Seeing Things

Our spiritual voyeurism


In the eighth episode of the most recent season of Mad Men, Don Draper asks his underlings a rhetorical question. “What is advertising about?” He waits a beat, then answers it himself. “It’s about getting your foot in the door.” Don, like most of the office, is in the middle of a manic, weekend-long freak-out triggered by amphetamine injections from a medical quack. He isn’t thinking of a product or a client; he’s thinking of his neighbor’s wife, who’s cut off their affair. He’s been spending a lot of time staring at the door of her apartment, trying to will himself inside, and now he thinks he’s figured out a way to do it.

Later in the episode, one of the junior creatives is having sex with a teenage hippie, somebody’s daughter, who’s been hanging around the office. The door is ajar. One of the executives is leering at them through the crack, then sees a female employee and invites her to enjoy the view. The scene recalls a flashback from the season’s opening episode. The adolescent Don, a shy, shell-shocked boy who’s being raised in a brothel, is peeping through a keyhole as the boss-man screws his stepmother. It also glances ahead to other doorways, other sights. The year is 1968: everyone is seeing things, at least on television, from which they cannot look away.

What is advertising about? The episode seems to be telling us: it’s about voyeurism. It’s about getting your eye in the door. We are plied, on our screens, with little dramas of the good life. A child is comforted with soup. A handsome couple relaxes on a beach. Some friends share a drink on the town. We gaze on, not just with longing but with envy. We get off, though not as much as they do.

But since the days of Don and company, over the last couple of decades, perhaps, and in the upper reaches of the income distribution in particular, I think—or maybe it is like this everywhere, and always has been—there’s something more, something even worse. It isn’t just the old equation of things equals happiness, so go and buy more things. I see it in the style sections and the profiles in the upscale magazines. The artist with the groovy loft. The actor with the groovy art. The power couple with the groovy friends. The whole empire of Bobo-hipsterism, with its premise of the self-curated life. Now your envy is directed not so much at what those people have as at the sensibilities that allowed them to acquire it in the first place—the eye, the wit, the taste, the touch, the sophistication.

You don’t just want their stuff. You don’t even want their life. You want their soul. And that, you know, you’ll never have. Don, at least, offered hope, even if it was an empty hope. Your future could be better than the present. But now it’s not about the future anymore; it is about the past. The emotion isn’t lust; it is regret. You’ve lived the wrong life. You were born the wrong way. It’s your nervous system. It’s your heart. There’s no injection that can save you, no drug that’s going to make you someone else. You can look all you want: the door you’re staring at is never going to open.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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