Archive | August, 2014

David Chase doesn’t have all the answers. Stop asking him.

31 Aug

The Sopranos is a legendary tv series. David Chase created it. And therefore he alone knows the deep meaning of the unusual, cut-to-black ending.

At least this seems to be the message we should draw from Vox‘s excited coverage of an off-the-cuff comment he made to one of their journalists. [1]  Or their abjectly precise republication of a slapdown reply from David Chase’s publicist. Instead of quoting the man in question about the Sopranos, we should apparently be busily thinking about whatever spiritual issues he – or his publicist – would like us to think about:

To simply quote David as saying, “Tony Soprano is not dead,” is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.” To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of the Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer. [2]

The ‘publicist’ has clearly not absorbed the long-fashionable critical idea of the ‘death of the author’. Stripped of pretension, bullshit, and exaggeration, this is pretty simple.  A writer, once they’ve written something, has no more authority over its meaning than anybody else.  What they ‘intended’ is irrelevant.

You might argue with this in many circumstances.  The author of a primary maths book, or of a tv channel guide, should perhaps be taken as a prime authority.  Then again, if we are able to misunderstand them, that demonstrates a severe lack of skill on their part.  In the case of awkward philosophical explorations, we can be more forgiving, but we still end up seeking for what the author meant and whether it makes sense.

In the case of serious fiction, however, the very ambiguity of the form means that a great deal of the pleasure or meaning we find in it derives directly from the death of the author. That person who put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) has enabled us to create a world for ourselves. The writer’s craft is to engineer profound reactions in the reader. But those reactions do not have to obey – or even relate to – the author’s intent. In great fiction, whether they like it or not, the author is already dead.

The case of The Sopranos is unfortunate for David. He appears unable to accept having a key role in a work of great fiction – one that ended in a very deliberate puzzle.  Perhaps for him it’s “not the point” whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead. For me – and clearly for many thousands of others – it is precisely the point.  And it is the point whatever the writer thinks about it.  Because The Sopranos is fiction, an invented world that now exists, within a piece of art, entirely independently of David Chase, he has no privileged role in dictating how we interpret it.  That is down to those who watch and think about it, and who seek the fussy clarity of the living analyst rather than the statuesque beauty of the dead author.

‘Master of Sopranos’ [3] has sought that clarity.  He deserves congratulations for his time and effort, and his attempt to relate his opinions to evidence from the series.  Matt Zoller Seitz [4] misrepresents him and avoids any accurate evidence associated with the piece of fiction he’s talking about – whilst still maintaining his right to any provocatively silly opinion he likes.  He’s also, quite oddly, employed the idea of the ‘death of the author’ in condescending tones alongside positive quotes about what Chase really ‘meant’.  Tut-tut.

But I don’t need to know what Chase meant.

I don’t need a scriptwriter to tell me what spiritual questions I should look at in my own life, or what to think whilst watching television.  These are issues for dedicated moral philosophers, mystics, critics and bloggers.  Chase has no status in these areas. He wrote (with many collaborators) a work of tv fiction that has attained – for now – the aura of great literature.  He is, if he’s lucky, a dead author.  If two-dimensional moving picture stories continue to exert their spell over human beings for more centuries to come, The Sopranos may be part of the canon.  Tony Soprano will join Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes and God amongst the immortals humans have created to ask questions about.  And nobody will care what David Chase said once filming finished.