December 13, 2003

Guilty Pleasure: The Sopranos

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.

-- Samuel Johnson, The Rambler IV (31 March 1750)

Like many eighteenth-century critics, Johnson worried about the moral effects of the (still relatively new) form of fiction known as the novel. What he worried about was that the reality effects of the novel might undermine a deeper reality: that is, that moral truths were absolute, regardless of the story. These truths, Johnson suggested, might be more effectively conveyed through less realistic characters and plot devices than were found in the novel.

As Johnson saw it, an earlier tradition of romance had typically traced the incredible (or "wonderful") exploits of heroic characters who were obviously, and dramatically, far removed from common life in order to illustrate general moral principles that could then be applied by humbler folk to the more mundane situations of the everyday world. The novel, on the other hand, aimed at something rather different: "to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder." It staked its claim on versimilitude (okay, if you've read any eighteenth-century fiction lately, you will realize that what passed for "natural" was highly stylized indeed -- then again, the same can obviously be said of 19th-century realism, which in many respects was much more "realistic" than eighteenth-century fiction: was it Lennard Davis who pointed out -- I'm pretty sure it was Davis but I'm too lazy to look it up -- that with an eighteenth-century novel, you don't get a precise account of, say, what the heroine looks like? you read that she is "handsome" or "a great beauty" but are left to fill in the blanks, whereas with a nineteenth-century novel you are told that she has blonde hair or brown, curly or straight -- of course he had a larger point, but I'm already digressing...). For Johnson, what was disturbing and potentially dangerous about the novel's ambition to faithfully reproduce the everyday transactions of common life was its depiction of characters "drawn from nature," warts, wrinkles and all (eg, mostly good but with some notable flaw of plot-turning significance; mostly bad but with some redeeming trait that could elicit the reader's sympathy). He wanted protagonists to be not "natural" but exemplary: clear and unambiguous emblems of vice and virtue.

Johnson's concern over the effects of fiction will undoubtedly strike many readers as a quaint relic from the museum of wrongheaded moralizing over doomed causes.

But now that I'm finally caught up on the Sopranos, I have to say that I think Johnson may have had a point. Yes, I know I'm a little behind the curve here: I have only very recently finished watching the most recent season. I plead motherhood as my excuse. And no, I'm not about to adopt the stance of the eighteenth-century anti-novelist, ranting against the evils of the circulating library and exhorting young women to avoid the seductive temptations of the novel, which will only inflame their passions and leave them prey to some vicious aristocratic rake (possibly Mick Jagger) who will bring about their ruin. Are you kidding?! How could I object to the circulating library when I'm running a weblog? Anyway, I love novels.

And I'm really looking forward to the next (and I think final?) season of the Sopranos. But I have to say I sometimes feel a bit uneasy watching the show, I sometimes experience something that might almost be described as qualms of conscience. Not enough to stop watching, to be sure, but just enough to write this blog entry. I find myself sympathizing with convicted felons and people who should be convicted as felons, and then I'll watch a scene depicting the most brutal violence and the most shocking lack of remorse or decency, and sure, I'm your basic bleeding heart liberal, and I realize that Tony Soprano learned all of this in his childhood and was born and bred up to the trade, but there's just too much blood on the floor.

It's not that I have lost my abhorrence of their faults, as Johnson put it. Far from it. But I do derive a great deal of delight and pleasure from the show, and I do sometimes wonder whether this is quite right.

Did I mention that I love Carmela? The struggles of conscience with the bargain she has struck, and the way the motives are so obviously mixed (wanting to be a good Catholic, which means not leaving your husband, but also wanting to continue to lead an affluent lifestyle even if it means, as that pyschiatrist told her, that she's a criminal accomplice). I think Edie Falco is wonderful.

Anyway, I've oversimplified my account of Johnson's concern over the novel. I think it's really a concern over the psychologized self. Which is to say, the self as enormously rich and complex, full of inner depths and layers of meaning, with some core of self-authorizing authenticity which you might be able to get at if only you could plumb those depths through psychoanalysis or a recovering-your- inner-child workshop or what have you. Okay, that's not quite fair. And of course I'm as committed to my psychologized self as the next self.

But I do want to insist that this sense of self is something relatively new. Look at the early modern witch trials, for example, and read the testimonies of people who believed themselves to be possessed. Nowadays, we psychologize: we turn inward and assume some deep mental or psychological trauma. But that's not what people did circa 1600: they turned not inward but outward: some evil agent (if not satan, then one of his minions) had come from without and launched a sort of invasion. The frame of reality was external, not internal, objective not subjective. Likewise, the understanding of morality in its origins and application. Its enforcement, for example. The standard narrative: whereas in the premodern world, the code is enforced from without, through violence or at least the threat of violence, in the modern world, the subject internalizes the code and more or less voluntarily agrees to regulate his or her own conduct accordingly (which some describe as another kind of "violence"). You don't have to be a Foucauldian to arrive at this understanding, by the way, you can read Charles Taylor, and in my opinion you should.

Part of the frisson of delight with the Sopranos: the protagonist is all about some older "feudal" code of honour and violence (or at least, a low-rent New Jersey imitation thereof), and yet he visits Dr. Melfi. In other words, the joke, and the interest, is that he has a pyschologized self, with an "inner child," or that version of self-history that we call childhood. Which makes it possible for us to sympathize, even as we recoil. Which is exactly what Johnson was worried about.

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't trade my modern psychologized self for anything, and I'm glad we're no longer holding witch trials. But I do think it's a mixed blessing. We get a sense of some of the difficulties, I believe, when we come up against a certain type of criminal case. Someone has committed the most heinous of crimes, the most shocking act of brutality that would seem to place him beyond the reach of humanity. And then, almost inevitably, we learn that he never had a father and that his mother was a drug addict and a prostitute, and that he was neglected and abandoned, shunted about from one foster home to the next, unloved, untaught, unwanted. Yes, I'm pouring it on. We all know the story. And we all know -- because we all subscribe to the narrative of the psychologized self -- that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would turn to be the kind of person who could commit such a crime. But then there's the crime, and how can that go unpunished? Where do we draw the line between a notion of responsibility that still relies on some version or other of an external framework, and our basically subjectivist understanding of the story that makes up our notion of the complex self? Because after all, and since we all subscribe to the narrative of the psychologized self, doesn't everyone -- you, me, and Tony Soprano -- have a story?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 13, 2003 08:44 PM

Nice post. Lots of ways one could go with this; I'll just note four.

1) The dilemma of the criminal with the story is best expressed, for my money, by Kant, in the Third Antinomy of Pure Reason. First, Kant "proves" the thesis:

Causality in accordance with laws of nature is not the only causality from which the appearances of the world can one and all be derived. To explain these appearances it is necessary to assume that there is also another causality, that of freedom.

Then he "proves" the antithesis:

There is no freedom; everything in the world takes place solely in accordance with laws of nature.

And so ends metaphysics. And the real story of the modern self--divided and confused--begins.

2) The lines that make Unforgiven a profound movie are in the exchange between Hackman and Eastwood, just before Eastwood shoots Hackman. Hackman says, "I don't deserve this." Eastwood replies, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

What needs to be done isn't about our stories. It doesn't matter why it was you who did the crime, it only matters that it was you.

3) The law is actually pretty smart about this issue. It does leave a space for exoneration when the story couldn't have ended any other way, which is to say, when the perpetrator is insane, or brainwashed, or somehow not in control, or ineluctably compelled.

4) I've never been able to get into the Sopranos, but because of what seems to me its lack of naturalism. I haven't been able to believe that people so inhumane and coarse in some respects are just another suburban family with a secret. Maybe that's the joke and I don't have a sense of humor, or maybe my moralism blinds me to their humanity; whatever it is, they've never made me feel sympathetic and therefore torn.

Posted by: ogged at December 14, 2003 03:34 AM

I guess for me then, the question is whether one should be excused because one evokes sympathy. Is the fact that a person can be pitied, or that other people can sympathize with their motivations, sufficient to exonerate a person's criminal acts? Should people be allowed to wreak havoc because they never had someone teach them not to? And where in the discussion will you put the fact that there are many people with similar backgrounds who do not behave in the same manner, who do not perpetrate the same acts of violence or theft or whatnot?

I would suggest an algorithm for discussion is at least possible. This would help prevent a kneejerk reaction to someone's behavior (whether accepting or rejecting the behavior):

1) Do I feel some sympathy for this accused criminal? Why? Is it because the law he/she violated is unjust, or because the person has had a life less privileged than mine?

2) Assuming that the law is just, how serious is the crime (by whatever scale you choose)? Did it materially harm another? Was it violent? In other words, is prosecuting this person for their acts worth the resources it will take to get a conviction?

2a) Assuming that the law is unjust, should we still enforce it until it is changed (as Teddy Roosevelt argued), or should we just act as if the law wasn't there until we get around to fixing it (like so many tidbits in the Texas Consitution are treated)?

3) I suppose here you would have to decide here on the propriety of actually prosecuting the person. Issues to think about would be the cost to society of letting the person go free vs. the cost of jailing the person, whether the concept of fairness is a social construct that should be enforced in law, as we currently understand fairness (race, socioeconomic background, etc), whether the sympathy one feels for the accused is sufficient reason for society to allow the behavior to go unpunished, and even whether any governmental vengeance should be aimed at rehabilitation or at simple deterrence. There is a great bit about this in Frank Abagnale's autobiography, "Catch Me If You Can", in which he recounts his prison experiences in France, Sweden, and the US, and he specifically notes that the French believe in punishment, not rehabilitation. How do want our system to be?

I know that I will be flamed for this, especially since I was raised by a middle-class family (even if just barely above that hazy dividing line), but I feel that socioeconomic background is not ever sufficient to excuse criminal behavior. There are just too many people who are poor and do not commit such crimes to say that poverty is a justifiable motivation for crime. And if it was overwhelming poverty, why weren't there worldwide crime epidemics during the Great Depression? I just cannot wrap my head around the possibilty that being poor would allow a person to think that this stuff was okay. And in the case of the Families, yakuza, Triads, Russian mafia, OPEC
(just kidding), etc., poverty isn't even an issue -- what could possibly be justification for violent organized crime?

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 14, 2003 05:21 AM

Well, for a self-described bleeding heart liberal, IA, you've just drawn three decidedly staunched responses on the matter of subjectivity, life circumstances, and criminality. Along these lines, if you haven't read it, Wallace Shawn's short performance piece, The Fever, might interest you.

Posted by: Cecilia at December 14, 2003 06:43 AM

"Is the fact that a person can be pitied, or that other people can sympathize with their motivations, sufficient to exonerate a person's criminal acts? Should people be allowed to wreak havoc because they never had someone teach them not to?"

No, not at all. Which is precisely my point. I'm not saying a person should get off because he had a lousy childhood. I'm saying there is a tension between our complex understanding of the production of selves, and our need to impose a more or less objective framework which says, You cross this line and you will have to pay the consequences regardless of your story.

"The law is actually pretty smart about this issue. It does leave a space for exoneration when the story couldn't have ended any other way, which is to say, when the perpetrator is insane, or brainwashed, or somehow not in control, or ineluctably compelled."

I agree with you, ogged. But I also think it's more complex than you suggest. There's the law, and then there are the actual cases involving the application of the law.

About a month ago (maybe a bit longer -- I'm not going to try and look it up because I'm pretty sure it will now be in the pay-only archives) the NYTimes Magazine had an interesting story about the reluctance of juries to impose the death penalty. Now, I've described myself as a bleeding heart liberal. What was intriguing about the case detailed in the article is that the jury members were not bleeding heart liberals. Opponents of the death penalty (such as myself) get weeded out during jury selection. So these 12 people all supported the death penalty and at least a couple of them described themselves as tough-on-crime law and order types. And yet, when faced with the story, they moved to mitigate the sentence. They didn't say the murderer should go free, mind you, but they didn't vote to impose the death sentence. What it suggested (at least of these 12 people) is that even though they held to a more objective frame as a matter of principle (here's the line, don't cross it), when faced with an actual specific case (which is also to say, of course, when faced with an actual version of a case as presented by the the defendant's lawyers during sentencing phase), they vote differently: life sentence but not death penalty.

I can scarcely imagine a jury voting this way a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. The crime was particularly heinous: a young man, only 18 or 19 years old, robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk -- someone he knew, someone he hd gone to school with -- in cold blood for the sake of a trifling amount of money. He didn't have to kill the clerk: he could have left with the money without committing the murder. He shot him in the head, apparently just for the hell of it.

The story -- and it's not just about poverty, though it's surely related, but to say it's just socioeconomc is to make it too simple -- is that he was raised in circumstances of unimaginable violence and chaos. I can't remember all of the details, but I recall that as a very young child he witnessed several frightening assaults on his mother by his father (and perhaps also a retaliatory attack by the mother on the father), and that the mother finally left with the child, and moved in with another woman who used to turn tricks in the living room -- which this kid also witnessed. Again, I would have to look it up to get all of the details, but the point was that his upbringing, or lack thereof, was so horrendous that it shocked even the law-and-order types into a kind of sympathy: not that they voted to let him off, but they would not impose the death penalty.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 14, 2003 12:08 PM

For an even more complex, and disturbing moral mind-bend of readerly sympathies, check out Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series. Nevermind the terrible Matt Damon/Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow slog-fest, the novels are extremely good, and you will find yourself rooting for Ripley, and sympathizing with him -- well, yes, he had no choice, he had to kill that poor gut -- even though he is, as literary characters go, the anti-christ.

Posted by: Chris at December 14, 2003 12:26 PM

Well, I'd trade my own modern psychologized self for a Sandy Koufax rookie card and an autographed baseball, but to each his own.

This is a can of worms, eh? My own immediate responses (in lieu of the 400-page book which is really required):

1. A lot of people seem to have really boring lives which they spice up vicariously through movies.

2. One of the reasons I loved "Fargo" and hated "Pulp Fiction" is that in Fargo the crooks were stupid, boring, mean, and tacky whereas in PF they had this presence, glamor and charm. I had a fair amount of peripheral contact with professional criminals during the sixties, and the Fargo picture is more accurate. (Successful criminals are not as stupid as the Fargo guys, and some of them have a creepy manipulative charm, but they are much more commonplace and meaner than the movies show them to be.)

3. A lot of people justify their own small offenses by saying "that's the real world, baby!" It makes them feel tough and with-it, and Mafia films reinforce this opinion. One of their errors is thinking that they're in on the game, when actually they're almost always the chumps and the fall guys. (I first noticed this in the cheesy Paul Newman "The Sting" which is about a bunch of nice con men who punish a bad con man).

4. On the other hand, poverty is punished very severely, whereas criminals who get away with it are accepted into normal society because of their money. A lot of big fortunes were established on criminal foundation.

5. Psychologization can be used to make anyone into a victim or a patient (as opposed to agent). Deep philosophical questions aside, sometimes this can be pushed to ludicrous extremes. For example, some social groups seem to demand pain and victimization as the price of admission. An unvictimized person who just likes the people in the group will be expected to prove victimization before being accepted.

6. Predators are con men who are virtuosos of manipulation, so if you are vulnerable to the victimization story and they want something out of you, you will find out how terribly victimized they have been all their life.

Posted by: zizka at December 14, 2003 01:15 PM

Zizka, thanks: your 2 is a much better way of saying what I was getting at in my 4. (Not that I hung out with criminals in the sixties.)

IA, the fact that your example is about sentencing (the death penalty, no less) and not about determination of guilt makes it a difference in kind and not just degree, no?

Posted by: ogged at December 14, 2003 02:28 PM

I was just reading Cardano's Cosmos, which describes Cardano's increasing self-analysis; but he did it in terms of his geniture. The joke is that he was using such a pseudo-system of astrology that he could have come up with a reason for anything, so he might have been actually examining his inner self.

Posted by: clew at December 15, 2003 08:25 PM