I expected to detest Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’.
Arguably the most successful Irish writer of the 2010’s, her works have captured a key demographic: millennial women; not to forget the wine-gulping, perennially depressed older generations, vicariously re-living their spent youth through Rooney.
Admittedly, until recently I’ve never read Rooney’s books, though considering women’s taste in the written form that’s probably for the best.
This demographic is certainly cardinal from the vantage point of the publishing industry, and all others whose perceptual lens is enamoured with the Dollar, Euro and Sterling.
In the West, women eagerly buy 80% of all fiction. Unfortunately, most of these works are repetitive and unimaginative.
Ezra Pound offered an erudite explanation of this type of relationship between entropy and capital:
“You can, by contrast, always get financial backing for debauchery. Any form of ‘entertainment’ that debases perception, that profanes the mysteries or tends to obscure discrimination, goes hand in hand with drives toward money profit.”
The Show and its Director
Speaking of vulgarity, ‘Normal People’ is directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Famous for directing such dour delights as ‘Adam and Paul’, which I personally quite enjoyed as a nascent adolescent.
Despite his talents as an author, his work does not engender hope or a will-to-overcome; at best the audience experiences schadenfreude, deceiving themselves into thinking their nightly Netflix binge confers the right to laugh at those beneath them.
A middling man making middling movies for a middling audience.
Worse than his melancholia is his transparent xenophilia. In ‘Adam and Paul’, the protagonists happen across a fedora-adorned Bulgarian. In the course of their interaction, the ignorant “Fucking Irish!”- as the Bulgarian put it – are not cognisant of his nationality, mistakenly referring to him as a ‘Romanian’. How parochial!
In his 2007 miniseries ‘Prosperity’ we encounter Pala, a Nigerian Asylum seeker. Intended to pull at heartstrings, it highlights her trials and tribulations living in Dublin. Also worth noting is that Pala, like many others in her community, frequently sends money back home to Nigeria.
Such examples expose Abrahamson’s complicity in the on-going erasure of the Irish nation. His work seeks to inculcate the Irish with a complex, equally despondent as it is guilt-ridden. We are liable before the court of humanity. If only we had the perceptual skills of Abrahamson.
We can merely speculate regarding his rationale behind the interpolation of ethno-masochism. What is clear is that he is not a friend of the Irish people.
The Show and its Characters
‘Normal People’ follows the intertwined relationship between Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal), and Marianne Sheridan (Daisey Edgar-Jones).
Connell’s character development is a case study in inverted expectations. He strikes the viewer as the archetypal GAA alpha-male – the ‘chad’ type to use a contemporary colloquialism.
Athletic and tall, the audience is lulled into the assumption that he’s braindead, uncouth, and domineering.
This deceptive character device is rebutted as Connell progresses through the show. We discover that he’s a thoughtful book worm of sorts, who only laughs along with his mates and shifts girls because he’s too insecure to express who he “truly is”.
Since Connell is intelligent, he naturally falls on the political left. It’s just how things are. Naturally, his left wing political affiliation has nothing to do with the views of Rooney, an avowed Marxist, or Abrahamson, whose ideological views do not need repeating.
In Episode 4 Connell informally debates two defenders of free expression, arguing that supposed “Nazis” don’t deserve free speech. In the first episode, he recommends the ‘Golden Notebook’ to Marianne for its feminist credentials.
Interestingly, it’s an anti-Stalinist work written in the ‘60s. Rooney’s Marxism is veiled radical liberalism, she’s complicit in Western Imperialism.
In contrast to the mild-mannered Connell, Marianne is outspoken and brash, openly defying the imperatives of her teachers.
Underlying this proud exterior is timidity and the incessant need for validation from Connell.
Despite her pretensions at virile independence, she defers to male authority in the most secretive and personal of moments. As a certain Corsican anabolic steroid smuggler once declared: “she will submit!”.
Like Connell, Marianne is politically minded. She rails against the Debs for being a latent symptom of a barbaric patriarchal age.
During a seminar, she intellectually demolishes an arrogant male interlocutor who interrupts her. Destroying his naïve Cartesianism, she proclaims that we must make an inquiry into the generative structures of “truths” to gain a fuller picture of how power and structure is interlaced with the ostensible “truth” around us.
Rooney is blind to the logical consequences of such an inquiry. Further, she is not cognisant of how contemporaneous structural forces (universities, NGOs, Media, the State, and so on) privilege their viewpoint. The left has friends in high places.
The show and the faux right wing
As with the Connell’s debate, this scene brings Rooney’s hatred of classical liberalism to the fore.
Personally, I can’t blame her. She expertly skewers these people, their intellectual vacuity, and their obnoxious personality defects.
How often has the tired mantra of free speech been invoked? It’s symptomatic of a right wing which lacks values and will. We take Nietzsche’s advice regarding this intellectual decadence plaguing the right: “But I say: if something is falling, one should also give it a push! Everything of today – it is falling, it is failing: who would want to stop it! But I – I want to push it too!”
Symptomatic of a campus in which the true right wing is disprivileged and undermined by the post-war consensus, Rooney’s protagonists encounter no ideas which fall beyond the pale of accepted discourse. Rooney herself has never encountered such ideas, and if she did by chance, she dismissed them prima facie.
If cognizant of the right, she’d understand that it has interacted with the left, whether in its Marxist, pre-Marxian socialist, or Post-Modern form, since its inception. In fact, terms such as ‘late stage capitalism’ (Werner Sombart), ‘Neoliberalism’ (Othmar Spann), and ‘Logocentrism’ (Ludwig Klages) were all coined by men of the right.
The New Right theorists of France (GRECE) have a long history of interacting with postmodern theoreticians. Accepting their demolition of modernism’s grand narratives of universal emancipation, human rights, and progress, they nonetheless take issue with post-modern individualism. The right wing linguists involved in Generative Anthropology have drawn on figures such as Derrida since he first put pen to paper.
Michael O’Meara articulates their critique of postmodernity: “the postmodern view of reality as a shifting field of discursive relations is less concerned with re-legitimating the micro-narratives of the pre-modern tradition than with privileging their antithesis: the anarchist fragments of a hyper-modern world linked to the nomadic logic of the new international economy”.
The show and Rooney
Who is Sally Rooney? From her writing, what I can gather is as follows:
Rooney is an intelligent woman from Mayo. A resentful intelligent woman from Mayo. Resentful of her culchie background. Resentful of the culchie GAA players who never paid attention to her. Resentful of her teachers who disinterestedly listened to her while she struggled to enunciate her sporadic thoughts. Resentful of being a woman too, scorn the maternal and natal instincts.
But not confident, not like her Marianne. How she wishes she could have cleverly answered back to a male teacher, to humiliate him like Marianne does in the seminar.
Otto Weininger once stated, “People love in others the qualities they would like to have but do not actually have in any great degree”. Marianne isn’t simply a character: she is Rooney.
Rooney, but improved: better looking, smarter, more confident, and so on.
Further, Marianne is an improved Rooney in the context of secondary school. Rooney wishes she could go back and change how she was.
To be more confident, to be more successful with the lads, to be…more.
That which we can never possess inflames the passions and instincts. Rooney could never possess an athletic GAA player. Nor could the pencil-necks in the Phil or Hist sufficiently appropriate said athlete’s physique or looks.
Connell is her dream man, to remain a fantasy for all eternity.
In a moment of passion, Marianne confesses to Connell that she thinks about him having sex with other women. The female eunuch! Is this how Rooney views herself? A frigid, cuckold, incel, onlooker, not worthy of male attention. Perennially chaste?
The dissonance between the show’s representation of Connell and how he’d actually be in real life is a serious fault. But as a means to gain access to Rooney’s psychology it’s invaluable.
In sum, Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ is ostensibly yet another love story, albeit set in a familiar locale, littered with urban and rural markers which will surely evoke feelings of nostalgia for Dublin’s student life among its youthful audience. Beyond the surface, we find that Rooney’s characters are deeply and inextricably connected to her as a person – her desires, regrets, and resentments. Personally, I wouldn’t race back to watch ‘Normal People’ again, but the fact that many would doesn’t surprise me.