lana del rey’s lynchian noir
By Richard Marshall.
Under certain pressures the mind escapes from the usual limitations. In David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ Diane Selwyn is abandoned by her lover Camilla and at the moment of shooting herself fantasises she is Betty Elms, a young Hollywood hopeful in a mysterious plot involving Camilla’s shadow double, Rita. It is only when the fantasy takes Diane to a surreal magic show and she listens to a song that she is ejected from the fantasy and back into the reality of her suicide. In Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ Nikki Grace is stabbed by a woman with a screwdriver after an affair and at the moment of death she fantasises about being a successful movie star in a haunted movie project where infidelity, retribution and violence continue to multiply an interior world. Throughout she is being watched by her terrifying double. Lana del Rey sings songs out of the dark shapes of such fantasies. There is a sense of performative action in all this. Her sound draws attention to itself as a performance so each song claims fidelity to their escapist hopes and leaves us with the same sense of dread that pervades Lynch’s worlds.
Augustine on tragedy says: ‘A member of the audience is not excited to offer help, but invited only to grieve… tears and agonies, therefore, are objects of love.’ Del Rey’s tragic ‘American Dream’ turns the song itself into a lucid dream, perhaps Hollywood – and then the simple dream becomes a nightmare where maybe you die and you’re the last one to know. Maybe you bring your own nightmare with you and maybe the nightmare is what continues in the sounds on the radio, on the video or wherever. The songs bring us back to the origin of events that haven’t yet been lamented or grieved. Throughout we fear we understand far more than the voice that’s singing does. Throughout there are so many occasions where we want to shout at the character: ‘Get out of there. Run. Hide.’ But of course it’s already far too late for escape. These songs happen, like the fantasies in the Lynch films, when some terrible catastrophe is already happening. They are responses as escape mechanisms.
In ‘Radio’ it is as if we are listening to a musical starlet equivalent to Betty Elms or Nikki Grace where she sings:
‘American dreams came true somehow
I swore I’d chase until I was dead
I heard the streets were paved with gold
That’s what my father said
No one even knows what life was like
Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise
I’ve finally found you
Oh, sing it to me
Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me cause I’m playing on the radio
(How do you like me now?)
Pick me up and take me like a vitamin
‘Cause my body’s sweet like sugar venom oh yeah
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio
(How do you like me now?’)
This seems a shining paean to the American dream until we notice that she’s also the song on the radio, a white light of sound haunting itself. ‘How do you love me now?’ she asks, but it’s a fantasy question that opens up into nothing but mysteries of the familiar. But then the questions sticks, ‘How do you like me now?’ she asks in six near-repeating off-refrains. In Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ he asks his girl too many times to lay on his big brass bed. It gives that song an uncomfortable undercurrent of insistence. There’s a lop-sided relationship tangled in his over-jaunty refrain of desire. So too in ‘Radio’ the apparent meaning of the song changes as she repeats her question. She’s not even asking ‘how do you love me now’ and the more we hear the line ‘Baby love me ‘cause I’m playing on the radio’ the more we sense the eerie paradox in the song. The voice we’re hearing is that same voice on the radio. It is a voice haunting itself, a creepy doppleganger tracking the outlines of its own escapist fantasy. ‘Inland Empire’ for Roger Ebert is where ‘… we virtually revisit spaces and images and faces (Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Grace Zabriskie, Harry Dean Stanton … ) that resonate with memories of “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks,” “Wild at Heart,” “Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” itself — and some perpetually unfinished Lynch movie of the future. Because, in the Inland Empire, nobody can quite remember if it’s today or two days from now, because yesterday and the day after tomorrow are all transpiring in the present tense. Or, as one character puts it so memorably, “I suppose if it was 9:45, I would think it is after midnight.” In the film the Laura Dern’s character Nikki Grace is haunted across its ‘haunted telenova’ by fractal selves containing themselves.
It’s a link that warns us that del Rey’s is a voice of the dead, someone whose disembodied voice on a radio is what might justify her, make her soul live, but elsewhere. In the last two refrains her body is ‘sweet like sugar venom oh yeah’. She is a degree of magnification, delivering an echo of all the climatic feelings of noir, and when she asks the other to ‘sing it to me’ there’s no one else singing. The disembodied ghost of ‘American dreams’ on the radio suddenly haunts us. Listening to the first lines, we recognize she’s a dead voice, like a sung version of Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ where there’s absolutely nothing in the sound to make us believe her when she claims ‘’Boy I’ve been raised from the dead.’ By the time we’ve finished with ‘Born To Die’ there’s absolutely no doubt, just as there’s no doubt at the end of Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ that the pretty blonde has died way before we get to the final reel. What we see is an after-taste. Everything is recognizable from other songs at greater or lesser degrees or different scales. The tag line of ‘Inland Empire’ is ‘A Woman in Trouble’ and all del Rey’s songs are contained in that.
There’s the theme of the double in all these songs, where a consciousness of intense eagerness to survive the blackest nightmare places the feelings onto another ego, like in a diabolical pact. Listening to Del Rey you feel she’s singing to her dark twin, singing to her repressed desires, silence, solitude and darkness. Each song is like the film being made in ‘Inland Empire’, ‘On High in Blue Tomorrows’, a shadow of something that has gone wrong ‘inside the story’. Throughout there’s the anxiety of the dark corner when, back to the wall, there’s literally no way out. Whatever could leave got out before the song starts. The song’s function is to bring light to darkness. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Gloria Swanson‘s character Norma Desmond says the words ‘Cast out that wicked dream that has seized my heart’ and these are the same words the lost girl in the black veil in Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ prays. Norma Desmond dreams of revitalizing her dead career by starring in a new version of Salome. It’ll never happen. Sarcastically Joe Gillis says of her doomed project: ‘They’ll love it in Pomona.’ In ‘Inland Empire’ two women talk about people they know in Pomona and think about how to get there by bus from L.A. Del Rey’s songs are also going to be loved in Pomona. They’re all about fantasizing herself into different characters and avoiding the horrors of real life via washed-out American wicked dreams. These characters are necessary liars at moments of death or sex or violence imagining the get-out from their death scenes in a series of euphorically melancholic beauty. She’s merging long-form character-driven ballads with the amoeboid experiences of the surrealists, dreams and somnambulists. This is why there’s a driven obtuseness in the songs. And such obtuseness brings with it emotion. Barthes writes: ‘ I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. Caught up in the disguise, such emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation.’ So del Rey’s sounds provide us a space where we can feel without embarrassment, and cry.
Sentimentality and demoralizing inequalities of power in the American decadence make the American Dream fatal. Del Rey has a voice and sensibility capable of bringing aesthetic understanding and a deeper understanding to this, looking at the Dream from a woman’s angle. She’s not bringing new techniques to a worn genre but rather finding resources in the genre that her spectral voice brings to the edge and plunders. All her voices have in them a heartbreak and a wreckage. There’s a lostness, a real type of American sadness. It’s a glam empty violent world of beaten up people on the West Coast moving from the East, or maybe returning back East, who have nothing long to say. It’s about picking up and then dropping. When the collapse does come and it always comes sooner or later youth is gone and it is too late to catch up. These are people who are young when they open a fridge door and by the time it’s closed their youth has ended. Her voice resists the urge to sing out but rather is filled with spooks, a voice at a mirror and tinged with so much young weariness it closes in on whispering. An unmistakable atmosphere of valediction and farewell brings to everything, especially the songs about beginning again, the air of a glorious swansong, a pun on the actress of Wilder’s eternal classic. It’s a voice Zelda Fitzgerald would have got. Even Mrs Haversham. All of Lynch’s crew of course.
Every girl in her songs have been little girls thrilled by the music and the glam beauty of being all dressed up – and facing catastrophe, their own doom, and have also been romantic hardheaded girls who stopped once in awhile to wonder how much it costs and where the money comes from. But never long enough to not want the silks, swimming pools, fast cars, boys, stillness for drinks and sex at midday in a blazing zzzz. Usually the girl who starts the song isn’t the same when she ends it, so it’s never clear who these fantasies belong to. So much has hardened in the process. There’s always tragedy with lounge lizards, gangsters, warmed over scum who always trap others with incompatible attitudes. So the voice is a victim, a series of them, and could force us to travel from East to West but mostly stays in the West where all the American movies are shot. There’s a straight continuity from flashback to romantic elaboration, the sick beautiful melodies and lines of an aching dying fall. The depth of each song lies in tucking away the truth in its middle, as if this is a final version only because we find it that way. It might end like a version of ‘Tender in The Night’ with Dick Divers’ arrival in Switzerland. The lingering after effects are all about regret and hope, often in reverse order. That’s when you know each character has a nostalgia for the dream and refuses to give it up. This is the mood of loss and waste. It is hopeless. You’d never willingly send your children to America. And we’re all living there now.
It’s haunted by Hornell in New York but transposed to California, ‘certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.’ This is one of the strangest things she manages to do with her saddening voice. She throws it open so that there is a gradual accumulation of expansiveness that creeps in like a chill when suddenly a cloud covers the face of the sun. There’s a psychological specificity in the best songs, a half aroused knowledge of fate that avoids actually having to know what these people are. Sometimes there’s a plea to be alone, which is a cry of loneliness twisting itself inside out, all lousy and misunderstood. Perkins said this of Fitzgerald and Del Rey understands this murderous state that she’s mining, a ‘ … little children’s, immature, misunderstood, whining for lost youth…[a]… death dance that they have been dragging into and out of insanity …’
Her characters sing of being found and saved. This takes liberties with her character’s pasts and futures, as eschatological versions of actuality always do. There’s marvelous reality in each of her faked happy voices, all of them so hurt it’s unbearable. When she sings ‘The Lucky Ones’ all there is is an emptiness of soul where the wonderful places are and none of the doomed boys and girls are anything but cheated by their fulfilled dreams. In ‘American’ a series of composite characters creep into the fantasy that are not so detached that the yearning goes further, right to the end of the field of imagination, as with the giant fantasies of Lynch’s troubled women.
‘Play house, put my favorite record on
Get down, get your crystal meth fit on
You were like, tall, tan, drivin’ around the city
Flirtin’ with the girls like, “You’re so pretty.”
“Springsteen is the king, don’t you think?”
I was like, “Hell yeah, that guy can sing.”
Her songs are examples of what Conrad put out in the intro to ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ that in turn Fitzgerald applied in Tender is the Night where ‘… the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.’ There are particular rhythms that creep back again like a looped infiltration, and she picks up the theory of a character again in Fitzgerald that it takes a dozen people to make a synthesis strong enough to convince. ‘Her face was hard + lovely + pitiful’ is what her voices use, or ‘He had been heavy, belly-frightened with love of her for years’ which is a theory about evocation. Echoes and reverbs, not the character but the effect of the character, this is how del Rey builds her songs and their inner fantasies. The affectionate skepticism felt towards the brash young men and girls recognizes that it’s the invented parts of their lives that have any scheme of beauty. Much of what she’s doing is so good her delicate talent is scary, more real and going deeper as fragments rather than portraits. The descent of each fall is so casual and unreal it gets the tough fragility of our mortality, the poison of desire. Her music has the quiet, mechanical smoothness of an operating room, in the midst of something fragile and burning. The songs are like sensations of anesthetic murmurs that never falter under the blistering white lights of a fatal operating table. In the complex cohesiveness of the multiple character synthesis there is a certainty, straight as an arrow, nailing the monotony of the fantasy’s terrible neediness.
The atmosphere is of a frightening sentimentality that means something hugely more. ‘Young and Beautiful’ takes the clichés wherever she finds them to whatever they can build. Some pop songs don’t come off artistically. Their deterministic nature prevents the singer from finding the willing submission of will that love commands and ends up pitching them into a fantasy that won’t hint at anything but a sort of trap out to ensnare the listener. But the great performers find ways to ask us to feel that there’s something like our world in the one they’re singing, a less absolute and modest connection to the fantasy. Del Rey steps further along the line: she puts on the show of her life for us that reveals the mystery of doing that, of putting on a show. By showing us her putting on a show, she reveals how that, that performance, is part of the reality outside the song. Santa Monica, Oldsmobiles, houses with entrance halls ‘wide enough for a troop of elephants’, the sinister and funny glistening and sparkling treachery of big sleeping dreams that might be Californication, or anywhere where women die, wherever dreams happen with a fatal embrace of modernity and all the corrupt fast gorgeousness of escapism. These are diamond hearted songs that are irresistible and about what irresistible means afterwards.
If there’s obvious links with the decadence of Fitzgerald there’s also the marvelous detail of derailed women, all kinds of Chandler’s Carmen Sternwood, spoiled little rich girls doing drugs, stripping for porn shoots, never becoming women, and never the woman of her dreams, but with all the degraded charms of every rotting American sweetheart. You don’t have to be rich but you will be able to hear the panic in ‘Afraid.’ They’re the doomed and lovely emblems of modern romance. Inside each of the songs lays the experienced vivid horror of a life’s bravura disappointment.
Her songs are doubles of the original American Dream. That is all about hope, all about raising up and being innumerate when calculating odds. It does two things: it is relentlessly about going forward to tomorrow represented as bright lights and it’s also, remorselessly, about never going back, represented as an interplay of shadow characters absorbing innocence. It connects the wave on the silver screen with the wave of a child on the trampoline. So del Rey’s dark fantasy songs are the shadow counterpart to what absorbs America in its bleak, searing daylight. It’s exactly the terrifying horror that David Lynch captures at the start of ‘Mulholland Drive’ where even in Betty Elms’s fantasy every smile is demonic and obliged to say something about talent and has to notice its absence. That film shows how things go into the world of light, film being a precious instrument of that light, a perfect metaphor for the dream, light that is perfectly tuned, beautifully toned, where it sucks out the life and replaces it with its own performance as a play of illumination, the silver screen which is an eye, or flesh, or Monroe’s ‘ghost spinet’ – the white Steinway piano that was to be as shimmering as ‘a remembered piano’ in Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘ Blonde’. Del Rey is able to find this inside her songs, the bitter revelation of T.S. Eliot that nothing is more dramatic than a ghost. The American Dream demands performance – the deadly Get Drunk acoustic is the slow truth that performers can’t be content outside of the limits of the performance. The truth of an actor is dialogue, and the truth of an actor is fleeting – Oates’ Arthur Miller thinks this moments before he confesses that Marilyn would kill Marilyn. When Del Rey performs ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ she is performing Monroe’s performance and making time flow wrongly. She’s donning the disguise of a shadow and forces us to ask: ‘ Who do you think this is there?’
The fatality of performance is that it’s in the hands of an audience. ‘Hawaian Tropic’ understands this with its sad ‘Every man gets his wish’ refrain addressing the man who has already left the body behind. And this takes us back to the sound that del Rey has redeemed. She’s rescued it from the obscurity and secondary role of the clichés that are the shadow sounds she tries to kill, where in previous outings and previous performances elsewhere the voice and instruments rarely do more than what is expected, following the line and keeping everything in place. What del Rey’s sound does is conjure up an image, sometimes substituting an image for the sound, as in the opening of ‘Raise Me Up’ where we’re on the radio listening to hostile ghosts passing through the California airways and which lets the song emerge afterwards and go on like sounds heard from inside all the rooms where the spirits of the doomed are creeping. There are sounds buried inside that are menacing and the elision of ‘Raise’ to ‘Ray’ assumes the quality of a sign. The song works as an enclosed , threatening environment, an extraordinary intensity that only becomes clear in the last 50 or so seconds where a kind of destiny is weighty and inexorable, holds our attention even though there’s nothing more than a loudness, like an intense tapping, that becomes a presence of memory and panic that the voice refuses to enact.
In ‘Summertime Sadness’ the very distinct and loud metallic tap and echo is dry and rustles like leaves. There’s no establishment of space in the song, and everything is introduced abstractly, abruptly, piece by piece where there’s no clear narrative explanation beyond what the tense sound carries over the cramped space which it beats against, like a fist against a wall. The key to hearing the fear is to understand that in the sound there’s a sort of offscreen space loaded with suicide, booze, rape and a great blanket of quotations – literary, cinematic and musical painstakingly articulated. This is the manipulation of all our dreams so the voice is given a sequence of aural rhythmic structures, as in the chillingly sad ‘TV in Black and White’. The abusive relationship is captured in this gorgeously regulated sound and in the reveal that she sees everything through his eyes. The sparse image collapses the lush melody and we’re given a human voice stretching out across the emptiness of the world seeking an response. In the silence of response is the unspeakable humiliation and suffering of the voice. These characters are lonely for the sake of rhythm, melody, for the dream. The songs fill the silence so they don’t hear it. We can’t hear anything else.
Yet the songs are voluptuous. They are filled with beautiful boys and girls, the ‘Children of the Bad Revolution’ who are wasted beauty, wasted youth used up too fast like face cards in a card game. There’s no grace, no Paris that she’ll ever go to and from where she’ll ‘never look back’. There’s a hedonist Jansenism in all this. Jansenism and Calvinism too stress the depravity of fallen mankind, double predestination and the bleak knowledge that God created us knowing we’d choose sin and be damned. ‘If man is damned, his virtues serve only to make him damn himself more thoroughly.’ If there’s salvation, it’s going to be a gift, Grace. It’s in recognition in this that the echoic Port Royal prayer ‘Elvis’ retains an austere, stand-offish and somber pessimism:
‘Platinum and vale acrylics
Skim the paper for the critics
Babys breathin’ Elvis lyrics
on the cover bar
Late, an’ Motel lounge is singin’
Spotlight on the band is swingin’
Chateau Marmont memories fading
hope is very far
Elvis where are you when I need you most?
White comp sequin jumpsuit ghost
Pick me up and make a toast
Champagne in the air…’
There’s an impressive lack of calculation in this, and something right in a prayer to Elvis. Hope has rarely been this far. This is the suicidal hope Bunuel deals out. These are the children of darkness, the abused and tormented ones, in ‘El’, ‘St Simon of the Desert’, ‘Viridiana’, ‘Tristana’, and Del Rey is haunted by similar inner dramas in her songs. Why Jansenism? It’s less anxious that Calvin and more severe. Del Rey’s women are all serious and sad and her male ones furious, lustful, dangerous and monstrous. There’s nothing in the women that is smart, sensitive, rich and sexy. It’s the opposite of a classy bourgeoise. It’s the wasted and morbid fate rather than attitude that matters. Relationships are master/slave prototypes and semi-suicidal where the voices refuse to accept the murderous futures that lie in front as she lays out, as in ‘Dark Paradise’ that everytime she closes her eyes its like a dark paradise and yet nevertheless she doesn’t want to wake up. It’s as if just the intention of saving her soul will be enough. Is she damned? Not knowing whether we’re damned or not is traditional Christianity. These are voices that seem beholden to the same kind of invincible uncertainty.
Her songs recopy life with music, lyrics and penetrate into the unknown inside us. Music is an exterior means however, and that is its obvious difficulty. To remain interior whilst only having the exterior means, to avoid the terrible occurrence of a terrible disconnection, is what this requires. If you listen and wonder about the reason for the song sounding like it does then there is a mystery that can be touching. What you don’t know in advance is everything in these songs about their souls and as you listen you are prepared to jump oceans to find out. There’s a porn element when everything is shown and explained and known. Sex is mysterious when it isn’t porn and is lovely. Paul Shrader and Bresson talked about pornographic in these terms:
‘Shrader: But could you not show pornography – show people fucking – and also be mysterious? It is no less mysterious than watching me drink from the glass’
Bresson: Not by showing things, but by sensation of things. Making people feel how I feel. The most important and most real is my way of feeling – to make people have the same sensation that I have found in front of things… There is no art in only showing things as they are… an idiot could see what is in front of his eyes and that’s all. If you try to make people feel and think instead of hearing and seeing then its artistic.’
Del Rey is making her songs to stop us just listening. Just as Bresson’s films resist seeing in order to penetrate to the mystery of a hidden interiority, her music resists hearing on the same grounds. The violence of her songs are belied by the surface tunes and rhythms which are largely smooth and often trickle in and out of existence, or burst in routines we’re sure we’ve heard before. The intense violence isn’t in the lyrics either, which are more like symptoms or place-holders for where the real action is. The violence is inward, like the feelings of suicide that are in the exchanges, the bravura, unrepentant and defiant anguish of her voices, bombs of pure terribly strong emotions driving further and further inside.
But if we need to reminded of the Lynchean emotions in Del Rey then there’s her version of ‘Blue Velvet’ to make the reference specific and explicit. It’s slowed down from Bobby Vee’s classic take, and lush from the inside, and stately where intensity hangs on the last line ending ‘my tears.’ All her songs are playing around with time. By slowing the tempo there’s a sense that she’s finding a way to find the dark doppleganger for time itself. Every act is a double too, one with a different soul. Some perplexing evil shines out from the beautiful melodies that cover everything like a fatal dust. This is America the beautiful, but it’s a devil beauty that devours it’s own lightbulb. There has been a horrible murder, a suicide, a rape and butchering, some show that daddy asks for again and again and again in all these songs. ‘Yayo’ pleads for this show, it’s horribly sweet lil’ girl act so grisly and contorted that you imagine there’s nothing but evil lying in wait in Nevada. Listening to the refrain:
Put me onto your black motorcycle
50’s baby doll dress for my “I do”
It only takes two hours to Nevada
I wear your sparkle, you call me your mama
Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ is a memory, like of a trauma and the memory of the butchered corpse of Renee viewed in a grainy black and white video. Del Rey’s songs are in Poe territory where he says, ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.’ Who is she singing to? Whose voices are they? These are mourning songs, making a deal out of the immanence of existence even whilst knowing – or feeling – that this imminence is in turmoil. In this her songs pick up on an unmistakable element, the ‘ubiquity of evil in baroque sensibility’ as its ulterior meaning. Everything is unreal in this way, and the unreality holds up an authentic perception of something infernal. The songs disintegrate at the moment that the fantasy fails to hold back the memory. They end when reality returns. They are irretrievably sad.
Can music be really perceived as sad? Is it dependent on cultural convention that we hear it that way? Maybe we perceive it as a musically expressed metaphor. When you hear Del Rey’s music you hear it as filling up with sadness and it isn’t by inference. You just hear it that way. Listening to the words you directly perceive the sadness, desperateness and loneliness.
‘Breathing, getting fire to them
Now I’ll start my worrying
When will I learn that there ain’t nothing I can do
Jesus was a dying man
If he can’t do it, no one can
When will you learn that we ain’t nothing without you’
You experience it as the person in that state. The music carries the same state towards the world as is experienced on listening to it. The emotion is part of the music itself, intrinsic to it rather than an add on. What you hear is not just emotion: you also have the spirit’s creeping through the air, and again this is intrinsic to experiencing the sounds. In many of her songs we hear the curtains flapping at the open window, the sound of traffic, the distant turmoil of other lives, vehicles, spaces and often the chilling interior of a skull now lifeless and filled with just its own lonely ghost. We feel the isomorphism between her sounds and the reality she shows using her music. It immerses us in depths, gives us an immediate meaning in a sort of ‘wooded interior.’ Who knows why we hear what we do in her work? That’s an empirical question. But what we hear is very moving. We’re hearing these American ghosts, in the same way we heard them in the Wilder film and in Lynch’s work, in Chandler, in Fitzgerald and the soundless open mouths of all those noir femme fatales.
When you hear del Rey performing her romantic music you perceive it as what philosopher Christopher Peacock calls ‘expressive action’, and as expressive action of a certain emotional state of mind, and you hear aspects of her music as breaking with the conventions of the musical genres she’s using because of the degree of mental depth and the mental state that she’s metaphorically expressing. There’s a strange authenticity in this. The obvious break is the restraint in her voice, her working to hold down anything that suggests power, force and will. If there’s bravado in the sound it’s bravado that’s after the event, way too late, when there’s just enough energy left to hear its quiet defiance in its circumspect mood of mourning.
Her voice gives us the fantasies of something that will sustain these characters and take them through to a better future. But these are the voices of doomed, of all the lost little rich kids in Fitzgerald, the blanked-out, used-up blondes from Chandler, of Monroe and Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and the dead women in Lynch’s ‘Mullholland Drive’ and ‘Inland Empire’ and their painted, hyper-real tears. These are songs of hope against hope, ghosts of suicides too drunk or beaten up to notice. Her voice drapes on top of an eerie bed, silken and devouring its own beauty.
How do we hope? And what is the connection between hope and imagination? Time squeezes us, makes the future more of an imperative, forces us to wonder where we’re going, who we’re becoming and what meaning we can make out of a meaningless universe. Ernst Bloch saw daydreaming as a means of dismantling ideology. Aquinas sees it as a centre of virtuous life. Existentialists see hope as a companion to our growing angst and despair. Aquinas had an ‘inner cathedral’ of twin appetites in the human: an attraction to what we perceive as good (the conscupiscible appetite) and an attraction to overcoming obstacles (the irascible appetite). Adrienne Martin notes that this distinction has largely gone and has been replaced by a single motivational power – ‘call it “Desire”, or “Appetite”, or “Passion.” But Martin wonders how this can answer the strange Pauline question: ‘who against hope believed in hope?’ Here desires and perceptions are joined for Martin ‘… by certain types of attention, expression, feeling, and activity. When we hope, the experience often seems more profound than is typical of desire; hope seems to colour our experience in a way that is both richer and more specific than does desire.’ And it has a sustaining power that takes us through trial and tribulation whereas even the most desperate desire has no special motivational power, is unreliable and doesn’t sustain. Hope for her is a syndrome of emotional attitudes that can achieve a sustaining power even in situations where the odds are impossible and the chips are down.
Martin approaches hope as a syndrome in order to capture the richness of hope. She rejects the Humean approach to motivation where everything is incorporated into a single attribute be it called either ‘desire’ or ‘attraction’. She also rejects the idea that we’re motivated by a single rational representation as in theories by contemporary philosophers Thomas Scanlon and Derek Parfitt. She thinks these monist theories fail to capture the first-person experience of deliberation and choice where we can be attracted to something without having any intention of acting on the desire. For her, hope becomes instead a combination of rational practical reasons for action combined with thoughts, feelings and planning. These are the paradigms of hope. She thinks that hope involves desiring outcomes and involves a subjective calculation of how likely the outcome will be. This is why our desire and the probability assignment justifies reasons for hopeful activities, such as fantasizing about the hoped-for outcomes.
In these fantasies we see ourselves as either active or passive and this effects our sense of agency. ‘One’s sense of agency may then have a range of effects on the ends one sets and how one pursues them,’ says Martin, and she gives an example: ‘ The princess whose hope to escape from the tower is expressed in extensive fantasies of rescue is far less likely to take steps toward freeing herself than the princess who fantasises about escape routes.’ Justifications for hopeful actions are therefore rational and practical, even when the bullet’s on its way to the skull, the knife brushing the throat and so on. Even in those last moments there’s a rationality to the wild hopes of women in trouble.
Is hope the last bulwark against despair? ‘Hope is not, in itself, a uniquely powerful or reliable form of sustenance… whether hope is indeed a good resource in terrible circumstances is an entirely contingent matter. It is contingent on how we express our hopes, especially on how we exercise our hopeful imaginations.’ How does hope deal with suicide? Martin suggests that ‘… a specification of hope is that it is structured to close off suicide… as an attractive option and immune to disappointment.’ She links this with ‘faith.’ In this she finds ‘… a unique bulwark against despair … capable of sustaining us through trials, no matter what comes.’ The roots of hope are Christian but hope as a virtue reaches to secular theories of virtue too. Suicide can be an act of virtuous hope, though to some this is counterintuitive and it seems an act of unvirtuous hope, or worse, an act of despair where hope has died or been given up. But suicide can be an escape route, the way of ending an unendurable trial. ‘It is an act of hope in the sense that it presupposes a hopeful view of death.’ And this can be a virtuous hope, as a response to imminent agony, loss of function or torture.
Trials of depression are structured so the depressed hopes for the depression to lift and fantasises about taking the actions that would bring about the end of the depression. The fantasies may sustain her by simply giving her a mental firewall against the depressive feelings and thoughts, and even strengthen her sense of agency so that one day she throws herself into an action that will release her from the depressive assault. Fantasies can sustain us through despair, give us reasons for continuing, proposing new means to end the despair and strengthen our sense of agency. Hope on this account is not a special motivational force but rather takes motivational forces like desire and various types of attraction and places them in a imaginative setting in which an agent may find sustenance. But the fantasizing hopes del Rey sings are seizures at the very extreme end of a life, as they are in Lynch’s films. ‘Blue Jeans‘ opens with the line ‘Swingin in the back yard.’ The rest of the song is the beautiful fantasy of the hanged suicide. Del Rey’s songs start where agency isn’t an option.
Degas said: ‘When you know nothing, life is easy.’ There’s nothing easy in any of these perfectly knowing pop songs. Performed without flinching, del Rey sings as each tragedy is still happening. They are objects of love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 18th, 2014.