Tuesday, May 26, 2015

F. Scott Fitzgerald on nice-guy syndrome

There is a recurring secret subtext of same-sex love running through the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the more interesting cases is the story of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. Ostensibly a woman, Jordan can easily be read as a man, too easily for it to be an accident.

There is a lot that could be said about that subject but I want to focus on one passage from the last pages of chapter 3 that interests me because Fitzgerald describes a moral in Jordan that corresponds to nice guy syndrome.
 Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.
That last phrase is an esoteric reference to sex. If Jordan is really a man disguised as a woman, and I'm not alone in suspecting this, we have a fairly classic example of nice guy syndrome. Fearful that some hidden weakness (in this case, being a closeted gay man) will cause us to be shamed and rejected instead of loved, we develop a habit of lying to everyone.

This is just as true for heterosexuals like me as it is for closeted gay men. Nice guy syndrome isn't something new; it has been around for a long time, probably for as long as there have been men.

PS: Our narrator Nick immediately goes on to reveal that he has been less than honest in his dealing with someone back home and then says this,
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.
Whatever The Great Gatsby is about, it isn't about anything that your high school English teacher told you it was about.

Friday, May 22, 2015


The people at Salon aren't quite as dumb as they look.
It’s not often that a Texas-reared conservative and a liberal-seeming Hollywood showrunner concur on something, but this week revealed a strange conjunction: Both Jeb Bush and Matthew Weiner don’t want you to think for yourself.
Now, that is perceptive but exactly backwards: it's the people at Salon who don't want you to think for yourself. Don't believe me? Read it for a week. It's all about maintaining orthodoxy in the face of whatever threats might prop up. And that is what makes their take on the the Mad Men finale so interesting; they think it's a threat to liberal orthodoxy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mad Men Finale: the last word

In a long-ago television show called Yes, Minister a politician asks a public servant for advice on how to undermine someone he doesn't want to appoint to a position. The public servant, Humphrey, advises him to begin by praising the person. When the politician is puzzled by this, Humphrey adds, "It is necessary to get behind someone in order to stab them in the back."

What Mad Men did was to get behind the sixties idealists in order to stab them in the back. It told a story of the 1960s that appeared to support what boomers believed and what boomer parents taught their millennial offspring to believe but kept failing to quite come through for that vision. The end result is that it is now no longer to believe the sixties mythology. What's wrong with peace, love and understanding? Well, quite a few things actually. For starters, it's just empty piety.

One of the best ways avoid upsetting  people who demand that you adhere to conventional pieties of your era is to get behind them and then disappoint them. You come out with an argument defending some ruling piety and then, well, you heart is in the right place but your argument isn't as good as might have been. It looks like it's not your fault. Maybe you made a bad argument. Maybe you got a few facts wrong. Maybe you went so far overboard in your praise as to undermine the very cause you appear to be supporting. People will be disappointed but they won't be able to accuse you of actually fighting for the other side.

In that regard, it's staggering how many people loved but simultaneously felt disappointed by Mad Men because it didn't do as good a job of promoting their pet causes as they expected it to do. And this was particularly evident after the finale.

Matt Zoller Seitz thinks the message is good but has to acknowledge that it was somewhat undercut by being too sentimental:
I’ve been reading descriptions of Mad Men’s last few minutes — a meditation followed by a Coke ad — as “cynical,” confirmation that all Don really learned in season seven, and at the retreat in particular, was how to hug and get his job back. 
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I think the optimism is sincere, bordering on maudlin. The whole episode fits that description. The Coke ad — a Madison Avenue incantation insisting that the momentary happiness of soda is the Real Thing — undercuts this a bit, because it’s ironic and funny, and consistent with the rest of Mad Men.
Yeah, and you can, as Zoller Seitz goes on to do, just slide right by that and not let it bother you.

Allan Sepinwall is one of many people to notice that the Peggy-Stan romantic scene was unconvincing:
Peggy and Stan's phone call was about as sappy and wish-fullfillment-y as "Mad Men" has ever gotten, yet if there was one character I wanted nothing but good things for at the end, it was Peggy.
But he really, really, really wants to believe so he will. Good thing to as he finds everything else about the show very cynical.

Ed Driscoll loved the show and watched every minute of it but was disappointed that it didn't do more:
Mad Men could have been the perfect show to comment on what drove the fast-paced radical change of the 1960s, just as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street explored the financial industry of the 1980s, but instead, producer / creator /primary writer Matthew Weiner was far more interested in the interpersonal relationship of his characters rather than social commentary.
He also wishes there had been more of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the JFK assassination and Vietnam. Well, the show at least name checks all of those. But that's all it does. A Beatles song is almost played but then Don gets up and pulls the needle up of the Beatles record, clearly bored out his gourd by it and everyone is disappointed that he didn't like it more.

John Swansberg thinks it was all a little too neat:
Then along comes the finale, a 75-minute exercise in bow tying. Mad Men has rarely been sentimental, even when it comes to its heroes, but last night everyone got their exciting new job, their longed-for loved one, or, in the case of Pete, both. I don’t mean to suggest that I wished ill on any of these characters, not even Pete. But I preferred the sense of possibility, and precariousness, that each character brought into this episode to the sense of dreams delivered with which they left it.
Well, he's absolutely right about that (except Betty, of course, ba ha ha ha ha ...). It was all too neat. And he's just smart enough to realize that he goes, as he puts it, from "too saccharine" to "too bitter":
As you noted, Hanna, if we believe Don is the author of the Coke ad, that would suggest that he’s taken the idealism of the ’60s—represented here by the coastal retreat, a hippie-enclave cut off from society (the poor transportation options literally a function of Charles Manson’s end-of-an-era violence)—and turned it into a jingle to sell a soft drink.
Well, that would be horrible wouldn't it? But we can rest assured that the man who created the series would never do this because he really believes in the idealism of the 1960s as demonstrated by the following quote:
All of that leads to the era Weiner witnessed as the child of a liberal father in the 1980s, by which time the activists of the ’60s had flipped and become the “greediest—can I say mother****ers in The Atlantic?” When he talks about individual characters, Weiner is a gentle creator, reserving judgment about their sins. But when he talks about society at large, he is a god of vengeance, and doesn’t hesitate to condemn. “I was 18 years old, watching the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites, is what it was. And at the same time, they were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, they had no responsibilities, they really believed in stuff, they were super-individuals. Then along comes this incredibly repressive, selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”
Oh my! What a surprise, Matt Weiner feels very bitter about the sixties idealists. He believes not that sixties idealists were subverted but that they themselves went bad. But all those who believe in 1960s idealism can get a good night's sleep because they still think Mad Men is a show about how bad other people were back then and how the sixties idealists saved the day well, until Carter came along and screwed the pooch or Reagan stole the presidency or whatever your favourite explanation of how it all went wrong is.

Hanna Roisin thinks the treatment of women's issues on the show is just wonderful except for one niggling doubt,
Jessica Winter wrote last week that the great subject of Mad Men was not masculine self-reinvention but women in the workplace. I agree that Matt Weiner took this on as a central and recurring theme but I also think, in this finale and elsewhere, it was somewhat dutifully executed.
Well, yes, he does rather just go through the motions and give us storylines right out of a how-to-teach-feminism-in-middle-school manual. But his heart is in the right place so all we can do is wish the show had done a little better.

Julia Turner got everything she wanted but, as so often happens, wasn't happy with it once she had it.
The finale was kind to Don, and kind-hearted generally. Watching Matthew Weiner dole out so much redemption, hope, and love, after all his years convincing us that people are bitter, cruel and self-defeating, that they can never escape their own foibles and sins—well, it was what I said I wanted before the season began. In practice, it felt a little weird.
Theirs, by the way, is the best analysis you'll find anywhere but right here this week.

You get a powerful foreshadowing of where they are going in the word "unlikeliest" in that final sentence. And they're right: the morality and logic of this Esalen-like place where Don and Stephanie go is beyond dubious. The whole sequence there is meant to signal the shift of sixties idealism to vapid self interest that so angers Matt Weiner.

The biggest hint of this is the moral reversal we see in Stephanie. How do you feel about her dutifully accepting the shame the woman in the blue denim overall dress (a singularly ugly fashion choice that could only have come in the 1970s) lays on her? When Don confronts her she says, "It's true. You think I don't want to hear the truth?" And she says to Don of his proposed solution, that she can "put this behind you as you move forward", "Oh Dick, I don't think you're right about that." And then she runs away making further dialogue between them impossible. Okay, you can agree with Stephanie or not but, either way, another question should hit you in the face: What about Peggy?
No one should have to be able to make a mistake, just like a man does, and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does. 
The whole discussion between Stan and Peggy in the Time & Life episode goes the exact opposite direction.
I don't know but it's not because I don't care. I don't know because you're not supposed to know; or you can't go on with your life.
You can't square Stephanie's decision with that. She doesn't choose to go back to her son because it's what she really wants to do. She chooses to go back because a woman in an encounter group shamed her into it. And, as Tom & Lorenzo rightfully point out, if you want to believe that Don achieves inner peace in that final scene, you have to believe that he did it thanks to that poisoned apple morality.

Matt Weiner (assuming he's not a closet conservative) sees the 1970s as a cultural tragedy resulting in the Reagan presidency.  His intention was always to be cynical. The final point of the show is not that Don actually wrote the Coke ad but that this was exactly where this kind of morality would lead. The show has come full circle: in exactly the same way that Don realizes that the regulations governing tobacco ads have inadvertently created a situation where advertisers can now say anything they want, he now realizes that the 1960s idealists have created the same opportunity for cynical exploitation. That is what all this abolition of the word "should" (with the powerful exception that other people should love you evoked by Leonard) and all this emphasis on what you feel instead of what you believe has done. Put that narcissistic selfishness together with fact-free feeling and you have a great ad for Coca Cola. (PS: Watch the ad again and notice how only white women get closeups while other races are used for background "colour", then come back and tell me how it's a step forward.)

 When the show debuted, we were in the early days of the Obama presidency and Obama had explicitly stated that his goal was to reverse the Reagan revolution so Weiner probably started off feeling less cynical than he does now because he, like so many others, thought that something like sixties idealism was coming back. No one, progressive or conservative, can be so foolish as to imagine that now.

But whatever Weiner believes it is not that the 1960s was subverted by cynical ad men like Don Draper. He believes that some disease infected the idealists and that they went wrong. There is a powerful metaphorical hint of that this episode when Joan switches the TV from a report on the then-exploding gonorrhoea rates when she and Roger enter her apartment. That and Joan and her boyfriend experimenting with cocaine are powerful foreshadowings of all that was about to go wrong. And it did go very, very wrong. You can believe that Reagan saved the day or you can believe that he was the ultimate symptom of the decline but, either way, the people who made it go wrong were the sixties idealists and that is the deepest message Mad Men has for us.

Okay, you may say, but how is that this esoteric message is going to have any effect if it's so well hidden that all the critics I cite above, all of them very smart people, missed it? Think of how this show has changed the way the 1960s are represented. Think of the typical PBS documentary—the kind they used to show at fund-raising time to get all those aging boomers to donate—and how differently it told the story. THose documentaries always went from smug, complacent 1950s squares to the Beatles, to civil rights struggles and victories, to Woodstock to anti-Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. Thanks to Mad Men it's no longer possible to tell the story of the 1960s that way anymore.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: Some thoughts on esoterica and the triumph of Don Draper

It's not easy to accept the idea of esoteric writing mostly because it seems too exotic and life is mostly not exotic. You know weird, exotic things exist but you also know that most things and, not incidentally, most people are exactly what they appear to be.

My job in this post is to convince you that esoterica is an ordinary, everyday thing that lives right on the surface; that it is something hidden in plain sight.

Esoterica seems like it must been something hidden deep inside because, when you hear the suggestion, you imagine something completely weird like a child's letter that is actually a code created by a spy to smuggle secrets out of the country, or it's full of Masonic rites, or it's got some weird sexual message, or it's really about drugs. And the problem with that sort of esoterica is not that we don't think it could exist but that it's not psychologically interesting. If it should turn out that "Puff the Magic Dragon" is really about drugs it would be a less interesting song than the one about a little boy and his imaginary friend.

Most esoterica is both commonplace and interesting. It's so commonplace that I'm willing to bet that you do it. Here's how: suppose that someone you cannot afford to offend expresses an outlandish opinion. Your boss, your new girlfriend's best friend, or just someone whose co-operation you need to achieve something important tells you what their favourite book, movie, song is. Or they tell who their favourite Mad Men character is. And the choice is crazy. Keeping an open mind, you let them explain their reasons for this bizarre preference. Unfortunately, their reasons are not only just as crazy as their preference, they are morally offensive. But you cannot afford to offend this person right now. So you say, "That's an interesting choice." Or something like that. You mean that it is interesting in the sense that it is interesting that anyone could be so stupid but you leave the explanation of what is interesting out of your comment.

You've done that.

Here is a further wrinkle. In addition to this person you don't want to offend, there is also someone you'd like to get to know better in the room. You don't want them to conclude that you actually approve of this crazy and offensive nonsense. But you cannot say anything openly. The best you can do is to leave enough of an opening (for example, by stressing the word "interesting" such that it might be interpreted as ironic) that the person you really like might approach you later and ask you to explain further.

Congratulations. you've planted an esoteric message.

A curiosity from the finale

It's a bit different with a written text or a TV show. It might be set up so as to inspire you to ask a next question but it can't answer it. And neither can its creator because that would give the game away.

Here's a little curiosity from the Mad Men finale. At the beginning, we see Don driving a souped up car, a 1968 Chevelle Super Sport, across the Bonneville salt flats. We have no context and everything—the setting, the other characters, what he is doing—is new and strange. When he turns the car off and gets out, the Doors 1968 hit "Hello, I Love You" is playing. Why is it there?

First issue: it's a two-year-old pop song at that point. It would not have been in high rotation on Top 40 radio so it's not there just to provide the right atmosphere for late fall 1970. It might be there just because the music director likes the song but it may be there for other reasons. Here are some facts about the singer and the song:

  1. The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison was an iconic 1960s figure who rejected his parents belief system completely, lived poor and nomadic, was creative, was something of a con man, reinvented himself and became rich, and had a drinking problem. He would also die within a year.
  2. The relationship between the two young men who own the muscle car and Don is not unlike the relationship between Morrison and the band. The band needed him because he was their ticket to fame just as Don is the guy who can fund the muscle car builder's dreams. At the time that "Hello, I Love You" was recorded, Morrison's drunkenness was getting to be more and more of a problem just as Don's is here.
  3. The album the song is found on is called Waiting for the Sun.

That last is probably the least interesting detail at first glance.

But let me remind you how the episode ends. Don hugs Leonard and cries with him. Then we get a montage of all the people who've been most important in the life of Don Draper moving on without him. Then we get a shot of Don standing on the edge of the cliff watching the sun go down. And then it's morning and we get a voiceover. Here is what it says:
Mother sun, we greet you and are thankful for the sweetness of the earth. The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led. The lives we've yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.
Uh uh. I know what you're thinking. "Is it just a bizarre coincidence that the episode started with a song from an album called Waiting for the Sun by a band from California ended in California and, well, here is the sun being greeted?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost myself. But this is a show where every detail is planned carefully, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Lucky? Yes because the thing with an esoteric reading is that you can never be sure. You interpret and you decide and, whatever you decide, you have nothing to go on from now on but your own authority and that only foundation for that authority is your ability to think for yourself.

What is a man?

If you were to peel off everything that you have draped about yourself, would you be left with the pure hard truth? Or would it be like peeling an onion, meaning that when you peeled off all the layers you'd have nothing at all? 

For weeks now Don has been becoming a Dick again. He's peeled off layers. In this final episode he's been "Dick" ever since he knocked on Stephanie's door at the eighteen minute mark and she greeted him by that name. 

Dick is the guy, the first man, who walks across the room and hugs Leonard. And he cries. Real tears I think. There is nothing at all that would entitle us to assume he is acting, that he is just faking it. The hug is followed by a montage of the people most important to Don's life. A lot of people have made something of his gradually shedding all the material trappings of Don Draper the last few episodes but this montage is much more serious. All of these people are moving on without him. He's been stripped down so that he has nothing but himself. Even Stephanie has left him.

But what is that self? When know who. What he is we don't know.

A lot of people want that self to be Dick Whitman. They want Don to reconcile himself with what they believe to be his true, authentic, inner self and that inner self is a Dick.

In his conversation with Peggy he makes a confession. He also made a confession last episode.

A brief digression. The letter Betty writes to Sally with her last wishes is date October 3, 1970. In the this episode, Don tells Sally about the Blue Flame breaking the land speed record in Bonneville. That was October 23, 1970. Yom Kippur was on October 10 in 1970, right between the two episodes. Weiner has used this trick before. In the period in between the 10th and 23rd of that year was Sukkot, or the festival of booths/tabernacles.

Anyway, here's the confession from this episode:
I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it.
The first two are very serious sins. The last just isn't true and Peggy says so. What's more, it is obviously not true because it is simple, objective fact that he has made something of the name and has made more of it than the original Don Draper would have.

So, here's the question: What is really more important: the Dick inside or the draping? Feel lucky punk?

Here is another thing that probably isn't a coincidence: the one thing Don can't get rid of is Anna's wedding ring. It's an outward sign of the acts that made him Don Draper, he really divorces Anna to marry Betty but he never married Anna. A man is what he does and he is not some mysterious kernel of authenticity at his core. The man this show has been about, our hero, is Don Draper and he is very much a man and our era, unlike his,  does not celebrate manliness so his story had to be told esoterically. The show made regular obeisance to the modern anti-male pieties but there was a hidden message for anyone who wanted to see it.

It doesn't matter, by the way whether he actually writes the Coke commercial or whether he is merely given a vision of the future as he sits there. What matters is that the man he really is, is Don Draper. A flawed man but a very impressive, manly man for all that. He's something to be not someone to hate and despise as so many do.

Why does Dick cry real tears at Leonard? Because Leonard is a dick too. He's a pathetic nothing of a man; he is a prime example of the nice guy who thinks that other people should love him but is willing to let some hippy dippy fraud of a  therapist talk him into believing that he himself should eliminate all use of the word "should" to describe any moral obligations that might apply to himself. Others should love him and he shouldn't have to do anything to earn that love. That's 100%, high grade narcissism. Sniff that up your nose and you'll be messed up but good.

And Leonard is messed up. He's a pathetic, crying little boy in a man's body. Don cries because, in that scene, he grasps that his inner Dick has to die. It's not easy letting go of that whiny little boy inside.
The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led The lives we've yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.
Person to person was a kind of phone call but it might also mean a kind of transition. You know the person you are and you know the person you could be. Morally speaking, what you are is more important than who you are. Over to you now.

(Tomorrow, I'll present some exterior evidence for this esoterica.) 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale: The tale of the three shoulds

"You don't know what happens to people when they believe in things."

And then Stephanie disregards Don's advice and ... what? She goes back to her baby? Are they going to let her do that? She hasn't been much of a mother. Does she think that she can screw up as completely as she has and just go back and that people—you know, people like child-protection agencies with the full force of the law behind them and relatives who don't trust Stephanie, and with good reason apparently—anyway, that these people will just say, "Gee, we're so glad you got in touch with your feelings, that's all we need to know."

By the way, the list of good mothers on Mad Men is very short isn't it?

And before you think that Don blew the chance to be a part of Stephanie's life when she was pregnant and needed someone who was family and turned to him, you may want to go back and watch that episode again because it was actually a petty and jealous Megan who slammed that door shut.

Do you think we're supposed to believe the scene where Don hugs Leonard at the consciousness-raising session in Big Sur (or whatever-that-was-supposed-to-be)? Do you think that all he needed was love?

I loved the way the transcendental meditation morphed into the Coke ad. That was the first time I smiled during the entire finale. What can that possibly mean but that it's all just another con?

I've seen this all before on the washroom wall of a bar. It said, "Everyone has to believe in something, I believe I'll have another beer ... or coke ... or ...

"You don't know what happens to people when they believe in things."

Of course you don't because you live in a world where nobody believes in anything and they're all desperately trying to reassure one another that that's okay and that's why we need a billboard to tell us that whatever we're doing it's alright. To live in a world where people don't believe in things is to live in a world where everything is just another ad for something. Where love is just a feeling. Where a happy ending is the one where you get to have a good feeling just before you die and a sad ending is an ending where you don't get that feeling. (Which is Betty's end by the way. PS: I told you so. )

Is there an esoteric message hiding in all this? You damn well better hope because otherwise, another feel-good ad linking a mixture of syrup, artificial flavouring and carbonated water with L-U-V is going to be what you believe in.

It's odd that Stephanie accuses Don of thinking that everything is a big laugh? Why would she say that? Nothing we've seen indicates that he thinks that. He seems to think it's all pretty stupid and that isn't surprising because it is. And you know, that Coke song stands up just as well as any Beatles song. If all you've got is another con, go to McCann Erickson because that way it will at least be a well-written and well-produced con.

The three shoulds? In the session where Don has his big hug moment Leonard starts his take by saying he "should" be happy and is promptly admonished for using the word. But then he turns around and says of others in his life, "They should love me". Why is that second should okay? Why should anyone love you? Just 'cause?

Go ahead and tell me and then explain how that you're not a narcissist.

And then there is Stephanie's big should—that she should go back to her child—which she takes as binding.

By the way, the woman in the session gets it wrong. Adopted boys get over their mothers completely. Daughters often seek out their mothers but not necessarily so. It's the mothers who spend their whole lives looking at the door and hoping that their child walks in. There are pretty obvious evolutionary reasons why that is so.

I told you long ago that Don Draper and his past were the MacGuffin—that he was just a plot device to move the story along. The list of good mothers on Mad Men is very short and there is nothing by-the-way about that. That's the esoteric message (and it's really there whether Matt Weiner put it there consciously or not).

Actual children of mothers, which is all of us, spend a lot of our lives wishing our mothers would just get the hell out of our lives.

How does that make you feel?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Men: A personal confession regarding Don Draper on the eve of his final appearance

According to the Mad Men Wiki, Bobby Draper and I are about the same age. He and I have another thing in common: our parents were moral nihilists of a sort.

Don seems to be overtly so. He tells Rachel Mencken,
The reason you haven’t felt love is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.
Later, he will tell a room full of beatniks,
I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.
That sounds like nihilism but I don't think it is quite. I think it's the way someone who feels like they are being driven into it but who really doesn't want to go there talks. Context always matters and Don has been through an emotional roller coaster when he says this. A real moral nihilist may get there enthusiastically or they may get there reluctantly, but they get there. There is still defiance in Don. (And Rachel's response confirms this.)

My parents got there even while denying it to themselves. They got to a point where they effectively decided that all moral beliefs are founded on the wet marshes and, therefore, moral argument doesn't matter except as a way of achieving the outcomes you want. They are far from alone in this—an era that can idolize Seinfeld and David Letterman is only possible because a lot of people have gotten themselves to the point my parents did.

The wet marshes is a Gatsby allusion in case you missed it.
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. 
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions into the human heart.
And that's not quite moral nihilism. It leaves a door open. Not very far open as Nick is concerned; a hope founded on the fear of "missing something" is not much. That is why Nick needs Gatsby and it's why we need Don Draper.

There are a lot of Gatsby references in Mad Men. My favourite is the moment in "Shoot" when Betty pulls out all her dresses from her modelling days for Francine the way Gatsby pulls out his shirts for Daisy.

And then there is Don. Don has no pedigree, no roots, no father to give him advice he might later turn over in his head. All he has is a dead drunk for a father and two prostitutes for a mother and step mother.

His life is, literally, nostalgia. That is to say that both as a fictional character appreciated by us and in his own self understanding he always turns to nostalgia as his moral foundation.
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.
Which is a sentiment not unlike,
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning... 
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
My parents, like a typical Slate writer, always dismissed nostalgia, even their own, by mindlessly using magic words like "racism" and "sexism". That is, they had a sense of having lost something really important but dismissed it any time they got up to the edge of it. 

I like Don Draper for Nick-Carraway-like reasons. He goes right up to the edge and stares into the abyss. His conduct, very clearly founded on wet marshes, stands up pretty well if you take the blinders off and compare him to his peers. I've argued many times that he doesn't have, as so many have accused him, a stolen identity. He has a stolen name, although why anyone should begrudge him that as the man is dead is beyond me. And that stolen name is the peg on which everything about him is hung. But it's just a peg. He didn't steal anything because there was nothing, except a set of dog tags, to steal.

So where does he go from here? There is a sense in which it would make perfect sense for the final episode to end with Don getting off a bus and walking into the military base where he first enlisted and turning himself in for desertion. 

Except that that would solve nothing. It would put an end on the thing but, morally speaking, it wouldn't be any more satisfactory than having him wander off down a beach somewhere and become a surfer.

I remember the jolt when I realized, about 15 years ago now, that my parents didn't really believe in anything. The discovery was triggered by my mother. She did a very cynical, manipulative thing and I caught her at it. I remember an odd sort of chill coming over me and I told myself that that cold, empty feeling was because this thing she had done was so unlike her. 

I couldn't shake it out of my head, though, and I kept returning to it month after month and, as I did, it hit me that this cynical, manipulative thing she done wasn't unlike her at all. The more I reviewed her life with me, the more obvious it was that this thing was very much like her. Her moral beliefs were like Nick's: they were all about maintaining a fixed moral frame around her. She didn't actually believe them. Not overtly, as Don does when he says the sorts of things I quoted at the top of this post but implicitly in the way she lived. It was most obvious in the way she'd take incredibly strong moral stands about matters such as sexuality only to completely forget them a few years later when she had other objectives.

I was very angry at my parents for this at first much as Sally is angry at her parents. Ultimately, I forgave them for it but I do not excuse what I forgive. I am, odd as this might seem, more willing to forgive Don because he is open about what he does. And I find his imperfect conduct, as much as this will appall many, admirable.

In this last regard, he differs from Gatsby in one very important respect. Take one word out of these famous lines about Gatsby and it would describe Don perfectly:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he was related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.
The word to take out is "unbroken". What distinguishes Don is how often his string of gestures comes to a crashing halt. And then he picks right back up again. As he tells Lane,
I've started over a lot Lane, this is the worst part.
Lane doesn't believe him because he thinks Don has always had it easy but we know better, or we should know better. 

I knew men like Don while I was growing up. One was an uncle very close to me. I don't know what his secret was but I know he had one. And I know that he, like Don, found ways to keep pulling himself up and starting again. Perhaps he could do this because he, like Don, started with nothing; he was one of ten children in a poor Irish household dominated very much by a mother with scandalous secrets of her own.

Whatever he had, and I can't put it in words, it's something people like my parents and, I suspect, Matt Weiner's parents, had already lost. Properly understood, Gatsby and Don Draper are both indictments of us not them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Men: Male types

I promised this yesterday and then ended up driving around doing errands all day long.

Anyway, the question I asked myself was, "Can I line up the three binary qualities that I applied to female characters on Wednesday and apply them to men?"

The three binary pairs were:

  1. Romantic or Realist
  2. 2nd generation feminist or 3rd generation feminist
  3. A morality based on rules and duties or a morality based on what makes you flourish

Okay, so it's obvious which one is difficult. I mean, male characters might well be concerned about treating women fairly and equitably but they aren't necessarily concerned. And, even if they are, they don't have the same visceral concern for the issue that women do.

Of course, some might question my applying the categories of second and third generation feminist to characters set in the 1960s. I might too, except that they really do fit. There are two reasons that might be. That might be because all the episodes for the show were written in the last decade and the writers unconsciously applied characteristics from contemporary women to women in the past. Or it might be that while second and third generation are contemporary categories they mask something far deeper and more permanent about the human condition; it might be that there are different ways to approach being a woman that currently manifest themselves in terms of feminism but are always there, feminism or not. I believe the second is the case.

The reasons why I believe that are complicated I won't go into in any depth here. Instead, let me suggest that, for men, the similar categories are, drawing on the distinction that anthropologist Michael Herzfeld found villagers in Crete made, 1) that one can aim to be  good man or 2) that one can aim to be good at being a man. Brett McKay has already applied this distinction to Walter White on Breaking Bad and noted that we can't help but admire White for being good at being a man no matter how much we might want to criticize him for being a bad man.

We can find the same deep rift in feminism for a second generation feminist would argue that even to suggest that it is important to be good at being a woman is sexist. A third generation feminist will soft pedal the claim that a moral woman is a woman who works at being good at being a woman but this is implicit in all third generation feminism whether acknowledged or not. At the same time, everyone knows that some women really are better at being women than their peers and we all can see the difference and they get admiration just as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper do.

McKay says there is something potentially amoral about such men:
It is possible to be good at being a man, without also being a good man. For example a mob boss has a dangerous job, supports his family, and is highly resourceful. He also whacks people on a whim. He’s not a good man, but he’s good at being a man.
McKay's point is not that being good at being a man is necessarily amoral but that it can be. I think that's right if we use "amoral" in the very specialized sense of ignoring socially accepted rules and duties as opposed to being genuinely amoral as no one would admire someone genuinely amoral.

McKay does not think the reverse is the case. I think he's wrong about that but that he is wrong for an important reason that cannot be denied. Why do I think he is wrong? I hesitate to even bring it up as it is such a hackneyed argument but, here goes, the concentration camp guard is a good man who is essentially immoral. The guard knows full well what is going on in the camp but he keeps doing his job because he is a good man. His morality is really just pragmatism and he knows it.

I know why McKay makes the the claim he does. A man who is good at being a man may or may not be a force for social good. That is what plays as amorality. But none of the dark trio of the television renaissance are amoral: they have morals they just aren't very comfortable morals for a citizen to have. A good man is always a force for social good by the standards of the society he lives in but those standards may be depraved when viewed from outside that society.

I could go a lot of places with that but I want to focus on one thing and that is that the man who seeks to be good at being a man or the woman who seeks to be good at being a woman will always be in tension with the social order they live in. They are doing what the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman empire called being a philosopher (a very different thing from most of the boring dweebs who teach philosophy at universities nowadays). Ultimately, though, I also think that the only way to be really happy (in the Aristotelean sense and not just feeling happy) is to be good at being a man or good at being a woman.

I could go on about this but I'm going to abruptly shift the discussion back to Mad Men. Earlier this week we had a discussion in the comments about why we like Pete even though "he has never lost that swarmy feel". I think the reason for this is where Pete fits on the grid. He's a romantic at heart: he aspires to a romantic life and we see this in his buying the rifle, in his wanting to be a writer, in his attempts at being a lover, in his love for Beethoven. He's also driven by a desire to flourish and to help his wife and child flourish. By the rules I established Wednesday, he should, therefore, be under pressure to embrace a rules and duties morality and this he tries to do.

But he really doesn't want to. That's the fault line of Pete's character. He goes along to get along but he chafes at his leash and collar. For example, everybody goes to brothels so Pete doesn't feel any remorse with doing it until he runs into his father-in-law at one. Also, when he discovers Don's double life he is genuinely shocked that there is no consequence of his exposing it. There could have been a consequence, of course. But what shocks Pete is that there wasn't necessarily a consequence.

Why does that shock him so? Because the way that rules and duties moralists talk themselves into accepting rules and duties that often run at cross purposes with their personal desires is by convincing themselves that, however much they might seem contradictory in the short run, ultimately they line up. This can be done in an idealist way or in a cynical way. The idealist will either argue, like Kant, that the rules can be good even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by reason or, like a modern Catholic moralist, that the rules can be ultimately beneficial even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by God. The cynic will argue that no matter how much good might come out of ignoring a rule, the punishment for being found out would be so severe as to make it not worth the trouble. Most will do a bit of both as every cynic is a disillusioned idealist at core. At that's Pete.

Pete is swarmy because he keeps following rules he hates while quietly rebelling against them in little ways that he thinks he won't get caught at. Mostly, he keeps to the rules because he thinks that if he is a good man—we might just as easily say, a nice guy—that he will be rewarded in the end no matter how uncomfortable it is for him now.

And Pete is a classic nice guy in that he feels he is a good person for following the rules but he is really doing so for base reasons. He'd never really thought through what it would be to be good at being a man until he met people like Don Draper and Bob Benson, and if that should make you think of Tyler Durden and Lester Burnham.

Don is something of the reverse case. He broke the rules to get what he wanted and he did it big time. As long as he can be Don, that's not a problem; but whenever he is faced with the risk of exposure, he runs. Don, like Tony Soprano and Walter White, lives in a way that is a threat to society but society is also a threat to him so he, like an ancient philosopher, must live esoterically never revealing his real purposes except to an inner circle of trusted collaborators.

And, let's face it, you know Pete because, most of the time, you are like him thinking that if you keep on being a nice guy you will be rewarded. And, just maybe, you might get to know Don too because once there was an opportunity to do something you really wanted to do even though it was against the rules and you did it and, once it was done, it could never be undone. It probably isn't anything as big as what Don Draper did but this transgression might give you enough of a thrill that the thought of making the jump starts to feel real to you and ... well, you should be able to figure out the rest for yourself shouldn't you. (Note, this author takes no responsibility for any consequences, good or bad, of your treating this as an advice column.)