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February/March '06 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

(Warning: This Message from Dan, dealing as it does with The Sopranos, is R-rated at the very least. The following essay contains offensive language. It is recommended that civilized men, timid women, children of all ages, and Anglican vicars skip this Feb.-March installment. I’ll meet those of you wise enough to heed this warning at our April ’06 Message from Dan.)

INT. VESUVIO’S RESTAURANT – AFTERNOON

Owner Artie Bucco fusses over two special guests. Tony Soprano, dressed sharply in a dark sportcoat, open blue shirt, silk pocket square, and $300 slacks, is sitting at his usual table near the rear where he can see both entrances and the entire restaurant. His back is to the wall. He’s eating his Tagliata Di Bue Al Balsamico with great gusto.

Across from him sits a tall, thin, dowdy, hollow-eyed, thin-lipped woman who looks like she dressed herself by tumbling through a Thrift Store rummage bin with her eyes closed. She pokes at her Pollo Alla Valdosta with suspicion. Her name is Virginia Woolf.

Tony accepts a third pour of red wine from Artie but when Artie offers the lady some, she covers her empty glass with her hand and shakes her head. Tony smiles, nods, and sends the owner-waiter away with a flick of his fingers.

TONY

Mrs. Woolf, you may be
wondering why I asked you to
meet me here.

Virginia remains silent but glares at Tony Soprano.

TONY
(continuing)

Hey! Don’t aim those fucking
Manson lamps at me!

VIRGINIA

Mr. Soprano. Are you, by any
chance, Jewish?

Tony laughs.


TONY

Lady, do members of the Tribe
have last names that end in
vowels where you come from?


VIRGINIA

Perhaps not. But they share the
same traits you have shown in
the few minutes of our
acquaintance here.

Tony raises his eyebrows. He is still smiling slightly as he mops up the last of his
balsamic sauce with his bread.

TONY

Which are?

VIRGINIA

Boorishness. Vulgarity. Paucity
of civilized vocabulary. The
same pullulating
aggressiveness, grotesque
wattles, bulges, and annoying
nasal whine.

TONY
(laughing)

Ginnie, hon, you just described
my whole fucking family. On a
good day.

Virginia stands and flings down her napkin. Her expression flickers from outrage to disgust and back again.

VIRGINIA

I am leaving now.

TONY

Yeah, well, fuck it. Thanks for
the announcement.
(raising his voice as
she leaves)
You’d better hurry! Your
broomstick is double-parked.

She stalks out of the restaurant, hugging her upper body as if she’s been contaminated.

TONY
(continuing,
calling after her)

Give my regards to your two
sisters at the fucking
cauldron.
     (continued)

Artie! Could I get some spumoni
and espresso here?

Thank you for indulging me.

This is my subtle way of saying that I’ve finally come to peace with the ghost of Virginia Woolf. That is, after decades of trying to understand and empathize with the lady, I’ve finally decided that I can’t stand her. I am, on the other hand, getting through this particular winter of my discontent by looking forward to the sixth season of The Sopranos that resumes on March 12 after a hiatus of almost two years.

Now, please understand that I know that my unkind opinion of Ms. Woolf cannot harm her high standing in the literary world in any way. Woolf’s literary reputation – after some eclipse when the entire Bloombsbury gaggle was out of favor for a few decades – has never been higher. She is an icon and not just to feminist critics, although they revere her in a way that may sometimes violate the First Commandment.

And to be fair, I here acknowledge her as a far superior writer to this mere scribbler. If she had written only Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf would have earned her right to lie among the great writers in Westminster Abbey or wherever else she might have chosen to rest her soggy bones. Every time I reread To the Lighthouse, I find riffs and connections that make me stop and shake my head at her brilliance.

But I can’t stand the woman.

Virginia Woolf has become, at least for me, the Mother of All Resenters – the matriarch of what critic Harold Bloom calls this Age of Resentment in literary-political thought. The resentment I’m speaking of is not mere anger at injustice or at the world’s more violent absurdities and hypocrisies – all writers worth their salt are filled with that kind of resentful energy – but rather the resentment shown by the meek and mild in appearance who are secretly filled with hate and envy. Woolf and her Bloomsbury Group all too often symbolize (to this biased observer) a kind of mewling, passive-aggressive, disdainful, sneering, defeatist, love-humanity-but-hate-most-human beings, high hypocritical art-worshiping and blue-collar-dismissing dilettantism of the pampered and privileged professional poseur.

Whew. I feel better now. Does anyone have a Tylenol?

This could be the appropriate place for someone to leap in and accuse me of being a sexist and misogynist. (I prefer the latter term.) And it’s true that in my teaching and discussion of writing and literary issues, I most frequently cite male writers I admire – from Shakespeare to Twain to Hemingway to Nabokov to Fowles to Tom Wolfe to Michale Ondaatje so forth and so on. But those who know me also know that my love and admiration for Emily Dickinson – and my awe of her mind and writing – literally have no bounds. And if there were religious denominations based on novelists, one would find me in a front pew at the Church of Jane Austen every Sunday. And for those few of you out there who might also love boxing as a sport, be informed that in the long history of essays on the sweet science – and prize fighting has been the Muse for more quality pieces of non-fiction writing than any other sport in history – I’m the guy who always maintains that no one has laid a glove on Joyce Carol Oates. She is the undefeated champion in such essays (having beaten Norman Mailer in an 11th round TKO) and she has the belt to prove it.

So let’s assume that my affinity for Tony Soprano and dislike for Virginia Woolf are founded on something besides rampant misogyny.

It might be because her veiled hatred and resentment of so many often took the form of anti-Semitism.

Woolf’s most recent literary biographer (who focuses on how the author’s life affected her work and vice versa, rather than mere life-biography) – Julia Briggs, professor of English Lit. at Montfort University in Leicester, previously professor of Woolf Studies at Hereford College, Oxford, and currently editor of Penguin UK reprint series of Woolf novels – is on record as stating that – “Woolf’s anti-Semitism is characteristic of her class and her moment – casual, unsystematic, and apparently thoughtless. It was as invisible to her as sexism was to the rest of Bloomsbury.” And then Professor Briggs changes the subject to feminism, sexism, and Virginia Woolf’s outspoken courage on such topics.

I’m not so sure the writer’s easy anti-Semitism, at that particular juncture in time (1930’s to 1941) can be dismissed so easily.

In Woolf’s The Years there’s a well-known scene involving Sara, a hunchback, and Sara’s nephew North in which the nephew is reciting a poem when they’re interrupted by the sound of footsteps and water running in the shared bathroom on the floor. “The Jew having a bath,” Sara said . . . “And tomorrow there’ll be a line of grease around the bath.”

The Jew is called Abrahamson and perhaps the grease is due to the fact that he works in the tallow trade. But the character of Sara is so put off by his proximity that she almost contemplates “taking a job to escape from it” – horrors! – but the only job she’s capable of doing might be journalism, which means selling her writing, which means “prostituting” herself intellectually, which means “committing adultery of the brain.” So she contents herself to humming “the Jew’s in my bath” over and over while she obsesses on being contaminated by her proximity to him.

This little episode might indeed be written off as “casual, unsystematic, and apparently thoughtless” – if one were to be foolish enough to believe that anything in Virginia Woolf’s final draft of a book or a story could be “thoughtless,” but her 1937 story “The Duchess and the Jeweller” is far more systematic and anything but casual. In this story she tells of a rapacious Jew-jeweller, a certain Oliver Bacon (cute, Ginnie) who tries to cheat the Duchess of Lambourne, who succeeds in cheating the jeweller instead. Mr. Bacon is everything a good Fagin-Shylock Jew should be – born in the East End slums, beginning his career by selling stolen dogs in Whitechapel, and the very image of hooknosed Jew as banker and leering political conspirator.

“ . . . his nose, which was long and flexible, like an elephant’s trunk, seemed to say by its curious quiver at the nostrils (but it seemed as if the whole nose quivered, not only the nostrils) that he was not satisfied yet; still smelt something under the ground a little further off. Imagine a giant hog in a pasture rich with truffles.”

But let’s be fair. Woolf’s defenders here, and they are Legion, point out that Virginia more or less borrowed this metaphorical description of the greedy Jew’s nose from the novel The Wise Virgins written by her husband, Leonard Woolf.

And Leonard was a Jew.

But Leonard Woolf was of the kind of socialist British Jew who tried to out-gentile gentiles in being a gentile. He had been the first Jew ever to be elected to the exclusive Cambridge society club known as the Apostles and had gone off to serve England for seven years in the Colonial Service in Sri Lanka before marrying Virginia. Leonard Woolf’s philosophy, as he himself once summed it up, was that “in the last resort nothing matters.

Sex was one of the things that did not matter for either Leonard or his new wife (he and Virginia were married in 1912, prompting her worst mental and physical breakdown ever.) As Virginia Woolf loved to describe the courtship to her family and others – “I had shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation to marry a penniless Jew.” She liked that phrase – “penniless Jew” – and used it over and over while announcing her engagement to her old friends. Virginia had warned Leonard before they were engaged that there was no way that she was going to reciprocate his sexual passion, and in this she was as good as her word. Just after their long honeymoon in Europe, Virginia wrote to a friend – “We’ve talked incessantly for 7 weeks, and become chronically nomadic and monogamic . . . Why do you think people make such a fuss about marriage and copulation? . . . I find the climax immensely exaggerated.”

Virginia was no fan of sexual intercourse. In a talk to the Bloomsbury Group, she told explicit stories of being sexually abused by both her half-brothers (Gerald and George Duckworth) although the “sexual abuse” was usually described in terms of George coming into her bedroom where he would “fling himself on my bed, cuddling and kissing and otherwise embracing me in order . . to comfort me for the fatal illness of my father – who was dying three or four storeys down of cancer.”

These half-joking and bizarre revelations were given to her friends in a talk in 1921 or 1922 and within the context of the “Memoir Club” – a group of her oldest and closest friends who’d agreed to amuse each other with gossipy, intimate revelations. Confession as titillation.

Twenty years after her marriage to Leonard, in a letter to Ethyl Smith, Virginia writes –“How I hated marrying a Jew – how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewelry, and their noses and their wattles” – and she adds – “what a snob I was: for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all.”

But vitality was never a positive thing for Virginia Woolf. A woman given to constant headaches, anorexia, bouts of what she considered madness, weeks in bed, she saw such vitality as sinister – especially when it is to be found in Jews. In the same letter she continued – “They cant [sic] die – they exist on a handful of rice and a thimble of water – their flesh dries on their bones, but still they pullulate, copulate, and amass . . . millions of money.” All of them amasssing money except for her Leonard, of course, that “penniless Jew.”

“Pullulate”, by the by, means “to breed, to produce, or create rapidly.” We’re back to the obscenity of copulation again, always a nightmare to Virginia Woolf. At several points in her diaries, she talks of wanting children. She simply wants to have them without having to suffer a male’s penis being within a country mile of her.

“After the Woolf’s long honeymoon,” writes one biographer, “it was clear that conventional sexual intercourse was never going to be entirely easy, although they developed other ways of expressing physical affection, adopting their own private names and games – the love of mongoose for mandrill, the marmots’ antics – through which to express them. Like many women, Virginia apparently loved being cuddled and carressed, but did not enjoy sexual penetration.”

That rather cryptic comment about “marmots’ antics” relates to their pet marmosets – children subsitutes? – and leads to one of the more bizarre episodes in their marriage when, in 1938, at the acme of Hitler’s rise to power, Leonard and Virginia decide to go touring in Nazi Germany. Leonard – still a Jew, we must remember, although he rarely seemed to aknowledge the fact – did go to his Foreign Office friends for advice and received the suggestion that he “not drive along the Rhine or get mixed up in any Nazi party demonstrations.”

They did just that, of course, heading straight for a Rhine drive and then finding themselves literally in the middle of a huge city-wide reception for Hermann Goering. They soon found themselves surrounded by thousands of Nazis in uniform and Hitler Youth schoolboys waving Nazi flags. Mitz the marmoset they’d brought with them (they’d got this one from the Rothschilds) – and which we assume was clutching them as hard as they were now clutching it in their open touring car – saved the day. “Kleine apzi!” cried the marching Germans, always sentimental suckers for big-eyed little animals. The thugs in Nazi unforms fawned over the marmoset and didn’t take time to notice Leonard’s Jewishness. Passing ranks of Hitler Youth gave Mitz the marmoset the Nazi salute.

“What was the marmozets [sic] view of Germany?” T. S. Eliot later wrote to ask.

When Virginia returned from that particular tour of the Rhineland, she told Victorio Ocampo, who was preparing to translate A Room of One’s Own into Spanish, that she might “ . . . write a sequel to it, denouncing Fascism: but must finish my novel first.” She never wrote a sequel denouncing Fascism, of course – she was too busy writing polemics denouncing men. Men were always the real enemy. Hitler and Mussolini weren’t the true threat to civilization, she explained on more than one occasion, it was the animal that was in all men—men as in male humans -- that should terrify us. The Germans or Italians were no worse than English gentlemen in that respect.

Virginia was a pacifist, of course, as were almost all of the Bloomsbury intellectuals. Most of them had long since decided that they would not go to war or support a war for any reason. Certainly never for so vulgar a purpose as to defend a mere nation.

“ . . . as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Woolf had written this in her 1938 polemic, Three Guineas, but the phrasing, of course, comes from the Communist Manifesto. (“The working people have no country.”) And while she admitted to not being able to rid herself completely of sentimental ties to the idea of Englishness – “ . . . some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, by the splash of waves on a beach, or by the English voices murmuring nursery rhymes” – she joined with the majority of her intellectual friends in eschewing any thought of nationalism or national defense.

Leonard Woolf, for his part, trusted in the sane diplomacy of Neville Chamberlain and in the ultimate efficacy of the League of Nations (an institution that he, as a member of the Foreign Service, had helped to create.) As those options closed, he stocked more rationed petrol in the garage for the carbon monoxide solution. When the remaining Bloomsbury circle met after the war began, they traded swapping intimate gossip ala the Memoir Club for discussing the best ways to commit suicide. Virginia thought that jumping off a bridge into the river was preferable; Leonard stuck with running the car in a closed garage – efficient, painless, and did not leave much of a mess for others to clean up, nor would it put others out by requiring them to drag the river. (And it would save the Nazis ever so much trouble of their own.)

Dealing with human and political incarnations of pure evil takes a toll on intellectuals, who pride themselves in seeing nuance in all things – in perceiving gray tones where lesser minds seek out black and white.

In New York in 1939, progressive German playwright Ernst Toller, who had written the year before – “My home is the earth and the world is my fatherland” – committed suicide because of his despair for the future. That same year, the suffragist and pacifist Helena Swanwich, who had known Virginia Woolf when Virginia was a baby, committed suicide rather than see the world go back to war. In 1940, more European intellectuals, driven into actual physical flight by the actual physical presence of Nazi troops who wore gray but who had little interest in seeing the world in such half-tones, killed themselves: poet Walter Hasenclever and culture critic Walter Benjamin among them. In 1942, French intellectual Simone Weil would starve herself to death.

But Virginia Woolf was dead by then. On March 28, 1941, the writer left a long note for Leonard, walked down to the nearby tidal River Ouse, put one large heavy stone (or a bunch of smaller rocks, the record is unclear) in her pocket and walked out into the current.

#

Tony Soprano is a mob boss, a murderer, a sexist pig (he runs the Bada Bing strip club and cheats on his wife Carmela with countless goomahs), a liar, a sociopath, a thief, and a lousy father. His kids – moronic son A.J. and the older, smarter, but more mean-spirited Meadow, both almost grown now – are psychological basket cases. Tony’s own relationship with his late mother, Livia, might have been generously described as strained. (The old lady tried to have her son whacked, using Tony’s Uncle Junior as her executioner of choice, but it backfired and Tony was only minutes away from suffocating his mother with a pillow in the Green Grove retirement village when Livia got out of it by having – or faking – a massive stroke.) Over the last few seasons, Tony Soprano has either personally killed or ordered killed – 1)his best friend, Big Pussy; 2) his daughter’s boyfriend Jackie Aprile, Jr. 3) his sister’s fiancée Richie Aprile (although it was his sister, Parvati-Janice who ended up killing Richie before Tony could put his death sentence into effect, when her dear Richie punched her in the face during a quarrel at dinner and she promptly put two .45 slugs in his chest) 4) his sister’s newer boyfriend Ralph Cifaretto (whom Tony beat to death with his own hands, suspecting that Ralphie had burned a racehorse to death) 5) his beloved nephew-cousin Christopher’s fiancée Adriana, who had been flipped by the FBI, just a few days before the wedding and 6) his much-loved cousin Tony Blundetto. This is only a partial list.

You gotta love him.

Like Virginia Woolf, Tony Soprano is the product of a disfunctional family. Virginia reacted to the chaos of her childhood by becoming a lifelong neurasthenic. Most of you know that neurasathenia was a catch-all diagnosis of the day, usually applied to middle-class and upper-class women, and covered a broad spectrum of symptoms: constant headaches, mysterious malaise, fainting spells, depression, insomnia, thoughts of suicide, anxiety about body image, and eating disorders such as anorexia (a condition that had been named as far back as 1870).

Virginia Woolf exhibited all of these symptoms and more. Throughout their almost three decades of married life, Leonard was more of a nursemaid to the writer than a husband.

Tony Soprano’s childhood makes Virginia’s look like the Father Knows Best family and he shows many of the same symptoms as an adult: severe depression, panic attacks, thoughts about suicide, occasional fainting spells when stress is at its worst (especially when related to his mother), insomnia, and eating disorders. But where Virginia became an anorexic for the rest of her life, Tony became a blimp.

Much of Virginia Woolf’s neuroses exhibited themselves in her lifelong attitude toward sex and so does Tony Soprano’s. But where Virginia’s reaction has been summarized as “a reluctance to accept adult sexuality,” Tony’s primary response has been to turn into a satyr.

Besides his goomahs (a Mafia guy’s mistress, also goomar, most correctly comare), Tony has been known to wet his weasel with a wide variety of casual lady acquaintances in his life, up to but not quite including his nephew-cousin Christopher’s fiancée Adriana.

Exhange with his psychotherapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, when she suggests setting some boundaries with Adriana:

MELFI:      For example, you could tell her she means a great deal to you, but you think of her as a daughter.

TONY:      Yeah, and she does. Even if I want to fuck her brains out.

Asking about Tony Soprano’s sexual appetites reminds me of dialogue in the movie Night Moves where Gene Hackman, a private eye with his own family neuroses, asks an old Hollywood stuntman character played by Frank Lovejoy about a young cowboy stuntman’s personality. The response – “He’d fuck a woodpile on the off chance there was a snake in it.”

#

Here we have to deal with The Sopranos overwhelming vulgarity and constant obscenity. I would do so by suggesting that it’s Shakespearean in scope and eloquence.

From Peter Ackroyd’s SHAKESPEARE: The Biography – “Shakespeare’s sonnets are suffused with sexual humour and sexual innuendo. The language of the poems is itself sexual, quick, energetic, ambiguous, amoral. From the evidence of the drama alone it would be clear that he was preoccupied with sexuality in all of its forms. He outrivals Chaucer and the eighteenth century novelists in his command of smut and bawdry. He is the most salacious of all the Elizabethan dramatists, in an area where there was already stiff competition. There are more than thirteen hundred sexual allusions in the plays, as well as the repeated use of sexual slang. There are sixty-six terms for the female vagina, among them “ruff,” “scut,” “crack,” “lock,” “salmon’s tail” and “clack dish.” There are a host of words for the male penis as well as insistent references to sodomy, buggery, and fellatio . . .”

Ackroyd goes on to say – “Shakespeare is never more lively, or more alert, or more witty, than in dealing with sexual matters. They are such a pervasive presence that they quite overshadow the ending of The Merchant of Venice, for example, where a number of obscene puns dominate the closing dialogue. The English crowd has always enjoyed sexual farce and obscenity, and he knew that such comedy would please the spectators of both “higher” and “lower” sort. But in his plays sexual puns and sexual allusions are more than just a dramatic device; they are part of the very fabric and texture of his language. His writing is quick with sexual meanings.”

Thus it is with David Chase’s (the creator of The Sopranos) and his collaborators’ and actors’ world of family in both its senses – Tony’s family-family and his O.C. (Organized Crime) family. They are obscene to a fault, but with a rare eloquence that has not been heard since the days of the Bard.

UNCLE JUNIOR: (under house arrest while awaiting trial and peering out through his window blinds) These federal marshalls are so far up my ass I can taste Brylcreem.

UNCLE JUNIOR: ( much later but still under house arrest while the trial drags on, talking about his boredom)
    I’ve been farting into the same sofa cushion for the last eighteen months now.

UNCLE JUNIOR:      Anthony is a cunt hair away from owning all Northern Jersey – and I am that cunt hair.

In one lethal subplot during the first season, Tony hears from his wife Carmela the beauty-shop rumor that his elderly Uncle Junior – then titular head of the (crime) family while Tony was actually running things – is known to be a master at pleasuring his goomah of 18 years with oral sex.

TONY:      Uncle Jun gives head?

CARMELLA:      First class from what I hear.

TONY:      The old man is whistling through the wheatfield? He’s the bushman of the Kalahari!? I love it!

But soon enough, after Uncle Junior hears rumors that his nephew is seeing a psychiatrist and makes some pointed observations about it in front of others, Tony retaliates with crude puns about Uncle Jun’s predilections and within weeks, Junior has put a contract out on Tony’s life.

The hit – carried out by hired inner-city cokeheads (or “some miserable hopped-up Boys to Men wannabes from the Hood” as cousin Christopher describes them) – misses, but forces Tony into making plans to take out his much-loved uncle. One evening, he sadly muses on the irony of it all.

TONY:      It’s cunnilingus and psychiatry that brought us to this place.

My comparison of The Sopranos to Shakespeare is not total hyperbole nor in jest. The standard joke about a new reader’s or playgoer’s reaction to Shakespearean plays is “What’s the big deal? He just used a bunch of clichés and common sayings here and stitched them together” -- the neophyte Shakespearean never realizing that William Shakespeare coined those phrases. Watching The Sopranos becomes a similar experience of having the shock of new brilliance quickly feeling commonplace.

I would suggest that the dialogue of most of the characters in The Sopranos – while usually breathtakingly obscene – is some of the most powerful and best-written in the history of the large screen or small. And, as in Shakespeare, the humor and power of each character’s speech patterns and ability to use metaphor rise directly from the depths of that character.

Also as in Shakespeare, there are no minor characters in The Sopranos. I mean this quite literally. Just as the porter in Macbeth or the gravedigger in Hamlet suddenly – without warning – become characters with incredible depth, wit, and importance of their own, so do the most minor walk-on characters in any given season or episode of The Sopranos. Unlike any other dramatic or comedic television series in the history of the medium, viewers – both “higher” and “lower” (whatever that means) – not only deeply care about these characters -- sociopaths, liars, adulterers, racists, and murderers such as they are – but actually, on a mimetic level where all true art converges, believe that these people really exist in some sense.

This illusion – or truth -- elevates Tony Soprano, Carmela Soprano, Janice Soprano, Meadow and A.J., Uncle Junior, Christopher Moltisante, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Johnny Sack (and his huge wife Ginnie), Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante, Father Phil, Tony Blundetto, Hesh Rabkin, Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri, Irina, and many other faces and souls from the series into that small pantheon of living dramatic presences that began with the Wife of Bath and Hamlet and Falstaff and Iago and have added very few names to their roster over the centuries.

Even the dead characters in The Sopranos claim our attention and allegiance more than any “living” characters in any other screen drama. If you doubt that, and if you’ve ever watched The Sopranos, gauge your reaction to these names – “Big Pussy” Sal Bompansiero, Ralph Cifaretto, Jackie Aprile, Jr., Gloria Trillo, Richie Aprile, Tony Blundetto. Odds are, if you’ve watched any of the programs, the mere mention of those names creates a stronger reaction in you than the appearance on the screen of your average TV or movie drama’s “hero.”

Even the most minor character in The Sopranos may – and almost certainly will – suddenly come alive with mysterious inner motivation and go off on some amazing riff of dialogue, launching metaphors or malapropisms or cruise missiles of soliloquy that make us laugh out loud. For those of you who love movies, you’re aware that it’s the rare film in recent decades that gives us a single memorable line to remember, and even then the lines tend to be along the eloquence level of “Go ahead . . . make my day.” With The Sopranos, it’s the rare episode that doesn’t give us several memorable (and just plain fuckin’ lyrical) lines to treasure.

#

I haven’t forgotten about Virginia Woolf. After all it’s her I came here to make my peace with, not Tony Soprano. (I have no quarrel with Tony. And if I did, I would quickly change my name and relocate to another state.)

As I’ve tried to explain within the catch-as-catch-can logic of this essay, it’s not Virginia Woolf’s art I object to, nor her politics – as such. I object to what seems to have fueled her art, life, and politics: that is, a never-ending sense of victimhood connected to real entitlement, the refusal ever to grow up or take real responsibility (sexually, emotionally, politically), and a constant resentment, based on “gender issues,” that blinded her to more important things.

And there were more important things in the England and world of late 1938. Three Guineas, her 1938 polemic that has only recently been lauded even by her most faithful devotees, is a shameful document. Woolf may have stood by her opinion of the Jews that – “They cant [sic] die – they exist on a handful of rice and a thimble of water – their flesh dries on their bones, but still they pullulate, copulate, and amass . . . millions of money” – but even as she repeated such things, almost everyone else in England and the world knew or suspected that the Jews were indeed dying, the flesh drying on their bones in camps and cattle cars, their millions in money stolen by the Nazi masters of Germany and then by of all of Europe. The only mention of Jews in Three Guineas, her manifesto of resentment, is when she compared the treatment of women in homes in England and elsewhere as being comparable to – and worse than – the treatment of Jews in some of the new dictatorships that had sprung up in Europe.

She was wrong. She was blind – morally and artistically.

In her novel The Years she has her character Elvira speak for her – “Well suppose we had votes, then we should be Englishwomen. Do we want to be Englishwomen? I don’t.”

Virginia Woolf never wanted to be anything she found herself to be – daughter, woman, wife, sexual being, Englishwoman. She devoted Three Guineas and dozens of other diatribes to the myth of the Outsider; herself as Outsider even when she very much the upper middle-class social insider who disdained Jews and working people and other true outsiders. The third chapter of her book proposes an Outsiders’ Society that will reconfigure all of the patriarchal culture – the government will pay women to stay home and write poetry -- while refusing to consider violence as an option to stop the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the world.

She was the devoted socialist who spent years of her diary berating her servants, especially Nelly her longest-serving housekeeper. The truth was that Virginia never had the courage to face or fire Nelly – at least not until the war provided the excuse – and Woolf would rather take to her bed for days with one of her headaches than to sort things out with the woman.

Tony Soprano is a hypocrite as well, but from time to time he acknowledges it to himself.

During the first season of The Sopranos, Tony takes his high-school junior daughter Meadow to Waterville, Maine, to look at Colby College (Carm is home with the flu and a priest ends up spending the night, but that’s a different story.) While in Waterville, Tony sees a familiar face at a gas station – a made guy who’d flipped years ago and who then ratted out several of Tony’s friends and gone into the Witness Protection Program. For two days, Tony juggles helping his daughter choose her college (and bonding with her on the trip, as dads tend to do at about that stage of proceedings – Tony going so far as to finally admit to her that he’s in the Mafia) and tracking down and killing this rat.

As he’s strangling the guy with a piece of wire in front of the man’s own realty office, the rat – gasping out his final words – tells Tony that he’d followed Tony and “your little girl” to the motel the night before and had Tony in his sights, but he decided to let him live. “Bullshit,” gasps Tony, pulling the wire tighter until it cuts through the man’s throat and Adam’s apple and into Tony’s bleeding hands, “that’s the thing about us wiseguys – we never stop the hustle. Right up to our dying breath.”

When he picks Meadow up at Colby, she asks her father why his hand is bleeding. “Caught it on the screen door at the restaurant where I went back to get my watch,” he says. And he knows he will someday die while keeping up the hypocrisy hustle – to his family, lovers, friends, even, if he has the time, with his killer.

#

Virginia Woolf defined the great feminist issues as – “contraception, chastity, rape, patriarchy, the future, and the nature of patriotism.”

The Sopranos deals with each of these issues except perhaps for the first and last. Patriotism for Tony and his fellow hoodlums is a “casual, unsystematic, and apparently thoughtless” aspect of their cultural outlook. On the one hand, after 9/11, there are a few offhand comments along the lines of “Can you believe the balls on those fuckin’ ragheads” but exterior politics – outside of New Jersey graft and corruption that puts money in their pockets – is never of much interest to Tony’s mob subculture. One assumes here that traditional patriotism – say enlisting and fighting for one’s country – is considered a chump’s game, something left to square citizens. In this sense, Tony Soprano’s views parallel those of his literary antecedent, Godfather Vito Corleone, who didn’t want any of his sons to join the military in World War II. (We know that his youngest son, Michael, not only joined the Marines but became a decorated hero.)

Rape, on the other hand, was dealt with in The Sopranos during the third season in what may have been the most powerful hour of small-screen drama ever to be aired.

If there is any character in The Sopranos who could bridge the stupefying gap between the sensibilities of Tony Soprano and those of Virginia Woolf, it would be his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi.

Superbly educated, a consummate professional, Dr. Melfi is the single truly civilized person in the series. One is tempted to say that Jennifer Melfi is uncorrupted, but this isn’t quite accurate; over the past six years and more, Dr. Melfi has become vicariously addicted to the violence and energy of her client’s terrible world. Several times she’s tried to drop him as a client – and several times Tony has walked out on her – but each time they’ve returned to their odd client-patient relationship. In a real sense, they need each other.

However, they don’t always communicate perfectly. In Season 1, Dr. Melfi tells “Anthony” that the luxury retirement/old folks home, Green Grove, where he’s moved his mother, is “ . . . more like a hotel at Cap d’Antibes.”

Tony, who’s had “a semester and a half of college” and has a high IQ, likes to use more educated people’s lines, but he often screws them up.

TONY: (to his mother) Hey, Green Groves is more like a hotel at Captain Teebs.

LIVIA:      Who’s he?

TONY:      The captain owns a bunch of luxury hotels or something. That’s not the point.

But during Tony’s internecine war with Uncle Junior’s branch of the crime family, Dr. Melfi’s life could have been in danger. For months she had to abandon her office and see patients in a seedy hotel room if at all. When Tony informed her that she had to “lay low for a little while,” Melfi was furious.

MELFI:      I can’t just ‘lam it.’ Some of my patients are suicidal . . .

TONY:      Yeah, but they won’t feel better if you get clipped!

In the third-season episode titled “Employee of the Month,” Dr. Melfi and Tony have returned to their therapeutic relationship and everything seems quiet. Then, one evening as she heads down the office building’s windowless stairwell to her car in the parking garage, she is brutally raped and beaten by a young punk.

The aftermath of this event becomes the ultimate nightmare beyond every woman’s penultimate nightmare.

At first the police are professional and attentive; even while Melfi is in the emergency room going through humiliating post-rape tests, they report that they’ve caught the punk, a kid named Jesus Rossi. The rapist still had her Palm Pilot on him. Then the cops begin to botch things up. The detective in charge of the case transfers to a different division, and everything goes to hell. The “chain of custody” of the DNA and other evidence is messed up. The district attorney’s office simply has no case.

Melfi is more furious than at any time in her life. And it’s just at this point that all of the men in her life let her down completely.

Her ex-husband (they’re still friends, since they are consummately civilized people) is a doctor deeply conflicted about his Italian identity (he’s upset to hear that the punk has an Italian name . . . he’d thought he was a Puerto Rican from the description.). The ex-husband, a liberal-humanist Kerry-voting self-approving good man, clenches his fists, and spits out ferocious and impotent diatribes – “I could kill this motherfucker with these hands, and I would, but I can’t. They’d put me in jail.”

If only . . .

Her son, a senior at Bard College – a vegetarian semiotics major whose idea of bold action is to “make a commitment” for a non-smoking dorm – throws similar tantrums, clenching his fists in the emergency room, screaming that the world is a fucking sewer, and vowing terrible vengeance on the animal who has raped and beaten and humiliated his mother. He would do something . . .

If only . . .

She has a dream in which she’s feeding macaroni into a Coke machine and gets her arm stuck in it when a vicious Rottweiler appears out of nowhere, barking and growling. Suddenly the Employee of the Month looms out of the shadows, smiling, grabs her legs again, begins to part them . . .

The Rottweiler leaps at the Employee of the Month and rips the punk’s throat out.

Her own psychiatrist, Dr. Eliot Kupferberg (played brilliantly by film director Peter Bogdanovitch), who has become second-hand addicted to discussing her unnamed violent “mob client’s” adventures, helps her sort out the symbolisms in the dream. But it’s Melfi herself that remembers that Rottweillers were used as guard dogs by the Roman Legions.

Understanding what can happen if Melfi tells her gangster client about what’s happened, Eliot begins to lecture her about the values of civilization. He uses phrases that Virginia Woolf would have been proud of.

Jennifer Melfi tells him to shut up before she vomits. She is disgusted with all the “civilized men” in her life – and with the “social compact” at the center of her own beliefs which allows civilization to keep working while her rapist goes scot free and unpunished – and she then has to make the most important decision of her life.

Her client, Anthony, the insensitive mob boss, becomes the only male in her life, perhaps the only agency of energy in the world, who can set things right . . . can get her some justice. Tony is appalled at her injuries and is suspicious of her story of an automobile accident. She hides the truth from him, but can’t hide her bruises, limp, and emotional damage, even weeks after the rape. She’s a nervous wreck, jumping out of her skin when her cane falls over behind her and makes a loud noise, bursting into tears when Tony tells her that he’s decided to follow her advice – her pre-rape advice – for him to “move on” from their therapy and go see a behavior therapist to help him with his panic attacks. At the thought of him leaving her, of the guardian Rottweiler being out of her life, she begins sobbing. For once the therapeutic relationship is switched, with alpha-male patriarchist monster Tony Soprano understanding that Jennifer Melfi has been through some sort of traumatic event and is hiding it. He wants to help.

One word from her . . . the slightest explanation . . . and her “Employee of the Month” will be ball-less dogmeat within the hour.

TONY:      What? Do you have something to say to me?

The camera zooms in on Jennifer Melfi’s bruised and suddenly aged face as she answers Tony.

#

Tony Soprano’s racist and anti-Semitic attitudes were shaped by his family and culture, and – as with Virginia Woolf’s – are the gifts that keep on giving, but his relationship to Jews is more complicated than one might guess just from knowing his background.

Tony’s one real confidante within his extended crime family is Hesh, the seemingly most civilized gangster of the whole bunch. An older man and a calm, avuncular presence (as opposed to his real Uncle Junior’s less-than-avuncular ADDHD manic energy), Hesh made his fortune as a “song writer and Motown record producer” but Tony just chuckles at that self-description and corrects Hesh – “You mean you stole the rights and royalties out from under some young tizzzun songwriters and singers back in the ‘Sixties.” Now, semi-retired to a lovely “horse farm,” Hesh – fittingly – makes most of his profits from his shylock business and kicks the proper percentage up to Tony. “You old Jew, you,” Tony will say after a tough negotiation, hugging Hesh and kissing him on the cheek while he pockets his envelope.

Tony’s relationship to Hesh is loving and close . . . as long as they both continue to make money for the other.

But in one episode, Tony and his Italian pals meet a tough Jew on the other side.

Ironically, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant who owns a motel has gotten behind in his payments to one of Tony’s shylock operations. The approved procedure then – and Tony has done it with friends of his real family who own businesses but get behind – is for the mob guys to become “partner” – which in reality means they use the business for their own purposes until they “bust it out,” draining it dry and then selling off what’s left, leaving the original business owner high, dry, bankrupt, and frequently suicidal.

But this Jew won’t budge.

Tony’s capos try to reason with him. When that fails, Tony goes over with serious muscle to threaten the motel owner.

JEW:      I knew it! My son was right – we did create a golem in you! As the Talmud says –

TONY:      I don’t give a fuck what he says!

JEW:      Listen! For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers in the Massada. They wouldn’t give up. Where are the Romans now, huh?

TONY:      You’re looking at them, asshole.

They haul the motel owner to an empty apartment and beat the crap out of him. He doesn’t give. They put a gun to his head and dry fire it. He spits in their faces. They put a slug in the chamber and set the gun to his head again. He calls them names.

It’s just bad business to kill people who owe you money. Tony Soprano learned this when he was still in short pants. He goes down to his car, brings a long-handled bolt cutter up to the apartment, and tells Furio and his boys to give the motel owner “a second circumcision . . . a more radical one.”

The owner makes a deal.

Later, lighting his cigar on the apartment steps, Tony says, “That’s one tough Jew up there. You gotta admire him.”

Perhaps Tony is thinking that the tough Jew upstairs is like his dead father, Johnny Soprano. But just as Virginia Woolf had “issues” with the memory of her father, so does Tony Soprano. He knows that his father – the toughest son of a bitch in North Jersey – was neutered by his mother, Livia, as surely as if she’d used long-handled bolt cutters.

Tony to Melfi early in their therapeutic relationship – “The Old Man ran his own crew. He was tough. And she wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeaking little gerbil when he died.”

Tony knows that all this looking back into his own past and family relationships is helping him master his panic attacks, but he also knows that too much mulling over the past isn’t helpful. As he explains his philosophy to Dr. Melfi – “You can’t put shit back in the donkey.”

Virginia Woolf might have benefitted from this wisdom.

#


We can close by asking if this entire essay is what philosophers call a Category Error – in this case, an exercise in confusing and conflating high art with popular culture. After all, Virginia Woolf provided literature for the ages while Tony Soprano, besides being only a fictional construct, is mere entertainment.

But this is precisely the canard that Virginia Woolf not only believed in but tried to enshrine – this vast abyss between high art and entertainment for the masses – and I think it was just part of her hustle. In Three Guineas, Woolf sneered at Storm Jameson and other women writers for “adultery of the brain,” calling the other writer (and other living female authors of her acquaintance) by name as the “Old Prostitute” because they’d taken money for their work. When one of her British publishers asked Virginia to consider accepting a tidy sum from a popular American magazine for one of her pieces, Woolf publicized her response that the thought “makes my gorge rise” and then launched into her prostitute analogy again. Of course, Virginia Woolf could afford to occupy this moral high ground – just as she could afford to be a die-hard socialist while bitching at and about her servants – because she had a private income from a family inheritance her entire life.

In the end, we have to recognize that all of Virginia Woolf’s writing, fiction and non-fiction, was about family. But so was almost everything that Will Shakespeare wrote. (What is Hamlet but family problems writ large? What is Macbeth other than a tale of a corporate executive with a wife more ambitious than he is? What is any Shakespearean play other than an exploration of the ironies and terrors of family?)

The Sopranos is also all about family. HBO likes to do ads based on a twist on the phrase “Family Values,” but it’s no joke within the dramatic and mimetic realities of the series. Tony may be a congenital liar, murderer, and serial adulterer, but he does his damndest to be a good husband and father and nephew and son. When he dies violently someday – and he will – it probably will be because he’s violated his duty to his Organized Crime family to do something for his real family.

If there’s an absolute paradox there, it’s one that Shakespeare understood and which Virginia Woolf never had a clue about.

Season 1, Episode 1 –

DR. MELFI

What is it about those ducks
that meant so much to you?

TONY
(voice cracking)

I don’t know, it was just a
trip having those wild creatures come
into my pool and have their little babies.

   (he starts sobbing openly)

I was sad to see them go.
Jesus, fuck! Now he’s gonna cry.
Shit. Fuck me.

DR. MELFI

When the ducks gave birth
to those babies they became a
family.

TONY

You’re right. That’s the
link. A connection. I’m afraid I’m
gonna lose my
family. Like I lost the
ducks. That’s what I’m full
of dread about. That’s always
with me.


The new season of The Sopranos – the beginning of a two-part last season – starts March 12, 2006. If we’re lucky, this last season will be as well written as the first five.

UNCLE JUNIOR

Yeah, right. And I want to
fuck Angie Dickinson. We’ll
see who gets lucky first.


Sincerely,


P.S. -- For those of you who’d like to sample more dialogue from The Sopranos, the following link will take you to a forum where viewers share their favorite quotes -- http://p196.ezboard.com/fsopranolandforumfrm28

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