Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Mensch

As a WASPY ad man Don Draper probably wouldn’t have known what a mensch is. He certainly didn’t embody those qualities of the Yiddish word for honor and integrity. 

For seven years many of us have been following the antics of this womanizing charmer and self-destructive imposter, in his rise and fall. Yet there was something about him I regard as a tragic hero of the last century. His was a slipping down life to wisdom. Being a responsible person in the mensch-sense came hard for him and therein lies the trajectory of the journey.

Call it soap. Call it a sit-com melodrama.  I see the protagonist as an icon of mid-century America, the shell of a man with a polished exterior excelling as a point man in the consumerist surge. His job was to seduce,
persuade and convert. In the process he subverted his own soul. He was alcoholic, promiscuous and yet decent in his core and ultimately divesting himself of masks, glib tongue and worldly goods in search of his authentic self. The self-discovery was a bit stretched out but worth the trip and well-earned.

At times he was Odysseus bouncing from one temptation to another while wrestling his own demons. The 20th century warrior is the office guy who does battle every day with false gods, conformity and the sirens of society that suffocate the spirit.

Even his name, Draper, once defined a maker of material to be draped over as if to conceal something which could even be apparel. He started as just that, seldom out of his suit, with a bogus name and resume in a fabricated place concocting fantasy aspirations for the superficial landscape of the day. His early client was Lucky Strike. He was the huckster selling cancer with smoke and mirrors. His name, Draper, has now wormed its way into the language as the smartest guy in the room who comes up with the killer phrase to advertise a particular product.

Over the arc of the narrative he is to shed the assumed identity, layer by layer and return to claim his real self as Dick Whitman, an American Caucasian Everyman. As such he authored commercials not of the Rinso white, Rinso bright / Happy little wash-day song, variety but slogans tapping into the consumer psyche with a tad more sophistication. When you get a Yes, he says, stop talking.

Regardless of how one views the mensch-ness of our man Don it is hard not to recognize and admire the manner in which Mathew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, has integrated over a dozen characters into the socio-political context of that period. Attention has been paid to the transformational music, dress, and mores. I believe the program will become a pop-document of that period.  In terms of gender opportunity our consciousness has been raised a few notches as well. The value of seeing clearly into the recent past is to provide a way of measuring how far we have come and yet to go.  

In the final scenes Don is at an Esalen sort of retreat as he embraces a man who describes himself as being an invisible hunk of food on a shelf in a refrigerator lit only when someone reaches in to grab at him and then returning to darkness. He sees himself. And we then see Don, now Dick, oming himself home.

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