The poets are dead; Transcendentalism lives on
Most people look down upon Transcendentalism because they do not know what it means. Transcendentalism is a belief in a higher reality than that found in sense experience, or belief in a higher kind of knowledge than achieved by human reason. Transcendentalism revolves around the existence of absolute goodness, something beyond description and knowable, ultimately only through intuition. The term Transcendentalism became applied almost exclusively to doctrines of metaphysical idealism. In its most specific usage, Transcendentalism refers to a literary and philosophical movement that developed in the United States. Intuition rather than reason was regarded as the highest human faculty. It was believed in order to comprehend the divine, God, and the universe one must transcend or go beyond the physical and emotional description of normal human thought. Transcendentalism opposed the strict ritualism and dogmatic theology of established religious institutions. Transcendentalist writers expressed semi-religious feelings toward nature, as well as the creative process, believing that divinity permeated all objects. Director Peter Weir illustrates that the movie Dead Poet s Society echoes Transcendentalist notions in content in that self-reliance and individualism must outweigh external authority and blind conformity to custom or tradition, intuition is superior to deliberate intellectualism and rationality and in structure through the idea that one can find truth and beauty in nature.
One of the main ideas of Transcendentalism is that one s own opinions should prevail over deliberate conformity. Emerson wrote concerning that notion saying, Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist ( Self-Reliance 15). Emerson tightly relates one s being with nonconformity, therefore illustrating that one who does conform to society s wishes is less of a man, or yet a real man at all. Emerson takes off on that idea and goes on to express the bold statement, Imitation is suicide (3). Emerson takes Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist to a new level now. He declares conformity is the same as throwing one s own ideas, identity, and soul away, which is the equivalent to ending one s life. Henry David Thoreau has beliefs similar to Emerson on the topic of conformity. In Walden Thoreau states If a man does not keep pace with his/companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer./ Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away (239-242). To hear a different drummer insinuates to believe or act differently from the common consensus. Thoreau asserts that it is all right to think or act in this different manner, as abstract from the common as it may be. Dead Poet s Society also relates the idea that self-reliance and individualism must outweigh external authority and blind conformity to custom or tradition through its content. Keating desperately wants the boys to hear something different from what other adults are telling them. Don t be lemmings, Find your own walk , Don t conform; make it for yourself, he almost pleads with them. Mr. Keating wants them to defy the familiar values and follow their hearts instead. All of his lessons have the common thematic idea of non-conformity, which are the singular most important aspects of his teachings. On the first day of class Mr. Keating persuades the young men to stand on their desks. I stand upon my desk to remind yourselves that we must constantly look at things in a different way (Dead Poet s Society). Standing on the desk symbolizes individualism, while everyone who merely sits in his or her desk is just conforming to the typical expectation. The most blatant instance of the fight against conformity in Dead Poet s Society is the circumstance surrounding Neal Perry s suicide. After Mr. Perry saw his marvelous performance in A Midsummer s Night Dream, he brings his son home and roughly tells him,
We’re trying very hard to understand why it is that you insist on defying us. Whatever the reason, we’re not gonna let you ruin your life. Tomorrow I’m withdrawing you from Welton and enrolling you in Braden Military School. You’re going to Harvard and you’re gonna be a doctor. This is not Neal s dream or wish; he wants to be an actor. After searching his heart, he so chooses to end his life, therefore not conforming to his father s wishes. Neal displays that he does want more out of life than what his family was pressuring him to do, but the fight with conformity was too great for him. In Neal s situation imitation is literally suicide. While Neal is the free spirit who chooses to look deeper than expected, Mr. Perry, whom Neal was fighting, is the epitome of conformity. Mr. Perry neatly places his slippers in the same spot every night. His action asserts the unnecessary structure of conformity. He does this because it is the proper and correct way and he does not care to challenge it.
Transcendentalists not only believe that it is necessary to look into one s heart to find a personal calling, but they also believe that individual insight is superior to proven thought. Emerson takes the ideology and puts it into striking poetry pronouncing, No law/ can be sacred to me but that of my nature (Self-Reliance Emerson 26-27). Emerson feels that a written law is not the highest or most important law, rather personal beliefs and intuition are of the ultimate importance. His statement also emphasizes the importance of looking within and not to others for one s notions. In Thoreau, a Hippie in History Delbert L. Earlsman explores Thoreau s belief that intuition should weigh more than rational thought. Earlsman quotes Thoreau saying, I would have each [person] be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father s or his mother s or his neighbor s instead. This idea warns everyone not look at the world, thorough their parents and friends eyes, but to use one s own intuition, which will never lead them astray. Mr. Keating believes that intuition is untouchable compared to intellectualism, and he tries to share his knowledge with his students. After Mr. Keating asks Neal to read an essay by Mr. J. Evans Pritchard that informs how to grade the greatness of poetry on an x, y axis, Mr. Keating jumps out of his chair and yells,
Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry. No, we will not have that here. No more of 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 (DPS).
Mr. Keating completely disregards Pritchard s idea and encourages the boys to not measure the poetry by a heartless graph, which is deliberate intellectualism, but to think for themselves and find personal greatness from within. Mr. Keating also encourages the same idea when the boys are resisting the poetry that they wrote by themselves. Mr. Keating comforts them by saying, Now, when you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think (DPS). What Keating suggests by this statement is that what the author meant in his writing isn t necessarily what a person will get out of it, and that is fine. He wants them to form their own opinions about the poetry, not necessarily what the author wants them to think. After Mr. Keating was fired, Mr. Nolan took his place. He kindly asked another student, Cameron, what they had gone over in class. Cameron replies, I believe we skipped most of the Realists, sir (DPS). From Transcendental ideals, Mr. Keating knew that the writing of the Realists teaches only deliberate intellectualism and rationality, and that is not what he wanted to get across to his students. He wanted to teach them to look inside themselves for the true meaning of things. Mr. Keating knew that the basic truths of the universe lie beyond sensory knowledge, in our intuition.
Through Transcendental principles, nature is regarded as the pinnacle of beauty and the giver of truth. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to/ front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn/ what it had to teach (Walden Thoreau 30-33). Notice Thoreau went to the woods, where nature is all about him, not to a five star hotel. He wanted to find the beauty and truth through simplistic nature. Emerson also finds magnificence within nature by composing, The purple petals, fallen in the pool/ Made the black water with their beauty gay (The Rhodora Emerson 5-6). Emerson finds more splendors in the simple shedding of a leaf than most people could even imagine. He appreciates the gay leaves falling gracefully into a black pool. These ideas of elegance and knowledge of nature are apparent throughout the structure of the Dead Poet s Society. Peaceful pictures of nature at its best were always revealed between various scenes of the movie. These tranquil shots of nature remind the viewer that nature is serene and wonderful, and it is there that true wisdom is found. The Dead Poet s Society did not meet in a dorm room or lavish meeting hall, but in a dark, damp cave deep in the woods. The setting of their meetings emphasizes the topic of their conversation, transcendental poetry. The young men of the society are living out their beliefs by attempting to find inspiration there. During the dramatic minutes before Neal s suicide the camera reveals very symbolic items. First, snow is pictured outside when Neal opens the window. Neal opens the window because he wants to be comforted by the white, glistening, snow-covered nature. Then, a close up of the crown of thorns that he wore in the production A Midsummer s Night Dream comes into focus. The crown that Neal slowly puts on his head confirms that he thinks that nature led him to the right answer in his dilemma. Throughout the movie the transcendental idea of beauty within nature is exuded through camera angles and the setting.
Dead Poet s Society, directed by Peter Weir, exhibits three particular characteristics of the Transcendental philosophy such as exists in the writing of poets such as Thoreau and Emerson: the strong belief that the world should not conform to society, rational intellectualism is shoddier than instinct, and reality and loveliness are located in nature. Transcendentalist ideas do not only exist in movies and poetry, but also in a minority of people. The philosophy was resurrected in the 1960 s through the hippies, who, now as aging baby boomers, still practice it today. Mainstream America definitely is not ready to go into the woods to find higher truth and forget its capitalistic roots. However, it would be a more enjoyable place if some Transcendentalist notions, such as the end to blind conformity, became more common in this society.