Celebrity deaths, as I explored in "Blight," often affect us, but not because we're mindless celebrity stalkers who don't have lives. They affect us because we do have lives, through which we often embark on retrospective sentimental journeys when we learn of a celebrity's death. Discographies that appear as dry, meaningless lists on a Wikipedia entry might have been the soundtracks of our childhood; similarly dry filmographies might symbolize key turning points in our own thought processes. Celebrity deaths resuscitate memories of our earlier lives, our prior selves.
Casey Kasem brings back my tweendom and teendom, while Robin Williams evokes the next stage, coming of age. Mork & Mindy hit the airwaves when I was in my late teens, followed by Williams' version of that '70s cultural artifact: the stand-up comedy LP. A group of us frequently went camping in those days, and in addition to the usual paraphernalia, we always brought along a boom box and our bootlegged cassette tape of Reality, what a concept! We listened to it often enough to have it memorized (still). Who else but Robin Williams could singlehandedly voice every one of the characters he invented for his Shakespearean version of Three Mile Island: "A Meltdowner's Night Mare." ("The stream that cometh from the plant, what news? A three-headed fish? No big deal ...") Then came his movies, including one that played a role in changing my life: Dead Poets Society.
Okay; at this point you're either hooked, or you're thinking, "She's got to be kidding." An English professor trumping Dead Poets Society? How cliche. How self-serving. But back when I first saw the movie, within the first few days of its 1989 release, I wasn't yet an English teacher. In fact, I wasn't even--nor had I ever been--a college student. I had a full-time, decently paying job, it would be two years before I finally set foot in an undergraduate classroom, and I had no idea I was ever going to teach English. Absolutely none.
The original reviews were mostly good, and so was my reaction--mostly. I enjoyed the film, but even back then, I didn't love absolutely everything about it. Certain aspects concerned me--too many guys, for one thing. Too magical, for another--can someone really be completely transformed in a few weeks, just by reading a few words? Is it really that easy? What's more, Neil's suicide felt unnecessarily melodramatic, and I wondered if the film might unwittingly romanticize acts of self-destruction (a thought that is now, in light of recent events, tragically ironic).
And yet for all that, the positive elements outweighed the others. I still remember sitting in the theater--too close to the front because we'd arrived on the late side--while a little voice whispered, "You should be doing something other than what you're doing." I'd heard that voice while watching the fantastic 1983 British film Educating Rita, and I was starting to hear it more and more, not just at the movies. "I hear voices." Perhaps I should have been concerned. Instead, two years later I took a major risk (or at least it felt like one): I became a thirty-year-old college freshman.
After explored the required first-year courses, I decided my major would be English. My very first day in a college English class, I felt a new and unusual sensation: belonging. I knew this was the right place for me. That knowledge--still with me--provides the energy source that has fueled me for more than two decades, keeping me going through all of it--B.A., grad school, dissertation, jobs both part-time and full-time, workplace challenges. It gets me through every dispute, every setback, every near-quitting experience, both as a student and as a professor. It gets me through committee meetings, administrative duties, even assessment projects--not to mention the unanticipated requirement to work with spreadsheets. (Note to students: Never assume that something you're learning isn't going to be "necessary." You may be surprised.)
The actual work of "professing English" is more challenging than I ever imagined--there's far more to it than any outsider can see, as with any career. (Scratch any ideas of the lazy, tweedy professor who kicks back and smokes a pipe while pondering the meaning of Moby Dick and works ten hours a week; that stereotype, if it was ever true, no longer holds.) The "getting here" was also more challenging than I anticipated. (Good thing, too; I might not have done it had I foreseen all the potholes.) Yet through it all, I've never lost that sense of finally belonging, finally finding the right place. Dead Poets Society wasn't the only factor, but it proved to be a timely catalyst. The fictional John Keating had done his number on me, whether I liked it or not. Carpe diem.
Yuck, what a sentimental story. I know many scholarly-type people who will grasp what I'm talking about and agree. But I also know many who will roll their eyes and say that I don't even sound like a "real academic." How you feel about literature shouldn't matter; there's no such thing as magic; talking like this, some argue, is not going to help us make the case to our administrations or our constituencies for sustaining the teaching of literature or creative writing.
For many in our profession, the worst insult you can hurl at a fellow academic is "sentimental." It's often a too-easy way of discounting things the rational mind can't account for (like hearing voices while watching Dead Poets Society). An easy way to shrug off whatever makes us uncomfortable. An easy way to deal with whatever our shared belief system doesn't cover by slapping on a label that warns us to avoid it. A way to define who is "one of us" and who is not--"they" do sentimentality, "we" don't.
Funny, isn't it; I grew up in a church in which the worst insult you could hurl at a fellow member was "intellectual." A too-easy way of discounting things the official church narrative couldn't account for. An easy way to shrug off whatever made us uncomfortable. An easy way to deal with whatever our shared belief system didn't cover by slapping on a label that warned us to avoid it. A way to define who was "one of us" and who was not--"they" did intellectualism, "we" didn't.
Mirror images? Micro-communities, built around shared identities that necessitate splitting off a key element of what makes us the complex, often contradictory beings that we are. (Consistency is overrated.) I prefer not to split off but instead to try to live by the Martin Luther King quote posted in my office: "Only through the bringing together of head and heart--intelligence and goodness--shall mankind rise to a fulfillment of his nature." (I'll edit that to say "humankind," and "our nature.")
Nowadays, I still have one quip with Dead Poets Society: I worry about its potential glamorization of suicide. Sometimes I notice many English-major-types who are a little too caught up in the romantic fantasy of the fantastically talented yet tortured genius--the Virginia Woolfs and Sylvia Plaths and Ernest Hemingways and Vincent Van Goghs, committing the ultimate act of defiance against a world that was never meant for one as beautiful as them. Drugs, too much drinking--aren't they the price we creative geniuses must pay for being so profound, so inspired? I say no; suicide is never glamorous. It's devastating. The horrendously sad loss of the multi-talented Robin Williams this week reminds us of that.
So I still believe Dead Poets Society could have made its points without quite so much melodrama. But I'm not going to join the chorus of cynics and write off the film as merely "sentimental"--just as I did not heed the childhood warnings against all that is "intellectual" and avoid the supposedly demon-infested college campus (well, at least not forever). The Tin Man didn't give up his brain to receive his heart, and the Scarecrow didn't need to trade in his heart for his brain. The point of their journey was to gain all of it--the ability to think and the ability to feel, without running away in fear at the first point of discomfort. And depending on what group(s) you identify with, knowing how to "bring together head and heart" might sometimes make you feel like the resident weirdo, if you're in a micro-community where the motto (explicit or implicit) is, "We don't do that around here."
"Real" literary scholars might scoff at Dead Poets Society, saying it's too simplistic. But I think there's a time and place for simplistic. For instance, I can't argue at all when John Keating tells his students, "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world."
Yes, they can.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for bringing those words and ideas to life, for me and so many others.