The White Goddess in Twin Peaks

“Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak her unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall…”

This is Robert Graves describing the unseen presence of the White Goddess, in his fanciful and fascinating book of the same name, first published in 1948 and instructively subtitled “A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth”.

What struck me upon reading the quoted passage is that it’s like a checklist of motifs for Twin Peaks. Every element – the hooting owls, clouded moon, trees swaying slowly, rushing waterfall – is recognisably a feature of the show’s iconography. I wonder if David Lynch or Mark Frost read Graves’s book, or is it just an occult coincidence?

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15 Responses to The White Goddess in Twin Peaks

  1. God I loved Twin Peaks so much. My generation’s Lost. It ended on a bum note (as Lost went on to do) but I was devoted to it. I missed the first airing of the first episode but my mum and sister started watching it thinking it was a soap opera. Their screams suggested it might be more up my street so they stopped watching and I started.

  2. Stan says:

    Allan: I can never explain to people how good Twin Peaks was unless they already know what I mean. It broke so much new ground, and had a beauty and intensity that spoiled me, television-wise, at an early age. With Lost it shares a dedication to mystery, but Twin Peaks’s treatment is beguiling and pure; Lost’s seems, well, crass and annoying, based on what very little of it I bothered with.

  3. Eolaí says:

    I watched Twin Peaks in England with 2 friends. Their men were banished because it demanded total attention of those who loved it. Similarly I insisted we skip the broadcast, and instead tape and then watch – for I didn’t want to miss even an eyebrow twitch, which might happen if, for instance, the phone rang.

    I alone was happy with the end, but then I often find endings just a dot on a wonderful line – and I require little from a dot.

    And now I have something to read. Hard not to like such motifs.

  4. Paul Duane says:

    Not so sure about the ending on a bum note bit – if you continued (and I did) up to the critically reviled Fire Walk With Me, and saw it (as I did) as the masterpiece of Lynch’s career, then the series was recuperated from the iffy depths of Season 2. Even that had its moments – Cooper reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead over the tormented, dying Leland Palmer, who was now free to realise in horror everything he had done to his daughter, is a memory I still find terribly affecting.

    Re The White Goddess, it was an ur-text for Coppola while making Apocalypse Now, and had a period of being greatly fashionable in Hollywood as the hipster’s Joseph Campbell. I’d hazard a guess that either Lynch or Frost was well aware of it.

  5. Stan says:

    Eolaí: Yes, it was the sort of utterly engrossing show where you didn’t want to miss a moment: an alternate world so well composed that every event and detail seemed to matter somehow – even when it got a bit ragged in season 2. The ending wasn’t meant to be The End, but I didn’t mind it being so downbeat and unresolved. You can peek at Graves’s book here, but I expect you’d prefer a copy you can hold and thumb through. I happened to have mine at a recent reading Warren Ellis gave in Galway, and he graciously signed it for me.

    Paul: Fire Walk With Me is a powerful film, still very disturbing and original, though I wouldn’t rate it Lynch’s best. Leland’s death is an extraordinary scene in a great episode, one of the moments I remember most vividly and, like you, found most affecting. I didn’t know that about Coppolla, unless I read it in a biography and since forgot, not having read The White Goddess until recently. If Lynch or Frost was aware of it, that poses the question of whether the symbolism was borrowed directly or crept in by stealth.

  6. Excellent, excellent. I’m going to have to seek out a box set now I think.

  7. I will have to admit that Twin Peaks left me stone cold but then I have never cared for David Lynch’s works.

  8. Jonathan says:

    I really enjoyed the series Twin Peaks when I saw it again recently, but I thought the film was pretty weak. If you weren’t familiar with the series it must have been incomprehensible, but not in a good, Inland Empire, way. I thought it was too long, badly written (“I’m as blank as a fart”), ugly, and exploitative (for people who claim that Lynch gets a kick out of abusing his female characters, this film must be Exhibit A). There was a lot of interesting stuff happening, but for me it failed to cohere satisfactorily. It’s really demanding, but doesn’t reward, unlike Lynch’s later films or Eraserhead. That’s just my two cents…

  9. Stan says:

    Allan: There’s an attractive box set made out of pure gold.

    Jams: He’s not everyone’s cup of tea (or damn fine coffee).

    Jonathan: FWWM isn’t for the faint of heart and is, as you say, likely to baffle non-initiates. It works best as a complement to the TV series. Yes, it’s fragmentary and often uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be otherwise given the subject matter. It seems fair to suppose that Lynch intended it to be obscure and upsetting. Thanks for the Saturday Night Live spoof; I gave it another go, to see if I would find it slightly funny this time, but no.

  10. Jonathan says:

    I’m sorry, but I must disagree with you about FWWM. I found it sloppy and self-indulgent. I was even going to watch it again last night, based on the positive assessments listed above, but I just couldn’t work up any interest in sitting through it again. I’d happily watch the entire series again, though, even the dodgier episodes at the end; I really liked the series’s finale, which must be one of the weirdest things ever shown on mainstream TV. Like you, I watched a few episodes of Lost, but found it boring. Have you seen a HBO series called Carnivale at all? It’s no Twin Peaks, but it has a certain charm (and stars Michael Anderson, the Man from Another Place). Sorry you didn’t like the spoof; I watched it after watching the entire series night after night for a month, and it did make me chuckle…

  11. Stan says:

    Jonathan: I don’t know about sloppy, but I do find Lynch prone to indulgence sometimes. Inland Empire comes to mind (not that I didn’t like it). Based on your feelings about FWWM, I’d be surprised if another viewing changed your mind, so please don’t put yourself through it on my account!

    As for Lost, I didn’t even watch a few episodes. I saw the first one, didn’t care for it, and never watched another (apart from a few minutes here and there over the years). From the start, it seemed like an irritating allegorical tease with little to say for itself. I saw some of Carnivale and quite liked it. I don’t watch many TV serials; they need to be pretty special to sustain my interest to the end – the last that did so was Deadwood.

  12. I’m not familiar with Twin Peaks or The White Goddess. I’m familiar with Lost, though, and liked a lot of it, but the lack of a satisfactory climax casts a dark shadow over the whole series. (I distinctly remember the writers assuring us that Lost would not repeat the mistakes of Alias, with respect to writing themselves into a corner.)

    There are some interesting parallels between the plot of Lost and the lyrics of certain Oysterband songs, particularly “Ways of Holding On” and “Someone You Might Have Been“. Without a doubt the parallels are coincidences, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to me.

  13. Stan says:

    Dragon: It’s a pity Lost didn’t satisfy in the end. From what little I know, it seems like this would have been almost impossible anyway. Too much teasing and tangling without sufficient structural planning.

    Your interest in the show’s pop cultural parallels reminds me of Literal-Minded’s discussion of TV show mythology.

  14. I listened to some of the Making-Of-Lost podcasts, which provided some insights into where the writers thought they were going. Unfortunately, some of this consisted of broken promises (e.g. that they would never introduce a plot twist without first planning where it would lead, supposedly as a result of lessons learned from Alias) and lame excuses (e.g. that they couldn’t start moving towards the finale until they had a contractual agreement on the total number of episodes).

    I wouldn’t exactly classify Oysterband as pop culture, but parallels are parallels.

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