Earlier this year, Netflix informed me that Mad Men would soon be leaving. I’d put off re-watching the series, hoping (in procrastination) that life would create some urgency for it. When the AMC series originally aired, for various reasons, I missed Seasons 1 and 2, and parts of Season 7. This was back in the day when binge-downloading wasn’t trending, at least on my side of the Atlantic. So I watched it again, thinking I would stick to the episodes I’d missed. But like any true addict, I went on a predictable bender, and once I started I didn’t know where to get off.
My initial impressions of the series rhymed with many others: one noticed the 60s periodization, the immaculate tonsuring, the three piece suits, chiffon skirts, crepe dresses, and the glossy, Herman Milleresque décor–all very chic indeed. Against this nostalgic playback, many I’m sure glanced all-too-enviously; gone are the days when everyone knew how to dress like Jackie Kennedy or James Bond. Under its scrutiny, our fashion laissez-faire all seemed rather sad, paltry, and nihilistic. These “men” from Madison Avenue were an indictment of how far we had fallen, from Grace Kelly to the meretricious glitz of the Kardashians–or so the story goes.
One senses the show’s creators didn’t buy into this, or at least a simplistic version of it. Throughout Mad Men, there’s an uneasy juxtaposition between sartorial virtuosity and moral obtuseness. For one thing, there’s the omnipresence of spirits and nicotine–gratuitous enough to send a clear message–as well as a thinly-disguised chauvinism that is never really transcended, even as a Betty Friedan/Haight-Ashbury feminism makes a gradual appearance. Serial adultery is an office sport, with male leads engaging, almost ritually, in extramarital cavorting. And then there’s the cringey, casual racism directed (mostly) at black women–never mind the company’s penchant for “dog-whistling” in their cosying up to Nixon’s presidential campaign. Eventually, even the fashion is relativized as Sterling Cooper, an advertising firm in Manhattan, opens up branches in California, and people begin to slack off, donning floral shirts and open sandals.
At the centre of all these shenanigans is the dapper figure of Don Draper. He’s the creative director at Sterling Cooper, later Sterling Cooper & Partners. He’s gifted, imposing, and inordinately handsome. Insight comes to him with an almost vatic surety. He’s a poet and analyst of desire, a true manufacturer of consent. He’s admired and respected by his team, and especially by Peggy Olson (his former assistant turned creative). He manifests as a family man, with a wife, Betty Draper, as well as two kids. But one learns early on, as in a Richard Yates’s novel, that suburbia isn’t quite as it seems. Draper is a man with many secrets: a consummate philanderer for whom contentment is both elusive and threatening.
Moreover, “Don Draper” is not his real name: his birth name is Richard “Dick” Whitman, the child of a sex worker and an alcoholic father from the rural parts of Illinois. His mother dies in childbirth, and his abusive father is killed after being kicked by a horse–an event Dick witnesses. Thereafter, he’s raised by his vengeful step-mother and later a prostitute, who treats him with a modicum of kindness even as she grooms him sexually. He grows up in a brothel, but eventually runs away to become a soldier, entering the Korean War. It’s there that he meets Lieutenant Don Draper, a friend who he accidently kills one day during an enemy attack. In a split-second decision, Whitman changes his dog tags with Draper and is misidentified in the hospital as “Don Draper”. On returning home, under his newly-minted identity, he begins to work as a car salesman, but is discovered by Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s widow. He admits to his deception, but in a somewhat strange twist they become close companions, exhibiting greater mutual warmth than any of Don’s later marriages. Anna is accepting and easy-going, and his secret visits to her in California–even after their “divorce”–prove to be Draper’s happiest and most domesticated periods. This serves as a contrast to his outwardly stable home life in New York, one that slowly begins to crumble as Betty uncovers his infidelities and secret identity, which destabilizes Draper who has invested a significant amount in burying his past.
The extent to which Draper is committed to hiding his background is revealed in Season 1 when Draper’s half-brother Adam Whitman finds him in New York, out of the blue. Adam is overjoyed to find “Dick”, but his excitement is soon quashed when Draper offers him five thousand dollars to leave and never contact him again. Adam is shattered but finally gives in to his brother’s demands. The scene is tense, and there’s a sinister half-suggestion that things could have turned very badly had Adam not accepted. Draper comes to somewhat regret this decision, but his attempt to reconcile becomes futile when he later discovers that Adam has committed suicide.
Here and elsewhere, Draper continually represses his narrative hinterland–to self-destructive ends. Again and again, he needs to restart himself anew, usually with another woman, a trend that does not abate after he divorces Betty and marries his secretary Megan Calvet, a Canadian actress. In the Heideggerian sense, Don Draper is the quintessentially “curious” man. In §36 of Being and Time,1 Martin Heidegger links curiosity to “seeing” and concupiscientia (“desire” or “lust”); he aligns it overall with an “inauthentic” Dasein (or “Being-There”) that has not yet become acquainted with a “care” for its finitude. To quote Joan Staumbaugh’s translation, the curious individual “takes care to see not in order to understand what it sees…but only in order to see it. It seeks novelty only to leap from it again to another novelty. The care of seeing is not concerned with comprehending and knowingly being in the truth, but with possibilities of abandoning itself to the world”. For Heidegger, this appears as “a specific not-staying” that “seeks restlessness and excitement from continual novelty and changing encounters” so that “curiosity makes sure of the constant possibility of distraction”. Curiosity “makes sure of knowing, but just in order to have known”, “never dwelling anywhere” so that in its dwelling “everywhere and nowhere”, this “mode of being-in-the-world reveals a new kind of being of everyday Dasein, one in which it constantly uproots itself”.
Heidegger quotes Confessions X.35 to establish a linkage between seeing and cupidity, particularly as regards 1 John 2:16 (which famously speaks of “the lust of the eyes”). Augustine differentiates between sensuous “pleasure” as such and a “curiosity” that relates to the “perceptions acquired through the flesh” (here quoting Chadwick’s translation).2 For Augustine, curiosity concerns “a vain inquisitiveness” that is only “dignified with the title of knowledge and science”. It’s this perception that Augustine likens to a “seeing” of certain feelings and sensations, in line with the ocular imagery of 1 John. Pleasure and curiosity can thus be grouped together, but are distinguished insofar as the former “pursues beautiful objects” while the latter “delights with the motive of seeing what the experiences are like… out of a lust for experimenting and knowing”. Simply put, curious people are those who “desire knowledge for its own sake”, without a proper spiritual orientation. Anticipating Heidegger’s treatment of “idle talk” in §35,3 Augustine speaks also of how curiosity leads to “a buzz of distraction” and laments how “many times we initially act as if we put up with people telling idle tales in order not to offend the weak, but then gradually we find pleasure in listening”.
Heidegger, however, does elide something: the liturgical context in which Augustine’s critique of curiositas is placed. We know Augustine drew some of his insights regarding “curiosity” from the Latin philosopher and writer Apuleius.4 In The Golden Ass, curiosity is linked to the desire to observe the mysteries of Isis, without the necessary rites of initiation. Augustine undoubtedly read this and was influenced by it. The Vulgate links curiositas, in its only use of the word, to Moses’s prohibition against the Kohathites looking upon the sacred ornaments of the tabernacle (Num. 4:20). Here we see how “curiosity” is understood as a scientia that is separated from true religio. Augustine himself connects curiositas in Confessions X.35 to “magical arts” and “sacrilegious rites”, as well as that mental trivia which interrupts the life of prayer – those “frivolous thoughts” that “somehow rush in and cut short an aspiration of the deepest importance”. These examples of curiositas, of knowledge purely for its own sake, suggest the bypassing of sustained religious commitment, an inclination to avoid temporality: the time, labour, and discomfort involved in entering truth progressively. It separates the True from the Good, suggesting impulses that distract from present difficulty and a desire for cheap thrills and quick fixes. Spiritual devotion implies that we quiet ourselves, slow down, and become attentive; for as Augustine writes: “It is one thing to rise rapidly, another thing not to fall”. True religion, for Augustine, takes time, for it is grounded in the incarnate love of Jesus Christ, the God hidden in memory, and now revealed in the fullness of time. Informed by this we can see, as Catherine Pickstock stipulates in After Writing, why liturgy aims toward the sacralization of the temporal, thereby transcending modernity’s spatialization of the temporal.5 Liturgy relates our times, with all their rhythms and flux, of birth, death and regeneration, to the mystery of the divine economy and supernal hierarchy, leading us ever-so gradually to that peace beyond understanding, that love which surpasses knowledge (Philippians 4.7).
Returning now to Mad Men itself, it appears Don Draper remains tragically locked in an impasse of vain curiosity, within what one could call a pathology of beginnings. His continual desire to escape and “uproot” himself, to establish a romantic and sexual tabula rasa, is all a part of his destructive, and probably traumatically-sourced, impulse to return to an origin, without the mediation of the middle of time, “the broken middle’ to invoke Gillian Rose.6 As Faye Miller, one of Draper’s former lovers says: “… you only like the beginnings of things” (Mad Men, Season 4, “Tomorrowland”, Episode 13). His failure to integrate personal history, that is, his tendency to repress memories of an abusive upbringing, within something like a narrative adequacy, only leads him to repeat the pathological pattern of relational uprooting and self-destructiveness. Following his persistent motto of “moving forward”, Draper’s unstable remaking and reinventing of himself becomes a tactic for avoiding real deracination (a term used by Walter Davis7): that is, to engage that identity which denies ontological precariousness and woundedness – or to use Christian language, its final dependence on God.
Something like a “liturgical” solution to Draper’s malaise is hinted at in the final scene of Season 7. After departing abruptly from Sterling Cooper & Partners, and while experiencing something like a personal breakdown, Draper is taken to a New Age retreat centre by Stephanie Horton, the niece of Anna Draper. Despite his initial scepticism, Draper experiences an emotional breakthrough during a group session. In a final scene, he’s seated in a lotus position alongside others, chanting the traditional ‘Om’ of the Vedanta. After a few seconds of internalized vibration, a bell chimes – and at that moment a smile of delight and serenity crosses his face. The scene then cuts to the famous 1971 “Hilltop” advert of a crowd of young people, of different races and nationalities, singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”. It’s hard not to hum along and admire its purity of form, despite its substandard lyricism. Cinematically-speaking, the transition is pretty effective.
And yet the meaning of this ending is highly ambiguous. Does Draper find some peace in the stillness, as he slows down, sits, and momentarily stops his gallivanting? Is this a new start, a rebirth, for real this time? My suspicion is that it’s another temptation for him, one more false transcendence; a dialectical merging of the sublime and sugary drinks, of Eastern religion and the spirit of capitalism. I fear it won’t provide respite from his circulus vitiosus. But despite my cynicism, I should also register that it’s hard not to pick up analogies here, at the very least, with Christianized imagery, especially its apocalyptic: as when it imagines all nations coming to together in song. The explicit meaning of “Hilltop” is full of utopic generalities and hippie philosophy, but formally-speaking it does something beyond its stated content. The John Lennon religiosity of “Hilltop” is certainly too thin to sustain any robust spirituality, but nonetheless it’s hard not to catch a deeper longing for simplicity and community in its aesthetic, and by implication, in Don Draper too. But in the end I wonder whether such longing, unless disciplined by incarnate religion, risks becoming once again a malicious uprooting and ego-serving fantasy that refuses time. The conclusion of Mad Men, in its parody of contemplation and commercialism, leaves these options open. Is this a spiritual practice that counteracts an infinitude of sad curiosities, or does it further entrench our investment in them? Will Draper finally confront the stranger within, like Augustine, or will he keep on running away, “moving forward”, chasing who knows what?
- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh and Dennis J. Schmidt (rev. ed., SUNY, 2010), 164-167.
- Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1991). All quotations are from Conf. X.35.
- Being and Time, 161-164.
- See P. G. Walsh, ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Curiosity (Plutarch to Augustine)’. Greece & Rome 35, no. 1 (Apr., 1988): 73-85.
- Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998).
- Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle: Out of Our Ancient Society (Blackwell, 1992).
- Walter A. Davis, Deracination: History, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative (SUNY, 2001).