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Dead Poets Society

September 1, 2015

DPSWe hear the motto of the school enunciated with military precision by the pupils: Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence.

The film shows that they are what Jesus called “whitewashed tombs,” meaningless statements without any heart.

Like so many traditional institutions, this school was established for good reasons, on good principles, but time and the felt need to maintain a reputation in the face of the prying eyes of the public have made it a shadow of its former self. It’s therefore reminiscent of so many originally radical phenomena—from Protestantism to American democracy.

The austerity of this institution is reflected in the weather-beaten headmaster, who thinks he has seen it all before and is goose-stepping toward retirement, and the relationship the main character (Robert Sean Leonard) has with his father—he calls his dad “sir.” (This always makes me think of Jesus’ instruction to “call no man teacher.” Can parents really be that important?) His father, coldly played by Kurtwood Smith, is also the kind of man who would force his son to live the kind of life he missed, who will oppress his child by the manipulation of “You know how much this means to your mother.” The son is becoming liberated by his time in Robin Williams’ classroom, where he is inspired to “seize the day”.

Keating understands that words and ideas can change theworld and that the struggle to become human in the face of economic exploitation is “A battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”

Keating is fired, and the boys confess their involvement, and the headmaster takes over their class. They stand on their desks as a sign of solidarity, of course, but there are no guarantees that these guys will lead the kind of extraordinary lives their teacher hoped for. In that light, the ending of the movie, which for so many people represents Keating’s triumph, is actually tragic. Truth can be, as one character says, like a blanket that leaves your feet cold.

Although Dead Poets Society demonstrates how one adolescent deals so tragically with personal disappointment and frustration, there are hints during the film that Neil initially attempts to deal positively with his situation. For example, the scene where he goes to Keating’s room to tell him his father has demanded that he quit the play is one moment in the narrative when the viewer senses that there might be the possibility of solving the dilemma in a conciliatory way. But again, the viewer becomes unsure whether Keating is offering sound advice or whether he is simply leading Neil into further turmoil. (Earlier, Keating had told his students that, “there is a great need in all of us to be accepted, but you must trust what is unique or different about yourself, even if it is at odds or unpopular.”) During the counseling scene he draws on those metaphors of the theatre which he knows will appeal to the aspiring actor. He tells him to stop “playing the part of the dutiful son”: he must go to his father and tell him that acting is not a passing whim, but a conviction and a passion. Keating denies Neil’s claim that he is trapped, and that in any case, if his father will not listen to him, it doesn’t matter, since he will soon be out of school and then he can do “anything he wants.” Neil must demonstrate to his father who he really is, that he has a passion for acting, and that any continued pretense is only “acting a part.”

As attempts fail to convince his father, we see Neil’s disappointment turn from frustration to hopeless resignation, and finally, to despair. There appears to be no way back. Neil turns away from, rather than towards the world: the result is psychological isolation. This condition is familiar to contributors to the history of Christian theology. For Saint Augustine of Hippo, such a predicament entails a state of sin, since this tortuous turning in on oneself, involving an angst of introspection, prevents the self from being open to others and to God. He writes, “the will which turns from the unchangeable and common good and turns to its own private good or to anything exterior or inferior, sins”. For Kierkegaard, too, sin is this kind of frustrated despair: “Sin is : before God in despair not to will to be oneself, or before God in despair to will to be oneself,” a view which effectively highlights the crucial point that sin is not the turbulence of flesh and blood but is the spirit’s consent to it. This “giving in” sums up Neil’s tragedy, for his consent to the turbulence of the flesh meant that he could discover no answer to his problem except his own death.

Such an “oppositional” reading of Dead Poets Society might also suggest that the emotionally charged closing scenes, far from presenting an accurate reflection of the meaning/s constructed by the narrative as a whole, are the result of Hollywood’s insatiable demand that closure should induce a “feel-good” factor. It can be argued that Jarre’s score and the boys’ show of emotion in these final moments counterpoint rather than support the film’s “preferred” meaning/s, and therefore actually argue for the victory of society over the individual. The realities are that Keating has lost his teaching post and is forced to revert to a “discourse of politeness”, Neil is a

teenage suicide statistic, and Evans Pritchard PhD will soon find his way back onto the curriculum. Such a reading might argue that the film actively reinforces the status quo by illustrating the dangers of nonconformity, and the impossibility of resisting what Norman Mailer has termed “the totalitarian tissues of American society”

Dead Poets Society can be seen as both an endorsement of individualism and the romantic spirit, and as a critique of the dangers inherent in such a philosophy. In offering “preferred” and “oppositional” readings we hope to have highlighted some of the ways in which a filmic text can be both ambiguous and contradictory and perhaps cast some doubt over the validity of Weir’s claim that, in relation to his audience, “I can control what I want them to know”. We have shown that the film raises serious and problematic ethical questions for Christians in respect of how to understand suicide. Is Neil’s suicide an act of heroism which draws attention to the injustices of the world and through which others might learn, or is it simply a misguided act of folly, selfish to the extreme? Similarly, it is never easy for the viewer to discern whether Keating was exercising extraordinary ­Christian courage in his adoption of the radical methods he employed with is pupils, or whether, in truth, he was largely motivated by a wrongheaded mai proud determination to shock. The “right action” to take in such schools as Welton Academy is never given a clear-cut answer in Dead Poets Society. Far example, it might be argued that Mr Keating always tried to behave according to the principles of Christian love, or agape, and that this is shown must vividly in his insistence that pupils must be given opportunities and advice to achieve their full potential. Christian agape always demands that one tries to work for the good of the other person without reserve or distinction, unconditionally. Barclay writes that agape is “an undefeatable attitude of goodwill .. . an attitude of goodwill to others no matter what they are like”. In a similar way, the exhortation to “seize the day” could be said to reflect a distinctively biblical emphasis about living life to the full, rooted in an embrace, not a denial, of the God-given goodness of creation. In Mr Keating’s concern that his pupils relish the sweetness of every moment, some Christian viewers might recognize a strongly New Testament emphasis. For example, the Johannine theme, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” On 10:10) and the Matthean emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount about not worrying about tomorrow (Mt. 6:34) point to obvious overlaps with Mr Keating’s approach to and philosophy of life. Similarly, in his pupils’ responsive endeavours to free themselves from any oppressive external constraints, they may be said to reflect a biblical understanding of human personhood since, having been made in the image of their creator, they become determined to pursue lives of dignity, truthfulness and freedom (Gen. 1:27).

However, although the radical demands of love underpin Christian notions of moral motivation and action, no easy or uncontested answers to the most appropriate ways of behaving in specific situations have ever been given by Christians. Those trying to act out of Christian love still require gifts of discernment and insight in order that their actions may reflect those of Christ in the new and challenging circumstances in which they and others find themselves. Therefore, love which is superficially formed and simply content to “mean well” is often claimed to be irresponsible, unhelpful and potentially dangerous. For example, Preston suggests that this ability to reflect on the possible consequences of certain types of action is one of the most important elements in developing an approach to Christian living. He comments: “Some of the worst sins against love have been perpetrated by those who ‘meant well”. This point is well taken in relation to our consideration of the “Christian” nature of Mr Keating’s action. Even if we sense that throughout the film his motivation is pure, there is always a feeling too that his well-meaning exhortations are somewhat immature and his judgments not always wise. Mr.Keating might well have believed that what he was advocating to his pupils had the potential to change their lives forever and for the good, but his lack of discernment and incapacity to foresee the possible consequences of his “philosophy” might betray a significant lack of spiritual depth or awareness for some Christian viewers.

There are other important ethical issues raised by the film for the Christian viewer, which cannot be gone into here. The insights drawn from the “oppositional reading” certainly inform the way in which Christian theology’s own self-criticism in the West has been conducted of late. The debate about the relationship between structure and agency is found in discussions about “structural sin” within Liberation Theology. Concern centers around the interrelationship between asocial, atomistic or individualistic definitions of sin on the one hand, and social or institutional definitions on the other. Often the debate focuses on the tension between unjust structures of power and individual culpability or complicity in such structures. The social, political and collective dimensions of sin began to be emphasized in order to resist merely private or individual notions. For Gutierrez, for example, it is important to emphasize that sin has a collective form, often embedded in unjust structures and organizations. Christian salvation — and the understand­ing of the human being implicit within that — can never be separated off from concern about economic, political and social liberation. In contrast to Keating’s apparent naiveté about the power and influence of social structures, liberation theologians attempt to identify the sources and presences of such “institution­alized” sin, with a view to liberating people from its effects.

As we have said, the film gives neither a clear-cut answer to any such questions, nor, therefore, a simple “Christian” message. The film’s inherent ambivalence and tension should not, however, disappoint us. For its strength and success surely reside in its portrayal of ethical ambiguity and contradiction. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz pp. 174 – 180

Keating: “We all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are your own, even if others think them weird.”

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

“When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think”

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

“If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – Carpe – hear it? – Carpe, Carpe Diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

“We don’t read and write poetry because its cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is full of passion.”

“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

“But poetry, romance, love, beauty? These are what we stay alive for!”

“but only in their dreams can men be truly free. ’twas always thus and always thus will be.”

“Carpe Diem,” Keating whispered loudly. “Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

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