Friday, February 15, 2008

dead poets society and the congo

or, what I might use to start my next chapter, w/o the blog-specific colloquialisms.

Anyone remember this scene in Dead Poets Society? Robert Sean Leonard et al. have formed a secret poetry club that meets in the middle of the night in a cave in the woods. They paint themselves with mud (or paint?) and sit around a fire declaiming dramatically. They have cast off the jackets and ties of prep school repression, show their skin, mess their hair, and experiment with drums. Soon they are dancing through the woods to a pounding drumbeat, reciting a verse that until a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to identify:

THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.*

The chant starts almost at a whisper, and crescendoes until the boys are screaming into the air and wildly waving.

Those two lines, of course, are from Vachel Lindsay's poem "The Congo," now held up as an example of the white primitivism of the 1920's, when white authors fell in love with Harlem and purportedly African rhythms. The effect the poem has on the Dead Poets Society boys is, however, completely divorced from race on the surface. Nothing else in the movie (that I recall) turns to Africans or African-Americans as representatives of authentic rhythmic feeling, capable of reconnecting soulless prep school boys with their bodies and souls. The mere reference to the Congo (exotic, mysterious, Other) in combination with the poem's admittedly catchy rhythms (I've heard pop songs with exactly the same beat) drives the boys wild.

And I don't think the movie is wrong. Why and how is probably what my chapter will be about, although without prominently featuring Vachel Lindsay.

*You can find the rest of the poem here.

5 comments:

Sisyphus said...

First, I hate DPS with a passion.

Second, weren't there more allusions to jazz and the beats and their recuperation of race/primitivism than to the Lindsay? (someone plays a tenor sax, there's parallels with Howl, etc.)?

Third, I haven't re-watched this in years, but the paint has to be lipstick. Esp. with the bringing the girls out to listen to them all declaim the poetry.

That is all.

kermitthefrog said...

Re 1: used to love it, now hate it in the way that means I still am taken in by it.

Re 2: if so, that's pretty interesting. Guess I need to watch it again. Huh. I had forgotten about the whole Beat aspect.

Re 3: lipstick! you're totally right. And there have got to be so many weird things going on in that movie about performing gender (besides the whole Ethan-Hawke-is-a-fairy joke, of course).

jane dark said...

I keep thinking about this. I saw DPS secretly when it came out, and it terrified the hell out of me, because the message that I took from it, not surprisingly, was not so much Williams' inspirational teaching, but the idea that in some situations, you were just stuck, with no exit.

I've been fiddling with this comment, trying to articulate something about the divorce or disconnect that I think you're referring to, but I'm failing. Maybe because I'm looking at it too personally, from the standpoint of experiences I've had in the transition from ultra-sheltered to ultra-liberal. I used to think that pondering all the weird instances of misinformation, of learning the right thing from the wrong object, was simply narcissistic.

Well, I do still think it's narcissistic, which is why I'm about to shut up. But the theory that I've encountered over the last few years, about the transmission of ideas through wildly differing socioeconomic strata, has made me think that there's something really significant in the sort of inspiration that you're seeing in DPS -- and that it does happen, even if DPS proves to have other references to primitivism.

I wish I had better examples to offer; but I guess, in short, I'm very curious to see what you come up with.

kermitthefrog said...

I think there's a lot in DPS that encourages what you're calling a narcissistic response and what might just be a personal one. That's part of what I'm curious about: how it and other works elicit such personal responses (although that makes it sound like I'm working on response theory or something, which I'm not; obviously I've just started thinking about this chapter!). In short, if it's narcissistic, I think it's well-justifiedly so.

jane dark said...

Oh, yes, in fact I think that Blake argues directly that his goal is that sort of intensely personal response (though I'm not trying to talk about response theory any more than you are) -- and what he's articulating throughout his work is where the boundary between that intensely personal response and narcissism lies. Or how we can avoid it, and alternately, how we fall into it and recover.

(I suppose I could use "subjective" instead of "intensely personal," but I don't want to, partly because Blake rejected that binary so furiously, and partly because I have my own reasons for thinking it problematic.)

Anyway, my point is that I think that your subject is not only interesting, but important to think about.