I started to watch The Sopranos last night. From the beginning again. Psychoanalysis anyone? It’s almost twenty years since Tony Soprano, violent mobster and family man, landed in Dr. Melfi’s therapy office after a panic attack and started his own personal search for meaning.
The show is at its heart a study in existentialism. We all look for and crave a sense of meaning in our lives. Some find it in god, love, money, or the pursuit of social justice. We expend a lot of energy seeking purpose.
Existentialism tells us that life has no meaning except for that which we ascribe to it. In the words of Dr Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”
Existentialism demands we are responsible for what we do, who we are, the way we face and deal with the world, and collectively we are ultimately responsible for how the world is. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to a god that only exists because we choose to believe in them.
As Satre said we are condemned to be free and we suffer from an abundance of freedom. Each of us must design our own moral code to live by, even if it is the template offered to us by our parents or our church. It is a template we choose to inherit. To live authentically we must take responsibility for all our actions as they are freely chosen.
The Sopranos showcases the impossibility of attempts to compartmentalise evil acts, and separate them from the rest of our life. In Tony Soprano’s case maintaining a real family life and a Mafia life without the latter corrupting and threatening the former is impossible. He’s convinced he’s created a church and state separation between his two lives and somehow justifies his criminal activity by the fact that he provides for his family. His wife Carmella lives in her own orbit of self deceit and turns a blind eye to the reality of her husbands ‘business’ in order to enjoy the comfort of her Mafia funded princess lifestyle. Being his accomplice means she is constantly haunted by feelings of guilt and shame herself.
This morning I woke up to news from the USA in an article on Facebook reporting George Pell’s conviction on historical sexual abuse charges. It had not been reported in the Australian press due to suppression orders as there is another trial yet to take place. The article made me think of The Sopranos. Like Tony Soprano, Pell’s life choices have come back to haunt him and his actions have been shown to be inconsistent with the view of himself he had promoted to the world.
The clerical hero of some of this countries most senior politicians has fallen, and it makes me wonder what it says about the judgement of our political leaders who have sworn by Pell’s counsel. What is their role, like Carmella, as accomplices in Pells deceit? Have they all chosen religion as a moral code to hide behind, rather than live by? Do they use it to justify themselves as inherently good?
Secrets and lies are at the heart of a good mystery but they do not make for a happy life. In the Sopranos there is a scene were Tony sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall at his daughters college: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” To find happiness we must organise some kind of harmony between all the parts of ourselves. We need to create an internal attuned unity that is consistent with our actions to avoid the kind of existential crisis Tony Soprano faced. Public figures and prominent people cannot be exempt from the consequences of their failure to live authentically.
The Sopranos ends in ten seconds of black silence. An ending that bewildered viewers. Messy and contradictory. Did Tony die or not? Was he taken out without seeing it coming as he himself predicted? Does it matter? The ending is ambiguous, but we all know that eventually everything ends in death – the truth of human morality. A truth that must be faced to live authentically and grasp our full potential.
Main image: The Rocky Mountains, Colorado