David Lynch: The Treachery of Language


[Interviewer] “David Lynch has described his film Eraserhead in this manner…” “A dream of dark and troubling things.” “And… uh…” “Would you like to expound on that a little?” [David Lynch] “No.” David Lynch is famous for his reluctance to
verbally explain or clarify the intentions behind his work. It’s a tendency exhibited
as early as this student led interview in 1979, and it’s repeatedly reflected in what
Lynch does say, that: “As soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way.” “And that’s what I hate, you know.” “Talking—it’s real dangerous.” And this troubled relationship with words
extends to the work itself. From the backwards riddles of The Man from Another Place to the hearing loss of Lynch’s own Twin Peaks character, Gordon Cole. [Gordon Cole] “You’ll have to speak up Sheriff.
Hearings gone, long story.” In his book ‘The Man From Another Place’,
film writer Dennis Lim writes of Gordon’s character that, “so much about Lynch’s
fraught relationship with language is summed up in that voice, in its unnervingly high
volume and halting cadences.” This ‘fraught relationship’ with language
repeatedly appears as a need to twist, invert and disrupt it, and seems indicative of an
underlying fear or, perhaps more accurately, a mistrust of the spoken or written word,
and its power. The art image or object and written language
have historically been thought of as hostile concepts, with artist Robert Morris once writing
in his dream journal that “the wall label disturbed my sleep. It grew to threatening proportions, entwined
itself around me, babbled in my ear, wrapped itself over my eyes. It was a tangled, suffocating shroud of seething
words in my dream”. And this nightmarish description of the wall
text, the written explanation that would accompany his work, finds a visual companion in one
of Lynch’s earliest short films ‘The Alphabet’, where a child is tormented by the incessant
chanting of the alphabet that invades their dreams. But, more than a suffocating shroud, the letters
here emerge violently, secreted onto the screen through ruptured openings. The letters creep and spread like an infection
before entering the head of a human figure, causing it to bleed and disintegrate. But, rather than the letters themselves necessarily
invoking this anguish, it’s their ceremonial delivery that transforms them into something
menacing. The threatening chant like an anthem of conformity,
a structural order mirrored in the scales and arpeggios of the vocals that follow, as
well as in the very arrangement of the alphabet, repeatedly presented in its familiar linear
form. It’s these formal structures that shape
the anxiety behind the film, suggesting that there’s something dangerous and violent
in the act of learning, in the formation of language, in binding expression with words. According to Lynch, language “changes things,
as soon as you know what something is.” [David Lynch] “If you don’t know what it is, a sore can be very beautiful…” “… but as soon as you name it, it stops being beautiful to most people…” “… but if you took a picture of it, a close up,
and you didn’t know exactly what it was…” “… it could be a great beauty of organic phenomenon.” So, this uneasiness surrounding words is really
to do with the limitations they suddenly enforce when used as a tool of translation, to translate
an image, a feeling or thought into a language that doesn’t quite allow for the same nuance
or abstraction – to take something suggestive and reduce it to something definitive. But this apprehension towards words doesn’t
necessarily require a rejection of them, or even a reluctance to use them. Lynch may remain ambiguous when discussing
interpretation but has frequently spoken about his creative process and formative experiences,
and, in addition to the parade of letters in ‘The Alphabet’, the written and spoken
word remain central to the work. The words of Lynch’s film and television
work emerge as memorably enigmatic phrases that only pose more questions than they could
ever answer. Commenting on the speech patterns of Lynch’s
dialogue, Dennis Lim determined that: “the impression is of language used less for meaning
than for sound. To savour the thingness of words is to move
away from their imprisoning nature”. This impression of words as somewhat divorced
from linguistic intent is a technique that resurfaces throughout Lynch’s image-making. These works inscribe a naively worded description
onto the surface of the image, titles that are reminiscent of the art history tradition
where works are simply named after their subject matter such as ‘Still Life with a Swan’
or ‘Self Portrait with Sunflower’. But these descriptions, while accurate to
the image, complicate the work as much as they explain it – with absurd or violent
imagery communicated with direct simplicity. And so, instead of merely acting as translation,
the title transcends the limitations of the label in becoming complicit in the ambiguity,
stripping the words of their definitive power. Lynch’s work repeatedly draws attention
to this relationship between words and the objects they describe, always with the intent
of disrupting it and taking control of it. In his Ricky Board series, the transformative
power of naming is both exposed and manipulated, exploring how identical objects, such as flies
or bees, can change when given different names. Lynch has detailed the instructions to this
process, ending with a poem that explains: Even though they’re all the same
The change comes from the name As well as demonstrating how words can alter
or contaminate our understanding of an object, in a way, this also challenges the presupposed
unity of a thing and its name. Instead of reading the name as a direct and
uncompromised translation of the thing it describes, these works indicate a more uncertain
relationship. In his catalogue essay for the exhibition David Lynch: Naming, curator Brett Littman comments that: “… the act of naming something
is never a simple gesture.” “For Lynch, the drawing of an ‘ant’ and the written word ‘ant’ are never co-equal or necessarily co-descriptive.” One can’t be considered a direct translation
of the other. Similarly, this uncertainty between word and
object is paralleled in the interruption often found between voice and body in Lynch’s
moving image work. In the silent advice of the log in Twin Peaks, the distorted voice over the intercom in Lost
Highway, or the repeated use of lip-synching and miming in Blue Velvet and Mullholland
Drive, once again suggesting an uncertain relationship between word and body in creating,
not only a separation of space but equally of time in the supposed live performance of
a pre-recorded voice. It’s this final mime in Mulholland
Drive, a Spanish acapella cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ that deals most intensely with the modes
of translation implicit in this separation: pre-recorded performance to live, original song to cover and the original English language to Spanish. And this idea of translation is one that I
keep returning to when talking about the written and spoken word in Lynch’s work – the
danger of translating an image to writing, the desire to undermine the written word’s
definitive power and to emphasise acts of translation that aren’t always so readily
apparent. As Pedro Carolino once mistranslated: It is
difficult to enjoy well so much several languages. This is the final remark in a hypothetical
exchange in his phrasebook ‘English as She is Spoke’, well known for, as both that line
and the title might suggest, the unintentional humour of its mistranslation of Portuguese
phrases to English, but it’s the mistranslation that
inadvertently proves the truth in this line. Conveying the meaning of one language in another
is difficult, perhaps, according to Lynch’s work, even impossible. Obviously we’re not talking here about the
literal translation of one spoken language to another, but of the reconfiguration of
meaning as it travels from one state to another, from thought to description, feeling to image,
image to word, and also from one person to another. The artist Allison Katz writes in her essay
‘What is at Hand?’, “I know a dance critic who learnt how to write her reviews
by taking courses in literary translation. To move between French and English for example
is, in her mind, the same as moving from seeing a dance performance to writing about it”. I think this comparison deftly reveals the
hidden translations with which we all regularly engage but that so often go unnoticed, and
Lynch’s approach to the written and spoken word seems to mourn what is lost in this process. His early ‘kit’ series, particularly ‘Fish
Kit’ from 1979 takes this idea of re-assembling something as a process incapable of producing
that thing in its original pre-disassembled state. Three assembled parts of a dead
fish will not reproduce the live fish it once was. And, in a way, this is a pretty apt metaphor
for interpretation or, perhaps even, all communication. We might receive signals, but there’s a
distance there, between one person and another between meaning and interpretation between what is said and what we understand. I chose to include this example from Carolino’s
phrase book, not just for its irony, but also because of how this interaction is titled:
‘to inform oneself of a person’. It’s an unintentionally appropriate introduction
to the nature of language and why Lynch might be so wary of it, fundamentally linking language
and translation to the act of knowing another person, a relationship that necessitates the
invisible disassembling and reassembling of meaning and intent, even if we think we’re
speaking the same language. But even though with each translation something
is undoubtedly lost, with each translator, each viewer, something is also gained. Just as the Ricky Board flies change with
their name, it’s this negotiation that prevents an idea from ever being reduced to something
definitive. Rather than rejecting written or spoken
language, running from it, Lynch uses words to make us
aware of their shortcomings, refuting their authority, making them uncertain, but still, never underestimating the power of
silence. [Blue Haired Woman] “Silencio.” Hey everyone, this was actually supposed to
be my one year anniversary video but it’s, um, 2 months late. but I’m still counting this as an anniversary video because my first video was on David Lynch so it seems fitting. I don’t know if I’ll make any more videos
on David Lynch as I think the world is probably at capacity on David Lynch videos. but thank you for choosing to watch this one,
and I hope I’ll see you next time.

98 Replies to “David Lynch: The Treachery of Language

  1. I had the pleasure of talking with Grace last month. Check it out, if you're so inclined: https://25yearslatersite.com/2018/07/27/interview-with-grace-lee-of-whats-so-great-about-that/

    (now back to figuring out how to write about his music, since I am on the docket to do something about that…)

  2. Yesterday in the middle of the night, I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." and was amazed by his daylight jumpscare of the homeless man/woman in the movie because it was so perfectly encapsulated as a nightmare. Or the grandparents in the movie that caused Diane to commit suicide, I looked them up, but when I did, something happened. I didn't think about it before, but when I looked up the grandparents, I felt different. Before I searched the situation on Google, I thought of them as Diane's madness and I felt kind of weird and scared because of it. However, when I read about the grandparents online, I didn't really feel that way anymore. Whenever I name a situation, it just stops being beautiful. Today, this video was recommended. I pressed it even though I didn't get the title, and it all made sense to me. David Lynch is such a genius, and I admire him and his work. I don't think that there ever will be a writer and a director like him. David Lynch is like his own film genre.

  3. I enjoyed this! Tho- there's an unquestioned presumption that words are translations of inner thoughts, something which had come under fire in 20th century philosophy of language, particularly with Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty. If the model of words-as-translation-of-thoughts is misplaced originally, I think there's a lot here that still holds.

  4. where can What is at Hand essay by Allison Katz be found? I can't find it online but would love to read it. Really interesting video, thank you

  5. Very well done. I have been writing poetry for over 40 years, and i have always tried to somehow make the words in my poems become more than what would at first seem to be indicated by each words meaning. BURN THE WORLD TO SAVE THE WORD!

  6. The public nature of language means that it is necessarily subject to normative forces and political control.
     'Necessarily' because words must have agreed-upon meaning for communication to be even possible. When we speak we either revel or squirm in our forced conformity to orthodoxy.

  7. I think most of the world has yet to discover the Greatness of Lynch. I have been a ponderer for more that thirty years .I only increase my Awe for all thing Lynch. Sadly most can never ponder.And will miss the Lynchian Journey .Thank you for your Contribution.

  8. Good job with the video. Your point of view on Lynch's communication it's interesting indeed. I personally think that the core of his thinking it's in that first piece of interview from Eraserhead when they ask him if he wish to go deeper into his definition of the film. The artist bring his work and that's it. Nothing more needs to be added.

  9. I had a telepathic talk with a gnat once and asked it's name and it said "Je suis Charlie. We are all Charlie." so now if they fly in my face while I am eating I say *You are french flies, not french fries, get back, I don't want to eat you on accident.*  ^^

  10. 自分 コメントしませn。
    普通。

    この編集にはマジ リスペクトっす。
    リンチの アルファベットって
    彼の最たる事の それ と。
    言葉が 邪魔になる

    知らなかった。
    Thank you.

    Please check my you tube as well.
    Happy new year.

  11. I agree. Visual storytelling in its purest form should be open to interpretation, with as little obstructive explanation (words) as possible. Films should show a story, not tell it, to the viewer.

  12. a lot of things mentioned in this video reminds me of Quine's "Word and Object". So if you like this kind of topic i can recommend it to you.

  13. You may never read this but may I suggest reading the transcription of classes by Jorge Luis Borges in the collection “This Craft of Verse”. He speaks to the curious power of bad translations. Oh, and I immediately subbed.

  14. They are in fact the primary source of manipulation. And in every case the origin of all misunderstanding. If you disagree then they have twisted you perception already.

  15. So…you're using language to say that language is oppressive or treacherous?? As anything, language can be used for ill or good. Lynch is a cinematic master of the visual and subconscious but he still NEEDS language. It's the other side of the coin.

  16. Language is confusing enough but you would make it easier if you slowed down your pace of narration.
    I really could not make out some of your words.

  17. Does anyone else find the use of language to explain Lynch's feelings towards language and interpretation a little, I dunno, ironic?

  18. Words are a shothand we use to keep up with the onslaught of daily visual stimuli. Visual arts are controlling the onslaught and by using words it can change the meaning or feeling intended.

  19. Honestly don't remember when I saw the video for the first time but every time I come back it's amazing to be reminded how much of my work is like that of David Lynch. I absolutely love his work and his fearlessness of not even budging an inch to say anything that could draw his work into perspective. If he wants you to know something, it WILL be there and he won't waste a minute rubbing it under your nose. It's up to you to find out what you want to know and if it leads to madness, so be it.

  20. You've missed the point completely. David hasn't stopped shaking his head. Normally, self-aggrandized BS is reserved until the artist or visionary is dead, in this case there will be no reply. Learn the Art of Silence.

  21. The thing with these video essays is you always can just watch the first 40 seconds, know the thesis, and close out of the tab not watching the rest of the video because there's never any point.

  22. Extremely interesting, infact in this scene youtu.be/CSxvpSRJKSM?t=121 Cole says a joke that can't be understood in French and he also assert to Albert that there are more than 6000 languages on our world .

  23. All the artwork in this video was so wonderful and unsettling. I enjoyed this so much! I love it when art and its interpretations make me uncomfortable and confuse me. Art is not just for joy.

  24. This is a classic attempt to try and understand one person's mind, from your POV. Lynch is pretty unique in this regard, as I don't think he's completely understandable (also, I don't think he completely understands HIMSELF).

    If this is coming from a linguistic perspective, then you're spot on by being curious. But I think you're off here. because I don't think he's particularly good at speaking or writing. His mind, to me, is just a creative energetic force that must express itself. For Lynch, as you hopefully know, this comes from painting. Not from writing, scripts, or even the title of his paintings.

    I appreciate this man for his creative energy and his willingness to embrace the dark side of the human experience. I don't understand him, but I do understand where he's coming from. If you can appreciate anything without fully understanding it, then I think you're well on your way.

  25. David Lynch is a troll, he trolled the audience of twin peaks. He's not deep, he's shallow, he's a hipster, anti-establishment troll. We see depth in it because we are not shallow and can't easily imagine someone so intelligent could be. He's probably not shallow in person, but twin peaks is.

  26. A sore. Probably not the best example of what he's trying to put across. Sone things are naturally horrid and disgusting, even to an inexperienced child. .

  27. Lol what about Rabbits? I feel like the strange way he used language and dialogue in that was very much on topic for this, but you didn't even mention it

  28. Many films talk too much and yet manage to not say a single thing. All of the most recent cape movie schlock is a great example.

  29. Anyone interested by the relationship between words & visual works might be interested in semiotics, specifically the works of Umberto Eco & the studies of Theo van Leeuwen.

  30. Often times a phobia related to words or speaking has to do with somebody's amygdala and hippocampus associating speech around a happening that had been recorded early on as dangerous or deadly. It could be something dangerous had happened or could be something like if somebody had difficulty with stuttering early on and was made fun of when speaking in front of a room and they had found the experience of speaking traumatic.

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