‘The thing that language never is, never can be, but to which language is always moving.’ – Steve McCaffery, ‘Intraview’
Since the very beginning of his filmmaking career, David Lynch has exhibited a fundamental distrust of, and reluctance to engage with, language. As Dennis Lim detailed at length in his 2015 book David Lynch: The Man from Another Place and its companion article in The New Yorker, Lynch has always resisted the demands of press and critic alike to put the meanings, motivations, and processes of his films into words. During the lengthy production of his first feature Eraserhead, student reporter Tom Christie ‘citing the vague tag line that describes Eraserhead as a “dream of dark and troubling things”’, asked Lynch whether he would ‘“like to expound on that a little?” “No”, the filmmaker replied immediately, shaking his head and smiling.’ This is a habit that has continued throughout his career; even his largest productions were marketed using ‘the most minimal one liners’; Mullholland Drive’s poster labels it ‘a love story in the city of dreams’, and Inland Empire is supposedly nothing more than the story of ‘a woman in trouble’. According to Lim, Lynch has suffered a fraught relationship with language for far longer than he’s been a filmmaker; Lim cites Lynch’s ‘“pre-verbal” years, a phase that lasted well into his early twenties, when he had a hard time stringing even more than a few words together.’ Though never giving away where this personal wariness of the word originates, Lynch did describe to Lim how he believe it inhibits the filmmaking process: ‘“As soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way”’, ‘“and that’s what I hate, you know. Talking – its real dangerous”’. Lim concludes that, ultimately, ‘Words for [Lynch] are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.’
Therefore, although this essay will attempt to interpret many of the enigmatic linguistic elements of Lynch’s films, it will not do so by pursuing a biographically focused line of critical thought. Despite the proliferation of works in recent years that have focused either on Lynch’s life or the many interviews he has given throughout his career – the recent biography Room to Dream, the new edition of Lynch on Lynch, and the release of David Lynch: The Art Life being the most prominent examples – I believe analysing Lynch’s films in relation to his biography would involve forcing the films to fit within the bounds of a received and written narrative; a process that seems fundamentally at odds with Lynch’s own distrust of words and favour of the enigmatic work of art. I will instead approach his films through an alternative methodical framework and, like many critics before me, undertake a more theoretical analysis of Lynch’s use and presentation of language in his feature films. Although I agree with Lim’s broader statement regarding the fundamentally enigmatic qualities of Lynch’s work, when he characterises Lynch’s use of language as being used ‘less for meaning than for sound’, as a means of ‘moving away from their imprisoning nature’ by ‘savouring their thingness’, I begin to take issue with his argument. Though Lynch undoubtedly finds words to be a ‘imprisoning’ force, I believe that there is ‘meaning’ to be found in Lynch’s use of language; a meaning that seems to correlate with the scepticism and reluctance that Lynch himself has consistently displayed.
Though the amount of public interest in Lynch and his processes has increased exponentially in recent years, academic and critical analysis of language in Lynch’s work remains a relatively small field. Critical works on the filmmaker seem to exhibit one of two characteristics when read from a linguistic point of view. First, book-length analyses of Lynch’s wider filmography such as Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, Anthony Todd’s Authorship and the Films of David Lynch: Aesthetic Receptions in Contemporary Hollywood, or Richard Martin’s The Architecture of David Lynch all touch upon the topic of language – or indeed provide ideas and frameworks that will prove endlessly useful for this essay’s closer analysis of language in Lynch – but discuss language only in a secondary manner to other, more formally orientated, elements of his filmmaking. Second, and in stark contrast, shorter published articles are in some sense too narrow in their emphasis. They either focus closely on language in one of Lynch’s films, but fail to situate their findings in the broader context of Lynch’s filmography or, as in the case of Rachel Joseph’s ‘“Eat My Fear”: Corpse and Text in the Films and Art of David Lynch’, provide excellent close analyses of Lynch’s language in multiple works but, as her title suggests, do so only in relation to smaller, very specific motifs or themes in his films. This essay will attempt to provide a middle way between these two methods. Though I will bring an array of formal elements and specific motifs into my analysis, language and its presentation will be the primary area of investigation, and, reversing the above dynamic, will only discuss other formal features in so far as they inform my reading of the language Lynch deploys in his feature films. Furthermore, though I will be far from able to provide an entirely comprehensive theory of Lynch’s language in the allotted word-limit, I hope to expose linguistic trends apparent across Lynch’s whole career and to situate them within a relevant academic framework.
This would seem an appropriate point at which to explain, first, why I have chosen to focus on Lynch’s feature films when much of his work that is relevant to the linguistic issues I will be exploring appears in televisual, fine art, and musical form. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, why not all of his feature length works will be discussed. First, the Twin Peaks universe has a complicated relationship with language due to its televisual form; Twin Peaks is a co-created phenomenon, not only are writing and directorial duties taken up by a number of other filmmakers across the three series and spin off film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but the release of tie-in novels that were written in the wake of the series mean that language works in a very different way in Twin Peaks to the feature films, a way that is not necessarily Lynch’s own. Dune is also absent for comparable reasons: Dune is infamous for the lack of control Lynch was given over the film’s final cut, which resulted not just with Lynch taking significant salary cuts in his later films to ensure that he would always retain the power of final cut, but also in the release of a film that Lynch does not recognise as his own. The relative minimalism of 1999’s The Straight Story is the main reason for its exclusion; within the given word-limit I have had to prioritise the analysis of films that provide the richest material for exploration of this topic and allow for the most salient connections to be made across Lynch’s filmography. Beyond this, no favouritism is shown to any specific work or period – Lynch’s feature filmography is treated as a cohesive and stable entity.
The remainder of this introduction will be dedicated to the theory of Lynch’s use and presentation of language that I hope to advocate, and the relevant methodologies for doing so. Following the precedent set by critics such as Todd McGowan and Slavoj Zizek, this essay examines Lynch’s films from a psychoanalytical point of view. In particular, my theory takes Jacques Lacan’s topological model of the psyche in the form of the Borromean Knot. Lacan’s knot consists of three closely related ‘orders’ – the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. All three of these orders are interlinked, and hold each other, as well as every subject, in a delicate psychological balance; if any one part were to be removed or severed, the knot would fall apart, and all three orders would be set free in disconnection. The first section of this essay will focus on the Symbolic order, because the Symbolic is ‘about language and narrative’, it is all that comprises the ‘social world of linguistic communication.’ As Lacan describes, the Symbolic, through language, is ‘the pact which links […] subjects together in one action’, ‘human action’ is ‘founded on the existence of the world of the symbol.’ The exclusively linguistic nature of this order is what will make it so central to Lynch’s feature films, both in the way he presents the power of the Symbolic order, but also how he attempts to negate, disrupt, and repurpose it.
The second order of importance will be the Real, and the majority of this essay will focus on the interaction between the Symbolic and the Real. ‘The Real is the impossible’ according to Lacan, the Real is all that the Symbolic and Imaginary orders – those which constitute conscious and perceivable reality cannot represent. Mark Fisher summarises it most succinctly and usefully: ‘The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed at in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality.’ What Fisher highlights so pithily here, and what will become central to the argument of this essay, is the ‘desubstantialised’ nature of the Real, what I will be referring to as its ‘negativity’. Zizek explains at length in How to Read Lacan that the Real is not ‘an external thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network’, but is the ‘fissure in the Symbolic network itself.’ The Real cannot exist ‘positively’, cannot be positively represented, because it is only recognisable as ‘an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies’ in the Symbolic-Imaginary reality.
The third order, the Imaginary, is ‘the domain of images.’ It corresponds to the mirror stage of childhood development, wherein a child ‘misrecognises in its mirror image a stable, coherent, whole self’, such an image is ‘a fantasy, one that the child sets up in order to compensate for its sense of lack or loss.’ Though the Imaginary will not become of central importance until the last section of this essay, its interlinking with both the Symbolic and Real orders is essential to understanding Lynch’s linguistic methods. The Imaginary, like the Symbolic, is capable of being ‘positively’ represented, and provides the other half of conscious reality along with the Symbolic order. An awareness of the Imaginary’s constant and essential presence in the Borromean Knot is essential to understanding how the three orders constantly, if unstably, co-exist with and rely upon one another, and subsequently how Lynch, in his distrust of language, manipulates the delicate balance that subjects struggle to maintain.
Lynch has a fundamental distrust and suspicion of the Symbolic order and language, as can be seen in his comments gathered by Lim. I argue that Lynch identifies a paradox present in the Symbolic order. Namely, that language, the Symbolic, is given an almost totalising power to define the self, and the self within the social field, even though it is, by nature, incapable of representing an essential and universal part of the human experience and psyche – all that exists within the Real. Even though the Real is the ‘traumatic underside of our existence and sense of reality’, it fundamentally ‘cannot be assimilated to the Symbolic order of language and communication.’ Lynch questions the power of the Symbolic, and indeed why people are so eager for things to be put into words, his films included, when words themselves are fundamentally incapable of representing this elemental aspect of human psychology, ‘the state of nature from which we have forever been severed by our entrance into language.’ The language of Lynch’s feature films attempts to redress this imbalance by making his viewers more aware of the Symbolic’s overpowered nature, and subsequently destabilising Symbolic-Imaginary reality, to expose the Real that lurks beneath.
The first part of this essay will explore how Lynch’s feature films expose the totalising power of the Symbolic to define individuals and their social status despite the central flaw described above. The Lacanian concept of ‘differentiation’ aids an analysis of how Lynch’s films, 1968’s The Alphabet in particular, depict the dogmatic institutionalisation of the power of language, how language is forced upon a child as a means of structuring its mind, and in doing so cuts them off from the Real. Eraserhead explores what happens to a newborn child that cannot be assimilated into the Symbolic as a means of exposing the absolute authority that the Symbolic is granted in defining the individual and the social institutions in which they must live, such as the family. Louis Althusser’s theory of ‘interpellation’ provides a means of examining this phenomenon on a wider societal scale; The Elephant Man depicts the way in which the Symbolic and, specifically, the linguistic text function as tools of ideology, determining whether an individual is part of, or should be set apart from, the social space. Though this motif takes root in his earliest features, it is an ongoing preoccupation in Lynch’s filmic work. Mulholland Drive depicts the psychological implications of interpellation through the Symbolic, that the Symbolic functions as ‘our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real’; rather than revealing the essential truth of experience, language functions as a means of obscuring it.
Lynch recognises that if the Symbolic, if language, is the sole means by which subjects are cut off from the Real, it may also be the only available route back to it. Thus, the second part of the essay will focus on how Lynch attempts to make his viewers aware of the Real underlying conscious reality through the language he deploys in his films. Through the cliched, banal, seemingly meaningless expressions of his characters, a motif particularly prevalent in Blue Velvet, Lynch does more than simply further expose the shortcomings of language and his own resultant dislike towards it. Freud identifies repetition and doubling as the mark of the uncanny, the ‘unheimlich’; through the repetitions and doublings of his characters’ expressions Lynch is able to produce an uncanny effect that gestures back to the Real. Lynch’s most recent feature, Inland Empire, formally manifests this effect. In the way his characters seem to repeat each other, repeat common cliché, and see their own feelings doubled in the musical and filmic objects with which they interact, Lynch demonstrates that the desires underlying their means of expression are not their own, and are symptomatic of the universal castration that subjects undergo when they enter the Symbolic Order, whose primary aim is to reproduce desire and stabilise perceivable reality. Slavoj Zizek explores this theme at length in his extended analysis of Lost Highway, and details a theory of how Lynch brings the Real and the Symbolic onto the same representative plane in order to expose their interlinked nature and how the Symbolic conceals the Real in social reality and conscious life; a close analysis of one scene in Wild at Heart shows his theory in action. Though Zizek’s model of the way in which these two orders appearing ‘horizontally’ will become key for the final section of this essay, the negativity of the Real, its unrepresentability, lead me to take issue with his logic.
I will argue that, by invoking the Imaginary order through performative settings and self-consciously performative action, Lynch can create fissures in the Symbolic-Imaginary network of reality and provide a far more powerful glimpse of the traumatic Real. If the Real can only be accessed through gaps in conscious reality, it is when Lynch simultaneously depicts the instability of both the Symbolic and Imaginary realms that the Real can be most powerfully seen. Mark Wieczorek, in his introduction to Zizek’s The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, describes how ‘Lynch’s technique characteristically consists of juxtaposing two incompatible, mutually exclusive realms’, the Symbolic and the Real. However, since the Real is fundamentally unrepresentable, I argue that it is when the two realms he juxtaposes and simultaneously destabilises are the Symbolic and Imaginary, rather than Symbolic and Real, that a more powerful effect is achieved. Lynch achieves a ‘dismantling […] of reality itself’, and by doing so ‘takes apart reality, leaving the Real in its place’; though Joseph is here describing the juxtaposition between corpse and text, I believe she provides the perfect model for my theory of Lynch’s curtained spaces. By making unstable the two realms of conscious reality, Lynch’s viewers are left to be ‘confronted with a reality that has been pulled apart and displayed.’ In these moments, ‘the Symbolic calls out to the Real and the Real to the Symbolic’ for support and structure, but Lynch has revealed language’s limits, ‘what words fail to signify.’ In these spaces, Lynch reveals the inadequacies of language by creating gaps in conscious reality through which the unbearable, traumatic Real can momentarily be seen. Lynch, like Lacan, uses his medium to recognise that language, the Symbolic, is a structuring entity designed to stabilise conscious reality, but that it has its limit; there will always be something that exists beyond its definitive power, and beyond perceivable reality altogether – the unbearable Real.
[Full bibliography at end of part 4]