Lessons of Lynch: Embrace Ambiguity and Relish Your Writerly Role

I’m not special because I loved Twin Peaks: The Return in its entirety (including its finale). In fact, I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not special at all for any reason. I’m just a quiet, middle-aged guy up the street who likes baseball (not football), craves Mexican food, enjoys good movies and books, and loves spending time with his small family. I have, however, discovered one thing about myself that not everyone shares. I am comfortable with–even deeply moved by–ambiguity. I love that cultural products can be interpreted so many ways and from so many different angles.

This attribute is not one particular to me, of course; it’s a trait shared by millions, perhaps even billions, of people around the world. One of those people is David Lynch, and if The Return taught us anything, it’s that Lynch loves ambiguity, too.

As we, the Twin Peaks fan base, watched the finale of The Return on or around last Sunday, I think each one of us secretly hoped for some tidy endings for our favorite characters–even if we knew better from almost 40 years of Lynch’s work on screen, in print, and on exhibit. Many of us were upset by the finale, even livid. Given the cryptic nature of Part 18–in which a newly “whole” Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is seemingly trapped in an alternate reality/timeline with a woman (Sheryl Lee) who may or may not be Laura Palmer (and even that interpretation is up for serious debate)–who could blame roughly half of us (more or less) for feeling a little let down, disappointed, and even furious? After all, we are gestalt-ian creatures–we crave closure, resolution, and wholeness–even if the parts don’t completely add up to something that makes sense to us. In this regard, we, as viewers, are not unlike Cooper himself, who constantly seeks to tie up loose ends, even as the dreamer (the combined entity of Lynch/Frost) confounds the process time and again.

Cooper and Carrie outside the Palmer house, Cooper is confused
The “Richard” version of Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) tries to add up the pieces, while “Carrie Page” (Sheryl Lee) looks on, bewildered and frightened in Part 18 of Twin Peaks: The Return.

While frustrations about the finale and the many dangling threads of The Return are understandable and justified, we should now realize (if we didn’t already) that Lynch isn’t like other filmmakers, artists, or storytellers. Yes, his body of work contains recognizable themes, beautiful aesthetics, a very consistent series of visual and aural motifs, and narratives intended to trigger anxiety, horror, and suspense. But this filmmaker’s primary admonitions for his viewers–his first and last lessons–are these: embrace ambiguity and relish your (writerly) role as an active co-producer of meaning.

In a seminal 1970 work known as S/Z, French philosopher Roland Barthes argues that a reader/viewer of a text (whether a book, a film, a painting, or any other cultural product) can experience that text in a way that is either “readerly” or “writerly.” The readerly experience is passive, one in which the reader/viewer does not engage with the text in any way other than to allow it to wash over him or her at the level of pure subject matter or narrative. Nothing is wrong with this kind of textual experience; indeed, I would argue that the majority of cultural products are created for the express intent of being consumed at the readerly level. The writerly experience, on the other hand, is active. In his or her active engagement with the text, the reader/viewer becomes what Barthes refers to as a “co-producer” of meaning. In other words, when we tackle a text in a writerly way, we meet the writer/filmmaker/artist half way (or even more), thereby helping to bear the burden of meaning’s creation. Granted, such an approach guarantees a seemingly endless number of interpretations for any given ambiguous work (as many interpretations as any individual and/or number of individuals can muster), and, as a result, pinning down the writer’s/filmmaker’s/artist’s “actual” intent for his/her work (if an intent has ever even existed) becomes nigh on impossible, if not outright irrelevant. So, this writerly approach isn’t for everyone, especially those who might prefer to be the receivers of a good story rather than active ingredients used in its long journey to meaningfulness. A writerly reader/viewer quickly comes to realize that s/he is, in a way, just as important to a given work of art as the artist ever was. For some, this realization can seem overwhelming, tiring, or even tedious; for others, the experience can be exhilarating and empowering.

<em>Convergence</em> (1952), an Abstract Expressionist "action painting" by Jackson Pollock.
Convergence (1952), an Abstract Expressionist “action painting” by Jackson Pollock.

Neither way of reading or viewing is “correct,” of course. Sometimes I want a readerly experience (as when I read my old Richie Rich comic books, for example, or like when I watch episodes of the original Mission: Impossible series); at other times, when the text is layered deeply enough, I want to engage in a writerly experience that allows me greater freedom in the co-production of meaning (such as when I admire a Jackson Pollock painting, listen to a Chicago Cubs baseball game, or watch a Stanley Kubrick film). I choose my cultural response based on the nature of the cultural product, my degree of fascination with the depths of that product, my energy level, and the amount of time I have available to ponder and reflect. Admittedly, not all cultural products require a writerly reading for a rich enjoyment of what they have to offer, but I would submit that many more would reward writerly readings than we might, at first, realize.

But David Lynch is a tough-love kind of artist, one who continually challenges us–indeed, he demands that we step up and assume our responsibilities as co-producers of meaning in writerly engagements with his work. For readerly viewers, Lynch’s quirkiness and impressive visuals no doubt prove rewarding, but larger expectations of narrative continuity and closure will never be met by a Lynch production (save for a work like 1999’s The Straight Story, for example). Instead, he wants us to reach his heights and depths locked arm-in-arm with him. In fact, his heights are higher and his depths are deeper when we push his work and ideas further than they have the power to reach via his own (admittedly vast) imagination. (This is yet another reason why Lynch is such an advocate–even a prophet–for the spread of transcendental meditation, a vital part of his life and his creative method; he has even established the David Lynch Foundation for Transcendental Meditation to help people achieve the beauty he experiences during his own meditation sessions.) Put another way, Lynch makes many demands on his viewers, yes; but he does so with the intention of sharing his joy in the process of creation. In this regard, he may very well be the most generous and selfless of all A-list filmmakers working today.

Say what you will about Twin Peaks: The Return, its finale, and its dangling story arcs. Love them, hate them, care no less about them. The bottom line is still the same. With The Return, David Lynch continues to teach us his first, last, and most powerful lessons, the same lessons he has been teaching us since 1977: embrace ambiguity and relish writerly roles.

Written by Doug Cunningham


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  1. I commented on another post here suggesting something along these lines, but you put it far more eloquently. Thank you for sharing this.

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