Robin Williams Made Poetry Cool

Robin Williams as Keating in "Dead Poets Society"

Robin Williams as Keating in “Dead Poets Society”

Like Robin Williams fans everywhere, I was deeply saddened by his death. Since this is a literature blog and Williams gave us one of cinema’s great depictions of a literature teacher, I devote today’s blog to his portrayal of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.

Although I generally admire the film, I also have some reservations, which I have written about here and here. Looking back, the fact that the film ends with a suicide is particularly disturbing in light of Williams’ own suicide. I’ll talk about that in a moment. First, however, I want to praise Williams for his performance. Keating must convince a group of high achieving adolescents that literature is the most important thing in the world, and Williams does the convincing in so convincing a manner that we too are inspired. For instance, I was pumping my fist during the following monologue:

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?

Keating is quoting from Whitman’s “Oh Me! Oh Life!”:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—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.

It makes sense that Keating would lean heavily on the American transcendentalists, who were fighting against American pragmatism and obsession with money. The other major poet in the film is Henry David Thoreau. If the students are persuaded to sound Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” from the top of their desks, it is in part because Keating has stirred them with Thoreau’s vision of a life lived deliberately. They want to march to the beat of their own drummer.

Now to my criticism of Neal’s suicide, which is more about the movie than about Robin Williams. As I wrote in the first of my posts,

As I see it, Dead Poets Society actually underestimates poetry’s power, and that for some interesting reasons.  It believes poetry can inspire people to perform acts of courage and defiance but not that it can prevent them from committing suicide.

If poetry comes up short, I don’t believe it is poetry’s fault.  Rather, I would argue, the fault lies within Keating’s teaching, which counters the scientism of J. Evans Pritchard by celebrating a sensual and thoughtless immersion in poetry.  This immersion is vital and wonderful and without it poetry truly is dead.  But more can be done with poetry.  Neil, I think, fails to grasp an important insight to be found in the very play in which he is performing.  

And in my follow-up post:

Reflecting on Midsummer Night’s Dream might have caused Neil to realize he had other options.

Think about it.  The play has a character, Hermia, whose father, Egeus, is just as tyrannical as Neil’s.  If she doesn’t follow his orders and marry Demetrius, Egeus will have her put to death  (King Theseus gives her a third option: she can also be imprisoned in a convent for the rest of her life.)  So she and Lysander run away.

Running away isn’t the only solution offered by the play.  In response to tyrannical laws, the play offers the anarchy of nature and the imagination. People that try to impose their will on others discover that life responds in crazy ways.  Oberon orders Puck to bring order to the passions of the lovers and Puck botches it wonderfully.  Neil, who is playing Puck, has before him a vivid image of how authority can be subverted.

And then there is the image of hope that the play provides.  In the play’s comic ending, the rule of law is superseded by the rule of love and conflict gives way to reconciliation.  While Neil can’t see, in his own life, anyone who will overrule his father the way that Theseus overrules Egeus, it is an image that he could hold on to.  The world of the imagination has helped many endure oppressive conditions. 

Instead, the most resourceful and sane student in the film acts like someone who has no resources against tyranny and who melodramatically takes his own life.  Peter Weir presents this to us as a higher vision—Neil is depicted as a combination of Dionysus and Christ—but the death just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What if, in addition to teaching his students to respond passionately to poetry, Keating had also coached them to be thoughtful about it?  What if, knowing that most boys have major issues with their fathers, he had led a class discussion in which, say, they had talked about Hermia’s situation and her responses?  What if they had talked about the healing power of comedy?

For that matter, what if they had read, say, Antigone, in which Haemon quarrels bitterly with his intransigent father Creon and then commits suicide–and then talked about what it means to be a young man that feels stretched to the max?  It’s not just that, in Creon and Haemon, Neil could see a father softening up towards his son (albeit too late).  It’s that Neil, through literature, would feel less alone in his suffering, would realize there are authors out there who understand him.  They might have answers and, even if they don’t, they have made the world appear a richer and more complex place.  A good reflective discussion about these issues would help Neil see beyond his situation.  It might even lead to a powerful private conversation with his teacher where they would talk about options.  Instead he folds in on himself.

Literature, even when it’s about suicide, is antithetical to the narcissistic tunnel vision of the suicide.  How can a film about the healing power of literature have the character who loves literature the most kill himself?  Do the filmmakers believe what they’re preaching?

I hope I don’t sound glib about literature’s healing powers. Literature, of course, has failed to prevent any number of suicides, including those of poets Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and others. Perhaps literature would not have saved Robin Williams even if he had shared Keating’s love of literature. In the grip of horrific depression, it’s hard to see anything but one’s pain.

Then again, there’s Christopher Marlowe’s claim, in Doctor Faustus, that literature and the arts can at least make some difference:

My heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent:     
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,     
But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears,     
“Faustus, thou art damn’d!” then swords, and knives,     
Poison, guns, halters, and envenom’d steel     
Are laid before me to despatch myself;     
And long ere this I should have slain myself,     
Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.     
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me     
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?      
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes     
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,     
Made music with my Mephistophilis?     
Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

With Faustus, I sometimes see literature as fighting a rearguard action against the forces of chaos and despair. It may not always prevail but we would be absolutely defenseless without it. I’m so sad that Robin Williams, in the end, wasn’t able to find the resources he needed to continue on.

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  • Meg Lines Thrash

    Perfect analysis, Robin. The “real” teacher who was the model for Keating taught my brother-in-law at MBA in the 60’s and my daughter at Sewanee School of Letters a few summers ago. I loved Robin Williams in the role, and I hated the death of the student.

  • Donna Raskin

    My issue with the movie is that the teacher makes them rip up their poetry books but then he gives them poems from the canon, rather than poems from outside of the canon.

  • Helen

    The thing I think is that the film itself doesn’t want to over-sensationalize the healing power of poetry. Keating provides the potential – and Neil and Todd especially grasp onto it with both hands. For Todd, he finds his voice in poetry. For Neil, he finds the only freedom he can – in a life lived deliberately until the very last second. I think the film uses Neil’s suicide and the pain it causes to remind both the boys and the viewers of how very fragile life can be and how poetry can help us knit the threads back together if we let it. I will praise this film with all I have – I’ve found healing in it and in my own personal versions of Keating at SMCM who have the conversations that you identify that Keating should have had with his students. Literature is there if you let it, and this film definitely saw me through the suicide of a classmate who was around Neil’s age. It’s powerful and it’s real – melodrama and all. Sometimes life has more aspects of melodrama than we like to believe, and I’ve learned from the English department at SMCM that thoughtful analysis of literature can go a long way to seeing people through tough times.

  • Robin Bates

    Meg, I believe my father had Sam Pickering, the model for Keating, in a class when he was attending the University of the South. Donna, I love your point about tearing up a book that represents the 1950’s attempt to establish literature as a science but then confining himself to the 19th century and Renaissance canon (for the most part). I think that a poem like Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” would have rocked Neil’s world. Helen, that’s a very interesting point, that the film shows the limitations of literature as well as what it opens up. As I see it, literature is not in the driver’s seat but fights a rearguard action against the forces of oppression and chaos, not always successfully. But it still bothers me that Neil would commit suicide after showing no signs of depression, with the film’s entire explanation being his tyrannical father. I don’t know much about theories of suicide but this suicide didn’t ring true to me.

  • Robin

    Meg, I believe my father had Sam Pickering, the model for Keating, in a class when he was attending the University of the South. Donna, I love your point about tearing up a book that represents the 1950′s attempt to establish literature as a science but then confining himself to the 19th century and Renaissance canon (for the most part). I think that a poem like Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” would have rocked Neil’s world. Helen, that’s a very interesting point, that the film shows the limitations of literature as well as what it opens up. As I see it, literature is not in the driver’s seat but fights a rearguard action against the forces of oppression and chaos, not always successfully. But it still bothers me that Neil would commit suicide after showing no signs of depression, with the film’s entire explanation being his tyrannical father. I don’t know much about theories of suicide but this suicide didn’t ring true to me.

  • Meg Lines Thrash

    And I bet your father was the model for Sam who was the model for etc., etc. etc……teachers rule!

  • Robin

    So this means we were one two steps removed from Robin Williams? And then, when we enjoyed Keating’s style, we were really appreciating our own? One line I borrow for my own classes is Keating’s explanation for why poets write poetry: “To woo women.” Which I then amend to “and men,” citing Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights.” (Keats only cites male authors.)


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