Reflections on Jerram Barr’s Introduction to and Viewing of Wit
Last night, in a small, dimly lighted theater in Frontenac, Jerram Barrs introduced the movie Wit (referral link). The audience consisted of 20 Covenant Theological Seminary board members, a dozen faculty and staff, and as many students and alumni.
Wit is a film about Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), a professor of John Donne’s 17th Century poetry. The film begins with the announcement that she has cancer, and the story follows the remainder of her days. Vivian’s character development, intellectual assent and physical decline, center on the poem by Donne, “Death Be Not Proud.”
Jerram commented as introduction, “The poem by Donne is [perceived] a paradox, but not really. It sounds like a paradox, but for the Christian it is the ushering into glory. It’s harrowing. Be prepared to be moved, dealing with questions of death and suffering.”
The very first words of the film, spoken by Dr. Harvey Kelekian, are, “You have cancer.” No name. No recognition of the human element under duress of the “insidious…treacherous” news of cancer: just the mechanical diagnosis of disease. This inhuman treatment, developed throughout the film in the behavior of most every doctor (most of them males), stands in direct contrast to the treatment of two women: a nurse, Susie Monahan, and Vivian’s professor, Evelyn Ashford. It is just one of the many demonstrative paradoxes that graphically illustrate the tension of Donne’s poem.
Kelekian and research assistant, Jason Posner—referred to largely as Jason—are painstakingly deliberate in their careless treatment of Vivian as a human being. And yet, they are the characters most reduced in their own humanity: singularly focused, shallow, and trapped in cause-effect thinking. This is further illustrated by the fact that, after the first appearance of each, they are almost universally referred to as “Kelekian and Jason”: two men not even worthy of having full names.
Jason, meaning “healer” in Greek, is anything but that. His bedside manner is nonexistent. He is crass, abrupt, and intrusive. At one point he bluntly states, “There’s a whole course on [bedside manner] in med school. It’s required. Colossal waste of time for researchers.”
Knowledge versus Meaning
For her part, Vivian stands between two poles of great magnitude. On the one side, her own lonely cynicism in Donne’s “paradox” finds voice in the person of Dr. Kelekian. To call him stoic or emotionless is inaccurate; he lacks compassion, but then seems to take great delight in urging Vivian on toward “the full dose,” with a pat and a feigned smile. On the other side is Vivian’s own professor, Evelyn Ashford—a woman who, in the words of Jerram, “gets it. She understands Donne’s faith in a way that Vivian never gets…until the end.”
The call of both is pronounced:
Ashford: The standards of scholarship and critical reading which one would apply to any other text are simply insufficient. The effort must be total for the results to be meaning.
Kelekian offers knowledge. It’s tempting. Vivian echoes the offering, “Knowledge. Yes.” It’s the lie of Satan, to discover the cold, isolated fact of some unknown quantity apart from relationship, apart from reality, apart from God. Knowledge—scientifically constrained and pragmatically analyzed. Jason the “healer” sees the knowledge. For him, cancer is “awesome… the only thing I ever wanted.” The word choice is particular: not, the only thing I ever wanted to study. Simply, “Cancer’s the only thing I ever wanted.” Jason chooses knowledge.
Ashford, for her part, offers meaning, and Vivian chooses it. Her reflections that take her back to childhood and the classroom, to moments of joy and those of harshness, serve as moments of self-realization. Even as her body dies, her mind grows: reflective, longing, regretful, wistful, reminiscent. As she does, she grows more honest, “I don’t feel so sure of myself anymore... I used to feel sure.” Meaning will always win the day for those who look for why within the what.
So far as I can remember, the word hope is used but once throughout the film. Kelekian flippantly tosses the word to Vivian as she is first taking in her condition: “You just have to hope.” And yet the only real hope is presented, paradoxically—not through science, nor research, nor through doctors, nor medicine, nor “the full dose”—but through the words a of child’s book. Evelyn Ashford crawls up into bed with the now-dying Vivian and reads to her from The Runaway Bunny (referral link). At one point she pauses and proclaims, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?”
Vivian does see—for after the passing of her mortal flesh into the darkness that is that initial shroud of death, her voice rises again in the words of Donne:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more…(comma) death, thou shalt die.
Jerram Barrs is Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is also the Resident Scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. He is the author of several books, including “Learning Evangelism from Jesus” (referral link) which won Outreach Magazine’s book of the year award in 2010.
Mr. Joel Hathaway
Director of Alumni and Career Services
Covenant Theological Seminary