The Chrysanthemum and the Bris

Last night, we watched Mad Men again. It’s now Season 4; and that was Episode 5, entitled, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.’ If you watched it too, and if you’ve read Ruth Benedict’s book (and C. Douglas Lummis’s critique of Benedict’s work), then you get the allusions (and the racist, ethnocentric problems.). Mad Men’s creator, Matt Weiner, is just amazing. I’m talking about his tv writing and also who he is.

Art, culture, language are reflections of who we are as humans, I think. Who is Weiner? And how does his Don Draper character so engage Japanese culture in the art of persuasion, in the indirectness he so learns by having read how anthropologist Benedict has interpreted the Japanese in her book The Chrysanthemum and The Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture? The show took me back to some good and bad days as an undergraduate student learning Japanese. My roommate in the dorm was from Japan (good days) but two of my buddies – both missionary kids from East Asia – committed suicide as they struggled with who they were (bad days). The buddy who grew up in Japan taught me the words hara kiri (腹切り) and seppuku (切腹) without even trying. My Japanese roommate tried to help make some honorable sense out of it (to the point of pointing how how the kanji reverses on the page although the terms are quite different when spoken. How directly can you talk of death, after all?)

Art, culture, language are reflections of who we are as humans, I think. Who is Weiner? We all have come to know who Mel Gibson is, unfortunately. I used to think I liked his film, The Passion of the Christ. I’d seen Jesus films, some I didn’t choose to see really as a missionary kid in villages in Vietnam. Many I’d decided to see that were efforts by their makers to disparage or to distort “the Christ,” that other one I’d seen. Gibson’s effort at linguistic directness (spoken Aramaic through most of it, with no translation save subtitles) once fascinated me. It fascinated me until racist words have bubbled up and out of Gibson, inebriated and enraged, at women and at Jews and at African Americans.

Art, culture, language are reflections of who we are as humans, I think. Who is Weiner? Well, it’s been clear what R. Crumb has said and shown about himself, what others close to him have said about him too. When he’s illustrated Genesis, some have wanted to ignore all of that, letting art transcend the artist, if that’s possible. (I said a few things about that; and I was glad to hear what Naomi Seidman said about that this year too.)

Art, culture, language are reflections of who we are as humans, I think. Who is Weiner? I keep repeating the question as I watch Mad Men, see how this writer and his characters engage sex and race. “Is Don Draper a Jew?” is that question that some have asked Weiner, who is Jewish. It’s the question that I remember readers having to ask of Bernard Malumud’s protagonist Frank in The Assistant. On page 246, there is this harakiri-like bris: “One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.” Matt Weiner seems to keep this all personal, these questions, of sex and of race, in his art. I remember reading an interview in which he answers a sexism question and goes on to race while mentioning his own children:

So I look at the race issue, it all comes down to knowing individuals. As individuals become more ingrained in each other’s lives. That’s what the great thing is about integration and everything, the generation that’s after me, my kids, it’s not an exaggeration, they don’t know the difference. They do not see it because they are surrounded by people of all different kinds, especially in Los Angeles, and they’re just people. Some of them are good and some of them are bad. It’s not like, oh, that’s the black world, that’s the Hispanic world, that’s the way they are. Those people, the way Don talked about Jews with Rachel.

I think Weiner is ever conscious of what’s biblical, what’s ingrained in him as a person. In another interview, he says,

Our concept of sin is in the Ten Commandments, and was always there. But the thing that’s strange to me is that when people turn on the television, they want to judge the bad guys and love the good guys. When you fall in love with characters, when they do crappy things, or are cruel to each other, you feel a sense of betrayal.

Notice how attune this artist is to the personal. How can art and the artist really be different things when it all comes bubbling up? Isn’t that a reason we might learn from each other? A means by which we learn from one another?

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