The Professor said, “James, did you catch the Mike Nichols film last night on Tele Piu? It has some relevance to what’s been on your mind for the past few weeks.”
“No, I went to bed early. I was exhausted after my long boat ride. What was it?”
“It’s entitled ‘Wit,’ based on the play by Margaret Edson.”
“I would have stayed up, but I didn’t run across it in the TV guide.”
“Ah! That’s because they translated ‘Wit’ into: ‘La Forza Della Mente.’”
“The force of the mind?”
“Or strength, or power. Whatever. Which is all right because that’s closer to the irony that was intended in the original.”
“And what is the relevance?” I asked.
“It’s rather complicated,” he said.
“With you, how could it be otherwise!”
“You know me too well, lad.”
I was delighted to see that the Professor was in his didactic mode, and I settled into the couch in his study. The actress Emma Thompson, he said, plays a middle-aged English professor named Vivian, who is an expert on John Donne. She’s in a hospital, undergoing chemotherapy for advanced ovarian cancer. There are some marvelous flashbacks to her undergraduate days, when she first encountered Donne’s Holy Sonnets.
“And here is a case where one thing leads to another, each one more fascinating than the last.”
“You are familiar with ‘Death be not proud?’”
“Well, the last line of the poem is variously punctuated in different published editions. One reads:
‘And death shall be no more semicolon death comma thou shalt die.’
“And another one reads,
‘And death shall be no more comma death thou shalt die.’”
“Which one is correct?”
“It’s all academic hairsplitting, lad. But nevertheless how much of a pause one puts between phrases in a poetic line IS important. A pause is a separation, no?”
“Separation is exactly what children both desire and fear, yes?.”
“To separate is also to wander.”
“And in a religious or spiritual context, it suggests a flight from God. Are you familiar with the 18th Century Christian hymn, ‘Come, Thou Fount?’”
“It goes like this:
‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.’
“All right. So what does this have to do with my current melodrama?”
“I’m getting to it, lad!” The Professor said cheerfully. “At the end of the movie, when Vivian is about to die, her old thesis advisor Dr. Ashford—played in the film by Eileen Atkins—appears at her bedside. Vivian is terribly frightened. Dr. Ashford offers to recite some poetry by John Donne. But Vivian says, no, not that. In the movie’s most touching and spiritual scene, Dr. Ashford climbs into bed, cradles Vivian’s head in her lap, and reads from a children’s book.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“The book Dr. Ashford reads to Vivian is Margaret Wise Brown’s classic, ‘The Runaway Bunny.’”
“I’ve never read it.”
"It goes like this: ‘Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So she said to her mother, “I am running away."
"If you run away," said her mother, "I will run after you. For you are my little bunny."
"If you run after me," said the little bunny, "I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you."
"If you become a fish in a trout stream," said her mother, "I will be come a fisherman and I will fish for you."
Suddenly it became clear. When overwhelmed or frightened Vittoria always runs away. Vittoria also likes to invent and play out characters, to become her own twin sister, for instance, or someone else. But Vittoria needs to know that no matter what she does…no matter WHAT she does…
I wondered: Shall I continue to think her disappearance is inconsiderate? Thoughtless? Shall I continue to be angry?