Eat, Pray, Love? Notes on WIT with Emma Thompson


I THAT in heill was and gladnèss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me…

Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me. 40

In medecine the most practicianis,
Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
Themself from Death may not supplee:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me.

William Dunbar Lament for the Makarys

Careful watching this movie, about a college professor who dies of ovarian cancer, especially if you have health issues. It is pretty intense.

Great acting can beguile and deceive and Emma Thompson is a great actress: but Wit shows how my country has exported a sort of Jargon of Authenticity which transforms intellectuals into corporate slaves. In the movie, Emma’s persona “learns” not to be such a cold intellectual.

In this movie but not necessarily this clip, Ms Thompson’s character’s mentor and former professor shows up and finds her in terrible pain. Her mentor offers to read John Donne but Emma says no, so Emma’s mentor reads The Runaway Bunny and interprets it to have a comforting religious message: this works and Emma is able to sleep.

OK. I am not nearly as far up Shit’s Creek as Thompson’s character. By comparison to the real horrors (lung, pancreas, ovaries, even breast) most but not all prostate deals are for pussies. But as it happens my “sciatic” pain (which I now know to be also a product of pressure from the lymph nodes, of cancer) during last June’s sneak preview of horror did at times infantilize me in the sense that I regressed beneficially to a child’s curiosity in the intervals between pain, exploring the hallways and looking for patches of sky in a sort of wonderment. Wow, I was thinking. That sucked. But how interesting things are.

What Wit ignores in being an American style Eat Pray Love chick flick is that some men and women would rather listen to Donne or Bach when up the Creek. Not many. But there’s an implication in the film that intellectuality (especially non-scientific intellectuality that doesn’t provide the ape mind with new toys) is somehow zero sum: that a college professor is stunted by her reading of Donne. Gee, back in the day of Mortimer Snerd’s I mean Adler’s “Great Books”, a popular series of excerpts of classics laughed at by the New Yorker columnist AJ Leibling as terminally middlebrow, reading Shakespeare and Donne was supposed to make you a better person.

The presumption of a zero sum game is bullshit and frankly, I think it’s fucked up my life. Some of my young friends amongst them the wise and fair Ms X complain that it’s almost impossible in humanities A levels to get a “top” score.

As you approach the “limit”, the peak, there’s always a teacher or grader willing to say “but”, and in the case of a white male or even female, their failure to be highly fashionable in their ethnicity or gender does not so much count against them (as crude conservatives claim) as as raise a small red flag.

Bertie Russell gave his student Wittgenstein a blank check because Victorian gentlemen were breezily to the point of sublimity, confident of their judgement. Today, of course, there’d be any number of assistant and tenure track types to talk behind poor Ludwig’s back, to chortle at his Germanic moral seriousness, to lament his absence of a tie, and blame him for their lack of ability to understand die Welt is alles was der Fall ist, even though it’s clear enough, meaning that the world is what happens, period (a view that actually is rather dubious in that it excludes imagining a better world, but I digress).

And there’s of course my ratsbane which is the utterly false, criminally false in my case, charge of verbosity. Because as Huxley’s Savage who never was slotted into alpha or beta or gamma, who like The Savage in Brave New World lives on an island and has learned most of what’s worthwhile from Shakespeare, I scare people who reason “I have a Master’s degree”

“I have a Master’s degree. In Science!” – Ask Mister Science, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater

and who never finished Brave New World (most people forget the Savage, the most important character in the book, who is developed later in the text).

I scare people who reason “but I don’t understand this guy. I must destroy him.”

For let us not speak falsely now the hour is much too late: in a later post I shall address the difference between being a caricature, a “bitter old man”, which I ain’t, and telling the truth.

The function of American sentimentality is in fact to level, infantilize and corporatize, to fold spindle and mutilate us just as we said they wanted in the sixties, and I certainly can sympathize with my British friends who are tiring of it. I mean they went down to Oxford and Cambridge and today find themselves having to sell themselves like packets of soap all the same.

It’s not right, it’s not sustainable and it’s coming unglued. I am certain that the Runaway Bunny is a good book. But I’d rather read it to my grand-daughters, and re-read Lear for my own amusement.

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