Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Musing on Mad Men: The Memento Mori and Far Away Places; Yellow roses, time, and running and returning

"Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!"
"Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!" said the servant to the victorious Roman General.  "You may ride in triumph today, but remember, tomorrow you may fall."
-- From Apologeticum, The Apology, ca. 197 A.D., by Tertullian. 
"All absence is death if we let ourselves know it." -- Dr. Orcutt 
"I thought you were dead!" -- Don Draper, having run away from, and then returned to, his wife Megan

This week's episode of Mad MenFar Away Places, was at once an Apologeticum (an explanation, or else defense, through the use of words); an exercise in synesthesia (the overlapping of sensory experiences, such as color and memory, so they are perceived simultaneously and surreally) that was somehow made real for the two-dimensional screen; and a thick and thrice-looped tapestry shot through with pain and possession; heartbreak and loss; and ultimately, love, and the absence of love.

I was utterly spellbound, from beginning (to beginning to beginning) to end.

As I reflected on the stories and characters--as I began to scribble down my reactions--certain motifs floated across the page. The theme of time's elasticity--as expressed in the story of Michael Ginsberg's birth in a concentration camp; as perceived and recorded in Judaism; as experienced during an LSD hallucination. The mysterious yellow roses scattered throughout the first two story loops--roses that were budding, blooming, and ultimately shattered. The fear of death--of one's lover, of one's career, of oneself. And finally, the intertwined warp threads of apology and forgiveness that held together this exquisite hour of theater.

The episode opens with Peggy, dressed in a full slip with yellow roses embroidered across the breasts. She's trying to get ready for a big presentation to Heinz, a difficult client, and she can't find her talisman: a pack of violet candy Don had given her. Her lover Abe tries to calm her by promising to buy her another pack and say a brucha--a blessing in Hebrew--over it.  Peggy insists that it won't be the same, and heads to the office, hoping to find her good-luck candy there.

She arrives to find Michael Ginsberg already at work.  For the careful listener, there's an enormous clue as to what lies ahead in what Ginsberg says on the telephone to, we're led to believe, his father: "This conversation just went in a circle and we're back where we started."   Behind them, amid various photographs and drawings, a painting of yellow roses hangs on the wall.

Peggy's presentation does not go well, to put it mildly. She is the first (but not the last) to effect a change of scenery--to flee for a while. One impulsive encounter with a stranger in the movie theater later, Peggy returns to the office, falls asleep on Don's couch, and loses touch with time altogether--at least until Don calls. A voice from the future.
About those yellow roses: They haunted me. What was it about those sunny, shapely flowers that pricked at my memory, I wondered. Why did seeing them--again and again, in the office scenes as well as later, in Roger and Jane's story--sadden me so? Then, a realization: I had seen that form before, those gold points rendered in coarse wool instead of ethereal petal. They'd been sewn to the shirts of Europe's Jews at Hitler's behest, those six-pointed stars.  A few of them were displayed in a cabinet at Dachau, a German concentration-camp-turned-museum that I'd walked through, my arm tightly linked with that of my weeping best friend Anne, during a high school trip abroad.

A quick Google search led me to The Yellow Rose Project, a Toronto-based group dedicated to preserving the stories and memories of the Holocaust even as remaining survivors grow fewer in number each year.  From their home page:
I used to be designated with a yellow star but now I am celebrated with a yellow rose.
Interestingly, my research into the meaning of flowers--specifically yellow roses--turned up a variety of sentiments, with the most common ones being betrayal, apology, and forgiveness.
On to the theme of time, then.  According to author and Rabbi Maurice Lamm:
Jews keep time in a unique way from the rest of the world. The major ideas of the Jewish religion, even though they are intangible, are made accessible by being embedded in time. [...] In Jewish time, the day begins with the onset of night (the appearance of the stars) followed by the morning (which technically begins with the appearance of the North Star). According to some Jewish teachers, night and morning begin with sunset and sunrise respectively. For that is how the Torah describes it: "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." 
Beginning the day with the night is, in a sense, a metaphor of life itself. Life begins in the darkness of the womb, then bursts into the brightness of the light and eventually settles into the darkness of the grave, which, in turn, is followed by a new dawn in the world-to-come. 
Life consists of light and dark: "And there was evening and there was morning." What we make of time is what counts.
The notion of time--its passing, its circling around, its expansion and contraction--provides visual and aural continuity in Faraway Places, linking the elements of the overlapping dramatic triptych in ways at once comforting and disturbing. There are numerous glances at watches, which tell it like it is--or, at least, as it is supposed to be. There are forays into the world of contracted time, when Roger's cigarette turns to a tiny butt in an instant, and overlapped time, when his partner Don appears--as though at the office--and tells him to go and be "in the truth" with his wife.

And having pulled a single flower from the plump arrangement of yellow roses on the Orcutt's table, Jane appears to feel time pause as she dances with Roger. "It's perfect here," she tells him. At home in the bathtub with Jane, Roger goes back in time and relives a joyful experience: the 1919 World Series. Later, the couple lie side-by-side, flat on their backs. Jane's elaborately beaded Roman updo--was she going for Veritas, the Goddess of Truth?--is now wrapped in a pink towel like Roger's. "What time is it?" he asks. "How could a few numbers contain all of time?" Jane wonders. We sense their baptismal renewal as they lay on the floor, gazing at the Greco-Roman light fixture hovering above them like an autumn moon; we know that neither Sterling will ever see things quite the same way again.

And so it is come morning, when Jane lays among scattered yellow petals. Roger reminds her about their shared journey through time and truth and tells her she spoke in German. It was really Yiddish, she tells him. When Roger leans in to kiss Jane goodbye, we see more yellow roses in a vase in the background. As they part company for the last time--and you have to listen closely here--a mournful oboe is preceded by the faintest chime of a grandfather clock, counting time, and that in turn becomes the ringing telephones of the SCDP office.
Now come the Drapers, with Megan in sharp orange, dressed for the occasion--a visit to an upstate Howard Johnson's--she didn't know she'd be participating in. It is the same time as earlier in the show--which is to say, the time when Peggy was sorting herself out for the Heinz presentation, before she tangled with the sexist client who had her taken off the account; before she ran away and came back, fell asleep, and called Abe to tell him--again--that she always needs him. Don tells Megan she has to accompany him on this trip, and although she's clearly torn about leaving work she enjoys, off they go.

Don is not Jewish, but I found the following passage, from The Concept of Absolute Time in Science and Jewish Thought, to be illuminating:
In this system human temporal existence takes place, along with one's perception of the world. In such a system the Creator is perceived as 'Nothing'-consonant with the universe having been created from Nothing. 'Nothing' is the Absolute that is not humanly perceived; it is absent from the human proper coordinate system, and not involved in the humanly perceived world.
There is a special cycle in this system comprised of the dual-process of 'escape and return,' (ratso and shov). [...] The process of escaping implies the aspiration to reach the Absolute, to comprehend the Almighty, and to merge with Him.
In the final limit, it implies the departure of the soul from the body, i.e., transformation back into Nothing in the material sense. The opposite process to escaping is that of returning to the physical world in which we live. According to a Hasidic concept, each individual as well as the Absolute possess the proper, permanently recurrent ratso-shov cycle.
What does this have to do with Don Draper? Jay Michaelson's essay about the "reminder that you will die"-- Memento Mori: Jewish Spirituality and the Sanctification of the World -- clarifies it a bit:
One distinctive feature of Jewish conceptions of enlightenment...is that awakened consciousness is viewed not as a “steady state,” but as ratso v’shov (literally “running and returning”), oscillation between expanded and contracted mind, being and nothingness. The experience of enlightenment is one of movement between...“God’s point of view” and “our point of view.”
Ratso v’shov. Running and returning. Is that not exactly what Don has been doing throughout his entire life? The problem is, he has it backwards: by running from his childhood, running from his own identity, and running from Betty, and now Megan, he is not escaping the physical, the painful, and running toward enlightenment and love.  So, throughout Don's years of back-and-forth between being (who he is) and not-being, he never achieves an ecstatic state; he never knows the pure joy of love for love's sake. He might convince the world (and the audience) that he loves Megan, but his words belie a different sort of arrangement altogether, one that has to do with ownership, with belonging to and taking from; with losing and finding.

Recall Don's words to Roger when he learned of Betty's ill health a few episodes back: Rather than sympathy for someone facing a possible future of pain, sickness, and untimely death, he mused how awful it would be for his children "to grow up without a mother."  Skip ahead to Far Away Places, and listen to the ownership-tinged language Don uses when talking to and about Megan.  He jokingly orders her to go along with him on the Howard Johnson trip; on the road, he tells her there has to be some advantage to being the boss's wife.

At the Howard Johnson restaurant, Don tells the waitress to bring them orange sherbet and two spoons, ignoring the fact that Megan wanted pie. And when Megan doesn't fold in two and acquiesce (she's finally had enough of being told what to do when she had other plans), he launches into a tirade, accusing her of wanting to embarrass him, and of talking about him in French to her mother. Megan lashes back with a low blow aimed at Don's dark past--Why don't you call your mother--and off goes Don, running away yet again, out to the parking lot. Get in the car, he orders her.  She wants to talk; Don just wants to run away, and so he does, his gaze fixed eerily ahead as he speeds off.

Have you seen my wife?  Was my wife here? And later, I thought I lost you. There is no apology, just that: an admission that he almost lost something, that it was a fight, and now it's over. He still doesn't get it. There is no enlightenment for Don--not yet anyway. He will run and return again.

And in the final scene, wherein Bert calls Don to the conference room and regales him with another Memento Mori--this time about the way his work is suffering, about his not being infallible and invincible--we're left wondering how many more cycles of Ratso v’shov, of running and returning, Don will go through before he'll know love.

Also at Basket of Kisses, the Premiere Mad Men Blog

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