Dead Poet’s Society: Past, Future & Forgiveness

“If our lives are the tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living those tales that we receive their lessons…Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”

Ted Chaing, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2007.

I was reading Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which is a wonderful little book. The quote above made me think of the scene from The Dead Poet Society:

“This is a battle, a war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls.

Thank you, Mr Dalton.

Armies of academics going forward measuring poetry. No! We will not have that here. No more Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you words and ideas can change the world.

I see that look in Mr. Pitts’ eye like 19th Century literature has nothing to do with going to business school or medical school. Right? Maybe.

Mr. Hopkins, you may agree with him thinking, ‘Yes, we should study our Mr. Pritchard and learn our rhyme and meter and go quietly about our business of achieving other ambitions.’

I have a little secret for you. Huddle up.

Huddle up!

We don’t read and write poetry because it is cute.

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

And the human race is filled with passion.

Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.

But poetry, beauty, romance and 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 a powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’

What will your verse be?”

Dead Poet’s Society. Peter Weir. Los Angeles: Touchstone Pictures, 1989.

This scene from The Dead Poet Society is the viewpoint of someone young, or perhaps someone just starting out in their career as John Keating is beginning his career. It is a perspective almost drunk on the possibilities, the opportunities that stretch before them.

But, by the end of the film, it is also clear that many possibilities do not end well. Sometimes cutting a new path leads to disaster. Sometimes there are politics that cannot be avoided. Sometimes a particular fork in the road shows something about our character, such as whether we are willing to step on our desks and risk expulsion as a sign of respect for a teacher we love.

And what of John Keating? What happens to him in the years after? And does this gesture from his students transform his life in any way, as surely as it will transform their own? Would his life have been different if Todd Anderson hadn’t had the courage to stand on his desk?

What of Neil Perry’s dad? Did losing his child destroy his marriage, as so often happens when a couple has a child die? Does he ever recognize his role? Or, does he live the rest of his life blaming Neil’s teacher? Is he overcome by bitterness and resentment? Or does he repent, atone as he is able and find some small measure of forgiveness?

Also, I love Mr. Hopkins. As a side character, he’s kind of casually against everything and appears resistant to John Keating’s teaching. But, he’s there standing on his desk during the last scene. It was as if he was an advanced student that already understood the material. At the end, he shows he was on the same page all along.

It seems like there is a drift between these two perspective as we age. As we make mistakes and windows of opportunities close, repentance for failing, trying to make right what we can and asking for forgiveness are what remain when all else has left.

We cannot erase the past. There is no escape from our roles and the lessons our lives have to teach us. The question is: then, what?