Personal zeitgeist

Weekends and public holidays mean little to me since I became a small business owner operating 7 days a week. Even if I’m not present – and I am to some degree most days – then there is always a part of my mind ticking over. As I wrote the other day, there’s no off switch any more, and always something to ponder over.

Having said that it was my intention today to chill out. I planned to spend the afternoon laying on the couch catching up with the new season of Mad Men I’ve been saving for this sort of occasion. It is Queen’s birthday after all. Naturally it didn’t work out like that.

Part of this plan was a good lie in. I was to bed late last week and a leisurely sleep-in was on the cards regardless. When I woke this morning I set about reading in bed with no regard to the clock, and so started in on Niall Ferguson’s Colossus.

I made it to about 9.30, when I got restless. I’d been up maybe 10 minutes sloping around the joint in my tracky-dacks when the phone rang. It was Pat, my receptionist for the day, ringing to say she didn’t have her key – could I come and let them in?

No good complaining, so off I went. The streets were clear and my run was good. I was in and out of the shop within an hour, and back home free to do my stuff. Some of that stuff related to the shop, but the rest was mine (mostly – a few pesky text messages disturbed my serenity).

The Mad Men marathon was no longer an option, but I did manage to settle down for a couple of hours to watch the season opener.

Within moments I was hooked again. There was Don on a hot Hawaiian beach in his shorts and sunglasses reading Dante’s Inferno, while his missus sunned her slender body and sipped on a purple cocktail in a long glass served by a Royal Hawaiian waiter. Don said nothing, and didn’t for minutes, but I was inside of him.

Even as I watched I puzzled at this. This is the era of my parents really – it might have been them lying on the beach perhaps, except they took their holidays down the peninsula. I watched the colourful happenings with it being familiar – I’ve been there and done that, in Honolulu, and elsewhere – and sort of odd too. It was odd to think the things that we’ve all experienced have been experienced a million times before by others, year after year. It’s not news exactly, but it’s a reminder than nothing is really new, and very little unique. I was put in mind of a Brady Bunch Hawaiian special I must have watched some time in the late seventies.

All of that was of some anthropological interest, but the fact was that within moments I’d been injected inside of Don’s persona once more. What I watched, and what I saw through his eyes, seemed, once more, to be relevant to me personally. As ever before it caught in me.

In my way I wondered at that. Of course part of it is the writing, the storytelling, which is exceptional in the way that it draws you in, makes you an intimate witness of events. For many having been drawn in they will remain an observer. It’s different for me. Don feels like a kind of alter ego, another time and place perhaps, but disregarding all that with themes and stresses that have a commonality to them. They won’t resonate with everyone. Perhaps not even most. They do to me though. I watch and I know that particular, individual zeitgeist. Sometimes I ache with it as I watch. Sitting on a beach, mute and reading the Inferno is something I could do, and with the much the same response as Don I think.

What does this mean really? It means, I think, that the hairline cracks we as television viewers are privy to witness in Don’s character are the same hairline cracks in my own. Many of them anyway. We’re different personalities by and large, our behaviours are similar in some aspects and foreign in others – but beneath that, in the foundations of our characters, there is something alike.

I love the show for all the same reasons as everyone else. But it also means more to me because when I look at Don I see some aspect of myself. I am made to consider and wonder. Like with Don, sometimes that is difficult – we are both complex characters. I always come away feeling that in me, and with something more to think about.

That’s the great power of art, regardless of medium: to gain insight, into ourselves or others; to be given access to another perspective; to be provoked into thought, wonder, reflection. Sometimes it is a mirror we peer into, and see things we can’t when we look into the mirror at home. Art is a lot of things, it moves, it stimulates, it alters, if it means anything at all. Programs like Mad Men, if you choose to see them as art, also have a forensic quality to them. We see the outward actions, watch the byplay between characters, the cause and effect, but we also can see beyond that, not just the motivations, but the fear too from which people act, the uncertainty and insecurity that makes people respond in a certain way, often at odds with how they feel, as if to trump those feelings. That’s what I feel as I watch Mad Men, and Don in particular, familiar with his posturing, his masculine edge, that desire for dominance and impatience with mediocrity, the brash immorality mixed in with a deep seated need to validate himself again and again. What he does is a cipher for who he is. I watch and see those layers stripped away until the inner core is revealed, the inner engine that drives him to do this or that. That’s what I relate to, because my engine revs at a similar pitch.

The point should be made that anyone with any sense of self is similarly moved by different programs, different characters. For me it is Don Draper, but there are hundreds of others I watch as pure entertainment, without that sense of personal connection. For others, for you, it is likely someone different you relate to and understand at some innate level. These connections are important I think because they take our own personal experience out of ourselves. That personal narrative you realise intersects at least with the narratives of others. We like to think we are unique, and take it for granted to some extent (well, I do), but notwithstanding that there is a commonality of experience. That’s why we are drawn to movies or TV – partly yes, for the pure escapist pleasure of it, the culturally acceptable voyeurism they encourage; but also to touch upon those things that are common to us. To be moved, as I have spoken of, to find our own experiences validated or explained, to be one that joins in the many.

I treasure these moments, which is one reason I love Mad Men so much. It’s why I am moved by other movies, books, TV. Dream Story, how I wrote of it the other day; and Underworld too, as I remember. I remember the first time I saw Dangerous Liaisons on TV and how it hooked me then and every time since, as did the book to when I caught up with that. These are samples – there are likely a hundred more – but there is something that joins them together and makes them meaningful for me personally, H, a kind of cultural DNA. It’s recognition, of the things we are or might be, as well as the quotidian reality of how we live day to day.

So that was my dose of Mad Men. No time to reflect really, I merely felt it then in the usual way, the words to make sense of it sliding into my mind bit by bit in the next few hours.

I got in the car and headed back to the shop, from where I write this. I had thought it might be quiet today and that I would shut early. Instead it has been middling busy and so I had to come in. Can’t complain – it’s money in the bank.

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