Bob Schwartz

Tag: T.S. Eliot

Mad Men: This Is the Way the World Ends

The Real Thing

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men

Readers and viewers know whether they like or are satisfied with the way a novel or movie ends. But they may not recognize the burden of creating those endings, not just to short forms, but to sagas and epics, where possibilities are exponential, and where those dutifully following the tale and trail may be looking for those elusive treasures: resolution and meaning.

It is not surprising that the final episode of Mad Men was written and directed by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. How could it have been otherwise?

Mad Men is a work of literature disguised as a television show. There are a number of hallmarks of literature and art, including the engagement of those who see and hear. But maybe even above that is coherence, holding together as a work, from one corner of the canvas to another, from the first to last note of the symphony.

Mad Men doesn’t fit it into any particular artistic category: impressionistic or expressionistic, realistic or fantastic, Freudian or Jungian. If anything, it delves into magical realism, where ghosts are real and real people are ghosts and anything can happen and make sense.

Or not make sense. The story of Mad Men in essence begins with the death of the original Don Draper in Korea. Over time, others die, couples come together and apart, people have sex, families are raised, business are started and bought and sold, jobs are lost and found, money is made and spent, some are miserable while others are happy, some grow and all just grow older.

All of it makes just enough sense to be a story. None of it makes enough sense to defy reality, gravity, or time. What more could you ask for? Meaning? What more were you expecting? It’s just the real thing.

The Magi

Journey of the Magi
The magi are for everyone, whatever your beliefs.

These three figures in the Christmas tradition appear in only one of the four Christian gospels, and even that role in Matthew is sketchy. They are foreigners bringing gifts for the infant Jesus and they return home by a different route to evade Herod. That’s it.

Translations and interpretations of what they brought vary, and even less clear is exactly who these foreigners were supposed to be in the story. They may be kings, wise men, astrologers or, as some have it, Zoroastrian priests from Persia.

This is why the particulars don’t matter much at all: the story is so basic and illuminating that it has captured the imagination of millions in its various retellings. Christian faithful have one view of it, and the more literal vision is that of concrete history. But for those who lean away from that, there is much to be gotten out of this compelling story:

  • Some people of discernment—in terms of wisdom, astrology or otherwise—had a sense that something special was going on outside of their ordinary sphere. Maybe they saw a light.
  • They travelled a long way to discover what was going on, and having found out, expressed their gratitude humbly and generously.

Again, that’s it. Some may want to think about theology. Others may want to think about other sorts of lights they’ve glimpsed, journeys they’ve made or haven’t made, and about possibilities. Christmas or just winter solstice and New Year, there is no better time to think about possibilities and all the rest.

T.S. Eliot wrote a brief but cinematic poem about the magi. It is written from a believer’s perspective, as the magi suffer twice, once on the journey, once again when they return home and find themselves so spiritually transformed by the experience that they feel like strangers in their own land. This is certainly a Christian view of the holiday, but non-Christians may just as well consider the more general phenomenon of all sorts of enlightenment, sitting between the way you have been and the way you discover you could be or already are. The magi say they would be glad of another death like that.

The Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

National Poetry Day in the U.K.

National Poetry Day
National Poetry Day
In the U.K.
A day to turn away
From the plainness of prose
To levitate above its dull weight on hearts and minds
To read write appreciate celebrate
Fly on verse.

America has dedicated a month to it
The cruelest month of April
As if our rebel poems are 28, 30 or 31 times better
Than those of our exiled imperial masters.

Let your verse be free.
Ignore the Yankee codger Robert Frost
Who said free verse, without form or meter,
Was like playing tennis without a net.
Play poetry tennis as you will
Without net, without racket, without balls
Without clothes, without score.

Happy Poetry Day.

The Hamlet Voters

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

T.S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

It is reported that there are voters who are still undecided in this Presidential campaign.

Assuming they actually exist, they are the most simultaneously sought after and puzzling population in this country.

It’s easy to see why they are sought after with such a close election looming.

The puzzlement is slightly more complex. The questions to them roughly run like this: Have you been paying any attention at all to the candidates and the issues? Just how confused are you?

With all due respect and affection for fellow citizens, if you watched any of the focus groups of undecided voters that the news media have assembled, the answers may be: no, and just a bit.

But there is another explanation. The undecided voters are suffering from a Hamlet-like affliction. They are Hamlet voters.

Hamlet, you recall, found himself in the middle of overwhelming circumstances—his uncle had murdered his father, married his mother, and taken over the kingdom. Trying to right the wrong and unseat the chief of state, Hamlet at first feigned madness, and then, as best we can tell, really did go mad. One of his characteristics was an inability to decide and act: his speech considering suicide, “To be or not to be”, is one of the most famous in world literature.

These undecided voters seem to be equally confused and frozen, though their circumstances are not near as dire or existential. There is an important question about who will be the chief of state, but that’s where the similarity should end. Even Hamlet managed to make up his mind, though his action did result in just about everybody dying, including himself.

No one is asking undecided voters to be involved in anything like that. It’s time. Learn what you can, think as best you can. With his dying breath, Hamlet appointed Prince Fortinbras the new President of Denmark. You don’t have to go that far. No sword fights, no poison. All you have to do is decide and vote.