Welsh rats and Mad Men


As with every other show, Abbe and I are way behind on Mad Men.   Catching up now that it’s over, but catching up quickly.

Five seasons in, I’ve come to think that the show isn’t really about the 60s, or about identity, or about rapid social change.  Or maybe it’s about all those things.  But I think it’s really a show about growing old.  Old enough, anyway, so you reach the point where you stop moving, while the world — which has always kept pace with you until now— just keeps moving by.  And it’s about the sense of loss that comes with that understanding.

When we’re young, we think we’re the world’s motor.  We drive every change, and we’re impatient to make our mark.  Having kids forces us to think about the world as something apart from who we are, maybe for the first time, because now it has to be their world too.  And maybe we aren’t the change we want to see in the world, after all.  Maybe we aren’t the motor at all.  (Maybe the motor was always there, chugging along.  Or maybe there is no motor, and things just kind of happen.  Either way it’s a little terrifying.)  And Mad Men does touch on parents and children a lot, too, the weird tensions that exist between them.

Funny how things can align now and then, and you find connections.  Even if the truth is that you “make” the connections rather than find them, it sounds infinitely more interesting, universe-wise, to think that you find them, already out there waiting to be discovered in these little moments of clarity.  Anyway, I’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden right now, and the two things — Steinbeck’s novel and Mad Men — have started to overlap in my head.

Steinbeck makes reference to the idea of weltschmerz, a German word meaning, roughly, “world-sadness.”  It becomes “welsh rats” in the book.  Refers to a kind of existential grief/despair that comes over a person, a feeling of loss that can’t be traced to anything in particular.  In Portuguese there’s a similar (though infinitely more beautiful and complex) word, saudade, which is supposedly untranslatable into English.  My understanding of saudade is that it’s the feeling you have when you grasp that your love or longing for anything contains, within it, the grief of losing it.  Which is another way of saying, maybe, that it’s a nostalgia (maybe for something that never even existed) informed by an understanding of time.

Makes me think also of the great Nietzsche line: “That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts.”   As children, and as we make our way out into the world, we experience things firsthand.  Our hearts are alive.  Eventually we come to think more and more about the passage of time, about losing what we’ve accumulated.  We think and speak more.  We look backward.  And so we have these moments of grief for that time when our hearts were alive with experience.   We’re no longer accumulating moments, but losing them.  By the time we get a chance to reflect on things, they’re gone forever.

Mad Men is great at reflecting loss.  What’s good is always in the past.  That’s obviously the central metaphor for advertising at the heart of the series, too.  But on a personal level, there’s this clear divide between the old guard and the new generation.  The old guard pines for old ways of life, old loves, old-fashioned ideas.  But even when something good seems to happen — when Don or Roger remarries and seems rejuvenated, or example — the joy is almost immediately seen as something in the past, unrecoverable.  The older we get, the more we’re aware of loss as the inevitable endpoint of love.  Coming to terms with that is part of growing older, but in the case of Mad Men (and probably most of the world in general), it’s a painful process.

To me, that’s the shape of the series.  The unrecoverable, the saudade.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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