I went through three of my five years as an English literature major firmly convinced that the literary “I” was actually a literary “eye”. Not one of my professors ever wrote the term on the blackboard, whether it was due to their inherent belief in their students’ brilliance or the lack of proper chalk that plagued the English Institute, I cannot say.
I still don’t think my assumption was completely erroneous. The literary ‘eye’ is part of the narrator/writer/focalizer/filter of the outside; without an eye, it is hard to catch psychological details like scathing stares or sumptuous clothing which can characterize a person, to write sweeping descriptions of landscapes, to pick up on all those minute details of the world which are then transcribed or channeled into the author’s worldview which is expressed in fiction. (For the record, I don’t believe in deconstructionism or any of those fancy theories trying to prove everything is or means nothing. So unrelated were those theories to anything that normal human beings actually experience that I have forgotten their names in the 3 years since my entry into the real world, aka graduation from a liberal arts establishment).
The literary ‘eye’ is apparently a ‘literary I’. I am not protesting – it is logical enough.
What I am protesting is that in contemporary writings (I am not labeling them literature because I do not think that what I am writing about will stand the test of time), it’s mostly the literary ‘me’. The “me” or “ME!” is childish, navel-gazing, blithely oblivious to reality, and impervious to a sense of responsibility which used to be the signature of grownups.
Case in point: the best-selling “Eat, Pray, Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert is enthusiastic, fun, friendly, and even, most of the time, capable of self-irony. But her whole travelogue or spiritual memoir (call it what you like, there are too little culturally relevant descriptions for it to be a true travelogue, and please forgive me if I am skeptical as to the authenticity of a journey into the soul sponsored by a substantial book advance about that journey), is not even about “I”, as Roger Ebert claims it is. The “I” he writes about is both Gilbert’s self, and the places starting in “I” where she stays in an attempt to find herself and her happiness after an early divorce and a rather disastrous boy-toy rebound affair.
But all of this she recounts not from the literary ‘eye’ or even ‘I’, it is all about ME; a ME clamoring for recognition, acceptance, attention, and approval, like a little kid who wants to get candy before any of his siblings do or who raises his hand in class because he thinks he knows the right answers. Who wants to divorce their steady but boring husband and go gadding about the world on a fully-paid, year-long attempt to find the self they have lost while living in a large house with two substantial salaries and participating in NYC high life? ME, says Gilbert. Who wants to go to Italy to voraciously lose themself in the beauty of the language, the people, and the perfectly shaped and tasting pizzas? Me. Who wants to spend weeks in an ashram in India standing indecisively before what is essentially a spiritual buffet (pick and choose your worldview and religion; a generous helping of Buddhism with a side of philosophical musings, lightly sprinkled with some words of Jesus, Mohamed, and Mahatma Gandhi)? ME. Finally, once body and soul have been indulged, who wants to go to Indonesia and be lucky enough to indulge both at the same time, having at your daily disposal both a medicine-man spiritual guide and a worldly but wise divorced Brazilian man who reminds you of the pleasures of the flesh and ultimately, love? ME, Gilbert reiterates. Not only does she find love in the person of Felipe, but fame and fortune quickly follow, with her book being translated into 40 languages and made into a feature film with Julia Roberts.
I am not begrudging her the fame or fortune or happiness; I just fail to see the reason behind the current craze to emulate her, and I do not think her book is great literature. I read it, liked it, and laughed, and then gave the book back to the library; half a year later, I can barely remember what it was about. But I personally know susceptible young women who have somehow failed to realize that the book is not a recipe for happiness; it is about how one woman was lucky enough to find it while meandering about her life in a rather confused way. Divorcing your husband at 32 , feasting in Italy for weeks, meditating in India for months and finally alternatively philosophizing/sleeping with a handsome rich divorced Brazilian are all actions that would have different consequences for all of us women who actually live in the real world, who have mortgages and responsibilities and delicate stomachs. As if we could actually tear ourselves from our families and work long enough to even reach the airport for the plane that whisks us across the world, far from our cares and into a state of nirvana! Apart from the guilt following the divorce, and the pain from the breakup with the boytoy (the latter of which is decidedly more tangible), actions don’t seem to have consequences in this book, and other people? Well, they’re just sort of a backdrop against which Gilbert can build her castle. It’s a modern fairy-tale – a nice one, but not material to base your life decisions on. It’s all about HER, not about US normal women, who struggle to find jobs in this economy, can barely put enough money away for a 2-week vacation every year, and worry about finding a decent man who will respect us and cherish us at least until 32 and hopefully even later.
I suppose that is really my main problem with this book, and other novels/memoirs that seem to be cropping up everywhere; it is not universal, and if you try to make it apply to your life, you will end up making a royal mess with no royalties to show for it. True literature has been, and should be, universal; whether I am reading about an orphan girl in 19th century England or about a boy flying kites in 1970s Afghanistan, as the reader I should be able to relate to the protagonist, care about him/her, and finally take greater knowledge and understanding of myself and world from having spent time with them in the books’ pages.
Perhaps it is the unavoidable plague of technology, this voluntary exhibitionism we all participate in on facebook or blogger or wordpress or twitter which makes us think everyone wants to hear about “me, me, me”. We are all guilty of it, I am the first to admit. But perhaps we all be better off if every author would sit down before their computer screens before writing and ask themselves, will writing this make me and my readers better or happier people?? Like it or not, authors – and more and more of us call ourselves that, on the simple basis of “blogspot.com” following our names in a bar in the internet browser – have a responsibility to themselves and their public.
It can be about “I”. The “I”, when interrogated and filtered and challenged by the ‘eye’ can turn something personal into something that is about ‘us’, humans everywhere.
But the “ME” can only clamor for attention, and not so politely either.