No matter the text that he’s ostensibly engaged with, Mr. Keating, like Hamlet in Stéphane Mallarmé’s wonderful description, is forever “reading in the book of himself.” This is what Keating’s namesake John Keats (referencing Wordsworth) called the “egotistical sublime.” Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.
But for Keating, it’s the text (like Frost’s poem) that is changed, not the reader. He does the same thing to the Whitman poem “O Me! O Life!” that he recites to his students. Used as the voiceover for a recent iPad ad, Mr. Keating’s pep talk quotes the opening and closing lines of the poem, silently eliding the middle: “Oh me! Oh life! / of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d 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.” He’s quoting from Whitman, he says, but the first line he omits is telling: “Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?).” Go back and add that line to the quotation and see how it alters the whole. For Keating—and one fears, examining the scant evidence the film provides, for his students—every poem is a Song of Myself. This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities. The funny thing is, I think the movie actually demonstrates some of what’s wrong with Keating’s approach, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a fan of the film who notices that.