Dante and Don: The Word Made Flesh and the Word Made Cash

Separated by 750 years, the dualities of both Dante and Don Draper share a resonance that transcends time.

The party for Dante’s 750th birthday was extensive — he was a Gemini (21 May – 21 June) born in 1265 — with nearly 200 events taking place in Italy, and another 173 sponsored by Italian Cultural Centers around the world. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti kicked off the festivities by reciting the opening lines of Paradiso, Dante’s poem recounting his celestial voyage, while orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station. The medieval Florentine, whose imagining of the afterlife stands as one of the world’s greatest forays into virtual reality, surely appreciates the birthday wishes sent by people around the globe at Twitter hashtag #dante750.

But the best gift to Dante was delivered by the AMC series Mad Men, whose final episode aired on 17 May 2015.

In anticipation of this gift, the show’s sixth season premiered in 2013 with a spectacular direct homage to Dante. That episode opened with Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) neighbor, attempting to revive a heart-attack victim, followed by a shot of Don and Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) relaxing on a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach. But this earthly paradise was an illusion. The clue was Don’s voice-over reciting the first lines of Dante’s Inferno in the translation by John Ciardi that he held open in his hands: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray / from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood”. We learned at the end of the show that it was Don’s new lover, the doctor’s wife Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), who introduced him to the Italian poet.

“Did you read my Dante?” she purrs after they made love, Don’s body still pressing down on her.

“It made me think of you,” he says softly, his languid eyes seeking refuge in hers.

This makes her smile — he has just compared her to Dante’s Inferno, after all. “I don’t know how to take that,” she teases.

Don’s explanation, after a meaningful pause, praises both Dante and the woman who hopes the poem will deepen their intimacy: “It’s beautiful.”

But Dante’s beautiful verses, like the historical moment in which Don reads them, go hand in hand with a tale of horrific pain and destruction. Ravished by devastating social ills and reeling from the carnage of the Vietnam war at the end of 1967, America is about to implode with protests, riots, and assassinations while Don Draper, who has relapsed into infidelity, remains stuck in his existential “dark wood”.

He is as lost as ever three years later at the start of a new decade, the period of the final episode. To find himself — to survive — he must first, like Dante, hit rock bottom. Hell is the ticket to Heaven. Dante’s ticket is stamped by “three blessed women”: the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia (whose name suggests spiritual illumination), and Beatrice — the poet’s muse and great love, his bearer of beatitude. Their intercession allows Dante to witness the lost souls of Hell and the purifying spirits of Purgatory under Virgil’s guidance, and then, reunited with Beatrice, to ascend to the stars.

The female trinity in Don Draper’s life are the recipients of his “person-to-person” calls (the title of the series finalé) — his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), his dying ex-wife Betty (January Jones), and his creative protégé Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Jon Hamm thinks it’s no coincidence that Don tries (and fails) to connect emotionally with these women who “are important to him for different reasons.” He calls Peggy last, at his lowest point, a fitting reminder that, as Elisabeth Moss puts it in a recent New York Times interview, his work is the love of his life, that’s his purpose in life.

“A new day, new ideas, a new you,” intones the spiritual leader to nine men and women seated in lotus position before him, their backs to the Pacific Ocean. It remains unknown in this final scene if Don will become a new man, but he seems to be at peace with himself on this new day, the smile that spreads across his face announcing a very big new idea: the iconic Coke commercial, featuring the song “I’d like to teach the world to sing” that he will presumably pitch to his colleagues at McCann Erickson, the ad’s real-life creators.

Matthew Weiner’s brilliant decision to end the series with, in his words, the “greatest commercial ever made”, meshes beautifully — “in perfect harmony” — with the ending of what many believe to be the greatest poem ever written. The culmination of Dante’s journey through the afterlife is his vision of God. He sees the mystery of the Incarnation, the paradoxical union of complete human and divine natures, the Word made flesh. Don’s Moment of Zen produces an equally paradoxical revelation: the marriage of commerce and community achieved by the famous 1971 TV ad. The Word made cash.

The comparison appears less strange when we consider that Dante himself has become both a product and an ad man. He has become a hot commodity not just for the spiritually, intellectually, or literarily inclined, and not only in Italy, where Roberto Benigni has electrified audiences — in the piazza and on TV — over the past decade with his TuttoDante performances, brought to North America in 2009.

“Dantemania” inspires an astonishing assortment of writers, artists, and directors in today’s global culture, giving rise to popular video games and blockbuster novels like Dan Brown’s 2013 Inferno, with Ron Howard’s film adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, now scheduled to hit theaters in Fall 2016.Two of the best-selling books on Dante today are How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher, and In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi.

Whether used to help people to survive, promote the highbrow wares of Italy and a liberal arts education, or hawk consumer goods ranging from perfume to toilet paper, one thing about Dante’s work is more true today than ever before: he enjoys immense posthumous popularity — commercially and politically as well as academically and artistically — because he’s a canonical figure with broad-based appeal, a magnet for elite and mainstream audiences alike. And why not? He puts his enemies and frenemies in Hell (damning the worst of them before they die), confounds romantic love with the love of God, and prophesies his own fame, all while polishing his audacious fantasy with a veneer of spiritual fervor, intellectual rigor, and artistic splendor.

In his birthday message, Pope Francis praised Dante as a “prophet of hope” for offering a model by which humankind may “attain a new condition, marked by harmony, peace and happiness”, words that apply disturbingly well to the Coca Cola jingle lip-synched by the “young people from all over the world” gathered on a hilltop located (where else?) in Italy. For an advertising guru like Don Draper, this is indeed the Real Thing.

We found out in the first episode of season five that Don was also born under the sign of the twins, his 40th birthday falling on 1 June 1966. Speaking as Dick Whitman, he tells Megan he actually turned 40 six months earlier, but she will have none of it, insisting that “this” 1st of June, “is your birthday now”, a reminder, as if we needed it, that he didn’t so much steal another man’s identity as invent a new one. The “Don Draper” we know is, like Dante, very much a Gemini, a master and victim of the double life.

Happy belated birthday to you both.

Guy P. Raffa created the Danteworlds website (featured in the New Yorker) at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches a course on “Dante’s Hell and Its Afterlife”. He has published three books, including The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education.