Dead Poets, Resurrected

I found out about the ‘Your Verse’ Apple advertisement from this tweet by Prominent Designer Frank Chimero:

I’m a fan of Frank’s, so of course I tried to hate the ad, too. But I couldn’t. Of course you could be upset that timeless humanistic values are being subsumed into a sell-product context1or you could rejoice in a depiction of technology clearly subservient to human values, and a wonderful apologetic for poetry — poetry, of all things! — broadcast to a worldwide audience. Indeed, the real pity is that something like this ad wasn’t produced with public funds first. Frank would probably agree about that, but for me, considering the poetically impoverished times we are living in, close is good enough.

Whether due to the ad or not, the film Dead Poets Society is also being talked of again. Kevin Dettmar published a review of the movie in The Atlantic today: ‘Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities. On a phsychological level, Dettmar loathes this movie in much the same way I once loathed orange-flavoured chocolate: it rubbed him badly the wrong way 25 years ago.

We went to the movie and watched, often swept up in the autumnal New England beauty of Welton Academy (the real-life St. Andrew’s School, Middletown, Delaware). But I walked out horrified that anyone would think that what happens in Mr. Keating’s classroom… had anything to do with literary study, or why I was pursuing a graduate degree in English. I think I hate Dead Poets Society for the same reason that Robyn, a physician assistant, hates House: because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive.

I sympathize with Dettmar — computer hackers are no strangers to having their professions caricatured on screen, either. But unless someone can point me to an example of a really great (or even watchable) drama about professional literary study that is also non-misleading to some degree, I can’t approve of his criticism.

Dettmar’s main fret is that “passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous.” But he confuses the proper use of the film — to arouse inspiration — with the proper work of the real-life educator, who has the much more prosaic job of teaching analysis and criticism. In fact he comes very close to realizing this, having just said “That’s how I was taught, in high school especially. I’m an English professor today because I had Mr. Hansen in ninth grade, and Mr. Jackson in eleventh.” That’s right: Dettmar himself is an English professor because he was exposed early on to a relatively fluffy but attractive passion for literature! Sure, the movie gets the poems wrong; but it gets the passion right. Subject matter experts too often complain about inaccuracies in popular depictions of their fields, and miss the guiding lights that brought them into that field in the first place. A movie, and especially a drama, need not provide more than this attraction in order to be valuable; in fact, if it tries to do more it usually becomes a failure.

Because he would prefer the movie to have been a documentary rather than a drama, Dettmar cheers for its villains rather than its heroes. Which makes perfect sense — after all, in a real-life educational setting, the rigourous, unexciting academic is far more likely to be the actual hero — but it misses the larger point:

And while too cynical by half, the headmaster’s response is one with which I sympathize a good deal more now than I did back then: “At these boys’ age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.”

No, actually, both Dead Poets Society and the Apple ad got this one right. Ignite a magnetic curiosity towards the arts, and tradition and discipline will take care of themselves. Not a sufficient principle in the classroom, probably — but in the theatre, definitely.


  1. The Poetry Off the Shelf podcast produced a lovely 14-minute episode around the ‘Your Verse’ ad. Among other things, they theorize that Whitman, an inveterate self-promoter and guerilla advertiser, would have loved the exposure. 

There’s a staunch and traditional adversity from academia-at-large (though by no means from every constituent) when it comes to commercialization of the humanities.

The behavior is odd at best, edging dangerously toward self-defeating because while the academy praises the works they hold so dear for their romanticism, for no one assumes Romeo and Juliet to be a realistic telling of Teenage Love, the academy fears romanticism of itself. I think this largely stems from a long-standing feeling of marginalization, and to be romanticized would mean being taken less seriously.

But you hit it on the head, when you say that this ad, and Dead Poets Society, are fantastic catalysts for new blood and renewed interest in art and humanities because as humans, we like to chase the romance. And a few who do will find the reality to be different, but that much more fulfilling. And some will find the reality different, and be disillusioned. And that’s okay, because the rigor of academic reality need not be for everyone. Sometimes the chase alone is enough.

The world needs the romance. The world needs it because it’s what makes us human.

Tyler Fontaine