Dead Poets Society: A Psychology


In my last decade as a full-time professional teacher, the film Dead Poets Society was released(1989). I saw the film some time in the 1990s just before retiring. I saw it again tonight on a DVD my son brought on one of his weekend visits. The film was set in 1959 the year I joined the Baha’i Faith. I won’t summarize the story-line here, but I will contextualize it in terms of my own life and of society’s in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

There is a strong emphasis in the film on the poet, the individual, finding his own voice, his freedom, his liberation from tradition; a philosophy of thinking for one’s self, a giving-in to impulse, to feeling is at the centre of this film. In 1959 the notion of self-realization was not yet the pop-psych cliché it became in the ‘60s and sheer impulse had yet to become the bi-word of the freewheeling rock-‘n’-roll sixties. Walt Whitman, the supreme poet of personality, is the only poet quoted at length in the film.
-Ron Price with thanks to Pamela A. Rooks, “Woo who? Exclusion of otherness in Dead Poets Society,” Australian Journal of Communication, Vol.18, No.2, 1991, pp.75-83.

Still, Peter, I liked your film.1
I did not even know about the
Ivy League schools back then,
but school was about doing what
you were told to do and keeping
your passions well-hidden with
sport and studying…and a new
religion which came onto the block
back then in those quiet ‘50s and
insensibly moved to the centre of
my life long after sport had moved
to the periphery and it stayed with
me long after girls became marriage
and I had to knuckle-down to routine,
paying bills, mortgages, faithfulness
and what some called the harder virtues.

I needed to find my voice, Peter, no doubt
about it–our whole generation did–as those
prevailing systems and human values were
rapidly breaking down; my world was loosing
its moral moorings, ethical reference points
swept away with passionate intensities filling
the emotions of those who knew so little
and convictions deserting the minds and
hearts of the best: result–deafening silence
and loud noises and rhythms everywhere.

1 Peter Weir, the director

Ron Price
28 July 2007 :sunglasses:

I tried to edit the above piece that I posted here some six years ago. I particularly wanted to fix the apostrophes which many internet sites have been unable to insert without difficulty. Sadly, this was not possible. I will, though, while I’m here at this site, post one item on impulse. This item on impulse is what you might call “a general context for impulse” as it is currently expressed in my own writing.

A thread now exists for readers who come to this site in the years and decades ahead. Readers who find these two posts of interest are welcome to comment and, if they just want to enjoy the reading, that to is welcome. If readers find that, by the time they get to the second paragraph of the first post, their eyes start to glaze over with intellectual fatigue and boredom, just do what I do and have done for decades: stop reading and go somewhere else.-Ron Price, Australia :sunglasses:

Part 1:

About the age of 40 I started to take an interest in writing my autobiography, my memoirs, and in keeping a diary. It has now been 30 years, 1983 to 2013, during which I have written a great deal about my first 40 years of living as well as the next 30, the 30 in which I have continued writing personal history, reminiscences, life-narrative. This morning when I came across an article in [b]The New York Review of Books/b by Oliver Sacks about autobiographical memory, I could not help but take some interest. In this essay of some 2000 words I quote liberally from Sacks and from Daniel Schacter(1952- ), an American psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

Sacks is a British-American biologist, neurologist, writer, and amateur chemist. He was a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University where he held the position of “Columbia Artist”. He spent many years on the clinical faculty of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In September 2012 Sacks was appointed clinical professor of neurology at NYU Medical Centre, with support from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation. He also holds the position of visiting professor at the UK’s University of Warwick.

Sacks writes in this article that at the age of 60 he “started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them……a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated, rather than sated.” By his mid-60s Sacks was launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of his boyhood which he published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.(1)

Part 2:

Sacks says that he expected some deficiencies of memory because the events he was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared his memories, or checked his facts, were now dead. He did not write letters or keep notebooks during the first fifteen years of his life, as he had done quite assiduously from the age of 18 onwards. He accepted that he must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but he assumed that the memories he did have, especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial, were essentially valid and reliable. It was a shock to him when he found that some of his memories were not.

I, too, found that in the first ten years of my writing of diaristic, journalistic, life-story material, in my 40s and 50s, there were some deficiencies of memory. My main problem, though, was that by the age of 50, after I had recorded the outline, the general details, the basics, of my experience that the account was too tedious to read. It was so tedious that I spent the next ten years, my 50s, reading about the field of autobiography, reading about the literary and conceptual issues involved as a genre and the concerns, theoretical and practical, that face both writers and readers of autobiography.

There is scarcely a human activity that is not affected by memory. I could not overestimate the importance of memory. Without memory I could not write anything. Daniel Schacter informs me2 that I should not feel disappointed to find out that we don’t really know how memory works. There is no universally agreed upon model of the mind/brain, and no universally agreed upon model of how memory works. Two models popular with materialists, the behaviourist model and that of cognitive psychology which sees the brain as a computer, are rejected by Schacter because they cannot account for the subjective and present-need basis of memory.
Lest dualists get their hopes up, Schacter’s concern for a model which does justice to subjectivity has nothing to do with a concern for a “transcendental unity of apperception” or a “self” to be distinguished from the self’s memories. Subjectivity in remembering, he says, involves at least three important factors. One, memories are constructions made in accordance with present needs, desires, influences, etc. Two, memories are often accompanied by feelings and emotions. Three, memory usually involves the person’s awareness of the memory. A good model of how memory works must not only fit with scientific knowledge, but also fit with the subjective nature of memory.

Schacter presents a sketch of a model which incorporates elements of both a neurological and a psychological model of memory. He notes that there should only be one correct neurological model, or N-model, a model of how the brain and neural network function in memory. This is a descriptive model of functions and causal connections. There may be, though, several psychological models, or P-models, of memory; each of them must be true to the N-model, as well as to subjective experience, to be adequate. P-models are explanatory models, trying to help us make sense out of the experiences of remembering and forgetting.

Part 3:

One P-model, for example, sees memory as a present act of consciousness, reconstructive of the past, stimulated by an analogue of an engram called the “retrieval cue.” The engram is the neural network representing fragments of past experience. Schacter elaborates throughout his book on studies supporting the notion that memories are reconstructions of the past and might better be thought of as a collage or a jigsaw puzzle rather than as a tape recording, a picture, or a video clip, stored as wholes. On this model, perceptual or conscious experience does not record all sense data experienced. Most sense data is not stored at all. What is stored are rather bits and fragments of experience which are encoded in engrams. Exactly how they are encoded is not completely understood, but Schacter outlines what progress has been made in understanding the complexities of neural encoding. Many psychologists believe that memories are stored in specific places and that, even though we may not remember much of our past, the right stimulus will evoke a memory of things long forgotten. These psychologists believe that every experience is permanently stored in the mind.

Other studies indicate that encoding involves various connections between different parts of the brain. In fact, what is being discovered is that there are distinct types and elements of memory which involve different parts of the brain. Schacter does an excellent job of not getting overtechnical or burdening the reader with extraneous jargon. On the P-model described in the previous paragraph, forgetting is due either to weak encoding, to lack of a retrieval cue, to time and the replacement in the neural network by later experiences, to repetitive experiences, or to keep us from going crazy. The chances of remembering something improve by “consolidation,” creating strong encoding. Thinking and talking about an experience enhances the chances of remembering it. One of the more well-known techniques of remembering involves the process of association.

Part 4:

My problem in writing about my past had less to do with amnesia, and more to do with meaning and the problems of a literary reconstruction. I just could not write in an interesting way. What I wrote was boring to me and I hesitated in making such a boring text available to others.

Some students to memory argue that alcohol, drugs, brain injury or disease, or psychological trauma and repressed memories often result in amnesia. The repressed memory therapists seem to start with the assumption that most of their patients suffer from amnesia, but the amnesia is very specific and always involves just the kind of thing most people would remember. As I say above, though, I did not see memory and forgetting as a problem. I needed a creative, a healthy, cryptomnesia. I needed something that would allow old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications. I needed forgettings and rememberings that would help me compose. I needed creativity and imagination in order that my memories and ideas could be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Helen Keller(1880-1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She had a remarkable imagination and mind which could not have developed and become as rich as they were without appropriating the language of others. Perhaps in a general sense we are all dependent on the thoughts and images of others. I certainly have been in the last 30 years as I went about recording my life experiences in writing. The language of others was crucial in my recreation of my life.

Part 5:

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had several gifts: an enormous reading capacity, a retentive memory, a talker’s talent for conjuring and orchestrating other people’s ideas, and the natural instinct of a lecturer and preacher to harvest materials wherever he found them. Literary borrowing was commonplace in his day. It had been since the seventeenth century—Shakespeare borrowed freely from many of his contemporaries, as did Milton.4 Friendly borrowing remained common in the eighteenth century, and Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey all borrowed from one another, sometimes even, according to Holmes, publishing work under each other’s names.

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. Memory depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected.

But what was common, natural, and playful in Coleridge’s youth gradually took on a more disquieting form, especially in relation to the German philosophers whom he discovered, venerated, translated, and finally came to use in the most extraordinary way. Whole pages of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria consist of unacknowledged, verbatim passages from Schelling. While this unconcealed and damaging behavior has been readily categorized as “literary kleptomania,” what actually went on is complex and mysterious.

Holmes explores this literary kleptomania in the second volume of his biography, where he sees the most flagrant of Coleridge’s plagiarisms as occurring at a devastatingly difficult period of his life, when he had been abandoned by Wordsworth, was disabled by profound anxiety and intellectual self-doubt, and more deeply addicted to opium than ever. At this time, Holmes writes, “his German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.”

Part 6:

The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as “creating,” and remembering as “recreating” or “recategorizing.” Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.
We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

-Ron Price with thanks to 1Oliver Sacks, Speak, Memory, 21/2/’13, The New York Review of Books, and Amazon: “Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals and by chemical reactions, the louder and smellier the better he says, as well as photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In his endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded”; and 2 Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Both the creation of memories and the recollection of memories increases by reduction of the neurological noise in the brain.
Sometimes, among other factors, the noise is reduced due to the death of associated damaged neurons.

Belated thanks, James, for your thoughtful response.-Ron

It has been some time since I was last at this site; while here I’ll post a piece I wrote today about a dead poet.-Ron Price, Tasmania :arrow_right:


Part 1:

One hundred years after the death of Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud(1854-1891), a French poet, I was just beginning to find my way in the world of poetry. Rimbaud influenced modern literature and arts, inspired various musicians, and prefigured surrealism. He started writing poems at a very young age while still in primary school, and stopped completely before he turned 21. He was mostly creative in his late teens. His "genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction, still astonishes."1-Ron Price with thanks to 1Cecil Hackett, Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, (1981).

In 1991, on the 100th anniversary of Rimbaud’s death, I was teaching English Literature at a polytechnic in Western Australia and had begun to turn to studying and writing poetry. Unlike Rimbaud I did not really find my home in poetry until well into my middle age, and after I had turned away from novel-writing. I also turned toward poetry as several fires were also beginning to go out in my career-life, my sex-life and my emotional life. By 1991 I was fully compliant on my medications for bipolar disorder. In these last two decades my emotional life has gone through a series of smoothing-out of the edges due to changes in my medications. There were some difficult transitions but, as I write these words, my intellectual-emotional-sensory world has become more balanced than in all the previous stages and phases of my life-narrative.

Part 2:

I gradually came to know more about this French poet in the last two decades as I studied more and more of the western intellectual-poetic tradition. But Rimbaud’s work is far too eccentric, wild, and lacking in common sense for my liking. The French poet Paul Valery made this same point in Graham Robb’s book, Rimbaud, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. I find that making comparisons and contrasts between myself and other poets provides insights and understandings into my own life and my own poetic work. It is this desire that has led to this particular prose-poem and many others of a similar nature.

Rimbaud, like me, was a restless soul who travelled on three continents. I, too, had a restless quality especially in my young adulthood. I travelled extensively on two continents from my 20s to my 50s; in later life, after taking an early retirement at the age of 55, I travelled briefly in Europe and the Middle East. I had bohemian and libertine tendencies in my late teens and early 20s, but they were nothing like those of this French poet whose tendencies continued to a wide range of excesses; he died before he was 40. My tendencies to excess were largely curtailed, muted, conventionalised, by my two marriages, my career in the teaching profession, medications for my mental health problems, and my religious proclivities by sensible and insensible degrees over several decades.

Rimbaud’s mother was authoritarian and controlling. He ran away from her as soon as he could. My mother, on the other hand, was kind and understanding; indeed, she was a liberating and encouraging force in my life. Still, as I look back to my early 20s, it seemed that I had to break the umbilical cord, and it was not easy. My publishing life was just beginning in my late 30s as Rimbaud was heading into a hole for those who speak no more, as that prolific Iranian figure, the Bab, put it so succinctly.

Part 3:

Rimbaud’s poetic philosophy had several facets quite unlike my approach to poetry. “The idea,” he stated, “is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.” Any derangement of my senses, which was the result of my bipolar disorder, was not something I wanted to replicate and encourage and, by the age of 24, I began a lifetime of medications that kept my sensory experience in the bounds of normality.

“Being a real poet involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet,” so wrote Rimbaud. “I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer,” he continued; “the poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. To be a seer he also must experience every form of love, of suffering, and of madness. The poet must search himself, consume all the poisons in him, and keep only their quintessence. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed, and the great learned one, among men.”

Part 3.1:

"Only then will be he arrive at the unknown because he has cultivated his own soul, which was rich to begin with, more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed."2-Ron Price with thanks to 2Wikipedia, 21/12/'14.

Part 4:

I can go with you, Arthur,
on some of your ideas, but
my approach to unknowns
in life has taken a different
course with senses firmly in
tact, and not at all deranged.
I, too, will die charging into
and through my visions and
all those named & unnamed
things…And, yes, Arthur…
there is a madness in it all,
but the world knows much
more about madness now.

I have had to deal with the
poisons you mention, but
now I only keep a little of
their quintessence as I go
into the evening of my life.

Ron Price