Mad Men Made Sane

I like TV shows, but I only watch a few of the modern ones – I might like some others, but who has the time to wade through all the crap?

One show I like is Mad Men. But I might like it for different reasons than most people. Some people like the period clothes, some have a crush on Don Draper or Betty or big Joan, some think it’s great storytelling (it’s not great, but it’s good). On the other side, I’ve heard it called a soap opera, I’ve heard it called misogynist and racist and depressing. Maybe. The reason I like it is that it’s an excellent dramatic portrayal of a society confronting the nihilism of the modern world. The 1960’s ad business milieu seems the perfect environment in which to experience that confrontation firsthand.

The cover of the April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine asked the question “Is God Dead?” I believe Mad Men is one dramatist’s answer. And it’s not “yes” or “no”.

In the world of Don Draper, there’s no right, no wrong, only what “is”. There’s no saving grace, and nobody – and everybody – gets what they “deserve”. It’s a world untethered from any higher authority or over-arching moral code.

In an early episode, Don Draper in his fine suit is denigrated by the beatnik friends of his mistress as they sit around her apartment smoking weed. They are dissing establishment ad man Don for being part of the “big lie”, which implies the beatniks are above all of that, on some higher and better plane. Don answers them with: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system.” After a thoughtful pause he delivers the coup de grace:

“The universe is indifferent.”

Don’s shot across the bow of pious morality is a warning to the self-righteous that their reality is not the only possible reality, their good is not the only good. There are other, competing realities, and the people who believe them are just as convinced of their veracity as anyone else (for example, just watch the monotheists and atheists go at it). More important to me, it’s a warning to people raised on traditional “good versus evil” narratives that those, too, are only stories. Reality is something else – reality is what really happens in the world.

Reality should be self-evident, but it’s not, which is the root of our problem. We have a whole collection of phrases expressing the wish to get to what is real beneath what we perceive: “The real deal”, or crazy Ayn Rand’s “A is A”, or hippies with “the nitty gritty,” or old school “brass tacks”, or the “nuts and bolts” of a situation.

One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, the English novelist Iris Murdoch, wrote a novel called Under the Net, which includes this statement:

“All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.”

In other words, we impose a “net” of cultural belief systems and traditions on the reality of our sensory perceptions (a baby bird falls from its nest and dies – what does it mean?). Call them religions, superstitions, social mores, gender roles, philosophies, whatever. Our philosophical “net” of order, which we apply to the surface of our chaotic everyday reality, causes us to think that by extension there is some even grander system that is somehow manipulating these various smaller outcomes, both happy and sad, toward revelation of some great universal TRUTH, which we will someday know if we only persist in our struggle in “good faith.” The peace of God, someone said, surpasses all understanding. But even though we never really can, Murdoch expresses the belief that we should always try, as much as possible, to discern what’s “under the net” rather than just be content to perceive reality “through” the organizing net(work) of our preconceptions.

There’s nothing particularly new about this idea, I know. The poet William Blake wrote, long ago, “I must create my own system…or be enslav’d by another man’s.” It’s always been a favorite line of mine, since I first read it. Blake knew all our systems are invented and ephemeral. As a poet and outlaw, why imprison yourself in some banker’s or vicar’s construct of reality? No – better to live your own reality, however terrifying it may be.

I haven’t seen the last season of Mad Men yet, so I don’t know if Draper gets the “comeuppance” many are waiting for – whether he wins or loses in the end. This was supposedly a big cultural deal. Some see him as a total rat – after all he’s a liar, a fake, a cheater and a bully. They have anticipated his downfall and would cheer his ultimate failure as a sort of moral justice. Others see him as a victim of circumstances, still others see him as the kind of “real man” who’s fallen out of fashion in post-Alan Alda America.

To me, it doesn’t matter what happens to Don Draper. If he wins, it’s because a complex set of circumstances, only some of which he controls, have resulted in him winning. If he loses – same reason. In Don’s world, it’s all a crap shoot. If we feel frustrated by that, I think it’s because of our steady diet of happy endings, of stories large and small that almost always “reward” faith and hope while almost always “punishing” immorality or cynicism. Writers know that’s what we like. But it’s not real.

We can hold out for a just and fair future society, but it is not very likely to arrive on its own or be ushered in by ancient philosophers we’ve since deified. We must choose to build it ourselves. The past is the best predictor of what the future will bring – in short, continued moral ambiguity and human frailty hobbling our worldly systems, and zero direction from above (if there is an above) to get us on the better path. We must choose to see the right path with our human, open eyes. As the oft-repeated quote, attributed to Ghandi,  goes, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”

While its stories can veer into melodrama, Mad Men depicts a society grappling with this reluctantly reached philosophical conclusion, and all its attendant modern anxiety and frustration, with aplomb.

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