Making peace with marriage
Gilbert explores the history of a remarkable institution
During the three years since the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, more than six million readers around the world have found resonance in her chronicle of personal discovery. This intensely driven writer learned to live in the moment in Italy (Eat), explored her spiritual self in India (Pray) and found her soul mate in Felipe, a Brazilian living in Bali (Love). The two planned to spend the rest of their lives together, but previous bad marriages made them determined to skip actual matrimony. Fate is capricious, however, and it intervened in 2006; because Felipe’s visits to the U.S. had been too frequent, he was banned from entering the country. If Felipe was ever to return, it could only be as Gilbert’s husband. This unexpected turn of events was the impetus for Gilbert’s new memoir, Committed.
“I was working on a novel about the Amazons,” says Gilbert, who was shocked by the sudden urgency of marriage. “I was well into its research and didn’t have any intention of writing another memoir. But when this came up, my spirits were so viral. I did not want to enter this union feeling about [marriage] the way I felt about it. I loved this guy way too much to enter into something so serious with such a profound sense of dread. Really, the most efficient way that I know to work through something is to write about it. And then, pretty quickly, as soon as the idea came to me, I realized this is a very interesting topic.”
“I left with a new respect for marriage, simply for no other reason than for its almost Darwinian survival.”
Which is why Committed is not only a memoir, it’s also a history of marriage through the ages and a social commentary on the institution. Gilbert even harks back to Plato’s Symposium and its discussion of soul mates: “Once upon a time . . . we humans did not look the way we look today. Instead, we each had two heads and four legs and four arms—a perfect melding, in other words, of two people joined together, seamlessly united into one being. . . . Since we each had the perfect partner sewn into the very fabric of our being, we were all happy.”
But in our happiness we neglected the gods, so Zeus punished mankind by tearing us apart, forcing us to spend the rest of our lives looking for the vanished half, our other soul. “This is the singular fantasy of human intimacy: that one plus one will somehow, someday, equal one,” Gilbert writes.
Speaking from the home she and Felipe now share in Frenchtown, New Jersey (dishes clattering in the sink and her dog barking occasionally), Gilbert elaborates on Plato’s concept.
“It is the most beautifully put metaphor. That along with Schopenhauer’s porcupine tells you pretty much all you need to know about intimacy. You just put those two things together, the urge to merge combined with the reality of how prickly it almost always is, negotiating your space versus somebody else’s space.”
Gilbert muses on the reasons people marry, many of which in this country, she believes, have nothing to do with true commitment.
It’s important that “we know the difference between the desire to get married and the desire to have a really great party,” she says with a laugh. “Especially when we are young, those two things can blur and you spend a great deal more time planning the party than you do planning the marriage.”
She contrasts this with a couple she knew growing up, the Websters, who married because he, as a farmer, needed a wife and she, as a woman, needed a provider. Love, passionate or otherwise, had nothing to do with the decision. For years they worked their farm, raised their family, shared good times and bad. When her health declined, Mr. Webster took over care of his wife, bathing her, feeding her, seeing to her needs until her death—not the actions of a person devoid of love for his spouse.
“We, having elevated the idea of romance and infatuation to such a high state, feel like the happiest day of your life should be the day you get married. That in itself should be the pinnacle. What the Websters probably knew, even to such an extent that they certainly never defined it, never even had to say it, because they just knew it, was that where a marriage begins is not nearly as important as where it ends up. You can begin from a place of great pragmatism and then over the years grow into a very deep, wordless affection and loyalty, which I found very moving to remember.”
Thinking about the Websters, Gilbert adds, “Felipe has this very specific word called bate pape that means ‘chit chat.’ It’s his favorite word for what the whole purpose of intimacy is. He said when he was a kid, his favorite memories of childhood were lying in bed, listening to his parents chit chat, make bate pape. And that’s where their intimacy was based. It wasn’t necessarily in high-flung sexual passion, although it might have been at one time. It was just about having someone to sit with at the breakfast table and have a cup of coffee with and talk about nothing and everything. And that’s a stubborn, consistent human need.”
Gilbert’s venture into the historical and social implications of marriage in Committed, especially as it pertains to women, ranges far and wide, from the 11th century, when ideas about marriage were more liberal than today, to modern Europe, where there is far less emphasis on matrimony than in America. It all makes for interesting and informative reading.
Readers who are hoping for more memoir, less research, might be disappointed in this new book. But it accomplishes what Gilbert set out to do—to bring peace to her decision to marry Felipe.
“I certainly went in with a great deal of aversion and hostility to this institution and I left with a new respect for marriage, simply for no other reason than for its almost Darwinian survival—the fact that this thing endures. Anything that lasts that long, including cockroaches and crocodiles, you have to admire. There’s something kind of remarkable about that. What could be called a kind of fusty, decrepit old institution continues to reinvent itself and re-evolve with every century, every generation,” Gilbert says.
“So instead of feeling like I’m being stamped into this form that doesn’t suit me, I can feel like I’m part of a very long story that’s always being rewritten. And now I have the rewriting of that tale.”
Rebecca Bain is a freelance writer and editor in Nashville.