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.

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