Twin Peaks and Ethics

Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beschäftigt: der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir.

Immanuel Kant

Twin Peaks, created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, is, among other things, about „the battle between Good and Evil“. Many films, stories, fairy tales etc. are. Mankind seems to be obsessed by that. Men seem to like to see themselves within a battle between Good and Evil, as heroes. Usually, they like to see themselves as the good hero, not as the villain. That indicates: there is hope. Humans usually don´t, psychologically, thrive off conscious wrongdoing. There is hope.

In contrast to more simple-minded productions, Twin Peaks shows how demarcation lines between good and evil are blurred; as well as how their in-between, mediocrity, may kill off both just like as it might get corrupted by one as well as by the other, either in a stable or a more unstable, ever-changing fashion. Whereas the orginal series, aired at the turn of the 1990s, presents a more innocent, naive and easy-going world, that may be infected by evil, but not truly corrupted by it, Twin Peaks: The Return, aired a quarter of a century later, seems to entertain a more sinister and disillusioned perspective on humanity. In Twin Peaks: The Return you have a gallery of decent as well as indecent as well as mediocre characters as well, but the idea of a community between them – as you had it, nevertheless, and with all its twists and turns, in the original series – seems to be absent. People´s individual idiosyncrasies and quirks don´t appear as so funny or charming anymore, rather as something degenerative, and people, in general, as idiotic. In this world of disconnectedness where humans live in indifferent surroundings (also nature, so prominent in the original series, considerably has lost its charm), hardly anyone achieves anything, men are hardly able to transcend their circumstances, and failure is more prominent (actually, it is not – there are spectacular successes due to the effort of good people as well as the considerable, supernatural powers of the White Lodge and those associated with it : Killer BOB gets destroyed, Cooper/Dougie reconciled with his family, seemingly forever, the assassins get assassinated or into jail, the grotesque killer couple Hutch and Chantal get killed by an even more grotesque ad hoc assassin, the insurance company gets saved and its honest boss rid of his parasites, the warm-hearted criminals, the Mitchum brothers, get their compensation and thrive off philanthropy, Bobby Briggs has been redeemed (though lives a shockingly modest life now), Ben has become a businessman and a person of integrity, Norma and Ed get married (and Norma „saves her soul“ by resisting the temptations of capitalism), Nadine has been successful in „shoveling her way out of the shit“ thanks to the simple-minded ideology of Dr. Jacobi who seems to have become more successful and more caring for other people than in the original series, even Anthony Sinclair gets redeemed from his bad conscience as he confesses his previous crimes and gets ready to face the consequences; the psychopathic Richard gets destroyed (with a little help from his own father, the evil Cooper), and the trouble-making Steven Burnett disappears — it is just that, when Cooper, the Agent of the Good, leaves the worldy scene again (in Episode 17) which he just before had entered, to confront Evil in itself and to save Laura, very quickly relapses into a world of gloom and of failure, with Laura´s fate being paralleled by the incomprehensible sufferings and degenerative states of Audrey Horne or former child prodigy Gersten Hayward: overally, „Twin Peaks“ has become a seemingly gloomier place). Good and evil have become even more cryptic and the relationships between cause and effect even less clear (if they exist at all). More questions are left unanswered than at the end of the original series. Maybe there will be another season, maybe not, so that inconclusiveness and disappointment – that the Good cannot, finally, triumph (yet neither can Evil: shown in the scenes how Joudi/Sarah Palmer may be able to dislocate Laura and create confusion, but being unable to destroy the image of Laura, despite all her frantic efforts) – is meant to be the final statement. The world in Twin Peaks: The Return seems to finally be under the shadow of the Black Lodge (although that has also been stated in the original series), with the glimpses of light rather being something isolated and occasional than something overally or overarchingly effective. That cannot be tolerated and cries for resolution. If you think or feel like this, there is hope for you. Because the world is threatened by the shadow of the Black Lodge, counterbalancing via the powers of the White Lodge seems even more urgent. And: the more you are associated with one of the Lodges, the more prevalent the influence of the other Lodge will appear to you. After the good Cooper has created goodness everywhere by the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, it is just that because he never wants to rest in doing so that he is bound to confront a world of darkness time and again. (Note, however, that the ending could be interpreted quite differently as well, as the visceral scream of Laura Palmer/Carrie Page seems to immediately kill the powers/electricity of Joudi all in an instant before the series closes, so that we would have an almost sarcastically staged happy end where good magically and practically without true effort triumphs over evil (to fulfill the audience´s expectation).)

In Twin Peaks you have „good“ and „evil“ spirits that dwell in extradimensional places. The demarcation lines between their true character features are, as well, blurred (with former evil spirit MIKE having taken a U-turn to the good after he had an epiphany and the unclear identitiy of most other spirits that are not featured so prominently throughout the series), their functions and their motives are, to a considerable degree, unclear, they seem to cooperate as well as to compete with each other, and they have their own, although obviously not very deep, personalities. Their language is cryptic, and maybe they do not even understand themselves very well. In a way, they seem to resemble the gods of ancient Greece, including their cryptic communication to man via the oracle. They do not seem to be able to achieve so much, either against each other, or in their interactions in the human world. They seem to need humans, and need to possess humans, because in themselves, they are too one-dimensional. They seem to be more powerful, and less powerful than humans. It is true that they inhabit not exactly the same dimensions than humans. They seem a condensation of human qualities – BOB being, as Albert refers to him, „the evil that men do“ – as well as forces that are both more conscious/powerful and less conscious/powerful than humans in their entirety. BOB seems to resemble the id, the Giant/Fireman the super-ego; neither the id nor the super-ego are very deep, as desires, good or bad, just form ad hoc without a truly deeper reason (within the „id“), and the super-ego tries to ban or allow them for no deeper reason. The ego as the mediating instance is the interesting instance. The spirits – as they are representations or manifestations of „Good“ and „Evil“ – are no (or not much of) egos. They are entities (with the apparent master spirit of Evil – Joudy – being an „extreme negative entity“ (and, apparently, also an extremely unhappy entity that seems to be in a deadly conflict even with BOB/the evil Cooper)). As such they cannot, truly, think. They just are, and behave, according to their nature. In doing so, and in being so, they seem to play an indefinite chess game against each other and also try to influence and corrupt (or destroy) each other. Although fairly incomprehensible to us, there is no mystery behind that at all, much rather, an absence of mystery. They behave according to their nature (and are trapped inside theit nature). BOB as „the evil than men do“ is a force as well as a parasite that needs a host. It is the image of Laura Palmer that symbolises the good while, both in the original series as well as in The Return, as a human being she is prone to corruption, either in a more or in a less innocent fashion.

What is Good, and what is Evil – and what is their mitigation: ethics, ethical reflections and ethical principles? Are they something „outside“ and external to humans (with the possibility of being something divine), or are they just something entirely within, even beneath, humans (since „good“ and „evil“ are only elements within a wider range of things at the disposition of man, who can, as a conscious and complex being, manipulate and evolve notions of good and evil, and who is, in general (for these reasons and for others), „beyond good and evil“)? Are Good, Evil and ethics something „objective“, objective (quasi-) entities, or Platonic ideas, which, as such, may even govern the world? Or are they „forces“ that may consume and absorb men? As such, they are, all too often, experienced (with, for instance, people struggling with dysfunctional behaviour patterns often referring to them as their „demons“). As an educated person, you may refute such a notion – that Good and Evil are true forces or principles beyond human reach and understanding – as something archaic. Subjectivist notions, in one way or the other, refer to ethics as someting that arises from within humans, and that does not have objective existence. Thinking that ethics, or good and evil, were something objective would have to be considered as a man-made projection. Yet if this is so, and ethical considerations only arise within humans, how can it be ensured that they are not completely arbitrary or delusions (or, at least, completey culturally relative)? Although there is great subjective flexibility in interpreting notions of good and evil and ethical principles, it is strange to think about them as mere delusions. Ethics, good an evil have many aspects, and one of them is that they have normative implications, that they are normative by nature. Something that is normative by nature cannot really be thought as something merely subjective. It needs to, in essence, transcend subjectivity. By contrast, Ethical Realism means that ethics is not something that soley arises within the individual, but that ethical principles are actually inherent to the world and a part of objective reality. (Subjectivist) opponents of this view may argue: if ethical principles are an element of objective reality, where are they „located“? How are they substantialised, if we are not to believe in god or the devil? (And, apart from that, if ethical principles objectively exist, how can they exercise influence over humans and their considerations?) More recently deceased philosopher Derek Parfit offers compelling analyses that, if they should make any sense, ethical principles cannot be subject to human subjectivity and (therefore) subjective arbitrariness alone, but need to be something objective (that is, nevertheless, enlivened by subjective behaviour and subjective arbitrariness). Parfit proposes to see ethical principles and ethical truths not as platonic ideas, substantialised forces or divine intervention but as something comparable to logical truths or mathematical truths, as something that arises within the world but is neither an idea, a force or a substance and that is unlocated. Hell yeah, one of the most glorious notions I have come across in recent years is Parfit´s notion of ethical truths being someting resemblant to logical or mathematical truths! (The nature of logical and mathematical truths is not entirely clear neither, however; but that their true nature and substance would be something so confusing seems an overinterpretation as well to me.)

Ethical behaviour is something that is encoded within our genes. In this respect, it is actually both something objective and subjective; something more ancient than we as well as something, to a considerable degree, inferior to the powers of our intellect and our overall personality; something that determines our (free) will to a degree we cannot even truly oversee nor transcend as well as something that has to succumb to our (free) will. It is both beyond and beneath us. Not only humans but also animals, plants and even viruses exhibit „altruistic“ behaviour, even is this apparent „altruism“ is just some sort of cooperative group behaviour to increase the chances of survival or prosperity of that respective group (at the expense of others) (for instance, if a virus attacks a body, this means war with the body´s immune system; within that you may witness „heroic“ behaviour of the virus as it forms small „suicide squads“ and kamikaze commandos to attack the immune system at certain points and, likely, lethally fail, yet in order to distract the immune system and ensure the triumph of the overall attack). It is, from that perspective, true that „the realm of ethics“ is both something transcendent and out of our reach as well as it is primitive and archaic/atavistic, and something that can, within some limits, get overcome by human agency.

Good is associated with connectedness, altruism, light; evil with disconnectedness, egoism, and darkness. You may have the mental image of „the Good“ as being something of great cohesiveness and great undifferentiatedness (the „divine light“, etc.) Undifferentiatedness, however, cannot be truly thought as being able to process itself (therein resembling its apparent counterpart: total chaos/maximum entropy). Creation, per se, refers to creatures. Creatures are differentiated from each other and they need to struggle for existence, within cooperation with other creatures, and at the expense of other creatures. Therein lies their potential for altruism and egoism (as well as for self-saturated mediocrity). Because of them being creatures, they are vastly different from their creating principle (both larger and smaller, both more liberated and less liberated, etc.) and they are tiny and small. That is, finally, creation. That creation carries relative „darkness“/egoism and relative „light“/altruism within itself is its inherent quality (philosophically, this view can most definitely be attributed to Friedrich Schelling). Creation manifests itself in (differentiated) creatures, which are, per se, individuals as well as parts of a larger collective. Therein, they behave in egoistic and altruistic ways, as individuals as well as a (part of a) collective. Ethics adresses the optimal state of balancing individual and collective welfare. For conscious beings, who can manipulate their environment and who have the power to create themselves, ethical considerations derive from the structure of being. Ethics is inherent to existence. We, as conscious beings, have some flexibility to manage (or neglect) ethics, we can create (or at least derive) exuberant virtue, but it also, and substantially, refers to something that is above us, to a coordinate of our existence or a dimension in which we are trapped in. As the confession of Kant illustrates, there are some people who see and internally experience THE LAW. They have a distinct mental represenation of THE LAW. Respectively, THE LAW is not an actual, and distinct, law, it is a distinct mental represenation of the ethical structure of the world, or of creation. Holy men are absorbed by THE LAW (a mental image of THE LAW might rather not be undifferentiated light, but an simple but extremely solid structure before the inner eye, and experienced as being within, or affecting, the body).

The good is transcendent as it always seeks to improve itself and become better. Therein, it refers to a potential that is actually infinite, as it is always beyond our reach. (Therein also lies the possibility of its own corruption: in the striving for goodness becoming a zealous and unempathetic quest for its own sake, something that may be overly guided by principles, something resembling obsessive-compulsive behaviour, spiritual pride (and prejudice) or megalomania, or an (inherent) pleasure principle: at the very end of Twin Peaks: The Return Cooper obviously has become such an obstinate, unempathetic zealot, therein alienating Diane/Linda and, maybe because of this, being unable to „save“ Laura Palmer, due to him himself having become impure). Striving for the good means becoming and self-transcendence, finally having achieved virtuousness, nevertheless, means having ceased to (seemingly endlessly) „become“ but to finally have arrived at the state of Being. From a theological perspective, having achieved an undivided state of Being is somehow resemblant to being God-like (and therefore, from a Leibnizian perspective (or other perspectives), man, and all creatures, necessarily must be fragmented and incomplete, otherwise they were God themselves and, if so, there would be no creation). Having arrived a state of completeness and of Being means something absolute. Yet, this absoluteness gets only confirmed in acknowledging its own relativity. Kierkegaard (respectively one of his (distant acquaintances of one of his) alter egos) raves about the joy that lies within the thought that against God we are „always in the wrong“. The highest level of virtuousness and absoluteness of Being lies within acknowledging the notion that against God it is „always in the wrong“ (i.e. acknowledging its very own relativity), and raving about it (i.e. that it supposes the existence of an instance infinitely superior – be it only a hypothetical instance – against which one is always „in the wrong“ for good, therein the possibility for self-purification being infinite. And as such an instance would serve THE LAW). Evil may also strive for its own intensification, yet that would mean degradation and perversion. Perversion may be bottomless and transcenting the limits of ordinary human understanding, yet it is hard to imagine its trajectory of intensification as infinite or unlimited or excessively open. Rather, the more perverse it gets, and the more shocking and the more harm it may inflict, the more it seems to get segregated, comprised and trapped within its own tiny box. (Note however, that this may only appear so from the perspective of the good. From the perspective of evil it may just appear the other way round: note however furthermore, that this usually does not seem to be the case. And note that „infinite“ perversion may of course be possible if, like Shakespeare´s/Verdi´s Jago, we were thinking about creation as being the work of a malicious and scornful god where anything good is just an illusion and its purpose just feeding us with false hope. Such a worldview is not logically inconsistent. Maybe it is even the truth. But it does not seem ultimately being infinite, since such a god would appear, eventually, idiotic).

Evil is, or may be, a labyrinth. And, as concerns its intensification and ego-syntonism, it may strive for becoming ever more a labyrinth. Its language, the way it talks to us, may be difficult to understand, not least because it is degenerated and beyond (or beneath) ordinary understandig, but also because it is manipulative and deceitful. It likes to mask itself. It does not want tob e truly understood (also since that would reduce its power). Many people are fascinated by evil (note that there is also a quite consistent interpretation of the entire series as playing, and being sarcastic, with the audience´s voyeuristic desire to see evil unfold and also desire for closure and simplicity that has both killed the original series as well as the film Fire Walk With Me (that got very negative reviews at its time); so that in The Return Lynch and Frost purposefully present an overly lifeless, evil and unattractive world, where all the postive that happens gets overlooked in the desire for the next sensational unfolding of evil, and with finally presenting a true mystery wrapped in an enigma). What I find truly fascinating, nevertheless, is the good. The good is not labyrinth-like, it is complex. It does not wear masks, it is authentic. Because of that, it is outside the norm and does not accord to ordinary patterns and therefore frustrate ordinary pattern recognition. Because of its complexity and authenticity, and its transcendent appeal, it may be difficult to understand as well. Both (great) good and evil escape the ordinary. Therefore also their powers are limited. Mediocrity, at times, seems to be the true governing force. To see it in such absolute terms is, of course, inappropriate on all accounts. What you have, in this world, is a chaosmotic balancing of forces. You may think that the world is an eternal struggle, a grand chessgame between good and evil, that seems to go on, without a clear result, indefinitely. Neither good, nor evil, nor mediocrity seem to truly understand themselves. As entities they just are. Beyond the Black and White Lodges and the mediocrity of Twin Peaks, in the icy mountains, there lives the intellectual balancer, who observes, and calculates. In serenity, in agitatedness, in confusion.