Over a period of months last year, my husband and I watched the box set, series 1 to 6, of The Sopranos. Like other across the globe, the characters infiltrated our lives like friends and enemies. We spoke about their motivations and predicaments, debated their options and futures. Then they were gone.
With an unsettlingly abrupt final episode and the last depression of our player’s eject button, they were out of our lives. We discussed the ending for a few days, then moved on to American Horror Story. Now, twelve months later, I still miss the character of Tony Soprano. I miss he presence in my conscious psyche; I miss knowing I can return to his world at the end of a long day.
I also miss my father, who gave up after a long fight with cancer a decade ago. I miss those sweets that tasted like soap, which I was only allowed on holiday when I was a child. I miss my daughters when they’re at school and I miss my student days, when I felt I could achieve anything. I miss being able to read Jane Austen for the first time and fall in love with the characters afresh. I miss Father Christmas and vampires, unicorns and digital watches.
I miss dozens of things, real and imagined, to varying degrees and with no or a full desire to have them returned to me. But are some of these emotions of a different class? Of differing importance?
Ed S. Tan distinguishes between A- and R- emotions. Aesthetic and Real Emotions. In other word, Art-world and Life-world emotions. He goes on to discuss the difference between emotions related to actual artworks and those related to the things represented within the artworks. I’ll call these A- and A2- emotions. Missing Tony Soprano, who is not a real person an whom I have never met, is an A2 emotion, while mourning the end of the HBO series, which was a feature in my real life, is an A-emotion.
All very amusing, but why are both sets of A-emotions considered less worthy than their R- counterparts? Sure, it doesn’t have a truly physical impact on my life if the final blackout ending of The Sopranos means Tony Soprano was shot, whereas my world would spin into turmoil if one of my close friends was hit by a bullet while eating dinner in a restaurant with his family. But is crying during your favourite soap opera really any more ridiculous than shedding tears while reading a tragic story in the newspaper?
‘Real’ is a judgement label, which I blame for some of the value imbalance between R- and A- emotions, but I think it goes deeper. It’s ingrained in our social constructs that, whatever job we choose, religion we sign up to or life philosophy we decide to pursue, we should expect to live essentially like our neighbours: in cookie-cutter moulds of birth-to-death cycles. Perhaps, it’s a product of capitalism or something more innate. Either way, I’d argue that there’s something quite absurd about holding R- emotions so high above A-s when the R-s are only those that everyone else experiences. On the whole, you and I and the kids down the road will all fall in love, be let down, feel rejected by someone we care about, achieve something we wanted, bury our parents, hold our children, question our god .... and so on.
There is a finite number of R- emotions – a very large finite number, but a finite number nonetheless – from which each of us will lucky-dip only a tiny percentage. But the A-s are different. Artists have been working for millennia to manipulate our emotional responses to their work: to create a whole new pool of emotions and feelings, and to seek original thought and unique experiences. Surely, for that reason alone, the A-s should have a higher place on the shelf of worth. I’m not saying that R-s do not hurt and sting and make your flesh ache with longing, but why must we cling to them when they have been felt over and over for centuries with no evolution?
Would it not be more sensible to pursue the unknown? To seek the edge of human experience, experiment with manipulating and controlling emotions rather than sitting back and waiting for the world to tell us what too feel? The artist who makes me cry shows far more talent, far more skill, than the boyfriend who dumps me. One has thought, with precision about her product, considered its impact on me, the viewer, rehearsing and tweaking her performance, while the other has simply followed some gut instinct. Some evolutionary impulse to cut his losses and flee.
And while the inadvertently Darwinian of the two might crush my heart and seem like the most tragic thing in the world for some miniscule moment in my trivial existence, the artist and her art, should it be of suitable worth, will live on beyond my heartbreak and beyond her own lifetime, framed in galleries, reperformed for decades, ore merely played on the screens across the globe. Sad as the implications about individual human worth might be, I’d hazard a guess that more people miss Tony Soprano than my dad.