When I saw David Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, at a midnight showing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in early 1981, it blew my seventeen-year-old mind in ways I have yet to recover from. Twin Peaks forever rewired the circuitry of the apparatus I use to scan and interpret American life. And I’m just going to totally nerd out and confess that I’ve seen Lynch’s 1983 adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune, at least five times and never failed to totally dig it.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell said, “needs a constant struggle.” Think about that. To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. Traumatized, perhaps, by the unremitting grim truths of evolution and human history, the human mind—that ancient, dubious assemblage of learned and inherent biases, habits of sensory triage, and cognitive rules of thumb—has become resistant to truth. This doubtful gift of being able to ignore the cold, hard, cheerless facts of existence allows us, as individuals and as nations, to be continually surprised by calamities, defeats, and disasters that in hindsight ought to have been—were—obvious all along. When the ice caps melt and the lowlands flood and species collapse and Earth turns inhospitable, those who survive will look back and say, How could they have missed this? How could they not have known? Wasn’t it obvious? And the answer, of course, will be, It needs a constant struggle to see what is in front of one’s nose. A constant struggle: who has the strength, or the time, for that? Those among us who are equal to that struggle we call prophets, and in general we treat such people very shabbily.
And that’s just when it comes to the plain truths, the indisputable data, the behaviors that speak for themselves. If seeing even those things requires constant struggle, what about the ambiguities? What about the hidden truths, the buried drives and desires? The things that lie beyond distant doorways, behind the curtains of dreams, deep in the sea-bottoms of memory? Who’s going to see all that while you’re busy looking just past the Orwellian tip of your nose?
Over the past half century, no one has taken a harder, clearer look behind those doors, beyond those curtains, and into those deep oceans than David Lynch. “My childhood,” Lynch has famously said, “was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out—some black, some yellow—and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”
To see the ooze and the swarm, the weird in the everyday, the horror just beneath the ordinary surface of things, the freak show in the supermarket, and, even more powerfully, to find dark beauty in that freakiness and horror—I want to extend Orwell’s dictum and say that this, too, needs a constant struggle. And yet, that isn’t really true. The moments when we manage to see what’s in front of our noses—say, the racism and misogyny that undergird our most powerful institutions—are rare, and hard-won. Some of us never manage those moments at all. But each of us—even those who might walk past that cherry tree a hundred times and never see the raging boil of ants, even those of us who try to maintain a healthy distance between ourselves and the freaks and the horrors—every single one of us slips into the weird with astonishing freedom, every single night of our lives, and it requires no struggle at all.
“In dreams,” Roy Orbison sings, so memorably, on the soundtrack of Blue Velvet. In our nightly dreams—our dark, beautiful, horrifying dreams—we are all David Lynch. Our gaze is unflinching and patient and curious, uncensored, reporting back dispassionately on the blue-velvet violence of our thoughts and the deeply strange organ that thinks them. In dreams, once we’ve been visited by that candy-colored clown they call the sandman, as Orbison Lynchesquely put it, we all gaze without flinching through the depths of our darkest fears and wishes, behind the curtains and doorways of the daytime rationalizations and evasions and taboos.
That part’s easy; the struggle comes when someone tries to wrestle those night truths, into the light. I’m not talking about the use of forced perspective, Dutch angles, overreliance on dwarfs and shadow puppets and talking animals and all the other conventions that artists—including David Lynch—have employed over the years in an ultimately doomed attempted to capture the “dreaminess” of dreams. To be honest, I kind of hate that stuff. I’m the guy who fast-forwards through dream sequences in movies and skips to the end of dream paragraphs in books. The truth of a dream is not in its dreamlike quality: the truth of a dream is a tree bleeding ants, a night truth oozing through into the waking world, unseen not because of our vanity or self-delusion or fear but because we spend so much of our waking lives sleepwalking, eyes open but blind to the weirdness of the waking world, preserved by the saving hand of repression from anything that might come along and give us a dangerous shake. We call the people who try to jolt us out of our somnambulism artists, and in general we don’t treat them a whole lot better than we do our prophets.
For the past forty years, David Lynch has been shaking us with his art, aiming our gazes to the night truths of the world, to the truth of our dreams, violent and dark and beautiful as that truth may be.
Michael Chabon lives in Berkeley, California.