Sunday, June 07, 2015

"Existential despair": A friend watches "Mad Men"


A friend, who is a teacher, a lifelong conservative Christian, and a new Catholic, gave it a try:
"Mad Men" is in serial TV form the quintessential Catholic novel of the '50s and '60s without the Catholic; the likes of Graham Greene [whom I have read] and Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness [which I haven't]. It's genius and dark! But the ending is what it is because the Catholic is gone. I liked this assessment: "Mad Men," Don Draper, and Pinocchio.

There is endless discussion to be had. I binge-watched the show, but I don't recommend doing that. You can only look into existential despair for so many hours at a time. I'm still processing it all; still thinking about all the characters.
I'm one of its unintended nostalgic fans, not Matthew Weiner's liberal boomer "congregation" congratulating themselves both for appreciating this well-made drama (which few people actually watched: as the columnist wrote, more watched reruns of "I Love Lucy" [actually I'm not a big fan; I'm not into slapstick] than this show's ending) and "we know better" condescension to the golden era. I've always thought the show was partly his end-zone dance celebrating winning the culture war (beware lefty nostalgia) and even a Jewish putdown of the old America for not feeling entirely welcome here. (The well-off son of a doctor and a prep-school graduate from sunny L.A., not exactly Anne Frank's life, Weiner's been described as an anti-WASP bigot.) True but Weiner made great art all the same. It's not a sermon like a Norman Lear sitcom; the last glimpse he gave us of Don Draper wasn't sappy. If anything, he's patting him on the back for being so shrewd, using the Sixties rather than the Sixties using him. Inner peace and making a good living creating a hit commercial ("You sure you aren't Jewish?"). As far as I know, that's simpatico with the faith. And Draper was cool enough not to change his hair with the times.

About my difference with that recommended Catholic columnist. Example: Christian rock. (The great anti-"social justice warrior" animator Mike Judge as the worldly-wise conservative Hank Hill: "You're not making Christianity better; you're making rock and roll worse!") If you want pat morality tales, go to the Hallmark Channel. Like an untalented Sunday-school teacher writing her version of The Screwtape Letters, if EWTN (which I don't watch; I don't need it) for example tried to make a religious statement with a Catholic "Mad Men," it would have stunk. When the message comes before the art, it always does. I know. I've read some of Atlas Shrugged. All the great modern orthodox Catholic artists, from J.R.R. Tolkien (so smart that people lose themselves in a fantasy world he created just for fun, and who thought C.S. Lewis' books were dumb, preachy ripoffs) to Flannery O'Connor, would agree.

(Related: the trappings of the church don't make a story Catholic. Stories with no religious trappings can be Catholic.)

Anyway, the point: my friend has some insight about the show and the era. I quote Frank Sinatra, at the height of the Rat Pack in its Las Vegas party glory, from Playboy in 1963:
I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me. I'm like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in that I have a respect for life — in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don't believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice.
Don Draper could have said that. (For that matter, America's founding fathers thought the same.) Draper and the Rat Pack were naughty, not subversive like the Sixties. The older, wiser Sinatra, burned by the Sixties, made his peace with the church and like many ethnics switched to the Republicans when the Democrats betrayed them. ("The House I Live In" liberality, not the New Left.)

Like John Wesley tried to win back "Enlightenment" England for Christ, Eugene later Fr. Seraphim Rose tried with his America. He was originally a Beat; then and later as a practicing Christian he saw the same "existential despair" even in America at its height. We were better off then (certainly we American Catholics were: while of course not perfect [the Tridentine high churchmanship at my parish is likely better than most parish practice then], the church here peaked then), but the smart critics have a point.

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