The Apocalypse of David Lynch
This is the water, and this is the well
Drink deep, and descend
The horse is the white of the eyes
And the darkness within
— The Woodsman
The great questions that riddled the minds of theologians of the first through third centuries A.D. — things like the true nature of Jesus and how a perfect God could have made such an imperfect world — hardly trouble us today. We are too blitzed by information and blissed out on the gentle hum of technology to ponder such things. But director David Lynch has always occupied a different sphere, and the universe he has created for the characters of his pulp magnum opus, TWIN PEAKS, is one whose architecture resembles far more the imaginings of that ancient time than those of our own agnostic and data-driven era.
Chief among the quandaries of those earlier times was the problem of evil. How had it come into the world? And for what reason? An error of perception, as the men of the East thought, tripping us up on our way to spiritual liberation? A consequence of mankind’s sin against God, as orthodox Judeo-Christian theology contended? Or was it a sovereign force, as real and present in the world as gravity, and possibly even co-equal with the force of good? A force that occasionally took on a face as leering and savage as that of the BOB character from Twin Peaks. Killer Bob, as he was first known, was the putative rapist, corrupter and murderer of the fallen angel/prom queen, LAURA PALMER, and was revealed at the top of the show’s second season to be the occupying demon of her father LELAND. (Identities are smeared in David Lynch-world, doppelgängers abound, and names are exchanged and encrypted) The moment when Leland Palmer, primping before the mirror, peers in and sees Bob looking back is one of the great psyche-rippers in TV history, right up there with “It’s a cookbook!” (Episode #24 of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, scripted by Rod Serling), the JFK assassination, and the debut of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. In Episode 8 of the current restart, TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, set twenty-five years later (or 47 years earlier, as the case may be), Lynch has given us at least three moments to rival that first one for sheer, hair-raising satori.
NOTE: The pop culture references above are all from the Sixties. That’s for a reason. I haven’t included Paris Hilton’s sex tape or Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction as similar moments of mass transfixion. The Sixties — more precisely, that volatile period between 1956–1964 — are where David Lynch’s myth lives. They were also the last time of near-Apocalypse — till now. (We’re exactly fifty years removed from the Summer Of Love, and any student of culture knows that after Summer ’67 came Altamont, Nixon, and the Manson murders. If history is cyclical, tremble for 2018)
The very first time I encountered the term Manichaeism in print was in a Chicago Reader review (perhaps by the great Dave Kehr) of Lynch’s fourth feature, BLUE VELVET. I’d seen the film in an old Chicago movie palace, complete with red velour and rococo décor, and outside of my own nightmares and darkest fantasies, I’d never seen anything like it. Some in the audience laughed uncomfortably, and some even laughed derisively, smug in their certainty that Lynch, with his animatronic robins and lines like, “Why is there so much trouble in the world?” was the opposite of hip. Most, like me, were entranced and deeply disturbed. I wanted to understand why, and in those days, film critics were sometimes erudite and keen-witted enough to tell you, or at least send you off looking in the right direction for clues. That passing mention of Manichaeism sent me into a forest I still wander in, for it’s a term that encapsulates the notion that the world is split down the middle — and so are we. A continual war rages between the forces of the Light and Darkness, and Light doesn’t win every round. Far from it. Mani, the 3rd century Mesopotamian prophet who gave his name to the sect, tended to associate the Light with the Zoroastrian god of good, Ahura Mazda, and the Dark Force with his adversary, Ahriman, aka Satan. Manichaeism competed for four centuries with Christianity across the breadth of the old and new Roman empires (and even into China), but Mani, its founder, also recognized figures like Jesus and the Buddha as a savior figures of the Light. The tricky, and truly troubling thing about Manichaeism is that, because Good and Evil have equal weight, they are inclined to play off — even mirror— one another in the manner of undercover spies and double-agents, mythical figures like the Trickster, or for that matter, Special Agent Dale Cooper. You can never quite say who you’re looking at or which of the two forces is ascendant in them, and that’s the way it is in Twin Peaks, too. Is Daddy a good man, or a very bad one? Is Mommy a saint or a whore? Is Laura Palmer what her appearance suggests, or is that just a brilliant disguise? At any point, any of the nominally good characters of Twin Peaks can find themselves under the influence of the Black Lodge, doing awful things in its service. Inevitably, some of them cross over, because evil, as always, offers great fringe benefits.
The trope of the hero fallen into darkness isn’t, of course, unique to either ancient heretical sects or postmodern morality tales like Twin Peaks. We’ve seen Superman and Spiderman go there temporarily, and Batman, well…he practically lives there. We’ve followed the Skywalker family saga through turns both beneficent and malign. And throughout the history of myth, back to the Greeks and Egyptians and beyond, this tug of war has weighted the heels of the hero, who was variously tempted, tricked, and betrayed bt the Dark. But if you’ve done any reading about the great heretical and gnostic movements of the early Christian era, of which Manichaeism was arguably the most successful, you may know that there’s something very distinctive about their origin stories. Across the board, from Orphics to Ophites to Cathars, there is a common belief that the material world is the result of a kind of cosmic fuck-up. Vanity and the great maternal urge to creation caused a primal mother-wisdom figure, Sophia, to mate with herself and produce a misshapen, abortive half-god, the demiurge, who bears more resemblance to Donald Trump than to the God of Hosts. He’s a jealous, vindictive God, but not without talent: he crafts a cosmos that is a counterfeit replica of heaven. It’s this lesser god who rules over Earth, and who, in the beginning, tries to keep Adam and Eve from knowing the truth: that they bear the image of their true maker and are a long, long way from home. The demiurge, Ialdabaoth, is too blinded by his own self-love to know that there is a far greater God, a true Father-Mother, residing in the place aeons away that gnostics called “the Fullness.” Or to see that our task as human beings made in His/Her image is to follow the breadcrumb trail of divine sparks left by Sophia back to their source in the Fullness.
It’s a weirdly beautiful story, difficult to grok, but leaving a sting of recognition. That sting was painful enough for our forefathers that most forms of heresy had been stamped out by Church and State by the time the early Middle Ages arrived. Most, but not all, because the story has staying power. Not only does it resolutely answer the question, “Why is there so much trouble in the world?”; it also offers an odd kind of hope. We carry a spark of the divine within us, but we’ve been cast into a lower world in which evil often triumphs, to wander in exile until we find our way home. In the case of Manichaeism, maybe the most radically “dualistic” of the great gnostic heresies, its prophet, Mani, wrote that the gnosis came to him by way of a spiritual twin, (Aramaic Tauma (תאומא), whose perfect form existed in the greater world of the fullness, and with whom his mortal/fallen form would merge at the End of Time. Dale Cooper is also a dyad, and most of THE RETURN so far has focused on the exploits of his evil twin, who is the embodiment of Cooper held captive by the Black Lodge. The “Coop” we got to know and love during the first two seasons hasn’t been around much so far. Cooper, like Laura Palmer, was a ‘fallen angel’ whose curiosity drew him — as it has drawn gumshoes from Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew and Robert Langdon — into the trap set by the dark (his younger incarnation, as Jeffrey Beaumont in BLUE VELVET, didn’t heed his grandmother’s warning to stay away from the dark edge of town either). This powerful sense of duality in David Lynch’s worlds — his willingness to allow even his “good” characters to do (or at least consider) awful things, as well as the faint promise of their redemption — is what makes Twin Peaks easier to understand through the lens of gnostic religion. Gnosis is knowing, and knowing includes an acquaintance with evil, cf. Adam and Eve.
Episode 8 of the new season, which aired on June 25, feels like the most explicitly “Manichaean” statement David Lynch has made yet. Absolute evil is fused in the eye of a nuclear blast at Alamogordo, NM (1947) and then regurgitated (along with a stream of “eggs”) in the image of Bob by a misshapen, half-formed Creator figure whom some TP observers have identified as “Mother” but which the official credits simply list as “The Experiment.” A frog-legged, winged cockroach creature is hatched on the radioactive sands nine years later from one of the eggs vomited by The Experiment, and crawls into the open mouth of a village girl who may or may not be Laura Palmer’s mother. A pale horse is conjured in verse spoken by a vagabond skull-crusher (The Woodsman), and Armageddon feels close. But all hope is not lost. There are angelic intermediaries looking out for us from the aeons above, and just as Sophia, mother of Ialdabaoth, sought to atone by “reseeding” the Earth with sparks of spirit, these watchers can send us grace. One of them, living in a an Olympian lighthouse on storm-tossed sea (with a mise-en-scène a la Fritz Lang), is The Giant (listed in the cast as ???????). It is ??????? who sends us Laura.
Any religious vision this urgent and vivid practically screams for an Apocalypse — when it all comes down and it all falls apart — as a prelude to some sort of reconciliation. Given the imagery of Episode 8, I suspect Lynch is aiming to provide one. It’s impossible to know what form it will take, but it won’t be any prettier than the one envisioned by St. John the Divine. The denizens of the Black Lodge have been consuming garmonbozia since the beginning of Season Two, so they have plenty of pain and suffering to dish out. There’ll be a stand-off between the lodges — this much we can be reasonably sure of — but in light (or in dark) of David Lynch’s previous films, it’s unlikely to result in a clear winner or a “satisfying resolution.”
Submitted for your consideration, the Blue Box and the Monster from what may prove to be Lynch’s most enduring movie, Mulholland Drive. In the alley behind Winkie’s diner lives a homeless, Aqualung-like creature who is identified only as a “bum.” He (or she?) is horrifying to look at, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the Woodsmen of TPTR Episode 8, who seem to materialize from the heart of the nuclear blast at Alamogordo as if allowed in through an inter-dimensional portal. The Monster, as it became known in internet forums, possesses nothing, and at the same time, possesses the world, because it appears to control the Blue Box in which the world is made. “He’s the one doing it all,” says the Diane/Betty (Naomi Watts) character in desperation. Whichever exegesis of Mulholland Drive you buy — or even if you buy none of them — Diane’s entrapment by illusion/delusion isn’t really debatable. If the keeper of the Blue Box is none other than the miscreant god, Ialdabaoth, counterfeiter of the cosmos, then her chief delusion may be to believe that any of it is real.
Most of the “insider references” in the new season of Twin Peaks have come from Lynch’s very dark 1992 prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But what he’s saying about the world is bigger than any single ‘franchise.’ His work, from Eraserhead to the very latest of his haunting and thoroughly oddball works of music or visual art reflects a grand obsession every bit as commanding as those of, say, Dante, Bosch, Kafka, or Philip K. Dick. At the heart of it is the question: which God do we answer to?