Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

So, we have been watching Mad Men. It is just as amazing as everybody says it is. There is a lot more to write about it than I can think through right now, but I wanted to jot down some notes about Mad Men and history, in particular the American relationship with history. (I will proceed as if readers know the basic details of the show, so you might not want to read on if you haven't seen it and want to stay surprised).

Mad Men is centered around Don Draper, a man who has renounced his own past--as a poor son of a prostitute and a cruel father-- in order to become the "man in the grey flannel suit," the "organization man," the "other-directed" bourgeois business man of the Eisenhower era. He brings to mind Thomas McGrath's observation about the contradiction between American individualism and history as the world of collective memory. In the United States, McGrath wrote, "history no longer functions, has been 'paved over.' In the East man begins every day for himself."

This is the stuff of the great American novel, Martin Guerre, the confidence man, David Levinsky, Gatsby, etc. As such, the potential is great for overreach and pretension. But this is avoided, because the world Draper lives in is depicted as terrible: meaningless and stupid, filled with racism and class hatred, misogyny and sexual harassment. The significance of Draper's remaking of himself thus transcends the particular drama of one ad executive's personal journey... it becomes an engagement with the thing in the name of which America's sacrifices (racism, genocide, war-- the horrors of which, always denied in the rhetoric of patriots, provides the spur for Draper's renunciation of his past) have been justified: suburbia, shopping, the white republic. We are left with the distinct impression that this was a bad trade. With the exception of The Sopranos, this is an opinion that is almost never uttered in contemporary American culture, an opinion that the white middle class does not speak. "The rest of the world wants to be like us," they say. Maybe it is this notion that makes it hard to say: "this sucks."

Draper's circumstance calls to mind Bob Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," one of the most moving and beguiling songs ever written:

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would've stayed home,

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone.

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev'ry breath,

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

I pity the poor immigrant

Whose strength is spent in vain,

Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

Whose tears are like rain,

Who eats but is not satisfied,

Who hears but does not see,

Who falls in love with wealth itself

And turns his back on me.

I pity the poor immigrant

Who tramples through the mud,

Who fills his mouth with laughing

And who builds his town with blood,

Whose visions in the final end

Must shatter like the glass.

I pity the poor immigrant

When his gladness comes to pass

In Mad Men, the representative of the singer in "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" is Draper's brother, Adam, who seeks him out in the hopes of an explanation, and whose very existence is a threat to Draper's charade. To Adam, Draper indeed "falls in love with wealth itself" and turns his back on him. Draper tries to pay Adam off to make him go away; he cannot satisfy Adam's desire for historical honesty, for truth and reconciliation. Adam's suicide is thus in a real way a murder, caused by Draper's refusal or inability to provide him with the history he needs.

We looooooove this show. We could hardly contain ourselves waiting for the season premiere to air.
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