Reading: “Committed” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yeah, yeah, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The first third was enchanting: romantic failures! Heartbreak and obsession! Italy! The world’s best pizza! I lapped it up and roared for more.

Then… then came many, many pages about the author’s search for enlightenment in India, which bored me stiffer than a prom queen’s hair. The book’s final third was about findin’ love and changin’ lives in Bali… which you’d think anyone could appreciate, but no. I didn’t take to her new fella and was strangely irked that she could raise something like $40,000 for a good cause just by emailing her buddies (this eased my pain). Her life seemed too easy.

Sometime later, I happened to catch the video of Gilbert’s talk at an Oprah conference, and liked her immensely.  A charming, perpetually rumple-haired over-thinker… just like me, only dripping with fame and glory!

The point. Let’s get back to the point: I recently read Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and preferred it to the much more popular Eat, Pray, Love. Make that, ‘I preferred it to the two thirds of Eat, Pray, Love that don’t involve feasting and smooth Italians.’ Part memoir, part examination of marriage around the world, it is far less thorough than Marriage, a History (which Gilbert also studied and loved), but a much lighter, cheerier read.

 

Here are three particularly interesting excerpts from Committed:

“The early Christian plan was staggeringly idealistic, even downright utopian: Create an exact replica of heaven right here on earth. ‘Renounce marriage and imitate the angels,’ instructed John of Damascus around A.D. 730, explaining the new Christian ideal in no uncertain terms. And how do you go about imitating angels? By repressing your human urges, of course. By cutting away all your natural human ties. By holding in check all your desires and loyalties, except the yearning to be one with God. Among the heavenly hosts of angels, after all, there existed no husbands or wives, no mothers or fathers, no ancestor worship, no blood ties, no blood vengeance, no passion, no envy, no bodies— and, most especially, no sex.

“So that was to be the new paradigm, as modeled by Christ’s own example: celibacy, fellowship, and absolute purity.

“This rejection of sexuality and marriage represented a massive departure from any Old Testament way of thinking. Hebrew society, by contrast, had always held marriage to be the most moral and dignified of all social arrangements (in fact, Jewish priests were required to be married men), and within that bond of matrimony there had always come a frank assumption of sex. Of course, adultery and random fornication were criminalized activities in ancient Jewish society, but nobody forbade a husband and wife from making love to each other, or from enjoying it. Sex within marriage was not a sin; sex within marriage was… marriage. Sex, after all, was how Jewish babies were made— and how can you build up the tribe without making more Jewish babies?

“But the early Christian visionaries weren’t interested in making Christians in the biological sense (as infants who came from the womb); instead, they were interested in converting Christians in the intellectual sense (as adults who came to salvation through individual choice). Christianity wasn’t something you had to be born into; Christianity was something that you selected as an adult, through the grace and sacrament of baptism. Since there would always be more potential Christians to convert, there was no need for anybody to sully himself by generating new babies through vile sexual congress. And if there was no need anymore for babies, then it naturally stood to reason that there was no need anymore for marriage.

“Remember, too, that Christianity was an apocalyptic religion— even more so at the beginning of its history than now. Early Christians were expecting the End of Days to arrive at any moment, perhaps as early as tomorrow afternoon, so there were not especially interested in launching future dynasties. Effectively, the future did not exist for these people. With Armageddon both inevitable and imminent, the newly baptized Christian convert had only one task in life; to prepare himself for the upcoming apocalypse by making himself as pure as humanly possible.

“Marriage = wife = sex = sin = impurity.

“Therefore, don’t marry.

“When we speak today about ‘holy wedded matrimony,’ or the ‘sanctity of marriage,’ we would do well to remember that, for approximately ten centuries, Christianity itself did not see marriage as being either holy or sanctified. Marriage was certainly not modeled as the ideal state of moral being. On the contrary, the early Christian fathers regarded the habit of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property, and nothing whatsoever to do with high concerns of divinity.

“So when modern-day conservatives wax nostalgic about how marriage is a sacred tradition that reaches back into history for thousands of uninterrupted years, they are absolutely correct, but in only one respect— only if they happen to be talking about Judaism. Christianity simply does not share that deep and consistent historical reverence toward matrimony. Lately it has, yes— but not originally. For the first thousand or so years of Christian history, the church regarded monogamous marriage as marginally less wicked than flat-out whoring— but only very marginally. Saint Jerome even went so far as to rank human holiness on a 1-to-100 scale, with virgins scoring a perfect 100, newly celibate widows and widowers ranking somewhere around 60, and married couples earning the surprisingly unclean score of 30. It was a helpful scale, but even Jerome admitted that these sort of comparisons had their limits. Strictly speaking, he wrote, one should not even rightly compare virginity to marriage— because you cannot ‘make a comparison between two things if one is good and the other evil.’” (Chapter 3,  pages 56-58)

 

“The naturalist William Jordan wrote a small, lovely book called Divorce Among the Gulls, in which he explained that even among seagulls — a species of bird that allegedly mates for life— there exists a 25 percent ‘divorce rate.’ Which is to say that one-quarter of all seagull couples fail in their first relationships— failing to the point that they must separate due to irreconcilable differences. Nobody can figure out why those particular birds don’t get along with each other, but clearly: They just don’t get along. They bicker and compete for food. They argue over who will build the nest. They argue over who will guard the eggs. They probably argue over navigation, too. Ultimately they fail to produce healthy chicks. (Why such contentious birds were ever attracted to each other in the first place, or why they didn’t listen to their friends’ warnings is a mystery — but I suppose I’m hardly one to judge.) Anyhow, after a season or two of strife, those miserable seagull couples give up and go find themselves other spouses. And here’s the kicker: often their ‘second marriage’ is perfectly happy, and then many of them do mate for life.

“Imagine that, I beg you! Even among birds with brains the size of camera batteries, there does exist such a thing as fundamental compatibility and incompatibility, which seems to be based— as Jordan explains— on ‘a bedrock of basic psycho-biological differences’ which no scientist has yet been able to define. The birds are either capable of tolerating each other for many years, or they aren’t. It’s that simple, and that complex.

“The situation is the same for humans. Some of us drive each other nuts; some of us do not. Maybe there’s a limit to what can be done about this. Emerson wrote that ‘we are not very much to blame for our bad marriages,’ so maybe it stands to reason that we should also not be overly credited for our good ones. After all, doesn’t every romance begin in the same place— at that same intersection of love and desire, where two strangers always meet and fall in love? So how can anyone at the beginning of a love story ever possibly anticipate what the years might bring? Some of it really has to be chalked up to chance. Yes, there is a certain amount of work involved in keeping any relationship together, but I know some very nice couples who put heaps of serious labor into saving their marriages only to end up divorced anyhow, while other couples— no intrinsically nicer or better than their neighbors— seem to hum along happily and trouble-free together for years, like self-cleaning ovens.

“I once read an interview with a New York City divorce court judge, who said that in the sorrowful days after September 11, a surprisingly large number of divorcing couples withdrew their cases from her purview. All these couples claimed to have been so moved by the scope of the tragedy that they decided to revive their marriages. Which makes sense. Calamity on that scale would put your petty arguments about emptying the dishwasher into perspective, filling you with a natural and compassionate longing to bury old grievances and perhaps even generate new life. It was a noble urge, truly. But as the divorce judge noted, six months later, every single one of those couples was back in court, filing for divorce all over again. Nobble urges notwithstanding, if you really cannot tolerate living with somebody, not even a terrorist attack can save your marriage.” (Chapter 4, pages 118-120)

 

 

“It has long been understood by philosophers that the entire bedrock of Western culture is based on two rival worldviews— the Greek and the Hebrew— and whichever side you embrace more strongly determines to a large extent how you see life.

“From the Greeks — specifically from the glory days of ancient Athens— we have inherited our ideas about secular humanism and the sanctity of the individual. The Greeks gave us all our notions about democracy and equality and personal liberty and scientific reason and intellectual freedom and open-mindedness and what we might call today ‘multiculturalism.’ The Greek take on life, therefore, is urban, sophisticated, and exploratory, always leaving plenty of room for doubt and debate.

“On the other hand, there is the Hebrew way of seeing the world. When I say ‘Hebrew’ here, I’m not specifically referring to the tenets of Judaism. (In fact, most of the contemporary American Jews I know are very Greek in their thinking, which its the American fundamentalist Hebrews who are profoundly Hebrew.) ‘Hebrew,’ in the sense that philosophers use here, is shorthand for an ancient worldview that is all about tribalism, faith, obedience, and respect. The Hebrew credo is clannish, patriarchal, authoritarian, moralistic, ritualistic, and instinctively suspicious of outsiders. Hebrew thinkers see the world as a clear play between good and evil, with God always firmly on ‘our’ side. Human actions are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The collective is more important than the individual, morality is more important than happiness, and vows are inviolable.

“The problem is that modern Western culture has somehow inherited both these ancient worldviews— thought we have never entirely reconciled them because they aren’t reconcilable. (Have you followed an American election cycle recently?) American society is therefore a funny amalgam of both Greek and Hebrew thinking. Our legal code is mostly Greek; our moral code is mostly Hebrew. We have no way of thinking about independence and intellect and the sanctity of the individual that is not Greek. We have no way of thinking about righteousness and God’s will that is not Hebrew. Our sense of fairness is Greek; our sense of justice is Hebrew.

“And when it comes to our ideas about love— well, we are a tangled mess of both. In survey after survey, Americans express their belief in two completely contradictory ideas about marriage. On one hand (the Hebrew hand), we overwhelmingly believe as a nation that marriage should be a lifetime vow, never broken. On the other, Greek, hand, we equally believe that an individual should always have the right to get divorced, for his or her own personal reasons.

“How can both these ideas be simultaneously true? No wonder we’re so confused. No wonder Americans get married more often, and get divorced more often, than any other people in any other nation on earth. We keep ping-ponging back and forth between two rival views of love. Our Hebrew (or biblical/moral) view of love is based on devotion to God— which is all about submission before a sacrosanct creed, and we absolutely believe in that. Our Greek (or philosophical/ethical) view of love is based on devotion to nature— which is all about exploration, beauty, and a deep reverence for self-expression. And we absolutely believe in that, too.” (Chapter 7,  pages 250-252)

Good book, eh?


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Comments

  1. Oh, I loved this book! I actually came to it before “Eat Pray Love,” which I had resisted reading because it seemed like someone had to resist, and then after loving “Committed” I was all, “Oh, the big book couldn’t be so bad” and I was so wrong. Couldn’t finish the damn thing, which I abandoned, sure enough, smack-dab in the middle of India.

    Anyway! I thought the Hebrew/Greek thing you fingered was wonderfully illuminating. But as a Greek, I think that about everything, so.

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  2. I felt the same way you did about “Eat, Pray, Love”, and I think we talked about how the end seemed too neat, too tidy… while I really enjoyed her foray into life with loose ends and tangled emotional mess to suddenly have it all cleaned up by the end felt like an old sitcom, so I was skeptical about even checking out this book, but I shall have to give it a gander… Especially now that I have entered into matrimony!

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