THE GLASS BOX
GLIMPSES OF THE MYSTERY
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While everybody's dazzled by the mushroom cloud, a more insidious form of evil is going unnoticed. Ever wonder why the people from another place live above a convenience store? Or why they eat creamed corn? Or smell like engine oil? Or vomit a mixture of corn and oil when they're about to give up the ghost? If so, this one's going to blow your mind.
The critical fallout of Part Eight has been largely about the evils unleashed by the atomic bomb. On a surface reading, the bomb itself perpetrated terrible evils against humanity. On an esoteric reading (think The Secret History of Twin Peaks), the bomb was engineered by Aleister Crowley and his cabal of evil sex-magicians with the hope of literally opening a portal to hell. On a figurative reading, nuclear fission is a terrific metaphor for "the evil that people do"--those myriad social, psychological, and spiritual ills that are driven by the mechanics of bombardment: something unified gets hit hard by an outside force it cannot withstand and splinters into parts, generating exponentially multiplying destructive energy in the process. What happens to Leland, Laura, and Cooper when they collide with BOB is a kind of fission--a microcosm of what happened at White Sands.
But if the literal and metaphorical horrors of nuclear fission are the most obvious forms of evil under scrutiny in Part Eight, they are not the only ones, nor are they the ones that are explored most extensively in the mythology of Twin Peaks to date. Part Eight is also, if much less obviously so, an exploration of another atomic-age evil, namely the incessant drive for convenience that set loose the behemoths of the petroleum industry and industrial animal agriculture, leading to our collective dependence on two of the most destructive commodities in the history of humankind: oil and corn.
The first step in illuminating this insight is to highlight the pride of place given to the symbols of convenience, oil, and corn in the existing Twin Peaks mythology of evil. Though the recurrence of these three symbols as harbingers of evil may not leap to mind as readily as more glamorous baddies like BOB, the white horse of death, and now "Mother" or "Experiment," most Twin Peaks fans will have an implicit grasp of their importance to the narrative.
Have you ever wondered, for instance, why the people from another place live above a convenience store? Or why they smell like engine oil? Or why the pain and sorrow they consume to survive are symbolized by creamed corn? Or why they vomit a mixture of creamed corn and engine oil when they're about to give up the ghost? Or why some of them--especially this new crop of "woodsmen"--appear as if they have just bathed in fossil fuels? If these questions have occurred to you, you're probably already at least implicitly familiar with convenience, corn, and oil functioning together as symbols in a broader mythology of evil in Twin Peaks.
But notice, too, that these three elements are not only individually present as symbols of evil, but they are recurrently bundled together as a package of elements that characterize the most basic existential necessities of evil characters: these characters live above a convenience store, they eat creamed corn, they look and smell like engine oil (as if, terrifyingly, their bodily exertions exude petroleum--a substance that is quite literally eons of death exposed to extreme pressure and released through destruction of the Earth). In the Twin Peaks mythology of evil, then, convenience, corn, and oil aren't just incidental instruments of evil-doing (like weapons, hard drugs, malevolent plans, or even cursed rings), but are rather essential existential elements of evil-being: convenience shelters evil, corn nourishes it, and oil is its lifeblood and bio-power. These are the things that give evil place, feed it, and keep it going.
The central roles of convenience, corn, and oil in the Twin Peaks mythology of evil predate The Return, but they are all back with a vengeance in the new series. We get early glimpses of their continuing importance in the oily woodsman haunting Buckhorn Jail (Part Two) and Dougie's and Mr. C.'s corn-and-oil-ridden vomit (Part Three), but the latest two episodes have put these elements and their essential connectedness at center stage. At a pivotal moment in Part Seven (17:26), for instance, just before we see Gordon Cole in repose whistling to himself in front of a giant poster of a mushroom cloud foreshadowing what is to come in Part Eight, the camera lingers on a bizarre framed print on the side wall of Cole's office that depicts an ear of corn superimposed over what appears to be the shaft of a mushroom cloud (see below).
I can practically hear Cole's inimitable shrill tenor instructing us to keep our eyes on the prize: "NOW WHEN YOU SEE THAT MUSHROOM CLOUD, YOU'RE GOING TO BE DAZZLED! YOU'LL BE TEMPTED TO LOSE SIGHT OF THE CORN. DON'T LOSE SIGHT OF THE CORN! THE CORN COMES FIRST!" Less cryptically, the message might be to recognize that gigantic, glaring, world-historical forces of evil like atomic bombs (and the cabals of elite scientists or would-be sex-magicians who conjure them) don't just come into being without more pedestrian, less obvious forms of evil hidden the woodwork, laying the groundwork, feeding the hunger for ever more spectacular forms of domination, exploitation, and destruction. Without scarcity and lack at the mundane level of simple human finitude--without the desperate but too often unquenchable needs that vulnerable beings have for safe shelter, ample food, and the means for securing bodily integrity and healing--there would be no grandiose plans for world domination.
In Part Eight, this foreshadowing comes to full fruition in what is surely the most accessible and stylized presentation of the underlying significance of convenience, oil, and corn for the Twin Peaks' mythology of evil that we have yet seen in any of the three seasons. At 21:54, exactly five full minutes after the Trinity explosion at 16:53, and after a harrowing journey into the mushroom cloud and through the sublime rip in the fabric of space-time opened thereby, where do we find that this long-sought portal into hell leads? Where do we end up after all this world-historical Sturm und Drang? At a f*cking convenience store. And what are the two (and only two) things visibly available for consumption at this place beyond the atomic portal? You guessed it. Oil conveniently refined into gasoline for automobiles and corn conveniently canned for stacking in suburban bomb-shelters. And who is all this for? A bunch of aimless, slovenly, desperate busy-body men milling around trying to keep their sad, waning fires lit.
The anti-climax of it all actually had me tempted to laugh at the absurdity of this destination-nowhere. All this work to open up the hell-gate and control the world, and all we manage to do is invite some other pitiable group of lost, lonely souls to act out their version of our frenetic, fragile, graspy melodrama in service of preserving the illusion of material satisfaction and fulfillment. I'm glad I didn't laugh, though, because less than a minute after the above close-up of a convenience store and its two key commodities, the store itself opens up into a yawning black abyss (24:35) and just a few seconds after that, we're treated to the horror of Experiment disgorging a plague of frog-locusts and the voracious hunger to instrumentalize and destroy life that is BOB (24:43). Here's the upshot: a convenience store stocking oil and corn is essentially the go-between or the connective tissue between the Trinity Explosion and the primordial opening of the hell mouth. How's that for impressive product placement?
It's one thing to realize that convenience, corn, and oil are at center stage in Twin Peaks' mythology of evil, and another thing entirely to understand why they belong there. Upon reflection, it's pretty clear that any perceptive account of the unique forms of pain, sorrow, and self-inflicted alienation that we face in the wake of the atomic age will need to take convenience, corn, and oil into account. Let's start with convenience. As print advertisements and television from the 1950s suggest, life in the atomic age is synonymous with easier life through technology. Housework is barely work anymore, what with vacuums, dishwashers, and washing machines. Reading and museums and the arts for entertainment? Who needs them, with the exciting advent of radio and television entertainment in your very own home? And who needs weeks or months on a boat when travel on a jet aeroplane is such a snap! And no need for multiple visits to the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker (much less to labor on those things yourself), when one-stop shopping at a supermarket with shelves upon shelves full of meaty chicken breasts under cellophane and eggs in pristine cartons is just a fifteen minute drive from your shiny new subdivision away from the noise and crime of the inner city!
Can you guess which commodities we have to thank for all these wonderful new conveniences? We are grateful to unfathomable amounts of oil to make gas to drive our cars and to make electricity to run our appliances and to make fertilizer and pesticide to grow our corn. Thanks to oil, we no longer need to grow corn the old fashioned way like the indigenous people from whom we stole it did, taking the time and effort to husband the soil and let the land be fertile for the many other things it nourishes. No, we can let the soil burn and feed the plant with fertilizer, and we can patent the fertilizer so that no one else can use our seeds without paying, and we can talk the government into subsidizing our growing of vast amounts of corn on practically every field in existence at a financial loss so that we can drive subsistence farmers across the world into famine or suicide and produce artificially cheap meat, eggs, and dairy by moving all the animals off of pasture into cages where we feed them corn and produce them by the tens of billions in conditions that it is kind to call a living hell and then flush their oceans of blood and excrement into our water tables, lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. Our reward for all of this will be ever increasing convenience with maybe a few unintended consequences like the hollowing out of rural America, infertile soil, water shortages, dying oceans, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, global warming, severe weather, cancer, strokes, diabetes, and maybe a pandemic of bird flu. Oh, and perhaps a few wars to keep the oil flowing so we can keep the corn growing and our stomachs full of the artificially cheap pain and sorrow of others--oil converted to corn, corn converted through suffering into dead flesh, and dead flesh into energy for the pursuit and acquisition of still more power and comfort. Garmonbozia, anyone?
David Lynch has never shied away from showing us the evil, bleeding underbelly of the voracious need to consume and instrumentalize that lies beneath the illusion of suburban convenience and comfort. Not in Blue Velvet, not in "Eat My Fear," and certainly not in Twin Peaks, where--for those with the eyes to see--the terrifying people from another place, the dark magicians seeking total power, those living on the pain, suffering, and humiliation of others--turn out to be us. Convenience has a way of sheltering evil in plain sight, of turning the degradation of people, animals, and the Earth into instruments of perverse power and pleasure. Convenience has a way of robbing us of meaningful labors and difficult but important relationships to people and places from which we are estranged because of the safe distance we put between our attitudes and actions and their consequences for others. And convenience has a way of putting us to sleep, of deflating us, of duping us into living lives that are filled to the brim with that gaudy emptiness that always digests into despair. Let us not allow the mushroom cloud to divert our gaze from the corn and the oil.