Extraordinarily Normal People

Well, my copy of Normal People just came. I have so much reading for school, but I just feel like I need this.

I was chatting with a friend from my own college days yesterday about finishing the series and she said she was on pause before the final episode, because she doesn’t want it to be over. It’s interesting how intense the emotional attachment to fictional characters and their worlds can be.

The aphorist Rouchefoucauld once wrote: “There are people who would never have been in love if they had never heard of love.”  (“Il y a des gens qui n’auraient jamais été amoureux s’ils n’avaint jamais entendu parler de l’amour.”) He was writing in the run-up to the modern novel, around the time (the second half of the 17th century in France) when Madame de La Fayette anonymously published La Princesse de Clèves, about a sheltered young heiress, whose mother introduces her to the royal court in the hope of finding her a husband. This has been a concern of The Novel as an institution ever since.

Any rate: I told my friend I felt the same way about Normal People. I didn’t want it to end. So much about this story was so evocative and emotionally resonant on so many levels. But it has definitely got me to thinking about the nature of the sometimes very deep connection we can feel for characters in fiction and the fictional worlds they inhabit.

All fiction, all theater, is a strange and very particular exercise in empathy, somewhat unlike anything else in our lives: mystical, alchemical. What is it that I felt for the characters in Normal People? It’s not like I was imagining what it would be like to “know” them. They were like people I have known, for sure. But the world they inhabit is hermetically sealed, totally contained, like a scene in a snow globe. For me, it’s fruitless to imagine what it would be to know them in any way other than as they are in this separate realm of fiction. And yet I have to admit, there’s some serious cognitive dissonance here: they aren’t real, but the emotions are. Am I grieving? Is that what this is?

We theologians know: the suspension of disbelief is powerful magic. There’s a dual effort of the empathic imagination at work. The pain of leaving their story is compounded by the impossibility of engagement with it and them that it represents. Fiction that engages us deeply in the other can be “practice” for engagement with an actual other. It can also help us imagine love or practice grief. The Greeks, who invented Tragedy, obviously knew this. We need imaginary worlds to help us learn to live in the real one (and, perhaps, occasionally to transform it into one a little closer to what we imagine).

Fiction and theater are exercises in catharsis for the players and the audience alike that can be as transformative as any “religious experience.” It can teach us both the beauty and the pain of being outside of the world-as-it-is. In the case of Normal People, so much of the world we were seeing is still hidden from sight. That makes it all the more real, doesn’t it?

I’ve long thought that art is the closest we ever get in life to immortality. And at times watching Normal People I felt like I was a ghost in the room. We’ve all had that sense, I think. It can feel like we are haunting the fiction at least as much as it haunts us.

It’s like that unforgettable scene in Collodi’s Pinocchio: the doctors — a Crow, an Owl, and a Talking Cricket, are trying to determine whether “this poor Marionette is dead or alive,” when suddenly Pinocchio breaks into sobs.

“When the dead weep, they are beginning to recover,” said the Crow solemnly.

“I am sorry to contradict my famous friend and colleague,” said the Owl, “but as far as I’m concerned, I think that when the dead weep, it means they do not want to die.”

Sometimes fiction touches us like that. It’s impossible to ignore when it does, and I am of the mind that we can learn something about the living if we allow ourselves to remain and haunt them a little while.

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