Introduction

Ken Kesey, Alice Walker, John Updike, and Margaret Edson all write stories in which culture plays a significant role. In each of their featured works a particular gender, ethnic, social, and professional group can be observed through the main character's eyes. Indeed, each story incorporates clashing cultural extremes. While chapter 4 clearly shows these profound human differences, chapter 5 focuses more on our commonality of moving inexorably toward death. The quality of our passage may depend on how we care for our bodies, minds, and spirits. John Updike chronicles his main character's lifestyle and its consequences in a quartet of famous novels: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). By updating Rabbit's life every decade—from his twenties to his sixties—Updike portrays his high school basketball star's turning into a self-indulgent car salesman. Updike's everyman lives through the 1960s "decade of discontent," the 1970s "Me Decade," and the AIDS-plagued 1980s, emphasizing the health consequences of the sexual habits of the time. Years of self-abuse lead to Rabbit's rapid decline during the last years of his life, leaving him little reason to live.

In Rabbit at Rest Updike artfully dissects middle-class dysfunctional life, giving a powerful cultural critique of America. He juxtaposes tech nical and metaphorical language to describe Rabbit's various diseases, symptomatically expressed as morbidly depressed, chest pains, and a bloated body worn "like a set of blankets the decades have brought one by one," all leading to a fatal heart attack. Rabbit at Rest illuminates specifically how untimely deaths occur when contemporary medicine records life expectancy at an all-time high. Other topics it covers are cocaine addiction, patient experience, family relationships, and American hedonism.

Dr. Vivian Bearing's courageous and protracted death from cancer in Margaret Edson's play Wit counters Rabbit's self-inflicted early demise from heart disease in John Updike's Rabbit at Rest. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, poetry, science, and death interrelate for Bearing, a John Donne professor and stage 4 metastatic cancer patient. She becomes a research subject to contribute to knowledge, even without therapeutic value for her. During eight months of chemotherapy the dedicated scholar turns from erudite to vulnerable. She has only one hospital visitor, having valued ideas over personal relationships. Special insights on the medical professional-patient relationship come through two supporting characters: the compassionate nurse who knows how to emotionally nurture and the unfeeling young research doctor with so-called detached concern. Since increasing technology and managed-care time constraints tend to distance doctor and patient, the play redefines the terms empathy and compassion. It asks, how do you treat the dying patient? What do you say to soothe rather than to add insult to injury?

Edson, by looking at doctor paternalism, patient autonomy, and human rights in clinical trials, puts the American medical system on trial in Wit. She shows, in the art of medicine, how hope, kindness, and a sympathetic touch can interface with research ethics. In a layered approach using metaphysical poetry to shed light on twenty-first-century medical research, Wit also ponders serious philosophical and religious questions, asking how can we live a fulfilling life by giving and receiving love? Furthermore, in our medicalized system of dying, how can we realize a good death? Wit dramatically evokes a spirituality to bring catharsis: "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die" (John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, London, 1624). Notwithstanding the poetic revelation that everlasting life follows death, the play's themes underscore the present-day need for better trained end-of-life and palliative-care medical professionals. Lastly, Wit, by evoking laughter and tears, allows us to take an unflinching look at disease, dying, and death.

0 0

Post a comment