Civilizational Collapse, Taylor Swift(s) of the World, and the Beauty of Connection

I was walking down a busy street in Istanbul when I saw Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) in the bookstore window. I knew Irish writer Sally Rooney had been working on a new novel, but I wasn’t aware that it would come out in 2021. I stopped and went in to grab a copy immediately; I felt drawn to the novel’s title–inspired by a phrase from a 1778 Friedrich Schiller poem “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?” Even before I knew anything about the characters and the plot (well, or its lackthereof), I sensed that I would like the book.

After all, I’ve been asking the same question in the past few years.

And I’m glad I was right.

Beautiful World revolves around four characters– Alice and Eileen, the two close friends who are about to turn thirty and the two men with whom they are romantically involved, Felix and Simon. Alice is an acclaimed writer who is recovering from a psychotic episode in a rural seaside town in Ireland, and Eileen works as a copy-editor in a small literary magazine in Dublin. Eileen and Alice’s stories unfold in thirty chapters, some of which are presented in the form of emails between the two. Through the meditative emails the protagonists exchange, the narrative delves deeper into the question of what it means to be human in the consistently unstable and chaotic world that we call home.

The story — of how the two friends met in college, Alice’s relationship with her parents, Eileen’s dysfunctional family, among other things–is layered and complex, yet mired in quotidian details. Many brilliant reviews have discussed the novel’s compelling form, its partial epistolary structure, Rooney’s revision of the 21st century romantic novel, and her metacommentary on the state of the contemporary Euro American novel. I can already envision all the academic papers that will be (perhaps, have been?) published exploring these fascinating elements of the novel. What really drew me to Beautiful World, however, was the emphasis on the characters’ yearning for connection. With themselves, each other, as well as with the world around them.

Throughout the novel, the maladies of the 21st century– anxieties about not only relationships and work but also about global catastrophes such as refugee crises and climate change — take center stage as Eileen and Alice seek a deeper, soulful connection. Alice writes early on:

I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? After that there was no chance for the planet, and no chance for us. Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at the same time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.

pgs. 93-4

Rooney’s laconic, unembelished language in some chapters is strategic in this context, reflecting the lack of depth and intimacy that has come to characterize modern relationships. Despite their efforts to remain connected to each other and to the outside world through dinner parties, the news, social media, and emails, Alice and Eileen’s stories point to a disconnect between the practice and the theory–a disconnection that plagues their social circles, as well as the globalized world.

Eileen writes:

[…] I don’t want to live like this. I want to live differently. But looking at the internet, I don’t see many ideas worth dying for. The only idea on there seems to be that we should watch the immense human misery unfolding before us and just wait for the most immiserated, most oppressed people to turn around and tell us how to stop it. It seems that there exists a curiously unexplained belief that the conditions of exploitation will by themselves generate a solution to exploitation- and that to suggest otherwise is condescending and superior, like mansplaining. But what if the conditions don’t generate the solution? What if we are waiting for nothing, and all these people are suffering without the tools to end their own suffering? […] Oh, that’s all very well, but then, what action do I ever take? In my defence, I’m very tired and I don’t have any good ideas. Really my problem is that I’m annoyed at everyone else for not having all the answers, when I also have none. And who am I to ask for humility and openness from other people? What have I ever given the world to ask so much in return? I could disintegrate into a heap of dust, for all the world cares, and that’s as it should be.

pg. 75

As I was reading Beautiful World a few months ago, I ran into a meme on social media about Taylor’s Swift “All Too Well.” This was during the Fall when Red, Taylor’s Version came out. The meme made a joke about (a realistic one, let’s face it) how therapists in the U.S. that week didn’t even have to ask any follow up questions to their young women clients when they started to bawl their eyes out, having been listening to “All Too Well” and remembering all the past heartbreaks. The meme made me giggle; I, too, listened to the ten minute version of the song repeatedly. But then–

I remembered a conversation I had with my therapist the week Taliban invaded Afghanistan. I’d told her about how helpless I felt when I heard the news, and how I felt fear as a woman living in a country whose government seemed to recognize Taliban. She responded that the majority of her female clients had been triggered by the invasion, and that fear and feelings of despair were the focus of their sessions during that week. Having been cocooned in the safety of an academic life in the Midwest for a decade, I’d forgotten how upsetting and emotionally exhausting it is to be slapped with reality too often. I thought to myself–how unsafe and unprotected we as women must be feeling as members of our society to have a collective internal response to an invasion that took place almost two thousand miles away.

I don’t mean to detract from the importance of heartbreak and relationship problems at all–everyone’s lived experiences are intricate. However, the juxtaposition of these two scenes in my head amplified the stark differences between everyday realities of Euro America and those of the rest of the world–particulary for women. So, I thought: maybe this is why when I started reading Beautiful World, I felt as though Eileen and Alice were Taylor Swifts of the world, and this is why their anxieties about men, sex, and friendship seemed insignificant to me in the grand scheme of things. But as I flipped through the pages, reading some of the chapters felt like listening to a post-2018 Taylor Swift album with the characters’ ennui, striking honesty, and their anxieties about love and connection. As I continued to read the emails Alice and Eileen exchange throughout the novel, I realized: as citizens of the world, we had more in common than I initially thought.

In their emails, the two protagonists are on a quest to contemplate their positionalities and responsibilities as young white women in today’s increasingly volatile and complex world. They meditate on a wide range of subjects, from civilizational collapse and possibility of serious political action to social media and motherhood. These introspective reflections on global events are interwoven within a personal narrative of love, sex, and relationships. In this context, they pose critical questions (that interest all of us as the products of the 21st century) to which there are no easy answers. As Alice tells Eileen:

At times I think about human relationships as something soft like sand and water, and by pouring them into particular vessels we give them shape. So a mother’s relationship with her daughter is poured into a vessel marked ‘mother and child’, and the relationship takes the contours of its container and is held inside there, for better or worse. Maybe some unhappy friends would have been perfectly contented as sisters, or married couples as parents and children, who knows. But what would it be like to form a relationship with no preordained shape of any kind? Just to pour the water out and let it fall. I suppose it would take no shape, and run off in all directions. That’s a little like myself and Felix, I think. there’s no obvious path forward by which any relation between us can proceed […] But whatever happens will at least be the result of this experiment, which feels at times like it’s going badly wrong, and at other times feels like the only kind of relationship worth having.

pg. 93

In response, Eileen writes:

Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day […] Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other.

pg. 111

It seems that, for both Eileen and Alice, human connection in various forms and shapes may be the antidote to the sense of impending doom that infiltrates the 21st century. I find Eileen’s perspective on beauty paradoxically poetic in this context. In an email to Alice, she investigates the notion of beauty as follows:

I still think of myself as someone who is interested in the experience of beauty, but I would never describe myself (except to you, in this email) as ‘interested in beauty’, because people would assume that I meant I was interested in cosmetics. This I guess is the dominant meaning of the word ‘beauty’ in our culture now. And it seems telling that this meaning of the word ‘beauty’ signifies something so profoundly ugly – plastic counters in expensive department stores, discount pharmacies, artificial perfumes, eyelash extensions, jars of ‘product’ […] To be open to aesthetic experience in a serious way probably requires as a first step the complete rejection of this ideal, and even a wholesale reaction against it, which if it seems to require at first a kind of superficial ugliness is still better by far and more substantively ‘beautiful’ than purchasing increased personal attractiveness at a price. Of course I wish that I personally were better-looking, and of course I enjoy the validation of feeling that I do look good, but to confuse these basically auto-erotic and status-driven impulses with real aesthetic experience seems to me an extremely serious mistake for anyone who cares about culture.

pg. 209-10

Eileen then situates beauty within the context of human connection. She asks, We relentlessly seek beauty, but what makes the world beautiful? My favorite passage in the novel depicts a moment when time slows down for Eileen, and she experiences beauty as an aesthetic experience as she contemplates the wonder of simply existing.

She writes:

A couple of nights ago, I was getting a taxi home on my own after a book launch. The streets were quiet and dark, and the air was oddly warm and still, and on the quays the office buildings were all lit up inside, and empty, and underneath everything, beneath the surface of everything, I began to feel it all over again—the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything. As soon as I realised what I was feeling, I tried to move toward it in my thoughts, to reach out and handle it, but it only cooled a little or shrank away from me, or slipped off further ahead. The lights in the empty offices had reminded me of something, and I had been thinking about you, trying to imagine your house, I think, and I remembered I’d had an email from you, and at the same time I was thinking of Simon, the mystery of him, and somehow as I looked out the taxi window I started to think about his physical presence in the city, that somewhere inside the city’s structure, standing or sitting, holding his arms one way or another, dressed or undressed, he was present, and Dublin was like an advent calendar concealing him behind one of its million windows, and the quality of the air was instilled, the temperature was instilled, with his presence, and with your email, and with this message I was writing back to you in my head even then.

The world seemed capable of including these things, and my eyes were capable, my brain was capable, of receiving and understanding them. I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.

pgs. 164-5

Eileen’s reflection on what renders the world beautiful highlights the intimate link between the aesthetic experience of beauty and human connection. She seems to suggest– maybe, just maybe if we are tuned in to the beauty of being and existing, despite the feeling of doom and gloom it could be possible to relish seemingly small details we tend to take for granted.

Perhaps, it is this Gramscian optimism permeating the novel that attracts me to Eileen and Alice. Beautiful World synthesizes and transcends the binary of pessimism and optimism, amplifying instead the significance of, in Antonio Gramsci’s terms (1948), the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of will. Alternating between emails and omniscient narration, the novel offers insight into the various ways in which the characters encounter and process the realities of the 21st century.

But the story ends on a hopeful note–

Rooney beautifully negotiates the tension between hope and realism as Eileen and Alice stare reality in the face while simultaneously learning to restore their faith in humanity and in the beauty of human connection.

In spite of my initial reaction to the characters’ seemingly insignificant concerns, Beautiful World has truly spoken to my soul, which I still find intriguing. I suspect it is Rooney’s remarkable style, which is paradoxically simple yet soulful, that has made such an impact on me. And perhaps I am a little envious of Alice and Eileen too– of the comforting simplicity of their lives and their privilege of contemplating about life, its demands and sorrows from a distance. I say this with the acknowledgement that, to some people, I am Alice and Eileen with my privileges and distance from their cruel realities.

But isn’t this the point of the novel?

Isn’t this the strength of the novel?

For me, the power of Beautiful World lies in its ability to help us question our privileges and responsibilities in the globalized world while inspiring us to redefine beauty along the way. The life we have may not be the one we imagined for ourselves, but it’s the only one we have, as Eileen reminds us at the end:

I wish I knew what you thought of all this. I still have no idea what it will be like- what it will feel like, or how the days will pass, whether I’ll still want to write or be able to, what will become of my life. I suppose I think that having a child is simply the most ordinary thing I can imagine doing. And I want that–to prove that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care. To prove it to whom, I wonder. Myself, maybe. […] I know that it’s not the life you imagined for me, Alice–buying a house and having children with a boy I grew up. It’s not the life I used to imagine for myself either. But it’s the life I have, the only one. And as I write you this message I’m very happy. All my love.

pg. 337

Have you read Beautiful World, Where Are You? What did you think?

3 thoughts on “Civilizational Collapse, Taylor Swift(s) of the World, and the Beauty of Connection

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