13 December 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed

Haven't we all at some point typed  an intimate question on Google search for user responses.  This mini research offers you perspective and the assurance that you are not alone in it.  It also gives you some validation for your point of view.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in writing, 'Committed' was clearly going through a similar anxiety. Her last book, 'Eat Pray And Love' had yet to become a best-seller, and the 38-year-old was in a hopeless, new predicament. To marry or not to marry.
It is through this confusion that her memoir was born.  Not convinced about marriage, and yet seeing no way out of it, Gilbert goes on a journey of exploration into the institution of marriage.  In her travels to places, she chats up people from communities who lead lives and hold opinions very unlike her own. She scans through books on marriage, goes through handy research on the topic, all the while drawing parallels with her own life;  an impulsive first marriage, a string of failed relationships and now a dilemma about marrying again. What you get in the end is a book that is both absorbing and insightful.
Gilbert's scepticism about marriage is genuine and you can literally feel her grappling for answers and reassurance through the 280 odd pages of this long book.
She is happy to be with her current boyfriend, Filipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship and even more happier about their arrangement. Neither wants marriage, as both are happy leading their separate lives in different continents, and meeting each other every month. Both have been scarred by earlier divorces. Gilbert is particularly worried about being financially vulnerable if she opts for marriage. As a single woman who makes her own money, she is extra cautious this time. Most importantly, Gilbert is unsure about herself, given her predilection for disastrous romantic entanglements.
She loves the companionship and affection in her current relationship. Both see their bond as a permanent thing and yet Gilbert is not enamoured enough by it to consider marriage. She has no desire for kids, and as a woman living in a Western world, singlehood is no big deal. So why marry at all, she asks.

The plan get upturned when Felipe's constant travel to US evokes suspicion and he faces threat of being deported. They must either marry and stay in US or then be singles, but face other relationship challenges. They decide to get married but Gilbert is filled with doubts.
While reading this book, I kept getting the feeling that Gilbert is just not that into her boyfriend. I may be wrong here, but many times in the course of the book I felt Gilbert was trying to justify her soon-to-happen marriage, in the hope of seeing  her relationship as viable. She gives many reasons for her anxiousness, and even admits that she is not madly in love with Felipe and thank god for that, she says. She is balanced and alert this time, which is perhaps why she fine combs every aspect of the relationship. But at the end of it, I wasn't sure if that sort of moderate approach also works with everyone.  Gilbert is right that infatuation does not last. Certainly the hormonal rush and exhilaration brought are bound to subside, and one ought to be realistic about it. Familiarity, at its worst, breeds contempt, and at its best cultivates affection.  But when one enters a union like marriage, conviction is a must.
Falling in love does not always imply recklessness. Yes, one tends to overlook a few things perhaps, but one still looks out for many enduring qualities (Pride and Prejudice?). This then translates into attraction and when couples instinctively feel it's the right relationship for them, they take the plunge quite happily.  The important thing is belief that it will work. Of course nothing can be said about the future, but to my mind there is nothing riskier than treating marriage like a 'sentence' which is the word Gilbert uses for her relationship. She is filled with doubts and most will agree that it happens when you are simply not sure if he's your man. It's not the marriage at all.
Anyway, so thus she begins her research project on marriage, its history, its cultural meaning and significance that differ from community to community. She also looks at marriage of the past and present, comparing her perspective with that of her mother. She looks at the roots of marriage, and is surprised that an institution which is considered sacrosanct today, was something which custodians of religion were opposed to. They wanted people to reject it and adopt celibacy. That never happened of course, and no matter what stand the State or religious body took, men and women always have felt a natural inclination to come together and marry. Which establishes that men and women have always held the desire to get married.
 Gilbert's narration is seamless as she talks about her own relationships and attempts to seek answers on larger questions about marriage. One chapter that is especially illuminating is Marriage And Infatuation. There is the oft repeated view that while marriages in the past endured many a storm,  they now fall apart for the flimsiest of reasons.
Gilbert using research findings and expert opinions brings forth some perceptive ideas. In most cultures, she says, women rarely questioned marriage. They accepted their fate and role. But with industrialization and the breaking up of the joint family system, the 'individual' suddenly came into focus and his/her private desires took precedence. Now, couples didn't necessarily marry because the spouse was 'beneficial' to the family as a whole or a convenient arrangement to all, but because they fell in love. Gilbert rightly points out that when a marriage is based on love and not on a collective arrangement, it has more chances to fail - precisely because love, she says, is a very fragile emotion. What if you fall out of love? Which is why modern couples are divorcing more than ever before, and she says the institution itself is under tremendous pressure.
Yet, Gilbert says she wouldn't trade her life as a modern, educated, self-aware American woman of today with any woman in a previous time and culture who had a conditioned idea of marriage. Nor does she believe that people must not marry for love. But she points out that one must be equipped with sufficient tools to deal with practical and emotional problems before they get into it.
That is precisely what Gilbert decides to do this time with her beau. She says she is thankfully not infatuated this time. She loves the narcotic high of love, but is happy not to go through it again. She is on as more emotionally secure and saner ground this time, and both, she and Felipe discuss in some detail about dodging the potential landmines in their future marital relationship.
I really liked a chapter where Gilbert talks about the possibility of one's perfectly nice spouse falling for someone else.  "History teaches us that just about anybody is capable of just about anything when it comes to the realm of love and desire. Circumstances arises in all our lives that challenge our most stubborn loyalties. Maybe this is what we fear most when we enter into marriage. - that "circumstances," in the form of some uncontrollable outside passion, will someday break the bond."
One might think that this is an unavoidable situation, but Gilbert finds that it is not so! Regretting that she did not have this wisdom when she got married at 25, she notes how couples can drastically reduce such a risk of infatuation by containing the situation early on.  One makes friends with a member of the opposite sex, and it is all harmless for a while. But somewhere an intimacy creeps in and one reveals more than one ought to and this is by default becomes a breach of marital trust. Soon, this gets emotionally complicated.  Gilbert feels that with some clear-sightedness and responsible behaviour, this risk can be drastically minimised.
She takes you through the bumps and jerks in her own relationship with Felipe, describing moments that infuriate and frustrate her. Yet, she offers a reason for sticking it out in a relationship. "He was a good man, in the end."
There might be a few readers (read men) who will chuck this book in irritation, unable to understand Gilbert's complex, over-analysing mind.
But most women will like the book and will appreciate the candour and honesty . The writing is fluid and extremely readable. Gilbert is witty, entertaining and wields a formidable pen.  And yes it is time well-spent.


janaki said...

:-) loved the book myself !

sandhya said...

Hey Janaki, I didn't read the book in sequence, rather leafed through it randomly, but each time I found something in it to hold my attention. Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Not sure if one can read a book like this but thoroughly enjoyed this review. As for the book - it seems a very naive attempt to look at the institution of marriage - though there are some very relevant observations. Yes - i think the concept of arranged marriage has a far better statistical chance of surviving a love marriage. But then its like saying dont buy stocks - stick to mutual funds.
The author (a lady i presume) seems a bit of a chauvinist based on silly and presumptuous statements like 'An intelligent woman, she says, will always be skeptical about the institution and worry about what it has for her'. I would think it would be far more accurate to say something like - Intelligent women will always be realistic about the institution of marriage and go in with an open mind. Overall this book seems to be written by someone who views marriage as a glass half empty. I would like to think marriages are always a glass half full :-)


Anonymous said...

>>I think such questioning is healthy, because it's a life-altering decision, which has a high-risk of failure in today's times.

Seems like a personal bias Ms Sandhya :-). I wouldnt know yet but I somehow am a little more of an optimist.

Questioning without any basis is pessimism.

>>However, individuals in it more often than not find it suffocating and an endless routine of tedious responsibility.

Any proof of this or is just blind guesswork.

As they say reward is proportional to risk. Yes marriage like any other decision in life has some risks - but hey cmon - whats life without a little excitement.


Carlos Ponce-Melendez said...

It sounds like a controversial topic, I need to check it out, Thank you.