“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”
This is the fictional tagline that Sterling Cooper Draper Price comes up with for the Jaguar ad campaign in “Mad Men.” (It’s in the episode The Other Woman — warning, synopsis has spoilers. Yes, I’m re-watching old episodes, it’s getting me caught up on where we are in the new season.)
And it’s gotten me thinking: What does beauty mean?
So the idea behind this tagline, and the ad campaign, and indeed this entire episode, is that the Jaguar XKE is like a mistress: beautiful, sexy, desirable, impractical, temperamental, unpredictable. And the tagline is, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The implication being that you can’t really own beautiful women, and that many men feel this is a sad sad thing (one of the major themes of this episode) — but you can own a Jaguar XKE. You can get that sense of deep satisfaction from it — and you can keep it, and own it, and have that experience of beauty whenever you like.
But the thing is, as Michael Ginsberg himself says (the copywriter who comes up with the campaign and the tagline): It isn’t just people who you can’t own and keep. It isn’t just people who are elusive and changeable. Possessions are like that, too. Or at least, the experiences of pleasure we get from possession are like that. As Michael says when he’s pitching this idea to Don: Even very rich men, who already own many beautiful things, are still dissatisfied. The beautiful things they have aren’t enough. The Jaguar ad promises that this thing — finally, at long last, unlike all the other things — will satisfy their longing for the unattainable.
It’s a false promise, of course. And I started thinking about why that is.
Beauty is, literally, in the eye of the beholder. And by that, I don’t mean that it’s a matter of taste or opinion (although of course, that’s also true). I don’t mean that different people experience different things as more or less beautiful, or that duck-billed platypuses see each other as beautiful and see us as fugly. Well, what I mean is close to that.
I mean that the experience of beauty is literally in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder.
I mean that beauty is an experience.
And that means that it can’t be owned, or kept, or held onto.
Some objects or people are “more beautiful,” in that they’re more likely than others to evoke that experience in more people. But the beauty doesn’t really reside in the objects or the people. It resides in the mind and the heart and the body of the beholder. And trying to hold and own and keep this experience of beauty is actually what makes it slip through our fingers. Letting transitory experiences be what they are is what lets them sink in deeply and resonate throughout our lives. Struggling to keep them, to make them permanent, is what makes them slip away — and makes us miss the point.
It’s one of the themes of this episode (and indeed of the entire freaking series). When we try to hold and own and keep the people in our lives who give us pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of beauty, we actually drive them away. And when we take them for granted, when we act as if they’re ours forever and we never have to do anything else to keep them around, we drive them away. It’s only by letting people be who they are, by not taking them for granted and respecting their right to make their own damn decisions, that we deepen our connections with them — and increase the chances that they’ll stick around. If you love something, set it free, and all that. Except that if it comes back, it still isn’t yours. It never was. We don’t own each other. We can’t.
Even with objects, ownership often doesn’t work. Often, the experience of beauty is one of surprise. We tend to get inured to the beautiful things that are all around us. (I think this is one of the reasons I like buying new clothes and putting together new outfits: I like seeing myself in a new way, so I can more easily see myself as beautiful.) Part of the experience of beauty is the experience of the extraordinary — and when something is in our life every day, it becomes ordinary. We can find the extraordinary in the everyday, but it takes more work.
And you know how, if you’ve had an amazing vacation someplace, you often have this desire to try to re-create it, to go back to the same hotel and eat at the same restaurants and visit the same museums — but if you do, it isn’t the same? And if the place is amazing again, it’s because you did something different, or saw something you weren’t expecting? That.
We can certainly load the dice. We can own beautiful objects. We can make connections with beautiful people (beautiful in all senses of the word, not just physical). We can create beautiful experiences for ourselves — or experiences that are likely to be beautiful. We can work to make a life that is more likely to create the experience of beauty.
We can own beautiful things. But we can’t own beauty.