Intuition: A Key to the Spirituality of David Lynch’s Films

Using intuition as a guiding theme, Sean Desmond examines how we can understand the enigmatic style and spiritual quality of David Lynch’s films.

‘Instinct means “I’m hungry and I want to eat”. Intuition is the thing’.

‘Ah, yes’, a surprisingly receptive Alex Jones nods. Some complex and alien harmony shapes the flow of this old 2007 conversation with David Lynch, passing from transcendental meditation to Lynch’s then-new movie Inland Empire to an alternative theory about the forces behind 9/11, the two speakers like two big mental explosions wrapping their big tentacles of smoke in some alien greeting. Yet their scattered ramblings seem to find common ground in their mutual sense for hidden truth, almost gnostic, which Lynch goes on to describe.

‘Intuition is higher than the intellect, it’s emotion in intellect, it’s a flowing of knowingness. Now going back to meditation: when you learn to dive within – which is so beautiful an experience; a human, human experience – you contact the ocean of knowingness: pure, vibrant consciousness… it feeds all artistic processes, and all creative processes!’[1]

Such proclamations of contemplative insight may seem baffling, since his films (and TV shows) frequently feature the most chaotic and puzzling scenes and plots in cinema; yet despite this, a certain characteristic coherence emerges and amazes, universally enough to make him a beloved cult figure and even a pop poster child of all that is surreal and dreamlike in film. Assuming this coherence is not an illusion, we can examine his films to grasp the manner in which the strange and illogical serve as a proper vehicle for high and abstract, yet spiritually pertinent, realities.

Now whether he knows it or not, Lynch is bringing up an ancient distinction when he states ‘intuition is higher than the intellect’, although it is usually worded differently. René Guénon was an early twentieth-century writer who uncovers in his writings the unchangeable metaphysical principles agreed upon by traditions across history, thus his summary of these two kinds of knowledge stands on the shoulders of all theology. Here, ‘intuition’ and ‘intellect’ both refer to the higher kind of knowledge, while the lower is called ‘discursive’:

‘Discursive knowledge, as opposed to intuitive knowledge, is fundamentally synonymous with indirect and mediate knowledge; it is therefore only a very relative knowledge, gained in a way by reflection or by participation. By reason of this character of exteriority, which allows the duality of subject and object to subsist, it cannot find within itself the guarantee of its truth, but must receive it from principles that surpass it, and which are of the order of intuitive knowledge, that is to say purely intellectual knowledge’.[2]

In other words, to know something discursively is to know that something is, and to know something intuitively is to know it. The former is solely to consciously recognize something as true, and this is far from touching on the thing’s very actuality. To come by rational argument to the conclusion that God exists, for example, is hardly akin to actually knowing God, in the fullest Biblical sense and even in a partial sense. Intuitive knowledge of a thing is the total affirmation of it, the impossibility of its denial, and that which justifies the discursive knowledge; in fact to truly know something is in a sense to become it – hence the dissolution of the ‘duality of subject and object’ – although that is a different discussion entirely.

Another aspect of intuition is brought out in Thomas Aquinas’ formulation, which is similar, although not distinguishing pure intellect from discursive reason in human beings he instead compares the former to the latter as ‘the perfect to the imperfect’.[3] The perfect, intellectual knowledge of things comes to man by the light of their Creator, the only way wherein things can be seen in their totality and integrity. Angels share this mode of knowledge, since they are incorporeal and therefore need not follow rational ‘steps’ to come to full and immediate understanding: ‘in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them’.[4]

Classical philosophy tends to shun any kind of human faculty above reason, so instead Plato frames intuitive knowledge in a phenomenon of divinely-bestowed ‘madness’, or theia mania, in his Phaedrus dialogue. Josef Pieper’s essay on this topic offers a rigorous theology for the circumstances making such realization possible: ‘human nature is so positioned within its existential realm as to be essentially open toward the sphere of the divine’,[5] and when reason is left behind in some unpredictable event, ‘it is precisely in this loss of rational sovereignty that man gains a wealth, above all, of intuition, light, truth, and insight into reality, all of which would otherwise be beyond his reach’.[6] Pieper remains agnostic as to what kind of divinities grant these bursts of intellectual light,[7] yet Plato states that there is no genuine art or poetry that does not come from it.[8]

These various notions – intuition, pure intelligence, perfect reason, theia mania, or ‘super-brainstorming’ as Alex Jones calls it – differ from each other in small ways; having a science of these ideas may well be virtually impossible. However, the historico-theological testimony is clear: there is some faculty or divine gift, more complete and more unified than human reason, that grasps abstract ideas, principles, and spirits that would otherwise remain unknown to us. Such knowledge also entails the immediate and complete knowing of the thing in all its indefinitely numerous aspects, such as rational discourse could never exhaust. Now we can discuss David Lynch’s work, its manifestation of certain intuitive truths, and what these truths have to say about the contemporary spiritual life.

Beginning in the late seventies with his harrowing, feverish urban dystopia Eraserhead, Lynch has been able to translate the complex spirits of current-era generations and settings into film unlike any of his contemporaries. Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive are among his most popular, each characterized by surreal and non-linear plots, split characters, and striking nonsensical imagery. Crowning his popular career, however, is his nineties TV series with Mark Frost, Twin Peaks, part way between a murder-mystery, small town soap, and psychological horror. That the show’s cult (and Lynch’s personal cult, for that matter), despite having all the trimmings of an inaccessible work, has outlasted countless other artistically meritorious projects throughout the past thirty years may be the first piece of evidence that Lynch has hit on some real and truthful principles intelligible to the viewers.

But to approach the question more closely, we first scavenge for tidbits of coherent symbolism in his works. Since his movies deal with the modern world, so complex with technology, alienation, and cultural and spiritual decay, the translation of his intuition into something tangible can never be so simple as a pithy saying, a riddle or a single parable; however, elements can be taken and rationally deconstructed for the sake of argument. Consider Twin Peaks: The Return, the even more stark and cryptic 2017 reincarnation of the original nineties series, and its use of electricity. Electrical outlets act as spiritual portals between the real world and the Black Lodge, a dark oneiric realm outside of space; this same realm also births the demonic entity ‘Bob’ and acts as source for the splitting of the person into two beings (the ‘two Coopers’). Near the end of the series, thresholds of electrical influence act as the medium of transportation to the past, and the final scene ends with a scream and a power outage. Practically everywhere raw electricity arises, something pivotal happens, and it happens to cohere with Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of man in the era of electricity. In a conversation with Pierre Babin, McLuhan states that ‘electric man is a “super angel.” When you are on the telephone you have no body. And, while your voice is there, you and the person you speak to are here, at the same time. Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis-incarnate’.[9] The separation of soul and body, the destruction of space and its mediator of time, and the fracturing of personhood are all spiritual effects of electric technology, and electricity fulfills that very role wherever it arises in the series. Indeed, there is theological significance to this aspect, showing electric technology to invert the incarnational, sacramental life to which we are called morally.

Yet here’s the rub: making this rational observation is not necessary to tap into the ineffable intuition that the series conveys. In fact, recognizing and naming this interpretation reduces the series to a commentary on electricity, which negates its innumerable other aspects, each of which has its own (perhaps theological) significance. Ultimately, the best way to view Lynch’s films is in their wholeness and inviolability, with all the logical dead ends and enigmas they contain, because that is where the intuitions finds their highest realization. This is what he means when he says ‘the film is the thing’ in an interview with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2007. ‘The second it’s finished, people want you to change it back into words. And…it’s saddening, it’s torture. The language is cinema’.[10] What this attests to is the completeness and inviolability of an object of intuition: the film contains ‘all whatsoever that can be known’ in its object as Aquinas says, and to break it down is to destroy the unity of vision.

There is even evidence that theia mania plays a role in Lynch’s process, as his notorious distaste for elaborating the meaning of his own films comes not only from a desire to maintain integrity, but even from a lack of total involvement on his part. In an interview with BBC he is repeatedly asked about the meaning of various films and scenes, and alternatingly he either refuses to answer or claims he doesn’t remember.[11] Pieper elaborates that concomitant with divine madness is a rapturous quality of ‘being-beside-oneself’, an entire ‘loss of self-possession’:[12] since man is not the pre-eminent agent of this mania, he is like an observer of his own experience, and after the experience ends this distance from the object of intuition multiplies. St. Augustine’s encounter with the ‘immutable light’[13] in book six of the Confessionsexemplifies something similar; due to the object of his vision being so lofty yet himself being weighed down by carnal passions, he loses the pure intellect he once had, and is left with ‘only a loving memory and a desire for that of which [he] had the aroma but which [he] had not yet the capacity to eat’.[14] Lynch seems to suffer from the same possession and consequent amnesia.

A final testament to Lynch’s intellectual legitimacy occurs at the end of Blue Velvet, an eighties neo-noir that is now regarded as one of the greatest movies of the decade. The film draws out the dreamy optimism of the fifties to its natural conclusions with Jeffrey, a curious high school boy, embarking on a dark, psychosexual odyssey through drug dealing, kidnapping, violence, and perversion so abject and Freudian that it caused mass walkouts and refund demands on its release. Any other contemporary director would be forced to end such a story pessimistically. But instead, after all is done, Jeffrey is left in his angelic sweetheart’s sunny backyard, about to eat lunch with her family. A bird flies by with a bug in its beak, and they gaze at it in wonder. ‘It’s a strange world, isn’t it’, she smiles.

The purpose of this bright ending is initially baffling, until it is seen in relation to the preceding horrors as a microcosm of creation: all the darkness, confusion, and depravity of the world is intentional, and follows from causes that proceed from the love of God. When the darkness is seen in this light, the darkness immediately ceases, and only Love, Beauty, and pure Intellect is left. This seems to be the final object of Lynch’s characteristic ambiguity: the most unified intuition, the simplest realization, is that of everything that ever was ought to be seen with love, because it was made by God and reflects His goodness. In his final words to Alex Jones, he even offers a very ancient theological statement: ‘all diversity is appreciated in the light of unity. That’s where all the power is that created the universe’.[15]

[1] New Wave Films, ‘Alex Jones interviews David Lynch’, YouTube, 19 Dec. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0Kx52Nkeec&t=822s&ab_channel=NewWaveFilms, 12:35.

[2] René Guénon, The Multiple States of the Being, trans. Henry D. Fohr, ed. Samuel D. Fohr (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2001), 51.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (2017), I.79.8, co.

[4] Ibid., I.58.3, co.

[5] Josef Pieper, “Divine Madness”: Plato’s Case against Secular Humanism, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 16.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, ed. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 50.

[10] undergroundair, ‘David Lynch: The Film is the Thing’, YouTube, 19 Aug. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0JEUh1O7GY&ab_channel=undergroundair 0:46.

[11] ‘I used to know’. TaggleElgate, ‘David Lynch 1999 SCENE BY SCENE interview’, YouTube, 30 Aug. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIlmdLPUdpg&ab_channel=TaggleElgate 34:18.

[12] Pieper, Divine Madness, 8.

[13] St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 123.

[14] Ibid., 128.

[15] New Wave Films, ‘Alex Jones interviews David Lynch’, 19:22.

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