The excerpt below is from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” which was recently made into a film starring Julia Roberts.
I haven’t read the book, but someone showed me this passage, and I must say I was strongly impressed by it.
I’m sure there are many “religious despisers of beauty,” as I have called them, who would take strong exception to Gilbert’s passage. And I can see how what she’s saying can be twisted into an easily dismissed preference for superficial pleasure over earnest piety.
But Beauty, after all, is one of the names of God, and if the reader factors that in, though Gilbert herself may not, then I think the passage makes sense.
Christians have long considered the search for truth and for moral goodness as roads to God. Truth and goodness are reliable indicators, so to speak, of God’s presence. Beauty, however, is treated as the wayward transcendental, the one most likely to lead us astray.
The misunderstanding here is easy to point out: Individual judgments about what is true and what is good can be wrong, can mislead those who make them, just like judgments about what is beautiful.
I think the reason most people do not recognize that all three transcendentals can mislead is due to the unique relationship of beauty to pleasure, as Gilbert points out. It’s precisely the pleasure aspect that makes people nervous, while it’s the pleasure aspect that Gilbert rightfully claims as part of our human fulfillment.
“Luigi Barzini, in his l964 masterwork The Italians tried to set the record straight on his own culture. He tried to answer the question of why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political, and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. Why are they the planet’s masters of verbal diplomacy, but still so inept at home government? Why are they so individually valiant, yet so collectively unsuccessful as an army? How can they be such shrewd merchants on the personal level, yet such inefficient capitalists as a nation?
His answers to these questions are more complex than I can fairly encapsulate here, but have much to do with a sad Italian history of corruption by local leaders and exploitation by foreign dominators, all of which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated and unfair, one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses, and this makes the senses stronger in Italy than anywhere in Europe. This is why, Barzini says, Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry but will never tolerate incompetent “opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors…” In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.
To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business–not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into…rhetoric and plot.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, pages 114-115, “Eat, Pray, Love”