Shall I tell you a story?
About Johnny McGory?
Shall I begin it?
That’s all that’s in it.
– Traditional Irish nursery rhyme
When confronted with a mystery, the human mind reacts by trying to unravel it. This is what makes us so amazing. This drive to understand is the reason our ancestors told elaborate tales about the stars in the sky. Humans can’t live with unanswered questions. This burning need to explain, categorise and classify is at the root of all scientific discovery and human progress. It is what pushes us to investigate the natural world, venture into space and grapple with the mysteries of the universe.
This innate need for explanation is part of what made the finale of The Return such a powerful experience. The ending felt like a punch in the gut because it left us with a completely mysterious set of circumstances. It was like reading an article that ended mid-sentence, or hearing the story of Johnny McGory quoted at the top of this page. The final part of The Return point-blank refused to give the closure of an explanation. In doing so, it broke the unwritten agreement that exists between storytellers and their audiences.
Nick Lowe, in his book The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative explains that in ‘Classical’ plotting: “There is a strong sense of unity and closure to the narrative structure, with particular importance attached to a firm and satisfying ending. At the same time, the audience or reader is teased with guessing-games over what is to happen: twists, surprises, mischievously thwarted expectations. And yet, classical plots play fair: they do not allow us to feel cheated by the turn of events taken or the means used to achieve them.”
In ending The Return, Lynch has not “played fair”. He wilfully and knowingly broken these structural rules, displaying a flagrant disregard for the unwritten agreement and robbing his audience of a “satisfying ending”. As such, years of narrative conditioning have left some viewers feeling cheated. Additionally, even those who might not feel overtly hoodwinked by the finale are still very keen to find an explanation for it – to pin it down and give themselves the satisfying feeling of closure that was initially absent. But this breaking of the narrative rules in Part 18 was done in such a deliberate manner that it must have been a conscious decision from Lynch and Frost. So we have to ask ‘Why?’ Why would they want to end their show in a way that risks leaving viewers feeling duped? And if this mystery was an intentional artistic choice, should we be seeking a conclusive answer to the questions it raises? Or should we honour the creators’ apparent wishes and live with the lack of closure?
A reader named ‘harveyparadox’ left a comment on an article I wrote recently, noting that there is a Mandarin word pronounced very much like “Jow-day” or “Judy”, which is defined as “to explain”. Forging this link between the act of explanation and something described in The Return as “an extreme negative force” (in a line spoken by Lynch himself) is fascinating, especially in light of Lynch’s stated views on the relationship between mystery and explanation. In a New York Times interview, back in 1995, Lynch said: “I like things that leave some room to dream. A lot of mysteries are sewn up at the end, and that kills the dream … I keep hoping people will like abstractions, space to dream, consider things that don’t necessarily add up.”
Resisting resolutions to mysteries and refusing to explain or define his works are themes that Lynch returns to again and again in interviews. He puts it once more, very succinctly, here:
And Lynch is not the only creative who thinks like this. Mark Twain famously wrote: “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” This quote seems to reflect Lynch’s view on explaining his art. The very act of definition immediately limits and reduces the work. It destroys the mystery and “kills the dream”. Other artists throughout time have resisted the pressure to explain their creations. In a surrealist performance piece, German artist Joseph Beuys locked the public outside a gallery, leaving them watching through windows as he pontificated about paintings to a stuffed hare attached to his own forearm. Beuys (somewhat ironically) chose to explain the piece by stating: “intellectualizing can be deadly to thought”. The work, titled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, can be read as a direct statement about the futility of defining art.
This desire to leave mysteries unsolved and meanings ambiguous immediately creates a potential friction with the audience, but Lynch is not alone, even in the world of mainstream television, in wrestling with this tension. The creators of BBC show Sherlock, Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, threw their eponymous hero off a roof, killing him at the end of Season 2 and creating an epic cliff-hanger which left fans champing at the bit for a satisfying explanation. The start of Season 3 opted not to give a single, definitive account of how Sherlock survived his fall, but rather offered several competing theories from different sources, leaving space for any explanation still to be true. This is a clever solution that offered closure to those who needed it, whilst simultaneously leaving the mystery alive. Moffat recognised in an interview that speculating about the truth was “much more fun than being told”.
But while Gatiss and Moffat knew there would be more episodes of Sherlock after they apparently killed off their hero, there’s no evidence that the ending of The Return was created with a follow-up in mind. So we have to accept that Lynch intended to leave us with more questions than answers. And it seems he wanted to do this because he enjoys conveying the feeling of mystery. He is absolutely aware that we are conditioned by thousands of years of evolution to seek certainty and explanation. And so he also knows he is creating an uncomfortable frisson by denying those answers. That thrill, that excitement and whirling, dizzying disorientation is the whole point. And so, before we rush to create an all-conquering ‘theory of everything’ that explains all the events of The Return, we should take some time to relish and savour this rare, uncomfortable sensation. Seeking a conclusive answer risks reducing this remarkable series to the status of a puzzle and that doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.
This is an idea that was put far more succinctly and poetically by Bruce Lee’s character, Mr Lee, in 1973 martial arts flick Enter the Dragon: “Don’t think. Feel!” he tells his student. “It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Sometimes we have to let our emotions take precedence over our intellect. To explain the plot of The Return is to reduce it to a set of ‘cause and effect’ events, but if we allow it “room to dream”, this show can be far more than that. It can be a powerful, dazzling, visceral experience.
Speaking of experience, when I was a teenager, my mind was permanently expanded by a visit to a retrospective exhibition of the surrealist Man Ray at the Serpentine Gallery in London. There was a lot to love in the startling, dreamlike collection, but the works that left the biggest impression on me were his wrapped objects – unknown items covered in cloth and bound with string. These were simple things, probably household items, elevated to the status of unknowable mysteries with infinite possibility. Left to the imagination, almost anything could be inside. The viewer is left wondering and kept guessing. What could be in there? Why did the artist choose that item? What could it possibly mean? These mysterious questions are much more powerful than the mundane answers to which they lead. Although the viewer is driven to wonder what could be inside, if the object contained within the wrapping was ever revealed, the artwork would immediately lose all meaning. The experience of mystery is the whole point. The question is more meaningful than the solution. The heavenly glory of the moon is more important than the finger.
Another analogy: Imagine an older gentleman begins speaking to you at a bar. His deep voice and sparkling eyes draw you in. Gradually, the conversation turns to a story about an encounter he had with a fortune teller at a circus. He produces an old penny, a gift from the seer he met in his youth. He places the coin in your palm and asks you to close your hand around it. He continues to spin his tale, until the ending, when the fortune teller and her tent vanish into thin air. At that point, the old gentleman, with a mischievous twinkle, asks you to open your hand. You see the vintage penny you were holding just seconds ago has disappeared. At that moment, your mind will scrabble for an explanation. But if you apply logic and peek behind the curtain, you risk reducing this great and powerful wizard to nothing more than a man, a mere trickster. The feeling of mystery is far more powerful, beautiful and wonderful than the tedious intellectual truth, which is that a combination of sleight of hand and misdirection have fooled you. The search for answers is the enemy of magic, just as explanation is the enemy of dreaming. And art, to David Lynch, is a precious and magical form of dreaming.
None of this is to say that we, as fans and viewers, shouldn’t speculate about what the events in The Return could mean or seek explanations for the confusion we feel. Any author of mystery knows that this guessing game is part of the fun an audience has in grappling with the ambiguities and secrets they create. This is what Lynch means when he talks about giving us “space to dream”. He has scattered themes and images across the canvas of The Return like stars in the inky black sky. Each of us can join those dots, conjuring our own constellations and patterns out of his creation. There are infinite permutations – as many interpretations as there are viewers. And each viewer’s understanding can morph and change and evolve over time. The text is rich enough to sustain this process forever. The only danger comes in seeking a definitive answer – one single explanation that will ‘fix’ every element of the story, pinning them in place like butterflies in a glass case. To do this would be to willingly relinquish a magical experience and give victory to the “extreme negative force” of explanation. It is better to enjoy an eternity of uncomfortable, wonderful questions than reach a single answer guaranteed to underwhelm.
Speaking about his reluctance to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer during the original run of Twin Peaks, Lynch talked about this effect, in which the solution we think we want is infinitely less enjoyable than the mystery that frustrates us. “It’s human nature to have a tremendous let-down once you receive the answer to a question, especially one that you’ve been searching for and waiting for,” he said. “It’s a momentary thrill, but it’s followed by a kind of depression.” This is almost certainly one of the reasons Lynch so diligently avoids revealing his own intentions and interpretations of his works – the moment he says “Eraserhead is about X” then that is all Eraserhead can be. If he never makes that statement, then he leaves the audience “space to dream” and the film can continue to be an infinite universe of mystery and possibility. This is also a very strong argument for resisting the urge to explain the finale of The Return to ourselves.
I’m reminded of another work by David Lynch, his infamous Fish Kit (pictured above). Thinking back to Mark Twain’s quote about explaining humour being akin to dissecting a frog, one could perhaps read something about Lynch’s attitude to explaining art in the gruesome form of this deconstructed creature. By dissecting and explaining a work, reducing it to a set of component parts, ironically, we risk destroying the very thing that makes it interesting, beautiful or moving. By looking inside a fish to see how it works, we destroy the essence of what makes it a fish, just as pinning a butterfly to enable detailed study will extinguish the fluttering life-force that initially captured our imagination.
So, if we can’t speak about Lynch’s works by seeking conclusive explanations, then how can we discuss them? One answer is offered by the field of literary criticism. The ‘reader-response’ movement, espoused by Stanley Fish and others, suggests we should avoid describing what the work is, but rather focus on what it does to us as readers or viewers. This entails a recognition that art exists not as something inert, in a vacuum, but rather as a living thing (like a fish or a butterfly), engaged in an interactive dance with each beholder’s own personal perceptions and interpretations. In his brilliant article on this site last week, Doug Cunningham explored some fascinating ideas about how Lynch draws us in as active participants, making us partners in this dance.
So perhaps this is the answer. Rather than trying to unwrap The Return and solve every last one of its mysteries, maybe we should explore how it makes us feel and consider how each of us interacts with it – perhaps that is more meaningful than seeking a conclusive explanation of what happened in the plot. Denying ourselves an answer is hard. It goes against every fibre of our being, against everything that makes us human. But refusing to define The Return leaves an infinite universe of possibilities open to us – and that is a rare and beautiful thing. As John Keats writes in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Something that exists only as a feeling, a dream or an imagined moment in the peripheries of our mind will always be superior to something fully realised and completely revealed, because it can continue to be an ideal, it can remain perfect, it has limitless potential to be anything at all. The moment we define it, unwrap it and look behind the curtain, we risk killing what makes it beautiful. And with that, my lifelong goal of quoting John Keats and Bruce Lee in a single article has been realised and I can finally