Sunday, August 22, 2010

The significance of the title?

NB: The post below has been updated to reflect me changing my mind about something.

The title of tonight's upcoming Mad Men episode is the Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The reference is to this book.

It's a fascinating choice and I'll be interested to see what, if anything, it has to do with the action on screen tonight. I say, "if anything" because Weiner has come up with titles that applied retrospectively in the past. "The Mountain King" told us more about what had happened in the previous episode than the next one and was the set up for a discussion about guilt and judgment.

What might the title The Chrysanthemum and the Sword be hinting at here? I can think of two possibilities beginning with my favourite and going down from there:

1. The most enduring impact of Benedict's book has been the contrast between shame and honour cultures like pre-war Japan and guilt and innocence cultures that exists in most western nations. In a shame-honour culture you are motivated primarily by what others think of you. In a guilt-innocence culture you are motivated by fear of the consequences of your sins whether they are known or not.(There is some interesting detail here, the two colour charts are particularly interesting.)

The two are not exclusive. There will always be some shame-honour aspects to any human society.  Anyone who has spent in high school will have an instinctive grasp of how easily our society could lapse into a shame-honour culture. And we are all familiar with the way that people who have a lot of honour confered on them—think politicians and celebrities—tend to think that they can do whatever they want so long as they don't get caught.

An aside, you might think that Jesus would be an all guilt innocence guy but a careful reading of the gospels reveals him to be very much a shame and honour guy too. The crucial differences being 1) that Jesus says that honour with God, who sees all, is more important than honour within our society and 2) that our sins can be forgiven. Both these ideas are, of course, already present in Judaic religion and are recurring themes in Mad Men.

And what do I think that might have to do with episode 5? One thing about Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, although both born into guilt-innocence sub-cultures, is that they have become more shame-honour under Don's influence. The key shift for Peggy was season 2. Pet's shift came at the end oflast Season and is continuing under our noses this year.

Why does all this matter? Because one of the most important values in a shame-honour culture is privacy. Here is how John Pilch puts it in discussing the shame-honour culture of the the Mediterranean:
Life is lived out in the open, in the public eye, and privacy is practically nonexistent (see Luke 4: 42). It would be impossible to live in such a world if one could not keep at least part of one's personal life hidden from others.
This is where secrecy, deception, and lying come into play.... Deception and lies are stratagems regularly used to keep information from others (see John7: 1-10).
This, of course, is the value system that Don has brought with him and that Peggy and Pete have bought into to some extent under his influence. Where do they go now that it seems to be crumbling.

2. The huge impact of the Benedict book was that it convinced FDR that the emperor would have to be an important part of a demilitarized Japan. The Chrysanthemum, of course, is a symbol closely associated with the emperor and Japanese culture is closely associated with Bertram Cooper. The teaser for tonight's episode says. "Don and Pete go against Roger in efforts to get a new account." Perhaps the title is hinting at the ongoing importance of Bert Cooper even though he has seemingly little to do.

PS: Say whatever you want in the comments. I won't see the episode until tomorrow AM but I can resist looking until then.


  1. I'm very impressed with--and appreciate--all the research you've done on this. This is very interesting, and I've learned something here that has relevance to the work I do, or at least provides some historical context. I'm referring to the distinction we draw in my line of work between "shame" and "guilt." The person who feels shame thinks "I am a bad person" while the person who feels guilt thinks "I did a bad thing." You can see the difference, shame closes the door on change or redemption because if I am intrinsically bad there is nothing I can do to change that, so in Japanese culture hira kari was the only option. In our society the person who feels shame believes that more self-destructive behaviors is the only option that makes any sense. Guilt, on the other hand, acknowledges that while a person might have done a bad thing, that deed doesn't define who they are and allows for the possibility of change and redemption. As you point out, that really is a Christian concept. Your quotation from Pilch is also particularly relevant here because I think as we've evolved to appreciate the value of privacy, the result has kind of rendered the "honour" aspect associated with shame moot, and I think that's a good thing.

    I agree with your speculations on how this might apply to tonight's episode. Also, is Ruth Benedict's book a precursor of Dr. Faye Miller? I agree that Peggy and Pete have bought into Don's system of secrecy, lies, and deception. I think the clue to where it might go could lie in the scene toward the end of last week's episode, where Peggy is with the younger set waiting for the elevator, while Pete is waiting with the older "suits" on the other side of the glass doors, and for a brief second their eyes meet. Peggy seems to be branching out on her own with the avant garde set, while Pete is still waiting for Don to give him his marching orders. I think the answer to where they go has a lot to do with where Don goes.

  2. I can't figure out what you updated or changed your mind about, but in any case "Jesus says that honour with God, who sees all, is more important than honour within our society." That's absolutely true, but I think that's different than the type of "shame/honour" that Benedict is talking about in reference to Japanese culture. As I understand it, that's very much a worldly thing, like a Sicilian "honor" killing where a guy kills another guy because he slept with his wife. What Jesus is talking about is honour in God's eyes rather than society and I think the difference between that and the way its used by Benedict is an important distinction. Also, Jesus doesn't shame people--well maybe the money-changers--but I don't recall him saying "you are a bad person."

  3. What I changed my mind about was Peggy. I originally had her more committed to a guilt-innocence world view but then it hit me that she started out that way but has shifted considerably under Don's influence.

    It seemed to me, as a consequence, that the episode might have been intended to contrast shame and guilt. I can't tell you how glad I am I changed that after seeing the new episode this morning.

    Jesus never pre-emptively shames anyone but the Bible is full of stories where others try to shame him and he shames them. Consider the case of whether it is right to pay taxes to the emperor. That is an attempt to shame Jesus by putting him in a no-win situation.

    It's no win because both possible answers are wrong. If he says yes, he is approving paying tribute to someone who claims to be a god and the devout Jews will be upset. If he says no, the Romans will arrest him.

    Jesus turns around and shames his questioners on two levels. First, by asking for the coin he reminds them that they are hypocrites because they use Roman money and couldn't really not do so. And remember that he does this publicly. These conflicts draw spectators not unlike the way everyone screams "Fight! Fight!" in grade school.

    Anyway, Jesus publicly shames his questioners by asking for the coin (note that he does not reach into his purse and pull one out). It's as if to say, if you are so opposed to idolatry, how come you are carrying this coin with a graven image of a false god on it?

    Second, he shames them by playing the game with greater virtuosity. Jesus handles the question with such virtuosity that he shames his opponents and brings honour upon himself. There are quite literally dozens of other examples in the Gospels.

    Jesus is very much a shame-honour guy.

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