Recently this film and fell in my lap. Absolutely wild. I’ve never felt so simultaneously disturbed and relieved and motivated to reflect. Infinite Jest is my closest parallel… taking place gradually during months of reading – whereas this hit my brain like a lightning bolt, in a single night, and took three weeks to unpack.
This is intended as a hello to a community I now consider myself a part of – fans of this art – and a reflection of themes that rocked the tuning fork in my mind. Incidentally while walking this path, the mind projects its own ideas on the wall to be inspected, too. Whether these projections are harmonious with the artist’s or not – this was a once-in-a-lifetime Rorschach experience.
Why analyze a film from 1977 in 2022? Certain wisdom about the human condition feels timeless. The vintage of this movie combined with its dumbfounding relevance 40 years later suggests it’s onto something. This film blindsided me with comfort, as if meeting a soul with a shared affliction. This film does not prescribe a way to live. Instead, it demonstrates irrefutably plausible psychological disaster, and compels the viewer to contemplate what precipitates it. Writing this is my way of considering its truths. If you haven’t seen this film, I suggest you change that, then take a few days to see how it makes you feel… before reading further.
“’Serious’ art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort.”
– David Foster Wallace
Theme 1: Instinct for sex can be compulsive and unconcerned with (or unaware of) consequences outside of self-pleasure.
We see Henry alone in his apartment at the start of the film, placing an empty white sock on the radiator which was wet/dirty from stepping in a puddle. This might be symbolic of a wet/dirty sock from masturbation. Whether an intentional allegory or not, a male alone in a dark room looking indifferently at sad, single, white sock, is undeniably evocative of culture lore. The radiator is surrounded by dark bushy weeds (or hair). The radiator may represent “radiating” sexual desire originating from the loins (perhaps why the radiator is surrounded by pubic hair). The interior of the radiator (a stage where performances occur) may represent mental states during sex. The initial scenes in the film appear to establish Henry’s compulsive sex drive, and further, suggest an unexpected newborn child is at least partially a consequence of this drive.
Theme 2 : Family life can consume a person’s individuality and constrain them in a simple-minded world. Possible emphasis on men/fathers.
When Henry meets Mary’s family, the mother seems to be the dominant personality in the household. The father is a strangely jolly person, to the point it seems superficial – as if he’s conformed to a household role and convinced himself he’s happy (aside from some minor gripes his plumbing career). He is shooed-away by the family while trying to tell Henry some innocuous story about his knees. (Is this poor fellow starved of someone to talk to?). At one point during small talk, he holds a big grin and stares awkwardly at Henry, like a puppy waiting for attention. Similar to a puppy – the father has no ability to offer Henry interesting conversation of his own.
Theme 3: Life devoted solely to caregiving can leave it void. This void may be most obvious when the caregiver’s children are grown – symbolized in the lifeless grandmother. Possible emphasis on women/mothers.
Mary’s mother and grandmother are in the kitchen preparing a meal. The grandmother is awake, sitting lifeless in a chair. Mary’s mother “helps” the grandmother mix salad – manipulating her arms as if she were a doll with no control over its limbs. She places a cigarette in the grandmothers mouth and lights it, as one might tie a shoe for a helpless child. The grandmother’s alive-but-dead presence alongside the mother may represent two generations of maternal drive – repeating itself in a cycle. The caregiver has become the cared-for. The grandmother seems absent of feeling or emotion of any kind. Soulless. Did this grandmother have any dreams for herself besides her role as a mother?
Theme 4: Maternal instinct drives toward pregnancy and consequently drives toward childcare. Male sexuality retreats in life, perhaps initiated by subservience to family, but ultimately from old age.
Henry, Mary, and Mary’s parents were finally seated at the table for their meal. The father explains to Henry how his arm was injured and although he keeps massaging it, it’s slowly gone numb. (This possibly symbolizes loss of his sexuality or erectile dysfunction). He can’t cut the chicken because he’s afraid he will slice his numb arm. He asks: would Henry like do the honors? As Henry starts to cut the tiny “fist-size” chicken, the chicken starts convulsing and oozing dark liquid. Simultaneously, Mary’s mother starts convulsing with eyes rolled back, as if she is having an orgasm. Her odd response to Henry cutting the chicken may be symbolic of her maternal drive awakening in the presence of Henry’s fully intact sexuality – doing something her husband can’t do anymore. Her husband’s sexuality retreated long ago, perhaps as a byproduct of age or tamed domestic life. She later interrogates Henry about whether he had sex with Mary, and starts kissing him, as if her instincts are pushing toward conception. Once they determine a child was born, Mary’s Mom pushes toward immediate marriage.
Theme 5: Being a parent is different and more challenging than expected. This can be especially true if the child was unplanned.
Mary is deeply disturbed and uncertain about being a mother. She briefly smiles when first caring for the the baby, but then displays a constant state of distress about needing to attend to it. She turns a cold shoulder to Henry when they are laying in bed as new parents. The baby’s incessant crying drives her away from home in the middle of the night, carrying a suitcase.
Theme 6: When the overwhelming euphoria of orgasm has passed – one can abruptly see that sex and semen are life’s tools for propagation, and feel repulsed by their mindless servitude of them.
Henry and Mary are in bed together one night. Mary is sweaty and tossing and turning. The scene changes to the stage inside the radiator, where a smiling woman wearing all white dances on the stage. Semen creatures appear to fall from the sky surrounding her feet. She stomps on the semen during her dance. This woman in white may represent the euphoria of sex and the mind-erasure of orgasm, and her stomping on the semen may represent how the pursuit of euphoria can be totally divorced from intention to create life. The scene changes back to the bedroom. Henry looks under the sheet near his sweaty partner, and begins to remove massive semen creatures from within her… then throws them against the wall in disgust. This may be an allusion to the moment after sex, when the euphoria is gone, one is reminded of the life-spreading purpose of semen… and feels numb or revolted with what they did.
Theme 7: Sexual desire can be relentless, selfish, and entirely disconnected from the loyalty of a partner or reality of conception. It can serve as an escape to erase the mind of pain – to distract it with “heaven”, even if only for a moment.
Henry cheats on his wife with his beautiful neighbor. (Likely a fantasy during masturbation or a dream). Henry smothers his baby’s cries from the neighbor before they get into bed, as if he wants to hide the reality of being a father. The bed turns into a pool of white liquid where they both are slowly submerged. The scene cuts to the inside of the radiator, where the woman in white sings “In heaven, everything is fine”, further reinforcing her representation of mind-erasing-escape. Henry joins the woman on stage. As he reaches to touch her, she suddenly vanishes. A flash of the adult creature with grit in his teeth appears instead. Henry begins twisting his hands anxiously. His head suddenly pops off… replaced by the head of an erect penis, and replaced again by the head of the crying fetus. This suggests the sexual mind completely overtaking the rational one, and again, that conception is the ultimate goal of sex. Henry’s decapitated head falls from the sky onto the street, where a young boy scoops it up and delivers it to a business, which turns his brain into pencil erasers. This likely symbolizes that Henry is driven by sex to escape, or “erase his mind”. He never cared about making a child, he doesn’t care that sex is with his wife or not. The lizard looking fetus-head in Henry’s body may represent primal urges for sex controlling the mind (the adult lizard creature pulling the levers), and how these primal urges perpetuate themselves in new life. These urges are totally misaligned with Henry’s general wellbeing.
Theme 8: Seeing a person of desire with another partner can be psychologically devastating, and create a deep sense of unworthiness and jealousy. Additionally, unfulfilled expectations for pleasure are painful.
Henry sees his neighbor with another man. This seems to cut him deep, as he drops to his knees to watch them through the keyhole, while the baby/fetus laughs at him mockingly. Perhaps the fetus laughing represents sex drive’s complete disinterest in Henry’s happiness. Perhaps this is the first time he is able to recognize his own selfish cycle of sexual behavior, and realize he is as much perpetrator as victim.
Theme 9: If one can recognize themselves within the cycle of mindless drives, perhaps they can transcend them. Perhaps they can notice that urges never fulfill their promise of heavenly relief, even though it’s what many of us spend a lifetime fantasizing about.
Henry approaches the baby/fetus with scissors and begins cutting its bandages. He then pierces the baby’s organs, causing it to convulse and overflow the table with an expanding pile of ooze and guts. This action may symbolize Henry’s attempt to conquer his own primal drive or general lashing-out in resentment of his circumstances. The lights in the room begin to flicker frantically. A massive head of the baby appears sporadically in different spots of the room. The adult creature with grit in his teeth, who was pulling all the levers at the beginning of the film, appears to die. This may symbolize Henry defeating his primal puppet-master, either by enlightenment or suicide. In the final scene, the woman in white hugs Henry – they are both surrounded by pure white light. He is eyes are closed, he appears immensely relieved by her embrace. This moment is extraordinarily powerful – conspicuously the only moment we see Henry feeling OK. It contrasts starkly, both in actual color and emotional color, from all previous scenes. This embrace could represent the lasting satisfaction and relief he’s been chasing his entire life – an illusion that was never real.
This film startles the viewer with the reality of mindless urges. It shows how they may be at work covertly with tremendous power, beneath our awareness.
One urge is sex – it can be blindly selfish toward the attainment of pleasure or oblivion, and unintentionally lead to various forms of suffering: an unexpected child, a difficult parenthood, an insatiable appetite for escaping, and hurt feelings toward self and others. The film screams-out and reminds the viewer through exaggerated portrayal of semen and fetus, the act of sex is about propagation of life. While propagation of life is both serious and difficult, this reality is totally concealed when one is consumed-with fleeting pleasure or escape – the orgasmic, decapitating, mind-erasing, invitation of sexual release and intimacy. This is represented in Henry’s sex drive, the euphoric interior of the radiator, and his literal eraserhead brain.
Another urge is maternal – it is oriented with creating and raising children. This maternal urge awakens in the presence of male sexuality (the seductress), and after childbirth, becomes concerned with care of the child (the mama-bear). After birth, the sex drive of the male tilts toward obsolescence, as energy is channeled toward family. The mama-bear is represented by Mary’s mother, the dominant figure of the household. The seductress is represented by Mary’s mother orgasming at the dinner table in response to Henry’s sexuality, and later kissing him on the neck. The decline of male sexuality in family life is represented in Mary’s father, whose appears to have become tame and impotent.
The collusion of sexual and maternal instincts invariably lead to children and home life, where parents are prone to lose individuality and “family” becomes the ultimate collective goal. The late-stages of this are represented in the father, who has nothing particularly interesting to say and seems marginalized by the family, and by the grandmother, who after a lifetime of motherhood and grand-motherhood, appears to be empty inside – she has fulfilled her maternal role (empty nest) and therefore has outlived her sense of meaning. The early-stages of this are represented by new parents, Henry and Mary.
Henry and Mary are both surprised by parenthood – they had no plans for a child. After birth, Mary is distressed with the reality of motherhood, and Henry continues his mindless chase of euphoria. Each has fumbled their way to this place by indulging primal urges. The absurd conclusion is that these urges had a powerful agenda that was hidden from them – an agenda to propagate life. It suggests this agenda may be hidden in our lives, too.
“We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.”
– Albert Camus
How is a hidden agenda possible? It seems like this should be so obvious… we intellectually understand sex leads to conception. It feels like we truly want these things for our own sake. We’re armed with willpower and contraceptives… but are we really aware of the intense psychological grip urges have over us – the lifelong flaring appetites for sex and children, for example? Are we able to notice that, although these appetites seem like self-serving desires we control, they ultimately serve “Life” – not us? Not only might these desires not serve us, our relationship with them has potential to make us suffer – terribly.
A profound reality of the human condition is we are often oblivious to what torments us or influences our behavior until something changes – and we gain clarity. Imagine you were born with your head stuck in a vice, a vice so extremely tight it pressed your skull against your brain and caused perpetual headache. Imagine you had absolutely no idea this vice was there and lived this way for decades, until suddenly it broke… fell away, and you for the first time, experienced relief. Imagine further, you then found out someone put your head in that vice intentionally, to serve them?
How is primal desire any different from this vice? We are born with a drive to do something that feels euphoric. We happily oblige. We chase euphoria in infinitely new ways, with or without a partner. Sexual fantasies spring to life on our internal movie projector – triggered by overt and covert stimuli. What’s so bad about euphoria and sexual fantasy? What if we start with the inverse: what’s so GOOD about euphoria and sexual fantasy? The moment of bliss lasts seconds. The pursuit of bliss, on the other hand, requires enormous energy and can easily cascade toward pain that lingers for months, years, or a lifetime. This pain can manifest in innumerable ways – emotionally, physically, practically. Not merely from sex and planned (or unplanned) consequences of family, but even craving and anticipating sex, and living with agonizing unmet expectations about it. Or, excruciating loneliness, triggered by belief that life with a sexual partner would be so much better. The asymmetry of potential pain vs. potential pleasure, simply by regarding sex as essential, is mind boggling.
Three Frontiers of Questions
1) Is sex actually Life’s “free” amusement park or asylum from pain? Or, is the cost just extremely hard to notice: the time, and suffering, and precious attention that one might devote toward more wholesome aspirations? If we had a choice, would we WANT to be haunted by recurring desires for a lifetime, even if there are moments of euphoria? Is perpetual search for sexual release necessary for a fulfilled life, in the same way eating, sleeping, and breathing are?
2) Beyond sex, yet inextricably linked to it, is creating children our destiny as human beings? Is it what we are “meant to do” in life? At what point does desire for sexual pleasure stop, and desire for children begin? Both involve sex, so clearly sex must be motivated by one or the other or both. Is love the glue that links these two? Do we truly understand which of these reasons we’re in it for, at all times? Or – do each of these puppet strings tug with different strengths at different moments, in ways we are oblivious to, as brilliantly demonstrated by Henry and Mary?
3) Finally, on the deepest level, what is the secret belief we all seem to carry with us as human beings? A belief so secret, we may not even know we have it. The ultimate wish: that if only we indulge our cravings carefully enough – everything will finally, once and for all, feel OK, like Henry in the very last scene. Why do we believe this magical destination exists, despite all evidence it does not?
This film, if nothing else, smashes-open the door to these questions – questions that oppose the roaring current we swim in – a current that unquestionably embraces sex and family and desire. Are we not more than mere conduits and caretakers for babies? Can the thrust and meaning of our lives be deeply satisfying – separate from the mind-boggling gravity of sexual aims, or the silent belief in perpetual happiness?
The Hero Who Never Saved the Day – Love
When exploring sex and family, how can one not also consider romance? After all, can’t love be the anchor that tames a mindless sex drive, and enables partners to endeavor soberly toward family? Romance is curiously absent from this film, aside from one small line:
Mary's Mom: Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse? Henry: [pauses and stutters] I-I'm very... I love Mary.
Henry’s sheepish response is brilliant. It reveals his association with the question – sex – and his alleged motivations and justification for it – love. The way he delivers this line is so unconvincing – it suggests he doesn’t fully believe what he’s saying – but he doesn’t not believe it either. Further, every other aspect of the film, including the title itself, betrays this statement. Henry’s sexual journeys with and without Mary emphasize euphoric escape… the erasure of mind.
Separately, Mary’s motivations for anything she’s doing are entirely foggy – she seems chronically uncertain and distressed – which raises its own questions: Why would she do this to herself? What exactly is motivating her?
Whether or not romance can live-up to mythical promise is a colossal and independent question, separate from this film. At minimum, a realistic attitude toward love and marriage is surely the only hope for a couple to survive parenthood. The romance in this film is clearly not that, and raises a question: When primal urge is the dominant magnetic force between two people, what are the best possible long-term outcomes? In this case, it leads to an unexpected child and an abrupt marriage. It leads to a partner coldly turning over in bed one night and fleeing the home with a suitcase. It leads to cheating sexually, when an irresistible opportunity presents itself. Here too, primal urges create a wobbly confabulation of love that quickly breaks under the weight of reality.
A Humble Antidote
(Totally Unrelated to Sex)
Art can have many meanings – even ones unintended by the artist. To me, this film is not entertainment. To me it has all the prestige of a sacred precept. This film is not a prescription for how to live a good life. This film is not making judgements about what is right or wrong. It’s simply a story about degrees of suffering that, while deliberately exaggerated with fantastic creative skill, are rooted in profound truth about human nature and therefore should be taken seriously.
We desire things. We chase those desires. When the chase fails, we are unhappy. When the chase succeeds, we may be happy, sort of, but are unavoidably unhappy again. Repeat.
We often may not know where desires come from, or what wholesome value they might bring to us, if any. They simply arise and we pursue. At best, desire is a treadmill that plateaus and underwhelms, or, cranks infinitely faster as one strives for new heights of satisfaction. At worst, desire leads directly into pits of despair and harm that were totally unforeseen. In either case – there is no such thing as finally arriving, as finally being permanently-happy by desiring even harder, although this may be our secret belief deep down – the carrot-on-stick-idea we are born with – that we can finally win this game. (Or, at least endure this game… with ongoing booster shots of anesthetic pleasure).
This idea may seem too simple to be enlightening. Yet I posit this as THE, smack-you-in-the-side-of-the-head, absolute truth at the core of this film – one that undergirds its more blatant themes: desires can totally manipulate and destroy you.
Enter: optimism. I see this as exceptionally hopeful.
If one can only notice the futility in mindlessly chasing desires – whether they are the monstrously powerful primal ones depicted in this film, or even more benign ones – they can break the spell. If one can notice any pleasure in their lives, and ask themselves, what does this pleasure cost? If one can notice cravings, and ask themselves, WHY do I want this thing and would I be at peace without it? If one can notice how disappointed they are, when something did not go as planned, and ask themselves, WHY was I so attached to that outcome? If one can carefully watch their entire life unfold day after day, and commit seriously to the question, WHY do I do everything that I do? If one honors this process like a personal religion, they might distinguish healthy desires from unhealthy ones. They might think deeply about desires before the chase ever begins. And in time, one might suddenly find themselves overwhelmed with simple appreciation for life as it already is.
Please – do be skeptical of these claims, as any good critical thinker ought to. I implore you, consider these ideas have been alive in humanity a long time. I am merely an affirmative signpost. These are small breadcrumbs on a longer journey toward wellbeing. That aside, being able to recognize oneself within a cycle of suffering is where seeds of insight are sown.
Some Final Questions and Thoughts and Suspicions
Certain ideas are like riddles. They can feel preposterous or offensive or contradictory. Then… seemingly out of nowhere, they may become relevant and interesting. Here are a few that came to mind while exploring this film. Maybe they spark some curiosity in you today, or, someday.
Q: Is all desire bad?
Q: Don’t humans need desire to survive?
Q: Does this suggest we should not strive?
Q: Is pleasure bad?
A: Desire can be healthy or unhealthy. Aspirations (wholesome goals) are distinct from cravings (an insatiable hunger for something). Striving is OK, so long as one is not wed to outcomes. Pleasure is OK, so long as one understands its potential consequences, good and bad. I am not Buddhist nor secretly advocating it, but I believe certain Buddhist concepts apply beautifully here, totally compatible with modern psychology.
Consider this and this and this.
Q: Is this film suggesting:
– Sex is evil?
– Primal urges victimize one gender more than the other?
– Sexual intimacy can’t be sincere?
– Family destroys sexuality and individuality?
– Family and sexuality inevitably follow the template in this film?
– Sex and/or family lead to regret?
A: I don’t believe the film intends to say any of these things… they feel too rigid and untrue for any human to adopt constructively. I believe the film says: Look! Look at these people chasing desires around with no apparent attempt to consider their consequences. Look how what they do leads to a domino effect of pain that lasts for years or decades. The film then asks: Do you believe you are invulnerable to mindless desire? If you are humble enough to admit you might not be, what can you do about it?
Q: Why are primal instincts so prominently featured?
A: Sex and maternal instinct are perhaps the greatest examples of consequential and mindless desire within all of us. I don’t believe this film is suggesting sex and maternal instinct are always bad or always mindless. I see a more interesting question that doesn’t outright indict them: How good can they possibly be? Can we be so blinded by perceived reward, we fail to notice our vulnerability to current and future cost? Further, what is this reward truly doing for us, in terms of long-term sustained wellbeing and fulfillment? Are our expectations about these things realistic, and, would life be just fine without them? Rather than aiming these questions at primal instinct specifically, consider aiming them broadly at any desire.
Q: So… Am I to believe “Life” beautifully exploits our Achilles heal of desire to perpetuate itself? This idea is absurd! I AM life! I am in control. Wait. Am I life? Who am I?
A: Wonderful questions.
Q: Do themes in this film suggest antinatalism?
A: Antinatalism is the belief that having children is unethical, as the unborn child is far more likely to suffer than they are to not. Following this logic, why would anyone bring life into the world? Despite this film showing obvious suffering as a consequence of conception, I don’t believe it tries or needs to interact with this philosophical argument. However, to the extent either this film or antinatalism causes one to think deeply about the enormous responsibility and life-altering reality of parenthood, prior to having a children – in other words – challenges the blind belief that children are essential to fulfillment and necessarily positive – this is a warning they both allude to, so are related in that sense.
Q: Do themes in this film suggest misanthropy?
A: “For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world.” Misanthropy is the general dislike or contempt of the human species. In response to suffering, cynicism may start to linger in a person’s mind, which may open the door to nihilism or misanthropy. This film is extremely dark. Is all hope for humanity abandoned? While a sufferer might gain illusory comfort from believing the word is doomed, I believe it would be a catastrophic mistake to project that into this film and their worldview, and miss out on the idea that one actually CAN be truly content and fulfilled in life – even in the face of cosmic indifference.
Q: What about decline of sexuality?
A: Two forces in the film seemingly push sexuality to the margin – age and family life. This is prominently featured in Mary’s father. Given the real-life plausibility of family incumbering sexual identity, and the certainty of age taking it away, how might that change our attitude toward it? If sex is a pleasure-button to feel bliss or relax, it seems a little cruel to take it away in mid-life, no? In response to this inescapable cruelty, we might double-down, get it all in while we can. Push the absolute hell out of that button. What if sex is not actually a pleasure-button to be pushed for pleasure? What if obsessing about the pleasure-button actually has a hidden cumulative cost, that it robs a a person of requisite freedom to discover themselves? What if the sole purpose of the pleasure-button is life’s ingenious way of spreading itself, and we are not actually that clever in believing we can compulsively grab pleasure without consequence, psychological or otherwise? (I can’t help but sigh, imagining a young sexually-charged me reading this and laughing. Am I suggesting a young sexually charged person ought to abstain? No – that is insane. But maybe after a few years, that sexually charged someone considers the maximum good sex does for them, relative to all the other possible goods in their life…)
Q: What does this analysis say about it’s author? (Me)
Q: Gee, whoever wrote this sure had a frustrating sex life. Or unwanted children. Or is simply a killjoy. What sort of mental gymnastics are required by the author to not notice this as pure affirmation of worldview… ?
A: Ah, yes. To the asker of such astute questions: turns out the interest is mutual. Any bonified philosopher would insist a good question stands entirely apart from its author. Throughout this analysis, I’ve posed many questions and deliberately resisted answers or judgement. Beyond that, I’ve thrown my scrutiny at each question, asking: are these plausible and worthwhile considerations for any human being, regardless of personal experience? I sincerely believe yes. I also apologize preemptively for any breaches in this process. I will confess, the past two years of my life have been absurdly rewarding – something I did not see coming. I credit this feeling not to attainment of desire, but distance from it. I ask myself: what the hell? How did I not know this way of life existed? I wish others could experience this. And so, this is not me wanting to impose anything on anyone, rather, to any soul who feels their fingernails scraping the bottom of the pale of life, who just can’t connect with what they’re looking for, I offer this for consideration. And for those who find this ridiculous or biased… it’s all good.
Good Luck On Your Path – Sincerely
Thank you, David Lynch, for creating this atomic-bomb of a mind-mover.
(Even if that was not your exact intention with this film)
(Even if my meaning is far different than yours)
Thank you, dear reader, for coming on this journey. As much as I wrote this for myself and out of respect for a wild work of art, I hope it helps others a thousand times over… not by insinuating a certain way to live – but by illuminating powerful questions, enabling you to take a rocket ship away from your world and inspect it from afar. From this vantage point, you might glimpse cause and effect of everything that stirs you. You might feel empowered to live more thoughtfully, more wholesomely, more deliberately.
“Ultimately, we have to discover the thing that is intrinsic to consciousness itself, that is available no matter what you feel like, no matter what was here a moment ago. You can only begin to locate that when you cease to be confused about this dichotomy – of seeking to become happy, versus, being happy. This is the apparent paradox that we need to solve – each of us – and no one can solve it for you.
You have to recognize you can’t actually BECOME happy, you can only BE happy. Any effort to reach past the present moment, into some improvement, is to be taken in by a mirage.
In ordinary ways, life can get better or worse. That’s obviously true. If you’re sick, you should go to the doctor. If you’re broke you should figure out how to make money. All that stuff matters in their own way. If your life is chaotic enough, you don’t have time to think about any of these things… you just have one problem after another to solve.
Regardless, no matter how good things ever get, there is this mirage-like quality to a sense-of-arriving, at the thing you were hoping to be gratified by. The satisfaction of a desire. The meeting of a goal. All of these things evaporate into the next moment, in which you are actually unfulfilled.”
– Sam Harris
(coincidentally, I suggest this)
“Our aspirations to better our circumstances are inseparable from being alive. They never cease. We will always want air, water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and companionship. Above and beyond our basic wants, we may also aspire to certain so-called “higher” goods such as wisdom, compassion, and courage. While pursuing these higher goods, we will still simultaneously find ourselves experiencing a desire for “lower” goods as well, such as social status or material wellbeing. It’s one thing to recognize an aspiration to some good—be it “higher” or “lower”—and thoughtfully work to increase the likelihood of attaining it. It’s another thing to be seized by it, to be held in its grip, to be helpless against it, to pursue it recklessly, against one’s better judgement, even when it’s antithetical to one’s long-term wellbeing.
If Buddhism were asking us to cease all intention and aspiration, it would be asking the impossible. What it’s actually asking is for us to become discerning about our intentions and aspirations. Are they worth aspiring for? Will they really makes us happier? Can we pursue them intelligently, weighing their direct and indirect costs, or are we being dragged thoughtlessly along by them to the detriment of ourselves and others? If a desire is in charge of us—if it’s leading us to ruin and misfortune—can we detach from it and let it go? If the desire is unattainable or only attainable at too great a cost, can we also let it go?”
“Jot a few thoughts down… then head to google for ‘official’ analysis”, I said.
21 days later… I never reached google.
If you are under age 35, the stings alleged here may soar miles above your head. The film may feel like something absurd for the sake of being entertaining, created by some ancient human whose insights are obsolete-by-default, with poor quality visual f/x that are offensive to the eye. Don’t worry, this is not condescension as much as me admitting two things: First, this definitely would have flown over my head years ago. Second, the stings might be uniquely sting-ish to me. Even so, my hint to any human reading this, is to experience this film as campfire story intended to teach something about life. The very idea that something might soar over your head may be motivation to look extra hard for that something… and actually see it. Perhaps it leaves a kernel of disturbance that will come in handy someday. (For the record, the visual f/x are sublime.)
Three miracles catalyzed this: One, total ignorance of Eraserhead – not knowing a description or trailer, and very little about David Lynch. Two, the film’s themes (as I recognize them) are ones I’ve been reflecting on and thinking deeply about, weeks prior, and yet, this intersection was random: a friend I watched with had been nudged by someone I don’t know to watch Lynch – not specifically this film. Three, my simultaneous process of sharing, with this very friend, my suspicions about playing with primal fire. These coincidences are wild. What you’ve read was my earnest effort to not let serendipity instigate confirmation bias, or, at least scrupulously defend against it.
A final suggestion… a wellspring of optimism underlies this essay.