On the Absurdity of David Lynch

illustration by Brianna Ashby

IAbsurd Encounter With Fear, a 1967 short film directed by a young art student named David Lynch, a demented, blue-skinned man stalks across a field towards a seated young woman. Though she has her back to him, she cowers with her knees to her chest, and cringes when he looms above her, unzips the fly on his khaki pants, and withdraws handfuls of wildflowers, their roots dangling down his inseam. In time with a snap zoom, his head whips around to stare at the camera, and he falls to the ground, where he lies prone behind the frightened young woman for a full 20 seconds. The entirety of this silent, absurd encounter lasts just over two minutes.

“Absurdity is what I like most in life,” Lynch told The Los Angeles Times 20 years later. “Playing by rules made up by God knows who kinda stinks, but at the same time, it’s fun playing the game.”

It’s a strange world.
—Jeffrey Beaumont (Blue Velvet, 1986)

It’s no surprise that an artist who has created some of the most enigmatic films in the medium’s history would frequently cite his love of the absurd. The fact that these moving nightmares are created by a man whose public persona is almost preternaturally wholesome, from his demeanor to his dress to his speech—peppered with what writer David Breskin once called “aw-shucks Americanisms”—certainly seems absurd.

Most of us could come up with a colloquial definition for absurdity. But in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus defined the term as the feeling we get when our fervent hope that the universe is rational smashes up against our horrified suspicion that we’re specks in a void, wasting a brief and pointless existence. To Camus, the ultimate absurd hero was Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of routine, achieving nothing. To Camus, we are all Sisyphus.

In a comic strip he created for the LA Reader in 1983, Lynch told the story of The Angriest Dog in the World. Each strip is made up of four static panels, three taking place in daytime, and one at night. In the strip, a paralytically enraged dog strains at the end of a leash in the backyard of a suburban home, and in the only varying element, the home’s unseen denizens utter peculiar non-sequiturs (“It must be clear even to the non-mathematician that the things in this world just don’t add up to beans.”)

For nine years, Lynch annotated the same unchanging image each week. “I like the idea that nothing would change,” he told Spin magazine after eight years of this routine. It’s an absurd exercise, particularly for a strip that never found much of a following. But Camus would suggest that in a world that just don’t add up to beans, routines have their place. They distract us. They help us manage our fear of the void.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The world we live in is a world of opposites. And to reconcile those two opposing things is the trick.

—David Lynch, on his paintings

In 1961, Martin Esslin took Camus’ ideas of conflict between our hope and our cosmic terror, and coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd,” identifying several then-current playwrights—Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter—as part of a movement whose work rejected rational storytelling in order to literalize our inability to find meaning in existence. This new movement, which he dubbed absurdism, “has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it” by replacing lucid, motivated characters with ones who are “almost mechanical puppets,” trapping audiences in eerie worlds with familiar outlines but frighteningly disordered details.

David Lynch’s feature debut, Eraserhead, takes place in one of these eerie worlds—in the book-length interview Lynch on Lynch, he places it in “a little bit of an in-between place,” a recurring concept in his work—though the setting is influenced by Philadelphia, the city where, as Lynch said in a New York Times Magazine profile in 1990, “I started to appreciate the absurdity of life.”

In one memorably bizarre sequence, Henry, the film’s anhedonic protagonist, is summoned for dinner with the parents of his girlfriend, Mary X. It’s a stock sitcom premise, but the details are outlandish: Mary and her mother both suffer brief fits, which go largely unacknowledged; Mary’s mother uses the hands of Mary’s catatonic grandmother to toss the salad. At one point, Mary’s father asks his guest, “Well, Henry, whaddaya know?” It’s a relatable ritual of uncomfortable small talk, but it becomes thoroughly alienating as he continues staring at the young man, a blank grin on his face, for nearly a minute.

When Esslin refers to “mechanical puppets,” he couldn’t have wished for a better example than the X family, who seem fully disconnected from their own speech and behavior. And appropriately, as an art student, Lynch had a fondness for painting what he called “mechanical people.”

Quite a lot of breath has been wasted searching for the interpretive key to unlock this cinematic fever dream, much the same way that audiences have spent more than half a century arguing over another work central to Esslin’s theory of absurdism: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Like Lynch’s, Beckett’s characters behave and speak without clear motivation or logic. Esslin, attempting to move the conversation away from solving Godot like a puzzle, compared Beckett’s work to a symphony, with each strange element harmonizing to produce a coherent whole. Similarly, Eraserhead exerts a pull that even its most ardent fans struggle to fully account for, beyond the fact that its inharmonious elements combine to unreasonably pleasing effect. And appropriately, from his days as an art student to his avant-garde play in 1990, Lynch has created what he calls “industrial symphonies.”

Discussing Eraserhead’s dinner scene with the East Village Eye in 1980, Lynch spoke of the pains he took to balance comedy and horror. But, struggling to articulate his process, he summed up his thinking on the scene: “I love absurdity, you know.”

You’re wrong when you think this is all a little bit of a bad dream. Do you see that? See, if I were to tell you what was really happening…

—Girl #2 (Cerina Vincent)
Darkened Room, David Lynch, 2002

Among the hallmarks of absurdism, Esslin identifies a “radical devaluation of language.” Absurdist characters will use words for noise rather than sense, creating stress in audiences trained to integrate a play’s language with its purpose. In the centerpiece of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, two mysterious agents interrogate the protagonist for unexplained reasons, breaking his will through a barrage of nonsense. You stuff yourself with dry toast. You contaminate womankind. What about Ireland? The scene has the feel of an espionage thriller, but the familiar becomes distressing as we realize language has lost its connection to meaning.

For most of us, language is our best shot at communication. Without it, we’re lost. But Lynch has never had much use for the stuff. In Lynch on Lynch, he refers to words as shapes and textures, and dialogue as sound effects. His characters’ speech tends to be blunt, as though the necessity of words to propel his stories is a necessary evil, and whenever possible, he moves towards language that’s more inscrutably ominous.

Lynch’s short film series, Rabbits, exhibits a distinctly Pinteresque use of language. In an underlit parody of a sitcom, complete with a three-walled set and cheerful, unseen audience, three humanoid rabbits perform domestic rituals while uttering flat non-sequiturs: I am going to find out one day. When will you tell it? Were there any calls? What time is it? [audience laughter]. Pinter characterized The Birthday Party as “A Comedy of Menace.” Lynch takes the idea to the extreme, using the form of a comedy to create formless menace, and among the most unaccountably upsetting elements is our inability to parse the rabbits’ behavior through our comfortable mode of communication. That irreconcilability is absurdly terrifying.

There’s a sense of the Freudian uncanny running through the absurdists. Their works contain just enough recognizable structure to keep them from collapsing into unwatchable abstraction, making the inexplicable elements even more distressing. The same could easily be said of Lynch, who values story even as his works take us to the edge of insanity. Like the absurdists, he brings us to the void to remind us it’s there and invite us to laugh into it.

I guess the central idea is, you know, life in darkness and confusion—and I’m certainly there: lost in darkness and confusion.

—David Lynch 

Beyond stylistic traditions, absurdism is united by the way it forces audiences to grapple with our urge to despair, and much of The Myth of Sisyphus deals with the appropriateness of one particular solution: suicide. Does it make any type of sense, Camus asks, to surrender to hopelessness and leave a world that operates with no guiding hand?

Mulholland Drive ends with a panicked Diane abruptly putting a gun to her head and ending a dreamlike story with a brutal shock. The most common reading of this mystifying film suggests that Diane has had her lover assassinated, and now finds herself in a spiral of guilt and grief. But Diane’s suicide is not a premeditated decision. Instead, she’s driven to the brink by a physical manifestation of the hopelessness of her existence.

A cheerful elderly couple appears several times across the film. They smile with a guileless Diane (or her fantasy doppelganger Betty) in the opening sequence, and soon after, we see them at LAX, wishing Diane-as-Betty all the best in her new life, implicitly promising that life will be worth living. When we see them again in the film’s final moments—the only passage taking place in “the real world,” according to common interpretation—they’re 2 inches tall, giggling as they slip into existence, wriggle under Diane’s door, grow to full height, and chase Diane through her apartment, still laughing, but now unspeakably threatening as they reach out for this screaming, broken woman. When she fumbles for the gun, Diane isn’t pondering her guilt. She’s blank with terror in the face of a universe that’s finally revealed as nonsensical.

Mulholland Drive is among Lynch’s most unrestrainedly personal visions, but this ending links it across two decades with his first work-for-hire job.

Lynch didn’t write the original draft of The Elephant Man, but he substantially reshaped the script when he signed on to direct this life story of the famously, physically abnormal John Merrick. While he professes not to remember which inventions came from which writer, we can say two things for sure: Lynch’s telling of the story is unique in depicting Merrick’s death as suicide, and Lynch has admitted that the preproduction is the only time he has seriously considered ending his own life.

Due to the weight of his head, Merrick slept sitting up, propped by a pile of pillows. On the night of his death he slept without pillows, and in every other telling of the story, including the two nonfiction books credited as the basis for the film, his death is ruled accidental. The account by Merrick’s doctor and friend Frederick Treves, backed up in a 1971 biography by Ashley Montagu, suggests that “he must, with some determination, have made the experiment” to sleep like other people.

In Lynch’s telling, there can be little doubt that Merrick’s death is purposeful. In the film’s closing sequence, a traumatic series of trials ends in catharsis with Merrick experiencing a night of theater in his honor, and a packed house rising to their feet to applaud him. He returns to his room, heart soaring, removes his pillows, lies down, and his labored breathing stops almost instantly. While there’s no explicit acknowledgment, everything about Lynch’s direction indicates that Merrick has decided this will be his final night.

Whereas Diane’s death is an act of despair, Merrick’s seems much closer to an act of hope. Diane dies overwhelmed by the horror of existence, while Merrick seems to have held on long enough to see the goodness of humanity confirmed, and can now die fulfilled. The fact that this choice was made by a director wrestling his own urge for oblivion makes the interpretation all the more poignant.

But while these two philosophically divergent suicides feel of a piece with his career, there’s another mode of ending that feels more distinctly Lynchian, and it’s that mode that may reveal why Lynch, despite his love of absurdity, isn’t counted among the absurdists.

When things go wrong, it gets like this. I couldn’t see. It was so bright. I didn’t know where I was. Everything was almost stationary. There was water. And a boat. And then someone was pouring gasoline. Essential beauty, I thought. I was so tired. I thought, Nature contains many mysteries.

—unnamed woman (Emily Stofle)
Boat, David Lynch, 2007

From his earliest films to his most recent, a Lynchian ending will often feature a tormented protagonist achieving a sort of transcendence. It’s the mode of ending for Eraserhead, in which Henry is embraced by an abstract figure of innocence amid a wash of light. There are shades of it in The Grandmother, in which the anguished young protagonist thrashes in bed until his pain causes some sort of gnarled plant to explode from his back. There are shades of it in the phantasmagoric montage that closes Inland Empire, in which multiple versions of Nikki Grace travel through some kind of purgatory before she ends up dazed and awed in a quintessentially Lynchian otherworldly space.

In this preferred mode of ending, Lynch connects his work with that of the writer he cites in Lynch on Lynch as “the one artist that I feel could be my brother.” He doesn’t bring up Beckett, Pinter, or any other absurdist. He brings up Franz Kafka.

He doesn’t say much more on the subject, but Camus writes at length about Kafka in The Myth of Sisyphus. While Kafka is an author unmistakably interested in the absurdity of existence, something sets him apart in Camus’ eyes from the philosophy that Esslin would later cite as uniting the absurdists. While other purveyors of the absurd present life’s meaninglessness without comment, Kafka’s work is built on a word that Camus uses repeatedly in discussing him: hope. As concerned as Kafka is with absurdity, Camus writes, he’s equally concerned with the “implacable nobility” of the human condition, and his stories tell “the essential adventure of a soul in quest of its grace.” This sentiment is relevant to what’s undoubtedly Lynch’s most harrowing work, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

In this prequel to his influential ABC series, Lynch details the last few days of all-American teenager Laura Palmer, a character he often speaks of feeling a particular connection to, and whose death opens and defines the show. Lynch spends the next two hours documenting something like her spiritual destruction, culminating in her death at the hand of her demonically possessed father, a scene rendered with such abstract viciousness that it’s close to unwatchable.

But the film continues beyond Laura’s death. After several supernatural characters meet in the Red Room—the prototypical Lynchian in-between place—and exchange a substance representing pain and sorrow, Laura finds herself there, accompanied by Dale Cooper, the singularly virtuous FBI agent tasked with finding closure for her death. He lays a hand on her shoulder as she looks up and begins to weep and laugh at the sight of a winged, robed angel descending from the darkness above. Laura’s torment is at an end, and rather than a universe with no meaning, she seems to discover there’s a meaning beyond human comprehension, and she passes into whatever’s next, accompanied by representatives of hope and grace. There is much absurdity in the universe of Twin Peaks, but when he stepped away (at least for 25 years), Lynch left this work on a note of transcendence that elevates it beyond absurdism.

It was a combination of fear and hope. Those two things were always battling.

—David Lynch, on his first original artistic thought

Like absurdity, transcendence is a word for which it’s easy to summon a colloquial definition, but it’s much more difficult to pin down precisely. Many of us might imagine a soul ascending, rising above the corporeal self. But for David Lynch, the word means the opposite.

Since the days of Eraserhead, Lynch has been a vocal proponent of Transcendental Meditation. He practices it twice a day, even while on set, and credits that practice with controlling his anger, and preparing his mind to create the dark fantasies he shares with the world. In his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish, a slim work of nonfiction comprising 84 chapters ranging in length from a sentence to just under three pages, Lynch discusses the concept of transcendence frequently, and when he does, he refers to diving within. Transcending, to Lynch and other practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, means exploring the deepest parts of one’s own self, searching for what he calls the Unified Field, a level of consciousness so deep that reaching it can unlock something like bliss.

Lynch opens and closes his book with a line paraphrased from the Bhagavad Gita: “True happiness lies within.” The universe surrounding us may well be random. We may well be specks tumbling through the dark—another recurring image in Lynch’s work—but if we can burrow away from that impersonal universe and into ourselves, we may have a shot at finding a word he uses frequently throughout the book, and wishes for each of us in the penultimate chapter: peace.

There’s suffering and darkness and confusion and absurdities, and it’s people kind of going in circles. It’s fantastic. It’s like a strange carnival: It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of pain.

—David Lynch on the world

But perhaps we’d best not draw a definitive conclusion on David Lynch’s relationship with the absurd.

Among the most legendary of unmade films is Ronnie Rocket, a script Lynch has been trying to shoot for 40 years. When asked in Lynch on Lynch what Ronnie Rocket is about, he simply quotes the script’s subtitle: “It’s about the absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence.”

He doesn’t say any more about what this eventual film might feel like. But it’s safe to say this strange carnival he’s got us lost in probably isn’t finished quite yet.