Tuesday, April 3, 2012
American Dreams, part four (of four): Mad, Fevered Dreams
(Warning: Do not read if you have not seen Mad Men)
Mad Men is a show about Don Draper, a successful handsome ad man who seems to have it all: a beautiful family, success, not to mention a way with the ladies. He commands respect wherever he goes. He comes from a poor background also, so he also has a touch of the "self-made man" about him, coming from obscurity to become one of the most successful ad men in New York. It would seem that Don is living the American Dream.
Only Don isn't Don. His real name is Dick Whitman. Though he did come from a poor background, he also experienced many personal traumas. His mother died in childbirth. She was a prostitute, and he was somewhat ostracised from the family from a young age because of this. His father, a drunk and somewhat of a miser, died when he was very young, leaving him in the care of people who had no time for him.
Whitman then decides to go fight in the Korean war in what can only be explained as a desperate attempt to connect with America, with the American Dream, and fight for its glory. Stationed at a Godforsaken outpost in Korea, he meets Donald Draper, from a middle-class background, with prospects and a wife. When Draper gets killed and Whitman is mistaken for him, Whitman keeps up the charade.
Perhaps he is running away from a past he chose to forget, of private traumas that haunt him so much that he simply must wear the mask of Donald Draper. Perhaps it was his poor beginnings that may have inspired him. He may have felt that he would have been relegated to do some menial job with little income for the rest of his life. If so, this flies in the face of the notion that there are no class divisions in America, that all there is is hard work and opportunity. This is the pillar on which the notion of the self-made man rests.
In taking another man's identity, Whitman - now Draper - is given a fresh start with this new mask. Hidden beneath are all the traumas which perhaps forged within him his drive to succeed, to rise above, to become the self-made man of the American Dream. It's just that, he has to take on a new identity to rise up into this realm of myth. A crucial act of putting on a mask is needed, for he needs to conceal all the personal pain that he experienced, to put a mask upon the poorer background from which he came. And so, we can say that Draper is an allegory for the origin of America. He conceals a hidden traumatic past. Forging nations is a messy business. Though the Native Americans had it tough, I'd say there were a lot of traumatic moments for the settlers too, on the edge, starving at points, wondering why they came to this Godforsaken place. America was forged by blood and trauma. A mask was placed on it, a new identity appropriated, as is the case of Draper in Mad Men.
Perhaps we can say that, beneath myth their lies arbitrariness and the possibility of its use as a tool for dominance. Morality protects this subversion and bending of history, which is also built upon. But if we think of it also in terms of identity, we can see that there is also this curious will to re-appropriate a different identity, a better, purer one. And perhaps this is what myth is about: perhaps this is what the American Dream is doing when it seeks to hide the blood and trauma at the beginnings of America. Behind a thin layer - that's all that's needed - behind the glasses of a hidden superman, or the picture perfect life of an ad man, there lies something hidden in the dark.
Does the myth become stronger, more forceful, if the trauma is greater? If we look at Don Draper, then this does seem to be a factor. His striving away from his old identity, his building of a new one, define at least in part his success. And so he can be that success. But there is a price, and he is flawed, haunted by his past self. For his older identity still exists, in some form, even if just in his own head, as a ghost. When he gets drunk and sleeps with a cleaning lady, blacking out and waking up beside her only to have her call him "Dick" shows that he is aware that he is maintaining a mask, and that if he allows himself to lose control Dick will reemerge. Elsewhere, when it seems somewhat likely that his secret could be exposed, he nearly has a panic attack. It haunts him, it is something that he views he has to actively control and keep a lid upon.
The cheeriness and boundless optimism of the American Dream works in a similar manner. It does not simply hide: it expunges, buries, throwing away any sort of metaphorical key. In fact, when we look back on America's bloody start, we see that the myth of America, its founding, its dream, and its boundless optimism, is violent in their willful neglect of history. The personality, if you will, of America, then, is one that needs constant reassertion, under siege at all times. We should not be surprised that the cold war was a dud, or that Al Qaida seem as ghostly and ephemeral as ever. An enemy is needed if you are to live under siege, to propagate such a mentality. Enemies become raised to the status of demons in such a case, seeming to haunt everything, getting under your skin. The terrorists, they could be anywhere, and the communists, forty years earlier than that, could have been your next door neighbour. This fear of contamination exists within the very myth of America itself. This is why America's aggressors often take this form, being blown up massively beyond the proportion of the actual threat.
And this all has to do with a mask, a myth, which forcefully hides the blood and trauma of the beginning of America in plain sight.