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What Havoc We Wreak

On The Significance of Individual Attempts to Live Unconstrained

In the room there are millions of glass globes, and within every globe is a single candle. Some appear freshly lit; some are down to their nubs. They are all different shapes and sizes, but they are all enclosed by globes of equal volume. One of the candles flickers; there is no more wax left. With a final violent jerk the light dies, and the flame becomes smoke. So it is with the lives of people, as illustrated through the film “Dead Poet’s Society” directed by Peter Weir. It is argued by one of the main characters, Mr. Keating, that it is important to “seize the day” and make our lives great. However, whatever an individual does cannot become very significant in the face of the sheer enormity of humanity’s numbers. There are too many people in the world with separate opinions, choices, and never-ending fights against never-ending obstacles. Individuals’ attempts to live without constraint cannot become significant because an individual’s effect on others is limited, progress is limited, and the impact of that person’s memory when they flicker out of existence is limited.

The significance of an attempt to live unconstrained is dependent on the effect on other people. Mr. Keating is a character who tries to maintain his individuality in a uniform environment and tries to convince others do to the same. But how much impact do individuals really have on one another? Like candles trapped behind glass, people do indeed affect other people’s lives. However, this effect is limited to what individuals can emit from behind the glass, like light and heat, or ideas, thoughts, examples, and words. Someone cannot really force another person to do or think something. Everyone has individual choice. Although Mr. Keating did manage to achieve a sort breakthrough with Todd by getting him to come up with the “sweaty-toothed madman” poem, this effect does not take hold enough for Todd to resist signing the paper incriminating his teacher. And later, even though Mr. Nolan manages to stifle Todd’s attempts to explain himself to Mr. Keating, Todd eventually breaks free of this effect as well and refuses to listen to Mr. Nolan. As long as people have choices, an individual attempt to be significant will be drowned out by the will of other individuals. For example, while Neil seems to eagerly take up Mr. Keating teachings and becomes the leader of a new generation of Dead Poets, his conflict with his father is what determines his final decision to commit suicide. While the authorities at the school want to blame Mr. Keating for this, it is simply not reasonable to assign the blame of one person’s actions to someone else. An individual’s minimal effect on others makes their attempt to live unconstrained insignificant, because rarely is one person the only factor in someone’s life.

Not only can individual pursuits be insignificant to the lives of others, but also to their own lives. Mr. Keating indicates quite plainly that even though the boys may feel invincible at the moment, soon they will all be “fertilizing daffodils.” He implores them not to waste their lives being ponied around by conventions and cookie-cut into successful copies of one another. In order to achieve lasting happiness, one must attempt to “find their own walk” and live unconstrained. Some people, like Todd, will find small ways to be happy but will generally attempt to define themselves within the boundaries of society. Others, like Knox, will blatantly break whatever rules and social expectations necessary to achieve their goals. And whether someone is quietly dreading being called on in class like Todd, or barging around someone else’s school in order to recite a poem to someone else’s girlfriend like Knox, will it really matter later? It has been said that “most men live lives of quiet desperation.” In the same way, men who are not doing this are living lives of desperate desperation. Living unconstrained is never a one-time endeavor, whether fighting against assimilation or curfews or physical things like angry boyfriends and expectant fathers. Even before one obstacle has been surmounted, another one comes into view. Whether quietly trying to stay above the waves or boisterously trying to soar above the clouds, the result is always the same: something is achieved, and then something else needs to be done. It is like being on a conveyor belt. Whether someone runs or walks, they stay in the exact same place. Or it is like being a trapped candle: no matter how brightly the candle behind glass tries to burn, the globe will always contain the flame. In this way, individual attempts to live unconstrained are insignificant – can progress for the attempt really be made when challenges are never-ending and constraints are shatter-proof?

Not only is the individual’s attempt to live unconstrained insignificant due to insurmountable piles of challenges, but simply because everyone dies, and what “legacy” they leave behind them will either be extinguished or reformed. In the film, legacy and tradition are compared and contrasted. Mr. Keating wants the boys to achieve a legacy by being unconstrained by tradition, and Mr. Nolan attempts to uphold traditions by exhaustingly honouring legacies of old. To someone sympathizing with Mr. Keating, traditions are a barrier to leaving a significant and unique legacy. An over-adherence and obsession with tradition will certainly stifle creativity and a sense of individuality. For those agreeing with Mr. Nolan, traditions are important to achieve orderly and stable foundations upon which success – and legacies – can be built. Traditions can effectively constrain the divergent wills of impressionable young minds. Legacies are the leftovers of a dead individual’s attempts to live unconstrained. While some may wishes to honour the person’s memory, too often are legacies of the dead reabsorbed and warped by the living. A legacy is like a trail of smoke after a candle dies. No matter how famous or impactful the dead person was, after a while the smoke dissipates, scattered here and there among good intentions and re-evaluations. That person will never be remembered in the same way as they were when they were living, or even simply present. In the film, Neil dies, and Mr. Keating leaves. They both had similar goals of living unconstrained by conventions, and both could be said to have left a legacy with the boys who stay on at Welton. But when someone who is a source of inspiration and sense of well-being is gone, where does one turn? It is impossible to become that person or bring them back, so it is only natural that anyone who tries to take up someone else’s legacy will splatter it with his own ideas. Even the legacies of the founders of Welton must have been revamped, because sometimes legacies can be a hindrance to progress. Welton administrators must have changed something about the founders’ legacies in order to increase their graduation rates so dramatically. Todd may take up leadership of the Dead Poet’s Society, and while he may try to mimic Neil in some ways, chances are that the club will never be exactly the same again. Neil and Mr. Keating will be remembered, but in the end the boys will move on.  A person’s attempt to live unconstrained is insignificant because after they are gone, their legacies never last in their pure form.

The characters of “The Dead Poets Society” reflect the struggles of every individual. Every person in the world is like a candle under glass. Only because of what they have at their disposal to burn, such as inspiration or traditions, do some people shine brighter than others. A person like Mr. Keating may feel that refusing to adhere to the collective norms somehow makes life better. However, whether someone sticks to conventions like Mr. Nolan or challenges them like Mr. Keating, everyone ends up dead. What peace we achieve and what havoc we wreak is always confined to the glass around our beings, and rendered insignificant in the face of many factors. Some may claim that a legacy is left behind when someone dies, but when candles go out, not a trace of their light remains. There’s only a bit of smoke which may stink up the place for a while, but eventually dissipates. All people have the same constraints of mortality and limited effects on one another. In a room full of millions of candles, the presence or lack of one or two is negligible, no matter how brightly they once burned. Individual lives and deaths and attempts to live unconstrained are insignificant.

Lisa Brock

English 30-1

Mrs. Gough

November 24, 2014

1 thought on “What Havoc We Wreak”

  1. Good old DPS. I’m sure everyone had to watch this movie, right? I may have been in a deeper state of depression when I wrote this. Sorry guys

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