A woman desperately tries to make a Sorkin-man character let her finish a sentence: Image: HBO
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Why I (still) love Aaron Sorkin

It’s become fashionable to disparage Sorkin’s later work, especially The Newsroom, and with good reason – the gender politics are terrible, for a start. But what if these problems were there all along, and we were just enjoying The West Wing too much to see them?

There’s a game I like to play if I ever want to wreck my own self-esteem: describe myself as if I’m an Aaron Sorkin character.

Sorkin, you see, likes to give his characters monologues about their incredible academic and career histories, to remind us that we are dealing with Very Clever And Impressive People. “Tell her I’m a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton and editor of the Duke Law Review,” Sam Seaborn tells someone when he wants to feel like a big man. Or when we’re about to meet Mac, Emily Mortimer’s character in The Newsroom, we’re told: “Line up any 10 people, eight of them will tell you she’s the best EP in the business and the other two will be stupid.”

Now, try it for yourself. Depressing, isn’t it? “He passed his degree in the top 80 per cent of his class.” “She has sometimes, for periods of up to two whole years, managed to hold down a job.” “Talk to anyone who knows him and they will tell you, he nearly always wears clothes.”

My name is Jonn Elledge, and I have a Sorkin problem. I know this stuff’s bad for me, I know it rots my brain, but I’m an addict, plain and simple, and dammit it feels good. There are episodes of The West Wing I must have seen a dozen times. I’m not only still watching The Newsroom, I’m still enjoying it, and am genuinely devastated that it’s coming to an untimely end. I even (this is truly shocking, since that show was basically a 22-hour YouTube rant about why Sorkin’s ex girlfriend should never have left him) quite enjoyed Studio 60

In retrospect, I was a Sorkin fan before I even knew who he was. Back in the Nineties, at an age when most normally functioning adolescent boys were watching movies where things explode, I was locked in my room watching A Few Good Men on a loop, and when The West Wing started I knew it was love.

There’s something inherently comforting in the idea that the leader of the free world would be the cleverest, most decent man New Hampshire had to offer, of course, and the appeal of such qualities went through the roof the minute George W Bush took the oath of office. But there was more to it than that. The West Wing inhabits a world populated entirely by thoughtful people, who want to make the world better, speak in snappy one-liners and, just occasionally, accidentally sit down where there isn’t a chair. It was an exercise in wish fulfillment for people who work in offices, intellectual porn for the kind of people who think “metropolitan elitist” is a compliment. I wanted to live in this world. I still do.

It’s become fashionable, among the sort of people The West Wing was designed to appeal to, to talk about the show and then immediately proceed to the word “but”. Yes, the show was great, but most of what Sorkin has done since has been disappointing, if not actually offensive. Yes, Sorkin’s work was amazing; but now it’s terrible.

But (see?) I wonder if this is actually a form of cognitive dissonance: a way of excusing the fact that the people who now hate Sorkin and all he stands for used to love this stuff. Watch early West Wing now, in fact, and it’s hard not to notice all of the flaws that would come to define his stuff. Let’s consider three:

 

I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out

Our hero is an intellectual giant: the cleverest, most capable person in the room. But his father used to hit him, and he’s a recovering substance abuser, so he gets a wise-cracking therapist, who tells him that, yes, he’s the cleverest and most capable person in the room, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an arsehole. He also needs a will-they-won’t-they thing with the cleverest and most capable woman in the room, whose presence reminds him that, however clever and capable she is, she is nothing without him.

...I mean, you don’t have to be Freud, do you?

All that stuff has been driving us crazy in everything Sorkin has done since, but it’s all there in The West Wing, too. We let it go, because at the time it was new, and it was split between several characters so the autobiography wasn’t quite so blatant, and hell, we were enjoying ourselves. Nonetheless, however cringeworthy we find it in The Newsroom, it hasn’t come out of nowhere. But we used to forgive it, and now we don’t.

(Incidentally, there was a rather wonderful story doing the rounds last year that Sorkin had fired his entire writing room except for his ex-girlfriend. Sadly, it turned out to be utterly untrue, but it goes to show how blurred the line between his life and his shows has become in the public mind.)

The second problem:

 

God bless America

Lord knows the US has problems: gun crime, a public sphere that infantalises its citizens, a religious right that tries to get our heroes fired because they can’t take a joke. But this country was built on a dream, and if we just stop talking down to people, and realise that the people in the heartland are decent, hardworking people who want a wise-cracking intellectual to look up to just as much as any of us, then, goddammit, this country can be great once again.

Yeah, see, you find this embarrassing now, but let’s not pretend you didn’t well up a little when Josh Lyman said it.

(One slightly odd corollary of all this: if the US is the greatest country in the world which, pace McAvoy, Sorkin obviously thinks it is, then every other country must somehow be worth less. Communicating that generally means reducing them to a funny stereotype. But this doesn’t quite work in The Newsroom, in which a whole quarter of the regular cast have British accents. He gets around it by pretending that one of them is American anyway, for some reason. The result is the deeply bizarre spectacle of Emily Mortimer, a serious candidate for the most English actress ever to have lived, spouting dialogue that makes the Declaration of Independence sound anti-American. But anyway.)

The big one, though, the single most perpetually uncomfortable thing about Sorkin’s work is:

 

These women

Sorkin loves clever women. Adores them. Wants to sing from the rooftops about how damn clever they are. 

But the odd thing is that, while his shows go out of their way to tell us how clever and capable their women are – cleverer and more capable than the men, they keep telling us – “tell” is all they do. Whenever it comes to showing us their actions, Sorkin writes women as morons.

So: MacKenzie McHale (a name with which literally no British family would ever consider lumbering their daughter) is a massively important and successful former war correspondent, and the cleverest person in the building. She also goes gooey over a man, and doesn’t know how to use email. Meanwhile, Alison Pill’s Maggie gets so cut up about a boy that she ends up in the street shouting at a passing Sex and the City tourbus. Not only does Sorkin make his character do this unlikely and humiliating thing, he keeps bringing it up to haunt her for the better part of a season. 

Remember quite how personal so much of his work has been, and you can’t help but wonder what’s really going on here.

This televisual negging has always been there in Sorkin’s work. There’s an awful scene early in The West Wing where the President and his chief of staff are talking, as you do, about how impressive their female employees are. It’s clearly meant to be a sort of paean to girl power in trouser suits. The problem is that the only compliments Sorkin can think of to put in his characters’ mouths are that CJ is tall and funny, Mandy is stubborn and argumentative, and three or four other characters have names. That’s literally it. They don’t say anything about those characters, they just list them. That scene is awful. He wrote it in 1999.

But back then, this bizarre distorted misogyny only infected the odd scene; since then, it’s gone pandemic. What’s worse, it’s become increasingly bound up with Sorkin’s long-standing need to prove his mouthpiece characters right.

And this, more than anything else – more than the appropriation of other people’s journalism, more than the smugness of hindsight – is the thing that doomed The Newsroom. Because when you combine the fact that all Sorkin’s avatar character are men, with his pathological need to show that they’re right, what you get is a series in which older men constantly talk down to younger women, and are then shown to be justified in doing so. The show makes its female characters do awful, incomprehensible things, just so that their love interests never have to apologise for being shitty to them. There are scenes in which Will McAvoy reduces young women to tears, and they end up asking about his feelings. 

All these problems were already present in Sorkin’s work: they’re there, in embryo, in A Few Good Men. But they’ve certainly become more pronounced, and the obvious explanation is that as his career has gone on he’s become increasingly uneditable: there’s no longer anyone who can overrule him. Now, when Sorkin decides to make a punchline of the fact that the media won’t let an intelligent woman finish a sentence; when he decides it’s time the world knew his views on rape culture; there’s no one who can persuade him that this is a bad idea.

I said at the start of this that Sorkin’s work is wish fulfillment for smart people who work in offices. And that’s true, but more than that, it’s wish fulfillment for Aaron Sorkin. He’s a clever, liberal, educated white man, who just wants the world to appreciate clever, liberal, educated white men once again. He wants it to admire them. He wants it to desire them, even: there’s a scene early in The Newsroom in which a beautiful woman says she’s scared to approach a clever, liberal etc man, in case he thinks she’s dumb. In my long experience of being moderately intelligent but not particularly good looking, I have never found this to be how the world actually works.

And yet – I love this stuff. And I will miss it now it’s gone. 

The obvious explanation is that this is my fantasy world, too, I realise. But I don’t think so: partly because I know several women who feel the same as I do, but mostly because the gender politics just makes me cringe. For all its flaws, I think that what I really love about The Newsroom is the same thing I loved about The West Wing all those years ago. I fundamentally just want to live in a world populated by smart, wise-cracking people whose idea of fun is to have a long argument about the issues of the day. I’m just the right kind of pretentious. 

And you know you can trust my judgement on this, because I’m another educated, smart alec white guy.

Now excuse me while I just sit down where I’m pretty confident that there’ll be a chair.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage