I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

David Lynch's Eraserhead: A Nightmare of the Real World

by Nathaniel Hoyt
Nov. 26, 2012

This film is, at first, an impressive knot: tug here, pull there, and its secrets remain jealously bound. Step back: it's a hard shell floating in a dark place, alone. It appears a lump of inscrutable bulk, like a clump of urban silt collecting in a sewer grate, the ingredients indecipherable, but its whole something uncanny, even shameful.

This film is, without a doubt, about urban life. We live circumscribed in the arms of gray highways, deadly to trespass unarmed, in a noisy concrete delta suffused in a lurid mist, oppressed by forces which have no name. Gravity is heavier here. A city is a depression: a low place, where everything and everyone inescapably fall to the lowest point. And on all sides, our cities' natural geography encloses us: walls of tiered hills rise on one side and a toxic sea borders the other. Life here can feel, at times, inescapable. To flee by flying requires contortions of the will that can be a too-hard trial to win a holiday from daily chores: the pervasive suspicion, the dubious consolation bought by being treated like an enemy, breeds a hostile air intolerable to some. We all march in line through the sensors; we are all suspects equally, we're told, but who's really fooled by that, when money and skin are still our only badges? Or if escapable, pointless to try: where would you go? Our outbound highways pursue inhospitable rural waystations along an endless suburban spiderweb, fearful places to anxious city dwellers. We live in a concrete hole, in a deep well, a well-used place far from the sun. It's a collection of debris we tread through, that amasses and amasses, seeps noxious gas, and the fetid ground water we inch away from is rising every day.

This film is oppressive. To enter the universe of Eraserhead, we must ostensibly leave our world that has law, order, a way to do things and ways not to do things. But are we really moving from an ordered world to an unordered one? After all, the rules of our world are only written words, their existence temporal and superficial, and nobody can agree on a satisfactory moral authority. What purpose does law and order serve? Why do we seek symmetry in experience, and judge truth by its place on an empirical scale? What if anarchy? What if lawlessness and chaos reigned, and human nature was suddenly corrupted by irrationality? What if our cities poisoned us, our children seemed alien, our lovers inaccessibly pure creatures of imagination irrevocably bound? Why, what if? If our world is only governed by the howling wind and whims of us who inhabit it, it is not much of a leap to enter Henry's world: it may even be a step up into a more governed universe. Henry knows that his existence only adds to the entropy, and so he does what he can: he minimizes the damage he must inflict. He keeps a small apartment, works a humble job, and keeps his one fantasy safely guarded inside his head: it is when that fantasy escapes, drawn out into the real world by his ugly natural urges, that the major conflict of Eraserhead takes place.

This film is surreal, of course, but Henry doesn't waste time thinking about whether or not his world can exist: to question its existence is the same as it would be for us to question ours. Why ask what would happen if our world became the strange and alien place that it actually is? Henry doesn't critique: to peel away the layers of his life and search for meaning would only reveal a more grotesque underside, and we- he- knows this through experience. After all, when has it ever worked out for Henry? He copes. Is it cowardice that stops the question in his throat, the primal existential scream, "why?", or is withered acceptance the only possible response? For our parts, too much time is spent pealing away the layers, losing the skin to find the skeleton, the essence for the reason, beauty for structure, and not enough time is spent commiserating with Henry, in mourning for our reason.

This film may be like a nightmare, but it is not about a nightmare. Life is a nightmare. Imagination, isolation, oppression, alienation: these are the four elements that move human industry. The spheres that turn the firmament grind together and bind, and whatever music is made is a moan, a deep drone, like machinery far away. Our minds and our universe drift parallel and separate: an ephemeral attraction is all that keeps them together - two dissimilar objects amidst an endless nothing bound only by gravity. The rules that govern one world never manage the leap to the other. Despite that - our actions, our thoughts, each-other of our selves, and even our seed are alien, hostile, and irrational. We glimpse love, even in our dreams deformed, imperfect, in brief electric nightmares. We produce fear and hostility when our intentions are benign and ignorant. We kill where we care, and our simple unguarded exterior belies the poxed hermit that drives the organs of our body's machinery.

If you find yourself descended deep within a block of urban decay at twilight, on a gray day, look around you. In the half-light, the highway and refinery are flattened onto a single plane in the distance, the former arcing over the latter, hugging tight, conspiring. It doesn't matter what elevation you've climbed down from, up close the ground you took for level is uneven: piles and girders complicate your path and movement becomes difficult. A drone permeates the air and blends unease into your thoughts through your ears. All around industry labors on: grunting machines alchemize, refining any odd cast-off into useable, useful, product (society's dream, the individual's nightmare). This is the space in which Eraserhead exists, and far from being a nightmare, or a vision of a fantastical dystopia, it is an interpretation and expression of the world as it really is.  


Nathaniel Hoyt is an inconceivably complex system of sentient organic materials dedicated to eating poorly and playing video games frequently. He has a Tumblr account that he doesn't quite know how to use, which you can view at dedolence.tumblr.com, although admittedly there's probably better ways to waste company time. As a do-er of many things, feel free to seek Nathaniel out if you have any things that need doing, like bicycle fixing, coffee making, artwork drawing, or opinion giving. END COMMUNICATION.