Monday, May 07, 2012

The Meaning of Death

I saw the movie The Descendants. It is a very well crafted movie that I would recommend seeing. Herewith are a few thoughts.

  • The story surrounds the imminent death of Elizabeth King, a married mother-of-two left in a permanent coma after a boating accident. In the early days of death-by-dehydration, this was called a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS), although the term seems to have been quietly dropped as withdrawal of feeding tubes has been applied to ever higher levels of cognitive functioning. In the movie, Elizabeth had an "advanced directive", and while the phrase "feeding tube" appears nowhere, the audience has plenty enough information to figure this out on its own. Indeed, it is the most honest movie portrayal of the horror involved that I can recall seeing anywhere.

  • Elizabeth's family and friends all pay visits to her bedside to talk to her, and as the movie unfolds, it turns out they have quite a bit to say. But . . . why? "Closure," my wife says, but I can't quite reconcile the contradiction between justifying her death in this manner by claiming she is insensate and then talking to her as if she weren't.

  • Come to think of it, how do practical atheists (as opposed to dogmatic atheists) deal with death? Nobody in this movie evinces anything like a religious sensibility, yet they go through empty rituals as if life-and-death had some meaning beyond an organism that quits. We Christians have our own mythology about this -- "The dead in Christ shall rise first" -- but it's kind of sad to see atheists try to invest significance in something that doesn't have it. But perhaps Elizabeth's husband understands this when he scatters her ashes at the end of the movie. "Well, that's it," he says. Exactly.

  • Several characters hasten to assure Elizabeth's cuckolded husband what an "amazing" woman she is. But . . . why? She was conspicuously failing as a wife and mother and had no other actual accomplishments to her credit that I could discern. But apart from that, I would like to submit as a general rule that we should be cautious about making generalizations about a woman's character to her husband. Perhaps I'm excessively territorial, but I believe it to be presumptuous, for two reasons. First of all, we all of us are deeply flawed to those who know us most intimately. And second, well, who are you to tell a man what his own wife is like? Speaking personally, the reason I love my wife, and the most important thing about her in my eyes, is that she's mine and not yours. So frankly I would rather not hear about how you thought she was amazing.

  • Twenty-one year old Shailene Woodley showed herself to be a competent and engaging actress playing the 17 y.o. daughter. Weirdly, however, I found her physical beauty distracting in a role in which it wasn't especially integral to the story. It didn't help that she wore a bikini top through most of the movie, although kudos to the cameramen for not -- what's the word -- luxuriating in the spectacle. But I'm now at the age where I identify with the dad (George Clooney) more than the boyfriend (Nick Krause). Cognitive dissonance abounds.


Campion said...

I found your fourth point a bit harsh. The wife in the movie may not have been such a wonderful person but surely, in life, there are people, relatives, close friends and so on who knew a deceased spouse as a good person and might wish to communicate that to a bereaved spouse.

Doesn't that seem normal to you?

Justin said...

People seem to have an odd taboo about speaking negatively of the dead. Perhaps we have a corresponding urge to prevaricate in the opposite direction. My pastor told us the story about how when he was a young man, after his brother died, he was positively enraged by the way the minister was telling LIES about what a great guy he was and how he was in heaven now. Why do we feel the need to lie about the dead? I don't know.

Dr. Φ said...

Campion: My point wasn't that it isn't normal; clearly it is. My argument was that it represents a massive failure of empathy. Alternatively, I might be the abnormal one.

Justin: Just speculating, but . . . what else do we say? But in the movie, the praise was more than just awkward consolations. It was delivered with great sincerity.

Campion said...


Sorry, I don't see the lack of empathy. I never lost a spouse, it's true, but I lost someone very important to me and the condolences and reminiscences were helpful(sort of).I never felt they were intruding or unable to understand my grief.

Dr. Φ said...

Campion: I never lost a spouse either, and by God's grace mine will outlive me. And I have nothing against condolences and reminiscences. But I was struck during the movie how the repeated insistances of how amazing the dying woman was were tinged with ". . . and she deserved better than you," sometimes explicitly. And they were also tinged with the sense of competing claims on her, also explicit in the case of her adulterous lover.

Personally, I'd just rather people say, "I'm sorry for your loss," and leave it at that, but if you really want to do something for a grieving husband, try to do things that show he hasn't lost all his friends just because his wife died. I would feel that keenly since my wife is the one who keeps most of our real-life relationships going.