Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Way We Really Were

My wife cannot stand Mad Men. For all I know, she is so put off by all of the characters that she may well regard the intensity of my attention to this program in the same light as the guilty pleasure of going to a carnival freak show. From James Baldwin's point of view, she may be right. Hilton Als' piece about Michael Jackson for The New York Review included a quote of Baldwin's claim that "freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires." There is certainly no delicacy in the ways in which Mad Men treats its characters, all desperately clinging to their Fifties values in the period immediately following the election of President John F. Kennedy. However, that uncompromising (not necessarily abominable) treatment appeals to my interest in "origins mythology." Having become a culture without a sense of history, we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock by listening to the music and ignoring how that enormous party came to be; but there is something that depresses me about remembering Woodstock without remembering the "profound terrors and desires" of the youth culture that inspired the gathering in the first place. Those terrors and desires live and thrive in the Mad Men scripts, recalling a time when racism and anti-Semitism were socially normative and when women both knew and kept "their place."

On the other hand my wife has also acquired a revived interest in the films of Otto Preminger; and, as a result, last night we began to watch Advise & Consent, which I had recorded on our VTR during our vacation. In its own way this, too, is a freak show of normative social practices; and, at a time when we seem to be experiencing political behavior at its vilest when the future of our health care is at stake, the film serves the interests of "origins mythology" particularly well. For those of us old enough to remember the 1960 Presidential campaign and the "profound terrors and desires" it awakened over the prospect of changing the status quo, all of the characters in the film are familiar. They were carefully crafted, originally by novelist Allen Drury, to avoid identification with specific individuals; but we still know them very well, even if they are no more than stereotypes.

Both Mad Men and Advise & Consent are fascinating because, in both cases, we now see how their respective narratives played out into unexpected futures, both of which seem to have converged on a general loss of our sense of humanity. Both advertising and politics are far more depersonalized today than they were half a century ago. Whether it involves purchasing consumer products or voting for candidates, we have been reduced to numbers in databases at the mercy of experts who claim they know how to interpret those numbers. Thus, we can read both narratives in terms of what they tell us about the beginning of a descent. Under better circumstances we might then be able to read those narratives for suggestions about reversing that descent; but our "culture without a sense of history" his little interest in such a reading. To the extent that we enjoy the narratives at all, it is for that amusement once provided by carnival freak shows; but we are deaf to those echoes that Baldwin heard in considering those freaks.

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