Of Don Draper and Dante

 You taught me hour by hour / How man makes himself eternal – Inferno: XV 83-82

Don Draper reading Dante's Inferno on the beach. (Apparently, classics of western thought was the go-to reading before the invention of people magazine.)Every time I watch Mad Men, wearing a fedora seems like an excellent idea.  Sadly (or thankfully) Amy has informed me, in her wonderful Idaho bluntness, “Yea . . . no. That really wouldn’t work on you.  You’d look kinda ridiculous.”  Still, if anyone could bring back the fedora, it’s Don Draper.  Mad Men fans may recall that Season 6 opens with the camera slowly panning over the supine body of Don’s young wife, Megan, lolling on the beach in Hawaii.  Next to her, Don holds The Inferno (book 1 of Dante’s Divine Comedy) while the voiceover (Don) reads the opening lines:  When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.   A moment later, Megan pops up with a fruity drink.  It’s actually a little jarring.  Knowing that The Inferno is about Dante’s journey through hell, I half expect her eyeballs to start spinning or something equally creepy.   No such plans in the script.  Instead, we see Don living what appears to be an idyllic life.

Leaving aside the (fair) question of who reads The Inferno while relaxing on a beach, we can assume that the writers are using the text for a reason.  At this stage in the story, Don is a successful, named partner at a New York advertising firm.  He’s very good at his job – creative, tough, brilliant, confident and a genius in ‘the pitch,’ the point at which he is selling an advertising plan to the C-level managers of a company.  True, he’s had what might be generously described as rough patches in life, but now he appears to be at the top of his game and is in Hawaii with his (some would consider ) beautiful wife.  Is Don now lost, even though all the trappings of his life seem to indicate he has succeeded brilliantly?  Possibly.  We don’t get a sense that Don has, in any sense, found his ‘true north.’  His various vices, particularly infidelity, plague him.  There’s a foreboding to the episode.  Something’s off.  And the writers, using a sledgehammer of foreshadowing with lines from The Inferno, alert us to the possibility that all is not well.

In fact, that may be a bit of an understatement.  If Don were to keep reading, he would come, after a grim journey, to Dante’s Satan – a huge, hairy, 3-faced beast, weeping, mute and frozen, forever consuming Brutus, Judas and Cassius, history’s most notorious betrayers.  The ground and source of evil, in the Divine Comedy, is the sad and silent drive to consume, devoid of passion or intellect.  Cold.  Staid.  Dead.  There is no movement, no devious or diabolical willing, only tears and a never-ending, ultimately unsatisfied and unsatisfiable hunger.  Don’s job as an “ad man,” he tells us early in the series, is to create an itch and then offer a product for consumers to scratch that itch.  “The most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’  Create an itch, and simply put your product in there as a kind of… calamine lotion.”  Don creates futile consumption.  Futile because a product-created itch will never be satiated, for the simple reason that new products will always be created.  Don’s work encourages the type of consumption that is at the heart of damnation.  It’s no wonder he’s troubled.

Dante in a dark wood
Dante the pilgrim lost in a dark wood

We don’t know how this will all play out for Don, in the long run.  I would be highly surprised if the writers create a linear redemption narrative for his character.  (Is any redemption narrative really linear?)  At the least, Don might do well to be reminded of Dante’s big vision.  Woven through every line of the Divine Comedy is the belief that what we do, who we are in this life, matters.  Dante shows us a universe in which human will has eternal consequences.  Accordingly, the journey is fraught with true peril.  Walk through Dante’s hell and you will see desires of the human soul gone septic, until the whole being is nothing but one, large seeping wound.  Dorothy Sayers says this: To read Dante, “We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter. We must try to believe that [our] will is free, that we can consciously exercise choice, and that our choice can be decisive to all eternity.” 

That’s bracing, and not merely of abstract or academic interest.  As we age, the tyranny of the urgent can limit our “vision” to a never completed to-do list.  We too easily forget one clear (and profoundly uncomfortable) strand of the biblical narrative: God’s mysterious sovereignty never supersedes the ability of human beings to decide, in some fashion, their own destiny.  Sobering, to be sure, but also hopeful.  And hope is sorely lacking in Mad Men.  We see very little true kindness, goodness or just plain decency in the show.  We see debasement but never glimpses of simple joy that catch us all by surprise.  Dante’s pilgrims don’t end their journey The Inferno.  They climb, wearily, out of hell “to see – once more – the stars,” and then begin the laborious but redemptive  journey up mount purgatory, where souls are taught again to desire the Good.  After long journey, suffused with divine aid, they are finally able to see “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”  Don, and Mad Men, could use a little more of that vision as well.

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