What you will find below is my first attempt at explaining what it is that makes the kind of male virtue projected by Roger Sterling and Don Draper on Mad Men work. I am not very happy with this essay yet and normally wouldn't have posted it in this state. I will be updating and, I hope, improving, it as the weeks go along.
I love unintended consequences and got a very significant personal dose of it with the series The Singing Detective. I think I completely missed the point that series creator Dennis Potter was trying to make. I say "I think" I missed the point because who knows what the point was supposed to be; I don't think even Potter himself was entirely sure.
It was watching that series that I came to admire a certain kind of style and adopt it as my own. You could call this style a sort of romanticism but I don't want to do that for reasons that are partly impetuous rather than carefully reasoned through. I grew up in an era that admired coolness above all else and I associate this style with liberation from coolness. That is why I call it studiously uncool.
I think "cool" is what Frege would have called a disease in thought. As coolness spread to all aspects of modern life, some people started to react to it and carved out a new way of living.
In any case, The Singing Detective bounced back and forth between this self-pitying jerk named Phillip E. Marlow in a hospital bed and his imaginings of a secret world of 1930s era detective fiction. Every time we moved from the tawdry, style-less world of the hospitalized writer's real life to what he imagined, the screen came alive. Every time we left that world for what were presented as his actual memories of his childhood, the magic of the series died.
The whole thing was dressed in a pseudo-Freudian ethic of repressed or suppressed memories. There was some suggestion that there was some connection between the protagonist's inability to face the truth and his illness. Except Potter didn't mean it. Even guys like Potter knew by 1986 that Freud was Fraud. But the form was irresistible to him. As was the form of the detective story. And so we got two parallel stories full of clues and mystery but no solutions.
This is the kind of thing that inspires some critics to praise about bravely exploring the boundaries between truth and reality. As opposed to producing a shapeless mess with no moral or narrative purpose or direction.
The series was highly watchable, however, because if its style. That is, because of its style whenever it got out of that dingy hospital. And that was what triumphed.
It wasn't just this one series. Back in 1979, Lawrence Kasdan produced his first and only great movie, a tribute to film noir called Body Heat. Critics were underwhelmed but film goers got the point immediately. There was something about that noir style that was not just attractive but right. Morally right. Potter was both captivated by this style and scared of its moral implications. He was like a non-believer who can't help liking Gospel music but wishes to somehow make it clear that he doesn't believe.
And that is what coolness means.
Anyway, as I say, I missed the point. The thing I saw was the exact opposite. I saw a faith in something that refused to die no matter how much the cool people mocked it.
It's a funny style in that it doesn't belong to any particular era and it doesn't have a name. It probably started in the 19th century. It was a style that belonged to outsiders and often had to hide itself as something else. I think it began with Mr. Interlocutor. If you have never heard of him, he was the guys who sat in the centre at a Minstrel show and whose chief purpose was to be the butt of jokes made by Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, known as the end men. The guys who played Mr. Interlocutor existed to be mocked and yet somehow managed to maintain a certain dignity. They didn't seek coolness, they sought distinction.
I think that because their characters—their roles—required them to keep trying no matter how cruelly mocked, these characters sometimes achieved something new. Maybe it all happened by accident the first time but it happened and, before long, some people decided to try and reach that state on purpose.
Whether we like it much or not, those characters were the first ones to hint at a new definition of class. A class defined not by birth or wealth but by style Yes, the intention of the Minstrel show was to mock such pretension but it didn't always work even then. There was some admirable about those characters and some people picked up on it.
The person who picked up on it more than anyone else was Bing Crosby. His screen persona is Mr. Interlocutor taken out of the blackface context of the Minstrel show. He remains detached and uses his own mixture of made-up and real and refined manners and language. It's a slightly goofy but vulnerable persona.
It was a popular style with black performers but, unfortunately, the white audience had little interest in it except in white performers. Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Thelonius Monk all adopted the persona. It also showed up in the short stories and novels of Dashiell Hammett and was refined further by Raymond Chandler. William Powell brought it to the big screen.
Bogart and then Sinatra adopted a similar approach but with more overt sexuality than we saw before.
Women can do it. Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell did it convincingly and so did Jean Arthur.
Regardless of who was doing it, it was, above all, a moral style.
That moral aspect was important. It was very different from being cool. Cool is a style that avoids morality. Cool is the style of those who seek to avoid being held to a moral standard. Like Saul Alinsky, Cool seeks to use morality to undermine its opponents by holding their morality against them but has no desire to be held to any moral standard itself. Cool is moralistic but any time you try and pin cool down on some moral issue, cool will make it clear to you that it was only joking.
The style that I am talking about sought to replace the repressive morality that it opposed with a new. better virtue of its own. It didn't sneer at all rules but it didn't like rules that defined and pigeonholed people. It was a style that developed by those that the rules would exclude and it said, as it had to say, that the person I have made of myself is more important than the rules that others use to define me.
One of the chief characteristics of this style was role-playing. That is part of the Minstrel-show heritage. Nowadays, we focus exclusively on the negative racial stereotypes of Minstrel show. We are quite right to focus on them but we shouldn't focus on them exclusively. (And we shouldn't forget that there were similar roles mocking other groups such as Irish people and rural Protestants. The oppression of blacks exceeds all other racial and ethnic oppression but it wasn't that different in its methods. The difference was, as the old Schoolmen would have it, one of degree rather than kind.)
But one of the really important aspects of the Minstrel show is that it brought role-playing to American life. Dressing up to play caricatures was a kind of liberation. It offered people the chance to be something other than what their birth and the culture they were passed along gave them. Today, people tend to be proud of their ethnic heritage. For my parents generation (and they were about five years younger than Don and Betty Draper), there was nothing more important than shedding their ethnic accents and identities.
The second important characteristic of this style may seem contradictory for it is sincerity (there is nothing less cool than sincerity). It seems a little less contradictory if we look at it closely. For starters, playing any role requires sincerity to be convincing. More than that, however, these people don't just don roles as masks, they really want to be the role. That was what made Bing Crosby. He did not play himself, he played the guy he wanted to become.
Sincerity is a tricky issue. Lionel Trilling famously wrote a book attacking sincerity and suggesting that authenticity is the greater virtue. And we see the contradictions in Don Draper who usually sincerely means what he says. When he says it that is. There will probably be more to say here as I go along. For now, I'll just note that, whatever sincerity's drawbacks, authenticity is worse as we see below:
I think the creators of Mad Men have repeated the mistake of the creators of The Singing Detective inadvertently helped remind us just how attractive the studiously uncool style is. Over the next few weeks I'm going to try and define that style by blogging my way through Mad Men episode by episode starting with the pilot. The first episode comes later today.
The next entry in this series is here.