Magritte, David Lynch and How to Escape ‘The Living Death’

What do Rene Magritte and David Lynch have in common? More than you think.

Blue Velvet.
Blue Velvet. YouTube

Let’s talk about Magritte, whose major retrospective is running at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. And David Lynch, who is re-releasing Blue Velvet and a continuation of Twin Peaks.

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The two are actually intimately connected, through a subterranean system of wonderfully bizarre roots that add up to a magnificent tree that stretches into the sky. Climbing it will do wonders for your soul. But never reach the summit. That would defeat the purpose of the climb.

One theme flows through the veins of every painting by Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. This is his feeling that the world is becoming all too plain, repetitive, repetitive, and plain. Existence tumbles into looping cycles from which we cannot extricate ourselves. There is tremendous inertia, and we humans are inherently lazy.

The cycle about which Magritte paints is the suburban commuter existence of waking each morning at the same time, taking the same breakfast while reading the same paper, wearing roughly the same clothes, taking the same route to the same job five days a week for the same hours each day, carrying on the same chores at work, returning home on the same route alongside the same people, watching the same television program, and falling into the same bed to sleep at the same time, before repeating the same cycle. Aren’t you already sick of the word “same?” And that just took you a few seconds to read!

What is, for many, the perceived ideal lifestyle—one of middle class comfort and security, peppered with occasional adventures, such as holidays and raising children and Christmas—Magritte considered a living death. He feels that it is his task to re-inject a sense of wonder and awe in an otherwise increasingly bland existence. When we cease to wonder, we cease to truly live.

As a child, Magritte endured a formative trauma: his mother, mentally unstable, drowned herself and he saw the body, with her white, soaked nightgown covering her face. It doesn’t take Freud to consider this as an explanation for Magritte’s painting, The Lovers. But Magritte would firmly disagree. Or rather, he would refuse to agree.

Why would Magritte try to dismiss a definitive interpretation of his own work? An allergy to art historians and the tendency to look for answers in an artist’s biography. Magritte does not want you to feel that you have solved the riddle. Immerse yourself in the solution process, but never feel that you have definitively solved the mystery.

The philosopher John Locke suggested that we, as humans, try to understand things as part of our nature. It makes us uncomfortable to feel that we do not understand something. And even if our “understanding” is incorrect, it still allows us to file away the information, rather than leaving it unanswered and out in the open, which frightens us.

For instance, a question like, “What is thunder?” The ancients devised an answer like, “Oh, that’s Zeus throwing thunder bolts.”

That may, or may not be the “correct” answer, but it is an answer. For the ancient Hellenistic peoples, that was sufficient to render thunder less frightening. Locke imagines that we humans take in knowledge through a series of images, conceptions, of ideas. It may be that we recognize a parrot, because we store an image of what we consider to be a parrot, in our minds. When we perceive a creature that looks sufficiently like our “ideal” parrot in our minds, we call it a parrot. If, however, we see something that we cannot sort into recognition, such as a bird with tentacles and a horn coming out of its head, this would cause concern. Our probable solution would be to sort this new, unknown apparition by breaking it down into known categories. It is a sort of bird, in that it has feathers and wings and a beak. But it has tentacles. Well, an octopus has tentacles. And a horn on its head? Well, a rhinoceros has a horn on its head. So, our method of “understanding” the new creature would be to say that it is like a bird mixed with an octopus mixed with a rhinoceros. We have subdivided this new, unknown creature by defining it as three known creatures. We can then create a new category, and the next time we see a bird with tentacles and a horn, we will “file” it into our mental filing cabinet, along with the last example of the creature that we saw.

This is how Locke imagines that we “understand” things. Collective understanding is knowledge. We seek to define things, categorize and sort them. Even the word “define” means “to place borders around.” We feel empowered and at peace, if we are able to file away an idea as something that we “understand.”

We seek solutions, answers. It makes us uncomfortable to immerse ourselves in a mystery, and never find out the solution. An Agatha Christie without the last chapter, and we would never learn whodunit. A crossword puzzle with the last blank spaces left blank, one clue missing. A jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. A symphony with the last few notes left out. A riddle with no answer. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” If there is no answer, and yet we are drawn into the process of solution, what hope is there?

That is precisely the state in which Magritte wishes to plunge us all.

Magritte’s paintings are atmospheric, depicting mysterious circumstances that seem to suggest a bizarre narrative or explanation. But there is none. Or, at least, Magritte does not want you, the viewer, to feel that you have satisfactorily “solved” his riddle paintings. He seeks to draw us in to that sense of mystery, but without us ever feeling that we can move on, having “finished” the mystery. The moment we declare the mystery to have been solved, we can return to our state of stable inertia, back to the looping cycle of the everyday. Our souls can sleep, but in this sleep of death, we must rely only on dreams to shatter the shackles of relentless normalcy. Our minds refuse to allow us to lie completely dormant. They fill our sleep with mystery, to keep us alive. Without access to this dream world, we become zombies. Magritte provides a window into the dream world, but while we are awake. One can come up with a legitimate, art historically-sound “solution” to a Magritte painting. But that would be defeating his purpose.

David Lynch offers a moving-image parallel to Magritte. Consider Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive. They all seek the same end as Magritte. They aspire to re-inject a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery into the world, without providing a key to solve the puzzle. There is no solution, or at least no definitive solution is intended. Lynch never conceived of “who killed Laura Palmer?” He just kept adding layers of mystery that appeared to lead somewhere, but there was never a master plan.

Mulholland Drive provides a confusing, but beautiful dreamscape of Los Angeles, in which a series of inexplicable events befall the two female protagonists. None of the events add up to a definitive explanation of the film’s story or purpose. And yet, we the viewers struggle, seeking such an explanation. We become convinced that either we have missed something, and we will find the solution on multiple viewings, or that the film has, somehow, failed, and left out the key scene that explains the rest. There is no destination. It is the immersion in mystery that the journey provides.

A 2008 neuroimaging study on jazz pianists suggested that the prefrontal cortex is in disuse, “partially shut down” as described by Psychology Today, when improvising, and in use when playing music that was memorized or pre-written. Suppression of the prefrontal cortex seems to improve creativity, allowing you to drift away from rote behavior, actions and thought patterns to create something new. Dali engaged in this in the extreme, asking his wife to place LSD-soaked cotton balls over his eyes while he slept to induce hallucinations. But absolute lack of control is likewise not good for creating (if a jazz pianist forgot his chords, or if Magritte were unable to paint in the naturalist style that was his trademark). So creators disengage the prefrontal cortex, while maintaining activity in the prefrontal polar cortex. David Lynch has not been subject to neural imaging while directing (as far as I know), but it’s reasonable to guess that his brain would light up and darken in the same areas as those of the jazz pianists in this study.

I’ve been unable to find a laboratory study using neuroimaging on viewers of Surrealist art. I’d love to see what happens to the brains of visitors to Magritte’s Centre Pompidou exhibition, or viewers of Twin Peaks. But these are questions of the mechanics of wonder, its physio-chemical effect. As an art historian, a professor of humanities, such questions are interesting but like inquiring about the ingredients and cooking time of a Ferran Adria dish. My real interest is in the finished whole, and how it feels when we consume it.

How can the muscle of the soul be exercised, maintained and thrive? Through learning, through new experience, through thought, through love, through art. Art feeds the soul. And one avenue of art employs an interesting strategy to arouse the dormant soul—confusion.

This state of unknowing keeps us off balance. The discomfort is not physical, but mental. This discomfort can be beneficial. Art can lure us into this state of unknowing. And we should keep in mind that art is interacted with willingly. If we take the step to meet art halfway, to attend the film, go to the gallery, read the book, we should not expect an easy solution. We tend to react with surprise, if a work of art with which we engage does not reward our attention with an evident explanation. Those works of art which challenge us, which confront our expectation for easy solution, are those of which I speak in praise. Works of art which make us look at what we see every day in a new way.

This is the first in Observer Arts’ new series Secrets and Symbols, by author and art historian Noah Charney.

Magritte, David Lynch and How to Escape ‘The Living Death’