In another scene Keating plays the role of father and friend to Neil the night before the play. This is just one manifestation of the bonds that Keating has created with his students, one of the more poignant as it shows that Keating is more than a teacher to these boys. I'm sure Keating meant well, but perhaps he just struck the wrong balance between brotherhood and authority. Simply the fact that Neil turns to Keating in this time of crisis says a lot. Neil's father does not want him to act generally or specifically in this play. Keating listens and asks Neil if he has ever been as sincere with his own father to which Neil responds, "I can't talk to him that way" to which Keating asks, "Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting. You ever show him that?" And Neil says sadly "I can't." Keating's words encourage Neil's individualism, and self reliance: "Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is." Neil does not tell his father and lies to Keating.
Neil's self reliance as an actor is admirable and his performance reflected successful personal growth. His revolt against his father is, however, a failure. Had his disobedience been civil, in other words had he tried to reason with his father, as Keating strongly urged, then he may have accomplished something. Given his father's obstinate personality, this may not have been the case. The point is that he does not try and that made the whole situation volatile. He probably would have had to postpone his acting career until he is free from his father's control. However, the type of disobedience is nothing less than a revolt, and he only stood a chance against his father in that case, if his father had remained totally unaware. Instead of transcendental qualities being something positive that made him a potentially superb actor, transcendentalist rebellion can be seen here to have fatal and tragic consequences. Not only does Neil fail, but it would have serious consequences for the optimistic atmosphere amongst the other boys, destroying the Dead Poets Society, making it into a sad reminder. Todd loses a room mate and friend, Mr. Keating will eventually face consequences, and perhaps most discouraging, the transcendental principles have failed. The institution has effectively defeated the transcendentalist rebellion, and both Mr. Nolan and Mr. Perry have no understanding for their own responsibility.
What then is transcendentalism? What is this force of ideology that shaped America? It begins as a period in history that expressed itself vividly in New England roughly between 1830-1860 (Wilson 2) with revolutionary changes and debates in attitudes towards individualism, nature, religion, philosophy, education, politics, society and culture. Nothing is left untouched and America itself is not left unchanged. There is no specific definition of transcendentalism. It is not limited to the literature or the time, but instead penetrates the American psyche up until today, and is reflected in current writers, poets, and films, like the one being evaluated here, , released in 1989, roughly 130 years after the transcendental movement gave way to a new literary period of realism. The transcendentalist writers were rebels who expressed new ideas and new ways of writing on a whole spectrum of principles. It was and remains integral to the energy of being American: rebellious and individualistic. It has also taken on new forms from the original identification of nature and spirituality to political forces of environmentalism, for example or the scientific reasoning of ecology.
Some listed here may now be out of print or unavailable. (Sacks)
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is often the first or only exposure students get to Emerson's thought. Here are some resources to help understand this essay:
An essay introducing the background and context of Transcendentalism, for help in understanding where Emerson's ideas came from.
From Emerson himself, with some dictionary and other simple definitions listed as well.
Basic information on Transcendentalism - links to the two items above plus more.
- HTML searchable copy of the text at
Ann Woodlief's excellent introduction to the Emerson essay, Self-Reliance.
An article by Alfred I.
The objective here is to take the fundamental principles of transcendentalism, as reflected in the writing of three major transcendental authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), and connect some of these principles with the modern movie, a movie with clear transcendental messages. The discussion of transcendentalism is limited and subjective. Thoreau and Emerson can be thought of as part of the core of transcendentalism, active around Concord, Massachusetts where the movement thrived in the 1840's, whereas Whitman appeared somewhat later as an admirer of Emerson and as a poet. Most pertinent works include , , , and by Thoreau; and by Emerson; and by Whitman. These all echo the major principles of transcendentalism: freethinking, self reliance and non conformity, growth and renewal of the individual, revolt against tradition and established institutions, civil disobedience, brotherhood of man, nature and spiritual unity, and educational reform. These are also important principles reflected in .
In another class Keating stands on his desk and says "I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way." He has all the students stand up on his desk. "Even though it may seem silly or wrong you must try! Now when you read , don't just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think. Boys, you must strive to find you own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation'. Don't be resigned to that. Break out!" In this passage Keating is quoting directly from . The real issue here is also central to transcendentalism, non-conformity, as in "Life without Principle," Thoreau states that "The title wise is, for the most part, falsely applied. How can one be a wise man, if he does not know any better how to live than other men?" (360) and Emerson in "Self Reliance" writes that "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius" and finally on the principle of non-conformity Whitman writes in "Song of Myself" that "You shall not look through my eyes either , nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."(23)
The first lessons of the English class reveal John Keating's unorthodox teaching methods, freethinking and non-conformity. In one class Keating asks Neil Perry to read the introduction from their poetry textbook. Neil proceeds, "Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard. Ph.D." He continues to a paragraph that reads "If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness." He goes on with examples and Keating draws the graph on the blackboard. And then Keating faces the class and says "Excrement! That is what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry." Then he has the students rip out the entire introduction. "Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry", says Keating. "No, we will not have that here. Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again," again picking on the transcendental principle of freethinking from. Thoreau writes in , "If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees to not what extremes, or even insanity it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies." (265). In his controversial speech, "The American Scholar," Emerson reinforces this principle of freethinking with the recurring theme of "Man Thinking," encouraging the student to learn to think for themselves. There he states that "the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead." Thought should be free and should not be weighed down by historic dogma but rather new and creativity. In harmony with Keating's views Emerson says "Books are for the scholar's idle times" (87) and Whitman challenges the student in a short poem to pursue self-development:"Rest not until you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality". Finally relating the issue to Thoreau, he writes in "Life without Principle "Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself-a hypethral temple consecrated to the service of the Gods?" (367). All of these quotes are central to the idea of individualism in the writings of the authors and the movie.
Freedom of speech as described by Keating earlier is guided by the spiritual statement by Keating that "we were romantics." This is important and has been a source of debate (Rose 42) because it shows the romantic aspect of transcendentalism and that no clear boundaries exist in these classifications. Transcendentalism is itself a type of romanticism. Neil reads the romantic poem "Ulysses" (1929) from Alfred Lord Tennyson, who has some notable similarities with Walt Whitman, in for example poems dealing with patriotism and nature. There is also Charlie's romantic poem by Cowley, a segment of "The Prophet." And finally Meek's cave chant, an excerpt based on the author Vachel Lindsey from "The Congo." The others follow on exiting the cave in the dark, again looking on nature with a spiritual eye. There is also a brotherhood of chanting together.
Keating embodies most aspects of transcendentalism, especially those related to individualism (freethinking, self reliance, non-conformity, revolt against tradition and established institutions, perfection, growth and renewal of the individual, civil disobedience and brotherhood). Certainly man and spirit in nature could be added based on Keating's idolatry of Walt Whitman who speaks highly of his respect for these values as well. It would be a large task and probably redundant to bring into play Keating's transcendentalist characteristics since most of them are played out through the students. I think, however, that there are some important incidents related to Keating that are directly worth revealing.
A vote for Trump would have been his way to interject chaos as a way to slow the economic growth that is decimating the natural world.
The economic criticism of a nativist ideology is that it will slow growth even as it achieves full employment of the natives.
“can’t connect with neoliberalism, or I don’t understand what you are getting at.”
Neoliberalism is a reliance on individual choice – the individual is equipped to make rational choices.
e.g. privatization provides more choice by breaking down government sanctioned monopolies
The UBU ad campaign was, I thought, a good example of how Transcendentalism was extended to consumer culture.