Tuesday, June 18, 2013
On chameleons, the soul, and learning from history.
This weekend, in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business published an article about how our surroundings shape who we are and how we act. Articles like this appear almost every other week (or almost every other day) and sometimes I read them and take something with me; other times I don’t. In this case, I read the article and was especially interested in this paragraph:
Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings.
Alter goes on to list a few examples, studies, and theories that explain why a person will act a certain way depending on their environment. For instance, the more litter there is on a sidewalk, the more the trash begins to accumulate, so more people feel comfortable discarding garbage in that area, which then begins a domino effect (go ahead, sue me for using that phrase!) leading to said area becoming neglected and eventually increasing in crime.
I’m not completely sure how much validity to lend this theory. However, I tend to believe that most people are chameleons. We may often think ourselves brave and good in certain scenarios, but when faced with a different kind setting, with a different aesthetic and perceived set of rules, we become an entirely different person. For instance, when I was in high school, there was a keg party that I attended. Regardless of the different levels of partying I indulged in, I was generally known as an upstanding person, but when I threw a phone book out the window, everyone took that to mean all bets were off. The environment then dictated how individuals acted.
I bring this up because Bob Benson is a chameleon. From what we have seen and heard about Bob, he is extremely skilled at taking into account and observing his surroundings and then acting accordingly. He knows how to fit in, act amiable and coax information out of people. Unlike Nick Caraway, who’s somewhat false vision of himself as a man “inclined to reserve all judgments,” has given him unwanted glimpses of the “secret griefs of wild, unknown men,” Bob Benson uses his ability to disarm with great aplomb. He finds himself privy to secrets and confidential information, constantly changing to meet his environment and finding success.
As I somewhat predicted, I was wrong about Bob Benson not being gay, but was correct in my assumption that the bigger part of his identity was being a liar. Some people I know have balked at the idea that the extent of Bob Benson’s secret was that he was “on the run” just as Don Draper once was (Don’s fugitive state has definitely receded as the seasons have passed). However, I thought it was completely appropriate. In its particular nature, it was actually a rare moment where Mad Men truly pulled the scope of its universe back a bit, though in a subtle way.
There are many Don Drapers in this world and there always have been. The only thing particularly special about Don is that he has been extremely successful and lucky in his ability uphold a lie. However, as each season goes by, he has become less and less successful at upholding the pillars of his fiction as a human being.
Having Bob Benson feature as just another “Don Draper” or “Dick Whitman” also provided yet another example of Season Six’s focus on doubles and repetition. As I’ve mentioned earlier this season, no one wants to repeat themselves—especially not Don. However, in this case it was Pete that avoided repeating history. In his confrontation with Bob, Pete encountered his 1960 self and Don’s 1960 self all over again and this time he did not get indignant; instead, he calmly accepted the hand he was dealt and the unalterable truth that he once again found himself face to face with a chameleon, a man whose very nature is alien and loathsome to him, but upon which he will once again have to rely to get what he wants. Pete saved face and was able to breathe in deeply the air of the office and it smelled fresh to him and Clara looked great as Annie Oakley in 1968.
Meanwhile, Don was faced with repeated visions from his past that he had to eradicate. Ted and Peggy’s open flirtation in many ways mirrors both his infatuation and subsequent marriage to Megan as well as the professional and personal intimacy he and Peggy once shared. Don sees these postures playing out for a second time in front of him and decides to eradicate them. He doesn’t want to watch his own courtship to Megan on re-run and he doesn’t want to observe from the outside as the creative director (Don is referred to as “the other creative director” in the meeting at the end of the episode) at his agency gets close with the talented copy chief; the protégé that used to be his. In “The Crash,” Don said he was only fit to act as creative director and judge other people’s work. By calling out Ted and Peggy, he was doing just that, but in such a manipulative way that proved Don had not learned from the past at all, but that he just simply wanted to avoid it.
In fiction, we get upset when a character does not act in a uniform or logical manner. If a hero is brave and courageous, we always want them to be brave and courageous; if someone is underhanded and unctuous, we want to continue to view them that way. In real life, it’s easier for us to assume that someone can’t change, so that we can classify them as one way and take our idea of them and their life with us as we go; content in the knowledge that they will be “the way they are” when our backs are turned.
However, life and good art don’t work in that manner. Just because my hair is cut in a certain way, doesn’t mean that I won’t take acid or try cocaine if the night carries a certain romance with it that will fight off any notions of youth slipping away. Just because I value forward progress and principle doesn’t mean I won’t sleep with an old lover because I am lonely.
What hurts us the most is when we have an idea of who someone is and then they turn out to be someone else; capable of something we never thought possible. People are all chameleons, though, and our souls, as Joyce once said, have the ability “to change [their] hue at every new approach, to be gay with the merry and mournful with the downcast.”
And that’s what happened to Sally Draper last week. She knew her father wasn’t the best dad in the world, but when she saw first hand what kind of man he was when her back was turned, the illusion of her father as “the way he was” was completely shattered. Now, he’s “never given [her] anything” and she’s become a chameleon in her own right; winning over the girls at Miss Porter’s and even winning over her own mother enough so that she gives her a cigarette.
The fictions of Don’s life are collapsing because even though he is the ultimate chameleon, he never truly changes as a person. He’s distancing himself from his wife in a brutal manner, effectively losing the one truly good person in his universe; he’s lost his daughter; his ex-wife is content away from him; and his daughter has disowned him.
He’s going down, but hey, at least he’s going down to the tune of one of my favorite songs* and in the wake of having watched one of my favorite movies**.
(*Editor’s Note: I’m talking about “Porpoise Song” by the Monkees, which plays at the end of the episode and is one of the best psychedelic tracks of all-time. Back in high school, when I was a long haired kid with a lot of extracurricular fun going on, I used to listen to “Porpoise Song” before soccer games and practices, rather removed from the general mindset of most of my teammates.)
(**Editor’s Note: One of my best, in my estimation, running gags among my friends was to always discreetly put on Rosemary’s Baby at parties and various get togethers.)