From Socialist Worker Review, No. 125 (November 1989).
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2013.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Dead Poets Society
Director: Peter Weir
THE MAIN characteristic of the school I went to was barbarism. It was a “top flight” public school – Shrewsbury – and it was run on the standard lines of British public schools throughout the ages.
It cost a lot of money to go to Shrewsbury, and what the parents got in return was children well equipped to be rulers.
“You are the leaders of the future,” a general bellowed at us every year as we dressed up in uniform and paraded around like toy soldiers. “See that you live up to it!”
To be leaders of the future it was necessary to know what it was like to be bullied in order to turn out a good bully yourself. Almost every relationship at school was founded on discipline, violence and hierarchy.
Looking back on all this now, I wonder how it was that, at least in the last two years of my schooldays, I enjoyed them so much. The answer lies in the character and style of two teachers whose very presence at the school seemed to flout its essence.
One of these men was small, bald, and on first acquaintance, almost certainly off his rocker. He taught English to boys who were learning other subjects for exams, and was therefore not expected to help anyone pass anything. On my first appearance in his classroom he made one of my friends stand on a chair and recite two lines which he had written on the blackboard. I recall them exactly:
anyone lived in a pretty how
The teacher – we called him Kek – told us that these lines were by a man called ee cummings (who spelt his name like that, without capital letters, and the whole of the rest of the poem was like those first two lines – gibberish, and badly punctuated gibberish at that).
We learnt his “spells”, as he called his gobbets of prose and poetry in endless different languages, were hypnotised by them, learnt the bits around them and became quite literally spellbound. All the guff learnt for exams has long since been forgotten but Kek’s spells still roll around in my head today.
They are still part of a new world, something completely different to the world I can see and feel day to day.
The only other teacher I remember at Shrewsbury was also an eccentric. I think he was a Liberal, or even perhaps a “moderate” Tory, but he was constantly provoking dissent.
He introduced us – in 1956 – to the New Statesman, which was quite shockingly subversive of everything the school seemed to be telling us. He pushed us to write in the school magazine all kinds of subversive and satirical material.
So far did he push me down the road to radical ideas that I even started (just before I left) wondering what he, and Kek for that matter, were doing at Shrewsbury at all. Were they not contradicting everything the school stood for? Were they not subverting the very values which inspired people to go out and form an empire?
The answer was, in part, yes. The Kek spells and the New Statesman did open up closed minds.
Nevertheless, there was even at Shrewsbury in the 1950s, as in every public school, the eccentric oddball teacher. It was perhaps important for boys to learn to think for themselves, if only to come to the correct conclusion about their role in life as rulers. The question which dogged the authorities was – how far can we let these eccentrics go?
I do realise that not everybody who goes to see Dead Poets Society was likely to have been at Shrewsbury (or any public school) in the 1950s.
Some may have gone to the film simply because they read a disgustingly philistine and reactionary review in City Limits (once a principled magazine, now a worthless rag).
But as the film went on, I felt it could hardly be a coincidence that so many experiences of mine at a British public school in the 1950s should be reproduced in a film about an American school founded on all that’s worst in the British school tradition in 1959.
The hero of the film is a teacher who wants to break the walls of convention which hem his pupils in. He wants them to see things differently, which is one reason he makes them stand on their desks to recite poetry.
Just as Kek was hooked on Auden and Eliot and ee cummings because they used words which sounded like what they should mean, so Mr Keating in the film is turned on by the great idealists of the American tradition: Thoreau, who was forever writing of Utopias where people behaved decently to one another; Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, who spent their lives urging people to take the unlikely and unusual paths of life rather than perish in conformity.
The question for Keating is the same as it was for Kek. How would the authorities react? Would they patronise him? Or would he stray too far beyond the bounds of orthodoxy?
As always in such matters, the dividing line is crossed when talk turns to action: when cosy theory about an ideal society turns into practice which changes the very lifestyles and aspirations of the leaders of the future.
Many who see the film and did not go to a school of this kind will find it incredible if not a little contemptible, that a man of Keating’s idealism and visions could find himself in a barbaric place like that in the first place.
They underestimate the ability of the public school system to patronise eccentricity and, where possible, to make a virtue out of it. When one of his pupils revolts against the headmaster in a quite wonderful prank, Keating himself quite genuinely intervenes on the side of authority.
He is happy to flout the authority of the world outside, provided he does not flout the authority of the school. In the end the logic of revolt takes its course, and he is seen, wrongly as it turns out, to go too far.
This is a glorious film with a gloriously subversive ending, and any reader of the Review who does not see it should suffer the worst possible penalty – a life subscription to City Limits.
Last updated on 12.8.2013