"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Dead Poets and Living Cliches

This critique of Dead Poets Society was written when the film first appeared. It is a bit long for a weblog, but I hope it will reward you for the time if you're interested in the influence of movies on the young.

“You’ll like Dead Poets Society,” some of my students said. “It’s about a great English teacher. He’s sort of like you.” A flattering recommendation, I thought—until I saw the movie.

The story is certainly compelling, as is the acting. And visually the film is almost irresistible. But if that teacher is sort of like me, God help me. Dead Poets Society angered me. Though it pretends to inspire idealistic rebellion against the evils of society, in reality it is a melodramatic indoctrination in the romantic clichés that have brought our society to the brink of dissolution.

The film’s obvious manipulation of the audience did not in itself offend. When the English teacher, John Keating (earnestly played by Robin Williams), has a student in his poetry class read aloud from the introduction to their textbook, I enjoyed the parody. (The author proposes a system for measuring the greatness of any poem by plotting its qualities on a graph.) And I was perfectly content to be manipulated into merriment when Mr. Keating said to his students, “Tear that page out of the book. Go ahead. Tear it out!” But tear it out in the name of what? What does Mr. Keating substitute for the graph model of poetry appreciation?

He substitutes the standard modern vulgarization of nineteenth-century romantic literary theory: A poem, his teaching implies, is the expression of personal emotion. It has little to do with the music of words, still less with truth or beauty or any other reality that may lie outside the poet’s emotions. It owes nothing to imagination or to the inspiration of the muse. Above all, it has nothing to do with thought, form, readers, or literary tradition. Poetry, according to this teacher, is purely a matter of inner feeling, impulse, and self-expression, just those things the adult society in the film is in the business of stifling.

How do we know that this is Mr. Keating’s idea of poetry? In one class session, he calls a repressed and tongue-tied youth to the front of the room, spins him around, and orders him to verbalize whatever images come to his mind. The result is a gush of words that express the boy’s feeling of confinement and his desire for freedom. According to the teacher, however, that gush is not merely the raw material of poetry. It is a poem. There is no follow-up scene in which the boy is taught to arrange his words to be moving to others. (They certainly are not moving yet, though the scene itself is fraught with emotion.) Mr. Keating gives no hint that the poem might be a way of sharing experience. The poem has accomplished all a poem needs to in the world of this film. It has testified to the absolute value of the self in rebellion against society.

Indeed, the film is not concerned with actual poems at all. It uses the idea of poetry solely as a metaphor for the individual’s relation to society. And its image of that relation turns out to be a composite of the threadbare platitudes of Rousseauist romanticism: The individual self and its emotions are basically good; society’s attempts to train the one or temper the other corrupt them; the instruments of that corruption are tradition, discipline, and schools; the only worthy authorities are those poets and teachers who tell us to follow our own impulses (ignoring even them); and so on. In short, the film presents the specious axioms of the popular culture masquerading as high idealism.

Another class session shows the absurdity of these axioms, though the scene is intended to reinforce them. Having taken his students out of the classroom and into a courtyard, Mr. Keating asks three of them to walk around while the others watch. The three begin moving uncertainly but soon fall into a march. The rest of the students start to clap in time. Before long, military marching ditties are shouted, the clapping becomes syncopated, and all are caught up in a crescendo of excitement and fun.

Suddenly Mr. Keating brings everything to a halt with a withering accusation: You have been herded into uniformity by social pressure. You have sold your birthright of individuality for a mess of conformist pottage—three of you by marching in step, the rest by clapping in time. The students are chagrined. Mr. Keating then asks them all to walk around the courtyard again. Only this time each is to move at his own pace and in his own unique way. They do, and we are supposed to believe that they have been freed to be themselves. The lesson? Nothing a group can offer is more important than one’s individuality.

But what the scene cannot help revealing, in spite of its intentions, is that in marching and clapping the boys had become joyfully united in the exalting communion of play. By contrast, when they walk around trying to be different, each is self-consciously isolated within the limits of his own imagination, and, significantly, everyone of them looks like a fool. Yet we are expected to believe that they are now better off. (The one boy who refuses to participate in this communal exercise in individualism is praised for his choice to be even more individual than the rest.)

What is so offensive in all this propaganda is that it offers a corrupt idea of education to the very audience that is most in need of a valid one, namely adolescents. Of course at times it is right to rebel against mere conformity for conformity’s sake. And of course students need to be challenged to think for themselves. But the differences between excellence and shoddiness, truth and error, good and evil, are crucial, and the essential task of the teacher is to help students see them. The non-conformist is no better off than the conformist if he is being different merely for the sake of being different. Murderers, rapists, and suicides are non-conformists too.

Which brings me to the film’s most damnable participation in the swindle of Rousseauist romanticism. One of the boys, under Mr. Keating’s new dispensation of self-expression, decides to pursue his love of acting. His tyrannical father, who is determined that his son will be a doctor like himself, forbids it. When the boy disobeys the paternal orders by playing Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the father announces he is sending the boy to military school. After he has glowered his son into silence and despair, there is a prolonged scene of visual schmaltz—moonlight, open window, snowy woods, half-naked boy ever so slowly donning Puck’s wreath of twigs, which now doubles as a crown of thorns. Then the boy kills himself with his father’s pistol.

Everyone is shocked and saddened. The boy has obviously been driven to the only gesture of self-expression left him by the conformist society that his father represents. But the school administrators, in order to protect the school’s reputation from tarnish, blame the suicide on Mr. Keating’s unorthodox teaching and fire him. This arouses our righteous indignation because it is clearly the father who is guilty of the boy’s death, or so we are made to feel. But having martyred the liberated actor, relentless society will now make a scapegoat of the teacher who liberated him. It is typical adolescent paranoid fantasy—so unfair, so sad, so beautiful.

But it is also pernicious. For all its sadness, the suicide is portrayed as an inevitable response to adult society’s oppression. No one hints that it might have been an error on the boy’s part, perhaps forgivable, but wrong. No one remarks that his action exhibits a failure of imagination. (He could have run away, after all.) No one suggests that maybe the boy was cowardly, or revengeful toward his father, or cruel toward his mother and toward himself. Mr. Keating’s response is only to cry a bit. Thus, all we can conclude about suicide from Dead Poets Society is that it is a reasonable, meaningful, perhaps extreme, but touching last resort.

Of course there are excellent reasons for not killing oneself, but the dead poets in whose work such reasons might be found are not heard from in the film. Except for a few lines from a sonnet by Shakespeare—quoted only for purposes of seduction—Mr. Keating and his protégés confine themselves to the Romantics. They worship “at the altar of Whitman, Byron, Keats,” as film critic Duncan Shepherd points out, but “you don’t catch them reciting Herbert or Pope.” Nor do you catch them experiencing even one complete poem, Romantic or otherwise. They are too busy quoting poetical snippets that urge them to be true to their impulses and seize the day.

“Seize the day” is the essence of Mr. Keating’s doctrine. Standing before a display of photographs of the uniformed “old boys” who had been killed in World War I, he asks his students to lean in close and listen to what the ghosts of the dead are whispering to the living. What they are whispering, says the teacher, is “Carpe diem.” (The phrase comes from Horace: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”—seize the present day, trusting as little as possible to the next.) Eat, drink, and be merry, they say. Go for it. For tomorrow you die. Such is the spiritual legacy of the dead, according to Mr. Keating. Reject tradition, discipline, allegiance, and honor, which lead only to disillusionments like that of World War I. Do your own thing while you can.

To be fair, there is one moment when the doctrine is modified slightly. One of the students, in a fit of desperate resentment after the suicide, has disrupted an assembly, mocked the powers that be, and nearly gotten himself expelled. Mr. Keating urges him not to follow his impulses so stupidly in future. “Suck the marrow out of life, but don’t choke on the bones.” Seize the day in such a way that you will be around to seize the next day too. But for all its seeming practicality, Mr. Keating’s advice proves useless—not only because it comes too late, but because it is shallow. If carpe diem is your only guide, why not choke on the bones when there seems to be no more marrow?

In spite of Mr. Keating’s enthusiasm for it, carpe diem is a doctrine of despair. It eliminates hope for the future because it renounces faith in what is eternal. In reality, of course, no one who writes off the future and busies himself with seizing the day would bother teaching anything to anyone. But this flaw in characterization is less significant than the film’s moral flaw. It is clear from the exaggerated evil of his enemies that Mr. Keating is meant to embody the good. But the good he embodies is a sham. For if there were no values outside the impulses of the self, the sensualist, the autocrat, and the suicide would be as admirable as anyone else. Yet about being true to reason or conscience or law or any other value beyond seizing the day neither Mr. Keating nor the film has anything good to say.

The film implies that following our impulses unhindered by society is good. So Rousseau says. But the truth is that to be good we must distinguish among our impulses and choose to follow the better ones. And how can we distinguish the good from the bad without principles to guide us? In the final scene, when the boys disobediently stand on their desks in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with their fired mentor, we are moved by their action. But we are moved not because they have followed their impulses. They also have an impulse to sit still and let the moment safely pass. Nor are we moved because they are rejecting conformity. They are acting in perfect conformity with one another. We are moved because they stand on those desks to uphold principles that we still believe in despite films like this one that strive to debunk them—justice, loyalty, selflessness, and truth. The boys have behaved rightly, though nothing taught by Mr. Keating has prepared them to do so.

The seemingly revolutionary doctrines that he has taught have been banalities of our culture for nearly two centuries. Mr. Keating is not rebelling against the norms of society but voicing them. Morally speaking, he is the establishment. Hence his ideas are even more subversive than those of Miss Jean Brodie. The evil in her teaching was eventually unmasked because fascism became an external enemy. In John Keating too we have met the enemy. Only we have failed to recognize him because, as Pogo says, he is us.

Dead Poets Society is the enemy of education because it proclaims that dead poets live insofar as they legitimize our self-indulgence. But the great poet in fact lives by virtue of his power to carry us out of ourselves—the meaning of education. The great teacher does the same. Both provide access to truths and freedoms that cannot be reached in a lifetime of seizing the day.


Anonymous Steve said...

Mightn't this be an oversimplificiation of the film's intent? Although the boys are enlivened by Keating, his teachings end in a suicide, and the lonely man is dismissed. Although the students offer him a triumphant moment ("oh captain my captain"), "order" is restored at the school. The tough headmaster begins the process of correcting the excesses of Keating. The students stay on, having paid a terrible price for their wild experiments. Along the way, one of them is soundly beaten, and all of them sign off on what they consider a moral compromise. Couldn't this movie be read as a metaphor for the complicated relationship of excitement and overzealousness that accompanies romanticism? Romanticism that is literally and figuratively "adolescent"? A meataphor for the brief period of youthful friovlity that must end, and the terrible consequences of taking it too far? The end of the film could be seen as the boys bidding a last goodbye to all that, as any maturing man must eventually do, and buckling down to the harder work of adulthood. It may not be an "indoctrination" at all, but a nuanced portrayl of the dangers of just such an indoctrination, the dangers of following the charming prophets of libertine philosophy.

Also Lara Flynn Boyle has never looked better. And the scene where they make the radio is fun.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Of course, attributing such complexity to the movie might be a bit much. But I think it is possible to see Keating depicted not as a true hero, but as a charming con artist, whose conned even himself. Maybe the film wants us, as viewers, to be lured in, and see the dangerously infectious nature of Keating's con, before dropping the hammer of the devastating consequences.

In any case, thanks for your thoughts - I've enjoyed the rest of the site as well.

7:15 PM  
Blogger G.Rap said...

I think I would have liked a version of the film made by Steve himself. But when he asks, "Couldn't this movie be read as a metaphor for the complicated relationship of excitement and overzealousness that accompanies romanticism?" my response is that it can, but that seems no part of the intent of its makers. I don't see any such nuance within the movie. The establishment remains the villain and the rebel the hero. The maturity required for taking Steve's point is not fostered by the film itself and is certainly not common in its teenage viewers.

11:27 PM  
Blogger tom said...

hey, just wanted to say thanks for posting that essay/critique. i remember watching that movie in high school (about 8 years ago) and being really influenced by it. your evaluation of it seems pretty sound, and pointed out things i wouldn't have thought of...so thanks :)

9:26 PM  
Blogger GRap said...

I just got the following comment, which I've edited to post in keeping with my principle of not publishing others' private information. But I wanted the writer to know I received and deeply appreciate her words:

"Yesterday, my youngest son asked me if I had a favorite teacher from 'a long time ago when you were in school.' Classic. Of course I didn't miss a beat in answering him. Can you guess my answer?

You realize of course that many of your past students have mentally made the same comparison between you and Keating right? I understand why you wanted to address the merits of that comparison, but truthfully, for so many of us, it just boils down to you being a fantastic and inspirational teacher.

As to this post on the film, you did it again and got me looking at something in a way I hadn't before considered.

Thanks Dr. Rapp!

8:31 AM  

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