Updated Thoughts on Twin Peaks and Political Theology

June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

[This is an update from a 2011 post]


In Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the character of Laura Palmer re-occupies the space of female Christian writers and mystics like Angela of Foligno (1248-1309).  Although at first it may seem a difficult comparison to make between a late-teen-aged small-town homecoming queen who dies tragically and the revered mystic who lived into her early sixties, the two meet in their public beatification.  Although one could claim that Laura Palmer’s beatification is “secular” at-best, and certainly Christianity of all sorts is understated in the television show, I want to argue that a post-secular reading of Twin Peaks reveals more at work.  This requires reading characters at both a cultural (allegory + history) level and at times a typological level.


The term ‘post-secular’ conjures quite a bit of psychological baggage; so let me unpack a bit.  For some current thinkers, postmodernism’s critique of rationality aided the advent of what is being currently called the ‘post-secular.’  This term can have multiple meanings of which two are important here: first, the perspective that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have revealed the ways secular politics have continued to rely on theological claims and constructs at the most fundamental levels of laws and states despite claims to separations between politics and religion.  This is Carl Schmitt’s claim in Political Theology (1922). Second, that because of this indistinct separation, liberal societies should either: A) re-engage at the level of public discourse with religious language (Jurgen Habermas claimed something like this in his dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger, Dialectics of Secularization), or B) give up on the project of liberalism for not being able to deliver on its original promises.  This is by no means a claim that “secularism never happened,” nor is it a useless or vacant term as some radicals might suggest.  Ideas have historical force in history willy-nilly, and as Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age, the term ‘secular’ itself is originally a religious determination.  In any case, there has arisen among certain academics a renewed interest in the topic of secularization, particularly with attention to complicating traditional narratives given to it.  From an historical vantage point then, secularism might be thought of as a mode of practical decision-making that at some point turned a blind eye to deep-seated metaphysical notions.   This is nothing new.

Names have meaning, even if understated.  At the cultural level, Laura Palmer resonates with “Laura.” Francis Petrarch’s muse, a woman whose beauty inspired him to give up his priesthood in 1327.

Idealizing a woman was common in the poetry the 1300s, as well as the Arthurian legends, but it was closely related to religious experience in a way that is harder to understand in current society.  Slavoj Zizek has argued in “Courtly Love, or the Woman as Thing” that while modern versions of love purport to have gone beyond courtly love, it is still very present, and that any sort of spiritual idealization of the Lady is a mask for the most material objectification of woman as thing.

The idealization of the Lady, her elevation to the spiritual, ethereal Ideal, is therefore to be conceived of as a strictly secondary phenomenon: it is a narcissistic projection whose function is to render her traumatic dimension invisible. In this precise and limited sense, [Jacques] Lacan concedes that ‘the element of idealizing exaltation that is expressly sought out in the ideology of courtly love has certainly been demonstrated; it is fundamentally narcissistic in character.’ Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal. (90)

Compare Zizek’s (and Lacan’s) account to sonnet five from Petrarch’s Canzoniere:

When I utter sighs, in calling out to you, 
with the name that Love wrote on my heart, 
the sound of its first sweet accents begin
to be heard within the word LAUdable.

Your REgal state, that I next encounter, 
doubles my power for the high attempt;
but: ‘TAcit’, the ending cries, ‘since to do her honour
is for other men’s shoulders, not for yours’.

 So, whenever one calls out to you, 
the voice itself teaches us to LAud, REvere,
you, O, lady worthy of all reverence and honour: 

except perhaps that Apollo is disdainful
that morTAl tongue can be so presumptuous
as to speak of his eternally green branches.

In the poem, Laura’s untouchable qualities make her recede into the background, displaced by the relationship with Apollo.  Apollo figures as masculine-deity / poetry, but the voice itself performs the transgression against Apollo.  The voice becomes unattached to the poet when he gestures to call toward Laura.  Deeply embedded here is the role of a woman establishing desire in a man – a desire that undoes his relationship with the divine.  When we compare Angela of Foligno’s writing, we see quite a contrast to such exaltation and destruction.  She writes:

I would beg him to grant me this grace, namely, that since Christ had been crucified on the wood of the cross, that I be crucified in a gully, or in some place very vile, and by a very vile instrument. Moreover, since I did not desire to die as the saints had died, that he make me die a slower and even more vile death than theirs. I could not imagine a death vile enough to match my desire. (qtd. in Hollywood)

Angela’s body locates not just suffering but a desire for unification with the divine (through grace) by suffering more in body and in humiliation than Christ.  Amy Hollywood has suggested, “that thirteenth-century religious women writers sought to forge a religious ideal in which suffering – like sin – is located firmly in the will, hence, spiritualized” (96).  The stark objectification of the body is a frequent theme in female writers in the Christian tradition, whom have been traditionally barred from speaking publicly and preaching.  Their writing itself performs their devotion through objectification and the politics of subordination.

In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s death turns the town upside down.  Men old and young with the fervor of Petrarch, we find out, were her lovers.  Her mysterious death unites the town in guilt and reverence for the dead teenager.

Like a slightly older Lolita (a plaintive name variation on Laura), Laura is a nymphette both innocent and not innocent.  By the time Lolita is 18, she is to Humbert Humbert basically a middle-aged housewife; Laura Palmer’s death upon adulthood marks the public tragedy of the death of a sweet and innocent child whom the watcher quickly discovers was not innocent at all.  The playing out of the narrative of Twin Peaks then is partly in the inadequacy for Laura Palmer to fulfill the role as sacrificial victim.

We encounter Laura through fragmented memories of other characters and through her diaries.  She occupies a space of inter-subjective memory, and so she comes to represent the collapse of subject and object; she occupies the space of the contradiction.  This is classic mysticism.  However, mysticism, as recent religious studies scholars have argued, is also a kind of writing.  For example, Don Cupitt, in Mysticism after Modernity: Religion and Spirituality in the Modern World has argued that mysticism is itself a certain kind of writing poststructuralist thinkers employ, “steeped in paradoxes” of life experience traditionally made “secondary” by the attempt among the Greek political philosophy to locate a “primary” basis for living.  Celebrating “postmodern” writers who challenge a fixed center, Cupitt also calls for anarchic mysticism to disrupt fixed religious and governmental institutions.  He calls for worldly action arising from passive, otherworldly experience.  Mysticism can therefore be a model for exploring how intentional passivity relates to social action in our society.  But Cupitt’s reliance on text as writing may risk displaying a limited and essentially ‘modernist’ hermeneutics:

Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not ‘immediate experience,’ that Modern fiction.  Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views; and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we’d never have heard of it. (62-3)

The authorship of someone like Angela de Foligno certainly predates the emerging document-centered rationality of the Renaissance that Michel Foucault discusses in “What is an Author?” as the disciplining of the subject.  To deal with Angela de Foligno as an “author” in the modern sense is to mediate through her relationship with “Brother A,” who documented (and perhaps help to legitimate) her experiences.  Still, Cupitt makes a good point concerning the public nature of writing as documenting self and building on the nature of mystical writing and experience to collapse subjectivity and objectivity.  The question becomes: how do we know mysticism except through the action of narration (unless we of have first-hand experience, that is)?  As Roland Barthes concludes his famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” the author’s death produces the birth of the reader.  If writing itself is a kind of death, as the French theorists of the late twentieth century presume, then the reader occupies a space of witnessing, commemorating, and perhaps transcending that death.  The hermeneutic activity of reading becomes the ethical space of holding the Author as Other “in the light” as the (more mystical) Quakers might say.  The watchers of Twin Peaks engage in a hermeneutic reception of the characters’ own hermeneutic attempts to deal with Laura’s death.  As with most mystery narratives, the reader accumulates more knowledge than the characters, creating dramatic irony.  The distance established by the irony in turn establishes narrative desire.  As Amy Hollywood summarizes, “mysticism (like psychoanalysis, according to Lacan) is the site in which desires are renounced.  As such, it is not that which is political but is arguably the place where ethics (and a particular set of politics?) receives its most stringent expression” (65).  In this reading then, the interpretation of Laura’s collapse between subjectivity (life) and objectivity (death, writing, memory) perhaps accomplishes something both political and theological.

While I certainly believe there is room for a more nuanced reading of Cupitt, it is true that what most of us encounter as far as mystics are concerned is necessarily mediated by their writing – something we come to access through cultural history.  How many mystics do you know, after all (and how many are not American – since so many Americans seem to believe they have direct access to the divine)?  Truly and unfortunately, we do not have access to those who have spontaneously combusted or disintegrated into the ether.  But, as Hollywood shows in Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History, twentieth-century writers (and especially French ones during and after WWII) have indeed been fascinated with mysticism as writingWhat is key here is that writing is itself a performative act, while mysticism is traditionally understood in terms of its radical passivity.  (And one should understand here is that in American pragmatism the ‘self’ is defined as a kind of action, which means the dissemination of self through performance intends to overcome intention and thus establish passivity).  How can such passivity be action, and especially political action – as some writers attest it to be?

Through a close reading of Georges Bataille and his relationship to Angela de Foligno, as well as the concerns his writing raised for Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Amy Hollywood writes:

For Bataille, the contradiction between subjective and objective, like that between the fictional and the autobiographical, allows his theoretical texts themselves to become “operations” of ecstasy; they continually erect and overturn distinctions between “experience” and “theory,” “subjective” and “objective,” “inner” and “outer,” making the writing of the theory itself an erotic, mystical, religious exercise. (59)

Later she goes on to write:

In Bataille’s postwar writings, the prostitute is the “erotic object” through which men attain the sacred.  In these texts, the objectification of the corpselike other is explicit, giving rise to “a fiction of death” through which both mortality and the sacred can be apprehended by men.  Read in light of Bataille’s Theory of Religion, the prostitute is the sacrificial object through whose death (through abjection and objectification) the sacred is made present. (117)

In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s “bad girl” side presents itself as prostitution.  Although she does seem to have directly taken money for participating in sexual acts, she participated in prostitution via the Canadian “gentleman’s club,” One-Eyed Jack’s.

Interestingly, in Twin Peaks the protagonist is a pseudo-Buddhist (and maybe the “pseudo” is the point) FBI agent named Dale Cooper.  In solving the death of Laura Palmer, Cooper arrests Laura’s father, charging him with the raping and slaying of his daughter and a number of other young women.  But interestingly, this part of the narrative is only accomplished after the slaying of Laura’s “good” double – her cousin Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee).  This, it would appear atones for the “unclean” sacrifice of Laura, the false virgin.  Laura’s father, who has been possessed by an evil demon named “Bob,” goes through the horror of realizing what he had done slaying both his own daughter and his niece.  After confessing, dying of fatigue and guilt, Agent Cooper recites him lines from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, encouraging him to merge with the clear white light.  The religious subtext here appears to take a non-Christian turn.

I am intrigued at the priestly role adopted by the detective, who helps the Father who is guilty of child-abuse via the demon, to die peacefully.  Laura as mystic is a kind of female Christ, her body a sacrificial for the town’s sins, her father a defeated God.

The ratings for the show dropped after the mystery of Laura’s death was revealed.  I attribute this to a lack of ability to read a transfiguring narrative which develops after the revelation of Laura’s murderer.  The narrative shift reoccupies the center from the body of Laura (and other victims) to the land itself – the mill, the hotel, the white and black lodge, etc.  The narrative focus also shifts by way of remnants of secret government projects (Project Bluebook was the USAF’s project concerning UFO’s and national security) and Native American myths invoke a new spiritual landscape in America.  The landscape is post-Christian (not necessarily anti-Christian, but perhaps rather an extension of…), and the landscape seeks beyond its inherent spiritualism to comment on the re-invention of the state and citizenship.

One must understand there is something particularly spiritual in representations of American landscape in literature whether it is the early Protestants who sought a “New Jerusalem” or Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the nymphette’s body merges with the land in Humbert Humbert’s attempts to possess what cannot be possessed.  Politics merges with the spiritual through the land, another un-possess-able commodity, a fiction bestowed by humans with nevertheless real effects.  We are left hanging by the end of Twin Peaks, as the seemingly un-corruptible agent Dale Cooper is possessed by “Bob.”  Agent Cooper had passed an initial test of preserving Audrey Horne’s (another foil to Laura) innocence, and he seems almost rewarded for his dharma by the appearance of Annie Blackburn, fresh from the convent.  The unresolved battle, however, is not merely between good and evil, pure and impure, but it is a battle that has surfaced from underground, from the land itself – the Black Lodge.  This is a political-theological battle.

Agent Cooper, as we have seen, follows The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  In Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald Lopez tracks the concept of Tibet as a nation over the past two hundred years.  Escaping formal colonialism until China took it over in the late fifties, deterritorializing the Dalai Lama, Tibet becomes the conceptual storage space for all that could be sacred – a true mystical State without states. Lopez tracks the influence of Theosophists, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott (whose anti-colonial activism in Ceylon produced enough development for the country to him a postage stamp), through varying translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, including Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner’s The Psychedelic Experience and Sogyal Rinpoche’s focus on end of life care in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.[1]  Spiritualism here merges with and informs fictional western figurations of Buddhism. Lopez claims, “Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals” regardless of nation or ethnicity (207).  Lopez notes the Dalai Lama’s theosophical universalism, discussing in particular large Kalachakra ceremonies, initiating people into the religion. According to Lopez’s account of the religion, “world peace” is to be restored by enlightened Buddhists in the year 2425 in the mythical land of Shambhala (206).  The political-theological battle taking place inside of Agent Dale Cooper and endangering Annie Blackburn is to occur in an ecstatic and virtual space.  Amy Hollywood’s reading of Angela de Foligno and Georges Bataille again appears relevant.  Parallel to Angela’s meditations on Christ, Bataille writes, “The movement prior to the ecstasy of non-knowledge is the ecstasy before an object (whether it be the pure point – as the renouncing of dogmatic beliefs would have it – or some upsetting image)” (74).  Hollywood summarizes that Batailles’s text, like Angela’s, attempts “to engender in writing and in the reader’s dissolution of subject and object that is inner experience.  Through this dissolution, communication occurs and a new community emerges.”  The hermeneutic situation the viewer is left with by the abrupt ending of Twin Peaks calls for more imagination than simply asking, “what happens next?”  The viewer has been implicated in the witnessing of the has been opened by the desire “before the object.”  In this opened space, the will’s relationship to the divine, even to divine grace, lays itself bare, and we rather ask, “What should I do…or not do?”

Works Cited

Cupitt, Don. Mysticism after Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Hollywood, Amy.  Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History.  Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002. Print.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Petrarch, Francis. Poems 1-61 of Petrarch’s Canzoniere. www.poetryintranslation.com. Trans. A. S. Kline. 2002. Web. 19 June. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/PetrarchCanzoniere001-061.htm#_Toc9485190.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or the Woman as Thing.” The Zizek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright.  London: Blackwell, 1999. Print.

[1] Lopez’s book precedes the most recent and thorough translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

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