Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dead Poets Society and the Romanticization of Suicide

One of my favorite films growing up was the classic coming of age tale "Dead Poets Society". It was one of those films that as a young man you could relate to even if you yourself weren't attending an exclusive all-male boarding school. To this very day I enjoy watching it if only for the excellent cinematography and Robin Williams' sterling performance as the engaging literature teacher named John Keating. Yet in spite of all of these positive attributes and the overarching romantic vibe, there is also something in it which, in a quite remarkable way, embodies the mistake of romanticism.

Romanticism is a literary movement that began in the late 18th Century and ran until the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by an almost primitivistic attempt to restore man via emotion and imagination to his original innocence. The romantic poet wanted man to return to a tabula rasa-like state, whereby man, unconstrained by the framework of modern categories, could finally see reality again with a fresh pair of eyes. For many romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth it was also a movement which began as a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with embracing nature and opposing a vision of society which seeks to mechanize everything; the mistake that the romantic makes is that he seeks to do this using rather dubious methods.

As it relates to the film itself, John Keating represents the type of teacher of which most students dream. He seems to be a bit unpredictable and "out of the box", and better still, he incorporates humor into his lesson plans, all the while maintaining high academic standards.  In one of the early scenes, Keating tells his students to tear out the pages of the introduction to their literature book. He tells them to do this because the textbooks suggest that you can actually grade and/or measure poetry, which is an abomination from his point of view: "We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? 'I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!' " When the students realize he's not joking, most of them begin to tear the pages out enthusiastically. During this tearing frenzy, another teacher hears the noise and comes in the room demanding that they stop. At first he doesn't realize that Keating is already there, presuming that this is student led chaos. However, once he sees that Keating is in fact in the room, he quizzically backs out apologizing for his intrusion. Later, when both teachers are seated at lunch, he questions Keating's teaching methods, calling them interesting, though terribly misguided. He then goes on to point out that Keating is taking a big risk encouraging young men to be artists when few, if any, will succeed at this endeavor. Keating responds by explaining that he is not so much teaching them to be artists, as teaching them to be "freethinkers." The other teacher then laughs, and says rhetorically; "Free thinkers at seventeen John? Oh come on!"

In another scene Keating takes the men down the hall and shows them photographs of former students. The pictures are all in black and white and as the boys stare at these haunting photos, Keating stands behind them and whispers in a ghastly voice; "Carpe Diem. Seize the day." His point is- as he soon indicates to the students- that they too are "worm food," and that they had better take full advantage of the time given to them, lest they fail to leave a proper legacy.

On a superficial level, who could disagree with any of these premises? For example, does anyone really want to stand on the side of that cynical faculty member who thinks of the students as little more than a kind of receptacle for information- incapable of any real independent thought? And how could anyone dispute that boys of this age should be passionate about their lives and look to leave a lasting impression on the world? Hence, the message of this film is not only appealing on an aesthetic level, but also on a practical one as well. After all, who could object to the notion that young men should contemplate the meaning of their existence? Yet therein lies the perfect Hollywood deceit. It is like a beautiful car without an engine, or a bike without a bike chain. If something looks beautiful and has the whiff of something profound, then it must be. Dead Poets Society is so near the truth, that any teacher (including myself) could use a great deal of the movie as a perfect model for his students. It is the worst type of deception because it forcefully represents all of the beauty of romanticism, while feigning complete ignorance about the dangers.

The epitome of this self-deception occurs when Neil, one of Keating's students, inspired by his professor's romantic vision of life, looks to try out for the Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nevertheless, there is one major problem with him pursuing this role; his father sees this as a distraction and a utter waste of time. The father is a typical Hollywood straw man, a robotic, one-dimensional character who envisions his son being a doctor and will not countenance anything else. The mother is a virtual doormat who doesn't have the courage to question anything her dictatorial husband decrees. And of course all of this makes Neil's predicament even more sympathetic. For though he wants with all his heart to be in the play, he knows his father will oppose him. And indeed, he is right on this account. When he asks his father's permission to be in the play, the father rejects him outright. Consequently, Neil approaches Keating for advice on the matter, and Keating tells him to go to his father and tell him exactly how he feels, assuring him that that will convince him. Unable to muster enough courage to do that, Neil opts instead to disobey his father and act in the play anyway. In the end the father finds this out and shows up to watch the performance from the back of theatre. At first, the audience is led to believe that the father may be swayed by his son's exceptional performance, but as the play concludes, the father swoops in to extricate him from all of the accolades he is bound to receive. Indignant by his son's blatant disobedience, he shuttles Neil through the crowd past Keating and his friends, declaring that Neil will be attending a military school, which, from a Hollywood standpoint, is probably the academic equivalent of the ninth circle of hell. As the car pulls away, the camera focuses on Keating's face who looks at the departing vehicle with an expression of complete bewilderment and helplessness.
When Neil and his parents arrive back at home, the father digs in his heels lambasting him for his insolence and ingratitude. While all of this is going on the mother just stares vacantly into space. And as Neil attempts to make one final defense of his cause, the father abruptly shouts him down, provoking Neil to impotently recoil into silence once again. Later that night, the father awakes with a start only to find that his son has presumably shot himself to death.  

It may be true to say that there are plenty of one-dimensional fathers out there; it may also be true that there are plenty of families that are like dictatorships in which there is no room for a child to dream or determine for themselves what their future will be. Nevertheless, what is naive about this film is the suggestion that being passionate for the sake of being passionate is the key to life, while realism, coupled with tradition, is inevitably wrong. I understand why a straw man like this might seem appealing to a youthful mind, but as is clearly demonstrated in the film, an unfettered romanticism really does lead to suicide. I do not deny that there are people out there like Neil's father, nor do I deny that some teachers are miserable blowhards, but my sense is that movie is not simply addressing an isolated incident, but rather presenting a manifesto on life; a manifesto that I would argue is rudderless.

And yet as charismatic as Keating is, he offers little rationale for encouraging his students to "seize the day". His reasons are purely sentimental. We should because... well... it's great and romantic and because we are all going to be "worm food" anyway. But is "passion" the only thing that is necessary in life? Terrorists are very passionate about their cause. Mobs tend to be full of "feelings". On the contrary, passion completely freed from its intellectual constraints is little more than an invitation to moral anarchy. "Memento mori" is a fine directive, but why should we remember our mortality? From the Christian perspective, we remember it because, yes, we need to leave our mark on life. But more importantly, we remember it because we will need to live with that "mark" for rest of eternity.

From the perspective of the director, Neil has been placed in an untenable situation by a father who is asphyxiating his creative energy. The audience can't help but to feel disdain for the father's utterly stifling ways. Even so, is the father really the only one to blame for the suicide? Indeed, the movie never once considers Neil's part in this, or even Keating's (he is subsequently fired, but the movie implies that there is an injustice in all this). OK, the father is a jerk, perhaps even worthy of our contempt, but could not Neil have waited his father out? Could he not have decided to put up with his father's nonsense a little while longer, and then "elope" into whatever life or profession he chose? No. What he chose to do instead is quite the opposite of honorable or romantic. He decides that his dad will never listen to him; and thus he has no other option but to take his life. But he doesn't just take his life, mind you, before he dies he puts on what appears to be a crown of thorns (it is in truth Puck's crown). He does this just so everyone can remember what a victim he really is. Great message! If at first you don't succeed, kill yourself. Jesus never put a gun to his head, claiming that he would commit suicide in order to save mankind- yet that is what this scene curiously implies. This is not the spirit of the true romanticism, but rather the spirit of Veruca Salt.

The night of the performance, as Neil's father shuttles him away, Robin Williams' face tells you everything you need to know about naiveté of romanticism. In all of the time he spent selling the young students on passion and poetry, never once does he teach them about the virtue and value of order and structure. Instead he tells them in essence that there are no boundaries, and then acts surprised when one of his students goes off the rails. Humans, especially teenagers, are naturally romantic; they don't need someone to tell them to be passionate. What they need is for someone to show them how to harness their passion. The ultimate mistake of the film is not that it criticizes the father's "realism", or even the traditions of the all male boarding school- the problem is it fails to see its own part in Neil's miserable demise. Indeed, both views are contributing factors in his death because both views have falsely pitted themselves against one another (like a head going to war with a heart). Thus, realism without romance is as cold and dispassionate as the father on the night of play, and romance without realism is a crown of thorns on the head of a boy who strategically lodges a bullet in his brain.                        


  1. I, too, used to love this film. I used to watch it several times a year. It was one of the first films I bought on DVD. But then I saw it as an adult. And I threw it out. I think it's a film capable of doing some real harm. I think it did me harm to love it so.

    (I found this blog just a week ago, through New Advent, and I'm really liking it!)

  2. I'm glad to hear you like the blog! I have to admit, there is still much about it I enjoy, and the truth is it wouldn't be so insidious were it not to end the way it does, or at least to end implying some kind of martyrdom on the part of Neil.

  3. I realized I had parted ways with this film when I agreed with whomever has written the book they tear up in the beginning (actually those ARE really good ways of determining the quality of a poem!) ...

  4. I come at the movie from an uncommon angle, because I went to St. Andrews, where the film was shot, and I knew some of the masters who appear as extras. I cannot watch the film without comparing it to the real school, so that I am well aware that every hillside in the movie leads down into Noxontown Pond, and that the gleam in the back of the scene in the trophy room is the Mamo Wrestling Prize.

    I attended in the middle of a period of sorting out a decade earlier. It is perhaps true that SAS acted like the fictional Welton back in the fifties, although my impression is that the muscular Christianity of the day also included a lot of expected eccentricity. All this was swept away in a single year in the early '70s. In my day there was a sometimes uneasy mixture of the old (for even some of the students remembered it) and a more or less contemporary slackness (if you want to put it pejoratively). Chapel services, for example, were Rite II, conducted on Sundays with solemn formality; but during the week there were guitars in the air, as it were, and a monthly house communion was started. Relationships between students and the faculty were not as distant as those in the film, but then I think that was always true: we lived right on top of each other. And by the late 1980s, well, it had become the sort of place that welcomed being a movie set.

    As for parents: who were they? Parents didn't exist, except as voices at the end of a phone line to be importuned for money. Our family during the year was entirely the masters and the students; parents were mere spirits whose influence was sometimes felt but who had no immediate presence unless something went badly wrong. The outside world could not be entirely erased, but the school environment tried hard to make it go away. At the real school, the Golden Boy (there was always one, everyone knew who he or she was) could take a spring sport off in his final year to star in the musical (SAS had a very strong drama program in my day) without anyone batting an eye. Meanwhile I can think of lots of kids I knew who were all the better for being raised in that expensive hothouse with their parents left standing in the cold. We had some diplomat's kids, and others who were dumped off by custodial fathers who didn't know what to do with the wreckage of their marriages. I personally think I benefited from some distance between myself and my parents, though from that distance they were very supportive.

    One of the things one may learn as the parent of a teenager is that adolescence is plagued by excessive drama and a lack of proportion, and by some standard, maturity may be measured along the scale of one's growing ability to resist that. And indeed the school in my day was forced to respond to increasing disciplnary problems, capped by a notorious incident the year after I left which called into question its ability to enforce its own rules. Weir's drama had to be cast in the past because the school had been trying hard to get students to find themselves for years; in my day, if a faculty member had made a comment about "freethinkers at seventeen," it would have expressed frustration at not being able to make them so. The reality of actual modern elite schools is that they are all, to some degree, engaged in the romantic notion of their students as buds to be encouraged each into its own unique blossom. It is simply today's upper middle class culture, and therefore the movie is fighting a battle which was won before Peter Weir made his first feature film.

    I would also point out pictures which also hang on the walls of the school, but the movie never shows up close. I believe they appear in the background of one shot which passes down the main hallway, but in any case, there is a short hall which connects to the garth; and it is a memorial to those alumni killed in battle. Most are from WW II, though there are some with later dates; and there is one boy in a Wehrmacht uniform. How does one say Carpe diem to the war dead?

  5. Wow, quite a first hand account. Thank you for your insights.

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  7. hat's an interesting perspective, indeed, Wingate. Makes for a completely different movie and truly interesting times.
    I don't know why I still cry at this movie. Maybe I'm hoping for a different outcome -every.time...or maybe it's just hard to accept that the spirit can be killed, by either hand, so quickly. Suicide is NEVER the answer. If anything, by allowing your problems to be over, it's saying "they've won". Passion is something that owns the human spirit so deeply, you stop at nothing to keep it alive. Suicide is completely giving up, which is the worst weakness ever.
    I think I will always love this movie for its idealistic and romantic lessons, but I'm also pretty sure it will always make me cry for its defeatist outlook on said human spirit.

  8. In light of recent events, your comments are even more poignant. I enjoyed your episode of the journey home

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  10. Being an English major in college, I flock to romanticism and movies like this which validate me and encourage my creativity. I first saw this movie a couple of years ago and didn't think hard about the implications of it. Watching it again, I realized its weaknesses and searched to see who else feels the same way. I completely agree with your perspective. You don't neglect the film's strengths while you flesh out it its weaknesses, which I believe can have a harmful impact on someone watching (like myself). This is an important and insightful blog to read.

    1. I know you wrote this awhile back, but I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts....