A Midsummer Night's Dream, Dead Poet's Society, Ethan Hawke, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Female Masculinity, film review, Intellectual masculinity, Intellectual Parent, John Keating, Judith "Jack" Halberstam, masculinity, Masculinity: Identity conflict and Transformation, Peter Weir, Robert Shawn Leonard, Robin Williams, Tom Schulman, Walt Whitman, Warren Steinberg, yawp
I was on my honeymoon with my wife in Colorado, climbing down from the side of a mountain. My wife, poor thing, was feeling altitude sickness but I was living in a lovely high the likes of which I had never felt before. The air I was breathing was breathing new life into me and I felt invigorated. There was a moment however when we stood on the path and I looked out over the expanse of the park. I felt the colors of the world as an invitation. The mountains, before the trip I had never seen a real mountain before, were titans in the distance capped with blue snow. Surrounded by forest and struck with the wonders of this impressive landscape and my own fortified physiology I stood up, spread my arms out and barked out the word “YAWP!” much to the embarrassment of my wife who told me to calm down.
I had always wanted to stand on the side of a mountain and bark out a YAWP ever since I had watch Dead Poet’s Society and heard this line which is a quote from Walt Whitman:
John Keating: I SOUND MY BARBARIC YAWP OVER THE ROOFTOPS OF THE WORLD.
This little story, which I often tell to those who I trust will not mock me, to my face anyway, is always closed with a sentence that I understand to be significant:
I’ve never felt like such a man in all of my life.
A model of masculinity is essential for a young man in the course of determining what shall be the nature of their character and what they choose to ultimately stand for. I’ve been dying to write about Dead Poet’s Society but I’ve also been absolutely terrified of it. This struggle derives from the fact that Dead Poet’s Society from a distance can appear like one long Cat Poster. Robin William’s character Professor John Keating is the “ideal teacher,” and I think all people who teach or aspire to teach wish they could impart knowledge with such a reckless abandon and unfettered passion before showing the stuffy bald principle that he’s full of shit. It’s easy to observe the film and believe that education is all about making speeches about the fundamental truths if humanity in between John Wayne impressions and encouraging subversion of institutional authority. Yet at the same time teachers often will cite scenes from the movie in order to inspire students to be themselves and resist peer pressure, though if any have experienced such they may remember this was often used as a lead into conversation/painful lectures about sex or drugs. The conflict with Dead Poet’s Society is that at times it seems a parody of itself.
Despite this, the film is beautiful and remains one of my favorite Robin Williams movies.
I was originally shown the film in small snippets by my school’s High School’s Head Basketball coach, one of only two coaches I’ve ever l actually liked in my entire life, the other being my Algebra II teacher. The film was only one in a line of numerous attempts by adults to teach us to “Be ourselves” and “resist peer pressure” and it wasn’t until my sophomore level year in high school that I had the English teacher that changed my life. Along with giving me her paperback copy of The Green Mile by Stephen King, recommending me to watch Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas, Lugene Tucker sat the class down at the end of the semester and showed us all the film Dead Poet’s Society analyzing the film as we went through it.
John Keating is the new English Professor at Welton Academy, a private and exclusively white Christian boys boarding school. Race and religion play little role in the story, it’s set in the 1950-60s so it assumes that most rich white people sending their kids to an all boys boarding school wouldn’t have to worry about religious matters or black people learning alongside their children. If you catch a little snark in my writing here I do apologize but this is one of the little details of the plot that irks me, but that’s for another time and a different essay. Despite this John Keatings is a good man who instills in the boys on the first day of class with the lesson of Carpe Diem, a Latin expression for “Seize the Day.” The ethos of the film is Keating’s ability to inspire in these boys, and by turn the audience, to live life to its fullest.
This is the predominant reading, or viewing technically, of Dead Poet’s Society and has a tendency to hide what I consider a more interesting interpretation which is how Keating develops and creates a model of intellectual masculinity to aspire to.
Knox Overstreet, Todd Anderson, Gale Hansen, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Neil Perry are the principle protagonists and are boys that are reaching the age where manhood is becoming more and more of a functional reality, but as the film starts it’s clear that the models of masculinity that are present do not offer any kind of spiritual or personal guidance. Neil’s father has him drop the School Annual and when he protests his father chastises him in the hallway, the male teachers the viewer does encounter are pretentious or stuffy, pretty much filling the standard WASP archetype most audiences would recognize, and then there’s Professor Keating.
The first introduction to Keating involves a small Latin lesson before he has the boys look at a shelf filled photographs of former students where he says:
John Keating: 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.
What strikes me when I watch this scene is not just the “Catch the Day” pathos, but instead the honest testimony of a man who has struggled and survived the annoyance, and at times monstrosity, that is adolescence and emerged as a man with convictions, dreams, and aspirations. This first lesson is a chance to establish a foundation for a life, but more importantly for the development of a sense of manhood. As a young man there is a sense that life owes you, and when you leave your education and formative years then you shall succeed and become a god among men.
The real truth of life is that it is disappointment and compromise for many, and success for a few brave, crazy, of lucky few who are able to push through the struggle. What is true once the sentiment and motivational speeches have been cut through is that manhood requires first and foremost confidence. If men want to succeed they need to have a firm foundation of trust in their own abilities and that requires confidence. Keating’s first lesson remains the most important part of the whole film because he’s appealing to their knowledge of life thus far, and tempering it in his own experience of life.
Death is not a reality for a young man. It is something left for old men who have passed their immortality. It’s hard to explain but when you’re, to cite a terrible yet accurate saying, young dumb and full of cum the prospect of death is an abstract concept. It cannot and will not happen to you. How could death to occur to me when I have so much of life left ahead of me, when I have so much to do? When the world promises me so much.
With this in mind, by showing the boys the photographs, images they probably pass every day and have become apathetic to, Keating is able to instill in these boys their first taste of manhood. It’s from this that Keating is able to move into his more eloquent speeches that you’re old coach who’s facebook friends with you shares on your wall at three in the morning.
John Keating: 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 developed for one endeavor, and that is – Mr. Anderson? Come on, are you a man or an amoeba?
John Keating: Mr. Perry?
Neil: To communicate.
John Keating: No! To woo women!
It’s at this point that my contester would interrupt and suggest that this film is meaningless after that passage, what’s the point of watching the film if all it is a series speeches, it sounds like a waste of time.
I’m sorry to be rude, but my contester is an idiot who smells bad and nobody wants to go to prom with him!…Sorry that was juvenile. Seriously I hold myself a much higher standard than that, and I apologize.
It’s okay my contester says…Yo mama’s a ho!
Dead Poet’s Society is a story of a group of young boys coming into their own as they develop their own identity’s, selves, dreams, etc. and in order for a story to take place there actually has to be a story. Knox Overstreet falls in love with the girlfriend of the public school’s quarterback and so the audience gets to watch him try to woo her over the course of the film. Charlie Dalton is a rebel without a cause, which isn’t a cliché when you’re a teenage boy more often than not, and the audience gets to observe him growing into a man that challenges the system going so far as to publish an article in the school paper arguing for the inclusion of girls at Welton. However the center of the narrative lies in the relationship between Todd Anderson and Neil Perry, the two boys who found the Dead Poet’s Society, an organization Keating encourages the young boys to found.
Both Neil and Todd are strong young men with passion and ideas, but its clear neither boy has an understanding of themselves as the men they desire to be. Neil is bullied by his father who wants his son to become a doctor, while Todd’s parents clearly have no interest in him and revere his older brother a former student. Both boys are inspired by Keating the club becomes their way of finding a space in which to develop a sense of self. In one of Keating’s many speeches he offers an assessment/warning of their characters.
John Keating: Boys, you must strive to find your 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!
Neil attempts to do so by acting in a local production of Midsummer’s Night Dream, a comedy by Shakespeare if you don’t know it. I try to avoid pathos in these essays, but Neil’s performance of the Puck soliloquy at the end of the play, while his father watches on stone faced, is perhaps one of the most moving moments of the film. Despite Neil’s passion, he lacks the sense of manhood that would allow him to challenge his father, and in the end, faced with a lifetime of servitude, he shoots himself with his father’s pistol.
As for Todd, he is broken by the death of his friend, and up until the final scene in the film, does he remain so. By standing on a desk before Keating leaves the school in disgrace and calling out the “Oh Captain, my Captain” he asserts himself as a voice.
The story of Neil and Todd remains one of the most interesting examinations of what I’m referring to as intellectual masculinity. I’m pressed to find a satisfying definition of masculinity to work with since most dictionaries simply describe it as qualities of behavior associated with men. “Jack” Judith Halberstam in her brilliant book Female Masculinity, which explores how women can manifest masculine behavior, cannot even seem to find a functional definition, but instead more of an examination:
Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to the uneven distributions of wealth. Masculinity seems to extend outward into patriarchy and inward into the family; masculinity represents the power of inheritance, the consequences of the traffic in women, and the promise of social privilege. (2).
Warren Steinberg in his book Masculinity: Identity Conflict and Transformation offers another assessment:
For a boy to feel adequate as a male he must develop competency in the traditional characteristics of the masculine gender role—the instrumental/active dimension. Imitation and identification with the father is how the boy seeks his masculine gender role. A nurturing, affectionate father who is perceived as powerful and valuable provides the boy with the model he seeks, and the son wants to be like the father he loves and admires. (2).
There are aspects of Steinberg’s book that I have many, many conflicts with, however I do believe this small quote lends great credence to the boys who found the Dead Poet’s Society. Keating becomes to these boys an intellectual parent they can trust with their dreams, their weaknesses, or their conflicts and Keating each time behaves the way an intellectual parent, or really any parent should. He does not condemn their spirit or belittle them, instead he offers guidance and solace through intellectual exercise and appreciation of art. Keating offers the boys always a reminder that they hold the potential for greatness in their selves:
Neil Perry: I just talked to my father. He’s making me quit the play at Henley Hall. Acting’s everything to me. I- But he doesn’t know! He- I can see his point; we’re not a rich family, like Charlie’s. We- But he’s planning the rest of my life for me, and I- He’s never asked me what I want!
John Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?
Neil Perry: I can’t.
John Keating: Why not?
Neil Perry: I can’t talk to him this way.
John Keating: Then you’re acting for him, too. You’re playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, 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 Perry: I know what he’ll say! He’ll tell me that acting’s a whim and I should forget it. They’re counting on me; he’ll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.
John Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It’s not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn’t believe you – well, by then, you’ll be out of school and can do anything you want.
Neil Perry: No. What about the play? The show’s tomorrow night!
John Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.
Neil Perry: Isn’t there an easier way?
John Keating: No.
Neil Perry: [laughs] I’m trapped!
John Keating: No you’re not.
I’ve stated it before, but the work of Robin Williams often returns to that of a father. John Keating is perhaps the best example of this character because a father, more than anything else, is a teacher. Fathers instruct their sons of what is expected of them from society, they provide an example for a boy to aspire to, and they ultimately help their sons the greatest, by offering themselves as an example of manhood. Keating is not John Wayne, but he is an intellectual model of manhood. A model in which the “active” role is maintaining your individual will and acquiring a firm intellect. It is about questioning authority and deciding for yourself what is true.
It may not replace John Wayne anytime soon, but the Keating model of manhood is certainly a model I’ve aspired to.
Finally, if you get the chance, YAWP on a mountain and see if infinity does not yield to you if only for a moment. To indeed, become a god.