There is a perpetual danger when academia ventures into the world of David Lynch that only hot air will be achieved because, as the excellent Roger Luckhurst made clear in his opening lecture at the Tate Modern's 'Mapping The Lost Highway', Lynch's work is "curiously resistant to intellectual theorising". It is what it is. Yes, it may seem to permit any number of theoretical interpretations (Freudianism, Postmodernism, Existentialism - take your pick!) but ultimately none really get you any closer to the actual work simply because, as an artist David Lynch doesn't function within such parameters. He doesn't do metaphors. He doesn't make Postmodern references to other art. He doesn't even know what his own work 'means' - as anyone can tesitify who has witnessed the documentary 'Lynch' about the making of INLAND EMPIRE. None of which deterred a group of academics gathering in the Tate Modern to 'map the Lost Highway' and try and enhance our understanding of Lynch's work. The results were decidedly mixed.
The finest contribution of the day came early from Roger Luckhurst who brilliantly contextualised Lynch's work as part of an American tradition he defined as 'the Weird', the heritage of which bares similarities to 'American Gothic' and includes writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.P Lovecraft along with the post-war work of both Robert Bloch and Richard Matheison. Certainly, all these writers share a fascination with eldritch material, and in the words of Lovecraft a predilection for "a profound sense of dread" and the "assaults of chaos". Moreover, Luckhurst's "Weird" is a blur of so-called High and Low Culture, into which he suggests Lynch's films effortlessly fall as virtual collusion between Fellini's artistry and George Romero's schlock. Luckhurst's contextualising of Lynch's work was ultimately convincing largely because it depended upon a historical reality against which to off-set his claims. Yes, Lynch does seem to fit into such a lineage, and the similarities are there for all to see, just as the few influences Lynch has admitted to (Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, William Eggleston, Fellini's '8 1/2', Hitchcok's 'Vertigo' and Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard') obviously echo in his work. Crucially, Luckhurst made no attempt to explain what David Lynch meant, only going so far to identify that Lynch's best work was unified by a 'violent event cracking opening the temporal order', and 'the throwing of reality into chaos'.
Unfortunately, from this promising beginning the day began to take a series of wrong turns down the 'Lost Highway' as a procession of muddled, over-intellectualised, often highly selective interpretations of Lynch's work took centre stage. Essentially, the difficulties encountered by the subsequent talkers revolved around the question to which an artist is capable of understanding their own work, and the degree to which the audience has final say on what the artist actually meant. Tom McCarthy, who delivered a thorough and intriguing examination of the images of deformity that haunt Lynch's work, contended that artists are never impartial and they didn't invent the symbolic order into which their work is released, firmly supporting the notion it isn't down to David Lynch to provide an explanation for his work, but for the audience. Therefore, that Lynch may not know what his work 'means' either was irrelevant. Simon Critchely took this position one step further and derided Lynch's explanations for his own work as 'bollocks', expressing particular vitriol towards Lynch's book 'Catching The Big Fish'. This made for some entertaining exchanges, but they also distanced the work under discussion, largely because they ignored the lack of conceit with which Lynch operates. As such, rather than simplifying the diagnosis, we were soon being served up wild interpretations of INLAND EMPIRE by Parveen Adams ("the film sticks to the film and does not represent something else") along with a frankly self-indulgent psychoanalytical citation of INLAND EMPIRE by Critchely and his wife Jamie Webster, both talks way more confusing and cryptic than the film they were attempting to decode.
The balance was finally redressed with the last speaker of the day, Lynch's biographer Chris Rodley, who restored a lightness of touch to proceedings that proved genuinely enlightening. Significantly, Rodley has spent an enormous amount of time with Lynch and witnessed him at work. Quickly he rattled off a series of revelations that got us closer to the man and the way he works than any amount of academic pontificating. What emerged was a portrait of an artist who was decidedly, unself-consciously, anti-intellectual, but one who intuitively understands things from a very unique position. Rodley's Lynch possessed an almost agoraphobic relationship with inanimate objects, capable of finding malice in everything. Indeed, Lynch once told him that coffee went cold simply because you've ignored it, not for any scientific reason. As such Lynch is given to panicking and overhauling his furniture just as much as he is contented to sit and stare at a blank wall. Lynch doesn't like leaving rooms if he can avoid it, savouring the insulation the four walls provide, just as his shirts provide extra security with that top button done up. Most revealing, Rodley reminded everyone that Lynch approaches his work on a fundamentally textural level. First and foremost he's a painter, but he also loves making furniture and working with organic matter. The physical reality of existence is what focuses him, not abstract concepts or metaphors or satire. Ultimately then, Lynch's work quickly emerged as a catalogue of his own over-worked, hyper-sensitive nervous system and its specific relationship with existence, one devoid of intellectual reasoning. Lynch has previously hinted at this himself, noting his sensibility can be traced to the sorry experience he endured living among the "violence and hate and filth of Philadelphia" in his formative years as an artist.
After blundering into the confusion of Psychoanalysts trying to 'crack the code' earlier in the day, returning the focus to the Literal was a shrewd move, because despite their often cryptic narratives Lynch's films strike me as extremely literal. This is roughly how David Foster Wallace interpreted Lynch's work in 1996, in what remains to my mind the finest piece of writing about Lynch - "David Lynch Keeps His Head"* - the full text of which is well worth seeking out. Wallace contended that Lynch was unknowingly an Expressionist in the European tradition, a 'G.W Pabst with an Elvis ducktail' writing: "Most of Lynch's films don't really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretive process by which movies (certainly avante garde movies) central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get when he says that Lynch's movies are 'to be experienced rather than explained'." Wallace concluded "the Freudian riffs are powerful instead of ridiculous because they're deployed Expressionistically, which among other things means they're deployed in an old fashioned, pre-postmodern way i.e nakedly, sincerely, without postmodernisms abstraction or irony....nobody in Lynch's movies analyzes or metcriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself."
Indeed, with the Symposium returning itself to this rather candid and simple interpretaion of Lynch's work, the day weirdly completed itself rather as it had begun, with Luckhurst's initial observation that Lynch's oeuvre remains "curiously resistant to intellectual theorising" reclaiming centre stage. The moebius strip was complete then, and we found ourselves back on the Lost Highway, still map less, but content to simply drive and see where we end up - which is pretty much what Lynch told us to do in 'Catching The Big Fish' - "Life is filled with abstractions," he observed. "And the only way we make heads or tails of it is through intuition. (45) "
*David Foster Wallace makes another brilliant observation about Lynch's films that is worth consideration. He writes: "This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: You don't feel like you're entering into any of the standard unspoken and/or unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch's films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't. This is why his best films' effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We're defenseless in our dreams too.)"