Notes from the Bookhouse: What is Reality?

It’s comin’ on Christmas
They’re cuttin’ down trees…

Sheriff Truman has given Lucy and I carte blanche to decorate the Bookhouse for Christmas, which means a trip down to storage to grab the old tree and boxes of decorations from the cellar. I swear this tree has been here since Sheriff Truman’s own father was a Bookhouse Boy, back in the 1960s. You know the shiny aluminum Christmas tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas? That’s our tree. It’s beautiful, in a retro-kitsch kind of way, but it’s like stepping into a time machine every time we dig it out to set it up. We take it out of its box and it’s like no time has passed since we put it away the previous winter; it springs back into shape as if we’d just walked out of Horne’s Department Store with it under our arms. Every ornament has a story, and Lucy knows them all. She puts each one on their branches exactly where they’re best suited, and I swear she hangs each of them on the same branch they sat on the year before; that’s just how good she is. And it won’t be long before we pack it all away again, setting the tree into its box and putting the ornaments away to lay in situ until next year, which will go by far too fast, as if no time has passed at all, and then we’ll open the boxes and find them the way we left them this year…

It’s all kind of remarkable. The past sits next to the present and bleeds into the future with our little Christmas tree.

Of course you all know that my mind has been on The Final Dossier of late, and questions of past and present and future are all I can think about. If it’s true that the past can be changed by someone from the present, and that this affects the future, what’s the relation between these three tenses, these moments in time? Are they even moments at all? What is real? What is now?

The past…next to the present…bleeding into the future…

In David Lynch’s late-stage works, there’s a marked interest in issues relating to quantum physics. This is well-documented by critical scholar Martha Nochimson in her fascinating 2013 book David Lynch Swerves, which charts Lynch’s increasing interest in issues at the intersection of modern physics and eastern philosophy. This is especially true in his work from Lost Highway to Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks’ third season fits even better into this paradigm than I think anyone could have predicted. Even those of us well-versed in Lynch’s oeuvre and who expected this kind of shift away from coffee and cherry pie and towards the disorienting world of quantum superposition and non-locality couldn’t have predicted exactly how or how deeply The Return was going to delve.

So while I set up the tree, my questions became: does The Final Dossier shed light on any quantum physics reading of Twin Peaks: The Return? If so, what is it saying? And what will it mean for the story that’s being told, and these characters we have come to know and love?

This will be a big project, and it won’t be finished today; I had to enlist the help of my dear friend and fellow editor and Bookhouse Babe Eileen G. Mykkels to finish this, to round out my ideas and take everything to the next level. For now let’s just tackle the basics, starting with: What is quantum physics?


A Primer

Quantum physics, or quantum mechanics/quantum theory, is a fundamental theory in physics that describes the behaviour of particles and energy at the subatomic level. More than a century ago, physicists began to notice that microscopic objects don’t behave the way that objects at the macroscopic level do. Classical physics could no longer explain the behaviour of quarks or the fact that light appeared to be both a particle and a wave; it was sort of like explaining interpretive dance using organic chemistry. So the leading physicists of the day — Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and others — developed new theories to explain the strange effects that happen at the microscopic, or quantum, level. So far, those theories have held up beautifully in many different areas of theoretical physics, and have given us exciting developments such as discussions about string theory, the creation of the first Bose-Einstein condensate, and the sighting of the Higgs Boson.

What does this have to do with David Lynch, his approach to film, and Twin Peaks? On the surface, very little. But as Nochimson was able to point out, often using Lynch’s own words from many hours of interviews she conducted with him over the years, Lynch has a deep and abiding interest in these fundamental theories, and the things that they predict—such as time travel, particles existing in more than one place at once, or particles across vast distances being able to interact and influence one another in a state known as “entanglement”—have begun showing up in Lynch’s works as far back as 1997’s Lost Highway. (I’m certain Nochimson will have more to say on this subject in the years to come now that Twin Peaks: The Return has been added to the mix, but for now I hope that this line of inquiry will at the very least prime us for thinking about this. If the topic interests you, you should absolutely read her work.)

IMG_9795What triggered my questions on this subject was this idea that Agent Cooper was apparently able to travel back in time to change the past and affect the present and future (either by erasing the original timeline and creating an altered one, or by creating an alternate/parallel reality by his actions), and—more interestingly—the fact that some people throughout The Return and its companion novels, Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks and The Final Dossier, seem to be able to remember events from the timeline that we were initially exposed to in the original series, in which Laura was not taken from the woods and sent (?) to Odessa to live the next 25 years as Carrie Page. According to all laws of classical physics, this should be impossible, and yet in this (admittedly fictional) world, it happened. How? Maybe we need to be looking at this through the weird lens of quantum physics.


One of the great leaps forward in the world of modern physics was the adoption of this notion of spacetime—the fusion of the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a four-dimensional continuum—as a fundamental part of reality. In this model of reality, and especially on the quantum level, it is understood as fact that reality is subjective; observers such as particles do not agree on sequences of events. In fact, one observer’s past could be another observer’s future, and vice-versa.

This is groundbreaking, earth-shaking stuff. It means that there is no sequence of events from past through present and to the future. All times exist at once, and none are more objectively real than the others.

The title of this essay is “What is Reality?” and in the video above we get our answer. As PBS Space Time’s Gabe Perez-Giz explains it:

Is everyone’s experience of the universe entirely subjective? Or, phrased another way, if time and space as we usually conceive of them aren’t part of objective reality, then what is? Causality. [emphasis mine]

The explanation gets complicated, but as Perez-Giz explains, observers may not be able to agree on time, distance, past, present, or future, but we all agree on causality, which is broadly defined as the relationship between causes and effects. If we all agree that eventa can influence eventb then we can agree that eventa caused eventb. And while we might be tempted to believe that time elapsing and unfolding as we believe it does is what is responsible for this causality, it’s actually the other way around: causality is what is responsible for time. Causality seems to be the most important cog in what makes things real. In fact, it may be the only cog.

It’s tough to wrap your head about, we know. But that’s okay. This is Twin Peaks, and we’re all used to this stuff.

Back to Twin Peaks

A lot of people bristled instinctively at the notion that Agent Cooper was able to travel back in time to influence the past in Part 17 of The Return, and they did this for many reasons; one is that chafes against our understanding of what Twin Peaks means, but it also seems to butt up against the nature of reality. If Einstein had been watching Twin Peaks with us this past summer, he probably wouldn’t have had a problem with this idea of the fluidity of time. In a letter written after the death of a colleague, Albert Einstein wrote that:

“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

If there is no distinction between past, present, and future, and there is no flow of time (only chains of causality from event to event across spacetime), and if every time can exist at once, then of course Agent Jeffries would be able to help Cooper into the slipstream to save Laura. (Of course because…well, it’s fictional!) Lynch and Frost may have taken grand artistic license with the physics notions that they apparently borrowed from, but it is apparent (or at least it’s probable) that these are where those ideas came from. And they’re sound ideas, at least from the perspective of modern physics.

This notion that time is slippery and free from distinction could explain why Tammy space-time-continuumremembers certain things from other times, or why Albert and Gordon can begin to remember something in the present after not having those memories before, because their present selves are entangled with their past selves on a quantum level. 

And if all time exists all the time, and our past exists simultaneously with our future with our present sandwiched in between, then could it not be theoretically possible for someone with enough sensitivity to pick up on these other “points” in time? We talked about the possible effects of Lodge contact taking Audrey, Annie, and Diane and placing them outside time. Is it possible that Tammy, Albert, and Gordon (who seem to remember the “unofficial” version of events) — and possibly even the rest of the assembled audience for the events at the Sheriff’s Station in Part 17—are all on the same continuum? I think so. Living through the events they witnessed and literally having the events of their timeline change around them might be enough to place them “outside” time to a certain extent.

Now, if this is a continuum, it implies that there are people who exist at both ends; people for whom time proceeds linearly and logically, and people who exist completely and totally outside of time. This someone who exists outside of space/time/spacetime itself may have the ability to “see” all events at all times; not like Tammy, who has remembrances of “wrong” events, almost like the Mandela Effect writ large over wide swaths of her life, and not like Albert and Gordon, who begin remembering events that they never should have forgotten in the first place. I’m thinking more of someone like The Fireman, sitting in his movie theatre with access to a Kodak Carousel of images representing plots in spacetime. We’ve seen that he can place people into a timeline where he wants them to be, and can manipulate events, flipping through them as though watching a slideshow. Unbound by time and space, he can influence the past, present, or future, all at once.

img_0225The only other person we observe who is even remotely capable of doing the same is Agent Jeffries, and I don’t believe it is mere coincidence that The Fireman’s “home” features a veritable warehouse of “teapots” (because, I’m sorry, that’s what they look like) exactly like the one that Jeffries seems to exist within. Is The Fireman creating or cultivating the powers of other entities like him, with the ability to change events at will? Is this ultimately what dugpas are—not just cultivators of evil for the sake of evil, but powerful beings who exist on both sides as neutral arbiters instead?

An Ending

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Just as, according to quantum physics, we exist along the spacetime continuum, so to do the characters in Twin Peaks exist upon a continuum, their position along which determines what and how much they know. These ideas of quantum physics may be a starting point for something, or they may be nothing at all. But for me, putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace, sitting here with this Christmas tree thinking of years past while wondering about the implications of the work of art that Twin Peaks is, I can’t help but see the connections here between art and science…

Eileen and I will be delving into this in the coming days with a quantum physics breakdown of The Return, dealing with Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations. Stay tuned!


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