The Strange World of David Lynch by Eric G. Wilson

Critics of all kinds have taken a crack at David Lynch by now. Freudians and Lacanians talk about his liberation of repressed psychic energies. Jungians debate his orientation toward the collective unconscious and the individual ego, while Nietzscheans note his equipoise between Dionysian and Apollonian domains. Surrealists hail his dreamlike imagery and shattered storylines. Postmodernists analyze his refusal of semiotic stability and logocentric power. Some left-wingers extol his rejection of traditional moral straitjackets; others call him a closet conservative who cloaks reactionary ideas in antisocial guises. Movie reviewers cheer and jeer him as the spirit moves them. Hollywood tolerates him as an eccentric mascot who’s prone to acting up in public — then honors the outlandish likes of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. with Oscar nominations. Will the real David Lynch please stand up? Assuming there is a real David Lynch in the first place?

As hard as it to pigeonhole Lynch, some takes on his movies are definitely in the minority — for instance, the notion that he’s a devoutly religious filmmaker. Preposterous, you say? Then listen to Isabella Rossellini, who played key roles in two of Lynch’s movies and had a five-year romance with him. To her the notorious Blue Velvet represented “research … of the good and the bad” by a filmmaker who is “quite a religious person. Quite spiritual. Any person who is religious is always trying to define these things, which are always so elusive. I think that’s the core of his film-making.”

Eric G. Wilson quotes Rossellini’s remark in The Strange World of David Lynch: Transcendental Irony from Eraserhead to Mulholland Drive, which locates a wealth of spiritual meanings, connotations, and implications in five Lynch films. Wilson isn’t the first scholar to look at Lynch in religious terms, but he may be the most thoroughgoing and inventive. Nobody is suggesting that the pictures at hand — all utterly original, hugely audacious, and fearlessly bizarre — are Methodist allegories, evangelical screeds, or coded Rosicrucian messages. What they do add up to, Wilson argues, is a body of “sacred secular cinema” informed by a radical religiosity that enables Lynch to avoid two common philosophical mistakes: dualism, which divides the world into opposites like good-evil and order-chaos, and monism, which reduces the cosmos to some undifferentiated unity — all is material, all is spiritual, all is whatever.

Rejecting these stances in favor of more complicated options, Lynch has pursued an open-ended journey into what Wilson calls transcendental irony. This is an expressive mode that articulates the unbounded chasms between appearance and reality, creation and destruction, desire and fulfillment, nature and artifice, conscious and unconscious, form and formlessness, and all the multifaceted “antinomies of existence” of which a sensitively attuned spirit is exhilaratingly aware.

Religious irony arises whenever a receptive soul encounters one of the richly paradoxical sites (religious or aesthetic objects, for example) that “essentially erase themselves” by positing their presence and admitting their absence at the same moment. Proposing this as a key to Lynch’s work, Wilson illuminates it with theories of the numinous, whereby the holy is spontaneously felt both inside and outside the self; of the Kantian sublime, which unsettles the subject with overabundances of measureless meaning; of aesthetic play, seen as an ecstatic dance of formal and sensuous elements; and of Gnosticism, which holds (in one version) that if “meaninglessness [is] the path to ultimate meaning, then conceptual confusion turns into the road to … immediate experience of the divine.”

For good measure Wilson throws in Transcendental Meditation, which Lynch learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the mantra-chanting guru who enlightened the Beatles a few decades ago. Lynch inconveniently insists that his films have nothing to do with religion, but this doesn’t slow Wilson down for a second. It’s just a neat example of the “earnest playfulness” that makes Lynch so, well, Lynchian.

I don’t mean to be facetious, but if I occasionally sound that way, chalk it up to the persuasive power of Wilson’s own arguments, which are too serious to take themselves too seriously. A critic who admires Lynch for dodging the traps of monistic and dualistic thinking can’t afford to fall into those very pitfalls, and since cinema scholarship spends a good deal of its time down there, Wilson wisely staves off error by deploying a film-theoretical version of earnest playfulness.

In the introduction to his book, for instance, he lays out the ideas I’ve outlined and plausibly applies them to scenes in Lynch movies. But then he does a bracing U-turn and speeds off in the opposite direction. Taking a fresh look at the 1992 feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, he finds it so weak (he has plenty of company there) that he starts questioning the value of Lynch’s whole body of work, wondering if he’s been pursuing “a ridiculous hermeneutical activity” all along. An emergency re-viewing of Blue Velvet restores his faith, but he knows his doubts will return. It’s in the nature of romantic irony, he concludes, that “you never really know if the joke’s on you or someone else, if you’re stumbling on some path to salvation or just shuffling around in one place.”

Whatever you think of Wilson’s overall approach, you have to be charmed by his good-natured candor and respect for ambiguity, which lend wonder and surprise to his analyses of enigmas, aporias, and impossibilities in Lynch’s films. Wild at Heart is “a masterpiece and a trifle,” for example, and Blue Velvet is “something and nothing at once, both a statement … and a removal of all statements.” These self-canceling propositions would be mere critical curiosities if they didn’t produce remarkably suggestive insights that psycho-philosophers like Slavoj Žižek and eclectic scholars like Martha P. Nochimson have missed, notwithstanding their own clever contributions. Did you know that Eraserhead plumbs a “holy void” beyond the physical world? Or that Blue Velvet demonstrates “the ultimate force of chastity” through its sex-drenched story? Or that Wild at Heart sets forth a coherent theory of love as simultaneously erotic and charitable? Or that Lost Highway manifests the truths of negative theology? Or that Mulholland Dr. lucidly assesses the diverse forms of intuition in different varieties of dream?

Wilson’s book was finished before Lynch completed Inland Empire, the 2006 masterpiece that may well stand as his very greatest work. Unfazed as always by empirical “reality,” Wilson writes about the picture anyway, predicting that it will explore “the imperial interiors that stay forever unmapped,” sounding “the abysmal insides of the heart” to their profoundest depths. You read it right, folks: Wilson has written one of that film’s most astute descriptions without seeing a single frame. It seems his ridiculous hermeneutics are just what’s needed for opening our eyes to a mystical “third term” surpassing the divide “between many and one, chaos and order — a barely possible thing as lurid and gorgeous as Blue Velvet wavering in the muted light.”