I've long loved Twin Peaks so I jumped at the chance to explore the philosophy and post-modern meaning of the series in a research paper last fall for my graduate degree. In an elective course on Cinema, I had the absolute pleasure of deconstructing Twin Peaks and its relationship to David Lynch's other work, feminism and the subversion of modernism in fiction. It was a rollicking good time and if you like those things, you might like reading my thoughts on the subject.
Research papers get turned in and then they get forgotten. I loved writing this so I want to share some highlights with the Internet! Check out a few excerpts and let me feel that a quarter’s worth of research into a television show was totally worthwhile and not just an academic exercise.
To paraphrase an old joke, a special agent, a femme fatale and a psychopathic embodiment of ancient and patriarchal evil walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What, is this a David Lynch movie or something?” before dissolving into a symbolic representation of the blurred lines between dreams and reality.
A feminist take on Twin Peaks supported by David Foster Wallace?
One of the most subversive narrative decisions David Lynch made in the Twin Peaks universe was to utilize an entire film to turn the object of the series into a subject when it was expected to act as a sequel and not a prequel by the world at large. Laura Palmer, the mysterious center of the series Twin Peaks spends nearly the entirety of the series commodified as an object “wrapped in plastic” (Lafky 5). Through the narrative of the film, Laura develops as a dramatic subject, making it difficult to see her as only a binary symbol. In the film Laura “embodie[s]” the dark secrets that Twin Peaks had only hinted at on network television (Wallace 210). By telling the story of Laura as an actual human being, divided between the light and dark sides of herself, Fire Walk With Me shows that Laura Palmer was a three-dimensional character with agency and not a simple femme fatale or victim (Phipps). David Foster Wallace hypothesized that the falling popularity of Twin Peaks was based on the fact that Laura’s death was not due to her sins, therefore it did not give the audience the escapist drama that they sought (208). In fact, from Leland Palmer’s dying words, it can be surmised that Laura was killed by BOB based on her strength and unwillingness to lose her soul to darkness. This narrative choice rejects the traditional story of the victim that supports conservative patriarchal beliefs and roles (Geller 67). Giving Laura Palmer agency and not punishing her for sins are two of the narrative choices in Twin Peaks that can be read as subversive to patriarchal traditions and assumptions. Additionally, the series intentionally does not associate weakness and fear with the feminine form.
While the decision to give Laura Palmer agency may not seem subversive on its own, it is important to see it within the history of American culture, especially in comparison to the treatment of women in modernism. Modernist literary greats, like Fitzgerald and Eliot ignored, institutionalized and exploited their wives as objects in their fictions (Zambreno 20). These women supplied “spiritual autobiographies” as raw material for novels that removed all agency and rationality from their characters (Zambreno 135). The history of women in literature is to be rewritten by men; while women often supplied abundant personal writing, it was considered less substantive than the masculinized versions found in memoirs or lightly fictionalized narratives adapted from typically unpublished sources (Zambreno 262). Lynch subverts this in Twin Peaks, where not only is the “elaborate fantasy system” of a young girl believed; it is investigated as a true “malevolent” force (Phipps). Additionally, Laura’s fears are justified and she is able to name her own killer through her diary (Geller 66). Giving Laura a voice and listening to it is an important part of Twin Peaks, as most works minimize those outside of positions of authority.
The origin of Lynch’s postmodernism?
Moving from the macro view of postmodernism to a micro view of David Lynch as a filmmaker, one can see that Lynch’s oeuvre evolved from modernism’s original rejection of Europe’s pre-World War I era. Lynch diverges from traditional modernism in one large, influential way: he is an American. Where modernists explored the European response to World War I, Lynch’s main points of reference are his childhood in America in the 1950s and its contemporary culture, which Lynch uses to give his audience a “subtle connection to the essential experience of living in [American] culture.” For example, a favored metaphor of European surrealists for the collective unconsciousness was the wide expanse of the ocean. Based on different geographical and historical influences, Americans do not see the ocean as a frontier full of uncertain possibilities. Based on this cultural divergence, Lynch effectively adapts the surrealist metaphor for the unconscious mind from the European ocean to the untamed American forest (Imber). A deep symbolism and a lack of easy explanations pervade Lynch’s work, but the through line of many of his films is the examination of the subconscious, the human psyche and the examination of good and evil (Devlin 11; Wallace 203).
And more (this time with Reagan!):
Postmodern works defy easy or broad interpretation, as can be seen by the different critics who have viewed Twin Peaks as anti-woman and pro-Reagan, while others have seen it as the exact opposite.
Why not some more:
By utilizing production techniques to intentionally blur the line between dreams and reality in Twin Peaks, Lynch is able to focus on the human psyche and influence the audience’s perception of the world on display (Devlin 11). The set dressing of the show, as stated by the series’ Production Designer Richard Hoover, was intended to create a look for the show where “the concepts of inside and outside were conflated.” This was done through prolific use of wood paneling and taxidermied animals to recreate the woods indoors (Nochimson 25). Duality and binaries span a great many aspects of Twin Peaks, reinforced by the opening sequence where superimposed images of nature fade into those of industrialization while the dreamy theme music plays. The “interpenetration of opposites” during this sequence is a subtle visual cue to the audience that the series narrative has a binary structure (Nochimson 26). Once the episodes begin, there are other visual cues and reminders of this structure, including the “geometric twinning” and repeated visual patterns throughout the set design of the series. A specific example of this twinning are the black and white repeating chevron pattern on the floor of the White and Black Lodges, indicating that both may be different, but that they are also connected. The “tessellation” of the Lodge floor is reminiscent of the logic of surrealist visual art, which often uses interlocking images (Devlin 17).
What, you’re in urgent need of a dissection of good and evil?
Lynch’s work can be uncomfortable for the audience because of the underlying message that everyone has the capacity for evil and that good and evil are interconnected (Wallace 208).
The discomfort of the audience is not allayed by the subtle commentary on America and the dominant culture of the era. While Lynch was heavily influenced by the 1950s Americana of his youth, Twin Peaks was conceived of, written and produced during the Reagan/Bush years and was duly influenced by the its contemporary conservative environment (Lafky 16). Both building on this environment and rejecting it, Lynch explores the idea that the superficial is not an accurate reflection of the real truth. Much of the town is hiding dangerous and sordid secrets, ranging from violent child abuse to the sexual affairs to drug use (Nickerson; Marsh). The implication of these secrets, as well as the failure of the human investigation into the crimes in the town, is that the authorities don’t quite know what is happening or how to keep citizens safe;
a little more about transcendentalism and duality:
Stemming in many ways from the morality tales of the nation’s puritan forbearers and transcendentalist philosophers, Twin Peaks tells an ultimately American version of the story of good and evil (Johnson 13; Devlin 11). Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism that itself was a rejection of puritan harshness, championed a philosophy of thoughtfulness and focus on self-discovery and humility. Emerson’s beliefs emphasized that ideal students (or detectives) should seek a holistic understanding of the world at large over precision. In many ways, Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy informs what Lynch brings to Twin Peaks, where one must look “beyond the surface to the unity that lies apart from apparent reality” (Devlin 175). Cooper is not the stereotypical detective; he is intuitive and in touch with his subconscious mind, utilizing many meditative and alternative techniques that focus on understanding over reasoning, which allows him to be open to spiritual discovery (Devlin 176).