The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
On the Lost Highway: Lynch and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology

"[Psychogenic] Fugue"

A last reference I want to make use of is the term "psychogenic fugue" that the French Production Company of Lost Highway, CIBY 2000, used as a kind of short- hand plot-synopsis in their pre-publicity campaign for the movie. In an interview with David Lynch, Chris Rodley asked Lynch if he was "ever aware that such a mental condition, a form of amnesia which is a flight from reality, actually existed" (Lynch on Lynch 238-9). Lynch answered that

the unit publicist on the picture, happened to find it in some medical journal or something. She showed it to us, and it was like Lost Highway. Not literally, but an interior thing can happen that's very similar. A certain mental disturbance. But it sounds like such a beautiful thing - 'psychogenic fugue.' It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality I think it's beautiful, even if it didn't mean anything. (Lynch on Lynch 239)

Yet it does mean something, and in this last section of this article, I want to situate Lost Highway in the context of human pathology. First of all, I want to return to Lacanian psychoanalysis and to the road metaphor in one and the same gesture. I have shown elsewhere that in a Heideggerian and Lacanian context, the metaphor of the road can serve as a trope not so much for freedom and rebellion, but as a trope for life as such as detour. (32) Lacan employs the metaphor of the road in his account of the death drive, (33) but he makes it unmistakably clear that such a notion of the drive is far from representing an imaginary and narcissistic freedom from any law whatsoever. Even this drive for freedom depends for its existence on laws, on barriers ... freedom needs barriers for their transgression. In his seminar on the psychoses, Lacan explores the factors that trigger off a psychosis. And again, he takes recourse to the metaphor of the road. In a chapter appropriately named "The highway and the signifier 'being a father,'" he writes:

a succession of minor roads and a highway are not at all the same thing. ... The highway isn't something that extends from one road to another, it's a dimension spread out in space, the presencing of an original reality. If I take the highway as an example, it's because ... it's a path of communication. ... the highway is an undeniable signifier in human experience. (34)

What Lacan is alluding here to is his notion of the point de capiton, the quilting point, which is that point which makes sure that some temporary notion of meaning can be created in language. Again, as in the concept of suture, the metaphor of stitching and sewing comes to the fore, since a quilting point designates an upholstery button, a place where "the mattress-makers needle has worked hard to prevent a shapeless mass of stuffing from moving to freely about." (35) So a point de capiton is a place where signified and signifier are literally stitched together - this is suture in the register of the symbolic. Like a highway with respect to a system of smaller streets, the quilting point holds that system of discourse together, and a minimal number of these points are "necessary for a human being to be called normal, and which, when they are not established, or when they give way, make a psychotic" (Seminar III 268-9).

According to Lacan, the most important points de capiton, the highway amongst some minor roads, so to speak, is the name of the father, the paternal metaphor, which is quite important in Lynch's "post-patriarchal project." (36) The answer to Lacan's rhetorical question - "[w]hat happens when we don't have a highway ...?" (Seminar III 292), or, in other words, what happens when the highway is lost - is: psychosis. The foreclosure, what Freud called Verwerfung, of the primordial signifier, the name of the father, is a strategy for evading castration: the subject is "castrated" by its entry into the symbolic, into language and society. Thus, the denial of this castration leads to psychosis. This rejection of the symbolic Other that results in the disappearance of the phallic function leads to the subject's distortion of its relation to the social order as well to its loss of sexual identity. As in Freud's case of Judge Schreber, Fred Madison tries to escape the threat of castration, but he experiences a "return of the repressed" in the real instead of in the symbolic, in his hallucinations (that is, in his second identity as Pete), because he does not accept the name of the father, the agency that might disturb his symbiotic relationship with Renee and/or Alice: Dick Laurent is dead! So, the "Highway" of the title is exactly this quilting point, this suture, that would be necessary for the subject to be inscribed into "reality," into a state of "normality." Once this point is lost, once this seam is undone, the subject falls prey to the real, becomes psychotic. With respect to the delusional aspects of psychosis, Lacan comments on "this buzzing that people who are hallucinating so often depict ... this continuous murmur ... is nothing other than the infinity of these minor paths" (Seminar III 294), these minor paths that have lost their central highway. What is the deep droning sound underlying most of the movie but this "continuous murmur?"

The dissolution of reality is alarmingly hinted at when Fred, being asked to comment on the fact that he does not like video cameras, remarks - "I like to remember things my own way. ... How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened." (117K .wav file) (37) Seen in this light, the videos might represent the truth "the way it happened," that is: the repressed truth of Fred (and it is here that the sequence of the burning cabin shot in reverse gains special significance as a recurring image of that repression). Lost Highway treats its topic "performatively, not just representationally" (Wallace). Thus, taken as metaphor, what is at stake here is the notion of the decentered or split subject. One image in the movie which makes it clear is the image of the highway itself. There are two variants of this specific shot that are important here. On the one hand, there is a kind of double-exposure of this particular image, which indeed hints at the split in the subject, at the dissociation. (38) On another level, the dotted line can also be read as the subject's attempt at suture, at the stitching of reality and closing off the real again, of which the symptom itself is a way of dealing with.

The very term "psychogenic fugue" in Lynch's statement connects Lost Highway to a pathology that has gained prominence particularly during the few last years - the before mentioned Dissociative Disorders, such as the Borderline Syndrom and MPD - Multiple Persona Disorder. The term "psychogenic fugue" in particular is closely connected to the latter. The symptom called "psychogenic fugue"

involves a sudden, unexpected travel away from one's home or customary place of work, with an inability to recall the past, that occurs in the absence of an organic mental disorder ... There is often the assumption of a new identity. ... Typically, individuals in a fugue state have no memory of their primary identity. When they recover their primary identity, they often have a reciprocal amnesia for the events of the fugue state. (39)

It is widely acknowledged that this symptom, closely connected to a kind of "time-loss" in the patient's memory, is a common feature of MPD, a disorder having entered mass consciousness through the biography, case study and movie The 3 Faces of Eve, starring Joanne Woodward. (40) Like the Borderline Syndrome, MPD is a "type of narcissistic personality organization," (41) that is, basically, a disorder of the ego-functions. Whereas in the Borderline Syndrome, the subject is unable to create a coherent ego, that is, to create the illusion of autonomy, MPD refers to the splitting of the subject's ego into several compartmentalized personae. The revised third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-III-R] gives the following criteria for MPD:

  1. The existence within the individual of two or more distinct personalities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment and one's self).

  2. Each of these personality states at some time, and recurrently, takes full control of the individual's behavior. (42)

The main reason for the onset of MPD is to be found in traumatic experiences, one of the most common of which is continuous sexual abuse, mostly in early childhood. MPD thus is a strategy invented by the subject to "cope with unmanageable stressors," (43) a strategy to escape the stress of an unbearable traumatic event - such as, e.g., the murder of one's own wife. [or "that night"]

Both the Borderline Syndrom and MPD are almost exclusively American pathologies. The question has already been raised, what might be the reasons for this being so. Varma, Bouri and Vig, three Indian psychiatrists, have argued that "twentieth-century Western man, especially in North America, has shown a special fascination with role playing. The role is adopted with some gain or favourable outcome in mind. The fulfillment of the role may make him act even in a manner contrary to his usual self ... The role adopted, like in multiple personality ... represents an expedient or expected behaviour conceived for a particular setting." (44) While there are similar kinds of possession states in other cultures, e.g. Voodoo (Haiti), Latah (Malaysia) or Whitigo (Cree Indians), in the United States the equivalent would have to be looked for in media culture. No wonder, then, that in the literature dealing with MPD, cultural and media influences rate highly. Ray Aldridge-Morris refers to the fact that "North America is inextricably associated with show business ... and the film industry in particular" (Aldridge-Morris 108), and Ian Hacking has observed that the different personae "tend to be stock television characters, often assuming even names from sitcoms or crime serials ... Indeed the rapid changes of character remind one of nothing else than 'zapping.'" (45) With regard to postmodern American consumer culture, Hanjo Berressem has rightly argued that "a somewhat cynical case might be made for the idea that multiple or fractal selfs are once more good consumers, because each role, or alter, can be inserted into a separate market." (46)

With respect to Lost Highway, it has to be noted that the narrative of the movie is located in Los Angeles, the film metropole. Another point which I think might be worth-wile analyzing is the function of the abundance of references to means of media and communication in this movie: videotapes, camcorders, cell phones, phones, the intercom. The whole movie, as it seems, is penetrated by a kind of communicational electro-smog, and somehow all of these devices are related to very strange and mysterious powers.

Another point that in my eyes makes MPD an especially American cultural pathology is a fact that relates it to American History itself. Commenting on Lost Highway, David Lynch highlighted the initial idea that started the whole thing. "What if one person woke up one day and was another person?" (Cinefantastique). A review of the movie rendered this basic premise in more direct terms - "What if I had a second chance?" (Review by Steve Biodrowski in Cinefantastique). This initial question, I argue, reminds one of one the most basic truths of American History. John T. Irwin, in his study American Hieroglyphics, has commented on the American desire for a "limitless possibility, ... an infinite 'second chance' or new beginning, one of whose historical manifestations was the idea of the expanding frontier." (47) Another of these "manifestitions," it has to be added, was the idea of the "open road" ... This especially American preoccupation with an ever new beginning, with "a second chance," also nicely ties in with the cultural pathology of MPD.

The clinical picture of MPD, I argue, is put to use in Lost Highway as a metaphor for the split, decentered subject, in a similar way of Allucquere Rosanna Stone's and Sherry Turkle's treatment of this parallel. Turkle writes:

Through contemporary psychoanalytic theory which stresses the decentered subject and through the fragmented selves presented by patients (and most dramatically by patients who present with multiple personality) psychology confronts the ways in which any unitary notion of identity is problematic and illusory. What is the self when it functions as a society? What is the self when it divides its labor among its constituent 'alters' or 'avatars'? (48)

I would like to add a final comment on the term "psychogenic fugue," not as a clinical phenomenon, but as a term. In his interview with Lynch, Chris Rodley also mentioned the connection with the musical term fugue, describing it as "one theme starts and is then taken up by a second theme in answer. But the first continues to supply an accompaniment or counter-theme ... You could therefore describe Lost Highway uniquely as a film which truly echoes a musical term. ... Did you and Angelo Badalamenti discuss the score in terms of a fugue?" (Lynch on Lynch 239). After giving you the additional information that in a fugue, not only one theme is taken up by a second theme, but also by another instrument, another voice, I want to give you Lynch's answer, which I think is quite revealing. He said, "Fugues make me feel insane. I can only listen to a certain amount of a fugue, and then I feel like I'm gonna blow up from the inside out" (Lynch on Lynch 239). (49)

And here we are back again, "full circle," where we started - Lynch's fascination with the mystery: "To me, a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something that's unknown, it has a certain pull to it" (Lynch on Lynch 231). Lacan, in his evaluation of the mystery, of that which cannot by symbolized, but which nevertheless has immense effects in symbolization, goes even further: "The tip of meaning, one can sense it, is the enigma," (50) insofar as meaning as such is something that can never be halted, never be fixed - there is always a remainder. This remainder, I argue, that which cannot be symbolized, is on the one hand given in the movie as a kind of excess of the images, a kind of surplus-value of the imaginary which manifests itself in moments of jouissance. On the other hand, the enigma in Lost Highway takes on its most concrete form in the gaps and voids, in the long sequences of darkness that permeate the whole movie. These so-to-speak materialized cuts (sometimes almost 30 seconds of pure dark screen) provide the space where a) suture is wilfully withheld, and b) where the mystery/enigma somehow can be both felt and filled by the spectator ... finally, there is - or: can be - a certain strange version of suture that functions by alining the gaps in the cinematic discourse with the desire of the spectator: in filling the gaps with his own interpretations/obsessions/images, he becomes an important part of the diegetic reality of the movie, a kind of lynchian version of unconscious interactivity.

So, what happens to Fred in the end? The very last shot shows him in the process of transformation again. Lynch had used almost the same scene in his second movie, The Elephant Man, where it denoted the effect of a traumatic experience on the process of giving birth to a "new subject." What will be the result of Fred's transformation? Yet another persona? Or, will he re-transform into Pete, thus adding another temporal twist to the narrative - remember that Pete had been imprisoned once, not for murder, but for car-theft, and what the police will eventually find after Fred has transformed into Pete again, will simply be Pete, in a stolen car ... only that now, since the cops had found Pete's fingerprints all over Andy's place, Pete will be charged for murder ... but, does that explain things? Do we now understand?

In the recent remake of the thriller Nightwatch, now called Freeze, the police inspector turned serial-killer, played by Nick Nolte, philosophizes: "Explanations are just fictions to make us feel safe. Otherwise, we would have to admit the unexplained, and that would leave us prey to the chaos around us. Which is exactly what it is." Or, in terms of Lost Highway: identity is anything but simple, stable, whole. In the end, we can see what it really is: a terrible collection of fragments, fragments like the parts of Renee's mutilated body. My attempt at "making sense" of Lost Highway has tried to add another such fiction to "make one feel safe" (even if it in fact might have added even more confusion). (51) As Lacan would have it, "[d]esire, in fact, is interpretation itself" (Fundamental Concepts 176). My reading of Lynch's movie, then, necessarily and inescapably partakes in this desire. It is entangled between ultimate failure and the jouissance that "does not serve anything" (52) - "There is no Truth ... But one runs after it all the same" (Fundamental Concepts vii).

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