‘An anthem of conformity’ – Grace Lee
Much of the language in Lynch’s filmography is dedicated to identifying the paradox he sees at the heart of the Symbolic Order: although language is fundamentally incapable of representing the Reals that underlie conscious experience, it is granted an absolute power to shape individual thought and to determine whether individuals should be included or excluded from social institutions and spaces; despite this fundamental inadequacy it is universally perceived as the utmost definitive authority.
From the start of Lynch’s cinematic career his distrust of language has been central to his work. 1968’s The Alphabet, one of his earliest short films, depicts the violent effects of an ‘intellectual discourse for rationalisation and structure’ through language that, in Lynch’s own words, ‘kind of restricts thinking’. Lynch has often been quoted as saying that the reason he loves cinema is because of its ability to ‘hold abstractions’; language seems to pose an essential threat to such abstractions. The Alphabet depicts a child whose sleep is tormented by a relentless recitation of the alphabet that invades their previously peaceful dreams. Grace Lee describes how the letters appear violently, ‘secreted onto the screen through ruptured openings’, they ‘creep and spread like an infection before entering the head of the human figure, causing it to bleed an disintegrate.’ However, she also highlights that it is not the letters themselves Lynch believes invoke the suffering; it is their ‘ceremonial delivery’, the ‘threatening chants like an anthem of conformity.’ This is not only reflected in the voices of the eager children who ceaselessly chant the ‘familiar linear form’ of the alphabet over the violent visual sequence, but also in the booming adult voice that sings various scales and arpeggios; both parties are far more enthused by the structuring elements of the words they sing, the organising form that the language has had imposed upon it, than with the words themselves or any meaning therein. The presence of these linguistic structures reflect Lynch’s concern with the ways in which language is dogmatically taught and codified, the way such structures, much like an infection, spread from one indoctrinated mind to the next. When the audio and visual elements are read simultaneously it is clear that these formal structures underpin the ultimately anxiety of the film: that the process of learning language is inherently violent, that there is a danger in ‘binding expression with words.’
Words themselves are not the source of Lynch’s fear; as I hope to later demonstrate, Lynch’s films prove that language may have the potential to unveil the underlying Real. Rather, it is the way in which the Symbolic, through its rigid and linear linguistic structures, locks individuals into social pacts which may keep society stable but deny subjects’ access to the Real in order to maintain such stability. The idea for Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, came to Lynch when he happened across a sentence in the Bible, though he has refused to disclose which sentence it was. Many have cited the fear of fatherhood exhibited by the film’s protagonist Henry as evidence that James 1:15 – ‘Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death’ – or Psalm 137:9 – ‘Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks’ – could have inspired Lynch. However, I believe it could have been another phrase: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1: 1). Hedwig Schwall alludes to the significance of this phrase in his article ‘Lacan, or An Introduction to the Realms of Unknowing’ when he says that ‘in the beginning was the word, but together with the possibility of communicating information there arises the possibility of misunderstanding.’ Eraserhead is a study of the fact that ‘we exist in one way: only through language, both in its audible and visual manifestations’; by introducing an entity that cannot be assimilated into the Symbolic through language, and thus cannot enter into the contracts upon which the social space is built, Lynch exposes how essential the authority of the Symbolic to define individuals within social institutions has become.
Schwall describes the Lacanian process of differentiation by stating that ‘man’s story begins with language, a cry and a name’, and when ‘the newborn is immediately addressed and categorised in words as a boy or a girl’ they are castrated through denial of one possibly of existence’; most importantly, ‘these two moments of naming and castrating constitute the subject’, and the subject is thus differentiated. A concern with the linguistic act of naming can be seen throughout Eraserhead. The first line of dialogue that occurs is when Henry’s neighbour and later lover leans out of the apartment to ask ‘Are you Henry?’ – he is differentiated, and therefore assimilated into the Symbolic, instantly. Similarly, the first piece of text that the camera exposes is his name, ‘Henry Spencer’, stuck onto his mailbox. By stark contrast, the baby in Eraserhead refuses to be differentiated. When Mary, the reluctant mother, tells Henry that ‘[the hospital] still aren’t sure if it’s a baby’ at all, her choice of words is telling: the family are unable to differentiate the baby because they cannot define ‘it’ as male, female, or anything else, through language. What makes the baby so terrifying to its parents throughout Eraserhead is that it continues to cry, it constantly alerts them to its presence, its ‘being there’, but that it cannot be differentiated into the Symbolic through gendering or naming and thus represents a possible breakage in the Symbolic, which in turn constitutes a possible fissure through which the Real might be glimpsed; the Real is a negative entity, thus it is because the baby cannot be defined as anything, rather than positively defined as anything hideous or terrifying, that causes such distress. It is this prolonged threat of the Real, brought about by language’s inability to differentiate the baby, that causes the films climatic act of infanticide wherein Henry plugs the gap though which the Real could come forth, and in doing so reasserts the stabilising power of the Symbolic.
If the Real predominates in experience, as it does whilst the Eraserhead baby is alive, it ‘puts the subject in an awkward position’ because ‘it is too close to the reality of things that it cannot give them a meaning’; the exposure to the Real ‘petrifies him with fear (as in a nightmare where one cannot utter a sound.’ Schwall’s words describe perfectly the behaviour of both Mary and Henry during their overexposure to the Real whilst caring for their baby. As well as the pervasive silence that inhabits their martial home – neither adult ever utters more than a few words to the other apart from the occasional outbursts of suppressed, confused rage – it is also an apt description of a sequence at the beginning of the film which anticipates the child’s birth: absorbed in absolute silence, other than the ominous sound of wind that blows in the background, Henry’s head floats horizontally across the frame, he opens his mouth as if to scream but no sound escapes, all that emerges is a sperm-like figure that looks strikingly similar to his child born soon after. This sequence anticipates how, through a stoppage in the Symbolic’s power to differentiate Henry is temporarily overexposed to the Real and, as a result, becomes ‘arhetorical’.
Naming as differentiation is not the only way in which Lynch identifies language as essential to processes of individual definition and social stability. Louis Althusser’s concept of ‘interpellation’, taken from his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, provides a model for examining Lynch’s presentation of the text and textual authority. Interpellation, much like differentiation, describes how language has the power to make people ‘exist’, to assimilate them into the social ‘pact’ of the Symbolic. Althusser distinguishes between ‘RSAs’, ‘Repressive State Apparatus’, and ‘ISAs’, ‘Ideological State Apparatus’; ‘the Repressive State Apparatus functions by “violence”, whereas the Ideological State Apparatus function “by ideology”’. Ideology, through ISAs, is able to ‘hail or interpellate concrete individuals as concrete subjects’, ideology is able to ‘“recruit” subjects among the individuals’ and ‘“transforms” the individuals into subjects; several of Lynch’s films depict ISAs and the act of ideological interpellation.
Lynch’s second feature The Elephant Man is similar to Eraserhead in that it presents a character who resists easy linguistic definition and assimilation into the Symbolic. As a result, they also represent a possible fissure for the Real. However, unlike the baby in Eraserhead who is eventually destroyed for destabilising the Symbolic, John Merrick is able to socially interpellate himself, and thus become assimilated into the Symbolic, through his interactions with various texts. Althusser describes ‘the religious ISA’, the ‘system of different churches’ and the ideological implications of its rituals and rules; Merrick’s interaction with the Christian Religious ISA via its central text is what transforms him from an outsider and an animal into a concrete social subject. After initially failing to impress the Hospital Administrator, Carr Gomm, with his awkward and mechanical repetition of biblical lines taught to him by Dr Frederick Treves, Car Gomm concludes that Merrick ‘doesn’t belong here’ – he remains an outsider. However, when Merrick is overheard reciting the complete 23rd Psalm, sections that Treves had not practiced with him beforehand, Carr Gomm not only allows him to stay at the hospital, but he is shortly moved from the quarantine room at the top of the hospital into a more comfortable set of rooms in the main wards of the hospital; his interpellation via the language of the Religious text is physically marked by his movement from an alienating space to an inclusive space.
By interacting with the cultural ISA which Althusser defines as ‘literature, the arts, sports, etc.’, Merrick is able to further affirm himself as a ‘concrete subject’ that ‘exists’ through language. Upon being visited by Mrs Kendall, one of London’s foremost actresses, who gifts him a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, Merrick and Kendall recite a passage of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. When they finish Kendall says to him: ‘Oh Mr Merrick, you’re not an elephant-man at all, you’re Romeo’. In this instance the text serves not only to transform Merrick from pariah into social subject, but furthers the interpellative effect by elevating him to the realm of so-called high art; Merrick becomes a subject not merely worth retaining for scientific study, but a subject worth dignifying. Merrick’s status as interpellated social subject is finalised through his indirect textual interaction with the ‘Political ISA’. When the Governing Committee of the hospital convene to vote on whether Merrick should be permanently admitted to the hospital, the meeting is interrupted by a visit from ‘her royal highness Alexandrea’. The princess reads a letter from Queen Victoria wherein Merrick, whom had been described immediately before the meeting by adversarial committee members as a ‘creature’ and an ‘abomination of nature’, is interpellated for a final time and transformed into ‘one of England’s most unfortunate sons’.
The recurrence of this theme in 2001’s Mullholland Drive shows that this is not a concern confined to Lynch’s early career. Through another instance of textual recitation Lynch goes further than to just depicts language’s power to interpellate; the famous audition scene depicts the way in which language ultimately functions as a means of avoiding the Real by creating and continuously reproducing desire. During the audition a budding actress played by Naomi Watts is transformed for a naïf into a serious sexual subject. Her character is, at this point in the film, called ‘Betty’, and, as George Toles describes, both the character and her ‘flimsy comic-book moniker’ are ‘so entrenched in naivete and the hokey paraphernalia of small-townness that her whole confected being is a hymn to unreality.’ Initially, Lynch discourages his viewers from viewing Betty as anything more than an embodiment of ‘stale movie conventions’. However, when Betty begins reading the script a kind of ‘alchemy’ takes place, wherein she suddenly transforms into a character whose ‘hold on life and on her turbulent inner forces seems more fraught with consequence than our own.’ Through textual interaction she is transformed from filmic convention into a human being; like John Merrick before her, she is transformed from something alien and unreal into something ‘concrete’, something that ‘exists’, through language.
What makes Betty’s transformation more complex than Merrick’s is the foregrounding of desire in the scene. Once a subject enters into language, its desires become inextricably bound up in the Symbolic. However, the fact that a subject’s fantasies will ‘always fail before the Real’ means that desire in the Symbolic could simultaneously be understood as ‘our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real’; the Symbolic is less interested in ‘obtaining the object of desire but, rather, in reproducing itself.’ Therefore, the pivotal moment of the scene occurs when Betty ‘registers another quality of awareness’ by realising that the lead man’s hand hovers near her buttocks and she ‘evolves, in a matter of seconds, into a more advanced organism’ by taking his hand and firmly placing it on her body: ‘by means of a solitary squeeze of the hand’ Betty advances herself ‘to the farthest reaches of sexual knowing’, she becomes a subject that can desire and be desired. In this moment, Lynch demonstrates more than the fact that language and text have the power to differentiate and interpellate subjects; by having Betty enact a desire that is communicated and sustained through the language of the Symbolic via a performative script that belongs to the realm of the Imaginary, Lynch shows that language also has the ability to constantly reassert its own authority and distance subjects from the Real by acting as a mechanism for the performance and reproduction of desire.
In these four works Lynch identifies the power that language and its dogmatic systems of implementation have to create and control subjects. At the level of the individual, the focus on differentiation in Eraserhead exemplifies how the individual subject can only enter into the Symbolic if it can be described by and assimilated into language; when it cannot, it will inevitably be destroyed as it poses an inherent threat to the stability of the Symbolic-Imaginary reality. The Elephant Man, when read in conjunction with Althusser’s theory of interpellation, demonstrates how this same principle can be applied on a broader societal level when language becomes an instrument of ideology: Merrick, through contact with textual ISAs is able to assimilate himself into the Symbolic and thus transform himself from a monster, a possible fissure for the Real like the baby in Eraserhead, into a concrete subject of British society. Mullholland Drive demonstrates how the same phenomenon is complicated by an overt invocation of desire; language provides a means for the Symbolic to perpetually reproduce fantasies and their motivating desires, and in doing so distances human expression from its underlying Reals. For Lynch, language is ultimately a paradoxical force. It has total authority as the vehicle of human expression and is therefore the bedrock of stable societies; yet, it is not only incapable of expressing the Real, but continually works to distance subjects from the Real. However, though the scenes analysed here represent Lynch’s identification of this problem, these same scenes also provide the origins a possible solution. Lynch’s films suggest that if language, the Symbolic, is the foremost route away from the Real, then it must also represent a possible route back to it. As Zizek explains: Language ‘is the only instrument we have which can keep us in touch with the “uncanny”’, what Freud called ‘“das Unheimliche”’. Lacan believed that ‘the uncanny occurs when a situation or object directs us to that horrible void or lack’; it produces an anxiety that gestures back to the Real. Thus, though language may primarily act as a force that keeps subjects from expressing and confronting a Real, if deployed uncannily it may be able to gesture back towards it. Furthermore, the repeated notion of performance at the heart of both differentiation and interpellation, exhibited most clearly in The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive, hints towards what will become the key to Lynch’s ultimate destabilising of the Symbolic: self-consciously uncanny language deployed in self-consciously performative spaces.
[Full bibliography at the end of part 4]