GLIMPSES OF THE MYSTERY
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"Sitting in front of a fire is mesmerizing. It's magical. I feel the same way about electricity. And smoke. And flickering lights." --David Lynch (Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, 127, 2006)
"Twin Peaks is still out there. Haunted, full of shivers and delights, a candle glimpsed in a log cabin window, while passing through a deep and darkening wood. Some dreams survive. --Mark Frost (Foreword to The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, iii, 2011)
Hawk's discussion with Sheriff Truman of his "very old but always current" map in Part Eleven (25:10-30:08) is a crucial and most illuminating addition to the guiding Twin Peaks mythology surrounding fire. This scene thus offers the perfect prompting to revisit some other prominent pieces of the fire puzzle in Twin Peaks, illuminate them in view of the new information that Hawk presents to Sheriff Truman, and finally set them into the broader context of the rich mythological and evolutionary history of fire in human experience. Along the way, I hope to shed some light on a handful of puzzling questions about Twin Peaks, including those of (1) how the need for fire betrays a fundamental lack at the heart of the human experience, (2) how fire transforms the human relation to time (specifically, how fire illuminates "the darkness of future past"), (3) how this transformed relation to time expands human freedom (and thus feeds the "magician's longing to see"), (4) how the desire to "walk with fire" is indicative of humanity's ambiguous placement "between two worlds", and (5) how fire (and its kinetic analogues, such as electricity) are functioning in the valuation of good and evil and the conflict between them in Twin Peaks.
The symbol of fire is ubiquitous throughout the narrative of Twin Peaks, showing up in prominent ways in each of its filmic iterations, including both seasons of the original run (1990-1991), the feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and now abundantly in Twin Peaks-The Return (2017), as well as in its textual supplements, including Jennifer Lynch's The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) and Mark Frost's The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016). (Though some might reject the idea that The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer deserves inclusion among primary sources overseen by the series creators, I take it that Lynch and Frost view the diary as of a piece with their work (in spirit, at least, if not always in literal detail) given that each grants the diary his imprimatur in a dedicated foreword to the new edition issued in 2011. Frost calls the book "another bright pane in [Twin Peaks'] hall of mirrors" (iii) and Lynch goes even further, claiming that "Jennifer Lynch found The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer in the heart and mind of Laura herself." (iv))
Though the symbol of fire is handled in nuanced ways throughout these respective treatments, it seems fair to observe a trajectory across the works from earliest to latest in which fire is initially most often associated with evil (or at least antisocial transgression of established norms) but comes to be portrayed increasingly in a more ambiguous light as an instrument of great power that, while very dangerous and susceptible to corruption, can be used for good or ill. More concretely, where early works such as the original series, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, and Fire Walk With Me explore fire primarily as a symbol of evil, contemporary incarnations of the world of Twin Peaks such as The Secret History and The Return give us a more complicated picture in which fire, though often a corrupting force, is potentially also a force for good, and even perhaps a primordial source of goodness. It is fitting, somehow, that things have gotten a little more complicated in the twenty-five-plus years since Twin Peaks shattered the innocence of television and ushered in an era of experimentation now fully into middle age and at the height of its powers.
Perhaps the quintessential reference to fire in the original series takes place during Cooper's dream in the third episode of season one, where Mike--the one-armed-man--performs his infamous soliloquy over a slumbering Cooper, introducing BOB and acquainting us with the incendiary yearnings of the people from another place ("inhabiting spirits"), the dwelling where they live, and Mike's divine conversion away from a life chasing fire with his devilish former partner: 'Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see, one chants out between two worlds: 'Fire, walk with me.' We lived among the people, I think you say "convenience store." We lived above it. I mean it like it is, like it sounds. I too have been touched by the devilish one, tattoo on the left shoulder. Ohhh, but when I saw the face of God, I was changed. Took the entire arm off. My name is Mike. His name is Bob." (S1S03, 40:17-42:00) Seconds later, BOB announces his nefarious intent to "catch you with my death bag" and promises "to kill again," as the flames on a ring of twelve candles surrounding a mysterious mound of dirt flicker and suddenly extinguish into thin columns of smoke. When Cooper, Harry, Hawk and Cole finally apprehend Mike's host, Philip Gerard, and deprive Gerard of his antipsychotic Haloperidol prescription (following the Giant's clue that "without chemicals he points"), Mike emerges and spills the beans on his former partner, describing BOB as a parasitic inhabiting spirit who feeds on "fear and the pleasures", consuming and dissipating the life-force of his host like a raging fire turns wood to ash and smoke. (42:04-46:30)
We get a much more intimate and terrifying picture of BOB as a consuming fire in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which rocketed onto the New York Times Bestsellers List in 1990 propelled by unanticipated public obsession with the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" in the wake of the scintillating first season. What readers found in the diary, however, was not the coffee, quirk, and teen angst many sought, but the harrowing consumption unto death of a brilliant and mercilessly abused young woman who fueled BOB's fire by cleaving herself in two, living a double life of school and volunteerism by day and drug-trafficking and sex work by night to escape (and explore) the inferno within her. Described in her own words in a series of journal entries logged from her twelfth birthday to just before her death at age eighteen, Laura's exposure to fire comes in many forms, from the kindling of her desire to be touched at age thirteen while standing naked before three older men in the flickering shadows of a campfire (34), to the sparks of a psychic bond forged in shared dreams with Margaret Lanterman who mysteriously carries a log since her husband--a fireman--was tragically killed fighting a blaze (45), to the wildfire of insanity-inducing conversations with BOB himself (or at least the consumptive self-loathing he burned into her), whose words she records exclusively in capital letters:
Laura: "When you first came to me, I was not doing bad things! I was a baby girl! I was nothing...I was all goodness...I was happy!"
Laura: "I could talk to you forever and never learn a thing."
BOB: "SOMEONE OF WISDOM IS ALWAYS MORE DIFFICULT TO COMMUNICATE WITH. THIS IS THE FIRE YOU MUST WALK THROUGH."
Laura: "I don't want to hear about fire."
BOB: "THEN YOU DON'T WANT THE ANSWER."
Laura: "Who are you...really?"
BOB: "I AM WHAT YOU FEAR I COULD BE." (156)
The vision of fire that emerges in these early works is one of a consumptive, destructive, even evil force, one that lures us in with bright, promising sparks of illumination, discovery, and exhilarating self-transcendence only then to catch flame and blaze into a blinding inferno of forbidden knowledge, derangement, and annihilating self-transgression. This vision of fire comes into heart-rendingly sharp relief at the decisive moment in Fire Walk With Me when Margaret Lanterman intercepts Laura on her way into the Roadhouse just hours before her death in an abandoned train car in the woods. In a scene that is all the more poignant for those who have learned from the Secret Diary of the special psychic bond the two share, Margaret puts her hand lovingly to Laura's forehead like a vigilant mother checking for a fever, and offers a terrible beauty of a lament: "When this kind of fire starts, it is very difficult to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy." Twelve hours later, Pete Martell finds her ashen corpse wrapped in plastic. Jeopardy, indeed.
If Lanterman's vision of Laura's imminent immolation is bleak, however, it is fascinating to observe that she seems to acknowledge the possibility of a different species of fire ("When this type of fire starts..."), or at least the potential for a more genuine relationship to fire reserved for the wise and mindful--those who have already pruned the tender boughs of innocence through experience and taken adequate precautions against the flames rising too fast, against becoming fuel for a blaze they naively or rapaciously tried to use as a tool. To make matters still more intriguing, in addition to her special connection with Laura, Lanterman essentially functions as an oracle for the two characters in the series who most convincingly lend themselves to being interpreted as exemplars of this different, wiser, more mindful relationship to fire: Major Garland Briggs and Deputy Chief Tommy "Hawk" Hill. Though Briggs and Hill will get considerably more attention in this essay, it is worth mentioning as well that Lanterman shares a less oracular though no less profound connection with a third potential exemplar of this relation, Carl Rodd--owner of the New Fat Trout Trailer Park--who was abducted as a child with Lanterman and another classmate (since deceased) in the woods outside Owl Cave in 1947. (The Secret History of Twin Peaks, 142-151)
Serendipitously, the two primary sources of Twin Peaks that remain to be discussed--The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks-The Return--map nicely onto Briggs and Hawk respectively: Briggs turns out to be "the Archivist" who compiled the dossier that constitutes the former; and Hawk has emerged in the latter as the primary investigator and interpreter--with regular guidance from Lanterman--of the BOB-fire connection between Leland and Laura Palmer and Special Agent Dale Cooper. What's more, while Briggs and Hawk are similar in their expressions of a wiser relationship to fire--one that recognizes the value of its utility under proper care but respects its destructive power and even wisely fears its employment beyond its proper limits--Briggs and Hawk take decidedly different approaches to modeling this relationship--approaches that are well-calibrated to their unique personalities, vocations, talents, and gifts. Where Briggs is an analytically-minded scientist, strategist, documentarian, and moralist, Hawk is an intuitively-minded artist, spiritualist, seer, and storyteller. On paper, they couldn't look more different from one another. What they share in common resonates on a deeper plane, not attributes of being but a fundamental way of being: each has rigorously come to know himself through the careful discernment of his gifts and limits, thus enabling him genuinely to be open to what the world and others have to teach, and vigilantly to make ready for opportunities that the cosmos puts in front of him to gear his unique perspective and talents into the flourishing of the whole.
That Briggs knows himself intimately and has transcended the facade of toxic, grasping masculinity that consigns many men of his station to a life of aggressive one-dimensional fragility couldn't be more obvious. From his freely shared vision of light for his embattled son Bobby to his rejection of vainglorious careerism (both of which are back at center stage in Part Nine of The Return), Briggs is a man who is both intellectually and emotionally clear about what matters to him, why it matters, and what in particular he is called to do about it. These qualities are on open display in his fascinating interchange with Lanterman over coffee at the R&R in Episode Nine of Season One. In what appears to be a test of character designed to discern whether Briggs is worthy of receiving prophecy from the log, she observes his medals and says "You wear shiny objects on your chest. Are you proud?". His reply is classic Briggs--"Achievement is its own reward. Pride obscures it."--and serves as intuitive confirmation to Lanterman that her log has found its proper audience. Its message to Briggs? "Deliver the message." Briggs understands, as open to taking counsel from a log as he was to welcoming its wonderful and strange bearer to coffee.
As the overseer of Project Bluebook--a top-secret government investigation of paranormal activity around Twin Peaks and far beyond--Briggs is well versed in compiling and delivering messages. One such message is the 350-page dossier published in The Secret History of Twin Peaks--an archive that traces the mysteries of Owl Cave across time from Meriwether Lewis's journey through the fire and into the cave on October 1, 1805 to Briggs' prognostication in 1989 of a present-day journey there that Hawk, Bobby, and Frank Truman (as well as, we anticipate, Gordon, Albert, Tammy, and Diane and the guests of honor, Cooper and Mr. C.) will make on October 1 in The Return. The realization that dawns on Briggs in his final entry in the dossier on March 28, 1989, just minutes after meeting with Cooper (we now know it was Mr. C.) and just a day before he allegedly died in a fire at Bluebook's Listening Point Alpha (we now know he escaped the fire into "hibernation" in "The Zone"), is this: though he had believed that the transmission he received "from somewhere in the surrounding woods of Ghostwood Forest" (353) just before his abduction--those strings of numbers intermittently interrupted by the words "Cooper/Cooper/Cooper"--was an indication that Cooper would replace the recently deceased Douglas Milford as his partner in Project Bluebook, the meeting with Cooper (Mr. C.) made it clear to him that "the message holds the answer, just as I thought, but I've misinterpreted it. Protocols are in place. I must act quickly." Among those quickly taken actions, surely, was the sending of a message to the future that only Betty Briggs could deliver, only Bobby Briggs could retrieve and decipher, and only Hawk could properly receive as a dire warning that a malevolent double of Cooper would be confronting them there with intent to take possession of black fire. (358-359)
Major Briggs, you see, is wise enough to know that no one can harness the fire alone, that the very best one can do is to open the way for those in one's circle of influence to discover their unique paths to it and through it in challenging and often mysterious concert and community with others--an approach precisely the opposite of BOB's workings in Laura: selfish, secretive, isolating, rapacious, degrading, and exhaustively consumptive. When one considers that Laura had the steam, barely beyond girlhood, even with BOB hellbent on consuming her, to feed the hungry (Meals on Wheels), heal the sick (Johnny Horne), comfort the imprisoned (Harold Smith), and even love her enemies (the Secret Diary contains some shocking passages in which Laura, apparently clear-headedly, describes degradations visited on her as opportunities to bring mothering love to dark places and broken people--"sleazy men who are actually crying babies," 38, 112), it is not particularly surprising that she (or someone very like her) should be chosen by the oldest of the old for redemptive work of cosmic significance. It's enough to make one wonder whether there was more to BOB's targeting of her than the just the happenstance that she is Leland's daughter, whether perhaps Leland was targeted because he would be Laura's father, whether the largely secret, mostly isolated, but nonetheless fiercely resolute and relentless fire-fighting unto death of Laura's childhood is preparation for an enigmatic chapter yet to unfold, a resurrection into a community of fellow fire-fighters, all now converging--as Lanterman says to Hawk, "there is fire where you are going!".
Perhaps we should try to imagine our way to a radical transformation of vision--a shift in our gestalt from a lost girl full of dirty secrets to a young woman learning to preserve and unfold a great mystery; from a charred husk of a man enabling BOB to consume his daughter to a father so determined and loving that he finds a way to break through forty years of deep dissociation at the moment on which everything hinges and knowingly end the earthly life of the person he loves most in the world ("Don't make me do this!") in order to save her from a fate far worse than death (possession by BOB, the end game from the beginning) and preserve the possibility for her to finish her appointed task in another place and time. What if these temporal tragedies that we have received always and only as unspeakable secrets shelter deeper, other-worldly mysteries with redemptive possibilities we have scarcely imagined? And what would it be like to learn to experience the world at large in this way? The significance of this crucial difference between secrets and mysteries is powerfully conjured by Garland Briggs at the decisive moment in the dossier when he turns away from discussions of Lewis and Clark and the Nez Percé to cataloging the events in and around Twin Peaks traceable to BOB (whose first known host seems to have been a grifter and failed gold miner known as "Denver Bob Hobbes," 58-65). Says Briggs on the outset of this new section of the dossier: "Moving forward in time, it is important that we learn to distinguish between mysteries and secrets. Mysteries precede humankind, envelop us and draw us forward into exploration and wonder. Secrets are the work of humankind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power. Do not confuse the pursuit of one with the manipulation of the other." (Frost, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, 58.)
There is no more perfect segue into illuminating the pivotal discussion of fire between Hawk and Truman that begins with the displacement of a computer at center screen by the unfurling of an ancient map. Staring into his screen, Truman gazes at the secret location, the coordinates for which (as we know even if he doesn't) Mr. C. is killing people with impunity in order to discover--targeting anyone with even minimal utility (Darya, Phyllis Hastings, Ray, Warden Murphy, Duncan Todd, eventually Hutch and Chantal, and who knows who else), objectifying them into pure instruments of his will, exploiting them until their utility is exhausted, and then annihilating them. Of this secret location harboring an occult power for the sake of which many lives are being desecrated, Truman says: "By my reckoning, this is where we're headed. But there's no road. The road is gone." Low and behold, in the age of information, we have arrived at a location that Google maps can't countenance and that civil engineers can't help us traverse.
But where the power of technology to lay secrets bare ends, there mythology can elevate and focus our vision on the deeper mysteries. Says Hawk, "The information that Major Briggs gave got me thinking. We'll understand a lot more when I explain my map. This map is very old but it is always current. It's a living thing." If there's a better brief description of mythology than "a very old but always current living thing," I'm not aware of it, and Hawk proceeds to deliver a master course in illuminating figurative seeing:
Truman: "Looks like a campfire. What is this?"
Hawk: "It's not a campfire. It's a fire symbol."
Truman: "What's that mean?"
Hawk: "It's a type of fire. More like modern day electricity."
Hawk: "It depends upon the intention. The intention behind the fire. The Major also gave us a date. The day after tomorrow. If you read these stars, you find that same date. It refers you to here [*points to corrupted corn*]."
Truman: "What is that?"
Hawk: "It's corn, it's fertility, but it's black, diseased or unnatural. Death. If you put these two symbols together [*points to fire and black corn*], you get this [*points to black fire*].
Truman: "Black fire."
Truman: "We saw this [*points to the symbol that is similar to Mr. C.'s modified ace of spades*] on that little slip of paper we took out of Major Briggs' tube. What is that?"
Hawk: "Frank, you don't ever want to know about that."
Several of Hawk's insights here invite our rapt attention. First, fire is not to be understood literally, but rather as a symbol for a constellation of different phenomena (including "modern day electricity") that grant to human beings the transformative power to convert one form of energy into another, and thus the life-changing freedom to concentrate, store, and deploy that energy as a resource on demand. Second, this transformative power (in whatever form it takes: fire, electricity, oil, fission, etc.) is in itself neither good nor evil; it is--at least at first--an instrument of the intentions of those who wield it, and can thus serve good, evil, or indifferent purposes in keeping with the goals for which it is mobilized. Third, this transformative power is inherently dangerous and potentially transgressive--whatever intentions may lie behind its use, its deployment has the potential to range beyond and thwart those intentions, corrupting and even annihilating the the people and things it was mobilized to sustain and enhance (often even without our realizing it until we're choking on the smoke of its unintended consequences). Fourth, there are uses of this power and mysteries at its origin that the wise should never even contemplate much less attempt to appropriate or control on peril of unleashing oblivion--not just annihilation of the ones suffering or wielding the power, but the total effacement and forgetting of the world as such and everything good, true, and beautiful within it. (That Hawk explicates these insights by recourse to the symbols of corn and "black fire"--a metaphor resonant with engine oil, among many other things including dark magic and the left-hand path--may call to mind our previous discussion of "The Pain and Sorrow of Convenience: Oil and Corn as Avatars of Atomic-Age Suffering in Twin Peaks.")
Having now blazed a trail through some highlights of fire's employment in the narrative of Twin Peaks, we may gain some concluding insight into the mysteries of fire therein by situating this narrative in view of some older stories about its transformative power. Fire, as it happens, is one of humanity's most ancient and abiding symbols of the essential lack at the heart of human existence, the ambiguity of human longing that arises from that lack, and the destructive potential of inordinate human desire--desperate wanting that obsessively yearns to possess what cannot wisely or rightly be owned in hopes of filling the insatiable lack at the heart of human being. To bring these features of fire into view, we'll consult two very different ancient stories that are nonetheless remarkably similar in their implications: the Greek myth of Prometheus (as told by Ingrid and Edgar Parin D'Allaire) and a rendering of fire's role in the history of human evolution (as told by Yuval Noah Harari). I'll let them speak in their own voices in the following two long quotations and then follow up to tease out a few final insights.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Humankind (D'Allaire's Book of Greek Myths, 71-72)
"Man's creator and his best friend was the Titan Prometheus. Zeus had given Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, the task of repopulating the earth after all living creatures had perished in the early battles of the gods. He gave the two brothers great measures of gifts to bestow upon their creations, and they went down to earth and began to make men and beasts out of river clay. Wise Prometheus modeled men with great care in the shape of the gods. Epimetheus rapidly made all kinds of animals and without any foresight he lavished the good gifts upon them. When Prometheus had finished shaping man, he found that there were few of the good gifts left. Animals could run faster, see, smell, and hear better, and had much more endurance. Besides, they were kept snug in their warm coats of fur, while men shivered in the cold nights. Prometheus was sorry for mankind and he went to Zeus and asked him if he might have some of the sacred fire for his poor creations. But Zeus said no, fire belonged to the gods alone. Prometheus could not bear to see his people suffer and he decided to steal fire, though he knew that Zeus would punish him severely. He went up to Olympus, took a glowing ember from the sacred hearth, and hid it in a hollow stalk of fennel. He carried it down to earth, gave it to mankind, and told them never to let the light from Olympus die out. No longer did men shiver in the cold of night, and the beasts feared the light of the fire and did not dare to attack them. A strange thing happened: as men lifted their eyes from the ground and watched the smoke from their fires spiraling upward, their thoughts rose with it up to the heavens. They began to wonder and think, and were no longer earth-bound clods."
Fire and Evolution (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 12-13)
"Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens, by contrast, is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. [...] A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire, [which gave humans] a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions. [...] A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. [...] But the best thing fire did was cook. The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it's hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens. Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man the other animals. [...] When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike [other animals], humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come."
For two stories so different in their orientations to the human experience (one mythological, one scientific), the parallels here are astonishing. Both accounts portray human beings in their most primordial state not as lords of creation but as originally deficient creatures among other superior animals. Both accounts position the transformative power of fire in terms of both the leverage it gives humanity over other animals (elevating them to a position somewhere between animality and divinity-"between two worlds") and the possibilities it opens for abstract thought (promoting the growth of "jumbo brains" for higher forms of "wondering and thinking"). And both accounts intimate the potentially destructive power of fire--that fire is destined to be both a blessing and curse, and a curse precisely because the blessing unfolds as the quintessential temptation to want too much of a (potentially) good thing.
The insight I'm most interested in here is the import of fire for the dawning of abstract thought. What fire offers humanity in raising its gaze to the heavens is, both literally and figuratively, a fundamentally changed relationship to time that vastly expands human freedom. Whereas creatures of instinct and habit must live in the small, familiar orbit of subsistence--doing little more perhaps than meeting their most basic needs for food, water, companionship, and reproduction (if they're lucky!)--creatures who have big brains and the time, convenience, and leisure purchased from cooking by fire, extending their productive and waking hours by torch-light, and sleeping soundly under cover of fire without worry of a hungry lion attack may begin to imagine their lives as otherwise than merely subsistent. Whereas once there were only pasts, the urgent inheritances of biology, vaguely understood but not explicitly known, pushing one inexorably into first order desires to meet the most pressing present need, there is suddenly now the opening of future-past: the ability to project oneself in the present into a time that has not yet obtained, hypothetically survey the possibilities, risks, and rewards for being in that time, and then orient oneself by way of that hypothetical projection into the state of being that imagines. No longer enslaved to the endless repetition of mere subsistence, one has the means at one's disposal to transcend through imagination, to accrue action-guiding experience not by actually undergoing it (and thus assuming all the real risks before one can anticipate the outcome) but by imagining it, eliminating those prospects that fail to withstand hypothetical scrutiny, and then acting in anticipation of the desired outcome.
As this ability to "see in the darkness of future-past" grows ever more capacious and efficient, and one's imagined goals and hopes become ever more ambitious, and the means at one's disposal to convert, store, and deploy energy continue to increase apace, it is only a matter of time until the "longing to see" outstrips anything resembling an authentic or legitimate need. I'll have more to say about that problem (and how it illuminates the lives of any number of characters in The Return) in a future post on "Mindfulness in Twin Peaks." Stay tuned!