The Enigmatic Mr. Lynch

by Stefan Gullatz Volume 13, Issue 9 / September 2009 36 minutes (8990 words)

The world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence. A circle is not absurd. It is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn’t exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed, insofar as I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to its own existence. It was no use my repeating: ‘It is a root’ – that didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that I could not pass from its function as a root, as a suction pump, to that, to that hard, compact, sea-lion skin, to that oily, horny, stubborn look.

(Sartre 2000, 185-186)

In the multi-faceted critical literature on the films of David Lynch, the innately enigmatic quality of Lynch’s work has emerged as a unifying theme. [1] Sinnerbrink (2005) perhaps goes further than anyone else in delineating the radical character of this enigma, and the problem it poses to any critical reviews of Lynch. Enigma is a central trait of most films by Lynch, and as Sinnerbrink notes, a variety of different critical approaches to Lynch have arisen that are designed to contain this enigma within an interpretive frame: In their attempt to gain conceptual mastery over the films, theorists of Lynch’s work have cast the director variably as a ‘postmodern ironist,’ a ‘transgressive neo-conservative,’ or a ‘visionary explorer of the unconscious’ (Sinnerbrink 2005). Regarding the latter, Sinnerbrink considers, and makes extended use of, various psychoanalytic approaches to making sense of the filmmaker, acknowledging their ‘enlightening power.’ Still, he accuses their authors of a reductive ‘rationalism’:

I mean the tendency to treat films as illustrations of theoretical concepts or ideological perspectives that can be properly deciphered only once submitted to conceptual analysis or subsumed within a philosophical metalanguage (Sinnerbrink 2005).

He discerns that tendency in Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Lost Highway (David Lynch 1997), for example, an interpretation that construes the opposed ‘poles’ of the film –the aseptic real life world of Fred on the one hand, and, following his mysterious transformation into Pete, a noir universe– in psychoanalytic terms, as the opposition between social reality and fantasy (Žižek 2000, 13).

Instead of approaching the films of Lynch through an elaborate ‘meta-critique,’ in order to determine their meaning at the latent level, beneath the enigmatic surface, we should, Sinnerbrink suggests, regard Lynch as a ‘cinematic philosopher-artist’ in his own right, someone who exploits the potential of the audio-visual medium to the full, in order to communicate a filmic ‘philosophy’ that will forever remain inextricably bound up with its medium. There is an insinuation that an art philosophy cannot be exhaustively illuminated by any of its conceptually based cousins, that we are faced with two distinct paradigms that must remain incommensurable –irreducible to each other.

In referring to the notion of ‘ideas,’ Sinnerbrink has adopted a term that Lynch has himself frequently used in interviews, without further specifying its philosophical status. Sinnerbrink likens the ‘ideas’ of Lynch to Kant’s ‘aesthetic ideas,’ suggesting that the essence of Lynch’s work consists in an intermingling of its sensuous immediacy –i.e. the films’ typically potent audio-visual level– with a profound reflexivity encoded into this aesthetic level, as it were ‘between the lines.’ As per this view Lynch’s films resist interpretation through critical metalanguages, Sinnerbrink concludes we should instead approach the director by letting our own critical view, and Lynch’s ‘art-philosophy,’ reflect upon each other.

While he refers to Kant’s ‘aesthetics ideas,’ his argument seems to me to be roughly equidistant to Schopenhauer, who regarded art as a medium that allowed the artist, not so much to ‘express’ his object, but rather to reveal the archetypal idea underlying it (Schopenhauer 1969, 169-267). According to Schopenhauer, art aims to communicate knowledge, to express a universal ‘truth.’ Aesthetic perception, our ‘consumption’ of art, accordingly consists in rising to the level of the idea(s) expressed therein, and to accomplish this requires an intense effort of contemplation that involves our entire mind, and therefore expressly transcends its faculties of abstraction to encompass perception and intuition. Amongst the different art forms, music to Schopenhauer allows for the most immediate access to truth, insofar as it probes beneath phenomena in order to express the striving ‘will’ –the numinous, metaphysical Thing-in-itself– directly, without the mediation of Platonic ideas (Schopenhauer 1969, 256-267). [2]

Anybody who is familiar with Lynch will instantly note the proximity between Sinnerbrink’s argument and Lynch’s own negative attitude to analytical approaches to film. In an interview he gave to BBC Scotland, for example, he referred to the ‘language’ of film, noting that ‘a film is its own thing, and in an ideal world I think film should be discovered knowing nothing, and nothing should be added to it, and nothing should be subtracted from it.’ [3]

Sinnerbrink’s vexing position on Lynch clearly poses a dilemma. If his argument is taken too far, the potential for further critical analysis will definitely be diminished. To the extent that the filmmaking of Lynch becomes a kind of ‘noumen,’ beyond the range of philosophical metalanguages, we have to give up any hope of gaining conceptual access to the films. ‘Proper’ access to Lynch could then only be gained through a contemplative, experiential confrontation with his work, through which the philosophical content would be intuitively apprehended, yet the irrational kernel of this apprehension would, by definition, lie beyond any attempt to gain conceptual mastery over Lynch.

Still, Sinnerbrink’s argument can be rendered fertile for further critical approaches to Lynch by changing its focus, directing it away from the accent on the epistemological deadlock, from the impossibility of a philosophical ‘meta-criticism,’ and instead elevating this ‘void of impossibility’ to an ontological level. That is to say, the task of criticism would be to explicate how the unknowable, impenetrable core of the art of David Lynch functions as a reflection of a constitutive void, or gap, an inherent impossibility of meaning, as a ‘positive condition’ of the subject’s being. If we follow this route, we can discern two fundamental ways in which the subject’s traumatic core is rendered through the surreal ‘touch’ of Lynch, the recurring appearance of a meaningless ‘stain’ in his films:

(1) Lynch’s peculiar cinematic style is aimed at rendering aspects of his films not only enigmatic, but ‘unreadable,’ which allows him to establish their unique identity, and thus ‘inscribe himself,’ his essential identity as an artist, in his movies.

(2) In their attempt at a cinematic disclosure of the fabric of (subjective) reality, Lynch’s films can be seen to obey a philosophical thrust. In Lacanian terms, Lynch disentangles the subjective layers of ‘fantasy’ and ‘desire,’ staging them horizontally, rather than vertically, as in standard Hollywood filmmaking, which serves to reveal the extent to which fantasy is required to lend reality ontological consistency. Lynch also characteristically follows the fantasy to its endpoint, the point where it is hinged up to desire. His films pivot on this excessive Real, the traumatic kernel of the subject, which per se eludes signification.

If the core thesis of Sinnerbrink’s paper can thus be refuted, his assertion that the art of Lynch aims at conveying a philosophical content deserves, emphatically, to be salvaged.

To apprehend Lynch’s peculiar cinematic style, consider an axis leading from Kafka to Žižek, via Derrida. Derrida aimed to determine the strategies through which the identity of Kafka’s famously enigmatic writing is established, finding that this identity forever eludes ‘an assured specular reflection of some self-referential transparency,’ that it is, rather, established ‘in the unreadability of the text, if one understands by this the impossibility of acceding to its proper significance, and its possibly inconsistent content, which it jealously keeps back’ (Derrida 1992, 211). In this, Žižek (1996) discerns the structure of Lacan’s formula of fantasy ($ <> a), in which the ‘empty,’ socio-symbolic subject of the signifier, $, contracts his being into an object external to him, the fantasy, a. Kafka contracts his literary identity into an opaque object, (a), the kernel of unreadability of his writing, which he ‘guards jealously,’ because this impenetrable dimension of his art establishes his essence as a writer, thus precluding the reduction of his identity to a ‘transparent’ reflection of ‘another’s substantial identity’ (Žižek 1996, 26).

A case could, and indeed should, be made that David Lynch’s identity as a cinematic auteur rests on the same principle as Kafka’s identity as a writer, that Lynch ‘contracts’ his being as an artist into something impenetrable at the core of his films, thereby ensuring that a constitutive ‘stain’ will smudge any attempt to establish a consistent meaning of his filmic narratives.

Consider the somewhat contentious status of irony in Lynch’s work. Perhaps, the example of irony in Lynch par excellence is the famous conversation between Jeffrey and Sandy about robins in Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986), which takes place after Jeffrey has just had a glimpse of Lumberton’s perverse underbelly in Dorothy’s apartment. Sandy talks about a dream she had had in which robins represent the ideal of love and light in an otherwise desolate world. As Žižek (2000) notes, this scene is radically ambivalent: Sandy’s hyperbolic discourse is cast as an ostentatious cliché, and Lynch seems to revel in its ludicrous dimension, a sense heightened by the style of acting, reminiscent of soap opera melodrama. While irony is clearly in evidence here, Lynch does not succumb to its superficial mode, but reflects it in such a way that the scene achieves its ‘own immediacy.’ Lynch marshals irony to accomplish a counter-intuitive effect, so that this device of the surface comes to be perceived, finally, as a vehicle for its opposite: a sense of significance. The scene produces a coincidence of opposites and, in the process, becomes unfathomable: it is both ridiculous and sublime (Žižek 2000, 1, 19). While this confluence may, to a certain extent, be characteristic of our ‘opaque’ postmodernity as such –a conception of postmodernity in terms of the vague evocativeness of allegory that points nowhere in particular has given rise to the designation of Kafka as a postmodern writer avant la letter (Lechte 1994, 242-246)– Lynch appropriates it to his own purpose, so that it becomes a hallmark of his identity as a cinematic auteur.

Consider the stock Lynchian figure representing evil and corruption –Žižek’s second point of reference– such as Mr. Eddy, the Mafia boss in Lost Highway. [4] On the one hand, Eddy is a cardboard cut-out film noir cliché, an ironically reflected figure who would be unable to render the evil he represents in a direct, naïve, substantial mode. However, Lynch again appropriates cliché to his own idiosyncratic purpose, rendering serious the abyss, or vortex, of evil implied in the figure, which is made palpable through the menacing undercurrents we discern in him, in part through his strangely piercing gaze ( immediately evoking the question of desire Que vuoi? ). Confronted with this coincidentia oppositorium, we find ourselves unable to attach a determinate, or consistent, meaning to what must ultimately remain an impenetrable figure.

Inherently ambivalent figures such as Mr. Eddy form part of a panoply of devices rendering a film by Lynch uniquely ‘Lynchian,’ and point to the mode by which the director inscribes himself within the filmic text. In the course of the slightly perverse game he plays with his audience, the kernel of his impossible jouissance, defining his identity, becomes a de-centred part of the narrative.

A curious moment early on in the Twin Peaks television series (Season 1) is worthy to be taken note of here: In his quest to identify the murderer of Laura Palmer, Agent Cooper, Lynch’s alter ego, brings another unconventional method to bear on his enquiry. As he explains, he devised this method –designed to facilitate a more expansive intuition, to allow him to tap into the forces of his unconscious– in the wake of a dream related to Tibet. At the outset of the scene, set in an outdoors typical of the series, he lectures the assembled local police on Tibet, referring to its geography and ancient spiritual tradition. He also mentions the invasion of the Chinese in the early 1950’s, noting how the plight of the Tibetan people has ‘profoundly affected him.’ Subsequent to this ‘foreplay,’ as it were, he begins the process of hurling rocks at an empty milk bottle, erected on a tree stump, whenever the name of a suspect beginning with a ‘J’ is read out –in the hope of thus divining the right direction of his search. When the name of Leo Johnson is read, the bottle dramatically breaks. This mise-en-scène manifests a sophisticated sense of absurd, ambiguously mitigated and enhanced by the approach of the participants themselves (Cooper and the local police) whose serious treatment of the process –they take it in a spirit of interested, relaxed joviality– becomes itself a crucial aspect of its surreal dimension. The absurdity is sophisticated, because a range of subliminal hints reveal that all this is, ultimately, to be taken seriously: there is nothing ironic about Cooper’s monologue about spiritual Tibetan culture as such, nor about the darkening mood that sets in the moment the bottle breaks –as the name Leo Johnson is mentioned– which is supported by an understated, haunting soundtrack.

This slippery intersection of ironic surface with an implied deeper significance is, again, best accounted for in terms the sense of “identity” it confers upon this scene, which allows its author to inscribe his own essential identity into its text: We can see a clear analogy between Cooper’s stance of ‘letting go,’ of surrendering to the forces of the unconscious, and Lynch’s well-known apprehension of the dynamics of the creative process, which to him has to begin with a facilitation of ideas through a receptive state of mind that is conducive, not so much to generating them, as to ‘finding’ them –as in meditation, for example. Moreover, Lynch has often stated in interviews that coffee has been a means of stirring up his creativity (‘An idea in every bean’ (Lynch 2007).

In Twin Peaks, Cooper constantly pays compliments for the ‘damn fine coffee’ he is having, including this scene. What seems like a trivial aside contributes to the ironic embodiment of Lynch’s de-centred identity, insofar as Twin Peaks condenses his impossible jouissance –both sensual enjoyment, of which coffee is but a metonymic allusion, a synecdoche, [5] and the creative, intellectual (spiritual?) core of his self. Yet, it is important to be precise here: after we have attached a particular allegorical meaning to a scene such as this –its encoding of Lynch’s approach to the creative process– there remains an opaque excess of non-sense over sense that is constitutive of its effect. We can understand why this surreal excess corresponds to the ‘surplus enjoyment’ derived, if we recall Lacan’s key insight that human enjoyment is per se surplus enjoyment, that there can be no enjoyment outside a deviant, pathological excess. [6]

If it can be established with relative ease that a playful combination of irony and seriousness is a central feature of Lynch’s filmmaking, an interpretation of the implied seriousness itself will be more difficult, and contentious, and raises a fundamental question about his films: is the violence in his films to be regarded as part of an experience of cathartic cleansing, implying that once we have ‘traversed’ the horrors and the evil encountered, we can attain to a more serene, ethereal sphere transcending violent conflict (a conception through which the opposition between ??Twin Peaks??’ evil force ‘Bob’ on the one hand, and Cooper’s quasi-religious visions on the other would become readable)? Or would it be better to conceive of Lynch as a spiritually ‘non-affiliated’ existentialist, more amenable to a reading through orthodox psychoanalysis? In Martha Nochimson’s 1997 study of Lynch, based on a series of interviews, Lynch stops short of conceding a metaphysical dimension to his art, yet in aligning himself with Jungian thought, gets very close. As Nochimson notes, ‘Lynch suggested a possible relationship with Jungian thought, and I would say that the label developed by Carl Jung, “the collective unconscious,” roughly evokes the kind of connectedness Lynch referred me to’ (Nochimson 1997, 6). A tentative picture emerges here of Lynch’s cinematic art as a reflection of a Jungian libido –transcending raw sexual energy– an ultimately spiritual force intimately related to the archetypal, mythical imagery in the collective unconscious of man, which ‘overdetermines’ significant aspects of his filmic narratives, thus linking them to each other. This connectivity could perhaps be symbolized by the Mandala, Jung’s favourite representation of the archetypal ‘self,’ in which all the constituent elements are related to each other, via the numinous centre that represents their unity. To Jung the self archetype denotes a unifying transcendence of contradictions, a coincidentia oppositorum, which cannot in practice be distinguished from ‘the image of God in man’ (Jung 1957, 40).

Žižek opposes this picture of Lynch as ‘a poet of a Jungian (…) spiritualized libido’ (Žižek 2000, 3), maintaining that instead of conceiving of a ‘Gnostic Lynch’ focused on a metaphysical opposition between good and evil, we should see these two opposed poles as fundamentally correlative expressions of surrendering to the vortex of the unconscious. Twin Peaks??’ emphasis on intuition and transcendence, manifested in Agent Cooper’s surreal visions –most pertinently, of course, his recurring dreams of the ‘red room,’ in which the pieces of the puzzle he is trying to assemble are given a liminal, metaphysical turn of the screw by Laura, and the dwarf talking in reverse– then emerge as formally equivalent to the indulgence in violence of a figure like Bobby Peru in ??Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1991). Peru, a former porn star, whose whole appearance is suggestive of a huge phallus, ‘firewalks’ with the violent rage in his unconscious’ (Žižek 2000, 23), deriving excess enjoyment from his acts of obscenity.

Psychoanalytic readings of Lynch broadly anchored in the secular, Freudian school must, by definition, refer themselves to an irreducibly sexual libido, which, according to Lacan is ‘the only substance acknowledged by psychoanalysis’ (Žižek 1993, 202). Orthodox stringency here has the advantage of allowing us to see two seemingly incompatible figures such as Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, and Agent Dale Cooper in the Twin Peaks TV series, as two sides of the same coin, as ‘twinned’ modes of connoting structurally equivalent manifestations of relating to the unconscious that become vehicles for Lynch’s ‘art of the ridiculous sublime’ (Žižek 2000, 22-23).

While the status of the ‘metaphysical’ in Lynch remains a subject of heated controversy, the existential preoccupation of his art cannot reasonably be denied. A short but poignant section of an interview Lynch gave to the LA Times in 1989 illustrates what is at stake in his work:

Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humour in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while, it would make you laugh. Because it becomes absurd (Lynch 1989).

Doesn’t this statement convey, in nuce, the whole of Lynch? The underlying sense of absurdity in his films, frequently tied up with violence, or a sense of futility, is thus not to be taken in isolation, but forms part of an overarching framework of existential enquiry, a questioning of the human condition that involves a ‘struggling in ignorance.’ That notion could be aligned with the grand underlying theme of Kafka’s fiction, in novels such as The Trial or The Castle. The statement is also clearly reminiscent of Sartre’s earnest belief that human existence amounted to ‘a futile passion.’

In light of this, the falsity of any attempt to link Lynch to a superficially related figure like Tarantino becomes evident. It would, of course, be easy to extract a number of analogies between isolated scenes in films by Lynch and Tarantino –say, the scene in Blue Velvet where Frank and associates visit Ben’s flat with a kidnapped Jeffrey, and the famous assassination scene at the beginning of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994): In Blue Velvet, an elaborate ‘theatre of the absurd’ is staged by Frank’s circle, and particularly by Ben himself, whose Dandyesque appearance and demeanour, e.g. his ostentatiously ‘suave’ lip synching delivery of Roy Orbison’s _In Dreams_– functions as an ironically decadent mask. Amidst the absurdity, there is an awful sense that Jeffrey’s life might be at stake, that he has ended up in a lethal trap. The existential dimension of the scene is fully constituted only insofar as it is overdetermined by the film’s narrative, the ‘journey’ of Jeffrey, his rite-of-passage immersion in Lumberton’s dark underside, which alone confers upon it its full complexity. A Jung oriented reading of the film, for example, might contextualise the scene with the drama of subject’s confrontation with the ‘shadow,’ an archetype that usually comes to the light early on in the ‘quest’ of the hero for his ‘self.’ That quest, prefigured in the collective unconscious, involves becoming aware of the origin of the shadow in the depths of one’s own self, in order to be able to eventually ‘integrate’ it, thus facilitating a growth of character –perhaps symbolized in the film by a robin devouring a bug at its close. [7]

This scene in Blue Velvet could be contrasted with the superficially related assassination scene opening Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Here violence is ‘aestheticized,’ too, meticulously choreographed, in order to create a gap between the trivial conversation and the eventual shooting, which facilitates the ‘traducing’ of the violence into –what? A sarcastic, cynical, farce, perhaps. Something far removed from the cinema of Lynch, where absurdity comes equipped with a rich panoply of existential overtones. In the cinema of Tarantino, everything tends to exhaust itself in a cunningly choreographed surface, whereas violence in Lynch is designed to take us into, and to explore, the ‘heart’ of darkness.

Superficially, the films of Lynch vary in terms of their accessibility: some of the earlier films –such as Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980), Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart??– appear relatively straightforward, while most his later films, beginning with ??Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992) and stretching to Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2007) are generally seen to be more difficult. Todd McGowan’s Lacanian study of Lynch (2007), encompassing a detailed Lacanian reading of all the films up to Mulholland Drive provides a definite advance here, insofar as this study reveals how all films share a common matrix. The subject –usually exposed to some monstrous existential impasse– is under the microscope in the films of Lynch, whose gaze neatly differentiates its constitutive registers of ‘fantasy’ and ‘desire,’ so that its traumatic core comes into sight.

McGowan stresses as crucial the distance of Lynch from Hollywood, where fantasy and desire have conventionally been ‘staged’ co-extensively, as part of the commercially motivated filmic ritual of producing the ‘couple,’ again and again. Lynch on the other hand, splits desire and fantasy into separate ‘worlds,’ revealing in the process a constitutive deadlock in the sexual relation. He also lays bare the extent to which fantasy is really ‘on the side of’ reality, as our attachment to a fundamental fantasy serves to sustain the reality principle. In order to grasp what is at stake here, allow me a little digression into Lacanian theory.

According to Jacques Lacan, once the infant has acceded to the symbolic order as a ‘speaking subject’ –a being socialized into language and culture, to whom access to primordial jouissance is barred– a fundamental problem arises, for the symbolic order, which creates the coordinates of public, social ‘reality,’ is incomplete and barred. The signifier that would make it fully coherent and consistent is missing. The desire of the subject has become inexorably alienated into the desire of the Other, yet at the same time, it is inherently impossible to determine what the Other wants, to know on account of what objet a inside of me, I am an object of the desire of the Other. Accordingly, human subjectivity is defined by a constitutive ontological uncertainty, it is at its very core this ‘gap’ of a confrontation with the radical openness of the ‘question’ of desire. [8] Lacan has drawn attention to the fact that the enigma of an opaque Other, towards which one’s being is directed, causes an unbearable anxiety. In order to resolve this deadlock, to contain and conceal this constitutive void in the Other, the subject ordinarily covers it up with a fundamental ‘fantasy,’ which will produce an actual, empirical answer as to what the Other wants. Only on the basis of the fantasy does a sense of coherent reality –of its ‘three-dimensional depth’ in which one can freely move– emerge. At the same time the fantasy provides us with the ‘proto-transcendental framework of our desiring.’ That is to say, we require the framework of fantasy in order to know what to desire.

A central focus of Lacanian approaches to Lynch has been to show how this matrix of the subject’s dialectical imbrication with the Other informs a range of films by Lynch, including Blue Velvet. To see how Blue Velvet can be illuminated by that framework, it will pay to embark on a slightly circuitous route that serves to trace McGowan’s innovative analysis of the film back to Žižek.

In both Enjoy your Symptom!, Žižek’s densest and most comprehensive work of Lacanian film criticism to date, and in the main body of The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, he treats Blue Velvet as a typical example of the ontology he ascribes to Lynch, a perception of reality as being inherently sinister, teeming with a monstrous inner excess life: “In Lynch’s ‘ontology,’ the universe is a palpitating slime that continually threatens to blow up the settled frame of everyday reality” (Žižek 1992, 146). In Blue Velvet, two key scenes exemplify this. First, the famous brightly-lit opening sequence featuring a red fire engine driving in slow motion through suburban Lumberton, on which is mounted an uncannily static fire fighter giving a friendly wave. The archetypal American idyll, a suburbia of parcelled front lawns, radiant flowers and shining, white picket fences creates a languorous, secure mood, reinforced, up to a point, by the soundtrack, the evocative title song Blue Velvet. This, however –perhaps by virtue of its slightly tragic, or melancholic, overlay– emerges as a first preliminary pointer to the sinister events about to unfold. Moments later, Jeffrey’s father, seen water-hosing the lawn, and thereby lending the scene a sense of paternal authority that functions as it ‘seal,’ suffers a stroke and collapses. The camera initially homes in on his absurdly collapsed shape, but then begins to explore the lawn on which he lies, which transmogrifies into a strange microcosm unto itself, embodying what Žižek has described as Lynch’s ontology: a nauseating universe teeming with life, here a crawling blackness of bugs. The soundtrack accompanying the sight, an indeterminate cacophony, is significant. The gruesome, voracious sound functions not simply to ‘support’ the image, but more significantly becomes in itself a kind of acoustic materialization of the palpitating ‘life’ –of the Real underlying the imaginary-symbolic surface. An equivalent revelation of the substratum underlying perceived reality occurs apropos of the severed ear Jeffrey discovers after visiting his father in the hospital. Later that day, as Jeffrey takes the first tentative steps towards investigating the mystery he has stumbled upon, that ear is spontaneously re-evoked, out of linear narrative context. As the camera zooms closer to its decaying object, swarming with ants, it undergoes an ‘anamorphic distortion,’ changing into something else –precisely the life substance that is deemed to be the underlying truth of reality. This sense is again heightened by the soundtrack, evoking the enveloping noise of the womb, the embodiment par excellence of breeding and life, of a deeply uncanny pre-ontological, pre-subjective world.

According to the logic of this argument, Jeffrey’s suburban Lumberton would have to be cast as a representation of the reality principle, with the obscenity of Frank and his associates serving to encode a violent excess of vitality undermining its frame. In his comprehensive Lacanian study of Lynch, McGowan shifts his focus away from this dialectic, taking up an idea that Žižek had relegated to an endnote in The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime. In the body of this text, Žižek restates his position on Blue Velvet, as delineated above. However, as he proceeds to his reading of Lost Highway, he almost accidentally produces an interpretative ‘spin-off’ of his analysis that allows us to see Blue Velvet in a new light: idyllic, suburban Lumberton on the one hand, and the world of Frank and his associates on the other, thus need no longer necessarily be aligned, respectively, with American public reality and the terrifying Thing. Instead, the two poles could be seen as different sides of the fundamental ‘fantasy,’ of the Imaginary matrix that furnishes symbolic reality with its misleading semblance of ontological consistency. This notion has wiggled its way into McGowan’s study, where it has become the theoretical foundation of his analysis of Blue Velvet and other films (McGowan 2007, 91).

The next logical step must therefore be to disentangle the theoretical ‘knot’ of Žižek’s endnote. Key here is his proposal that the suburban American idyll of Blue Velvet surreptitiously re-emerges in Lost Highway, within the phantasmatic frame of its film –or rather dream– within a film, a violent noir universe. Pete’s family home, where he lives with concerned, yet simultaneously mysteriously aloof parents wearing sunglasses, lies at the margins of this realm. It bears an uncanny, seemingly deliberate resemblance, to the home of Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, while Pete’s ‘nice,’ ‘non-fatal girlfriend’ also seems to be reminiscent of Sandy:

So what Lost Highway accomplishes is a kind of reflexive stepping back, encompassing both poles of the Blue Velvet universe within the same domain, enframed by the aseptic, alienated married life. Both poles of the Blue Velvet universe are thus denounced as fantasmatic; in them we encounter the fantasy in its two poles, in its pacifying aspect (the idyllic family life) as well as in its destructive/obscene/excessive aspect (Žižek 2000, 45).

The fantasy in its two modes, idyllic and destructive, functions to confer upon the frame of established reality a fake aura of consistency, in order to allow reality to be apprehended as something that can be ‘narrated.’ By providing a shield against traumatic desire, fantasy lends support to the reality principle. In the first part of Lost Highway, however, fantasy has been effectively ‘subtracted’ from reality, which is henceforth experienced as a terrifying void. The ‘reality,’ which enframes the film’s fantasy, is thus a strangely drab and aseptic realm, in which the central protagonist, Fred, suffers from impotence and entertains doubts about the fidelity of his enigmatic wife Renée. His alienation is rendered as an increasingly haunting nightmare that lacks a proper frame for apprehending a range of unpredictable and inexplicable events –such as the discovery of a mysterious video that suggests a stranger has filmed the inside of their house at night. This ambiguously sterile and terrifying world also seems to lack any sense depth –for this, the addition of the fantasy is required– which gives rise to Fred’s sense of existential dread. Fred finally kills and dismembers his wife, another ‘inexplicable’ incident, which is immediately repressed into his unconscious.

In Lacanian terms, the world of Fred’s fractured experience is thus no fantasy, but rather represents reality stripped of any support in it, it renders the ‘desert of reality’ in its zero degree, revealing the little of it that is left once the factor responsible for its semblance of/similarity to ‘narrative’ has been lost. There is an implication that the foundations of being itself have dissolved. Yet this corrosion of the fantasy is intimately tied up with the unbearable enigma of the desire of the Other –of (here) Fred’s mysterious wife. As the traumatic impact of her elusive desire leaves him unable to discern what she ‘really’ wants, he is defenceless in face of the void and inconsistency of the Other.

In other words, the enveloping sense of ‘enigma’ permeating this part of the film is far more unsettling than any notion of a narrative designed in such a way as to create a ‘mystery’ –a standard Hollywood device. Rather, what is captured here is a mode of perception that, because of a radical openness to the question of desire, is inherently without a coherent narrative.

The fantasy that has been mysteriously subtracted remains present in the film, it is staged in its zero degree alongside Fred’s nightmare ‘reality’ as his ‘dream’ of a noir universe that unfolds subsequent to his unexplained transformation into Pete, in the prison cell where he has been locked up following the murder of his wife. In this realm, which could be construed to be broadly compatible with Hollywood narrative, elements from Fred’s real life remain present in distorted from. There is Alice, for example, an ideal version of Renée –uncannily rendered by the same actress, Patricia Arquette– whose seduction of Pete sets in motion a fateful train of events.

Following his ‘elision’ from a reality experienced as constitutively deadlocked, Fred re-emerges in a fantasy that has been essentially purified of reality. If the fantasy elaborated in its cinematic purity creates a counterintuitive sense of ‘reality,’ if it is experienced as more real than reality itself, this is in part because there is no longer any ambiguity as to desire of the Other –providing that answer is its function. To Pete it is made perfectly clear what the sexually aggressive Alice, who seduces him with a self-assured flare, wants from him: to rob the house of Andy’s. [9]

??Lost Highway??’s two poles of the fantasy –Pete’s family home in an idyllic suburb, alongside a vortex of destruction and obscenity, with the Mafia boss Mr. Eddy at its centre– are thus marked by a dense, ‘hyper-real’ quality, with many of the scenes bathed in intense light –in sharp contrast to the gloom of Fred’s aseptic reality. In this split, we begin to discern the function of fantasy in real life, which is to be ‘on the side of reality.’

A new approach to Blue Velvet now comes into sight, apropos of an inflection of this psychoanalytic reading of Lost Highway. As McGowan notes, the archetypal American idyll, captured in the opening scene of Blue Velvet, doesn’t correspond to the way actual social reality is constituted. Instead of identifying it with the reality principle, therefore, we might be better off by apprehending it in terms of the fantasy as the ‘shadow’ of the official text. In other words, the elaborate mise-en-scène of ??Blue Velvet??’s opening scene captures the fantasy of itself America stages for the supposed ideal gaze of the Other. ‘Public’ Lumberton then becomes a cipher for the American Imaginary, for the unarticulated phantasmatic support sustaining its symbolic order. Yet, what about the obsessive, destructive aspect of fantasy, represented by Lumberton’s obscene underside, the world of Frank and his associates, which appears to pose a threat to the Ideal?

It can be demonstrated that the sadistic/excessive aspect of the fantasy functions likewise to sustain the official symbolic order. Yet, while it is easily seen how the fantasy in its idyllic/peaceful mode helps to prop up the official text, it is less intuitively evident how a sadistic/obscene fantasy could do so.

Perhaps the best way to discern the cruel dimension of the American Imaginary, of its collective unconscious –if, by this term, we refer, not to Jung’s archetypes, but rather to an unconscious matrix informing the social collective– is to recall how it regularly manifests itself, when it is ‘acted out,’ in a variety of institutional settings: the rituals of hazing, in College fraternities, or in the Marines, for example. This phantasmatic matrix deeply inscribed into the American psyche has also surfaced in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, where the torture can be seen to have been staged, deliberately, for the assumed ideal public gaze: witness the way in which the perpetrators of the torture pose above their victims, sporting stupid smiles, revealing an attitude that is close to that of ‘hazing,’ in which the fantasy in its destructive, obscene dimension is socially enacted. [10]

In Blue Velvet, the disturbing sadistic aspect of fantasy is represented by Frank and his criminal circle. The key to deciphering the film lies in apprehending how it stages the fantasy on its own, in a pure, abstracted mode, thus heightening the impact when an unexpected ‘world of desire’ is inserted into its gaps. According to McGowan, the world of desire, opening up when the phantasmatic matrix dissolves, is linked to a specific location in the film –the apartment of Dorothy, and its surrounding areas. The dark labyrinth of staircases, passages and cavernous rooms of her apartment complex mirrors the impenetrability, the enigma of the desire of the Other, associated here with Dorothy. Dorothy confronts Jeffrey in her flat, after she discovers him there hidden in a closet, in a disturbing and sexually aggressive way, yet ambiguously also signals her desire to submit to him. Her erratic and unpredictable attitude towards him ensures that it never becomes clear ‘what she really wants,’ thus facilitating her function as a conduit to the (opacity of the) Other.

In McGowan’s analysis, the severed ear and the tunnel imagery associated with it, which he links to the tunnel imagery in Dorothy’s apartment complex, is thus no longer read as a cipher for Lynch’s underlying ontology, it is no longer seen as something important ‘in itself,’ but rather represents an opening from the fake world of fantasy to the reality of desire where nothing is knowable:

The non-knowledge, or impossibility of meaning, is epitomized by the mise-en-scene of Dorothy’s apartment and the surrounding area. Whereas Lynch depicts both the Lumberton public world and the underworld as colourful and full, Dorothy’s apartment is a world of empty spaces and dark voids, a world bereft of the fullness that fantasy adds (McGowan 2007, 97). [11]

Blue Velvet thus presents an inversion of the structure underlying Lost Highway. Whereas in Lost Highway, the fantasy is enframed on both sides by a representation of ‘reality,’ there lies at the heart of Blue Velvet a radically ‘open space’ associated with the impasse of desire, which is ‘enframed’ by the fantasy. Despite this inversion, one begins to see a ‘template’ to Lynch’s art emerge: Crucial to this is a ‘couple’ engaged in some form of sexually connoted relation, marked by fundamental deadlock, in which one pole –usually the feminine– represents the unbearable enigma of desire. This impasse tends to be associated with an illogical, and strangely depthless, colourless reality, stripped of any ‘vertical’ support in fantasy, which is staged ‘horizontally,’ alongside it. A film which perfectly exemplifies this structure, and one in which it has perhaps acquired its most elaborate form, is Mulholland Drive, the ‘companion piece’ to Lost Highway. Diane, who is pining for the cruelly aloof Camille, is driven to the brink of insanity by a desire which is distinguished from its representation in Blue Velvet or Lost Highway, insofar as “the world of desire in Mulholland Drive (the second part of the film) lacks even a sense of temporality. Events occur in this world in a random order, without a clear narrative logic” (McGowan 2007, 201).

While the second part of the film realistically depicts the sexual deadlock, the first part, in which Diane and Camilla appear as Betty and Rita, played by the same actresses, renders Diane’s wish fulfilment fantasy. Thus, the inherently ‘impossible’ object of desire, Camilla, becomes accessible within the frame of the fantasy, where Betty (Diane) encounters the amnesiac Rita (Camilla) in her aunt’s flat, and decides to help her in her quest to establish her true identity, to discover the circumstances of the apparent accident that has robbed her of her memory. In the course of this quest, they become erotically entangled, and fulfil the sexual relation that cannot be fulfilled in reality –where a humiliated Diane has in fact hired a contract killer to murder Camilla, and then, it is suggested, kills herself in a state of guilt-ridden despair. In his erudite paper on the film, Calvin Thomas (2006) goes beyond showing that the two parts of the film relate to each other as ‘reality’ and wish-fulfilment fantasy, or dream, by revealing, through his close reading of the film, the precise mechanisms of the transformation from one register to the other, which he shows mirror the mechanisms of the Freudian dream work –distortion, displacement and condensation, etc.. Thus every impossibility, negativity and ‘abjection’ in reality is transformed into its glorious, self-aggrandizing opposite in the fantasy, where impossible jouissance is rendered possible.

Yet, as McGowan points out, the operation of the fantasy is always ambiguous. Precisely insofar the fantasy serves to cover up a central void of structural ‘impossibility,’ of an inherent lack of meaning in the Other, it also points out this element. This alerts us to another key feature characteristic of Lynch: he tends to traverse the fantasy, to follow it to its endpoint, where it is revealed to be hitched up with the trauma of the Real.

This crucial intersection is revealed in Mulholland Drive, when in the course of their investigation Betty and Rita clamber into Diane’s apartment, filled with an unbearable stench, and discover Diane’s decomposing body in the bedroom. At the endpoint of her wish-fulfilment fantasy, to which she has been whole-heartedly – almost ethically– committed, the fantasy decomposes, as Betty/Diane discovers her own dead body in the bedroom of her ‘real life’ apartment. What this connection of the dissolving fantasy to the horror of the Real reveals is the ‘impossible’ structure of the symbolic order itself, which –insofar as the Other ‘doesn’t exist’– encircles its own constitutive void. Diane’s dead body, in a horrific state of decomposition, literally embodies this void on the level of the Real. According to McGowan,

as Lynch demonstrates, fantasy holds the key to its own traversal because the logic of fantasy itself pushes the subject to the point of its dissolution…..As this scene suggests, Mulholland Drive is a panegryric to the existential and political possibilities of fantasy (McGowan 2007, 212).

Perhaps, the best way to apprehend the absurd logic at play here is to conceive it in terms of Lacanian notion of the gaze, the gaze qua object, that serves as the subject’s correlative within his/her field of vision. Lacan (1998) famously illustrated this notion in Seminar XI, apropos of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, where he identified the object gaze with the anamorphotically distorted skull mysteriously floating in the foreground (Lacan 1998, Ch. 7, Anamorphosis).

In this painting from 1533, we see the French ambassadors at the court of Henry VIII, proudly posing before the table between them, which is covered with a range of objects representing Renaissance knowledge and status, objects, in other words, that support the subject’s narcissistic sense of self. As long as we remain within this ‘phantasmatic frame’ of narcissistic wish-fulfilment, the distorted object floating near the bottom remains unrecognizable.

It is only when we view it from the top right hand corner that it is revealed as a familiar object: a skull. This moment of recognition is significant, for it is the moment when the painting appears to stare back at us, when we discover ourselves, as vanquished and annihilated, within the painting. In other words, the skull represents the ‘object-gaze,’ our objective correlative within the field of vision, the element which represents the utter void of subjectivity, once the vain pretensions to narcissistic fullness dissolve, once our ‘fantasy’ of ourselves disappears.

It is in this sense that the discovery of Diane’s body, the fulcrum of the fantasy part of the film, is the point at which the fantasy begins to dissolve, revealing thus the catastrophic vacuity not only of the Symbolic, but precisely also of the Real –which is its other side, linked to it as if both were situated on the same surface of a Moebius strip. The scene traumatizes the audience, narcissistically ‘identified’ with Diane’s fantasy. At this critical juncture, it is as if the film returns our own gaze, as if we are meant to identify ourselves with its revelation of a profound mystery, of something deeply unsettling that existentially concerns us. In Lacanian terms, the uncanny paradox of the conjunction of life and death present here also serves to open up the space of the death drive, thereby manifesting the remainder of life substance that has eluded symbolic mortification, something nameless, or unnameable, which Lacan had to designate by a mythical concept of his own invention, the lamelle. The lamelle encapsulates a notion of the libido as an ‘organ,’ something that will survive even when the subject has died (Lacan 1969, 845). The narratives of the films of Lynch seem to pivot on this element at the ‘extreme’ of human subjectivity, their innermost logic ‘drives’ them to its excavation. [12]

This scene is, of course, closely related to the “Club Silencio” scene, which immediately precedes the second part of the film, the depiction of Diane’s desperate real life. As the visibly shaken Betty and Rita observe the surreal proceedings unfolding on stage, it is as if the fantasy has acquired a consciousness of itself as fantasy, and in a state of theatrical, melancholic despair, mourns its own imminent demise. Thomas has noticed here an implicit link between the name of the club and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Thomas 2006, 94), a tragedy that imbues its hero’s last words –The rest is silence– with an ominous note, insofar as these words hint at the apocalyptic ‘second death’ of the symbolic order itself. [13]

A self-reflective awareness of illusion is mounted on stage, as the host, a Mephistophelian figure, announces with dramatic emphasis that there is no band, ‘no hay banda.’ It then becomes evident that the sound seemingly emanating from a trumpet play is nothing but playback. Rebekah del Rio’s rendering of a Spanish version of Orbison’s Crying (Llorando), is likewise revealed to be fake, as the song continues after she collapses on stage. The fact that there is a sense, not only that Diane has seen through the illusory quality of her fantasy, but that the (cinematic) fantasy itself seems to have acceded to the ‘postmodern,’ acquiring a paradoxical knowledge of its non-existence is significant, opening up the scene to a range of other interpretations. In the context of a film that reflects the Hollywood ‘system,’ it could be read as a self-referential reference to the illusory nature of film as such.

Yet, the scene is also set up in such a way as to suggest a liminal, ‘metaphysical’ space apart, which is to be situated in a line of continuity with other such spaces in the films of Lynch that combine an underlying sense of metaphysics with an enclosed stage – the stage in Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), for example, or ??Twin Peaks??’ Red Room. This raises the question of the ‘Gnostic Lynch’ once again, the question how the pervasive –albeit ironically inflected– metaphysical atmosphere in his films is to be interpreted. In my view, Lynch is likely to be fully aware of the two key contending ‘paradigms’ of approaching the liminal in his films –broadly the ‘Freudian-Lacanian’ and ‘Jungian’ approach– and deliberately persists in indeterminacy, thus conferring a greater depth to his films, and rendering them specifically Lynchian. In other words, the ‘coincidence of opposites,’ a key trait in Lynch’s filmmaking, also applies at this intersection, perhaps the point of the greatest opacity in his work.

One is tempted here to look on the critical failure of Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me in terms of the likely effect of the realization on part of the critics that perhaps the persistent metaphysical allusions in Lynch –it is here for the first time clearly in evidence in a feature film by Lynch– could not as easily or comfortably be reduced to the irony label, or to a reference to a merely Freudian unconscious, as it had previously been assumed. Lynch himself has, of course, rightly defended the film, acknowledging only the artistic failure of Dune (David Lynch, 1984). [14]

To conclude, we have begun this investigation of David Lynch by considering Sinnerbrink’s pessimistic view as to the usefulness of applying a psychoanalytic or philosophical meta-perspective to Lynch, his perception that the irreducible ‘enigma’ of his films is due to his enunciation of a specifically filmic philosophy, an art-philosophy. Yet in a number of ways, a philosophical meta-perspective can show, precisely how the enigmatic quality of Lynch’s art is constituted: from deliberately rendering the films unreadable, to allow Lynch to establish his essential identity, to inscribe himself in them, to a rendering of the inherently enigmatic mode of reality that remains when its phantasmatic support has been removed, to, finally, approaching the traumatic, incomprehensible core of the self, which is revealed when the fantasy is followed to its endpoint. Instead of conceiving of art-philosophy as a distinct ‘discipline,’ like Sinnerbrink suggests, it might be better to think of philosophy as a discipline that can be expressed in different media –such as language, art, or film– which would render these different modes ‘commensurable.’


1 See, for example, Tanya Krzywinska, Sex and the Cinema, p. 182.

2 This is not without significance with regard to the soundtrack in the films of Lynch, which often seems to transport an archaic emotionality, often accompanied by ‘primordial’ images. The function of the soundtrack in Lynch will be further discussed below.

3 Scene by Scene, BBC Scotland, late 1999.

4 Mr. Eddy is one the numerous ‘substitute father figures’ in the films of Lynch whose ridiculously excessive behaviour points to the “real phallus,” in Lacanian terms, to a fantasy designed to cover up the impotence of the actual symbolic father wielding an ‘empty’ authority. Frank in Blue Velvet would be another such figure.

5 In other words, coffee here functions as a part of the whole, of the sum total of ‘enjoyment’.

6 Hence, in Lacanian theory surplus enjoyment is inherently linked to object a.

fn 7. According to Jung, birds often symbolize the archetypal self in dreams, and in mythology.

8 It is in this sense that a central void functions as the positive condition of the subject’s being, as elaborated in the course of the initial formulation of my argument.

9 As the fantasy gradually fades out, there is, for a certain duration, an overlap of the two registers, which is experienced as deeply disturbing and menacing, insofar as it further destabilizes ontological orientation.

10 The dynamics in the American Imaginary were delineated by Žižek in the course of a lecture he gave in Germany. It is important to note that every culture relies on some form of obscene phantasmatic support.

11 McGowan is well aware that from a Lacanian point of view, the sado-masochistic role play between Dorothy and Frank taking place in Dorothy’s apartment has been the focus of Lacanian interpretations that cast it in terms of its phantasmatic function. Yet he claims that an attempt at the fantasy in this scene does not mean that it is successfully realized.

12 The equivalent in Lost Highway to the discovery of Diane’s corpse in Mulholland Drive would thus be the section when Fred’s fantasy dissolves, and the two layers of fantasy and reality overlap for a while, giving rise to a pure manifestation of the death drive, thereby completely shattering the subjective ontology.

13 Thomas himself, by contrast, uses this reference to Shakespeare to put a slightly more optimistic gloss on the film’s ending, noting that while these are the last words of Hamlet, the play itself goes on for a little while.

14 This is not to suggest that the film is without flaws.


Derrida, Jacques (1992) “Before the Law” in Acts of Literature. London: Routledge.

Jung, C.G. (1957) Collected Works, Vol. 5. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lacan, Jacques (1969) Écrits. Seuil: Paris.

Lacan, Jacques (1998) The Seminar Book XI, The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques Alain-Miller. London: WW. Norton & Company.

Lechte, John (1994) Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers. From Structuralism to Postmodernity. London: Routledge.

Lynch, David (1989) in interview in LA Times, August 20.

Lynch, David (2007) in interview in Metroactive, Richard von Busack, June 17 – 23, Accessed June 6, 2009.

McGowan, Todd (2007) The Impossible David Lynch. New York: Columbia University Press.

Krzywinska, Tanya (2006) Sex and the Cinema. London: Wallflower Press.

Nochimson, Martha (1997) The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. Houston: Texas University Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (2000) Nausea, London: Penguin.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1969) The World as Will and Representation, Vol.1, translated from the German by E.F. Payne. Dover Publications: New York. .

Sinnerbrink, Robert (2005) “Cinematic Ideas: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive” Film-Philosophy. vol. 9 no. 34, June. Accessed June 4, 2009.

Thomas, Calvin (2006) “‘It’s no longer your film’: Abjection and (the) Mulholland Death Drive,” Angelaki, vol. II, no. 2. August.

Žižek, Slavoj (1992) Enjoy your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj (1993) Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj (1996) The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj (2000), The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Seattle: Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities.


Lynch, David (1977) Eraserhead. USA.

Lynch, David (1980) The Elephant Man. USA.

Lynch, David (1984) Dune. USA.

Lynch, David (1986) Blue Velvet. USA.

Lynch, David (1991) Wild at Heart. USA.

Lynch, David (1992) Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me. USA.

Lynch, David (1997) Lost Highway. USA.

Lynch, David (2001) Mulholland Drive. USA.

Lynch, David (2007) Inland Empire. USA.

Tarantino, Quentin (1994) Pulp Fiction. USA.

Stefan Gullatz received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, for a thesis entitled A Lacanian Analysis of Selected Novels by Hermann Hesse. He has since published extensively in the area of Lacan oriented film and cultural studies. Gullatz is an External Research Fellow at the Centre for Ideology Critique and Zizek Studies at Cardiff University and teaches Latin at secondary and tertiary level at a number of language schools in Heidelberg, Southern Germany.

Volume 13, Issue 9 / September 2009 Essays   david lynch