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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.)
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
Woolf, you may be
why I asked you to
Virginia remains silent but
glares at Tony Soprano.
Don’t aim those fucking
lamps at me!
Soprano. Are you, by any
do members of the Tribe
last names that end in
where you come from?
not. But they share the
traits you have shown in
few minutes of our
Tony raises his eyebrows. He
is still smiling slightly as he mops up the last of his
balsamic sauce with his bread.
civilized vocabulary. The
bulges, and annoying
hon, you just described
whole fucking family. On a
Virginia stands and flings down
her napkin. Her expression flickers from outrage to disgust
and back again.
am leaving now.
well, fuck it. Thanks for
his voice as
better hurry! Your
She stalks out of the restaurant,
hugging her upper body as if she’s been contaminated.
calling after her)
my regards to your two
at the fucking
Could I get some spumoni
Thank you for indulging me.
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
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.
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
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
. . . 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,
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.”
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
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.
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
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
“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
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.
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.
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:
For example, you could tell
her she means a great deal to you, but you think of her as
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?)
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 –
is it about those ducks
meant so much to you?
don’t know, it was just a
having those wild creatures come
my pool and have their little babies.
was sad to see them go.
fuck! Now he’s gonna cry.
the ducks gave birth
those babies they became a
right. That’s the
A connection. I’m afraid I’m
Like I lost the
That’s what I’m full
dread about. That’s always
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.
right. And I want to
Angie Dickinson. We’ll
who gets lucky first.
P.S. -- For those of you who’d like to sample more dialogue
from The Sopranos, the following link will take you
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