What the Hell Does it Mean?
On David Lynch, Abstract Art, and Meaning
“…a little too avant for my garde.”
⏤a one-star review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress on Goodreads.
Go rewatch Eraserhead, David Lynch’s first feature film, now 44 years old but not dated one bit, and you will find that it is basically an Avant-Garde-ist’s wet dream. It has all the markings: little dialogue, moody, hyper focused shots of levers, radiators, people’s grotesque and deformed faces, otherworldly creatures, all unexplained and in black and white, with a super loud, cacophonic soundscape whirring throughout. It’s beautiful and dark, strange and deeply unsettling, and makes no fucking sense. Which is, like most Abstract Art1, the point, or one of its points, because I’m not entirely comfortable saying that the point of AA is to be abstract. As human beings, we are the only species on Earth (that we know of) that tell stories and give meaning to images and objects in the material world, and we all know the evolutionary benefits of this gift.2 Which is why when I, a human being, watch something like Eraserhead, I’m practically banging my own head against the wall trying to figure out, find, or pluck any meaning from it I can get. And if you were to say, refer to the director in interviews for any answers, you would get, usually from behind sunglasses, a coy, cool3, oblique, maybe sardonic answer that will leave your head feeling more dented than when you first came to the interview.4 Which, to Lynch’s and A-G-ist’s defense, I totally understand; to pull off the illusion, a magician needs to be shrouded in mystery⏤in fact, there’s a whole code around this. But, while appreciating the style and tactics and sheer artistry of AA, I still can’t help, when watching an Avant-Garde film, or reading something abstract or surreal, or looking at an abstract painting, I can’t help but ask myself, “What the hell does it mean?”
The thing about Eraserhead is it does have a synopsis. At the time of writing this, HBO Max describes it as: “A printer named Henry Spencer is on vacation when he learns his ex-girlfriend has given birth to a terribly deformed baby.”5 Hilarious because this synopsis to the untrained, un-Lynch-knowing eye, sounds nearly like the plot of a bad Ben Stiller Rom-Com (terrible deformation aside). This sort of detached, off-based, even kitschy difference between a film’s synopsis and its meaning has become a kind of winking joke in the horror genre: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining being about Jack Torrance becoming a winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado, hoping to cure his writer’s block; a couple’s Long Island dream home turns out to be a nightmare in The Amityville Horror. It’s this marketing style tagging that proves a piece’s synopsis couldn’t be any further from what the piece is actually about or its artistic meaning.6, especially in regard to AA, and that often the most obvious, easy to grab meanings from art are often wrong and beside the point.7 Same goes for real life. Even though us humans are meaning creating machines, when we find ourselves trying to extract things from our lives⏤such as, if not especially, traumatic events⏤and we try to pull at the threads of events to find out what lead up to said traumatic event and why it happened and what meaning it serves, what we end up with instead of answers is a messy pile of yarn of unknowing, a kind of helpless human dread. Because even though some claim to know, or may think they know, or want to know, but no human really knows just who we are and why we are and how it all works. I see no difference in saying Eraserhead is Lynch’s way of expressing his views on procreating and parenting than say, a nun telling a young student in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine who asks why the sky is blue, “Because God made it so.” It’s too easy, trite, and frankly flies in the face of the feeling one gets when lying on the grass and gazing upward. That feeling is something that AA is really “about.”8
For the sake of fun, I would like you to entertain the idea of God (if there is one) being the ultimate Avant Garde-ist; smoking, turtleneck and all, coolly dodging our questions, doing wacky shit with no apparent meaning.9 How would we view God then? What would our prayers look like? Would it be asking for little bits of meaning to make the threads of our lives feel whole?10 Or would we seek a way that subsides these feelings that plague the human condition? AA is not preoccupied with meaning, but rather, feeling, and as humans, this mode of ignoring the storyteller in our minds and more so becoming armchair psychoanalysts of our very own emotions, could have some real-world beneficial effects.
Let’s face it: we can’t always trust our thoughts. These words swirling around our heads, flinging themselves onto objects, other people, situations happening in the past, present, and future all simultaneously. In fact, evolutionarily speaking, we excelled as a species because of how wrong our thoughts could be. The old adage goes: a caveperson is walking by a bush at night and hears rustling and thinks, “Tiger11,” but really, after some tactful waiting, the tiger is revealed to be a mouse, or whatever the prehistoric equivalency of a mouse was. We think tiger in preparation for a mouse, but also in preparation for an actual tiger. If our cave ancestor walked by that same bush 100 times and thought tiger 100 times, and 99 times it was a mouse or the wind, and that one time was a tiger, they would owe those 99 times of being wrong for their survival; and vice versa: if they thought “mouse or wind” those 99 times and were right and underestimated that one time a tiger was there, well, I’d very much likely be a dolphin typing this out right now because homo sapiens would have been wiped out a long, long time ago. So, how can we trust this system that tracks better with errors? How can we think we assess anything correctly at all with regards to meaning if we are conditionally wired to warp and shape meaning for our benefit?12 Specifically, shaping and warping reality to fit our own personal narrative in our heads? So, in actuality, whether the noise in the bush is a tiger or a mouse means very little13 and it’s the bodily sensation reacting to the noise in the bush that matters most. It isn’t the story we tell ourselves in our minds that provides us with hardwired, life saving meaning, it’s in some way, shape, or form, listening to and analyzing one’s own feelings through which meaning is born. And when it comes to AA and A-G-ist’s, this is what they are doing: they are rustling in the bush.
Going back to Lynch’s use of sound in Eraserhead, which there are probably PhD. film study classes on to this very day14, it has been described as “DEFCON15 -level dread” and as a “sensation of an otherworldly environment; a pervading atmospheric noise [rising] and [falling] in pitch and intensity.” What becomes obvious is that what Lynch is creating is not dissimilar to the heightened sounds of anxiety.16 He is portraying heightened awareness in film and, to Lynch’s credit, he is doing something I personally have never felt in literature and also think is damn-near impossible do with the written word; he is recreating the actual ambiguous feeling of anxiety.17 Whereas a reader who reads “Henry felt anxious” and relies on their own mental connection to anxiety through the word or metaphor, Lynch is making you feel it in real time, not to the word anxiety in your head, but the feeling itself. This difference seems immense. So, what A-G-ist’s like Lynch capture so well is the abstraction of real human emotion. Through his artistic vision (especially in Eraserhead), he is pulling you into the liminal space of anxiety, where you, as the viewer, know not how or when it will end or even if it will end, and you, in the moment, cannot grasp at any safety bars of meaning to pull you out of the experience; Lynch is demanding you stay present, and deal with this anxiety.18 And I think that is why much of AA blends into the genre of horror or surreality, because standing in that place of abstract human emotion is not a pleasant place to be.19 So, what exactly are A-G-ist’s conveying about how to experience art? I offer a test: Try sitting down and reading a novel but with the analytic mindset of a high school book reporter and after a while of trying to fully juice press the thing for meaning, you may find yourself exhausted, unchanged and unmoved, totally depleted of any urge to read a written word again.20 It is as if searching for meaning hinders our experiencing of things, of art, of reality, and especially our own emotions, which unlike our mental narratives, are physical signals in how to really be in the world. AA and A-Gist’s are saying who cares what it means, but how did it make you feel? And what about figuring out how that experience made you feel, made you feel changed.21
Unlike clean cut, mainstream narrative, telling you exactly what and how to feel every second along the way22, while offering the mental stimulation of giving you a tidy, well packaged gift of meaning to satisfy that part of your brain, A-G-ist’s are saying you get no gifts, that you will need to work for your food; that if you do the work, you will feel this down to your core. And often, that feeling, isn’t something you can easily grasp or label, but only let pass through you and not feel the full effects of change until later on, at some point down the road, usually idly, like when you’re slicing tomatoes for a salad or watching the breeze dictate a loose tree branch and you’re just gob smacked by some vague notion of truth. It is this relationship between consumption and change that I think matters, deeply. Sure, some pleasure is good, if not needed, but ultimately, I believe what we should expect from our art or what the kids call “content” is less pleasure in the moment⏤the way donuts or pancakes are God-sent in the moment and almost always regretful and nearly down-right shameful afterwards23⏤but more so the possibility for real, psyche-level change later on.
Here, I venture to move away from Lynch and film and toward AA in the realm of the visual arts, because while sitting in front of a movie is one thing⏤you can still easily try to pull meaning from a film regardless of how Avant Garde it is, because you are still watching/and will be influenced by (for the most part) humans behaving⏤and standing in front of a canvas or sculpture with no apparent or clear depiction of anything is another thing entirely. Another test: Stand in front of one of the many beautiful, complex paintings of Lyubov Popova or the puzzling works of (one of my personal favorites) Giorgio de Chirico and in a notepad, write out what the work is supposed to mean, and if there is any, what kind of narrative do you think the works are portraying. You will soon find yourself, after doing this for so long, reaching for your personal favorite headache relief medication of sodium naproxen, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. It’s also a little easier to say that with all visual art, its much less about the images portrayed, than the feeling conveyed, because looking upon Monet’s water lilies without noticing the feeling of nostalgic longing for inner peace it stirs up in you (or me, at least) is pretty much just looking at a blurry image of water lilies. Much like with the synopsis of Lynch’s Eraserhead, if one were to take Chirico’s painting The Enigma of a Day24, with its smokestacks looming over a classical Roman scene, and narrow it down to a meta commentary of the industrial revolution, while maybe technically right, one misses the point, and two, misses out on feeling the confusing feeling of this juxtaposition, and maybe most importantly, three, throws away the opportunity to reflect inside one’s self to see how glaring at those terrifying red smokestacks, or at the side of a dictator-esque statue, out at a smeared, hazy landscape, all from inside a pitch of shadow makes you feel.25 And, of course, the more abstract the art, the more ambiguous the feelings. Take the semi-controversial painter Jackson Pollock for example, who, at the mention of his name generates either an elated praise of genius or condescending scowl of schmuckery.26 Yet another test: Stand in front of anything painted by Pollock and I dare you to put together a single sentence in whatever language you prefer that can say what the artist is trying to convey. Go ahead. I’ll wait.27 Pollock, while through questionable methods, really begs for the viewer to look inside themselves and pull meaning from their own feelings. I get a kick out of someone28who I know for a fact is going through mental turmoil or psychic pain in their life and when standing in front of a Pollock and says something like, “Oof, this one is dark. So chaotic. Schizophrenic. Paralyzing with anxiety.” Or, another good one: “Sad.” And someone could look at the same painting and say things like, “Wow. Happiness. Bliss. Total orgasmic excitement.” What Pollock is doing here is master level insight inducing; forcing us to sort through our emotions to hear what the painting is saying to us.29 While this level of self-analysis is difficult for lots of people, say, people who might avoid therapy or wince when they hear Pollock’s name, one has to respect this kind of telekinesis at play.
Much to the likes of visual art, literature is also an art form that works with this kind of magical superpower. You read a word and hear a voice, and not only do you hear a voice, but you see an imaginary image.30 And who other than the surrealists, the postmodernists, the experimentalists, or the purveyors of the avant-garde, are better magicians? For the sake of space and respect for your time, allow me to only narrow my focus down to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.31 WM is a seriously unsettling book. Its premise is straightforward: a woman sitting down in a room, sharing her thoughts in a clear, direct, informative manner. And through a series of short, simple (but never dull) sentences and recursions of thought that would make Ludwig proud, you start to get the picture that this woman is unwell, possibly the last human being on Earth, and frightfully, despairingly alone. WM’s professional style sleight of hand is clear, simple line by clear, simple line at a time dragging the reader by their ears onto this desolate beach at the end of the world to fully experience the terror of what it means to be an artist in the world, having a voice and yelling it out into the void, unknowing of how it will be heard, or heard and understood at all. Now, I will not comment on what faults be of the reviewer at the start of this text, but if your skin isn’t crawling after watching Lynch’s Eraserhead, or you don’t feel some inner stirring while staring at a Pollock, or if you’re brain isn’t howling after reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, if you feel nothing, and just sit there blinking and spewing out half-witted synopses of what they are or what they mean, or⏤God help me⏤what they lack, may I suggest stepping out of the shadow of your human ego for one second, and try not to explain anything32, and instead look inward and try to find some inkling of a beating heart and for another second, try to feel without thought, and give yourself up to the possibility of art being a kind of elixir, that whether or not you are fond of how it tastes or smells, you will, after digesting, feel changed and better for having tasted it, for having quenched some dehydrated part of yourself that you hadn’t known was there all along. It is from this dark hidden place within us that abstract art is bred; and only our Avant-Garde-ist’s are the patron saints carrying torches, their mouths stitched shut, curling a finger from beneath a heavy cloak, waving us forth.♦︎
Nick Farriella is the founding editor of The Review of Uncontemporary Fiction. His fiction has appeared in in Schuykill Valley Journal, Bridge Eight Press, BULL Magazine, New World Writing, McSweeney’s, Joyland Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
- Further referred to as AA for word-count purposes. Likewise for Avant-Garde-ists as A-G-ists.
- Look around.
- Like deeply, spiritually cool. Seriously. What is it about Avant-Garde-ists that just scream coolness? Is it the jaded aloofness? The cigarette smoking? The turtlenecks? Maybe, us humans, who are so meaning-based, can’t help but be more attracted to, entranced, perplexed by things we cannot understand. (More on this later.)
- Once, when talking about Eraserhead, Lynch said, “Believe it or not, [it] is my most spiritual film.” And when he was asked to elaborate on that, he simply replied, “No.”
- I can just see Lynch’s amused, sinister smile at this.
- Meaning can “mean” a few different things but consider it in this to be a piece of the art’s soul and what its communicating, but not necessarily what the artist’s intentions are.
- Which may be true of only a certain kind and quality of artist.
- If I was speaking to you in person, these would be air quotes to emphasize my level of discomfort in that stating that abstract art is about one thing or anything, really. I don’t, as a human being, have such authority to prescribe such meaning.
- As a friend once said, “Just look at the platypus.”
- Very much like prayers today, no? “God, please just help me understand.”
- This is tricky, too. Because that caveperson in seemingly a good amount of danger is not thinking of the actual word “tiger” but rather of an image of a heinous, murderous beast that they know will harm them. This distinction between the word and the image/feeling it represents is crucial, I think, especially to what A-G-ist’s like David Lynch do so well, but more on that later.”
- Religions are literally founded on this condition, by the way.
- Obviously, the end result means a hell of a whole lot (life or death), but what I’m talking about is what it (the noise) means to the thought process itself when first hearing it and how that shapes our behavior and how we see the world.
- If not, an endless feed of YouTube analyses.
- Defense Readiness Condition is an alert state used by the United State Armed Forces to prescribe five levels of readiness for the U.S. military. If Lynch’s Eraserhead was actually on the DEFCON chart, I’d say it would be DEFCON 4, a double take, an increased state of intelligence.
- Some Cognitive Behavior Therapists (Noted for the purpose of fact checking. By some, I mean mine.) have noted the earlier adage about tigers in bushes to be the birth of anxiety; that those once extremely helpful powers of heightened awareness like enhanced hearing and a vivid mental visual tactic for survival has transformed over time, due to modern reasons (simply put as: no tigers outside of your door anymore) into something harmful; that, basically, our own DEFCON threat-detection systems in our brains are all out of whack.
- For the sake of this essay and word-count purposes, and to keep my very stern and intimidating editor at bay, I’m going to assume the reader has some inherent knowledge of what anxiety⏤and I’m talking like, near diagnosable levels of anxiety⏤feels like. If not, go watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
- Which in today’s culture of numbing yourself to death with content, always replacing unpleasant feelings with something (you pick), comes across as profound, if not enlightened.
- Trust me.
- This, I believe, is a crucial failing of U.S. education⏤teaching children to overanalyze the meaning of texts, rather than understanding the feelings brought forth by texts. In my perfect world, teachers across America are handing kids Dalkey Archive books and showing Lynch’s films and asking, “How does this make you feel?”
- Dare I say, blessed. Saved.
- I try to remain fairly objective about this, but there is something about mainstream content that feels vaguely propaganda-ish to me; that what they (again, where to begin by stating who “they” is? But let’s assume, for the sake of this essay, these are corporations) what they offer seems to be more out of their own best interests rather than some artistic merit or care for your artistic nourishment.
- At the behest of my very scary editor, I’ll hide this down here. This Buddha-type view of the temporality of pleasure is so poignantly obvious in sex and/or masturbation. When one is consumed with lust in the act and then satisfies that urge, the minutes that follow the elation, whether it be sitting there in the dim reflection of a computer screen or lying beside another human being, are some of the most soul-sucking, throbbing shame-filled moments of a human being’s life; also note, even those feelings fade away after a while, thankfully.
- Which was once on display at the MoMa in NYC, but now is not, so while Googling the image will help for the sake of this essay, one would miss out on the sheer size of this painting, amassing over six feet tall and nearly five feet wide.
- If you look upon this scene and feel nothing, not only do I feel sorry for you, but I prescribe that it isn’t your fault. You were taught and conditioned to look at this and not feel it, but instead, analyze it to death.
- I, for the sake of authenticity, have no dog in this fight. While I’m not a fan, per say, some of his paintings make me feel a lot of complicated feelings in profoundly moving and absurd ways, which I scratch a mark in the former category over the latter any day.
- But won’t hold my breath.
- Okay, again for fact checking purposes, me.
- The strange thing about art is that this message often feels personal, unique, and far from the artist’s intentions entirely.
- Pink elephant playing a green trumpet. See?
- Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 1988.
- Like how you were taught.