I can’t make out what he is thinking. When he has finished speaking I can never remember what he has said. There remains only an impression of strangeness, darkness …
—Donald Barthelme, ‘The President’ (1968)
Twin Peaks: The Return, the television series’ third season, arrived in 2017 and asked its audience—who had waited 25 years since the end of season two—to wait a little longer. Watching this astonishing piece of television (18-hour-long episodes filmed from a single shooting script, with little adherence to genre or convention) you wait, above all, for the return of FBI special agent Dale Cooper, played wonderfully, in various guises, by Kyle MacLachlan. In seasons one and two, Cooper was the charmingly virtuous protagonist, one of television’s most delightful characters. But in Twin Peaks: The Return, coming back to the world after 25 years trapped in the black lodge (a kind of hell or purgatory, which, if passingly familiar with the aesthetic of Twin Peaks, you will know as the red room), his spirit is withered, visible only in glimpses.
In this near-catatonia, moving like a sleepwalker, Cooper lives the life of Las Vegas insurance agent Dougie Jones, a man with a debt, a family and a number of individuals who want him dead. This Cooper is pursued by an evil doppelganger who, in the final episode of season two, emerged from the red room possessed by Bob, a spirit partially responsible for the series’ inciting incident, the murder of Laura Palmer. In 1990 Cooper was the object of your faith; if you were in peril he would save you. In season three, he remains the object of your faith, but now he is in peril and your faith rests precariously on the hope that this time he will be saved. So you wait.
Our political stories depend on a fundamental contradiction: The most satisfying tend to generate as universal a picture as possible, thus concealing the individual lives they affect.
Hypothesis: Our political moment is characterised by repeated invitations to interpret political personae as distorted projections of the authentic politician and, therefore, to interpret all signs suspiciously. We know politicians are always performing—their motives concealed, their desire for power disguised—so we examine political discourse as we would a crime scene. To maintain a personal relationship layered with such inauthenticity would rightly be considered insane.
Thesis: Twin Peaks forces you to exist, uncomfortably, in a world that refuses suspicious interpretation. As is typical in the work of David Lynch (the co-creator, who directed the first two seasons’ best instalments, the spin-off film Fire Walk with Me, and every episode of season three), the show simmers with foreboding, everything uncanny (what Freud called unheimlich, crudely translated as unhomely, the sense of a hidden, looming threat). The series is populated by people who, like politicians, resemble the figures we know in our lives, but are somehow not quite human. Many characters speak as if they are relating a dream that is just now remembered, just now slipping from memory. You watch and feel unsettled. However, pursuing this feeling as evidence is futile. The art of Twin Peaks is discomfort, not discomfort’s resolution.
• • •
On 21 and 22 January 2017 the Sydney Morning Herald published two articles on trust. The headlines: ‘Distrustful nation: Australians lose faith in politics, media, and business’ and ‘We really don’t trust our government or institutions anymore’. Both articles treat this ‘implosion of trust’ as a crisis. Those paid to tell stories about such things seem increasingly eager to describe and diagnose a global weakening of faith in the political process. However, the search for such an answer is hamstrung by the terminology’s ambiguity. To refer to trust is, by the word’s nature, to refer to something obscure.
So what do we talk about when we talk about national distrust? What does it mean to say that a citizenry is losing faith in the institutions purportedly serving it? We know trust as it exists between two people; it is belief beyond evidence. But the word becomes feeble when broadened, when used with the assumption that a nation can be accountable to its own logic in the same way an individual is accountable to his or her own logic. Language that is most precise when describing interpersonal belief will cause confusion when used to encapsulate the behaviour of a crowd. I don’t mean to claim that it’s useless to describe a national trend, or that we can’t speak about large groups of people in terms of their collective agency. (How else could politics be done?) However, when we tell political stories as if they were personal stories, we are frequently led into confusion.
• • •
From Alexandria, Virginia, to Stockton, California, I think about Lewis and his friend Clark, the first Caucasians to see this part of the world. Their footsteps have been the highways and byways of my days on the road. My shadow is always with me. Sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, except on cloudy days, or at night.
—Michael Cera as Wally Brando, speaking to the sherriff of Twin Peaks
Before interrogating this confusion of the personal with the collective, here are some facts that sketch out what people might be referring to when speaking of this widespread yet not-quite-describable diminution of trust (which has resulted in the inking of many book contracts and fuelled many hours of cable news).
According to David Van Reybrouck’s 2013 book Against Elections, which argues that elections are damaging democracy, the twenty-first century has seen a significant decline in party loyalty and voter turnout. This is exacerbated by the shape that political narratives tend to take, Van Reybrouck writes:
The inability to address structural problems is accompanied by overexposure of the trivial, fuelled by our insane media that, true to market logic, have come to regard the exaggeration of futile conflicts as more important than any attempt to offer insight into real problems, especially in times of falling media revenues.
Against Elections focuses on European democracies, but Australians share this scepticism. According to PR firm Edelman’s Trust Barometer—the study cited by those Sydney Morning Herald articles—only 37 per cent of Australians trust in government. Our era, Van Reybrouck explains, in which government is ‘noisy’ but ‘toothless’, inverts the logic of the 1960s when ‘a simple farmer and his wife could be completely apathetic about politics and yet have complete faith in democracy’. David Marr’s 2017 Quarterly Essay on the rise of One Nation and Pauline Hanson cites a study that asked voters whether they believe politicians ‘usually look after themselves’. Those who answered in the affirmative, broken down by party affiliation: National, 39 per cent; Liberal, 40 per cent; Labor, 51 per cent; Greens, 51 per cent; and One Nation, 85 per cent.
Part of this distrust derives from the (often legitimate) conviction that, whenever you are at the mercy of a powerful person, you are being had. To distrust politicians is to understand politics. To trust in politics and politicians is to be made foolish. Tim Roth, as hit man Gary ‘Hutch’ Hutchens and speaking with his wife, says:
The government does it all the time. People get paid for it too, just like us. So called Christian nation. Might as well be ‘Thou shalt kill’, ‘Show no mercy’, ‘Forgive no-one’. Fuck ’em in the ass. It’s a nation of killers. Killing all along. Killed damned near all the Indians, didn’t they?
If 2016 was the year that showed punditry to be superfluous, 2017 was the year that proved that a pundit’s uselessness is not a professional liability. The role of the pundit is not to be correct, but to transform the incoherent and unappealing into the coherent and appealing. This is why pundits don’t get fired for being wrong. Mark Latham was booted off Sky News for calling a high school student ‘gay’; Jeffrey Lord was sacked from CNN after tweeting ‘Sieg Heil!’ Neither was fired for his inaccuracy, cruelty or incompetence.
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 32 per cent of Australians trust the media, down from 42 per cent in 2016. While it seems obvious that political stories take up more space than they once did (if only because there is so much more media), it does not mean that people are better at reading and interpreting those stories. Many, it seems, experience politics only glancingly, as it passes them by. In July the Economist published ‘A Special Report on Trump’s America’. This report cites the American National Election Study (ANES, run by Stanford and the University of Michigan), showing that ‘31 per cent of Trump voters and 36 per cent of Clinton voters think that the American government “probably” or “definitely” knew about 9/11 in advance’ and that ‘94 per cent of Trump voters did not attend a single political rally, speech or meeting last year. The figure for Clinton voters is 90 per cent.’ ANES also asked participants to place the two major parties on a spectrum of providing more services or reducing spending. Results showed that ‘30 per cent of the electorate does not have a good sense of where Republicans and Democrats stand on the most fundamental question about the role of the state’.
The urge to universalise an explanation is unrelated to the likelihood that doing so will be productive. Naomi Watts as Janey-E explains to two thugs attempting extortion that her family will not be extorted: ‘We are not wealthy people. We drive cheap, terrible cars. We are the ninety-nine percenters and we are shit on enough and we are certainly not going to be shit on by the likes of you.’
When speculation of broad nationalist momentum—spurred on by Donald Trump’s ascendance and Brexit—was undermined by election results in the Netherlands, Austria, France and Britain, this wasn’t construed as evidence that the speculation was preposterously broad. Instead, a new story was told about slowing momentum. Universalising narratives always adapt to new conditions. To undo them with particular examples is to thrust a sword through a ghost; they simply reshape.
The relationship between a citizen and a politician representing that citizen has a number of social analogues, none quite right. How does the citizen see the politician? If positive: friend, colleague or parent? If negative: boss, prison warden or parent? How does the politician see the citizen? The relationship’s asymmetry makes an individual analogue more difficult to pin down.
When a politician speaks, they presume to speak both to their audience and for them. How would you respond if a friend assumed this rhetorical style? When I check the news, I do not know whether I’m seeking information, entertainment, company or, simply, reassurance that certain promised terrors aren’t yet at my door. This holds whether news affects me or not because even if I’m implicated it’s rarely obvious how I might best respond.
I’m not dismissing the value of political participation, but the relationship between political participation and the vast majority of political discourse is fragile at best. So whence the motivation habitually to check Twitter, Breitbart, Fox, CNN, Jacobin, to keep up to date with the six o’clock news? How distinct are political stories and characters from the other stories and people and characters in our lives? And why do so many of us welcome them into our everyday experience? I suspect this vagueness of desire isn’t unusual, and isn’t easily captured by statistics. Only art can capture it.
In 2017, as in the real world, something has gone wrong in the world of Twin Peaks. Drugs, illness, brutality, poverty and madness are general. But glimmers of beauty and hope remain. In this particular fantasy, the FBI is honourable and driven by righteous duty; the Twin Peaks Sherriff’s Department, while housing unsavoury elements, is largely a force for good in a demanding and difficult world, and, somehow, the good Dale Cooper moves through the world as Dougie Jones largely unhindered. Despite his vocabulary comprising only echoes of whatever his interlocutor last said, and being unable to open a car door or go to the bathroom without assistance, he repeatedly dodges figurative and literal bullets due to naught but the laws of narrative justice. The evil is in the woods, and it is coming to get us; the good is in the small, resilient gestures, the morning coffee.
Twin Peaks is at its worst when attempting to convey a clear message, or extensively explaining its lore. It is at its best when mysterious. This has something to do with the fact that David Lynch began his artistic career as a painter and, if you approach a painting hoping to resolve it, you will likely leave dissatisfied. In his excellent essay on Lynch and the film Lost Highway, ‘David Lynch keeps his head’, David Foster Wallace wrote, ‘Large parts of Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me make no real sense and yet are compelling and meaningful and just plain cool.’
Those in Dougie Jones’ life—his wife and child, his colleagues at the insurance agency—only ever register mild concern that he barely responds to stimuli (with the exception of coffee and cherry pie). It is possible to read this hilarious lack of interest as allegorising society’s diminishing capacity to know what confronts it, our collective waning of care. However, watching Cooper as Dougie Jones—flickering at the fringes of personhood—is artistically charged because the evoked combination of astonishment and frustration bypasses the intellect. Instead, it risks engaging that corner of the mind that is nourished and provoked by not knowing.
In her extraordinary book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson recalls attending a lecture on writing delivered by the poet Anne Carson. Carson spoke of ‘leaving a space empty so that God could rush in’, which, for Nelson, was an artistic revelation. In his book Missing Out, the British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips argues that we are often too eager to be the one who gets it, too terrified to be the one who doesn’t:
Only the idealized mother—the perfect, wished-for mother in the child’s mind—always gets it. There is in other words a freedom—a freedom from the tyranny of perfection—in not understanding and in not being understood (understanding is not always the best thing we can do with need). All tyrannies involve the supposedly perfect understanding of someone else’s needs.
Politicians insist that they perfectly understand the needs of the electorate. There is no room for variation here. Conversely, politicians must convey a persona with which people can connect.
During British Prime Minister Theresa May’s re-election campaign, she was asked about the naughtiest thing she’d done as a child. May struggled for a response, before remembering that when, long ago, she and her friends had run through fields of wheat it had made farmers unhappy. The crime of this response was only partly May revealing (or confirming) herself and her transgressions to be entirely unrelatable. The more significant crime was her failure to demonstrate an aptitude for projecting a convincing persona.
In politics, everyone is always convinced that they get it, or is at least required to behave as if they do. Failure to do so is fatal. ‘I don’t know who created Pokemon Go,’ said Hillary Clinton, during a stump speech in July 2016, ‘but I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokemon Go to the Polls.’
In February 2017 Senator Eric Abetz interrogated a representative of the Depart-ment of Finance during Senate Estimates about the presence of a rainbow flag in the departmental foyer. There is little in Australian politics to match the grindingly dull aesthetic of Senator Abetz, whose entire vibe somehow resembles a chainsaw designed to put you to sleep. ‘Who makes the determination as to what flags are exhibited or flown in the foyer from time to time?’ he asked, his voice suggesting an automaton parking-inspector reciting the by-law that prevents you from parking out front of a hospital, all while you clutch at your fibrillating heart.
• • •
Early in the first season of Twin Peaks, in order to decode a mysterious reference in Laura Palmer’s diary (who is J?), Cooper performs an elaborate ritual of Tibetan rock-throwing. A name is spoken, Cooper throws a rock at a glass bottle perched on a tree stump, and the relevance of each name to the murder is determined by whether the rock misses the bottle, or the quality of the strike. The idea came to Cooper in a dream. This scene is important in establishing the logic of Twin Peaks because, aside from a little healthy scepticism, those in the Sherriff’s Department, who are working alongside Cooper, take the ritual seriously.
Here David Lynch as deputy FBI director Gordon Cole relates a dream to two fellow agents. We see the dream. Monica Bellucci plays herself. I googled ‘We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream’ and in our world it does not appear to be an ancient phrase:
And last night I had another Monica Bellucci dream. I was in Paris on a case. Monica called and asked me to meet her at a certain café. She said she needed to talk to me. When we met at the café, Cooper was there but I couldn’t see his face. Monica was very pleasant. She had brought friends. We all had a coffee. And then she said the ancient phrase, ‘We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream.’ I told her I understood. And then she said ‘But who is the dreamer?’
When I watch the scene in Twin Peaks season three, episode 11, during which a Frenchwoman spends about four minutes putting on shoes, I do not know whether the exhilaration it evokes is gratified artistic pretention or profound relief at being granted permission to watch nothing happen, to be blissfully bored. Ditto for the scene in season three, episode seven, in which nearly three minutes of screen time is dedicated to a man sweeping a barroom floor.
In January 2016, about six months into the campaign, a man at a Trump rally heckled the candidate: ‘This is boring. Tell some jokes.’ ‘There’s nothing funny about this,’ said Trump, before having the man ejected.
In Twin Peaks, stretches of substantial quiet are occasionally interrupted by moments of sickening violence. In season three, episode six a child is hit by a truck and killed. You anticipate the death because, in the preceding moments shots of him playfully running from his mother (an extremely weird game no child this age would play) are intercut with shots of Richard Horne (Eamon Farren) driving the truck, high and angry, expressing his fury with speed. Not even in a universe governed by the wobbly rules of David Lynch can the child escape his fate. The truck slams into him and does not slow and Lynch shows the mother scream and run to her son, drop to the ground and sit in the intersection wailing, holding her child’s corpse, his head open.
Twin Peaks has always been about the impossibility of grief, the horror and regret that the depth of our love for the lost object during its lifetime was not permanently proportional to the immense pain we feel in its absence, the failure of our mourning to bring anything back. Lynch’s representation of suffering is made alluring by his contrasting the seemingly limitless grotesquery of human perversion and sadness with the limits of our expression. The Lynchian camera is interested in how we become our performance, in the vanishing gap between our behaviour and our selves.
Lynch’s characters frequently speak their lines as if reading them from a teleprompter, as if they have not fully internalised them. However, instances of intense mourning, terror or fury reverse this emotional estrange-ment. When the mother holds her dead son, the grief is chillingly real. But witnesses keep their distance, slowly bringing their hands to their faces and methodically shaking their heads, looking like extras from an instructional road-safety VHS tape.
• • •
In Afghanistan in 2011, then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott, surrounded by service personnel, was informed of an Australian soldier’s death. He responded (with blokey sympathy), ‘Shit happens’. When, later, footage of this exchange was made public, Channel 7 News set up an interview with Abbott to ask him about the comment. The reporter, Mark Riley, showed Abbott the footage on a laptop, they had a back and forth in which Abbott defended the remark, arguing that it had been taken out of context. He accused Riley of exploiting the soldier’s death, of turning the remark into ‘a media circus’. Riley asked how, exactly, showing Abbott the footage and requesting he explain his words constituted a media circus. For seven seconds Abbott nodded like a shivering, tight-wound spring, mute. Riley asked him to clarify the context. Another three seconds passed, after which Riley interjected, ‘You’re not saying anything, Tony.’ ‘I’ve given you the response you deserve,’ Abbott said.
Who knows what Abbott was thinking during those gaping, awkward silences. Perhaps he was considering the exceptionally limited number of rhetorical moves a politician has available to them while on camera, and the fact that clocking an interviewer is not among them. In another context, David Foster Wallace noted that:
a sudden grotesque facial expression won’t qualify as a really Lynchian facial expression unless the expression is held for several moments longer than the circumstances could ever possibly warrant, is just held there, fixated and grotesque, until it starts to signify about seventeen different things at once.
In August 2017 Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a white nationalist deliberately drove his car into counter-protestors, killing one. The New York Times first ran the story under the headline: ‘Car plows into crowd as racial tensions boil over in Virginia’. Donald Trump condemned the violence ‘on many sides’. That same week, Pauline Hanson entered the Senate chamber wearing a burqa.
• • •
Freud’s discovery of transference is among his most significant achievements. Adam Phillips describes transference as ‘our invention of others on the basis of past relationships’. In analysis, the transference valence of the analyst should be greater than that of the analysand. That is to say, the analysand will project characteristics or attitudes onto the analyst, despite having very little to go on. Thus, over time, in a clinical setting, the analysand comes to understand that they imagine others according to particular mental patterns. In other words, looking at others, we find what we expect.
If I am suspicious, I might tell myself, I cannot be a dupe. To approach an object with suspicion is to count myself apart from the naive. Twin Peaks is disturbing because it does not treat suspicion and naivety as mutually exclusive. Everyone is suspicious, and everyone is naive, and neither paranoia nor innocence can protect us from the nightmares they are deployed to repel. They may, instead, conjure those nightmares. Lynchian horrors can often be traced to our collective transgressions: the polite refusal to notice sexual violence, the bloodless individualism of modern suburbia, the creation of the atomic bomb. We believe in what Joan Didion called political fictions, and these are the results.
Your phone rings. A voice asks, ‘Do you trust your government?’ What do you say? •