One of the many, many surprises of this week’s episode was that, after Peggy crashed full speed into a very low glass ceiling and crumpled back down, it was her conversation with Ginsburg, about the Holocaust, that compelled her to seek her boyfriend’s comfort.
Mad Men is not the first work of art to juxtapose the horrors of the Holocaust with the excess of postwar US leisure culture. My favorite version of this grotesque technique is Lolita, which also uses exploitative sexuality to try to make sense of the whole mishegas.
Yeah, I’m saying that when I think of Howard Johnson’s, I think of Lolita.
In Lolita, a fading aristocratic European mongrel flees his aged, wartorn land and develops a passionate, abusive attraction to fresh, freckled America (Delores/Lolita). When Delores’s mother dies in a car wreck, Humbert Humbert and Lolita take a feverish, months-long road trip. They get their kicks on Route 66 and stay in the new batch of roadside motor lodges like Howard Johnson’s.
In Mad Men, the story moves between domestic squabbling at the Howard Johnson’s and science fiction fantasy about Michael Ginsburg’s true origins: He was born in a concentration camp. Which really means that he was born on Mars.
And then there are other moments of horror and fear: Megan running, screaming from Don’s genuine physical threat. Jane (outed as Jewish this time!) and Roger fearing LSD. My fear when the stranger put his hand on Peggy’s leg in the movie theater.
The rest of the episode was about loneliness and exile. Peggy and Megan’s inability to reconcile their personal lives with their professional ambitions. Jane telling Roger he doesn’t like her–let alone love her. Abe and Peggy fighting over her career. Peggy kicked off the Heinz account, called a “little girl,” unable to sway clients no matter how hard she tries.
And Ginsburg, exiled from his own family.
There are multiple possible interpretations of Ginsburg’s story, taking as true the premise that he was born in a camp and put into a Swedish orphanage when the camps were liberated. The “original Ginsburg” could be his biological dad, a friend of the biological dad, or entirely unrelated. Maybe he lost his own son and found in the little orphan a new son.
But Ginsburg insists that he is from Mars, that his dad is not his real dad, and that he’s never met anyone like himself. And I believe it. His blood connection–or lack thereof–doesn’t matter. He is fundamentally exiled from his father, from his family, and from himself.
But so are Megan, Don, Peggy, Roger, and Jane.
So was Humbert Humbert. So was Lolita.
While Ginzo plays up his own otherness–a Jewy shuck and jive–we think that his experiences do, in fact, exile him from the mainstream. When he spins absurdity to hide his outer borough apartment with his immigrant dad, to not fit in on his own terms, viewers take him as a clown. When he turns out to be a survivor, he seems like little more than a token reminder that hey! the Holocaust happened! A reason for Peggy to call her boyfriend, to confirm Ginsburg’s story. A symbol for trauma that happens to other people. We get a token minority every week: black people, women, and now Jews.
But when every other person on the show is denied basic human connection and respect, then Auchwitz doesn’t seem that different from Don’s nightmarish night at HoJo’s. Jim Crow doesn’t seem all that different from the Nuremberg Laws. And Ginsburg orphaned by the war doesn’t seem different from Megan insisting that Don stop bossing her around.
Except it is. Auschwitz is not the same as HoJo’s. It’s on Mars. A desolate wasteland where there may have been water a millenium ago. And HoJo’s offers orange sherbet.
There’s another thread here (and in most Holocaust narratives, and in Lolita) about the human compulsion to tell stories. We want to believe that the stories we tell can patch over holes in our lives or strengthen connections to others. But in Lolita, and for characters in Mad Men, the stories we tell perpetuate lies about ourselves. Stories also increase the distance between people.
Ginzo’s story about Mars alienates him from Peggy, and sends her back to her boyfriend instead of into a more intimate relationship with Michael. Don’s flashback stories that he tells himself reinforce his loneliness and estrangement from his family. Roger’s stories about himself–his vanity book, his acid trip, his fantasies of being a rich pervert on the loose in Plattsburgh–make him more alone than ever. Peggy’s stories about her ad campaign get her kicked off the account.
Holocaust stories, like all narratives about trauma, are supposed to heal the storyteller. But often they cause us to relive the trauma over and over again. Like the repetition compulsion discussed at Kritik, trauma narratives may offer an illusion of mastery. But no story can bring Ginsburg’s family back. No story can win Peggy or Megan professional respect. Or get Joan un-raped. Or make Pete an un-rapist.
In Season 2, after Peggy gives birth, Don tells her, “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” But the show has shown us for some time that Don is wrong about that.