David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish (Penguin 2007)
A David Lynch “celebrity memoir” would be a blasphemous contradiction in terms. How could a filmmaker build a career on disturbingly irreducible abstractions and succeed—in Hollywood, no less—then turn around and buy into such a decadent genre? On the other hand, the impulse to reflect at a certain point in one’s life, to make sense of and, to an extent, explain everything that’s happened is a function of human nature. So, with memoir ruled-out and autobiography overly cumbersome, what’s left for an enigmatic cinema icon with a cult following, a message and a book deal? In Catching the Big Fish, Lynch finds the answer: Scripture.
Over the course of 83 concisely quotable chapters—ranging in length from a single sentence to a couple of pages, many prefaced by verses from the Upanishads—Lynch lets readers in on the supposed secret of his unbridled creativity and blissful peace of mind: Transcendental Meditation. For those who never made it onto the bus back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that’s the wildly popular movement brought to the West by His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and embraced by pop heroes such as the Beatles and Donovan. Its beauty, according to Lynch, is its utter ease and simplicity:
“So in 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day… She took me into this little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss—pure bliss. And I was just in there.”
Lynch hasn’t missed a morning or afternoon session since. “We waste so much time on other things, anyway,” he writes. “Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.” And in return, you can tap the “ocean of pure vibrant consciousness” within, where sublime ideas—the “big fish” of the book’s central metaphor—are caught.
If comparing a light compendium of celebrity insight to scripture strikes you as a reckless exaggeration, that’s because it is. After all, this book is no more sacred then The Power of Now or Chicken Soup for the Soul, as many of the work’s more blithely optimistic passages make painfully clear: “In the world, the result of enlivening unity by a peace-creating group would be real peace on earth.”
Under ordinary circumstances, this kind of unchecked idealism, while admirable, is neither unique nor terribly interesting. These aren’t ordinary circumstances. I know people scared to be in the same room as an unopened copy of Mulholland Drive, let alone Lost Highway or Eraserhead. It’s not the films themselves people find so terrifying, it’s their subconscious identification with them. Which is, of course, the root of Lynch’s sublime genius: he makes us fear ourselves.
But how does an artist reconcile work that inspires existential terror with claims of perfect bliss in personal life? In the chapter “Darkness,” Lynch attempt to explain this disconnect: “there are many, many dark things flowing around in this world now, and most films reflect the world in which we live. They’re stories. Stories are always going to have conflict…The filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering.”
One potentially troubling aspect of Catching the Big Fish is the specter of “Orientalism” as defined by scholar Edward Said. Isn’t this just another selective, self-servingly irreverent Western appropriation of Eastern concepts made possible by an implicit colonial power structure? After all, Lynch’s earliest encounters with meditation smack of contexts that depend upon a “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand,” as Said put it.
But to Lynch, meditation can be effective for Wall Street stock brokers and Hindu monks alike precisely because it can be as integrated with or divorced from religious practice and cultural context as the practitioner desires. Lynch writes, “Trancendental Meditation itself is not a religion—it’s not against any religion; it’s not against anything.”
Spiritual growth aside, most fans will undoubtedly come to this book in search of insight into the mind and work of David Lynch, not themselves. And in this regard, they will not be totally disappointed. Lynch devotes chapters to Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story, and INLAND EMPIRE. He explains his directorial approaches to casting, rehearsal, sound and light. He even discusses some of his heroes, such as Fellini and Kubrick. But don’t expect straightforward explanations of the more mystifying aspects of his films. A chapter referring to Mulholland Drive entitled “The Box and the Key” consists of the single sentence, “I don’t have a clue what those are.”
For an artist like Lynch, retrospective explanations can only be self-destructive. Any insight into his personal life or creative process is a kind of risk. Mystery is, after all, one of his greatest assets.
Cleve Wiese is pursuing a Masters degree in journalism at NYU and lives in Williamsburg.