Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Sopranos

I know I am woefully and even embarrassingly behind the curve on this one, but I have just recently begun to watch The Sopranos. I have heard so much about the show that I thought there was no way it could live up to its hype, but it does. The writing masterfully culls suspense from even the most quotidian of the characters’ activities. There isn’t a sloppily sketched character in the show, and even some of the more peripheral figures — say Junior or Lorraine Bracco’s shrink — could easily support entire spinoff shows on their own. I’m hooked.

The show is a good example of what Susan Faludi calls “backlash” art. Tony Soprano’s dilemma is that he lives in a world that has been thoroughly “feminized,” and he just wants to be an old-fashioned man. To the extent that you identify with Tony, and I have to confess I do, it’s because you feel a pang of yearning for those good old days when everything could be settled with the nod of an authoritarian figure, or if need be, reversion to a gun. No talking through your problems, compromising with idiot bosses, or acknowledging the demands of your wife or for that matter any woman. Tony’s world is a man’s world. The emphasis is on loyalty, honor, and good ol’ family values — it is, or at least seems to be, without any of the complications that attend present society.

The show’s genius is in eliciting this nostalgia in viewers (or male viewers), but then reminding them that Tony is a sociopath of unbelievable proportions. The world we men pang for was brutal, and immoral. I for one don’t want to go back to hacking apart corpses and dumping them in swamps. It’s for this reason that I don’t think it’s fair to describe The Sopranos as misogynist or retrograde — if you really pine for the past depicted in the show, you become complicit with the Tony’s violence (and indeed that is precisely the morally ambiguous slot occupied by Tony’s shrink).

The Sopranos is backwards looking in another way too — it’s very Freudian. The show’s structure perfectly dovetails with Freud’s understanding of the mind. Tony’s nighttime world of violence and unrestrained sexuality is the unconscious; his married daytime life is the conscious; Tony’s shrink is his superego, struggling to reign in his unconscious impulses even as she attempts to further unearth them. The show’s most powerful moments happen when the unconscious world intersects with the conscious one, when Tony, for example, tries to be a loving husband, or Carmelo (Tony’s conscious life) falls in love with Furio, the most violent and certainly of Tony’s posse (note Furio’s name).

The trouble is that Freud has been thoroughly disproven. Unconscious, conscious, superego? — there are no such things, or at least they don’t exist as Freud conceived of them. But whereas The Sopranos is willing to acknowledge Tony’s world is outdated, it still clings to the spectre of Freud. This seems to me to be a lot more dangerous than its masculinist impulses. It’s advocacy of a view of the mind that has been so thoroughly disproven by science might even be compared to promoting Creationism.

Why do the arts cling so faithfully to Freud? His view of consciousness was simply wrong, and yet it still serves most of our writers as the base from which they construct character and motivation. What’s needed, I think, is an artist who can represent consciousness as it is now conceived by neuroscientists like Damasio and Ledoux and philosophers like Searle and Dennett. In these thinkers’ works, the mind ceases to exist. We have only brains with consciousness reduced to just a particular pattern of firing neurons. We become radically embodied.

But how would the arts begin to represent this, our new condition, when, at least in the case of writing, you are talking about an activity that can only exist in so far as you accept the idea of a mind divorced from the body, a thinking ‘I’ apart from the world describing its perceptions. I have no idea what the answer is.


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