The Impossible David Lynch
Todd McGowan. New York: Tarcher/Group, 2007. Paperback, $26.50, 280pp.
The wacky world of David Lynch has seemed to grow into a cottage industry in the last few years, mainly centered around Inland Empire, a 2007 film, shot on video, which clocks in at three hours and which I’ve found impossible to get through after several valiant attempts. I don’t necessarily blame Lynch for my inability, but I am a bit put off by how much “polish” is evident in Empire — everything is too pretty, shiny, and stuffed with foundation grant money-style pomp and reverence (sort of like what’s happened to Lou Reed of late). There’s a slew of egghead books deconstructing Lynch, and on Lynch’s own “Subversive” brand there’s music CDs (by Lynch himself, not usual collaborator Angelo Badalementi), at least two based around Inland); various expensive boxed sets featuring his “remixes” and short films; and even — “gasp” — his own brand of coffee. Oblivious to these odd portents, Lacanian academe Todd McGowan jumps on the Lynch analysis bandwagon with The Impossible David Lynch. For my part, I snapped this up immediately, having become a true McGowan fan after his excellent The End of Dissatisfaction: Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment.
The gist of McGowan’s thesis for Lynch stems from Lacan’s theory of the impossibility of enjoyment, how our innermost desires structure the ego and are structured around fantasy that cannot “come true” into the cold light of “the real” without catastrophe for the construct of self. I can give you a quick example based on personal experience: let’s say a man fantasizes about being in an orgy with a bunch of supermodels; whenever he blows out candles on a cake, this is his wish. One night he’s at a party in a big house; he goes to find the bathroom and opens the wrong door; there’s the orgy. A bevy of beautiful women look up at him briefly, their eyes flickering an invitation to join them, but before he can even think what to do, he stutters and apology, “sorry I was looking for the bathroom,” and quickly shuts the door. He wanted the orgy, but not “then” — when he was looking for something else!
From this example, we see how the “reality” of his fantasy, its sudden proximity, causes spontaneous revulsion. It’s only after he puts some distance between him and the event that he can even begin to add its elements to the structure of his fantasy. Examples on these lines abound in the sexual horror of Lynch, from the ability to truly “love” Laura Palmer only after her death in Twin Peaks to Isabel Rossellini’s naked body suddenly appearing out of the bushes in Blue Velvet. McGowan asserts that Lynch’s ability to locate within his film the turning from reality to fantasy is what makes his films so much more traumatizing and by extension “truly enjoyable.” McGowan notes in his chapter on Lost Highway (where this split is quite literal as Bill Pullman turns into Balthazar Getty): “Trauma haunts the world of desire as the possibility that is right around the corner while it haunts the world of fantasy as a past even that that world can never escape.” (p. 166)
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is McGowan’s insight about how Lynch’s own personal style is to elevate the normal to a heightened state in which its inherent strangeness is revealed. In discussing the director’s habit of keeping his shirt buttoned all the way to the top (including the top button), McGowan notes: “Through the act of taking normality to its logical extreme, Lynch reveals how the bizarre is not opposed to the normal but inherent within it,” and “his attire brings to light the oddity of the mainstream itself” (pp. 12-13)
Alas, from here, the book begins a sad slide into a fixed pattern of knocking home McGowan’s same points over and over again through a chronology of Lynch’s films. McGowan puts the cart before the horse, occasionally utilizing a curious ordering of words wherein he makes it seem as if Lynch is consciously structuring his films around Lacan’s theories. Consider the inherent presumption toward Lynch’s intentions in this sentence: “Lynch offers the fantasmatic experience in order to facilitate this identification with what seems most distant from and foreign to us as spectators.” (p. 22)
Now, has the author asked Lynch: “Why do you offer the fantasmatic experience?” Is Lynch even aware of the word fantasmatic? It’s not in the online dictionary. Phrasing like he “offers” this “in order to facilitate” infers conscious decisions on Lynch’s part, and Lynch isn’t known for supplying his own theories as to what his work means — rather, he is on record for saying he dredges this stuff up from his unconscious, which he accesses via transcendental meditation.1 McGowan speaks not only for Lynch here but for the spectators as well. In presuming his thesis of “the impossibility of desire” to be on the forefront of everyone’s minds, he discusses the motivations of characters in Twin Peaks: “the series follow the investigation. . . into Laura’s murder but the actual focus for Cooper and viewers is Laura herself, specifically what she desired.” (130)
Keen as McGowan’s insights are, they are — just like Michel Chion’s or any of the other Lynch academes or even Lynch’s himself — mere interpretations of a self-sufficient work of art. Non-academes often stumble over this, dismissing any interpretation other than what the author has in mind. Witness for example what “Joe R. Talent” writes in the Amazon customer reviews for this book:[I]t’s hard to decide if Lynch meant his films to be the way they are for the reason (McGowan) describes, or if they’re just that way because Lynch is subconsciously guided by this psychology, or what. Because sometimes the book makes so much sense I almost feel like Lynch might have been thinking these things when he wrote the film. Other times I swing the other way and think it must be coincidental, or the author is stretching.2
I mention this comment not to put Mr. Talent down, but to show how a common criticism toward this sort of analysis, one all writers on film encounter, seems to grow enflamed thanks to McGowan’s implications. Of course, a film can mean something beyond what the filmmaker consciously intended . . . in fact it must if it’s to be worth studying in the first place. Imagine an analyst saying to a patient: “Wow, your dream corresponds to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex! Were you intending that when you dreamt it? If not, it doesn’t count!” Similarly, for art to really resonate it should be able to provide multiple layers of meaning and never be “solved” by one spectator; the artist him or herself cannot even fully understand it; if they do, they border on being a hack, aiming for a certain emotional effect or phony moral in order to sell tickets. Part of Lynch’s value is in how his films tell their mythic stories on several levels at once, from the “fantasmatic” imaginary and the symbolic to the traumatizingly “real” — never overtly spelling out the meanings and connections, which in turn allows for viewer projection and surrender to the pull of metatextually nonlinear storytelling. The real “impossibility” here is that Todd McGowan’s book is its title. It’s not a book on David Lynch so much as a book on Lacan, specifically the objet petit a, using Lynch’s films as a series of handy springboards. Nothing wrong with that, but for Lynch fans as well as McGowan and Lacan students, it borders — after awhile — on redundancy.
Perhaps Lynch fans (such as the ones piping up on Amazon) will be served well by McGowan’s pre-emptive puzzle solving. Certainly the insights are clear and at times dazzling. If I criticize McGowan’s “daring to presume” motivations of the auteur and reactions of the spectator, it’s only out of deep love and respect for his writing in general. Later in the chapter on Fire Walk With Me, he delivers some heartrending observations on the sad nature of Laura Palmer; how we as viewers desire her but are ultimately shocked by the “absence” at her core (rather than the plentitude we’re subliminally promised by the codes of pop culture), and he helps clear up some common misperceptions about the mysterious evil spirit Bob:
By the end, the film shows us that even BOB, the figure of phallic authority, acts in response to the Man From Another Place (i.e. the dancing dwarf) and follows the dictates of the death drive . . . . in this way, the phallus serves the death drive, even as it proclaims its potency and independence.” (p. 146)
In other words, Leland (the murdering, incestuous father of the film and TV series) is not just an innocent man possessed by a demon, he is complicit, which is kind of reassuring to those of us pissed off about what we saw as a “cop-out” to the mystery of “who” killed Laura Palmer. The “Man from Another Place” (right) represents (for McGowan) the “missing piece” of ourselves that is shut out by the entry into the structuralizing system of language (which explains his backwards way of speaking). The incestuous desire of Leland is therefore a “fantasmatic solution” to appeasing the death drive. One of the book’s more brilliant and concise sentences: “Because fantasy narrates the dissatisfaction of society to render it satisfying, it has the ability to expose what our ordinary perception of reality obscures.” (p. 141) When McGowan explores these themes, he’s back in the game, on the cutting edge of popularizing Lacanian theory, as in his chapter on Mulholland Drive when he notes that “Fantasy allows us to experience the real because it makes evident a place at which the symbolic order breaks down.” Fair enough, but again he can abuse his position of authority with statements like: “The main emphasis in Mulholland Drivelies in this direction, in showing how fantasy might hold the key to experience the otherwise unthinkable.” (p. 210) Once he start’s speaking on behalf of the films’ intentions and emphases, he begins to lose us.
While his perceptions about fantasy serving as the safety valve on the social order and the “impossibility” of desire are on point as usual, with The Impossible David Lynch, McGowan seems to be reverse engineering the process of discovery and mystification that good art provides; he “solves” Lynch for us rather than giving us the tools to do it ourselves or to be open to the ability to enjoy the films as “unsolvable.” To bring in the old Zen parable about the finger pointing at the moon, McGowan’s finger is pointing to a circle and saying “The guy who drew that meant it as a moon!” In doing so he doesn’t lead us to see the actual moon but rather “limits” the circle (it cannot be a mandala or a sun, for example).
From my perspective, for example, there is an elusive kernel of enjoyment submerged deep in Lynch’s loving depictions of the minutiae of 1950s pop culture: wing-tip shoes, beehive wigs, bobby socks, tail fins, poodle skirts, angora sweaters, and chrome diners. Lynch peers at this world from the view of a child for whom everything is sexualized and alive. Born in Montana in 1946, Lynch grew up in the small “lumber town” surroundings we see in many of his films. A child’s amorphous sense of self, polymorphous perversity and uncomprehending delight and mystification at the world of adults, is at the core of the Lynchian universe. Lynch’s world is one where after a boring dinner at home, one is allowed to roam free in the woods, exploring the dark world under the autumn leaves, the decomposing birds and nests of insects that parents are too high off the ground to see. This is the stuff that becomes “missing” when the child is “castrated” into the world of language (it’s driven into the unconscious).
Based on Lynch’s own ability to re-access this world in his films (which stem from “the big fish” ideas he gets while engaged in deep meditation), McGowan’s declaration that the actualization of the death drive fantasy, the recovery of the missing ear, if you will, or the locating of Laura Palmer’s desire — the pre-linguistic sea of pure polymorphous perversity — is “impossible,” seems presumptuous. Maybe it’s impossible for McGowan, but not for some of us. From a Taoist standpoint, I would say that this recovery is — at least temporarily — possible, but that its possibility precludes involvement of the egoic self (that which is transcended in transcendental meditation, or TM).
Has McGowan not taken a psychedelic drug or meditated or gone a few days without sleep or food, long enough to wake from the slumber of day-to-day adult consciousness? The ironic trick with awakening into “wholeness” is that “you” don’t awaken at all, what awakens is the universal “I” — the soul in everyone that is beyond themselves and differentiation and the splitting of opposites. In the climaxes of Mulholland Driveand Lost Highway in particular we are presented with the horror of the enjoyment of the other and the impossibility of having one’s desire met (as in my earlier orgy example). This impossible desire is not met per se, but transcended from when the subject realizes the unification of opposites, the joining back together of Bill Pullman and his Mystery Man (above), of Betty & Diane and all her other guises. In my orgy story, the enlightened person would walk in the door by accident “on purpose” and quickly close the door behind him, rip off his clothes and join the orgy, but without any expectation that one real desire would be met, “the” orgy is always within. In that sense, McGowan is right about desire’s impossibility, but as one pores over the book, one wonders why McGowan’s own personal experience and relationship to the material is so conspicuously absent. One can’t delve deeply into this stuff and not become involved on a personal level. What’s he hiding?
For another analogy, let’s look at the penultimate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the furnished “room” at the end of space, where the personal and universal collapse into each other, wherein Bowman encounters himself as an old man and in various stages of life. This room of the soul beyond thought, time, and dimensional imagining is similar to the red room of Twin Peaks where the dwarf lives, a trans-dimensional realm of pure self (my interpretation). McGowan implies this place is “impossible” outside of fantasy, and maybe it is from Lacan’s perspective; but we must realize that with all good art there are many interpretations, and most Eastern philosophies would argue perhaps that this locale is reachable, you just have to leave the illusion of self behind. In other words, it can be reached, but first you must transcend the self who reaches. In talking about Blue Velvet McGowan notes that: “The function of fantasy is to render the impossible object accessible for the subject. In doing so, fantasy provides a way for the subject to enjoy itself that would be unthinkable outside of fantasy . . . an actual encounter dislocates the entire symbolic structure in which the subject exists.” (p. 105) Amen, brother, dislocate that shit! Perhaps ensconced in his position of power as an acclaimed writer and scholar, McGowan is more loyal to the symbolic order than he used to be; the times they are a-changing, though, and the nasty void of desire looms darker and brighter than ever. Jump in! For as Lynch quotes from the Upanishads in his Catching the Big Fish: