Watching a scene in the film Dead poets society in which Keatings’ students hurriedly run through a misty wood, a thought struck me: why is it that we have to feel like we know the world in order to live in the world. The thought may seem at first glance irrelevant to the scene – it’s just a bunch of boys having fun doing something they shouldn’t be doing, as boys do. But the scene, and the very relevant thought, was deliberate. The boys weren’t sneaking away at night to go for a swim, explore the forest, or blow off steam. They were searching through a foggy wood, late at night, hoods adorned, for a cave they could read poetry in. They were informally accepted by their teacher into the Dead Poets Society. Teachers at Welton Academy don’t do that sort of thing.
I had to pause the film for quite a long time. Questions flooded my mind. Can a person live comfortably knowing that their ideas of morality share no unity with the actual facts of life? Can you live comfortably when you realize the consequences of your ethical ‘truths’, the enlightenment that keeps you afloat in a bevy of sorrow and pain, conflict in no consistent way with more people than not? Can a person live comfortably in a state of enlightened ignorance; a state of knowing that you don’t know, where knowing is vital to your sense of purpose, self-worth, and value. Can we live not knowing, for example, that we ourselves have a use or a value to others? Can we live without knowing that when we need help, there will be help? Can we live without knowing why we matter? Can we continue to live, to thrive, to create and work, to start families and fight for our freedoms, knowing that no one else shares our ideas? Or is knowing you know the world essential for living in the world? And how can you be certain everyone else shares this knowledge too?
The question I had wasn’t whether some combination of truths can sustain life, but whether ignorance and not-knowing can sustain life (realizing everyone else important in my life thinks differently than I do, and believes completely different things than I do). The moments we spend running through the woods are exciting and filled with the promise of purpose. Individually we need to know that we are not dispensable, and we need to know others feel the same. But even if most manage to skip from wood to wood safely, without getting lost, necessarily in the skipping someone will be left behind (like necessarily a cancer treatment with a 90% cure rate, 10% will die). They will be forced to live the life we are all running from. And without some model of basic truth that is so obvious it transcends stages in development, the misdirection of bad experiences and ignorance, how could they hope to fair any better than Niel, someone who appears to have it all. Without some unifying idea which fundamentally causes agreement, or at least discussion, about these moral principles, everyone will suffer and some will get left behind.
The promise and mystery of truth in the Dead Poets Society is almost tangible, and yet the eery wood, the unfamiliar music and the fog contrast that tangible hope of enlightenment with doubt and uncertainty. I spend a great deal of my time chasing after ideas that promise to improve my life, and lives like mine. But I experience painful injuries, both physical and emotional, which seem to cast doubt on the entire notion of knowing anything about the world. Running through the woods to start anew the Dead Poets Society isn’t an injury, in the same sense as my rotator cuff tear and spine tumor are, but it’s an injury to worldviews, and the very idea of worldview.
The Dead Poets Society shows us that people live in different spaces, all at once. The antediluvian teachers like Mr. Nolan who believe in the power and importance of tradition, never questioning the traditions. The drill-like military philosophy of Mr. Perry. And the creative, fallible and novel teaching methods of Mr. Keating. Even Niel, whose death is so conflicting, because it’s both understandable and tragically avoidable. There’s a violent clashing of worlds in the back-drop of this story, and in the backdrop of our own lives. We see and experience this devastation within the worldviews of these characters. When Niel’s dad embraces his dead son we see his humanism, and when he cries out we experience his epiphany. There are moments for all of these characters where something happens and their entire worldview is thrown into question. We all live in these different spaces, with different approaches to solving moral quandaries, and unique beliefs and ideas; and unfortunately it’s often the ones who really experience suffering, and existential frustration, like Niel, who realize just how difficult coming to terms with this variety of spaces is.
A few months ago I attended my youngest brothers eight grade graduation. The valedictorian of his class sang this beautiful song. She had an amazing voice, and when she sang the whole room seemed for a few minutes to attend to the same thing. It was unifying. Keating presented poetry as, among other things, a unifying activity. Yet even in the many voices of the dead poets there were conflicting ideas and worldviews. Keating himself tried to foster in each student (courtyard scene) the desire for self examination, for uniqueness, for their own voice, knowing perhaps confusion might follow. One of the common activities in the film was public speaking, performance (oration); Knox’s reciting poetry to win his girl in-front of her class, Niels acting and performance in his play in front of his father, and Todd’s mortal fear of public speaking but beautiful off the cuff poetry in the classroom. Knox won his girls affection, a person from a different world entirely, with different friends, beliefs and ideas. Niel’s freedom to perform, to speak openly and publicly was stifled by his father, which drove him to suicide. Todd, he is this wild-card of a character. Mr. Keating is able to provoke brilliant poetry from him in front of the class in-spite of his self-doubt; however, after Mr. Keating is fired, and Mr. Nolan began teaching poetry, Todd lost his confidence to speak. Mr. Nolan is a man of tradition, not ideas (much like Mr. Perry). When Mr. Nolan discovered the Dead Poets Society after Niels death he blamed Keating and the activities of the group for Niels death. He wrote a confession and had each member sign. Yet when Mr. Keating enters the room and Todd spoke his truth publicly, and stood on his desk, repeating ‘oh captain my captain’, many other students stood up too – nearly half the class (students who weren’t even in the society climbed atop their desks). Todds performance unified a group that had signed a declaration of separation. The speaking, the performance was unifying, and the search for confidence, individuality and ‘the self’ that Keating tried so often to help them in was essential to that unity.
In the film there is this theme of searching. Inward, to discover what you believe and how to say it, and outward, for something to unify thought. We are presented with this contrast between tradition, which unifies thought, and suppresses novel ideas about how things should be. And poetry, which unifies thought, but promotes novel ideas about how things should be. Both require a stage (a podium, and a desk), and both require an audience. Each student in some way felt controlled externally – like a puppet. And like a puppet, they longed to find their own legs – or in this case, voice. The diversity of opinions among the many Dead Poets necessarily follows the kind of self-exploration poetry requires. These boys studied in a school and lived in a time where tradition was precedent. The index of success was the profession they attained, not the attaining itself, and the means of that end required the boys to devolve in the process. Keating provided the act of writing poetry as the self exploration required to break free from the tradition that constrained who they really were, and the oration, the performance of the poem as not only the method of explaining ideas that necessarily differ student to student, but as a unification for the students themselves; a way to connect as people in-spite of (and indirectly because of) the disconnect in ideas.
The story made me search in my own life for some unifying force like tradition and poetry. But it also made me wonder if you could live without that unification, without knowing you know (or knowing you don’t know… or knowing you can’t know). It was a tragedy when Niel died, but there were plenty of Niels who lived – Knox, Todd, Keating, even Mr. Nolan. Tradition produced a complex society where each person played a role, and questioning and real communication was forbidden (Niel’s inability to communicate his feelings with his father properly, without Keating). The Dead Poets Society, Keating, and the art of Poetry, produced a company of individual persons all looking at life, asking the very same sorts of questions, and sharing with each-other their often brilliantly differing ideas. Unified by the quest, if not always in it.
I started this essay asking a question, and for what seems like the first time, I feel like I’ve come to a sufficient answer. Of course you can live comfortably in a world which you don’t quite understand, and in which you don’t quite understand. I was looking at society through the lens of tradition. The diversity of opinion, the not knowing if anyone knows what you know, and all those other questions I listed above, aren’t mutually exclusive to living with a sense of comfort and ease. Each individual has their own ideas and beliefs and is looking for answers in life, in the exact same sense as you are – as a conscious being, without control over how they look, who the were born to, or how clever they are. Rather than being fearful, differing ideas are comforting. There is a unity already there, and poetry exposes it. Keating looked at each student indiscriminately as a poet, and he helped each person find their own voice. But in the speaking, the telling, you realize that the voice of the poet you hear is also the voice you hear in your own head. They began each gathering reciting the words of dead poets as if they were there own, because that’s one of the things poetry does, it unifies us by showing that there is an abundance of answers, and we’re all agents searching, and finding. The artistic activity of poetry was the next step from tradition, which for all its flaws, was unifying. But not in ways that satisfy the absolutely human activity of questioning, and sharing. As Keating said, “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? “
So there’s my answer. You can absolutely live not knowing the world, and find comfort in the not knowing , so long as you know that everyone is living uniquely not knowing alongside you. The world isn’t filled with doctors and teachers and parents, but the people who play those roles. Society is made up of individuals, spurred by the hope that by their uniqueness and individuality they are useful and valuable. And we often wonder if its right or healthy to have such an inward fixation. In a society with traditional values, people get left behind, but not in the woods. You cannot discover unity until you discover yourself, and realize that you are in matters of fact, a unique individual being. Because the unity is between you and everyone else, and everyone else isn’t an object, a role, as traditional values suggest, but a unified whole made of individuals just as individual and unique as you. In the woods we’re just a bunch of kids asking questions, sharing answers, and valuing uniqueness, not greatness, not perfection, not power. This finds our comfort in the not knowing – because we’re all not knowing together.