LAWS IN THE WORLD OF DAVID LYNCH are unnatural but do not lead to order, and things disordered lapse into “thingness.” This should be one of Lynch’s favorite words, lent to him in that book by Dennis Lim: “In his own speech—and in the speech patterns of his films, with their gnomic pronouncements and recurring mantras—the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature.” Write down the “academic definition” of “Lynchian,” suggested and sent-up by David Foster Wallace in his notes from the set of Lost Highway, and then I’ll never say “Lynchian” again: “[It] refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Now say the word macabre over and over, silently or aloud to yourself, until the word has lost all definition to become a void, a nothing, a prenatal lump of sound. Now try it with human.
The man who taught us binomial nomenclature, as in Homo + sapiens, divided humanity into four squares, or “races,” extrapolated in a fucked-up way from the “four humors” of more ancient thought. He was a Swedish doctor and botanist who lived in the seventeenth century under the name Linnaeus, and he decided that Americans were Americanus (red, choleric, upright), Europeans were Europeaus (white, sanguine, muscular), Asians were Asiaticus (pale yellow, melancholic, stiff), and Africans were Afer (black, phlegmatic, relaxed). Four, the number of limbs, seasons, and elements, has remained the magic number of inter-human difference, as with the four major archetypes discovered by Carl Jung, and the four dichotomies, combining to make possible sixteen types, in the Myers-Briggs personality test. (Lynch would be, I think, a medium-rare type of person: Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving, known for “revealing [his] beauty and [his] secrets through metaphors and fictional characters,” according to the third website that appeared to me when I googled “INFP.”) But Linné, as he was called after his ennoblement, in a codicil that basically deconstructed his legacy, added two absurd bonus types: ferus for the feral or “wild boys,” and monstorus for the deformed and the freaks found in folk tales. When I learned this, I felt the way Foucault says he felt when he read a Borges fable, a spoof on taxonomy, written as if excerpted from “a certain Chinese encyclopaedia” wherein animals are those “belonging to the Emperor,” or those who are “fabulous,” those who are “stray dogs,” those who “have just broken the water pitcher,” and so on. “In the wonderment of this [fictional] taxonomy,” writes Foucault, so beginning The Order of Things (1966), “the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own.” We don’t have to read Foucault, or even Borges, though, to feel our limits, since they begin with our dreams.
Among the menagerie of pet theories I’ve kept from my childhood, a sentimental favorite is that dreams are just pieces of the day, unprocessed or left on the cutting-room floor, swept up and viewed in a kaleidoscope. Maybe the order is deranged, fragmentary, and synesthetic, but there can be nothing in my dream that wasn’t already in my head. As for dreams being illogical or strange, it’s simply a matter of being free from the unreasonable expectation that life, and the things in it, will make sense. The other day I bought in-ear headphones decorated with little skulls, and found that both headphones were marked R, requiring me to have two right ears. “Weird,” I thought. But in a dream, I would have thought nothing. This is why we say that works by Lynch are dreamlike, because sometimes we don’t know what to think. What, for instance, do we think about the one pale horse who appeared to Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks before Madeleine died, and who appears again as a figure in The Return, once in the Black Lodge and once in Las Vegas as the namesake of the Silver Mustang Casino? Coincidence, dream-symbol, or mere déjà vu?
Pale people, we can say with more certainty, are not woke but dreaming. In the funniest bit of Twin Peaks (1990), a lady named Gwen, sister of Lucy, surmises to Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse, who, like his character, is American Indian) that given what they’ve done to his tribe, he must really hate whites. Hawk neither startles nor hesitates. “Some of my best friends are white people,” he says. A decade or two later, this would be an obvious joke. At the time it was perfect, part sincere. Lynch takes the stereotyped stoic American Indian and imbues his silences not with some mystic wisdom but with a down-to-earth amusement that befits a man burdened by history and tasked with protecting innocence in adults. That views on whiteness from elsewhere are entirely determined by the actions, behaviors, and thoughts of white people themselves is a ludicrous, too-common assumption. (It says more about the people who assume it, about their taste for vengeances, their grudges, similar to how what a critic says about a show can say more about the critic than the show, an old truism I haven’t found a reason to contradict.) This isn’t to say that Lynch’s views on nonwhite characters are unproblematic, rather that they are problematic in two senses, both the more current definition (offensive, troubling) and the more original one (merely troublesome), the additive effect being that his non-sense, unlike so much “white nonsense,” is worth thinking about.
Hawk is now deputy chief in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department, and on the third and fourth hours of The Return, playing on Showtime, he grapples with a directive from the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson, may she rest in pines). “There is something missing,” says the Log, by way of the Lady. “Something,” that is, “to do with [his] heritage.” Puzzled and willing to play the game, Hawk unburies the box of case files and calls in Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Brennan (née Moran, played with breathtaking continuity by Kimmy Robertson), who are deputy and secretary, respectively. Lynch and Frost’s scripts are like two-player games of word association, and the word here is clueless. “Your heritage,” says Lucy, slow and tremulous. “You’re . . . Indian?” Her particularly white way of being afraid that just saying a name is calling a name is, in this case, ironically justified. Hawk looks at her slowly. We see what he’s not saying. He says, “Yes.” It’s easy to make Anglo-Saxons, in the presence of a token or tokenized character, seem like the tolerant ones. Here the tolerance is all on Hawk’s side, and though the figure of him remains tokenized, a requisite nod to the precolonial history of town and country, the actor’s intelligence gives him an out-of-body aspect, and he glides above tokenization. When I said last week that almost no humans would seek representation in Lynch’s world, it was an exaggeration, and besides, the opposite is true about actors: Who wouldn’t want to be set loose on screen by this guy?
The fourth hour of The Return, destined to be an all-time fan favorite, brings us the only child of Andy and Lucy. As Lucy tells it, Cooper wanted the son to be named Marlon Brando, after the legend whose love affair with the American Indian is never forgotten, and at birth the couple compromised and named him Wally, Wally Brando. Boy, does he (Michael Cera) live up to that choice. Showing up unannounced on a motorcycle, clad in a punk-ass black leather jacket, a white-and-navy ringer tee, and an oversize army beret, Wally has transcended the decades to embody at least a quarter-century of boy-teen rebellion. He has roamed the country, he has a strong sense of dharma, and his idiolect is a very fine whine. “From Alexandria, Virginia, to Stockton, California,” he nasally muses, “I think about Lewis, and about his friend Clark, the first Caucasians to see this part of the world.” He enunciates each morpheme in “Caucasian,” such that it rhymes with Abkhazian. Kaw-kay-zee-uhn. Try it. Try not to laugh. Also, Wally informs his parents, in the deposed-royal manner of a fifth-generation middle-class American, that he will permit them to turn his childhood bedroom, which he has not seen in years, into a study. The Brennans respond like listeners of a classic pop radio show who have just been informed they’ve won the keys to a timeshare in South Florida and two vouchers for dinner at P.F. Chang’s.
Wally is right about Lewis and Clark, who were among the first white people to belong in the Kaw-kay-zee-uhn era. Less than a decade before the two stepped all over America, one Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a doctor and anthropologist in Göttingen, Deutschland, elaborated on the work of Carl Linné and reclassified as “varieties” the humans he saw. Unlike his more racist peers and successors, says Nell Irvin Painter in her empathetic, well-limned treatise The History of White People (2010), Blumenbach did not assort humans by race or assign to the races differing, unequal abilities, intelligences, and virtues, unless you count beauty a virtue: He chose, for the “variety” to which he himself would belong, the name “Caucasian,” because he felt that the people of Caucasus, a loose braid of mountains around Georgia, had the most elegant bones in their heads. Painter notes that the “unblemished young woman’s skull” from which he drew this conclusion had resonances with the old white-slave trade, one in which “the figure of the slave is invariably female, always young, emphatically white—sometimes even blonde—and invariably beautiful”––a real Laura Palmer, in other words, one who “usually comes from Georgia or the Caucasus.” An upside to his superficiality was that, having organized peoples by color, he began to see their differences not in squares but on a gradient, the way we’d later see sexuality, or sanity. Nevertheless, it was pure white entitlement. It wasn’t that Blumenbach was given the first choice of skulls, nor that he stole the skulls, exactly, only that he happened to pick out the prettiest skulls; he also liked that all skulls were themselves “white in color, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive color of mankind.”
There is something morbid and wonderful, as well as dastardly, about Blumenbach’s choice. When I said that Lynch appropriates whiteness, rendering it less flesh than guise, a naive costume, I was remembering that more than once he gave white actors “whiteface” with old-fashioned pancake makeup, most memorably in Lost Highway (1997). I was thinking that the whiteness of Twin Peaks was something like a skull mask worn over the face, a skeleton worn over the body on Halloween. Had I spent much time as a teen getting oppressed on the basis of being white and bony, I would perhaps be offended. Today white knuckleheads are always logging on to different websites to fret about oppression that has yet to exist, especially “white genocide,” by which is meant the declining birthrate among descendants of European whites, and which sounds more like white suicide, to which we have been led by our freedoms, like the sexual ones. As a woman of childbearing age and ability, I have been accused by my own youngest brother of being too ambitious, self-absorbed, and vain to further my race by becoming pregnant with another white fetus. Unfortunately, it’s beyond me to care whether so-called Caucasians have plenteous futures. For my people to die in vainness and sterility, aided by pills, would be appropriate, desirable, and not bad. I welcome our fate.
But before fate, nostalgia. Lynch, a shapeshifter who appears as a perfect square of a man, loves to pack and unpack the boxy, obsessive, even maniacal systems of classification (for identity, and thus for derangement) and storage (for pride, and for loss) that line the halls of the past, and to dwell on the backwardness that often now accompanies the nostalgic. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), after a long and stressful journey through consciousness, lands on earth in his body; his mind, and his shoes, are left on the plane. Worse, there are more than two Coopers, for lack of a better term. One, the real bad one, Mr. C, has failed to show up for his scheduled return to the Black Lodge, and is alive in a prison cell. Sent in his place is another one, a licentious and chintzy-looking real-estate agent named Dougie Jones, whose mortal coil is compressed into a tiny golden nugget, leaving only a significant jade ring. Yet the person of Dougie remains, husband to a stressed-out, underweight woman named Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and father to the eight-year-old Sonny Jim Jones (Pierce Gagnon).
We meet Mr. Jones on an exurban tract-housing project in a development named Rancho Rosa, the two Rs recalling the Double R Diner of yore, in a beige-carpeted bedroom where light falls through the slats like on the set of a black-and-white noir; the shot, however, looks like a recent photograph by Torbjørn Rødland. He’s in the arms of an extremely pretty prostitute named Jade (Nafessa Williams), posed like the Venus Anadyomene, her black skin all bared. What she brings is such stomach-dropping eroticism that I have no clue whether I’m meant to be shocked. I can only suggest that, in the moment, MacLachlan has never looked more like the kind of Caucasian who needs a pocket calculator to tally his Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish heritage. Jade, another tolerant professional of color, emerges from her post-work shower to find that Dougie, prostrate on the carpet, has been replaced by Coop. She’s at a loss to ascertain where her client got “that suit . . . and that haircut,” but assumes by his abandonment of most functions that he’s had a stroke and drops him off at the Silver Mustang Casino, saying, “Call for help.”
Long scenes transpire in which Cooper may as well be an alien. Like the brother from another planet in the 1984 John Sayles film by that name, he has an unexplained power over things that plug into the wall, and simply by pointing at the slot machines, he wins twenty-nine jackpots. Like the invading body snatchers in both the 1956 Don Siegel film and the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake, he seems fated, despite this life-changing fortune, to end up a pod person. It is to the bright, clean, well-appointed life of the Joneses that he returns. We can’t keep up, but neither can he. Unable to speak except to repeat what’s literally just been said to him, he lights up for the first time at the breakfast table in the spacious eat-in kitchen. “Here’s your coffee,” says Janey-E, handing him a mug that says, in block letters, THIS IS DOUGIE’S COFFEE. “Coffee!” he gasps. Watching this the first time I sighed with relief, thinking it was all a bad joke about not being yourself before that first cup of coffee in the morning. Alas—he takes one sip and, like a goddamn baby, spits it out.
By now I can see that it might be annoying to watch anyone, even Kyle MacLachlan, perform some enormous difficulty in being a straight, cissexual, employed, married, (relatively) able-bodied, blah blah blah white male. The more you dwell on it, the more perverse is the truth that white men discovered alienation. Better to think about white men’s greatest invention, other than Venetian blinds, lipstick in a tube, and the guillotine, and that is: romance. The beautiful scam! I’m obsessed. There is no more individuating force than romantic love, as I have said a thousand times or, at the very least, once. This is why we see on daytime soap operas decades-long plots revolving around the supposition that two identical white women, played by literally the same actress, are opposites on the inside. Lynch, in his soap-loving bones, is as romantic and Romantic as Blumenbach was. He’s a Double R romantic, we could say.
Case, point: Remember Denise, the top federal agent and trans woman with every reason to be proud, played with sly aplomb by David Duchovny? There was scant discourse on gender to greet her appearance in 1990, and there is discourse galore awaiting her reappearance now, yet the show needs no change. Anyone who self-actualizes and looks better doing it is fine and has always been fine by Lynch. “When you became Denise,” says Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, who is Lynch himself, “I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.” Unhelped by his hearing aid, Cole shouts this as he does most things, but here in a meter that edges on iambic, doubling the line’s sudden wham. Lynch in director mode can be less than present, relinquishing control to the aleatory and straying so far off the beat that the beat is a memory, so that when he does match a line to the pulse, it’s shockingly great.
Later, Cole and Agent Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer), fresh from a visit to the imprisoned Mr. C., who is pretending to be an undercover Cooper, are standing outside. “Blue rose,” says Rosenfeld. “Blue rose,” as we know, is Cole’s code term for especially tricky and transmundane cases. The term first appeared in the literal, as a poly-silk corsage on a woman’s red dress in Fire Walk with Me, and no one could say what it meant, like how the proto-Romantic German poet Novalis, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s 2014 novelization of his life, The Blue Flower, knows only that it’s all he needs to know. “It doesn’t get any bluer,” says Cole. It really doesn’t. The anomalous, gelid blue that douses the frame doesn’t come from the sky behind the men, rather from the tinted window of the Lincoln Town Car, a tint known as Gasser, after a breed of 1970s muscle car, but to me recalling Gass, William Gass, and his On Being Blue (1975). Hell, he says in the book, has gas-blue flames, and on earth everything empty is blue, but so are human interiors. These connections weren’t planned for me, but sparked. Lynch does it again: a blue tuned to a frequency that cracks the protective glass between what you’re seeing and you.
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return: