Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mediterranean fatalism

Over five nights in late July and early August, I made my way through the twenty-one episodes of the sixth (final) season of The Sopranos on DVD. No spoilers, if you haven't watched: I'll say only that there's much time spent in hospitals, "facilities," "centers," and funeral homes. It's a season of sickness and violence and death.

As a semi-Italian Brooklyn native and former New Jerseyan, I take great pleasure in the show's dialogue, which sounds, from my experience, remarkably true to life. (The exceptions: when Tony Soprano is made to say things like "I'm miffled" and "Rick Sanatorium," à la Archie Bunker.) One bit of dialogue that I noticed returning with some frequency in this season:

"What are you gonna do?"
That's Mediterranean fatalism itself, in five words.

"What are you gonna do?" is a rhetorical question that suits a variety of circumstances: Somebody's wife ran off? Somebody has cancer? Somebody has Alzheimer's? Somebody died? What are you gonna do?

In the world of The Sopranos, this rhetorical question marks the temporary surrender of illusion. Tony and company would like to believe that they're in control, of their lives and the lives of others. But sometimes there's nothing they can do, because life is difficult and unpredictably painful.

The Greek warrior Achilles expresses this sense of life's mystery and suffering in his words to the Trojan king Priam in Iliad 24. Achilles explains that Zeus keeps two jars, one filled with "good things," the other "a jar of woe." Some human beings get things from both jars. Some get only woe. And it's not fair:
"Yes, the gods have woven pain into mortal lives,
While they are free from care."
What are you gonna do?

[Iliad translation by Stanley Lombardo.]

Another Sopranos post
Angelo Bucco's notebook

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