The Doubles by Scott Esposito (Civil Coping Mechanisms, Sept. 2017) Reviewed by Patrick Nathan

The Doubles
by Scott Esposito
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, Sept. 2017)

Reviewed by Patrick Nathan

THE LYNCHIAN IMAGINATION

 

The way in isn’t so straightforward, or even necessarily understood. He approaches a clearing of twelve young sycamores, deep in a windswept, moonlit forest. The familiar red curtains appear. He steps through and they fade, just as quietly, until we’re alone amid the darkness. Fortunately, where Dale Cooper has gone, the camera can follow.

In Twin Peaks, the Black and White Lodges seem to be the realm of what must be art. Though dressed for a hike, Cooper enters the waiting room in his impeccable black suit. Laura Palmer, first seen as a pale, sand-flecked corpse, wears an elegant dress. The waiting room itself—furnished with black leather chairs and art deco lamps—is the antithesis of the town’s Northwestern kitsch of mounted fish, knickknacks, and overstuffed sofas. Instead of the haunted fifties bop of the diner’s jukebox, the Black Lodge features a soundtrack of slow, dark jazz with vocals by the otherworldly Jimmy Scott. Here is the Venus de Medici; in the hallway outside, the Venus de Milo. The curtains conjure a stage. Simply being in the Lodge indicates that one is both participating in and bearing witness to some kind of performance, where conversation, spoken backward and played in reverse to create an uncanny doppelgänger of English, becomes a script.

It’s possible that, in the mythology of Twin Peaks, the Black and White Lodges inhabit a different dimension. Or they may be corporeal rooms whose gateways are located all over the earth. Ecstatically, these aren’t things we’re meant to know. It’s this withholding, throughout so much of the show, that grants Twin Peaks its electricity and charm. This is how it casts, and holds, its spell.

 

The way in isn’t so straightforward. Our emotional relationship with art isn’t so different—one more imaginary room we don’t know how we’ve entered. Scott Esposito likens this imagined space to the subconscious. In his book The Doubles—a passionate, genre-dismantling memoir told through film criticism—cinema, in particular, has this “unique gift” for piercing one’s core: “If music is the most euphoric art, literature the most contemplative, and painting the most prophetic, then film is the most psychological. It crashes through the bottom of the soul and forces a reckoning with those long-hidden things.” That this reaction is still possible seems indication enough that art remains—as Susan Sontag dubbed its “earliest experience”—incantatory. Though it keeps trying, hermeneutics can’t kill the magic; nor does Freud’s theory on the uncanny anticipate the horror of Laura Palmer’s doppelgänger, screaming in reverse. There is still some spell at work behind the curtains.

Through fourteen essays about fourteen films, Esposito celebrates cinema’s power. After watching Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, wherein the earth’s and its universe’s respective lifespans are shown to be finite, Esposito posits that “What makes us human are the questions that are irresolvable. Our humanity will cease once we learn to render them irrelevant. And yet we strive to do just that.” Indeed, bracketing The Doubles as he does, beginning with Errol Morris’s A Brief History of Time and ending with Malick’s Voyage, Esposito establishes science’s paradoxical ability to at once shatter and deepen our collective mysteries. “Science stands opposite mystery,” he writes, “it wants answers that do not allow further mysteries.” Yet with a shift in the documentary’s focus from Stephen Hawking to one of his students,

Morris signals our flight from the strict and falsifiable realm of science as we move toward the film’s conclusion. Now Roger Penrose speaks enigmatically about the nature of consciousness… It’s scientifically plausible, he claims, that after you die you might become somebody else, maybe someone who previously lived. Penrose has made a sort of grail from the room quantum physics allows for a soul.

Here, in a paragraph about science, as above, in a paragraph about psychology: soul. The question of the soul is an undercurrent in Esposito’s book. Contemplating Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique—specifically the director’s “trust in mysteries that bend our paths”—Esposito recalls a familiar image: “How many times has it been said that the cineplexes are our civilization’s cathedrals? Are these enormous, perfected, glamorized faces not heroes appropriate to a technologically learned humanity?”

Naturally, as a memoir that explores the formation of a young man’s artistic and critical consciousness, The Doubles doesn’t limit itself to questions of the soul. In his essay on Morris’s documentary, for example, Esposito opens an ongoing rumination on entropy: existence itself “started at a moment of absolute order. It will stop when chaos rules utterly. Time is the expression of this passage.” Of love, he concludes in an essay on Lou Ye’s Suzhou River that “there’s a reason why movies are the most ubiquitous date, love needs fantasies, it needs love stories, without those it crashes against the unimpeachable facts.” Viewing Meek’s Cutoff in 2010, he understands that the film could not have been made prior to 9/11: “This is a depiction of freedom that must be seen. One of the most severe flaws of the American project is that we believe we understand what freedom is.” Art itself is not exempt from scrutiny. In viewing Banksy’s documentary about street art, Exit Through the Gift Shop, he defines capitalism as “reified spectacle, consumable in individual portions for one small cash payment. This is how art becomes capital.” Throughout, Esposito draws on readings from Kierkegaard, Sontag, Adorno, Rousseau, Solnit, Barthes, Cixous, Berger, and (among other religious sources) the Bible. Most of these make up paragraphs of their own, as though frames of dialogue from a silent film: not what we came for, but delightful to know. Such an assemblage could fall apart under its own ambition, but Esposito’s erudition, colloquialism, and passion make The Doubles an extraordinary exploration, not only of film and of youth, but of the responsibilities of the American intellectual.

“We become dual in film,” Esposito posits. “We leave the bright and empirical realm of the everyday to descend into a darkened room only tenuously connected to the outside world, and within this realm of illusions we are capable of being absorbed by gulfs of fantasy.” In dedicating his attention to film, Esposito feels himself “beginning to sketch out the counters of this faith that draws us to the arts. We become ourselves by what deluges us. Humanity is ritualistic, the world is the sum of our rituals.”

Faith, ritual, meaning. While The Doubles is restless, Esposito’s essay on The Double Life of Véronique is its heart, its axis of being. It is where we find “art treading upon worship’s grounds.” It’s also where film’s power to shape his artistic sensibilities is most thoroughly explored: “Could any other art form instill the belief in a soul?” In Véronique, a young woman in Kraków, Weronika, falls over dead in the middle of a transcendent vocal performance; the camera pans above the audience “in what can only be the vantage point of the young woman’s soul as it departs her most beautiful body.” From that point on, for Véronique (played by the same actress) in Paris, life loses its joy and direction, its narrative. She quits her music lessons, withdraws from relationships, and loses interest in her young students. She can no longer tell the story of herself.

Discourse on the soul apart from religion is a diffident topic, and The Doubles is no exception: “What I believe in is just my truth. This map that I am forever unfurling, and that I, at times, catch glimpses of in these films.” Despite—or because of—a lack of total understanding, Véronique, Esposito says, “opens every last door in my skull. It assures me that life is not the world.” Under the film’s spell, he finds himself believing in, or at least sensing the existence of, something not only unseen and unproven, but unseeable, unprovable. Split into that dual existence, his “double” goes where he cannot, a place where reason is subservient to feeling.

 

In “Against Interpretation,” after praising art’s initial incantatory power, Sontag creates a critical binary: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Perhaps inevitably, art is taught at the grade school and university levels as a system of codes. What does the whale signify, in Moby-Dick? What does the placement of the King and Queen in Velázquez’s Las Meninas say about the Spanish monarchy? What are these books and paintings and films and photographs really about? It’s this obsession with aboutness, in the hermeneutical tradition, that seems inseparable from art itself.

Her alternative—an erotics—would function quite differently: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more… The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” Sontag challenges the critic to evangelize the ineffable. This is exactly what Esposito has done with The Doubles, a book that embraces the ecstasy of trying to satisfy an insurmountable desire to understand. Hermes, the messenger god, decrypted the Olympian mysteries so that man could understand. To channel Eros—born of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Ares, the god of war—is to lose control over one’s language altogether. An erotics is a celebration of art’s power to knock us dumb. With The Doubles, Esposito has written an erotics of cinema.

In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke defined the sublime as that which “anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.” This is just an Englishman’s appropriation of erotic theory. An experience of desire is a contradiction in time, in selfhood, and in language—so much so that Sappho, as Anne Carson points out, coined a new word to describe its effect on mind and body: “The moment when the soul parts on itself in desire is conceived as a dilemma of body and senses. On Sappho’s tongue, as we have seen, it is a moment of bitter and sweet… Boundaries of body, categories of thought, are confounded.” This anticipation of reasoning applies not only to love but to the pursuit of knowledge, of experiences, of life, and of art. “In letters as in love,” Carson writes, “to imagine is to address oneself to what is not.” Without desire, there is no passionate struggle against time. To want for nothing is to float as flotsam in time’s river until your life is washed out to sea and forgotten.

In Eros the Bittersweet, Carson describes an unstable triangulation of seeing: “Writing about desire, the archaic poets made triangles with their words. Or, to put it less sharply, they represent situations that ought to involve two factors (lover, beloved) in terms of three (lover, beloved and the space between them, however realized).” Desire itself, then, opens up a new dimension: what should have been a simple connection between two points is complicated by a third. That third dimension—the space between lover and beloved, reader and text, audience and artwork—is what destabilizes a flat, orderly, linear universe. In The Doubles, it’s the distance between our life waiting outside the theatre and the one we’ve assumed here in the dark. Art is a rupture in space and time, the very instability of which demands its closure as quickly as possible. The universe is torn and seeks to sew itself shut. It’s the mark of a long-lasting work of art to keep that unstable space open, dangerous, exciting, uninterpretable. Where Eros reigns, Hermes cannot follow.

 

Why would a person want this? Desire’s metaphors, as Carson points out, are those of “war, disease and bodily dissolution.” For these poets, “change of self is loss of self.”

Under what circumstances does one desire to lose oneself?

Another way that cinema excites the passions is to frighten us. Yet another is to provoke sexual arousal. Few would call these passions sublime. Instead, they revel in the banality of the body, which does what it’s biologically supposed to do. But one does double in those moments, nonetheless. One loses oneself to the passions at hand.

Renata Adler: “Talent was blazing through the columns and onto the coffee tables. The physical-assault metaphors had taken over the reviews… ‘Gut-busting and ‘gut-wrenching’ were accolades. ‘Nerve-shattering,’ ‘eye-popping,’ ‘bone-crunching’—the responsive critic was a crushed, impaled, electrocuted man.”

Few today, in the wake of neuroscience, would seriously argue the Cartesian schism between mind and body; yet in discourse on art, the sincerity of the body is disingenuously absent. While he may lament his metaphorically shattered nerves, no critic would mention the erection inching across his lap during an arousing scene in a film that’s supposed to be serious.

In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag challenges this silence: “The physical sensations involuntarily produced in someone reading [an erotic] book carry with them something that touches upon the reader’s whole experience of humanity—and his limits as a personality and a body.” Up to the limit, right on the edge: what isn’t etymologically sublime about sex? Like the most ecstatic experiences with art, pornography excites the passions that anticipate our reasoning: “Insofar as strong sexual feeling does involve an obsessive degree of attention, it encompasses experiences in which a person can feel he is losing his ‘self’… This literature is both an invocation of the erotic in its darkest sense and, in certain cases, an exorcism.” The soul is made palpable via the intellect’s abandonment of its pretensions, its expectations.

As for pornography’s “ludicrousness and lack of skill,” Sontag points to “the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions… The need of human beings to transcend ‘the personal’ is no less profound than the need to be a person.” Consequently, our vocabulary for experiencing the sublime remains rooted in another discourse: “Total experiences, of which there are many kinds, tend again and again to be apprehended only as revivals or translations of the religious imagination.” This vocabulary not only impoverishes our culture but introduces a ruthlessly limiting cynicism into art and art criticism. In this very essay, I discuss souls, faith, ecstasy—even the cathedrals that art itself seems to carve out amongst the fleshy interiors of our bodies, creating a kind of sanctuary. I approach The Doubles through a vocabulary of religious imagination, just as Esposito builds his own ideas using these same materials.

Frankly, I envy those whose experience of the religious imagination is untainted by cynicism.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes of losing a close friend at a young age. This is prior to his ascetic relationship with God, the moment at which all of his life’s systems, patterns, and supports were failing: “Whither should my heart flee from my heart? Whither should I flee from myself? Whither not follow myself?” Ultimately, it’s only in God’s truth—in the “perfect man” of Christ—that Augustine finds his peace: “Our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”

Nothing quite matches the humility of the Confessions. On every page, the sincerity of Augustine’s gratitude is palpable, even enviable. I can’t speak for Esposito, but for most of my adult life I’ve never perceived, or even allowed, myself to have a soul. It’s difficult to read Augustine and not crave his assurance that there is something beyond the body’s chemistry of neurons and amines, its meat and memory.

Most contemporary authors and thinkers write in terms that circle the idea of having a “self,” but Marilynne Robinson takes it further:

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

As an atheist, I’ve shied away from “soul” for so long that to say it feels transgressive. So, too, do our societal phrases—“Thank God”; “Bless you”—make me cringe when they automatically leave my lips. Like a militant idiot, I repent when I say them, as though I’ve sinned against language. This cynicism limits both the creation of art as well as our capacity for experiencing it as totally, as ecstatically, as possible.

Who else but an idiot would resist the gift of a soul?

In most languages, “soul” is derived from the breath or breathing, the air pushed in and out of the body. In Véronique, this breath is everywhere: condensing on mirrors and windows, heaved out of her body during sex, wrenched out while grieving, and, above all, pushed through her lungs to make music it’s hard to believe any human body can make. In fact, one might envision that Weronika, onstage in her first and only performance, pushed that soul too hard, that she sang too beautifully and too passionately until it simply left her body, rushing out over the audience.

However, the soul is also light. As Véronique wakes from a nap, a glow flitting across her face, she goes to the window and sees a boy with a mirror, teasing her from his balcony. She smiles; he and his mirror retreat into his own apartment. “So easily does the sensation of an invisible world dissolve,” Esposito remarks, but when she turns back inside, the light remains, “dancing in the corner.” As she approaches it,

the shot changes: we are looking down at her… As though seized with a premonition Véronique jerks her head up, she stares into the camera. It tilts in response. The realization is immediate. It’s a point of view shot. I’m seeing from the point of view of that yellow light. Which can of course only be the point of view of Weronika… Every other mystery in Véronique has some explanation. But not this one. There is no source for the second light.

Depicting the soul as breath or light: these are ancient metaphors fossilized in language itself, and yet we don’t seem to tire of them. In an episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, the character Carl Rodd witnesses the hit-and-run killing of a young boy. As the boy’s mother screams for help, Rodd sees, from his bench across the street, a blur of light lift out of his body and ascend up into the clouds. The soul leaving the body and floating up to heaven: a trope of Looney Tunes, and yet, in Lynch’s hands, so masterful one doesn’t know whether to grieve or rejoice. Even more daring is the angel at the end of Fire Walk with Me, hovering above a defeated Laura Palmer as she sits in the familiar room of red curtains. Instead of cringing at this deployment of an elemental cliché, one is overcome with a feeling of immense relief, of gratitude. Witnessing Palmer’s joy—sobs that turn into laughter—is one of the most inexplicably moving experiences I’ve ever had in front of a screen. In what is possibly the greatest triumph of the human imagination over its animal chemistry, it makes me unafraid of death.

 

The way in isn’t so straightforward. Twin Peaks is without a doubt my Véronique: the closest experience I’ve had to believing there is, inside me, something resembling a soul. Like the Black and White Lodges depicted in its universe, it opens up a space within me, a cavernous sanctuary wherein I feel safe, expansive, limitless, and—inexplicably—loved. In contemporary life, where more of what is tangible is retreating into a digital dimension of its own, to fall under art’s spell may become increasingly important. Employing erotic seduction, denying apprehensible meaning, refuting interpretation, and casting the longest-lasting and most enchanting spell I’ve ever fallen under, Twin Peaks has ruptured space and time in my life: it’s opened a door to another place, and that door is still open. I still go there to pray.

Like the original seasons, the new iteration of Twin Peaks resists the fulfillment of viewers’ desire. With the final episode behind us, there are more mysteries than ever. Infamously, the new show’s eighth installment dedicated more than half its length to an extended sequence in the New Mexican desert of the forties and fifties. Easily one of the most rapturous sequences in television, without parallel, it holds me precisely because it doesn’t explain itself, and it gives me room to believe there is elsewhere to go for our species, that there is so much yet for us to accomplish.

Writing in the sixties, at the vanguard of a culture where what was “high” and what was “low” would soon become interchangeable, Sontag counseled that “a great deal of today’s art may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation.” An erotics is always on the move, creating an uncrossable distance you can’t help but strive to cross. Despite Hermes’s wings, it is Eros who is always flying out of reach, drawing us into motion. Should Eros be caught, he ceases to exist. A reconciled desire is desire destroyed, a spell broken. For the Lynchian imagination, this is nonnegotiable: there must be no reconciliation if we’re to glimpse the souls we deserve. That rupture must remain, and that other place accessible should we choose to seek there the blur of light in the mirror, the breath upon the windowpane.

 

Patrick Nathan’s first novel, Some Hell, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in February 2018. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Life, Words in Light, and elsewhere.

 

Banner image: a still from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique