30 Years of Dead Poets Society and Loving Literature

"But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."

Any literature major worth his/her salt would be familiar with Dead Poets Society. I was shown clips of it in university, it appeared in many of my classes when I was doing my post-grad teaching diploma, I show it to my students when I teach them about Walt Whitman – Dead Poets Society has been in every facet of my life, and is a movie I constantly revisit.

Maybe because it was helmed by the incomparable Robin Williams, whose likeability and passion inspired me. As Mr Keating, he spoke about the importance of Literature and the arts, that these are the things worth staying alive for. I wanted desperately to believe him, especially since I live in a society which values math and science. In school, I tried so hard to excel at these subjects because of my fear of being irrelevant and valueless. But I had breathed the world of literature and stories for so long that I didn’t know any other way to be. There was nothing else for me but the path of beautiful words and a powerful narrative.

“Carpe diem,” Mr Keating whispers, so I make the choice to pursue what I know and love – screw the world and its consequences. Becoming a literature teacher, I rolled around in dreams of inspiring students the way Mr Keating did. I fantasized about making them tear pages from their books, to show them that poetry and literature is about human life and experience, not material to be simply churned out for exam. But you see, Dead Poets Society is not just about the romance of words on a page, it is also a reminder that the real world is inescapable. My students face pressures from their parents, from themselves, from their teachers as we urge them to do better, dangling the carrot that is university and the promise of a better life.

There is very little joy of learning as both teacher and student become frustrated in this bubble of the classroom. How can I get them to see the value of a subject when the world doesn’t? What is the point of all this love and passion if it doesn’t allow you to sustain yourself? No one believes in these dead poets anymore, there is no joy in the nature of subtext and ambiguity. They want to know with certainty what Shakespeare meant, and the internet is there to imbue them with the answers they need. There is no desire to connect or discover – language is merely communicative. Me saying a man is filled with rage or he burned with rage just amounts to a man being angry.

The movie has been criticized about giving the wrong interpretation of a Robert Frost poem. Mr Keating encourages the students to take the road less travelled, but fails to say that the two roads are ultimately the same. He wanted to empower them with agency – you get to choose your life and path, so make it count. That is the great illusion of education, and we sell it by the truckloads.

This is why Neil’s death is necessary to the movie – there is dreaming and striving, but there is also falling. We are living, breathing manifestations of this paradox, a paradox that lies at the heart of all Literature and innate to the human experience – life is both beautiful and tragic. We can love and be spurned in the same breath, we can have passion for the things we do only to watch it vanish into an air of smoke.

What is the point of it all then? To quote Whitman: “That you are here – that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” So dear readers, what will your verse be?

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