THE nation is once again transfixed by "Mad Men," by the pouring of cocktails in the office, by the lighting of cigarettes, by the extramarital carousing of elegantly dressed advertising executives in hats, and ah, the mixed feelings!
The phenomenal success of the show relies at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times. As a culture we have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals, and away from lounging around in the middle of the afternoon with a drink.
Watching all the feverish and melancholic adultery, the pregnant women drinking, the 7-year-olds learning to mix the perfect Tom Collins, we can't help but experience a puritanical frisson about how much better, saner, more sensible our own lives are. But is there also the tiniest bit of wistfulness, the slight but unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon?
In the early '60s they smoldered against the repression of the '50s; and it may be that we smolder a little against the wilier and subtler repression of our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times. Which is to say that these days, the careful anthropologist observes brief furtive forays into the world of excess in highly functional and orderly people.
I notice more than one mother sneaking out of a party for a secret cigarette in my garden; I hear another talk about how she has two or three glasses of wine every night, how she might be an alcoholic. One hears the rumble of these guilty pleasures, these tiny rebellions, these momentary flares of intensity or escape, and yet, in the end our vices are so minor and controlled.
The large-scale messiness of "Mad Men" is not for us, the free fall into chaos, into that stranger's warm and enticing bed; it frightens and enthralls us. What we want, in other words, is to watch four seasons of it through the safe, skewed mirror of the television set.
In my casual investigation into those lost and well-dressed years, I have lunch with Jerry Della Femina, whose 1970 cult classic memoir, "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor," is widely considered the inspiration for "Mad Men."
I notice that when he talks about those days he uses the word "fun," which stands out to me suddenly as exotic and old-fashioned. Who has fun in the office anymore? Maybe they are disappearing onto Facebook, but they are not expecting the flagrant flirtation or cocktail party atmosphere of Sterling Cooper; they are not expecting fun.
It is true that these days, people of Don Draper's age and situation pour energy into beautiful vacations, or they cook intricate meals for a dinner party from organic or free-range ingredients. But are they hanging out with the same boozy fluidity, are there wild bursts of bad behavior, are they expecting each day to live up to the ineffable standard of "fun"?
Perhaps part of what is so appealing, so fascinating about "Mad Men" is the refusal of bourgeois ordinariness, the struggle against it, in all of its poetic and mundane and tragic forms.
At one point, Don Draper says to his bohemian mistress, who has no children, no husband, no obligations, "I can't decide if you have everything or nothing," and that would be the crucial question. The show seems to be managing, just barely, an existential crisis over ordinary life. It is "The Lonely Crowd" in television drama. It asks the man in the suit, commuting home, will you die of constraint, of boredom, of domestic propriety, or will you break out, will you run off? Don Draper, who suffers so attractively, quotes Frank O'Hara, "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again." And one wonders if perhaps there is an audience of successful, healthy couples in the new mode, sitting in their bedrooms with flat-screen TVs waiting for just that same thing.
Today's moderately restless or mildly discontented couples tend to go to couples therapy and "work" on their relationships instead of drinking so much they don't know where they are, or slipping into a back room with a man they meet in a bar. But can we be sure our own malaise and alienation is better than theirs? Are we happier than Don and Betty Draper, or are we just doing yoga or Pilates or "working" on our relationships?
Gay Talese, who is himself a scholar and connoisseur of the messy life, tells me about the early '60s in newspapers and magazines. He remembers people keeping flasks of liquor in their desks, and recalls coming back from lunch one day and seeing one guy with his head flat down on his typewriter. No one touched him for hours, and eventually he woke up. He also recalls copy girls slipping out in the middle of the day with more than one man to the surrounding hotels. "You didn't have the word 'exploitation' then," Mr Talese said. "And mostly it wasn't exploitation."
My mother, Anne Roiphe, recently finished a memoir about that same period in the literary circles orbiting the Paris Review. Reading the manuscript I was struck by how much these productive and famous people drank. Today we would dismiss all of these brilliant, narcissistic artists and writers as alcoholics, the word itself carrying its own antiseptic morality, its own irrefutable argument for balance and sobriety, but back then they were simply charismatic.
I was also struck by how many of the parties she describes, on the beach, or on the Upper East Side, devolved into romantic chaos, how easily married men fell into bed with women who were not their wives. There was a flow to an evening, a sort of dangerous possibility in the air, that would be entirely foreign at the equivalent party now, at which most people go home with the person they are supposed to go home with.
I can't help but think the modern reader of my mother's impending memoir will be a little appalled by the casual adultery, the recreational alcoholism, but also just a little bit intrigued; it's like reading about a foreign country, or Margaret Mead's Samoans.
My mother tells the story of sitting on the beach one morning, and my 16-month-old sister climbs onto the lap of a famous movie star and says, "I smell Scotch." Everybody laughs, embarrassed. My mother wonders how many 16-month-olds recognize the smell of Scotch on someone's breath, but by then my sister had clocked a lot of hours sleeping on the bed piled with coats at parties. I remember being at a Paris Review party at George Plimpton's house nearly four decades after my mother was one of the girls draped across the couch, when he commented dryly, "Those were wilder days when your mother was here."
In "Mad Men" there is a scene in which Betty Draper is lying in the bath reading Mary McCarthy's novel "The Group," and it is Ms McCarthy who perhaps wrote most frankly about the allure and embarrassment and comedy of the messy life. In her "Intellectual Memoirs," she recalls one 24-hour period in which she slept with three different men: "Though slightly scared by what things were coming to, I didn't feel promiscuous. Perhaps no one ever does."
Once out of curiosity I parsed out how much Ms McCarthy drank in the course of a particular night: three daiquiris, two manhattans, a couple of glasses of red wine and then some Benedictine and brandies. These intoxicated and intoxicating nights often involve regret, but she writes about them with such exuberance, such festive humor, that one can see how seductive that messiness would be to the bored and restless Betty Drapers of the world.
Juxtaposed against all this flamboyance, the tameness of contemporary sins can be a little disheartening. Try telling a group of young parents in a Draper-like milieu that you have decided to give your baby non-organic milk instead of paying $4 for organic, and see what sort of unbridled shock you can elicit.
We are so busy channeling our energies into doing what is good for us, for our children, into responsible and improving endeavors, that we may have forgotten somewhere along the way, somewhere in the harried trip back from Suzuki violin or Whole Foods, to seize the day. Of course people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end. The idea that you would do something just for the momentary blissful escape of it, for intensity, for strong feeling, is out of fashion.
When we talk about the three-martini lunch these days it is with contempt, with a pleasurable thrill of superiority. How much more sensible we are than them! How much healthier! How much more prolific! "How did anyone get any work done?" someone will invariably ask. But maybe that's the wrong question, or maybe the kind of work they got done was a different kind of work, or maybe that's not the highest and holiest standard to which we can hold the quality of human life. Of course, it's hard to write in praise of that much drinking in the middle of the day without being perverse; it's equally hard to advocate purely recreational affairs; it's harder still to defend the four packs of Winstons a day that Jerry Della Femina smoked in the heyday of his youth. And yet can these messy lives tell us something? Is there some adventure out there that we are not having, some vividness, some wild pleasure, that we are not experiencing in our responsible, productive days?
In the 17th century, the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell wrote, "But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near." He also wrote: "The grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace." "Mad Men" seems to be telling us the same thing, in its own stylish, made-for-television way: we are bequeathed on earth one very short life, and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure that we are living it. Could we use, in other words, in these fine healthy times, just a little of the madness?