Belatedly I’m coming to David Foster Wallace’s collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and his essay on David Lynch. It’s a fantastic wonderful mess of a piece, a raggedly semi-journalistic account of a trip to the set of Lost Highway commissioned by Premiere magazine, which serves as a loose framework for free-ranging meditations on Lynch’s work. But in the end the piece is Wallace’s heartfelt attempt to cut through all the possible critical theories and “-isms” that seem to so easily attach to Lynch’s work, and just understand why it has affected him so strongly.
For Wallace, part of the strength of the work is that it is in his view not ironic: “…nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything….This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies essentially unironic.”
I appreciate what Wallace is driving at here; but I think perhaps “sincere” would be a better description of this property than “unironic.” There is irony, and then there is irony, and then yet other ironies. There is a kind of youthful hipster irony, in which every utterance holds the sub-text “I don’t really mean it”, which protects the tender youth from the always lurking possibility of being considered uncool. And this irony grows up (slightly) to knowing metacritical and analytic irony, that of an academic critic or a professional screenwriter, a Tarantino that says “I know that what I’m doing here is dabbling in cliché, and I know the entire history of this cultural trope, but isn’t this fun?”.
If the meaning of “irony” was limited to these two senses, yes, Lynch would be unironic. But it seems there is a great deal of irony in Lynch’s movies, of a type I don’t quite know how to describe, and certainly quite different than any insincere, winking, analytical irony. They’re very funny, a humor that derives from the bald and incongruous coexistence of levels, where an external banal, nice and well-ordered normality rubs up against an inner chaos of authentically scary, sexy, perverse and mysterious images. The awareness that a scary uncontrollable world is just a millimeter under the smooth skin of an orderly world is truly terrifying.
Isn’t this in some way the essence of humor? The laugh is a bark of surprise, with admixtures of delight and discomfort, elicited when we encounter an incongruity. As humans, the animals that are always looking for a new gimmick, we have evolved to delight in the unexpected. And the incongruities pile up in Lynch’s works, a mile a minute.
(Wallace hates and makes fun of this way of describing Lynch’s films, as being about evil “just below the surface.” I don’t know why one has to reject this construction, except to make the point, well worth making, that Lynchian evil is a visitation, a haunting, an ever-present part of the environment. That there aren’t good and bad people, but that evil is woven into the world, appearing anywhere.)
Lynch is a true visionary, who truly has visions he does not necessarily understand, and his aesthetic work consists of finding the way to present these as vividly as possible, so that they have the greatest possible impact on the nervous system.
In his book “Catching the Big Fish” — a strange little volume of short chapters, some of which talk about his creative process, and others of which are flat-footed advertisments for Transcendental Meditation — Lynch say that when he started work on Blue Velvet, he only had three things: the song, a picket fence, and the image of a human ear lying in a field. One gets the sense that there is something deeply improvisational about how the rest of the whole film structure got filled in, something visionary, a matter of revelation.
But to return to our taxonomy of irony: there is another type of protective irony, that serves as a sort of vector, fooling the audience into putting its guard down, a seemingly camp or insincere envelope that actually is facilitating the delivery of a sincere and unironic content. We see this not only in David Lynch but in Leonard Cohen; when he sings “I stepped into an avalanche / it covered up my soul” its so corny there is something hilarious about it; or “The Ballad of the Absent Mare”, an absurd cowboy tune, ridiculously crooned by the least likely cowboy one can imagine. And yet, one is left moved, and we are somehow soul-to-soul with Cohen while our cynical hipster selves, his and ours, chuckle together in the next room.
Roc and Anna in Barcelona are putting out a new release of computer-generated birdsong by various people. Here’s a text I wrote for them.
Birds are more musical than people, to our shame. This has been the source of much fascination throughout human history. We’re aware that birds speak; they speak in a language we don’t understand, but there has always been the sense that if we listen to them carefully enough perhaps we will understand… something.
One appeal of their song is that it seems so much like human language. And indeed it does move along at a language-like rate. The human perception of sound has a certain “blind spot” in it. Frequencies up to 5 to 10 Hz are understood and interpreted as pulses, rhythm, as sequences of distinct events. Above 20 or 30 Hz we no longer distinguish beats, but another mechanism takes over, and all we can perceive are the perceptual summaries that we know of as frequency and timbre. But at those rates just below what we hear as audio, in that “blind spot” just below that of detectable frequencies, there is a special band set aside, I believe, for the use of language. (Much like the way radio frequency bands are set aside for the use of television, FM radio, aviation communications and so on.)
This is the rate that phonemes stream by in listening to speech, and we have an entirely different perceptual apparatus for things at that frequency. It’s not rhythm particularly, it’s not frequency: it’s the linguistic zone. The stream of timbral changes in birdsong takes place in that zone, and that’s part of the reason why it speaks to us.
What are ears for? Sight, as Aristotle famously said, is prized above the other senses, and is more often the target of our focused attention than sound. Its primacy is perhaps expressed simply by the fact that our ears are on the sides of our heads, our eyes are on the front. But unlike our always directed sense of sight, our ears provide a channel of information that we receive whether we are attending to it or not. We have ears to hear the speech of others, certainly; but more primally, to orient us in the world, to provide the atmosphere and overall moment of the environment in which we find ourselves. Sound orients us, both in social environments where language and our own music reinforces our sense of cultural belonging, and in natural environments where the sound of the wind and the movement of other animals alerts us to opportunities and dangers in our environment.
The tradition of augury — taking the sound and behavior of birds as providing oracular communications to us — is evidence of a special relationship we have long had with the birds as the other speakers in our world. Our observation of birds plays a special part in bridging the gap between the natural and the social. Though of the natural world, still they speak, and convey useful information about the environment we are in. Since they fly and travel long distances quickly, they know things about the larger picture than we can perceive directly, and their cries can report on, say, the presence of predators or of dangerous weather still a long ways off.
And, more mysteriously, their sounds just give us pleasure, the ambiance they provide reminding us continuously that we are embedded in a beautiful and living world.
The tools of computer and electronic music, for the first time in human history, have given us the ability to “hold” sounds, regard them as objects to polish, refine and sculpt. If anything I’ve said above has any validity, it seems obvious why some of us would be drawn to using these tools for the synthesis of bird sounds. Now that we can get our hands on mechanisms that create bird-like sounds, do we have a chance now to deepen our understanding of what they have been saying?