All Goes Onward and Outward, Nothing Collapses

I don’t know why he asked it — probably because the concept of small talk is completely lost on him — but last night at dinner, B asked me when the prime of my life was. He worded it just like that, in English. Sometimes a question like this means he’s picked up a new English phrase and is giving it a spin. Sometimes he’s just heard a song that’s made him feel a certain way. Who knows?

I told him I hoped I wasn’t past my prime, frankly, that it hadn’t happened yet.

The look on his face seemed to indicate that this hadn’t occurred to him as a possible answer.

“… Oh! Me, too!”

He then described a future prime, something about me and him riding horseback with our fat little cat Moja cradled between us, because cats love riding horses.

This weekend I went with a friend to see Dead Poet’s Society, which I hadn’t watched for over a decade, and never in a theater. It’s showing in theaters here now, because… well, I don’t know why. Sometimes Korean mega-theaters just show old American films. Sometimes it’s a tenth anniversary thing. Sometimes, I think it’s a way of filling out the later summer showings when all of the blockbusters have come and gone.

Roger Ebert called the film “shameless in its attempts to pander to an adolescent audience,” which is why I wasn’t sure if my friend, who had, unlike me, never seen the film in her youth and who wouldn’t be able to call upon a sense of nostalgia to validate it, would even like it. But she’s a teacher and has been for nearly a decade. I think the film looks different to teachers.

What was interesting for me, as well, was how my perspective shifted. I watched it before as a student, a young person. This time I watched it from the teacher’s point of view, the barbaric yawp scene, in particular.

I’m not saying it’s not cheesy — it is. But I still think it gets at something. As someone who entered university determined to focus on journalism, who was pushed by one professor in particular to take poetry more seriously, I still identify with it on the other side, as well.

My roommate and I, who shared the same writer’s studio class the first semester of freshman year, joked from the beginning that that professor wanted us to write what we called “kitchen sink poetry” — what looked to us like random lists of objects and actions with little to no association with each other — everything including the kitchen sink.

What we came to realize later was that he was entreating us to abandon logic in order to be able to mine the unconscious for the raw material poetry refines. The kitchen sink was just step one, a kind of meditation. The barbaric yawp.

What I saw now, on the other side, was the wonder that you experience as a teacher when you manage to pry a bit of that out of a student, and a sense of comradery in the knowledge that good teaching is really just enabling.

(Here is where I will say that if you haven’t seen the film yet and intend to, you may want to stop reading now.)

After the movie was over, I asked my friend if she thought the accusation that Neil would have never killed himself if he hadn’t met John Keating was right, and, of course, she said no. That it was ridiculous. And that was also my opinion until I watched the film again this time.

This time, I realized there was room for a different interpretation, and the key to it may be the Thoreau quote that’s read to open the DPS meetings: “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, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The Neil plotline was completely rushed and not so masterfully developed, so it is a little difficult to interpret, but it is made obvious that, prior to meeting Keating, Neil was resigned to following the path his father had set out for him, and without hope, there is no hope to lose. When Neil met Keating, he realized the possibility of a different life, and it was the destruction of this possibility in Neil’s mind that led to the sense of hopelessness that caused him to take his life.

So in an indirect way, it may have been Keating that caused the suicide he was scapegoated for, and the new question the film raised for me this time was less about failed adolescent rebellion against the suffocating power of tradition, as Ebert suggests, and more about whether or not that brief period of enlightenment and hope was more valuable than reaching the end of a long life that was never lived at all.

B is a weird little poet of a sort, in the sense that he absorbs his environment and seems to ruminate over it in his unconscious mind before spitting it back out in a somewhat distant if related form. This week, I’ve been rifling through old files in order to organize my new hard drive, and the photos, videos and documents have caused me to regurgitate countless stories from the past. There’s no doubt life used to be less tamed, more spontaneous and full of events and people. There aren’t as many stories being created now, but there is more than one way to look at that fact. An epic unfolds over years and decades rather than a single night. It moves slow in places because the story is long and wide in scope. It doesn’t matter less for that; it may even matter more.

After he outlined his horseback fantasy, B asked me what I hoped my prime would look like. I said I was sure I didn’t know and hoped I couldn’t imagine. The things I’ve gotten that I’ve wanted have always been somewhat hollow, while the things I never thought of have been the real pay dirt of life. If I’m honest, I hope there is no prime period. Seventy-five years, in the grand scope of things, is not a lot of time, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for every day of it to be divine.