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  The Philosophy of David Lynch


Edited by William J. Devlin and Shai Biderman


Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011

Hardcover, vii-248 pages. ISBN 978-0-8131-2991-4. $35.00


Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart

Chesterfield College




The Philosophy of David Lynch is part of a burgeoning series of books published by the University Press of Kentucky under the general title “Philosophy of Popular Culture”. The series sets out to explore philosophical themes and ideas that occur in popular culture in an accessible fashion for the general reader, publishing the work of both established and emerging scholars. The present collection of essays applies a range of philosophical approaches to the intriguingly rich and complex body of film (and television work) made by David Lynch. Lynch’s position within contemporary popular culture (at its margins rather than the mainstream) provides a fascinating platform to reflect upon the relationship between his films and philosophical approaches to cinema and popular culture. It also brings to the fore questions about the efficacy of using certain philosophical approaches to seek to understand the complexities and paradoxes of the Lynchian audio-visual worlds presented on screen.

The level of detail within the book is of a high standard, although it is a shame that several errors were not picked up in the proofreading stage as these will no doubt be seized upon by Lynch aficionados. On page 1 of the editors’ introduction reference is made to the Mystery Man in Mulholland Drive when it should be Lost Highway. Secondly, a quotation from Wild at Heart states that “This whole world is wild at heart and crazy on top” when it should read “…weird on top” [61]. Thirdly, in an essay on Mulholland Drive it is stated that Rebekah Del Rio sings a Spanish language version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with lyrics in English used to support the points made [121]. In actual fact, it is Ben (Dean Stockwell) who lip-syncs “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet whereas the song in Mulholland Drive is “LLorando” (“Crying”) which puts a slightly different complexion upon the scene. These minor errors aside, the collection is well supported by the application of accurate close readings of Lynch’s work.

The editors’ brief introductory essay makes some helpful connecting comments about the various chapters suggesting that while “The Lynchian world is a confusing labyrinth in which one can easily become lost… there is a thread viewers can follow to guide them through Lynch’s maze and come to understand Lynch’s cinematic collection: namely, the human psyche” [2]. Bearing this framework in mind, the editors have usefully organised the fourteen essays into three parts which link together in a productive manner for the reader to follow philosophical approaches to Lynch’s work. The first part, “The World of David Lynch”, sets out to explore the distinct and confusing cinematic worlds that Lynch creates. Part 2, “Selfhood and Subjectivity: The Existential Drive toward Self-Understanding”, is concerned with “Lynch’s exploration of the human individual within the context of living in a world that no longer makes the kind of sense we once thought it did” [3]. The final part, “The Self Confronts the World: Issues in Ethics, Society, and Religion” then addresses “Lynch’s analysis of how the individual confronts the chaotic world” [4] he/she finds themselves in.

The essays comprising part 1, “The World of David Lynch”, provide the reader with some useful and interesting suggestions as to how philosophy can be used to seek to come to terms with Lynch’s work. Robert Arp and Patricia Brace in “‘The Owls Are Not What They Seem’: The Logic of Lynch’s World” provide a clear argument about the ways Lynch imposes his brand of logic upon the films and how his characters manage to find a way to function within their illogical worlds. A philosophical explication of how logic may be applied to the Lynchian world is introduced clearly and helpfully for the general reader, with relevant sources provided in the chapter notes. Indeed, this is one of the strengths of the book; it would allow anyone intrigued by the philosophical arguments expounded in the individual chapters to refer to useful sources to follow up their reading. Simon Riches’ chapter, “Intuition and Investigation into Another Place: The Epistemological Role of Dreaming in Twin Peaks and Beyond” provides a detailed and useful exposition of epistemology, suggesting that Lynch goes “beyond” existing philosophical concepts of epistemology to offer the possibility of incorporating intuitive knowledge. Like several other chapters, Riches’ shows how film provides for the possibilities of philosophical thinking beyond existing paradigms in the newly-created scenarios presented on screen. Sander H. Lee’s chapter on Blue Velvet argues that Lynch shows us that attempts to impose rationality upon nature and humankind are ultimately doomed to failure. Whether we find this conclusion joyous or depressing, in Lee’s reading, depends on “whether you prefer Schopenhauer or Nietzsche” [59]. Russell Manning through some close reading of key extracts argues that “The world of David Lynch is a cinematic world where the [psychoanalytic] Thing comes to the forefront, almost leaping from the screen…This is not real terror, but its most artistic equivalence. Yet it is one of the reasons we go to the movies” [62].

The final essay in part 1, Ronie Parciack’s “The World as Illusion: Rediscovering Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway through Indian Philosophy”, broadens out approaches to Lynch’s work in a detailed and compelling reading of these two films. The shift to an Indian philosophical context opens up Lynch’s world for different readings. Indeed, Parciack suggests that “Lynch’s work is a philosophical act that calls for a significant upheaval in the Western spectator’s apprehension of the phenomenal; it constitutes an epistemological change regarding both the nature of the phenomenal world and the nature of the subject within it” [77]. (As an aside, Lynch’s devotion to Transcendental Meditation (TM) is referred to briefly at various stages of the book, but a contextualised investigation of TMs impact upon American society and culture would be a useful supplement to this branch of Lynch studies.)

Parciack’s essay also provides a link into part 2, where Mark Walling takes up her mantle, in a sense, in providing a reading of another Eastern philosophical approach to Lost Highway via Zen Buddhism. This essay can also be read alongside the first essay in the book by Robert Arp and Patricia Brace (mentioned above) and provides a constructive means to reflect upon the usefulness or not of applying logic in relation to the Lynchian universe. Walling argues that through Fred Madison’s split mind “Lynch reveals the same distrust of duality that forms the foundation of Zen Buddhist theory” [100]. Jennifer McMahon’s essay on Mulholland Dr. focuses on the ways in which Lynch uses film noir for its existential themes by reference to Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus to show through the character of Diane that “not only truths, but also lies, can be fatal” [124]. Tal Correm’s chapter on The Straight Story and The Elephant Man adopts a phenomenological analysis to argue that the central characters in each of these films possess an ethical significance and “suggest the possibility of transcending violence and power relations and motivating ethical relations of mutual respect and empathy” [141]. Richard Gaughran’s chapter on road movies reads The Straight Story alongside Wild at Heart to argue that in the Lynchian world paradoxically “Alvin Straight, unlike Sailor Ripley, is an authentic rebel [as he] remains true to his vision” and thereby achieves heroic status [155], unlike Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart who remains in a world of simulation, playing at being a rebel. In the final chapter in part 2, Shai Frogel reads Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra alongside Jung’s seminar on the book to present Alvin Straight as an American Zarathustra who ultimately “reconfirms the value of his society by his deeds and speeches” [171]. Taken together, these essays about The Straight Story demonstrate the different ways Lynch’s films can be read, and they bring to the fore the points of convergence and divergence between different philosophical and ideological positions.

Having explored Lynch’s universe and examined how we might usefully discuss the worlds in which the characters find themselves, part 3 considers the ethical and religious dimensions of these films. Scott Hamilton Suter’s chapter on Emersonian Transcendentalism in Twin Peaks brings a number of issues in the collection together. Emerson’s interest in Eastern philosophy and the natural world chime with Lynch’s own background and practice of meditation. The integration of Eastern thought within American life and culture seems to be vital for an understanding of how Lynch’s world both fits in with prevailing attitudes but also breaks away from them. Arguing against Samuel Kimball who critiques Twin Peaks as a caricature of Emersonian discourse, the chapter concludes that “Lynch ties his world together with Emerson’s vision of a world where all ‘disagreeable appearances’ disappear” [186]. Jason Southworth’s chapter, “ ‘In Heaven Everything Is Fine’: Erasing Traditional Morality”, argues that Eraserhead, like most of Lynch’s films, presents a challenge for interpretation by a deliberate combination of literal and metaphorical imagery and that we need to understand Eraserhead’s ambiguous scenes as meaningful within the context of the film. However, because we do not have access to Henry Spencer’s thoughts it is ultimately impossible “to get very specific about why Henry rejects traditional morality or what he, and by extension Lynch, thinks it ought to be replaced with (if anything)” [203]. Similarly, Shai Biderman’s and Assaf Tabeka’s chapter, “The Monster Within: Alienation and Social Conformity in The Elephant Man” also comes to the conclusion that the options offered by the film are rather limited, so that the only solution available to John Merrick is his suicide. The final chapter, William J. Devlin’s “Prophesies, Experience, and Proof: Philosophy of Religion in Dune” tackles a film that has generally received less critical attention in recent years (although Jeffrey Nicholas’ Dune and Philosophy was published by Open Court Press in 2011). Devlin argues that Paul Atreides’s religious journey embodies two different epistemic approaches to the philosophy of religion—evidentialism and William Alston’s “perception of God” in his spiritual awakening and transformation into the Kwisatz Haderach, the messiah or hand of God.

So, through a careful planning of the chapters the reader is able to consider the philosophical implications of the type of world that Lynch creates, the issues affecting the characters in these seemingly chaotic and illogical worlds, and then the types of resolution available to both the characters and the audience. The works’ openness for interpretation is fundamental in coming to an acknowledgement of the range of issues depicted in Lynch’s staggering use of visuals and sounds and how different branches of philosophy might be employed in relation to these works. As might be expected in such a collection, this is in a sense a “mixed bag” with some chapters being stronger than others; however this is not always to be judged by the academic standing of the author(s). There are a number of ideas or concepts that span these essays, ranging from the determinacy or indeterminacy of Lynch’s subject matter and the potential for philosophical meaning; the relationship between different philosophical approaches, particularly between Western and Eastern philosophy; and whether these works are ultimately progressive, reactionary or ambivalent; which all add to the rich tapestry of Lynch studies. There is no doubt that Lynch’s work is worthy of such study, and this collection, which is enjoyable to read and digest, offers a good deal of food for thought.




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