On Desai on “The Godfather”
I’m very happy that Deven points us toward “The Godfather.” It’s significant, I think, that one of the greatest American films of all time opens with a meditation on the difference between liberal legality and a form of clan justice. And while the culture referenced there is that of Italy (long a locus classicus for academic studies of honor culture), the point the scene makes is a more general one, namely the multiple rationalities at play in the group-based socio-legal order represented in the opening. As Deven writes: “What happens when all structures are gone? Where do you turn? Your company? Your school? … The immigrant undertaker, Bonasera, who tries to live under the new rules of his new country, America, finds that the system fails him. … He wants revenge for the beating and attempted rape of his daughter. He goes to the clan, [in the figure of] the Godfather.” (A side note: I think we can well picture a future world in which, absent certain legal structures, people would generally turn to their companies for redress, seeking out the in-house counsel of their corporate employers to vindicate their broader legal interests.) Naturally, as I note in the book, the Mafia and traditional clans contrast dramatically in that the Mafia is dedicated to unlawful activity—a profound and significant difference. Yet the widely applicable moral of the scene, as Deven points out, is that adhering to the dynamics of clan retribution not only engages deep human impulses, but is also under certain conditions fully reasonable. In addition, as he also notes, such group-based justice is governed by rules. Feud isn’t anarchy; it’s a certain type of order.
I like the way that, in 1972, this scene riffs on a central theme of American and Latin American popular writing by imagining the breakdown of law (I’ve discussed a related feature of popular culture in the Americas here). And there are reasons why this theme is so persistent—reasons why the efforts of popular artists to think about the present by invoking an ancient way of approaching justice remain so compelling. Among the reasons, I think, is the psychological and cultural tension Jeanne described in her first post.