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Dead Piepers Society

This article contains spoilers if you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society.

In a distinctly sad moment in Dead Poets Society (1989), Peter Weir’s film about John Keating, an inspiring if ill-fated English teacher at Welton Academy, a 100-year-old prep school ensconced amid open fields and fog-shrouded woods and a cave beyond a stream, a student notices the newly fallen snow, says, “So beautiful,” and vomits. That might also describe the reaction of many of the film’s critics. Earlier this year, in the Jesuit-run America, Elizabeth Grace Matthew recognizes that Dead Poets Society is a “beautifully filmed and affecting movie,” but suggests that Keating’s teaching, all about seizing the day (Carpe diem) and thinking for yourself, leads to “solipsistic, faux introspection” that, ironically, fosters not individualism but becoming a pale imitation of Mr. Keating.

In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Kevin J.H. Dettmar acknowledges one can get “swept up in the autumnal New England beauty of Welton Academy,” but argues the film teaches “passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis,” noting that Keating misinterprets Robert Frost’s oft-misinterpreted “The Road Not Taken” as a paean to nonconformity. For Keating, “every poem is a Song of Myself.” Like Matthew, Dettmar suggests Keating “actually allows his students very little opportunity for original thought” — they just ironically follow Keating’s iconoclastic curriculum, sequentially stepping up to a desk to see the world in a new way, waiting in line to recite poetry before kicking a ball, walking oddly in the courtyard in collective nonconformity.

Recalling that Robin Williams played both John Keating and Peter Pan, Dettmar writes, “On some level, Keating is a Lost Boy who refuses to grow up.” A decade earlier, in The American Scholar, Robert B. Heilman likewise saw Keating as less teaching than drawing students into a performance, so Dead Poets Society is finally about his and his students’ adolescent escapism: “What we see is moonlight larks and forest frolics — midsummer nights’ dream fantasies taken for actualities.”

Some of these criticisms are unfair (Keating does misinterpret the “most misread poem in America”). Keating’s students do not simply copy him nor proceed on a single path. Many of their actions are rightly portrayed as badly juvenile — the first meeting of the reconstituted Dead Poets Society in the cave beyond the stream includes a risqué pinup photo, campfire stories, and, as Dettmar points out, ill-advised chanting from the 1919 poem “The Congo.” After a prank at a school assembly, Keating must gently intervene: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” As William C. Pamerleau writes in Existentialist Cinema, Dead Poets Society shows that becoming a free spirit means recognizing that, as Keating puts it, “being expelled from school is not daring.” Furthermore, distinguishing individualism from recklessness calls for guidance from a mentor and friends. Keating is not a pied piper, nor does he nostalgically evoke the spontaneity of a lost childhood.

Keating’s teaching is also not contentless. To dismiss Keating’s teaching as mere “passion” is to claim that imagination plays no role in thought at all. One of his students, Neil Perry, is moved to act, against his father’s wishes, in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after which he tells himself, “I was good. I was really good.” This is not a feeling but a judgment, which echoes what Neil’s audience had thought, and Keating had taught him to find this excellence to be meaningful.

Another of Keating’s students, Todd Anderson, is encouraged by Keating to improvise a poem, and finally utters, “Truth is like, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Bert Olivier writes that in successfully creating this poem, Todd develops an awareness of the tragedy of the human condition and a new sense of self. (Immediately before, Mr. Keating had noticed, “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing.”) Now, Todd can grasp novel possibilities, which will prove crucial for the film’s famous last scene.

All this should make us ask again what Mr. Keating’s charismatic teaching gets right and what it gets wrong. We should also ask what Mr. Keating’s successes and failures mean theologically.

In a lecture delivered in Florence in 1955, four years before Dead Poets Society is set, Josef Pieper spoke on despair in a way relevant to (fictional) New England boarding schools. Borrowing from Kierkegaard, Pieper speaks of a “despair from weakness” that appears as acedia, or sloth, here meaning not laziness but a “sloth of the heart.” This is a resistance to self-realization. From the refusal to be whom God calls us, Pieper suggests, we are not at rest — not at home with ourselves — and we turn instead to “the programmatic absolutizing of the ideal of work and the degenerate curiosity for spectacle.” We also adopt a “forced optimism” about life and the future.

Welton Academy seems to be a place about, as the banners in its opening ceremony proclaim, “tradition,” “honor,” “discipline,” “excellence,” and dispersing, as is ritually done in the same ceremony, “the light of knowledge.” Yet the headmaster, Mr. Nolan, then declares, a bit discordantly, that the number of graduates who attend the Ivy League is why parents send their children to Welton and why Welton is the “best preparatory school in the United States.” Welton is less traditional than single-mindedly pre-professional, often preparing boys for the same professions their fathers have, so when Mr. Nolan warns Mr. Keating about the dangers of thinking for oneself, he begins by invoking “tradition” and “discipline,” but concludes with cold practicality, “Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Several characters seem only able to talk of their jobs or college prospects, even to girls in a cave: “Uh, I might be going to Yale. Uh, uh, but, I might not.” If the villain of the film is Neil Perry’s father, who, because of his lack of opportunities, pushes Neil to go to Harvard and become a doctor, he only makes explicit the ethos of Welton — something like what Pieper called “the programmatic absolutizing of the ideal of work.” As for spectacle, when Mr. Keating criticizes the poetry textbook by “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.” and has the students rip out the first chapter, he associates its self-satisfied graphing of a poem’s perfection and greatness with the consumerist fascinations of American Bandstand: “I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.”

So, when Keating speaks of “passion,” it is not anti-intellectual but meant to evoke a self that is not narrowly pre-professional or conventional. Business and law and medicine remain “noble pursuits,” Keating tells his class, but “poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Thus, his students, finding new possibilities for meaning, are able to take newfound pleasure in being “really good” in a play, even if it is unremunerative, and grasp the tragedy of the human condition, even if it leads Todd to see the enormity in persisting after Mr. Keating is fired. (Todd then risks expulsion by standing on his desk and shouting, “O Captain! My Captain!” — a scene memorable enough to be parodied a quarter century later.) In his recent book on Pieper, Nathaniel Warne writes that the opposite of acedia is in responding to God’s call — “the joyous affirmation of creation, the existence of the whole world, and of a God who is love.” That might serve as a clarification and deepening of Keating’s “passion.”

Pieper then speaks of hope, and here we might see what goes wrong in John Keating’s teaching. For Pieper, hope means that all shall be well, but we must speak of a “hidden,” inescapably theological hope because the evil in our world inclines it toward disaster. With the world as it is, “the real act of the brave man is not attack but standing firm,” even to the point of a martyrdom that in the eyes of the world seems completely hopeless. “Behold, I send you as sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16). The martyr combines three elements: “The real object of hope is eternal life and not some kind of well-being that can be found in the world”; a “readiness for a catastrophic end caused by forces within our history”; and, finally, that whatever happens, the martyr will affirm God’s creation. The capacity for patient endurance, Pieper will say, grants the Christian detachment and freedom.

Some of Mr. Keating’s students are resilient, such as Todd, who after being forced to denounce his teacher by Mr. Nolan and his otherwise uninvolved parents, still stands for him at the end, and Knox Overstreet, who continues to romantically — if at times, gracelessly — pursue Chris, a girl for whom he has suddenly fallen in love, not least with poetry. Nevertheless, the main character of the film is Neil Perry, whose Keating-inspired pursuit of acting in spite of his overbearing father leads to his suicide. As Stephanie Gauper writes, there is a way to see Neil’s death as tragically inevitable. Peter Weir’s films often share the idea that “highly evolved persons get run over by history.” When Neil kills himself, he first opens a window to the winter chill that represents the freeze of Welton and his family, his physical form representing “a spiritual and natural beauty that dies as it collides with historical time.”

On the other hand, this death hardly seems inevitable. Neil avoided confronting his father on three separate occasions — when he instead forges a permission note to act in the play, as he assumes his father will not be in town to see his illicit performance, and, finally, when his father, post-performance, angrily asks him to tell him what he feels, and Neil falsely responds with “Nothing.” The only time Neil seems to speak honestly to his father is on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Puck — as an actor playing a Trickster. In a deleted scene, Neil says that, as an actor, if he gets the parts, “He can live dozens of great lives.” In a film about committing to one’s mortal life — “Carpe diem,” “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” — Neil simply cannot commit to his life, perhaps as its significance has been choked off by the controlling presence of his father. (NB: the filmmakers rightly chose to avoid portraying the suicide as in any way heroic.)

Why doesn’t Keating anticipate the problem? Keating had judiciously encouraged Neil to speak to his father, lest he simply end up “acting for him … playing the part of the dutiful son.” Neil lies to Keating and says he had. Keating seems to suspect otherwise but curiously fails to act. The answer might be that Keating had himself managed to navigate Welton and expects others will too. In the school yearbook his students find, he is labeled a rabblerouser, but also captain of the soccer team, editor of the school newspaper, and “Cambridge bound.” He voluntarily returns to Welton to teach. His experiments in nonconformity notably make use of the school — the photographs in the lobby, the courtyard, the playing fields — and he directs his ire at figures outside of Welton (like Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.).

One of the film’s critics, Robert B. Heilman, notes, if Keatings need institutions in which to teach, institutions need Keatings to maintain the affections of the otherwise disaffected: “One Great Teacher, as it were, redeems the place otherwise thought to be too much in the hands of routinists and dullards often asserted to be indifferent to student interests and needs.” Welton and Keating can live together as school and in-house dissident in ways Neil and his father simply cannot.

Neil must find the patient endurance to either confront and sever relations with his father or accept his harsh rule (“After you’ve finished medical school and you’re on your own, then you can do as you damn well please”). If Keating never teaches theology, he is never seen teaching tragedy, either. It remains unclear what resources he would offer to Neil once his advice to “show him who you are, what your heart is” does not work, how he would instruct Neil to go on, shattered but affirming and still alive.

What is right and wrong in Mr. Keating’s teaching? It is unfair to say that Keating is solipsistic, anti-intellectual, or a modern-day Peter Pan. His invocations of “passion” make sense as affirmations in a place marked by “despair from weakness.” What Keating does not grasp is that the world often lacks a place for passion, and passion can lead to catastrophe. Tellingly, even if Todd’s improvised poetry — “Truth is like, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold” — left his classmates silently moved, Keating never incorporates it into a lesson. The perception of tragedy, that “it’ll never cover any of us,” means that we are called to patient endurance in this world, even at high cost. As Josef Pieper writes, “the real act of the brave man is not attack but standing firm,” and sometimes it is standing firm on top of a desk.

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