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Our Mobsters, Ourselves | The Nation

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Our Mobsters, Ourselves

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In its original literal sense, "moral relativism" is simply moral complexity. That is, anyone who agrees that stealing a loaf of bread to feed one's children is not the moral equivalent of, say, shoplifting a dress for the fun of it, is a relativist of sorts. But in recent years, conservatives bent on reinstating an essentially religious vocabulary of absolute good and evil as the only legitimate framework for discussing social values have redefined "relative" as "arbitrary." That conflation has been reinforced by social theorists and advocates of identity politics who argue that there is no universal morality, only the value systems of particular cultures and power structures. From this perspective, the psychoanalytic--and by extension the psychotherapeutic--worldview is not relativist at all. Its values are honesty, self-knowledge, assumption of responsibility for the whole of what one does, freedom from inherited codes of family, church, tribe in favor of a universal humanism: in other words, the values of the Enlightenment, as revised and expanded by Freud's critique of scientific rationalism for ignoring the power of unconscious desire. What eludes the Richard Melfis is that the neutral, unjudging stance of the therapist is not an end in itself but a strategy for pursuing this moral agenda by eliciting hidden knowledge.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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Predictably, the cultural relativists have no more use for Freud than the religious conservatives. Nor are the devotees of "rational choice" economics and of a scientism that reduces all human behavior to genes or brain chemistry eager to look below the surface of things, or even admit there's such a thing as "below the surface." Which is why, in recent years, psychoanalysis has been all but banished from the public conversation as a serious means of discussing our moral and cultural and political lives. And as the zeitgeist goes, so goes popular culture: Though a continuing appetite for the subject might be inferred from the popularity of memoirs, in which psychotherapy is a recurring theme, it has lately been notably absent from movies and television. So it's more than a little interesting that The Sopranos and Analyze This! plucked the gangster-sees-therapist plot from the cultural unconscious at more or less the same time and apparently by coincidence. In The Sopranos, however, therapy is no fucking comedy, nor does it recycle old Hollywood clichés about shamanlike shrinks and sudden cathartic cures. It's a serious battle for a man's soul, carried on in sessions that look and sound a lot like the real thing (at least as I've experienced it)--full of silence, evasive chatter, lies, boredom and hostility, punctuated by outbursts of painful emotion, moments of clarity and insights that almost never sink in right away. Nor is it only the patient's drama; the therapist is right down there in the muck, sorting out her own confusions, missteps, fantasies and fears, attraction and repulsion, as she struggles to understand.

The parallels between psychotherapy and religion are reinforced by the adventures of the other Sopranos characters, who are all defined by their spiritual state. Some are damned, like Livia, whose nihilism is summed up in her penchant for smiling at other people's misfortunes and in her bitter remark to her grandson, "It's all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?" Some are complacent, like the respectable bourgeois Italian-Americans, or the self-regarding but fatally unself-aware Father Phil, Carmela's young spiritual adviser, who feeds (literally as well as metaphorically) on the neediness of the mob wives. The older, middle-level mobsters see themselves as working stiffs who expect little from life and for whom self-questioning is a luxury that's out of their class. (One of them is temporarily jolted when Tony's nephew Christopher is shot and has a vision of himself in hell; but the crisis passes quickly.) Charmaine Bucco, a neighborhood girl and old friend of Carmela's who with her husband, Artie, owns an Italian restaurant, is the embodiment of passionate faith in the virtues of honesty, integrity and hard work; she despises the mobsters, wishes they would stop patronizing the restaurant and does her best to pull the ambivalent Artie away from his longtime friendship with Tony. And then there are the strugglers, like Christopher, who inchoately wants something more out of life but also wants to rise in the mob, and Big Pussy, Tony's close friend as well as crew member, who rats to the Feds to ward off a thirty-year prison term, agonizes over his betrayal and ultimately takes refuge in identifying with his FBI handlers.

Carmela Soprano is a struggler, an ardent Catholic who feels the full weight of her sins and Tony's and lets no one off the hook. She keeps hoping Tony will change but knows he probably will not; and despite the many discontents of her marriage, anger at Tony's infidelity and misgivings about her complicity in his crimes, she will not leave him. Though she rationalizes her choice on religious grounds ("The family is a sacred institution"), she never really deceives herself: She still loves Tony, and furthermore she likes the life his money provides. Nor does she hesitate to trade on his power in order to do what she feels is a mother's duty: She intimidates Cusamano's lawyer sister-in-law into writing Meadow a college recommendation. Guilt and frustration drive her to Father Phil, who gives her books on Buddhism, foreign movies and mixed sexual signals, but after a while she catches on to his bullshit, and in a scene beloved of Sopranos fans coolly nails him: "He's a sinner, Father. You come up here and you eat his steaks and use his home entertainment center.... I think you have this MO where you manipulate spiritually thirsty women, and I think a lot of it's tied up with food somehow, as well as the sexual tension game." Compromised as she is, Carmela is a moral touchstone because of her clear eye.

But Tony's encounters with Melfi are the spiritual center of the show. The short version of Tony's psychic story is this: His gangster persona provides him with constant excitement and action, a sense of power and control, a definition of masculinity. Through violence rationalized as business or impersonal soldiering he also gets to express his considerable unacknowledged rage without encroaching on his alter ego as benevolent husband and father. But when the center fails to hold, the result is panic, then--as Melfi probes the cracks--depression, self-hatred, sexual collapse and engulfing, ungovernable anger. There are glimmers along the way, as when Tony sees the pointlessness of killing the sexually wayward soccer coach, calls off the hit and lets the cops do their job (after which he feels impelled to get so drunk he passes out). But the abyss always looms.

Tony's heart of darkness is personified by Livia Soprano, who at first seems peggable as a better-done-than-usual caricature of the overbearing ethnic mother but is gradually revealed as a monstrous Medea. Furious at Tony for consigning her to a fancy "retirement community," Livia passes on some well-chosen pieces of information--including the fact that he's seeing a shrink--to Tony's malleable Uncle Junior, who orders him killed. When the hit is botched, she suddenly begins to show symptoms of Alzheimer's. Jennifer Melfi puts it together; worried that Tony's life is in danger, she breaks the therapeutic rule that patients must make their own discoveries and confronts him with her knowledge. He reacts with a frightening, hate-filled paroxysm of denial--for the first time coming close to attacking Jennifer physically--but is forced to admit the truth when he hears a damning conversation between Livia and Junior, caught on tape by the FBI.

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