Don Draper and the Art of Loneliness

1.

In the pictures available for Victor Frankl, his hair is combed straight back and he’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses that would have been very much en vogue these last few years. Fankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who had the great misfortune of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied land. According to UCLA psychiatrist Paul Puri, “back then the common wisdom of the time was that if you take away people’s food and shelter and everything else, they’ll devolve into animals and they’ll tear each other apart to survive.” But Fankl witnessed something different. “They were very generous with each other, and they gave food to each other even when they were starving.” Frankl and his wife ended up at Auschwitz. She did not survive. This is what he wrote about her in his 1959 book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

“The salvation of Man is through love and in love.” To pursue salvation in any other form is, to borrow a tired metaphor, hitching rides on sinking lifeboats. And it’s the best way for me to understand Mad Men’s Donald Draper.

2.

I don’t know if Donald Draper is running to something or running from something, but he is always on the move. He goes to war in Korea to get away from his abusive familial life in Pennsylvania. He hounds Roger Sterling until Sterling gives him a job. He is always pursuing the perfect pitch, and when the afterglow of a sale wears off and his discontentment resumes, he seeks satisfaction in sexual escapades. According to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Donald Draper represents the “split message” given the American male. “You are told that you, to be attractive, on the the one hand you have to be a Little League coach, and PTA guy, great husband, great dad; on the other hand, you are supposed to smoke as much, drink as much and get laid as much as possible. Those two messages are being sent at the same time.” Draper is the existential dilemma that arises from trying to be everything other people are telling you to be.

But that is not the only duality in Donald Draper. Externally he is a man that has everything we are meant to want: a high-paying job, considerable power, a beautiful wife and children, a luxury car. But internally he feels the sort of loneliness that Mother Teresa described as “the most terrible poverty.” Aaron Vallely takes it a step further. “A state of loneliness is not something we share in conversation with each other, something seen by some as a weakness, concealed as embarrassing and shameful in our hard culture of success and popularity. Loneliness is an anonymous heckler, a merciless colonizer, a savage presence.” Donald Draper believes himself  to be not only alone, but fundamentally unknowable. Whether by happenstance or design, Donald Draper is a placeholder for our broader discontentment. He enables us to ignore our own riches and focus on our poverty.

In Don’s quintessential Kodak Carousel pitch (seriously, watch it), he talks about the dichotomy between the “new” and nostalgia, and how a Greek copywriter named Teddy taught him to harness them in advertising. “Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Don doesn’t need the new to create an itch: he is constantly agitated by his own existence. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again…. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

3.

Love is the ultimate goal to which Man can aspire. Bertrand Russell put it another way. “Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.” In a bizarre way, both Frankl and Russell turn love into a version of the calamine lotion that Don references. Is love the capacity to know bliss when we have nothing left in the world? Is love our means of escape from loneliness? They are right, of course, that love offers these beauties and benefits. But that view is something like saying the value of a car is in its heated leather seats. It misses the point entirely. I don’t mean to sell either man short: I don’t think that’s the ax they were grinding. And it’s a beautiful thing that the image of Frankl’s wife gave him strength and invigorated his will to live. Love, properly understood, is our Salvation. But the pursuit of love, the pursuit of feeling loved, could just as easily be our destruction.

I promised myself that I’d never use this oft-quoted passage from The Four Loves by CS Lewis, but it fits. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To revisit Frankl, “In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Don Draper

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One thought on “Don Draper and the Art of Loneliness

  1. Pingback: The Man Who Invented Orange Juice | The Dying Away

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