Everyone it seems is watching Normal People. I mentioned that at least three people during the course of Zoom sessions last week appealed to me to watch it. While they thought I would it enjoy it, they also thought it would communicate to me something more or unspoken about themselves, or in other instances about their partners. I have not read the book and only watched six out of the twelve hours of the series. I am not sure whether or not I will continue. If I do it will only be because the two lead actors, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are sensational; are heartbreakingly brilliant at conveying the tragedy of a shared failure to communicate. There is irony in the fact that while we are privileged over all mammals with the angelic blessing of language, we are also inscrutable. So much more is going on invisibly and all the time inside of us than any assemblage of words can ever convey. In an essay on ‘Eros and Art’, the psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff sums up the ecstasy and tragedy of sexual fusion which is what I understand, in a nutshell, Normal People to be about. What we cannot know for certain are the internal dialogues propelling the protagonists towards tragedy.
Psychoanalysis has formed our understanding that sex is not merely a meeting of bodily parts or their insertion into each other but flesh doing the bidding of phantasy. Raphael-Leff continues:
During the course of their sexual transactions with each other a couple may surrender to passionate reciprocity, dismantling psychic and physical boundaries between them. Transcendence of time and gender-limit-lines generate ecstatic expansiveness but carry a risk of relinquished control. Hurtling through orgasmic boundaries may also release floodgates within, dissolving intra-psychic barriers…However for vulnerable people (in this case ‘Ordinary People’) the risk of too intense or prolonged fusion, or sameness may cause anxiety, threatening personal integrity with fragmentation, dissolution and even extinction. (‘Eros and Art’: Inconceivable Conceptions Ed: Jane Haynes and Juliet Miller)
I cannot think of a better summary of the failure to communicate between the star-crossed lovers, of Ordinary People. I spend so much time listening to human narratives of family, desire and rejection, where life is often stranger than any fiction which spoils me for almost all realistic drama. What has intrigued me most about Ordinary People is that the sexual realism is its triumph. I am not wanting to write a review of the drama but to comment on the extraordinary accomplishments of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. To watch them immersed in love making and tender yet ravenous appetites left me speechless and full of curiosity. I Googled. I found out in an interview that in their own words they could not have risked, without emotional harm, the intimacy of those scenes without the assistance on set of an ‘Intimacy Coach’ working alongside.
I have heard of all sorts of coaches, probably I am naive and intimacy coaches are employed on every Hollywood set. They might now be employed in bedrooms too. I have asked one or two people in the industry who looked equally quizzical and asked me to repeat the phrase. I may not have heard of intimacy coaches but I know something about sexual therapy and sex therapists. Sex can be many things in a relationship and the more varied the healthier it is likely to be . The one thing a sexual therapist is unable to do is to return to a failing relationship the alchemy of desire. Sex is not only capricious it is also anarchic and often subversive. Who could describe the fragility and capriciousness of desire better than Raphael-Leff:
Between two bodies locked in erotic attraction, a delicate tissue of interwoven imagery is fabricated, so strong it can withhold the cruelest of tests, so fragile the magic of desire can be dispelled as irrevocably as belief in the tooth fairy.
Perhaps we need to abandon sex therapists in favour of ‘intimacy coaches’. But, something of the magic of the actors’ uncanny mimesis of attraction has been dispelled for me by knowledge that while their performance is not crippled or enhanced by the unconscious presence of the primal scene and those irritating bit part players in our erotic lives, ‘our parents’, the intimacy coach is right there – in-between them.