Is Don Draper a Modern Faustus?

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Everyone is debating the Mad Men finale, where we see Don Draper meditating at a New Age facility in Northern California. Is he, after years of soulless living in a soulless profession, on the verge of regaining authenticity and true interpersonal connection? Or is this hope undercut by the final moment when he figures out how to monetize all this good feeling, coming up with a commercial that insures his place in advertising’s hall of fame: Coca-Cola’s iconic “I’d like to buy the world a coke.” Is this apparent tradeoff of inner peace for fame and fortune the show’s last cynical twist?

I’m not familiar enough with the series to offer an informed opinion, but I know what Christopher Marlowe would say. In the final two scenes of Doctor Faustus, Faustus has a chance to regain his soul as his life comes to an end. Instead, he finds the lure of materialism too strong and dies despairing and alone. Draper could end up in a similar place.

To be sure, he’s not dying. Like Faustus, however, he is looking back over his life and taking stock. Just as Faustus has Old Man assure him that redemption is still possible, so Draper has his niece Stephanie guiding him. Stephanie tells her uncle, “Be open to this. You might feel better.” The Old Man, for his part, tells Faustus,

I see an angel hovers o’er they head
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into they soul!
Then call for mercy and avoid despair.

Faustus doesn’t listen to Old Man—Draper has a step on him here—and in the next scene he is behaving very much like the advertising executive in earlier episodes: he engages in an empty relationship with a beautiful woman, provided by Mephistopheles’s special escort service:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart’s desire:
That I might have unto my paramour
that heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean
these thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow:
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Put in Draper terms, Faustus, rather than abandon a life that has been dedicated to material things, thinks that he just needs one more woman to fend off the despair that lurks at the edges.

Faustus gets one final chance on his deathbed as he glimpses God’s infinite mercy:

O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul half a drop: ah my Christ—

Even here, however, he can’t maintain the soul connection. Instead, he panics and instead clutches at the few seconds that remain in the material world. As the clock strikes twelve, the hour of his appointed death, he begs,

O soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.

Draper can either build on the new peace that he has experienced or he can use his glimpse of heaven to sell sugared little water drops that rot our stomachs and our teeth. Heaven or damnation.

Further thoughts: Renaissance scholars debate whether Faustus can in fact save himself or whether he is inexorably damned. I see this as less a theological issue than a psychological one: can one really turn one’s life around after spending a lifetime developing certain habits? Draper has been lured by the fraudulent promises of consumer capitalism for so long that perhaps there is no hope for him. If the danger he is in doesn’t bother us–if we think he’d be a fool to pass up on that Coca-Cola ad–then we are in trouble as well.

Along these lines my son, when he worked in advertising, told me that some of his colleagues wanted to be Don Draper and have his beautiful women, his gorgeous clothes, and his heavy drinking, high-end life style. I am reminded of the scene in Marlowe’s play where Lucifer rolls out the seven deadly sins. They were willing to make a Faustian bargain in a heartbeat.

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