Those were the words silently invading my consciousness by a commanding inner "voice" as I was on my knees, engaged in a nightly ritual of bedside prayer which, on that occasion and a few previous, included a petition for liberation from my Sopranos obsession. The year was 2004, or thereabouts, and the many hours I'd spent posting on the old Sopranoland forum during and after season 4 had probably quadrupled during the just-completed first runs of season 5. As my screen name suggests, Tony's psycho-spiritual redemption dominated my focus and interests. At times, I could hardly discipline my mind to think about anything else, and one part of me was seriously rebelling against the part ruled by the compulsion.
I was, afterall, 10 years out from a singularly momentous, life-changing encounter with the spirit of Christ, and my most consistent and earnest prayer in the years since was to acquire a Christ-like capacity for unconditional love so that I could be of greater, wider, and more genuine service in the world. However much I could acknowledge the depth and importance of the themes The Sopranos addressed, and however much the show stimulated captivating online conversations with a diverse and highly interesting group of people, the conventional-thinking, socially-conditioned aspect of me judged my constant preoccupation with a fictional mobster to be a waste of time and highly antithetical to my spiritual aspirations.
I'd been subject to consuming passions all my life, three of which predated my Sopranos obsession and rivaled or surpassed it in terms of intensity and longevity. The inextricable connection between the most notable of those (a lifelong love for Elton John's music) and my Christ encounter should have clued me in that passions aren't something to pray your way out of and are in fact the very engines that power your drive on the spiritual path. But I did not grasp that at the time, thus my prayer for deliverance. Thus, also, my surprise at the answer provided by my inner voice, or what I could eventually acknowledge as the voice of the Divine within me.
On the surface, it's not very flattering to consider that you are God's -- or anyone's -- Tony Soprano. I don't make a living through extortion, bribery, theft, or fraud. I've never physically assaulted, maimed, or killed anyone. My life has generally been characterized by a much higher degree of compassion than Tony ever allowed himself to feel towards others. And, despite my own childhood family difficulties (the full impact of which I've only recently begun to appreciate), my mother never threatened to put my eye out with a fork or smother me with a pillow, and I never had to watch my father chop off someone's finger.
But I immediately glimpsed and gradually assimilated a deep and nuanced understanding of the metaphor. I, along with every other human being, am a work of psycho-spiritual redemption in progress, one spanning many lives and incarnations in the "world wide web" of consciousness, indeed one ultimately not limited by the conventions of personal identity at all. In that vein, consider that the original meaning of "psyche" is "soul" or "animating spirit," and "psychiatry" and "psychology" refer in the purest sense to "healing of the soul" and "study of the soul" respectively. So my obsession with Tony's fate was reflecting the obsession by "God" -- or that unifying, self-organizing principle permeating every particle in the universe -- with my own fate and with that of mankind, not least because man is the vehicle for expressing God's highest consciousness in this manifest universe.
Resonating with this notion is the oft-quoted maxim, "The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me." The yearning for unity with God -- which is nearly always disguised as other desires, pathologies, passions, and compulsions before it is unmasked to consciousness -- is always a two-way yearning. It is an autonomous river, much like Tony's "great wind," which carries you along no matter how you fight or judge it or remain oblivious to it, no matter how much it batters you against giant rocks, until you surrender your ego's limited, conditioned, often contrary ideas about "who you are and where you're going" (sound familiar?) and start "going with the flow" of its current, at which time you finally feel what it's like to swim in and with your larger Being.
According to Carl Jung, the qualities, potentials, and psychic distresses that you have ignored or denied within yourself, including the soul's major agendas for this lifetime to which you have not given sufficient cooperation or attention, will "constellate" outside of you. That is, they will confront you in outer experiences, patterns of behavior, passions, and relationships until you make the conscious connection between outer and inner landscapes and begin the internal transformations that the outer events reflect and urge you towards.
In hindsight, I see very clearly that my Sopranos obsession was such a constellation. All that I was living vicariously through unconscious projection on the mirror of Tony Soprano -- my passionate excavation of his psyche to try to understand what made him the man he was; the meticulous deconstruction of his parental and wider social influences; my fervent, prayer-like hope that he would one day be able to find and grow the seed of goodness I always saw inside him -- was a huge part of my soul's agenda for my own life which I had yet to seriously pursue. As self-aware as I used to think I was, the truth is that I'd never vigorously, relentlessly, ruthlessly turned the light of my intellect inward to try to understand myself, to confront what I had most denied and repressed, and to truly surrender myself to that which God was seeking to express through me in this life until four years ago, when the biggest, most consuming passion of my life struck out of the blue and initiated the often unspeakably painful, sometimes unspeakably sublime, always inevitable process of spiritual transformation still gripping me today. The Sopranos was not only the penultimate passion in that journey. It was in every way the training ground for it, cultivating in me a deep appreciation for and sensitivity to symbolism, which is the native language of God; attuning me to the profound messages from the soul that are contained in dreams; and acquainting me with a fair amount of sophisticated psychoanalytic theory that I could employ on my own behalf. In short, the show largely equipped me to become my own psychologist (though I've had enormous, indispensable help on that score from other sources -- formal and informal -- as well.)
It's fair to ask at this point how any of this really amounts to the elliptical, highly personal, but heartfelt tribute to James Gandolfini I intended this article to be. The answer is a syllogism of sorts. I could not have learned so much about the human psyche to put in service of my own growth had I not been obsessed with Tony's fate. I could not have been obsessed with Tony's fate had I not felt deep love and compassion for him. And I could not have felt such deep love and compassion for him were it not for James Gandolfini.
In the Guardian interview published just yesterday morning (6/26), David Chase made the central point I was already writing this post to convey, summarizing how Gandolfini made Tony so sympathetic despite all that ostensibly made him the opposite:
There was a quality, I think – maybe it's my taste showing – but there was a quality of sadness he had. I've been thinking about it recently, and my feeling is that you saw in him a little boy. The lost, hurt, little boy. He stood for all lost little boys.
For me, that's the crux of it right there. Just underneath the hulking, imposing physique that was often used to menace and brutalize others was the imminent form of a pitiable child, abandoned and brutalized himself by so many "parents" in so many ways, deprived even of any capacity to acknowledge his own wounding or to muster a modicum of self-compassion by the deeply internalized voice of his mother spouting her most famously acidic and derisive words: "Poor you!" With his self-image fashioned from the poison that Livia, Johnny, and Junior provided, he ultimately disassociated from his own innate goodness and innocence, projecting those qualities onto easy surrogates: a nursing infant in a delusion, ducks, horses, goats, dogs, even a raccoon that he flipped an Escalade to avoid running over. Eventually the rage stemming from his unconscious identification with a young child grievously hurt or endangered by a poisonous parent was externalized in his murder of Christopher and in his out-of-character euphoria thereafter.
I'm certainly not implying that Tony should have been absolved of all personal responsibility for growing up or that he shouldn't have suffered (as he did) for failing to do better. But he exemplifies the ways in which legacies of psychic wounding create a "fate" that is inertial in nature and as real as any gene. Moving it takes more strength and persistence than most people can bring to bear. So rarely do they convert a highly difficult fate into a noble destiny.
None of that diminishes the natural sympathy, understanding, and even love that Gandolfini could evoke by tacitly embodying Tony's inner wounded child. He conveyed this so powerfully in so many scenes over the course of the series, but perhaps one subtle example can stand in for them all. It came just after Tony approaches an understandably angry Melfi in a diner in early season 2 seeking to resume therapy before another panic attack threatens his life. When she venomously curses him before growling, "Get out of my life!" he becomes, right before your eyes, a 40-ish, balding, 260-pound, abused and abandoned five year-old, reflexively retreating into a shell of silence and shame, obliquely feeling but unable to consciously connect Melfi's rejection to a lifetime of repressed hurt inflicted by others more directly playing the role of parent in his psyche.
Outside the diner, Gandolfini manages to make you actually feel the invisible weight of self-loathing and unlovability as it presses down on Tony with renewed intensity. At home a short time later, Carmela notes the uncharacteristic afternoon hour and asks what's wrong. He grunts a transparently false "nothing." She knows better because she can see what we all see. But she also knows better than to try to penetrate his shield of emotional denial and inarticulateness, so she does what she always does: offers him the support of her presence and the comfort of a bowl of pasta, which she heats and serves while he follows her around the kitchen, literally and with his eyes, hanging on her every movement. As he takes his place at the table to indulge his favorite sensory distraction from the tidal wave of pain damned up inside him, she stands behind him for a moment, rubbing his shoulders and straightening his collar. "It's good," he says after the first bite, looking up at her briefly with those sad Gandolfini eyes Chase described this past week. At that moment, the slightest, most poignant of smiles crosses his face, one instantly conveying the lamentable truth that Carmela, despite her many flaws and the fact that she was his wife, was by far the best parent Tony ever had.
Gandolfini had maybe three words of dialog in this entire sequence, but I can't think of an emotional subtext in any screen performance more vividly painted with posture and gesture, one more branded with the unmistakable authenticity that comes from an actor fully inhabiting his character's troubling feelings. As many recent anecdotes from Chase and others attest, remaining so conscientiously truthful to Tony's darkness proved more and more costly to James in personal terms as the series progressed. His commitment to continuing in spite of those costs is, to me, quietly heroic, partly because it enabled this "fictional" character to become a compellingly real screen upon which so many could project and work out aspects of their own private psychological struggles. Indeed, the "zeitgeist" Chase himself sensed in the phenomenon of The Sopranos makes Tony, I believe, one of several contemporary, cross-cultural beacons to individual and collective confrontation with "the shadow" elements of the psyche, a confrontation essential to the forward evolution of man's consciousness and capacity for love.
In that sense, I hope Gandolfini appreciated on some level the profound importance of his work. In my opinion, it represents the absolute zenith of what acting has to offer the world as an art form and as a tool for social reflection, as uncomfortable as that reflection might be. And it comprises 86 hours of the best entertainment ever filmed, to boot.
Somehow, I think he can still "hear" this, so I'll say it with the same affectionate name his friends used: Thank you, Jimmy.