Mad Men: The Zero Ending

 Raymond Carver was a master of the zero ending. In his short story “Cathedral,” for instance, the malcontent, pot-smoking, deadbeat narrator is introduced to his wife’s blind, unnamed pen-pal.  The husband expects little from this bizarre collision of worlds, but after several drinks, the narrator begins to feel the unexpected vitality and freedom that this blind prophet possesses.  Oddly enough, they begin to trace the contours of a cathedral together.  The narrator’s eyes are shut.  While the moment is quite poignant, the story abruptly ends before any real epiphany occurs:

 But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

 “Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

 My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

 “It’s really something,” I said.

The end. We are left in the dark, guessing at what is going through our narrator’s mind.  When I taught this story last year, I decided to deal with the ending first. Most of the students were unhappy or unsettled and preferred something more crisp and put together.  They wanted the epiphany.  What was that something? To most of them it was infuriating, but to some, it opened up possibilities and allowed room for the ‘fun’ business of interpretation to begin.

In many ways, this season’s Mad Men finale gave us just such a zero ending. The curtain closes upon an unfinished story. All we are left with is that maddeningly ambiguous final image: a smirking Don Draper clouded in that all-pervasive smoke, glassy-eyed with drink and mulling over the loaded question, “Are you alone?” asked, of course, by a beautiful seductress.

I think most fans of the show were anticipating that something was going to happen with Don, even if we couldn’t quite put our fingers onit.  The pressure was palpable.  Would he return to his womanizing? Would he leave Megan? Would he leave Sterling Cooper Draper Price Campbell…. etc. etc.?  Would he get back together with Betty? Well, none of the above.  We are simply left watching Don: dissatisfied, smug, and precariously on the fence. The season did not end with the bang we expected, but it ended with an arguably more powerful whimper.

There are some interesting symbolic connections to be made with the finale and the previous episodes.  In one of his more rousing speeches this season, Don goes on an Ayn-Randian rant about the impossibility of attaining complete happiness as the consumerist world in which he is enmeshed has defined it.  Happiness is not about having a portion; it’s about having it all.  But “it” – cars, women, money, drinks, smokes – never seems to last long enough before the hunger for more is back.

Yet how does this explain Don’s confusingly clean track record this season?

If, as one critic has argued, Mad Men is “a character study of the breakdown of character,” Don has not simply become impervious to temptation, but his appetites have broadened their scope.  They are now more lofty.  How is this possible? According to C.S. Lewis, the range of vices (and virtues) of which we are capable are limited to what our characters can handle; the eunuch, Lewis humorously argued, can’t really go about bragging about his chastity.  Neither can the rising ubermensch that is Don Draper, be tied down solely by material desires.  Don’s ability to deny himself other women has hardly made him less misogynistic. Don wants ownership, power and control and, as his relationship with Megan continues to highlight, all seem to continually elude his grasp.

In Don’s world, happiness remains illusory because one only “gets it all” when they have severed all ties with those below them (the Nietszchean herd if you will) and with those on equal ground.  The breakdown of his brother Adam and more recently Lane, reveal the consequences of Don’s individualistic ideal and Don’s trampling underfoot of the marginal and weak.   Don is alone.

The recurrence of the hospital (or its equivalent: the dentist office and psychiatric ward) in Mad Men subtly indicates that almost all the characters are sick and broken and in need of healing. Don’s toothache – usually the result of an inability to say no to life’s most enjoyable and unhealthy desires – reveals something of the nature of corruption and, perhaps, opens up various possibilities for Don’s character next season.  As an ad-man (and ladies’ man), Don’s ability to smooth talk is essential to his life in and out of the office; however, the dentist makes a point to tell Don that this tooth, left alone, almost cost him his jaw.  To save the jaw, the tooth had to be uprooted. Don’s corrupt desires, then, are not essential to his character, but if left alone, they have the ability to destroy his essence. Will he uproot them? We’ll have to wait to find out.

In the closing moments, we are not only given a snapshot of Don, but a series of vignettes which, among other things, seems to reflect the varying stages of sickness and decay taking place in the world of Mad Men.  Pete comes home to his wife, physically and mentally broken. Like a young Draper, Pete is just beginning his descent into lies, adultery, greed; and while the consequences are as obvious as a punch to the face, I’m pretty sure Pete’s going continue down this road.

If Pete shows the beginning of Don’s journey, then Roger Sterling shows the end of it.  By the end, we see a naked Roger looking down over New York City with a derisive smirk. But he is alone.  Even Megan’s mother is not included in the shot. Like the naked emperor, Roger stands in his modern castle looking down over the kingdom that, largely, finds him ridiculous.

It seems that the only character immune from the brokenness and decay of the Ad-men is Peggy.  The final image of Peggy is one of contentment. She is safely in her apartment and free from the dog-eat-dog (er…dog-hump-dog?) world of which she had been a part.

It will be interesting to see which characters move towards healing and which continue down their self-destructive paths.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

                -T.S. Eliot, from: The Four Quartets.


English > Math

[The following piece was prompted by a proposal from my students who run the school’s newspaper to write a short piece as one side to the debate of which is the superior subject, math or english.  It was fun to write and I can’t wait to see the math teacher’s reactions. I have left his name out of this post.]

There is a book coming out this year in which a variety of authors and thinkers were asked to write an epistle to their younger selves.  They were asked to give advice or admonition based on what they know now and one letter worth sharing comes from contemporary author, Jodi Picoult.  The only piece of advice she thought worthy of sending back into time was this: “You will never use calculus. Trust me.”   As far as I’m concerned, she is right.

But which is greater, English or Math?  So the question has been posed to Mr. —– and myself. Of course, the unfortunate irony for my esteemed colleague attempting to sing math’s supposed superiority is that he must (to his chagrin) rely upon the English language. Therefore, I will do what I can in the way of leveling the playing field by taking the liberty to rephrase the question as such: if x≠ y; is x > y or y > x?  Find (and defend) the value of x.

I’m going to leave variables behind here for a moment (if you are a true philomath, do not worry, I will write slowly), to point out that the fruits of this inquiry will inevitably be flawed because of the nature of the question. The question, as posed, suggests a necessary, mutual exclusion between these two subjects and is therefore a question that only a Mathematic Mind (m2) would ask; but, I would venture, one that only an English mind could answer.

Let’s begin with a look at the English Mind.  As far as I have come to think of it (and with it), the English Mind is Creative and Cultured (E = mc2).  While the creative mind is responsible for imagining new possibilities and developing all the cultural activities (music, stories, poetry) that make life more than something “nasty, short and brutish,” Mathematics targets the lowest common denominator.  The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd placed “Numbers” as the most basic type of knowledge one could glean in this infinitely complex universe; and who wouldn’t trust a Dutch philosopher?

T.S. Eliot, an early 20th century poet, once asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Again, math is but the foundation of the temple of knowledge.  We have all heard that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but I think we might add that the study of English is the beginning of knowledge, while math is but the lowly beginnings of information.  I have no problem with math in the same way I have no problem with the bottom rung of a ladder: both are necessary to step on as you move upwards.

While the mathematician relies upon the dry, yeastless factuality of numbers, the English mind places these facts into the stories in which they make sense, thereby leavening the loaf of knowledge so it is not simply edible, but enjoyable as well.  Even Jesus, with his few years upon this earth, chose not to waste his time propounding mathematical theorems; rather, he gave us story upon story, demanding that his followers be good readers.  Christians, in fact, have been called “people of the book,” which is a badge we should wear with honour.

The English Mind, then, is a mind that knows how to step back and see the entire forest, not one which is content to count and cross-multiply the trees.  The English mind can see the world in a grain of sand or a handful of dust. When Graham Greene talks of earth as a “marble floating through infinite space,” he captures something so immense and sublime in one simple phrase that you can’t help but marvel at your smallness. The English Mind also steps forward, into the dark wood to see the individual trees. It observes the particularities of a place and the idiosyncrasies of a character, the motivations and machinations that make men and women tick and it records them down with the precision of a mathematician and the love of a saint.

And here the false dichotomy between the m2 and the English Mind really breaks down. The true mathematician, I assume, has a similar confrontation with the sublime in the presence of a concept such as infinity.  It would not be difficult to provide numerous examples of mathematical truths that boggle the mind; in fact, it would be as easy as pi.

But to get back on track; English is more important and will always be because it demands a more human way of thinking.  The ancients knew this, and classified it under the humanities.  Math, one of the sciences, was actually considered a handmaiden to literature and philosophy! Ironically, our culture now sees the humanities as something weak, something which needs defense, something which exists to serve the sciences by teaching literacy (as if knowing how to speak efficiently can lead to an abundant life).

Because of this, English has become the helpless victim of numerous, false stereotypes.  Here are the three most common:

1) Any answer in English can be right (ok, I’ll admit that’s somewhat true…)

2) English is an overly emotional subject which trains us how to get in touch with our feelings (frankly, I feel hurt when I hear this, and wouldn’t mind getting together with a group of other English folk to talk it out).

3) English is an easy way to get an A+ (the joke’s on you here; I mark everything with smiley and frowny faces).

So, as you can see, although English might be in disarray in our society, it is a truly superior discipline.  Now I could go on, but I’ve had this tongue in my cheek for far too long and must take care of it.  For my mathematically inclined readers, do not worry; I’ll be fine.