If there’s one memorable scene in “Dead Poets Society,” it’s the last one. Robin Williams as the disgraced English professor/guru Mr. Keating stands with mournful pride in the door of his classroom while his loyal students, one by one, climb atop their desks, defying social convention and the ineffectual whining of their headmaster (Norman Lloyd) in order to bear him tribute.
Their tribute to Keating, the star teacher, is also our tribute to Williams, the comedian making his transition to serious acting; their gratitude to him for inspiration is our gratitude to him for that same inspiration. Onscreen and offscreen are fused in joyful, righteous contemplation of the great man. He has taught us all, students and audience, to join together as one in the worship of nonconformity.
In celebration of “Dead Poets Society’s” 25th anniversary, Kevin J.H. Dettmar of Pomona College recently performed a pleasantly vicious evisceration of the film. Dettmar points out, accurately, that Keating, the supposedly genius teacher, is a crappy reader, utterly unaware of the irony in Frost’s “I took the road less travelled by,” turning the nuanced, knowing contradictions of Whitman and the Romantics into chautauqua orations and encomiums of bland uplift. Rather than teaching the students to think for themselves, Keating teaches them to think like him. Or, as Dettmar says, “while the boys are marching to the beat of a different drum, it’s Keating’s drum.”
So, “Why does all of this matter?” as Dettmar asks. Why spend time skewering a 25-year-old movie, enjoyable as that skewering may be? Dettmar’s answer is somewhat disappointing. He argues that “Dead Poets Society” is important because it shows a lack of respect for the humanities.
In fact, the problem with “Dead Poets Society” is broader than its misrepresentation of the professional status of disgruntled English scholars. Rather, the film is a perfect example of what Walter Benjamin called the “aestheticization of political life.”
Economic problems, tensions between competing groups, discussions of political power, are all addressed not through political action, but through meme and symbol — the Nazi salute, the swastika, the inspirational film.
Again, Benjamin originally developed this concept as an explanation of fascism. But as Costello argues (and as I discuss here) it also, and often, seems applicable to political modernity more generally — whether the modern governments in question are fascist, communist or liberal democratic. Certainly, “Dead Poets Society” itself seems like an engine to subsume issues of democratic government and liberal individualism into aesthetics.
This is most obvious when Charlie Dalton (Gale Hanson) begins to advocate for the inclusion of girls at the private Welton Academy. Circa 1959, when the movie is set, educational opportunities for women were a serious social justice issue. But that issue is never presented in the film on its merits; indeed, Dalton’s enthusiasm for it appears to have more to do with his libido than his sense of fairness. Votes for women is not about women or power or equality. Instead, it is about Dalton’s response to the charismatic Keating’s message of “carpe diem.”
The height of Dalton’s activism occurs when he pretends to receive a call from God at a school meeting, informing him of the Deity’s preference for women at Welton. Politics is a spectacle and a comedy routine — an aesthetic performance. It’s an occasion for Dalton to demonstrate his nonconformity and (when he is viciously paddled) his fortitude in the face of punishment. Having served as the occasion for this inspirational, moving parable, the issue of women students at the school is quietly abandoned.
The implicit sexism here is heartily endorsed by the rest of the film as well — and that endorsement consists of turning gender politics insistently into aesthetics, and vice versa. Keating tells the boys jokingly-not-jokingly that the purpose of language is to “woo women,” and the film in general treats its (always minor) female characters as an occasion for the verbal and visual pageantry of male virtuosity and self-assertion. Charles pretends he’s written poems by folks like Byron in order to wow some girls, because, apparently, girls are just that dumb.
Even more disturbingly, Knox, filled up with beer and talk about sucking the marrow out of life seizes the day by caressing his crush object Chris (Alexandra Powers) while she is passed out drunk. This is not presented as a moral, ethical or political issue involving Chris’ consent. Instead, it’s part of Knox’s romantic progress and progress as a Romantic. The relationship between white privileged boys and their aesthetics is more important than, and subsumes, the ways those boys treat women. Similarly, when Charles draws a (supposedly) Native American potency symbol on his chest and begins to call himself “Nuanda,” the exoticism stands in for any actual discussion of race or colonialism, or of the fact that Keating’s Romantic curriculum excludes, not just the realists, but all non-white males, not to mention any discussion of Whitman’s homosexuality. Political differences and exclusions are transformed into the aesthetic accouterment of a feel-good pageant.
The truth, though, is that, in its own way, “Dead Poets Society,” and the broader culture, take the study of aesthetics, and their manipulation, very seriously indeed. That’s because politics, in “Dead Poets Society,” and in America today, is constantly slipping into aesthetics. The “axis of evil,” welfare queens, birth certificates, “yes we can” — the realm of politics is the realm of the meme. It’s not an accident that Keating encourages his students to call him “O Captain, My Captain” — the phrase Whitman, at his most sloganeering, used to refer to Abraham Lincoln. Idolatry, loyalty, pageantry in the name of individualism and freedom — that’s not just the basis of Keating’s class. It’s the basis for our political life as well. (The "Dead Poets Society" takeover of America, Salon.com)
You have a sense that the boys in the film "awoke" in a way the author hasn't. He seems bitter, that is. And not because we're all under threat of having our politics aestheticized, which is something I think he actually wants us to believe mostly because along with it comes the idea that only meritocritous sleuths -- people like him, who fumed at this crowd-pleaser from the start -- are not going to be fumbling into old preferences (great, we're going to be made to look up to the bitter assholes who hated us). Rather, it's because there's a sense he's one of the kids who couldn't let himself stand on their desks in tribute to his own independence, and to the great man who was being removed for being guilty of provisioning kids with self-esteem.
I don't buy that he's more feminist than most. I think he shows that he feels he's been made to imbibe women's point of view, in a way that feels leaching of whatever his own preferences might have been, in how he seems to cast out accusations of sexism like poisonous spittle now onto somebody else! -- if you're forever bonded to something that makes you feel poisoned, might as well cull its power for your own use. If I was exploring his work I'd be on the lookout for two things: one, the championing of females with all-pure maternal characteristics; and two, sexist villains, damned to high heaven, whom if you look at carefully actually possess strikingly female characteristics. I'd look for splitting, that is. A denial that he has anything but admiration for women, along with evidence that some unfortunate is going to be made to bear everything he has always resented about their being in charge of his whole life.
I'll suggest this as well. The most important caregiver in our lives is our mother, with few of us having had fathers around enough to matter a fifth as much as she, even if they were assholes that made us quake in fear. When people respond well to nurturing films like this one, I think they're responding to an echo they know firsthand and foremost from her.
When they don't, I wonder if it's because the strong loving affect of the film has become to them inadmissible, because owing to earlier "misgivings," abuse, they've either built up walls against all strong affect or have gotten used to living in shells for being so accustomed to being abandoned. And when they point to the film's neglected and abused, it's not necessarily out of empathy but out of whatever is going on in the minds of right-wingers when they're so upset that innocent children are being lost through individuals' decisions to have abortions.
The ones actually to be trusted about women and children are the emotionally healthy -- that, foremost -- who'd have intrinsically gotten that Dead Poet's Society is moved by quite a bit of heart, and who would find themselves appropriately upset that for the crime of being sunshine it's being eviscerated in ways safe from correction -- i.e. disagreement means being both racist and elitist.
You can't even wish that the film had focused just on giving the boys needed self-esteem, because that is the primary crime of the film; and when people slip into it they can always be accused of having overridden other people, even if not a woman or an aboriginal is within sight to be referenced.