topics, including divorce, depression, and the journey to spiritual enlightenment.  None of these are inherently funny, and when focusing on each topic, humor is never a main focus of the book.  Instead, Gilbert intersperses humor in light commentary throughout the narrative.  For example, when explaining herself and the way she deals with her emotions, she mentioned that David said, “You have the opposite of a poker face.  You have, like…miniature golf face” (Gilbert 41). This observation is funny because it puts an unexpected twist onto a popular adage.  It fits in with the incongruity theory of humor, subverting the expectations of the reader who would not necessarily think that miniature golf would be the opposite of poker.  Quick jokes such as this one are quite common in the book because they fit in the best with the story Gilbert wants to tell. When discussing difficult topics such as divorce and depression, it may be difficult to add humor to the situation, and when it is done incorrectly it can appear insensitive and in bad taste.  Gilbert generally avoids this by keeping the humorous remarks short and to the point.  This keeps the humor from disrupting the overall flow of the story while still making a contribution.

            Although most of the humor in the story is expertly placed in such a way that it does not interfere with the overall message of the story, there was one section where I do not think that the humor functioned in a way that was constructive.  While she was in India, Gilbert frequently mentioned Richard from Texas and the strange things he would say while giving spiritual insight.  These moments felt very forced to me.  His presence does not fit in with the general feelings that Gilbert is dealing with at the Ashram, even though he is giving guidance that fits in with the teachings of the Guru.  For example, he tells Gilbert, “You’re like a dog at the dump, baby—you’re lickin’ at an empty tin can, trying to get more nutrition out of it. And if you’re not careful, that can’s gonna get stuck on your snout forever and make your life miserable” (Gilbert 150).  This is important advice pertaining to Gilbert and her relationship troubles that are preventing her from moving forward in her life, but it is prevented in a very quirky and ridiculous metaphor.  It does not fit in with the deep and introspective theme of the section of the book.  The incongruity is so apparent that it is too much to accept as a small comical instance.  Combined with the constant recurrence of Richard’s remarks, the fall flat in my mind.  It is not convincingly funny because it does not fit well with the rest of the section of this book.  The comments seemed forced and unreal, which prevented me from laughing at them after Richard’s introduction.  This made me question the validity of the entire story.  When one of the main characters is unbelievable, the whole story can start to fall apart.  I stayed skeptical for the rest of the reading because of my dislike of one character, but Richard ruined the subtlety of humor that had been established throughout the first half of the story.

Gilbert Anxiety

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love tells the story of Elizabeth’s journey across the world to find balance in her life. I understood this nonfiction as a great adventure tale as well as a self-help book. Obviously not everyone is going drop everything and everyone in their life travel for a year, but everyone goes through the same basic problems. Everyone struggles with their health and body image, spirituality, and relationships. Elizabeth’s struggle to find balance and love in her life is extremely relatable to the reader, and that is a major reason why the book is so funny. Gilbert’s anxiety, constant whining and uncertainty made me think of the days when I was choosing a major. I could not decide on a major for my life. I remember people asking me the same questions; What kind of person are you? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What makes you happy? I obviously did not know the answer to any of them. Since I could not decide on a major that was my passion, like music or writing, I decided to pick something I was good at; Accounting. Who knows, maybe I will come out with my own Eat Pray Love after my nervous breakdown in the bathroom in some accounting firm I’ll be working for.

I see Elizabeth as the hero in her own story. She is stuck in a tragic life, moves away and overcomes obstacles, and finally learns something about herself. I find humor in the story because most people around are so much better than her at what she is trying to accomplish. I thought the Italians were hilarious because they were so laid back and cracked jokes, while Elizabeth was wound a little tight. I personally found Luca spaghetti and the “art of doing nothing” to be hilarious (61-62). Luca is funny because everyone may know someone like him, and he is such a foreign character to Elizabeth. (I also found the miller light and break joke to be funny). Richard is another good example of someone who is simply better at Elizabeth. Richard seems to be very wise and laid back while Elizabeth is struggling with her meditations, and he eventually helps her to find peace. Richard often puts down Elizabeth for being stressed out and fixated on her past. This may be the superiority theory in action, even though he is just trying to help her.

I found Eat Pray Love to be a very insightful book, and I thought it was very interesting. It is very

Relatable to the reader, because Gilbert is addressing humanity’s most common problems. However I think it would be extremely funny if Madea were to meet Elizabeth Gilbert in the midst of her crisis.

Relatable Gilbert

One thing that struck me about Eat, Pray, Love is the way Elizabeth Gilbert tells her story. I found myself identifying with just about everything she said simply because she tells her stories the same way my friends and I do. For instance, my fiancĂ©, Jason, was a very thoughtful child—a born philosophy major. When I read the part of EPL when Liz turns ten it actually made me laugh out loud because the same thing happened to him when he turned ten. They used the same phrase when describing their experiences— “metaphysical crisis” (151). They both take somewhat serious events in the life of a child and turn it into a humorous story. The way Jason tells it, he was all ready to have his tenth birthday party, but when his friends started arriving he ran into his room and burst into tears under the weight of all of the change. When he tells the story, and when Gilbert tells her version, you can see the tiny child with wide, tear-filled eyes contemplating their own mortality. Explaining it like this in a blog post doesn’t do a good job of conveying just how silly the stories are to the audience despite the serious subject matter of the tale.
Another aspect of the novel that struck me was how Gilbert dealt with anxiety, loneliness, and depression. As someone who suffers from acute anxiety, I can truly relate to feeling like they’ve “been living in a giant trash compactor of anxiety” at certain points throughout my life (29). While going on a soul-searching journey after a messy divorce isn’t exactly comparable to adjusting to life in college (800 miles from home), I found myself drawing quite a few comparisons between how Gilbert and I describe that feeling to others. I tend to use humor to lighten the seriousness of those feelings as to not make other people feel uncomfortable. I’ve even personified the feelings of depression and loneliness to better describe the feelings to others, though I’ve never gone so far as to give them their own little personalities. Again, she takes something serious and tells the story through a humorous lens to make the reader more receptive to what she has to say.

Gilbert’s method of story-telling is similar to the other authors we’ve read in class. A common theme seems to be cropping up: veiling the serious with humor to make it more palatable for audiences. Making people comfortable seems to be in the forefront of these authors’ minds as they impart their wisdom to the reader. They want to make their experiences as universal as possible while still retaining the authenticity needed to make their works unique to them. Eat, Pray, Love succeeds in this because the three sections of the book are universal experiences in themselves. Everyone has eaten, prayed, and loved—or at least had some experience in at least one of these areas. Since the themes of the novel are already so familiar, the story feels like it’s being told be a close friend instead of just another author. In my opinion, Gilbert succeeds more than the rest at this endeavor because she is telling the most relatable story.