The Soprano Code

 “Your papa didn’t teach you ‘bout right and wrong.”


I tend to catch on to good things a bit late. I didn’t see Seinfeld or King of the Hill till they were at least halfway through their initial runs. I have never seen a single episode of Lost, though I gather it is good stuff. And Carol and I had the distinction, until recently, of being the only couple in the United States who had never seen The Sopranos, and this even though while the series was running we lived in the very area of North Jersey where Tony was making his shady deals and whacking insubordinate flunkies. The restaurant/soda fountain where Tony finally got whacked, Holsten’s, was a favorite hangout of mine and had been for some forty years! I had no idea Tony’s blood was spilled there till my last visit on vacation a year ago! Well, now we’re watching reruns and renting DVDs. It is great! But the only aspect of it I have any real business discussing here is the seeming paradox of the gangsters’ code. How is it that Tony, Paulie, Sil, and the rest imagine they are “good fellas,” that they are upstanding and admirable, and equally indignant toward the failures and betrayals of others? Are they merely the foulest of hypocrites? Are they oblivious of their inconsistencies?

No, the seeming paradox is resolved, at least to a great extent, once one sorts out the difference between right and wrong on the one hand and honor and shame on the other. Both are codes with carefully stipulated obligations and prohibitions. But one is internal while the other is external. Tony Soprano and his mob buddies hale from a Mediterranean culture steeped in the dialectic of honor and shame. It is all a matter of carefully maintained status or “face.” It is a question of the esteem in which one is held by relevant others. Sexually, males derive honor from demonstrated virility: the number of sexual conquests. A man protects his own females from the hot hands of his rivals while deflowering as many virgins as he can. Like the ancient kings with their harems, he is held in higher esteem the more women he beds. The woman, on the other hand, gains honor by maintaining her chastity intact, first her virginity, then her married fidelity. As you can see, the female and male criteria for honor tend to clash. Little of this has to do with inner morality, righteousness or guilt. Rather, the concern is status and clout.

Men may seem to shame their wives when they go to prostitutes, but actually they are showing them honor by taking their baser desires to the whore and not humiliating/sullying their wives, who ought to be grateful. Plutarch so advised young wives in his second-century CE treatise A Guide for the Bride and Groom.

All challenges to one’s honor (clout) must be met. No insult can be allowed to pass, at least not one from someone on the same level which is therefore noticeable. To allow a challenge (an insult is a challenge, too: “Ooh! Are you gonna take that?”) is to lose face, to incur shame, to forfeit honor and respect. One must rise to the occasion. How far removed this is from Plato and the Gospels, where one must turn the other cheek because to strike back would be to repeat the immorality of the one who struck you. It is not a question of morality. And if one may have to give one’s life for honor (if you’re going to flee a fight, you might as well stay gone.), so may one take a life to retain or regain honor.

Patronage and largesse are an important part of honor, as is the frequent exchange of favors and gifts. One keeps strict accounts of the currency of favors, which can be gauged as minutely and as exactly as monetary transactions. If you are a Godfather you are the god who answers prayers, cementing your clients’ allegiance to you. If you betray your patron, you are the worse kind of ingrate and traitor and will pay the big price. As a patron one desires to be both loved and feared, chiefly obeyed, by one’s clients. Either type of regard is great honor, which itself is a valuable kind of currency.

What about religion? It fosters the cultivation of moral virtue and discourages immorality. And many of its commandments plainly contradict the code of honor and shame. One is summoned to follow Jesus Christ who certainly is shown rejecting honor. He advises his audience to turn the other cheek to the aggressor, to surrender one’s possessions, to pray in secret so as not to seek a reputation (honor) for piety, etc. Jesus is said to have embraced the path of the cross, “despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2), which I take to mean that he did not let the prospect daunt him, disdaining the very idea of chickening out (as in John 12:27). But shame is much to be dreaded in the Soprano code. Think of the magnificent line spoken by Yul Brenner playing Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments, “Better to die in battle with a god than to live in shame!”

I get the impression that the mobsters in The Sopranos leave the religion (Catholicism) to their wives as a matter fit only for their womanly sentimentality. As Nietzsche said, Christianity (like Buddhism) encourages the “feminine virtues” and so Tony and his boys leave such indulgences to the women. They give religious piety lip service, as if they believed in it, but they don’t, or, if they do, their piety is purely external, like a “good American” paying his taxes and saluting the flag when asked to do so. The feeling for religion does not go very deep, but it does not need to, just as in the ancient world. Someone like Achilles, profane, arrogant, bloodthirsty, was considered pious if he paid the respect due to his divine patrons, the gods.

Plus, the Catholic mobsters are viewing their relationship to church in their own categories. There is a doctrine of salvation by works, the works of others. One makes contributions to refurbish the Parish Hall, etc., and one assumes God will count that in one’s positive column. One pays others, specialists like the clergy, to be pious in one’s stead, precisely as in Matthew 10:41, “Whoever gives hospitality to a prophet because he is a prophet will receive the reward due the prophet, and he who gives hospitality to a righteous man because he is a righteous man will be due the same reward as the righteous man.” So you pay others to be religious for you.

I say that the code of honor is all external, that of religion primarily internal, a matter of the heart, though resulting in consistent actions of righteousness. The code of honor and shame, being entirely external, does not encourage introspection. And this explains the irony of the continuing Sopranos theme of big, tough Tony going to a shrink. It is not what one would expect of him. When his colleagues begin to learn that he is in therapy, suspicion arises against him. He ought to be the strong silent type. Maybe he is not the man to be the Big Boss. But he weathers this storm, and I think that is because of the amoral way he approaches even introspection. What he seeks from Dr. Melfi is surcease from negative feelings. She interprets his dreams, prescribes Prozac, etc., all in an attempt to repair his life, an attempt which does not entail or require repentance. Neither therapist nor patient thinks for a second of Tony no longer murdering those against whom he has a grudge, with whom he must even the score or else forfeit his honor. No, the goal is for him to get a good night’s sleep by silencing his guilt. Being well-adjusted to a sick situation. As if introspection were itself his affliction.

Tony Soprano and his boys have inherited the honor-shame culture from Sicily. Others have it from elsewhere in the Mediterranean. We regularly read with amazed horror how some old-school Arab murders a daughter who has been raped or otherwise “polluted,” dishonored. And, despite my remarks above, observing how Jesus violates contemporary categories of honor and shame, the New Testament and early Christians also continue to presuppose those same categories instead of making a clean break. Such a lack of consistency is no surprise; it just represents a piecemeal cultural shift or a selective appropriation of the old culture’s values by converts to a new religion.

[Fellow nerds, think of the great story arc on Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Worf becomes embroiled in the politics of the succession to the Klingon High Council. He finds himself struggling with the two worlds of which he is a part. When he discovers that his lover has been murdered by one of the contenders for the throne (because she knew information that would vindicate the sullied honor of Worf’s family, falsely branded traitors) he takes off his Star Fleet communicator pin and bursts in on the murderer, taking bloody revenge, just before Captain Picard can get there to stop him. Worf knew revenge did not fit in the right/wrong system of the Federation, his adopted culture. Later, however, his honor restored, he is finds he is expected to kill the last survivor of the house that slandered his own, but he declines to do it. Gowron, the chief Klingon, tells him, “It is the Klingon way!” Worf drops the dagger and says, “But it is not my way.” He has been shaped after all by the right/wrong system and declines to act in accord with the honor/shame system. The early Christians, too, had a foot in both worlds.]

The reason I point it out is the great irony that the central Christian doctrine of the atoning death of Christ is predicated squarely upon the honor-shame dialectic. Why are humans damned? Because we have dishonored an almighty Sovereign whose majesty is unlimited. The only way to make good on that debt of honor we owe to God is for him to joint the deadbeat human race via the Incarnation, and then, still being divine, he can “whack” himself: pay with the ransom of an eternal, divine life. We owe God an infinite debt because our sins are committed against his infinite honor. You see, God couldn’t simply forgive with no strings attached. He has to take it out of somebody’s hide! If he doesn’t he remains dishonored. But surely it is of the crudest mythology to picture God as so anxious about his honor that he must whack everyone who defied and thus dishonored him.

I believe I’ve shared this Alfred North Whitehead quip with you before: “As for the Christian theology, can you imagine anything so appallingly idiotic than the Christian idea of heaven? What kind of deity is it that would be capable of creating angels and men to sing his praises day and night to all eternity? It is, of course, the figure of an Oriental despot, with his inane and barbaric vanity. Such a conception is an insult to God” (Lucien Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, p. 177). Well, there’s Tony and his cronies, all laughing at his jokes because they have to. Who’d have thought God would have so much in common with Tony Soprano?

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
May 2009


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