AN IDEOLOGICAL CONSTELLATION
The American Dream. As a concept, it conjures up a complex constellation of ideas, references and allusions. Firstly, it is concerned with the notion that you can be anything. By consequence, social boundaries are irrelevant, and you can achieve anything in the land of the free once you work hard. The emphasis is on the individual, the singular person, urged to go beyond, rise above one's station in life. Within it lies an explosive cocktail of unbridled success at the expense of all others, a primary characteristic of modern capitalism. And what of the self? It is always to come, unrealised until you achieve your ambition. It is the promise, but perhaps a false one. The dictum that you can be more assumes that you aren’t already whole, that you are incomplete until you find whatever it is you are looking for. The promise is of an end point, a goal. It is of an ending - a death. A Death Drive, perhaps, as Freud calls it.
This is probably a mainstay in most ideological constellations. It is even present in the human experience in general. Perhaps it is a drive to fulfill an ending and thus to provide a structured narrative which completely fits upon reality, that ends like a story. Perhaps our capacity to narrativise derives in some sense from such a Death Drive, though it could be vice versa, with the Death Drive creating our capacity to narrativise. Whatever the exact chronology (perhaps never a chronology; perhaps, rather, an entanglement), it is explicit within the American Dream.
Furthermore, it is not the goal that is embodied within the American Dream either. Rather, it is the Drive itself. The goal is a vague thing, to come, never present, sometimes in the future ,sometimes in the past, always other - another place, another time. A person looking to get to the top of a company of some description, for instance, by making his or her way up from the bottom of the ladder (so to speak) is in the thralls of such a drive. However, what happens when one reaches that plateau? When the process is the primary emphasis within an ideological constellation, what becomes of goal itself, the immutable notion of presence? This perhaps is one of the things which makes the American Dream an interesting and unique ideological constellation, very much belonging to the modern era (in which I will include the post-modern era, whatever that is), meaning since around the time of the French revolution.
Presence itself is philosophically a thorny issue. It ceases to give itself over to definition. As such, it can be deconstructed, shown to be illogical, unfounded, neither solid nor concrete. However, it remains, always already within language itself, even (and perhaps especially) as it flies away from us. To paraphrase Roland Barthes' assertion, the author is dead. Only it is not simply a present event. The author is always already dead, dead in the past, dead in the future, destined through the life of language to meet a certain death. However, presence still has a part to play. Perhaps it is an unconscious constellation of immutable ideas and notions which allows language itself, or its apparent coherency (not simply apparent). For if language is based on an infinite play, as Derrida held, it is also based on a certain notion of eternity, an eternity assumed through the positivity of expression, through the feeling that an act of language is a free act that will change something. This cannot be completely ignored. Language, then, seems to have two contradictory forces at work within it - both concepts destroy one another. But, yet, they don't. In a place past speech and articulation, they are as one. They must be. Or, rather, at a certain point their rationally contradictory ways crumble away, and there is no distinction between the two. The distinction comes from consciousness itself, divisive and cutting as it is. Or rather, the self-reflexive nature of language to go back on itself and create division. This could be the condition for all language.
What of this place of unity, immutable ideas allowed to evolve and change and progress without intellectual examination? It is an origin place, a place which can never be a place. It is a place where nothing happens but something must happen. Therefore, it is defined by contradiction itself. It neither is nor isn't. To give an example which might shed a limited amount of light on the subject, the ancient Mayan word for God is the same word they used for zero, as if by some misfortune God was in actuality a radical nothingness, embodied by the notion of zero itself. That is to say, the completeness of God is itself a nothingness, the eternity of God a great quietness, and the immutability of God a deep slumber which He never fell into and from which He will never wake up.
It is an eternity never allowed existence (perhaps the nature of true eternity itself). For all intents and purposes, it may be a void, a nothingness, or it may be an eternal realm of forms, as Plato posits. I am here going to use Freud's term, itself vague and somewhat contradictory - the unconscious. It is here that ideological constellations become sorted (where? how? why? by what?) into common sense. Perhaps it is the condition for contradiction within language itself - the sort that Derrida is so fond of pointing out - and perhaps it is the break down of language itself, given over to contradiction, which makes this unconscious possible. If the unconscious were a consequence of inevitable contradictions within language itself, then this would mean that there is a certain aspect of ideology which is deeply illogical, and predicated on the notion that it must be so. Thus, certain empirical, or, more broadly, conscious and rational explanations and critiques of ideology may not penetrate it truly unless this is taken into account. It may not be enough to point out these contradictions - one must also show how these contradictions ensure the continuation of a system and the ideological constellation which gives it substance.
Thus all language is a Freudian slip, a gateway into the unconscious realm where understanding and rationality breakdown into a deadlock embodied by something effectual (in the sense that there is, or appears to be, ideology in general, or broad trends which are prevalent in certain societies or sections of society), but in ways which can never truly be described. This deadlock (or its dissolution, allowing each side to inhabit one another, an end to distinction itself, though an ending which never ends) then causes the conditions for ideology, or for an always already attitude which embody such ideological constellations as the American Dream. This comes in the form of a situating of such ideological constellations in the realm of common sense or societal values viewed as internal and immutable.
In other words, feelings, common sense, attitudes towards certain things, become influenced (how much? Who is to say?) by such ideological constellations precisely because there is no sense of entering into such constellations in a conscious manner, choosing one above the other. True, this can and is done all the time, most specifically by people who identify such trends, or decide to align themselves with a political ideology, for example. But is this not the death of ideology - or the death of a certain type of unconscious ideology - a exposing of a truth to its own untruth. Truth, then, is linked to the unconscious. Not in the sense that there are ultimate truths, but in the way a sense of an immutable fact ("that's just the way things are") comes to us as unquestionable, seeming to be self evident. Conscious thought is the beginning of truth, indeed, the articulation of such vast ideological constellations as the American Dream into two words. However, it is conscious thought which allows for the breakdown of such constellations. But this takes place within conscious experience and by conscious thought. That suggests that critique holds within it the means to destroy these constellations, but it is impotent - in its initial form of attack at least. For example, Marx's ideas have been disseminated through society in wildly varying ways, some straightforward, and some surprising. But it is not simply the theory itself which brought this about. It is rather a filtering effect, an entanglement begun by Marx himself and his will to engage, to construct a movement, and make sure his theory reaches past itself, a praxis.
This is what all theory should attempt to do, even if the ways in which such a reaching out will play out are never predictable. To confine oneself to the loop of theory is itself a certain kind of eternity - a narcissistic eternity. Marxism must be dead for it to be truly effectual. And so, in a talk about one of his books at google, Slavoj Zizek was asked how he could still be a Marxist in the modern age. His answer was simple - if there are still deep contradictions within capitalism itself, then of course he is still a Marxist. But the person asking the question assumed the death of Marxism, not recognising that it is all over what we call the postmodern era, in politics (left and right) and science and countless other human spheres. We cannot properly understand the modern age without an understanding of Marxism. But the woman who asked the question is perfectly right. Marxism, as a theory, a loop of ineffectuality (in its ideal form, which probably can never have true existence), is dead because of its success outside of theory. It is silently alive, then, but always silently.
How does this all relate to The Godfather and Mad Men? Simply put, they offer us a look at the American Dream, offer us a glimpse into its implications, and into the tragedy inherent within it (perhaps even inherent within ideological constellations in general). That is to say, tragedy itself can be viewed as always already present within ideology itself, a tragedy of consciousness of the ideology within the system. Both of these works of fiction also allow us to examine the American Dream more closely, spelling out the contradictions. Crucially, these contradictions do not signal a way out of the system. Rather, the two main characters I will focus on - Michael Corleone and Don Draper - use such contradictions as a way to supplant their positions within the system. They both make conscious that which can be termed unconscious - the ideology of the American Dream. But what is the cost to themselves? That is to say, what is the cost to their own sense of presence, their sense of self?
Does the American Dream emphasise the process at the expense of the presence, and is this itself a recipe for disaster, or tragedy? Is there something within the American Dream itself which implies an eternally displaced sense of self or the complete swallowing up of presence by the system itself? Or, perhaps more pertinently, is there something within the way in which these two men treat the ideology, robbing it of any kind of implicit nature it may have had, but not doing away with it in the process, that allows for the tragedy to enfold? The tragedy, then, would lie with critique itself, and its failure to bring about its implicit emancipation. The man in the system, or the man apart, then, seems to be in question here. The distinction between the man and the system, full and total, and the tension which such a necessary abstraction conjures up. This, then, seems to be an integral part to understanding these two contemporary tragedies, and how the American Dream is weaved into both.
This ideology has spread further than the Americas, and perhaps doesn’t even have it’s origin there. But it certainly can be said that no other place in our time has come to encapsulate it so completely and, for the purposes of this essay, so tragically. Two pieces of American fiction seek to show the tragedy inherent within this ideology - The Godfather trilogy and the TV series Mad Men. In doing so, they may even lay claim to telling us something about the nature of systems of ideology in general, and even of criticism of them. Thus anyone wishing to critique society, to stand apart (as, of course, I must, in the very writing of this essay), would do well to heed the warnings of these two great works of American fiction.
YOU'RE DAMNED IF YOU DO & YOU'RE DAMNED IF YOU DON'T
The Godfather ends with Michael Corleone assuming the role of the head of the Corleone family, which is essentially a mafia crime organisation. A war veteran, he initially rejects his family’s way of life. But events conspire against him (or seem to conspire against him) and he is thrown into this world. Smart, rational, always two steps ahead, he soon proves more than a match for all his opponents. But he begins from a point of rejection - a rejection of the mafia and the path his father envisioned for him. And with this rejection comes a certain degree of criticism by him of the mafia itself. Perhaps it is through this act of criticism that he can act more objectively, and stand apart to a certain degree, see the broader picture, and outsmart and destroy his enemies in the process.
And the same is true in Mad Men. Don Draper had to make himself, place himself in a world he was not born into. His ambition and intelligence make sure that he will rise the ranks in the advertising firm he works at, and essentially live the American Dream, complete with that almost archetypal backstory of an underdog working his (and in the world of Mad Men, it is his rather than hers, though things seem to be changing) way up from the bottom.
Unlike Michael, he did not reject the system, but he does stand apart from it, and can see it for what it is. All is not as it first seems, and Draper's life is complicated to say the least. It is stated from some of the first episodes that Draper is not who he says he is. This is done relatively early in the show, and perhaps points to the fact that the story of Draper is not some story where we are drip fed bits of his past, a la Lost, in a moment of shocking revelation that is meant to change what we think about a certain characters. Rather, Mad Men is about living into the future with the hauntings of a past completely rejected, or secret.
Born in relative poverty into a life marked by personal tragedy and disappointment, Dick Whitman’s prospects aren’t very promising. Then he meets Don Draper while fighting in the Korean war. Draper is your average American soldier, fairly well-off, with has a wife waiting at home. An explosion kills Draper and injures Whitman. Having taken Draper’s dog tags, Whitman is mistaken for Draper, who was due to go home soon. Dick Whitman is left behind. He essentially leaves himself behind, and becomes Don Draper. The name is enough for him then, as he is not assuming the life of Don Draper, but rather he is using this new identity as a mechanism for his own liberation from a perhaps internalised perception of class divide and his place within American society (perhaps more than simply internalised), and as a liberation to pursue the American Dream.
Dick (or Don) grows up automatically rejected, a victim of social and personal circumstance. His family is poor. He is the illegitimate son of a prostitute and farmer. Brought up by his father and his father's wife, his father dies when he is young, leaving him in the care of a woman who constantly reminds him that she is not his mother. He is naturally downtrodden, a victim of life's harsh circumstances and, to a certain degree, a victim of class divides, being from a working class background.
The act of identity theft is itself spurred on by this ideology of "you can be and do anything by working hard enough" but, at the same time, in its pursuit he takes the drastic measure of changing his identity. The American Dream, then, actively stands against such things as class, in that it encourages social mobility. It is, in a sense, the very essence of what you might call an ideology of the middle class, an espousal of social mobility itself. And yet, what Dick/Don's story seems to say is that this actually hides class division. It is almost a false hope. Not everyone can make it to the top. But the belief that they can is embodied by the ideological constellation of the American Dream. What is maintained by it is the rather flimsy notion that America is "the land of the free". Or, more specifically, that it is free from the class divisions of the old countries. That is not to say that you cannot make it to the top. It is just that, as Mad Men points out, drastic measures are needed to pursue this crazy ambition that the American Dream espouses. It is not simply enough to work hard, but what is needed are extraordinary, drastic acts that go against the natural social order, where a name is fixed. The system which is supported by the Dream, then, actively encourages a kind of mad ruthlessness. This is what is at its core. It is not simply the ideology of capitalism - it is the ideology of ambition itself, not the ideology of a goal which ambition will drive us towards, but of ambition itself, as a drive, or, to use another word, of desire itself. It is a point worth emphasising - the ideology is one of a drive, a process, and such an emphasis may actually mark it from earlier forms of ideology. We could say that it was the singularly the ideology of America, or we could make a more broader stroke and say that it is the ideology of capitalism. However, I think both of these are misleading. Rather, it is the ideology of the middle class itself, one perhaps born around the time of the French Revolution. It is our ideology - the ideology of anyone who desires fame, glory, money, wealth, power. It is nothing new. It is rather like an unleashing of desire from the old rigid societal restraints such as class and, before that, the feudal system. And it is not good enough to say simply that it is either good or bad, though both can be clearly seen. The inability of theorists to escape this system, call it totalising, and twist it into some despairing dystopia as Baudrillard (though this wasn't completely unfruitful - never discount the most radical ideas completely for, once in a while, they can go places which simply isn't possible in more sober attempts), is actually an unwillingness to deal with the fact that their is a common root which much of the Left share with such an ideology. The unleashing of desire, then, as an ideology which encourages the destruction or manipulation of social distinction, is common to the political left and the political right. To call it totalising is to miss the point, to risk creating a division which really does make the system totalising. It is to miss the common root, common ancestry, common framework of ideology which drives the American Dream (named as such here, but spreading further, and I would hazard to call it here, and nowhere else in this essay, the ideology of Desire) and also drives notions of social change, such as Marx's theories, or even any form of social progressiveness. The problem is one of an essential link between critical theory and the system itself - that of desire. We live in the age of desire.
And this is just the predicament that Michael and Don find themselves in - form of tragedy if there ever was one. In the words of John Lennon, "There's room at the top, they are telling you still/But first you gotta learn how to smile as you kill". And Don Draper essentially kills Dick Whitman. When he takes Don Draper's dog tags during the war, he makes a hugely symbolic act. He becomes more, rising above his station, out of the grime and on to better pastures. This is the American Dream then, albeit a twisted version involving identity theft. But then, is this not the cost of the Dream itself? The loss of the self at the expense of this fevered desire to become more? This is the extreme case, surely, but nonetheless the potential is there within the ideological constellation of the American Dream.
Don is not simply idealise the system, however. We cannot discount his natural opposition to the system. For through his opposition comes an understanding which allows him to the system, rather than to be mindlessly embedded within it. However, this may itself be part of the American Dream, to stand apart. The singular notion of achieving your goals no matter what the case implies a kind of standing apart, with an emphasis not on the static (such as ideological constellations, unconscious, common-sense ideology) but on the transitory, or the process. Thus, any kind of stasis, ideological frameworks or otherwise, is rejected in favour of constant movement. And to stand apart, to critique, is one way which apparently maintains this constant movement, constant process and, changing the word slightly, constant progress.
The strange thing, then, about the ideology of the American Dream, is that it can hold this pretense (or maybe even an actuality) of constant movement while itself still being an ideological constellation. This may account for its success globally. The emphasis on process itself being transcendental perhaps is embodied by the numerous amounts of self help books so popular at the moment. The answer, they invariably espouse, lies within - within yourself and myself, within the self itself. The big answers are not external, then, and the only truth is the truth of the self, contained within the truth of Man.
If we take the notion of God, then we see a transcendental term which remains external from ourselves, and thus notions such as eternity (external from our everyday reality) can be entertained. The same can be said of worlds and beings we cannot see, and a whole host of things which we term superstitious. Even attempts to join God with man (Christianity) which may point to an and end to such distinctions cannot get over them completely, relying on the absurdly rational act (on God's part) of Christ's birth. God tells Mary she is having a God-child, and then she has it. God, then, still remains as the big Other. It's just that, with Christianity, there is this link, this bridge, this moment of absurdity which implies that God and Man are as one. It is a hint which remains a hint. For, God is still God at the end of it all.
Man is now the transcendental term, and this cannot be externalised completely from the singular man, the self. Neitzsche, or Zarathustra (Neitzsche's preacher of Man) proclaimed that God was dead. Perhaps he was referring to the notion of a transcendental Other completely externalised when he was talking about God. It is no mistake, then, that with the death of God, Zarathustra espouses the rise of the ubermensch, the superman, or the beyond man. If Man is the transcendental term, then this makes perfect sense. It may be no mistake that Neitzsche's writings coincided roughly with evolutionary theory (survival of the fittest, competition being a grand raison d'etre), Freud's theory's of psychology (placing the Other of the unconscious within man) and the rise of America itself as a global power.
If Man is transcendental, a singular man cannot completely externalise such an Other. The process of Being then is the emphasis, that is, a man experiencing what it is to be Man. To see a concrete example of this, the obsession with shows like Dexter, with the archetypal serial killer, moves the horror of the Other inwards. It is as if with the death of God the demons haven't went away - they moved inwards. Likewise, ideas of emancipation in the West invariably are no longer focussed on political or social change but rather with the unlocking of some hidden inner power. The Secret is a good example of this. I am painting some extremely wide strokes (and, within any system, this is challenged, but what of such challenges?), but, in a hugely general way, this seems to be the predominant trend within society. Desire encapsulates this, but also encapsulates the challenges against it.
The trend, then, is spelled out within both dramas, but also prevalent is the notion of challenge, of opposition, which both men use within the system, against the system, and ultimately for the system (or for their place within it). For Don, like Michael, his natural opposition to the system becomes one of his greatest assets. Both these men become the best at what they do. Don gets all the ladies and soon rises up the ranks in his advertising firm. He has a beautiful wife, two kids, and a nice home in the suburbs with a white picket fence. For all intents and purposes he is living the American Dream.
Similarly, Michael is the best business man there is. Sharp, calculating, he is always two steps ahead. He is the ultimate capitalist. Sure, his business is the mafia, illegitimate by nature, but does not the mafia engage in an unfettered type of capitalism? It is free from the masks of the legitimate sort of capitalism, where workers who you cannot see and who you will never meet are exploited to bring you a designer pair of shoes. Is this not capitalism exposed, the dark heart of the system on show, not hidden as it usually is?
Both Michael and Don stand apart from this system. It is their greatest asset. But what is the cost of their desire to control it, their viewpoints coming from outside the system in which they are so desperately trying to conquer, to destroy. Is this not what they are both attempting to do?
They are both in the thralls of desire, as the American Dream says they must be. They are both pursuing their desires, the object of which may be desire itself, or becomes desire itself when aggrandised within the constellation of the American Dream. Desire is entirely encouraged within the American Dream, and it is also, through a flippant manner, made entirely feasible. Desire is never completely feasible, its satisfaction perhaps never ultimate. But what becomes feasible is not the object of desire, but desire itself, as a drive, unending and seemingly unlimited.
A parallel could be made with the American dependance on oil, even though it has been shown increasingly that the oil will run out, and that this excessive consumption of the black stuff is destroying the balance of nature and may even be hurtling us towards some future catastrophe. Zizek holds that this is not simply a matter of becoming more sustainable within the capitalist system. It is, in actual fact, a problem with the system itself. This, then, could be called a justification for at least some sort of marxist influenced criticism of said system, in answer to the woman at google who asked him how he could still be a marxist. But we should also recognise its acceptability within the broader framework of Desire, unfettered.
Desire, then, is the fuel of this system. We can link the American Dream with what can be broadly termed as the capitalist state. This was done explicitly during the cold war, with a more muted emphasis on capitalism in itself in the rhetoric that followed the fall of the Berlin wall, and more an emphasis on 'freedom' in conflicts such as the iraq war. This is imperialism with a human face, or an insidious form of capitalism, one which denies itself a name under the pretext as living at 'the end of history'. Or, to put it more succinctly, capitalism denies itself a term by those who espouse its virtues because there is this sense that it is the natural outcome of all of human endeavor, that all roads lead to it, and that we should enjoy the triumph of reaching such an end point, where no one suffers (or, more accurately, no one is seen to suffer). Do not the seeds of this lie in Desire itself? This is the drive of desire, to pursue at all costs, to have that right, a right bestowed through the ideological constellation itself. It is the right of desire itself, the right to 'happiness', the right to reach the unreachable plateau. In it is a truly subversive element. What if happiness is not some sort of state, but rather a relational emotion, never the same twice? In that case, all that is really being espoused within this ideological constellation is desire itself.
Another interesting aspect to both Don and Michael's relationship with the American Dream (and I use the word 'relationship' purposefully here) is that, as outsiders, in one way or another, they both put themselves in opposition with this system. They both conceptualise it as a system, and thus can view themselves as being on the outside looking in, while still in the system. It is through this conceptualisation that they are able to manipulate the system itself - or so they think.
To anyone looking in, he is the American Dream. His over-identification with this dream runs counter to his opposition to it, which also, somewhat paradoxically, allows him to conquer it. Thus, Don is an actor in the extreme sense. It is not simply that he allows an ideology to effect certain decisions he makes. If that were the case, it would be thoroughly unconscious, and what a sociologist would call ideology he would call common sense, always already there, unquestioned and unquestionable. In terms of fiction, Death of a Salesman conveys this sense of a man in crisis due to his blind adherence to the system. It is a tragedy of an unawareness, willfully or otherwise, of the system, and a tragically blind adherence to it.
This is precisely not what is happening. Rather, Don has figured it out, brought it into conscious thought. And after this point of revelation, Don still enters this world. He is thoroughly an actor. Or at least, he is convinced that he is acting, all the time. This is part of the notion of standing apart inherent within the ideology of the American Dream, an act of rebellion against it, within it completely. This perhaps has a discursive aspect to it in the way that an opposition to a position seems to in some way replicate at least some of the below surface structures of the position itself. This can be seen clearly in All The King's Men, where an initially honest man runs for election, only to become more corrupt than anyone. Critique itself may fall into this trap. It seems to be the case with regards to Michael and Don. For them criticism leads to greater understanding, a chance to rise to the top, as the American Dream promises (orders? encourages?). Intense criticism of the system, then, can be used as a way to cement ones place within it, to get closer to the ubermensch that is more than just suggested. The criticism is not emancipatory (is anything ever truly emancipatory) then. It is rather a form of displacement without displacement. In the case of Don and Michael, it feeds the system itself. Not to say that the system and its ideological constellation are not changed in some way through such criticism. But only to point out a danger, a constant danger (or fear even), of criticism - on its own, this system seems more than able to process it, within itself, and even incorporate it into itself. This is what happens to the two characters, then: they feed the system through their criticism, and feed it mightily. True, both have a genuine attraction to it. But there may still be a fable here for the critic and his or her criticism: even the most vitriolic and damning words can be absorbed without too much hassle. Or, maybe it is simply that, in our contemporary age, they are guided towards a certain place (the fringes, or even the university) where their widespread accumulation is not guaranteed. The defeat of the two characters' criticism is guided by the ideological constellation of the American Dream - it can contain criticism of itself, it is open enough for that, and this can be directed, through ideology in general, towards itself, creating a mad sort of oscillation, where to reject is to serve. It seems to be totalising, a true ideological end-point. (Not the end of history then, but the end of ideology, or the accumulation of human activity and thought which led to the American Dream itself, total, all-encompassing.)
That is, if you adhere to a certain aspect of the American Dream - that of the mad desire-without-end (the process of desire itself) at its heart.
What can we say of Don's hidden secret, his true life, that of Dick Whitman? This part of his life could actually be treated as a kind of paranoid fantasy. This is the search for the self, externalised due to the making-conscious, and subjugation of, the system which Don engages in. The self, a sense of fixed identity, is lost (always lost) to Don. This suggests that there are things that need to remain unconscious for a conception of self to form, or the sense of a unity of self.
For Don, who has made-conscious the system, the yearning for the self becomes extreme. And so Don demands a backstory of identity stealing. This reflects his own lack of sense of self, through, paradoxically again, his calculated sense of self, through his active creation (consciously) of a self, or a conception that this is possible. And thus, that unthinkable (unconscious) self is lost, eternally lost, lost from the beginning. Don Draper’s origin story is centred upon this loss of self.
Is this not alienation? Is this not analogous to the fall from Eden of Adam and Eve, out of paradise and into the world? The paradise of the unconscious self, the self that just is, unquestioned and unquestionable, is threatened by thought itself. The apple from the tree of knowledge embodies thought and consciousness itself, and Eden is the unconscious.
Don’s problem, then, is awareness, or an over-abundance of it, a crazy, destructive, bullying force. It is made terrifying due to Don’s intense sense of alienation. Mad Men, then, has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy. The trajectory of the show seems to indicate that things will not end well for Don Draper.
Then again, look at the ending of Taxi Driver. For all intents and purposes Scorsese’s masterpiece is a tragedy, except for one crucial detail. The protagonist, Travis Bickle, does not die at the end, and he even gets a chance to go back to his ordinary life.
Scorsese has denied this, but some critics have viewed this scene as a dream sequence, or the last thoughts of a dying Travis Bickle. The ending is a shock. Why? Because the trajectory of the narrative almost demands that Bickle meets his maker. He does not, and is even commended for his sociopathic intentions and actions. This is actually a brilliant turn around, but can seem contrived if not done right.
It works in Taxi Driver, though. It is the creeping into the narrative of this turn around that sends a shock to the system. It inspires within the viewer a reminder of uncertainty, reminds the viewer of a world beyond the structures of narrative. Or, it reminds the viewer of uncertainty within narrative, of possibilities beyond. Or even of the beyond itself, nestled within the narrative itself.
When Taxi Driver offers us redemption we not only do not expect it, but do not even think it appropriate, it inspires such reflections about the absurd nature (the turn around) of the ending. This is perhaps why it works so well in Taxi Driver. Or perhaps there is an element of the notion that the system actually rewards such actions, under the right circumstances. Similarly, the mafia is portrayed as being an offshoot, if not more honest version, of the capitalist system. The message is that, beneath all the veils of ideology, there is a corrupt core at the heart of the system, America itself, the American Dream.
Mad Men is a little different, however. Overall, Don comes off as a flawed, yet sympathetic character. You root for Don when watching the series. You want to see him find that redemption he so desperately seeks. Not so with Bickle. This, then, suggests that there is only one way for Mad Men to end effectively - it must be a tragedy because redemption is demanded and suggested within its overarching narrative. If you want to shock the viewer, you don’t offer Don any form of redemption because of his wish for redemption.
The suggestion of redemption, a possible ending for Don perhaps, is intriguing in itself. Don’s alienation, and the realisation of a paranoid fantasy within the show, perhaps opens up this question of redemption. And for Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, there is that question also.
Al Pacino, who played Corleone in the films, pondered in an interview about the possibility of redemption for the character: did he want it, or as he put it, “Does he have it in him?” There are moments of remorse, and we can clearly see that, when he does take the almost inhuman action of having his own brother killed, he understands the implications of what he has done. He is too smart not to have. And before he does it, he must also understand those implications. All throughout the films Michael is this sort of person, always two steps ahead, outsmarting all around him, even opponents who match him strategically, such as Hyman Roth in Part II.
The Godfather is a tale of success, of wild, unfettered success, at cost to Michael and all around him. It is as if, in approaching a sort of Nietszchean ubermensch, he loses all that he was supposedly fighting for. He speaks to his mother about the Family (with a capital ‘F’, the mafia family) and whether or not his father was ever in danger of losing his family, meaning his children and wife, brothers and sisters, etc, because of the Family. His mother replies, almost scoffing, “You never lose your family.”
Is she right? Perhaps she is actually completely and utterly correct.
Perhaps, then, Michael’s biggest mistake happens right at the beginning of the movie. A senator accuses him of being a hypocrite, to which he responds that they are both involved in the same hypocrisy (that of capitalism itself and, perhaps, with smatterings of the American Dream as a kind of ideological undercurrent), but that his family is separate from that, and that the senator should not confuse the two.
But perhaps it is Michael here who is deluded, and the senator who can see clearly. Not deluded about what he terms a hypocrisy - like Don Draper, he stands opposed to the system, having rejected the mafia way of life earlier in his life, and then to have emerged, almost in the centre of this rejection, a rejection which does not leave him, as the most cunning of them all. He is deluded, rather, in the clear distinction he makes between Family and family, or at least in their complete and utter separation from one another.
It is as if he becomes the greatest manipulator of the system in order to protect his family from it. But, then, things just don’t happen that way. Michael’s tale is a tragedy of the ubermensch, the beyond man, or the superman. It is the disconnect of the rational, thinking, conscious, from unconscious drives towards unity and purpose and wholeness. This is the family that Michael yearns for; the family he forsake once he “figured out” the system. Nothing is left to chance, and his two worlds he has created bleed into each other disastrously.
So, is Michael looking for redemption? I would say no and that, much more than Don Draper, he is closer to Nietzsche’s ubermensch. He regrets, perhaps, specifically with regards to the his brother’s murder. But he does not expect redemption. His is a tale of shaking off all those human qualities. In the end, he is neither a thoroughly wretched man nor is he entirely resolvable.
But Michael does not wish to resolve things. If he did, he would not have had his brother killed, or he would have allowed his wife to see their children. He had made a choice, the choice which bars some of his previous doubts, and even runs contrary to his assertion of a distinction between the system and his family.
Michael realises by the end what his mother was trying to say: there isn’t two families (with big and small ‘F’s’). Rather, there is one family, and it is always with you. It is the system itself, and all its parts, which Michael can never know truly. It is hence because he has figured it all out, beginning with a rejection (the stance of an outsider, like Don Draper) that he always falls short. He cannot be part of the system, not when he is at the top. And this bleeds into his “other life”, which is not another life at all. The hypocrisy begins from within, or, more precisely, it is always already, a potential from which nothing stands apart, especially not Michael, no matter how much he’d like to. And this is his realisation at the end, when he finally allows the system he thought he was so wise to to consume his whole life. For Michael, redemption is not an option.
So what of Don Draper’s need for redemption? With one of his many female conquests, he admits to having done some terrible things. She comforts him by saying that she can see that he tries to be a better man. Would Don’s displaced sense of self have anything to do with this? Perhaps this is a wish for a self to come, and that, at some point in the future, he will find it. Not an unconscious constellation, or left to be the mystery that the self must be, but rather a hope of a true self which he has yet to find. Perhaps even the hope for a conscious self, a kind of absurd rendering of the unconscious and its unity into the divisiveness of consciousness.
This is the crucial difference between Don Draper and Michael Corleone: Draper holds on to this notion of a self external to his being in time and space, a self to come. Thus, redemption is what Draper yearns for, an end point where all will be revealed.
This is a drive towards death, Freud’s death drive, mentioned coyly in the very first episode of the show. It is redemption itself. It is the American dream, the self-made man, always running, always searching.
The system, then, rules these men, is manipulated by these men, understood intensely by these men, and the cause of much anxiety for both these men. One has given up on a way out, the other has not, and clings to the hope of redemption, which is possibly the death drive itself (or an aspect of it). Both find them selves at odds with the system; both try to run from it in their own ways, and both try to become it. Draper in his constant state of transition becomes that aspect of the American Dream that implores you to become more. Michael becomes more, but loses everything doing so. The two of them are both attracted and repulsed by the system.
Both wish to stand apart. Neither can. And that is tragic - Tragedy itself. Think of Oedipus Rex, the ancient Greek play in which a king unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The problem is not the acts themselves, subversions of basic values of a functioning society. Oedipus had no knowledge of these things. Rather, it is his own realisation, his inability to accept what he has done in the face of the values he holds. Vice versa, if he accepts what happened, what he did, then his values face destruction or subversion. It is the lack of a possibility of redemption, then, even redemption itself, the very search for it, which eventually leads Oedipus to gouge out his own eyes. He cannot find it.
Michael and Don then represent two very different tragic characters. Michael represents the tragedy of the ubermensch, a tragedy similar to that of Macbeth, who went all the way to the end. Don, on the other hand, represents the tragedy of Oedipus, in the thralls of the death drive, searching for the self, and a redemption, to come, always to come. These are two different aspects of what might be termed the tragedy of the American Dream.
QUESTIONS. ALWAYS WITH THE QUESTIONS
Finally, I put this question to you - is this a peculiarity of an ideology based on process, or can it be said to be utterly unique to the American Dream? Or is it that all ideology works in such a way, perhaps with details changed, or emphasis put on other forms of suffocation? I cannot answer these questions in full. Perhaps process, has a silent partner which ensures that the American Dream has a kind of totalising aspect to it. Perhaps this silent partner is the presence of the system itself, a presence borne out of its inherent displacement or swallowing up of the self. It suffocates, holds within it a potential for alienation through emphasising an infinite search, hinting at emancipation. And such, the presence of the system is total, for all these things lie within the system. Is this a quasi-eternal realm of some sort, with no past or future? And is this a product of the eternal search of the ideological constellation that is the American Dream? In a society based on presence, like a God or a King, perhaps process becomes the silent partner, happening regardless. Thus people would view their lives as transitory and also unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I am not saying that one is better than the other. Only that each hold these possibilities in their shifts in emphasis. Perhaps their is no crisis, as such, art least no crisis meaning an extraordinary event. Rather, perhaps there is this eternal crisis, an originary tragedy, with ideology itself, within systems which people grow up in, find themselves in, unwittingly (or otherwise) create and add to.