Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rewriting the Past

I am not a fan of the director David Lynch. He massacred Dune, Eraserhead was an obscenity, Blue Velvet an over-the-top joke. The main reason The Elephant Man was so good is because he didn't write it, only direct it.

Yet, I have to give him the highest kudos for Mulholland Dr. Why? Because it's about the nearly-univeral, narcissistic tendency for people to rewrite their pasts not only so they appear better than they really are, but so they can win. This tendency causes a tremendous amount of grief not only on celluloid, but in the real world.

Does anybody really doubt that Lynndie England is compulsively telling everyone who'll listen that she didn't like what she did in Iraq? That she didn't enjoy it, even with those stupid grins on her face? That it wasn't her fault? It was someone else's? Someone made her do it?

She's trying to rewrite the past so she appears blameless. The neocons are doing the same thing. Oh no! We are in no way responsible for this fouled-up war! It's someone else's fault! We're blamelesss, they claim, trying to throw their earlier writings down the Orwellian memory hole.

I expect this kind of nonsense from some genetic retrograde from a West Virginia trailer court. But when the "leading" intellectuals in society engage in it, and never take blame for what they do, that is a big problem that affects a great many people As far as I'm concerned, it defines what a court intellectual is: it's not my fault, it's someone else's. If these people had any honor, they'd fall on their swords.

Lynch fully understands the desire people have to engage in fantastic confabulation in order to shift blame from themselves onto someone else. Be warned, though, that his film is nearly incomprehensible on first viewing. It requires at least two. It also contains many adult themes (especially sexual), so if you're easily offended, look elsewhere for a movie.

I'm not going to go into any detail about the plot. It wouldn't do any good anyway, because it is so complex and dream-like that to do it justice this article would have to be four times as long. I'll just sum up what it's about: when many people get into a situation where they are losers, they will engage in fantasies to convince themselves are they winners. In order for them to perceive themselves as winners, it requires projecting blame elsewhere. Refusing to admit their weaknesses, and projecting them on others, is essentially, in Lynch's world (and mine), what creates evil.

On the libertarian side, an example of rewriting the past so one wins, and shifting blame onto someone else so they are the cause of all problems, is Ayn Rand. Her real name was Alice Rosenbaum. In reality, she was a
rabbit-toothed women married to an alcoholic never-do-well whom she supported because he never worked.

Yet in her writings, especially Atlas Shrugged, she literally rewrote her past. All her heroes, male and female, are gorgeous, rich, brilliant, supremely competent. They're perfect. Being perfect, all blame for the problems in their world has to he shifted elsewhere. In Atlas Shrugged, it was shifted onto what she called "looters" and "parasites," all of whom she tried to murder. Ultimately, Rand called herself "the perfect woman," a confabulation of the saddest kind, and one worthy of Mulholland Dr.

Lynch will have none of this. His vision, on this point of fantasizing about the past, and shifting blame, is clear and right on the mark. He sees where it leads: destruction. In many ways his film is a Greek tragedy: Koros (stability) to Hubris (grandiose fantasy) to Ate (madness) to Nemesis (destruction).

His movie is also about the collision of Innocence with Experience, of Goodness with Evil. He has some significant points to make.

In literature there are three related themes: Innocence vs. Experience, Unconsciousness vs. Consciousness, and the Natural State vs. the Machine State. On one side stand Innocence, Unconsciousness and the Natural State (all of which represent the Garden of Eden). Opposed to them are Experience, Consciousness, and the Machine State.

You can see these themes in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, in which the Eloi are innocents, unconscious of evil, who dwell naturally in their Garden of Eden. Against them are the Morlocks, who are conscious of evil and use machines.

You are also see these themes in Lynch's The Elephant Man. It's why in the beginning there is a man being operated on, wounded terribly by a machine. It's why the Elephant Man maintains his innocence throughout the entire movie.

The theme of the Natural State vs. the Machine State is pretty much fraudulent. Machines are amoral. They are, as Cooper's Law states, merely amplifiers. They amplify our abilities, for good or bad.

While the Natural State vs. the Machine State appeared 25 years ago in The Elephant Man, it does not appear in Mulholland Dr. But Innocence vs. Experience, and Unconsciousness vs. Consciousness, does.

What Lynch says about them is sad but true: you cannot go through your life unconscious of evil. It is there, and sooner or later it will hit you.

I will give away one scene in order to illustrate this point. There is a young man, very sensitive, very decent, very innocent, sitting in a diner, talking to a friend. He says he's been having a dream about a monster in back of the diner. That monster, although it's not clearly stated, is the personification of the hate, envy and jealousy of the main character (who sees herself as perfect, which is why this monster is the unacknowledged imperfect side of her) projected into reality.

When this young man walks to the back of the diner, the monster pops out at him. He keels over backward. Is he dead, or did he merely faint? The movie never tells. What's clear is that Lynch is saying that when people deny their imperfections--their hate, their envy, their jealousy--then for all practical purposes it will materalize in reality. And it does. The first to be hurt by it are the most innocent, the most decent, the most sensitive. And that happens, too, because they don't want to see the evil that exists. In their minds, someone else will take care of it--usually, for most people, the government.

If I'm reading the movie right, Lynch is saying the greatest sin of the human race is the grandiose fantasies that people have, in which everyone is split into all-good and all-bad. Almost always, we see ourselves as good. Therefore, someone else has to be bad--the cause of our hate, envy and jealousy. Then we try to kill them, to get rid of our bad feelings. This often involves rewriting our past, creating what Daniel Patrick Moynahan called "fine feeling and bad history." The Greeks had a term for all of this--Hubris. "I am good, and perfect; you are evil and the cause of my problems." George Bush has a term for it, too: "You are either with us or against us."

Some people will go so far to maintain their self-image of being right that they will engage in trying to rewrite their past, as Jay Gatsby did in The Great Gatsby. But the ancient Greeks considered these kinds of grandiose fantasies a madness. Lynch, obviously, agrees with them.

It's unstated in the movie, but implicit, that when we accept our mperfections, and cease to project them, the madness ceases. If we do not--and the movie is clear about this--we end up trapped in our insane fantasies--then dead.


Richard said...

So in a distinctly fictional work, that never pretended to offer any historical facts, you claim Ayn Rand "literally rewrote her past". (My italics.) Your claim is so blatantly dishonest and, given the context in which it is written, hypocritical it is enough to choke a yawning hippopotamus. Maybe you could post the source of Rand's remark that she is "the perfect woman". Others have called her that, but I've not heard of her saying so except in reference to those others.

Even more grandly hippo-critical is your accusation of neo-cons (whom I despise) as rewriters of the past. The Left, both Old and New have been actively rewriting both the past and the present for a century. I guess it takes one to know one.

So the Right has finally seen that dishonesty can pay, if its passed off as academic achievement (Ward Churchill comes to mind). That must indeed be upsetting to the Left, to see their ideological enemies using the same techniques. Now we see a turf war over the fine 'art' of smearing and dishonesty. It's logic when their own side does it, but outrageous when the other side does it.

If Skepticism as academic 'achievement', then cynicism as literary (film scripts too) achievement will surely serve well in literary reviews. Why be original and honest if no one else is, UncaBob?

Richard said...

Curious, and seeking amusement, I read your hate mail page. I wonder if you noticed that you come across with all the same profundity as many of the ones sending the hate mail? You do this even with those who disagree with you quite sensibly. Apparently missing their point because they saw beyond your own point, which you claim they stupidly missed.

If you claim 2+2=5 and someone else points out that 2+2=4, you are wont to claim the latter person is as "stupid" as someone who claims 2+2=6.

BTW, neither of my comments are hate mail, unless you define anything that points out flaws in your 'arguments' are "hate". Oh, but that is what you do, as per the link provided above.

John Donohue said...

re Ayn Rand

First, I will not stoop to respond to your personal slanders, except to say that to lead with them is a sure sign of someone desperate and deeply afraid.

Second, you place in direct quotes the statement that Rand called herself "the perfect woman." Please provide the source of that quotation.

Third, Ayn Rand is not "on the libertarian side." She is not a libertarian.

Fourth, you have Atlas Shrugged all wrong. Galt's entire purpose was to correct the error of the heroes. Galt would not waste one instant on the 'looters' et al, except by way of helping the heroes show how they were enabling the looters (as in Galt's Speech). Galt's position was that this error of the heroes was to blame for the condition of the collapsing culture, not the looters, etc. I don't mind spoiling the suspense: they corrected their error.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

Unknown said...

All Randroids are haters.

Unknown said...

Oh, I forgot -- a crackpot is someone who zeroes in on one word, one sentence, or one phrase of an article, and is completely blind as to what the article is really about,