Monday, 10 April 2017

Twin Peaks as a Gnostic Text

The widely over-rated film director David Lynch, with his annoyingly high-pitched voice and ridiculous hair-do (see here), is regularly accredited with having devised and created the cult television serial Twin Peaks - as in the phrase "David Lynch's Twin Peaks" - when in fact he had comparatively  little to do with it. He provided some initial creative guidance, wrote a few episodes and directed a few others, and at one time took cameo roles among the cast, but the qualities that have raised the series to cult status were almost entirely the work of co-creator, television writer and novelist, the much under-rated Mark Frost. This should have become plain to viewers when Lynch released his Twin Peak's prequel feature-length movie Fire Walk With Me after the television series had concluded. The movie lacked all the virtues that made the series cultish viewing. Quite rightly, it was savaged by critics, booed at Cannes and left Twin Peaks enthusiasts deeply disappointed. It revealed Lynch's interests for what they are: sordid sociology weirded up with some gratuitous surrealism. His initial contribution to the Twin Peaks series was signalled in the earlier film, Blue Velvet - beneath the thin veneer of middle-class American respectability is an ugly sociology of inter-personal violence. 

As with so much cinema this really amounts to little more than self-righteous voyeurism, and then you add some surrealism and ultra-close-ups to make it Art House. This is where Twin Peaks begins. You take a sleepy American timber-logging town and then you expose its seedier underbelly. Big deal. The homecoming Queen had a dark side. But it was Mark Frost who pushed the envelope. It was Mark Frost who took this tawdry Lynchian premise and pushed it beyond sociology into the cosmic dimension, which is precisely what makes the series interesting. No doubt Lynch contributed dream sequences and the surreality of unconscious realities imposing upon daytime normality. We are not suggesting Lynch's contribution was unimportant. But, as his novels make clear, it was Mr Frost who infused this pretentious Lynchian surreality with the structures of occultism and who thereby turned Twin Peaks, across its two seseasons, into a contemporary gnostic text.

Gnostic, in the sense it is used here, is just meant as a by-word for dualistic. It means to see the world through a dualistic lens, to see the world as an arena in which two forces compete and in doing so create the drama of life. Primarily, of course, there is the contest of good and evil, but by extension other polarities too. The present author is known to inveigh against the limitations of such a world-view in many contexts, and rightly so, but only insomuch as gnostic dualism leaves polarities unresolved. No one denies the drama, but there must be resolution. Non-dualism, in any case - the orthodox resolution proposed by Plato, Hindooism and others - is not, after all, an anti-dualism, nor even a monism. Non-dualism only proposes that dualisms are apparent but not final, though they are real enough on their own level. Let this post be testimony that this writer - for all his anti-gnostic prattle - is not unaware that the moon, in some of her phases, is both black and white.

The chief aspect that renders Twin Peaks a gnostic text, then, is its incessant preoccupation with duality. It is textured at every level with dualities and polarities drawn from arcane esoteric traditions all the way through to pop culture allusions. There are references to Tibetan Boodhism and to Madam Blavatsky all the way through to the two incarnations of the heroine, Laura Palmer/Maddy Ferguson, as the good girl/bad girl duality of the Patty Duke Show from '60s TV, and one is blonde and the other is brunette for good measure. Duality - cosmic, eschatological, moral, spiritual - is the abiding theme of the entire edifice and is signalled, of course, in the very title, Twin Peaks. For Lynch the 'twins' of the duality are the inside and the outside, the veneer and the underbelly, of small-town America, along with a Freudian interest in the secret sordidness and primal violence of seemingly civilized beings. 

Thankfully, Mark Frost amplifies this and extends it to further dimensions. He takes the dualities beyond their American particularities to the archetypal. Frost, that is, plays Jung to Lynch's Freud. If the series is textured with depth psychology rather than just a creepy psychoanalysis it is because of Frost's contribution, not that of David Lynch. Often in the cut-aways between scenes - among wind through the trees and traffic lights changing in the lonesome emptiness of night - we are presented with images of a cold half-moon. This is Mr Frost's dualist signifier. In one particularly telling case early in the second series we see, firstly, the perfect half-moon, and then we cut to the sign of the Twin Peak's diner, the Double R. We are being told that the cosmic duality of the half-moon extends all the way into the structures of human society. The name of the diner, RR, of course, is dualistic in itself - as much as the 'twin' in 'Twin Peaks' - but we are suddenly aware that its duality, its doubling, is an expression of the very structures of the cosmos. Specifically, the double R letters point to the mysterious 'Red Room' in which the otherworldly encounters take place (noting here also the allusion, among many others - Amerindians etc. - to Kubrik's horror classic 'The Shining' with its word-play on 'Red Rum', the word "murder" spelled backwards.) The ghouls of Twin Peak's demonology feed upon the pain and fear and suffering of humans. This psychic food is called 'garmonbozia' which, in its manifest form, appears like the humble down-home American fare creamed corn. The Double R, then, is the polar opposite to the Red Room. The Double R prepares meals of creamed corn to be distributed throughout the town by the Meals of Wheels service by Laura Palmer and others - the Red Room is its evil opposite, the diner of demons, where they feed on the shadow-food of 'garmonbozia'. If creamed corn is an all-American comfort food, garmonbozia is its vile, insidious shadow, its mirror image. 

We see, then, duality piled upon duality, and it finally becomes explicit in the Blavatskean device of the Black and White Lodges, two occult structures embodying good and evil, that are revealed late in the second season. There can be no doubt that this is an element added by Frost because his novels show an explicit interest in exactly this gnostic mythology. We remember, too, that Madam Blavatsky located her Black and White Lodges among the 'Secret Chiefs' and 'Ascended Masters' who reside, she claimed, in the spiritually potent nether-realms of mystic Tibet. And we realise, at that point, that the Tibetan motifs that recur throughout the television series - a wholesome interest in Lamaism that both deepens and distorts the character of Agent Cooper (even Lucy is reading a book about Tibet) - belong to Mr Frost as well. This quirkiness is all Mark Frost. 

For many casual viewers, of course, it all veered off the map and became just too weird; they were intrigued by the murder mystery and took the usual voyueristic pleasure in discovering Laura Palmer's double life, but they did not expect the soap opera genre to be taken to the places it was taken here, and large numbers of them refused to follow. Ratings crashed in the second season. The TV executives - a loathesome breed of feeble-minded scum at the best of times - insisted that the killer be revealed prematurely, and the whole enterprise limped to an ignoble conclusion. Demons, possession, mirrors. The endearing underpinning of the counter-program, soap opera within a soap opera, Invitation to Love, which had punctuated the first season was dropped through time constraints. The game of chess (with its black/white duality) never really added the further levels of symbolism it promised to do.  Mr Lynch's Fire Walk With Me - which reduced the entire thing to a grubby story about incest - was the final travesty. In the end - as gnostic text and as television - it becomes a beautiful failure. It might have been so much more. 

As well as what appeared on screen, though, the very process of production needs to be considered in all its gnostic overtones as well. It seems likely that Lynch had decided from the outset that Laura's father would be the killer - the father-as-abuser is the feminist stereotype of our times and was waiting to be exploited at the centre of the zeitgeist of the 1980s especially - but many other elements of the series unfolded over time without being preordained. Lynch's surrealist film-making instincts added some useful elements (the character Bob, it is said, emerged from an image of a set hand mistakenly appearing in a film take and Lynch liked it's serendipity) and other random factors introduced some key aspects of the final production. But Frost and his team of co-writers (sometimes but usually not including Lynch) engaged in a creative process that can only be described as supra-rational as they gave the characters and the story an inner life of its own. One of the writers, Harley Peyton, reported that speculative concerns about motive and plot were as important as the writer's intentions. He commented:

Once we made or wrote something, it was out of our hands. And the incredible amount of speculation that followed was -- and is -- in my opinion, every bit as valid as what appeared on the screen. And let me reiterate one point, the writers were often speculating right along with the audience, and in this way, many of the characters evolved into more complex creations. And sometimes, it just seemed to blossom out of nothing. We would take character names from movies we liked, join them together, and others would take those names as some kind of sign. And would then speculate and ruminate on the various implied meanings. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But most of the time...

This is a description of a dynamic creative process suited to symbolic texts. You cannot successfully plot symbols in a deliberate fashion with ratiocinative modes. The half moon juxtaposed with the Double R diner is heavy-handed enough, but it comes in between scenes as a type of symbolic summary. For the most part it seems that the occultism of Twin Peaks unfolded through symbols and symbolic themes that were pursued, in and of themselves, in a type of 'pathworking' where even the executive producers and the screen writers do not know where they are heading. There is the sustained classical dualism of comedy/tragedy providing an encompassing structure to the whole, and all involved are bound by those structures (the comedy/tragedy structure is very primitive, after all), but otherwise the creative process itself becomes a type of shamanic undertaking. 

Agent Cooper is the shaman of the series. He moves between the worlds. (The owls - who bring the vision of day into the darkness of night - are not what they seem.) The question then becomes whether Agent Cooper was in fact lured to Twin Leaks by the Black Lodge through the device of Laura Palmer's murder? It would seem that this possibility only occured to the writers too late and that they themselves were unwitting accomplices in this design, a case where - quite unknown to them - a cigar was not just a cigar. The symbolism of wood is all-important in an occult soap opera set in a timber milling town. Josy Packard's spirit becomes trapped in a wooden drawer knob - hylomorphism of the crudest kind. (Are the writer's aware that the Greek word for matter hylo means, literally wood, and in Greek Gnostic texts carries the connotation of the evil principle opposed to spirit?) The judge warns that the woods around the town are majestic, yes, but strange. And a cooper, after all, is a man who makes vessels from wood. 

The writers of the series were also no doubt unwitting when the series ended with the ghost of Laura Palmer telling Agent Cooper that she would see him again in twenty-five years. They could not have conspired to know that twenty-five years later a third season would come into production and would air on American television in May 2017. 

Harper McAlpine Black

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