Monday, January 18, 2010

The Madmen Dialectic

The expelled are uprooted people who attempt to uproot everything around themselves, to establish roots.  They do it spontaneously, simply because they were expelled.  It is an almost vegetable process.  Perhaps one can observe it when one tries to transplant trees.  It can happen that the expelled becomes conscious of the vegetable, almost vegetative aspect of his exile; that he uncovers that the human being is not a tree; and that perhaps human dignity consists in not having roots--that a man first becomes a human being when he hacks off the vegetable roots that bind him.
--Vilem Flusser, "Exile and Creativity," trans. Erik Eisel

A few days ago over at the Valve, Scott Eric Kaufman posted a few thoughts on Mad Men, Matthew Weiner's multiple award-winning television drama set in the early 1960's.  According to Kaufman, the central conceit of the series is that the characters who staff the Sterling-Cooper ad agency "want to be left behind when the rest of the world is raptured by history--at least at first."  He then formulates a contrast between those characters who "learn to love and accept the modernity in their hearts"--thereby becoming us--and Don Draper who instead transcends (or perhaps merely fails to descend into) history--becoming art.

Something about SEK's analysis sounds a false note.  For one thing, It seems to me that the contrast between Draper and his contemporaries has become not more but less stark.  What made him so different at the start and what explained his "inscrutability" in the first season was not his literariness but rather his lack of essential identity (the two qualities are perhaps not mutually exclusive).  Like Hitchcock's mad north-by-northwest man, Roger O. Thornhill (What's the O stand for?), there was nothing at Draper's core...nothing to resist or belie the succession of masks he wore.  Though he appeared selfish, Draper was in fact only the other of others.    Each mask was like an advertisement, modelled on someone else's desire, loving the one it's with.  We alone bore witness to this infidelity to character--at least at first.

But over the course of the series we've watched Draper grow invested as a husband, father, and professional.  His brother commits suicide.  He wife discovers his cheating.  His company is bought out.  The effect of each of these cataclysms has been to draw him gradually into his body, to fill his empty center with stable priorities, to force him to take up permanent residence in particular masks.

At the same time, those characters who seemed at first the most static types have been undergoing the reverse process.  Betsy imagined herself the perfect wife of her perfect husband; Pete was defined by the name of his father, and Joan was the sophisticated mistress.  Each was guided in their own way by a certain idea of perfection, and each has undergone the shock of having those ideal egos turn alien on them.  Betsy gets wise to Don, Pete's father dies, and Joan is raped.  What they all were, they can no longer pretend to be.

So Don is different from the others insofar as the development of his character has consisted of his putting down roots whereas Betsy, Pete, Joan and others have each in their own way become uprooted.  But because rootlessness is, for Don, also a sort of ideal, the discrepancy between art and history, or between the ideal and the real, is what gives a common shape to the modernity that resides in each of their hearts.

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