16 September 2014
Schrodinger’s cat, you may recall, was neither alive nor dead. It only became one or the other when the box in which it was imprisoned was opened and the experimenter could feel its pulse or whatever. This was an explanation of one interpretation of quantum theory, but it’s an equally good comment on some of the more awkward aspects of art.
Having finally finished all six series of The Sopranos – seven years too late, I know – I came upon the awkward issue of whether Tony is now dead or not. The final scene is tantalisingly inexplicit, though I, either out of sentimental feelings for the evil slob or because I find it more aesthetically satisfying, incline towards the view that Tony is fit and well and as fat and evil as ever in New Jersey. I won’t go into this matter at length because it is all covered in excessive and neurotic detail elsewhere – and, anyway, it is irrelevant.
What the various Tony Alive/Tony Dead theorists omit to mention is that he is, like that cat, neither. He is, you see, a fictional character, not a real, mortal person and, unlike that cat, the box in which Tony is locked cannot be opened. Unresolvable ambiguity is one of the supreme privileges of art. I am not saying David Chase, the show’s creator, doesn’t have his own view on the subject but, once the last episode was broadcast, it was out of his hands. Tony Soprano became his admirers, as Auden said of Yeats. In any case, it is obvious that Chase was playing games by editing the last few minutes of the show in the way he did – ie by neither showing Tony bleeding on the floor nor happily eating his dinner, his favourite hobby. It was a triumphant denouement – not in the banal form of an Agatha Christie thriller where everything is neatly wrapped up, but, rather, in the wild-eyed, wondering, speculative form of a Shakespearean tragedy. We can talk about the ending but we can’t, as it were, end it.
The desire to Agatha-ise the show is a sign of literal mindedness, a phenomenon I noticed while reading some of the commentaries. There was, for example, a discussion of the ‘symbolism’ of the cat in the last episode. This suggested poor education. Writers do use symbols, of course, but only sparingly because a fixed connection between an object and a meaning is an awkward and rather ugly concept. (During my interview the Coen Brothers were very firm on the a-symbolic and non-metaphorical nature of the objects and incidents on their movies, they just wanted to make something ‘pretty’.) There is much that can be said about how that cat works in the concluding episode, none of it involves symbolism.
I suppose people are taught to look too eagerly for ‘meaning’ in the most banal sense. No great work of art has this kind of meaning, rather it has the kind that expands in the mind to include many, if not all, meanings. Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature should be required reading from the age of, say, ten, simply to enforce this view and eliminate the curse of literal-mindedness
Such is ending of The Sopranos, a delicious, witty, unliteral and ambiguous theatrical coup, an unopenable box containing all possible states of Tony. That’s how art works and why, most of the time, it’s better than life.