Imagination vs. Evil

by Pip Williams

“May Suffering Belong to No-one”.

In his Confessions, St Augustine defines evil as an absence; that it has “no positive nature”, but is rather “the loss of good”. In other words, evil has no power to create, no constructive force, only the power to undo good. I feel like I’ve recently seen an inspiring increase in art that is about the positive, political power of imagination, about its “positive nature” in the face of, if you’ll allow me, evil forces increasingly defined by a lack of empathy, care and understanding; what I see in so much art now is the efficacy of true friendship in the face of division, the concept of imaginative collaboration in the face of social and political apathy and entropy, and the possibility of goodness in the face of the moral emptiness of evil. To illustrate this point I could have written about any number of pieces of art from 2019, but I’ll be talking here about two of the last bits of art that I experienced in 2019- the National Theatre’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, and David Lynch’s- memoir? Biography? Meditation manual?- Room To Dream (which he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna).

Critically speaking, I have a nerve writing about Ocean… I saw it right towards the end of the year, I was tired from two weeks of evening shifts, end of year ennui and had a whopping festive hangover. I wept noisily throughout and gasped whenever there were puppets, like those videos of monkeys being shown magic tricks. It was instantly one of my favourite plays. I realise I’m increasingly susceptible to work about nostalgia and memory, and the act of remembering, and of giving time and space to honouring the child you once were was beautifully and tenderly staged in Katy Rudd’s production (with an amazingly deft and understated adaptation by Joel Horwood). The whole production was a sort of conscious imaginative experiment; an unnamed Man returns home for his father’s funeral, and on the way back he stops at a mysterious farmhouse where, one childhood summer, something amazing may have happened. Or it may not have done.

As he remembers, the world of his remembering is brought to life around him in seconds by the ensemble- benches appear from nowhere, kitchens spring up in seconds, and the Man watches as his childhood self sprints from the darkness an looks him in the eye. It’s a wonderful opening, and very elegantly sets up the rules and the world of the show; a fluid world of conscious theatricality, that asserts the primacy of imagination and memory in this story- that imagining-remembering is a physical act; an act of real, solid effort and bravery.

Our hero, the Boy, is introduced to us as a bookish child, a lonely kid using the worlds of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien to escape from a difficult and fraught home life. Everything changes when he befriends the Hempstock family, a warm, weird trio of witches claiming to be hundreds of years old, and he opens the door to a terrifying force from beyond our known universe.

This force eventually manifests as Ursula Monkton, a hellish, pink-clad nanny (think Mary Poppins as written by H.P Lovecraft) who takes over the Boy’s house in a sequence of such mind-bending theatrical brio it made me punch my arm rest (it involved moving doors and a lot of clever blocking). She also seduces his father and co-opts his sister with promises of treats, money and nice clothes. He’s the only one who sees her for what she is, and so she alienates him from his family, banishes him to his room and swears terrible vengeance on him.

The fundamental problem with the force known as Ursula Monkton is that she cannot understand the Boy or the family unit as an emotional concept; she is a force driven purely by power and acquisition (it is telling that her calling card is a coin- she gives them freely to the Boy’s sister, and the Boy wakes up with a coin in his throat the night before she arrives). She worms her way into the grieving family (the mother has died recently) by fulfilling their most basic, cosmetic needs- she feeds them with junk food, dresses the sister in fancy clothes and has sex with the vulnerable father. There’s no heart to her coup, no emotional fulfilment, she just fills and bloats them with sugar and money (fantastically illustrated by Fly Davis’ set design- as Ursula grows in power, the set and costumes become more and more pink, as if Ursula is sprinkling the world with venomous icing sugar).

One of the play’s most powerful moments for me was when the Boy, locked in his room and told by Ursula that she can hear his every thought, manages to escape from the house by climbing out of a window whilst reciting the opening paragraphs of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. This means, of course, that Ursula’s unable to hear his transgressive thoughts under the noise of the literature he’s reciting.

This strikes me as a wonderful illustration of the power of imagination over evil- because, as stated, Ursula is inherently unable to engage with emotional need, C.S Lewis’ words are merely static, excess noise, whereas they live as powerful, active things in the Boy’s mind. And it is because they live in his mind, he possesses them, that he’s able to use them as his weapon. By taking ownership of his imagination, he’s able to literally break free of a painful and evil situation.

Another wonderful illustration comes in a moment where the Boy is trapped inside a magic circle and instructed by his friend, Lettie Hempstock, not to leave it, while she goes and gets help. Left alone, the Boy is confronted by a parade of figures from his life, all evil spirits in disguise, threatening, cajoling or bribing him to leave the circle. It’s a terrifying and deeply upsetting sequence, as one familiar face after another collapses in front of our hero and returns to the amorphous evil blob it came from. When Lettie finally returns, the Boy asks her to prove she is really Lettie, which she does by simply stepping inside the circle and hugging him. It’s a still and beautiful moment- the simplicity and ease of true friendship after the trickery of the bad guys; the reality of love after its cynical imitation.

Ocean… essentially argues that goodness is imagination; it’s friendship, it’s collaboration, it’s literature and it is the true understanding of other people. Evil, conversely, is amorphous, un-formed; a home-wrecking, capitalist howl that sees friendship and family as costumes to wear. And it doesn’t read C.S Lewis.

In Gaiman’s original novel, the Boy enters the titular ocean at one point and has an incredible vision of multiple worlds and the secrets beneath our reality;

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great, dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger… Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all.”

It’s an extraordinary passage, and it paints a vivid picture of the horrifying possibility of other worlds, of the dissolution of all we hold to be real and the mutability of reality; but I think it also speaks to the mind-expanding potential of the imaginative brain- the interconnectedness of all experience, the interplay between the beautiful and the ugly, and the incredible view of reality that we can be privy to if we only activate our creative minds.

This leads me remarkably neatly onto David Lynch. Lynch is a director well used to delving into the “nightmares and hunger” beneath our cosy realities (indeed, the opening of his 1986 film Blue Velvet bears amazing resemblance to the Gaiman passage printed above- I don’t think it’d be ludicrous to assume that Gaiman was a fan), and the legion possibilities of the human soul. He’s also recently become the poster-boy for Transcendental Meditation and the potential of the creative mind.

Room To Dream is, predictably, not your standard biography; half of it, written by Kristine McKenna, is a fairly straightforward overview of Lynch’s life and career, featuring interviews with his collaborators, friends and family; the other half is given over to Lynch’s recollections of his films and projects, and also his musings on, among other things, Bob Dylan (“Fuckin’ A, man. The best.”), international farming (“Mother Nature has been crushed and all of this happened because of money.”) and Photoshop (“whoever dreamed it up…should be awarded a special place in heaven.”).

What emerges then is a picture of a man totally immersed in his imagination; a kind, eccentric figure at his happiest when writing a script, building a table and generally living his “art life”, as he puts it (a life, it’s worth mentioning, that frequently comes at the expense of his romantic and interpersonal relationships- he currently lives in a house next door to his wife, with blackout curtains and where he can smoke indoors.).

He talks frequently of “catching” ideas, of waiting for enough of them to present themselves to him so that he can string together a story, and his filmmaking process reflects this attitude. His shoots sound organic and unhurried, based on meaningful communication with his team and an openness to change and new ideas; there are several stories of him drafting in script supervisors, local strippers and singers to be in scenes, and when asked how they fit into the story he’s known to reply “I don’t care- it’s modular!” (whatever this may mean).

David Lynch’s world is a world in which imagination is key, where the truth can only be unlocked by the creative brain. Actors who have worked with him describe his gentle, almost mystical directing style; in one remarkable passage, James Marshall describes Lynch directing a particularly tender scene in Twin Peaks: The Return and coming up to him and his co-star, squatting down and “closing his hands then opening them and extending his fingers… for two or three minutes without saying a word”, which apparently “shifted the energy completely by making us be still with him for a few minutes”. It is this care for and trust of actors that, I’d imagine, makes him such a charismatic director and makes actors want to return to his sets; it is a truly collaborative style that relies on giving free rein to the subconscious, that relies not on treating actors as props but on the genuine possibility of communication between minds, and the sharing of a kind of unknowable energy (a vibe, if you will).

I re-watched Eraserhead (1977) while I was reading Room To Dream and was surprised not only at how well it stands up in 2019, but how much sense it now makes to me, especially in the light of some of the stuff in the book; like many of Lynch’s films (and indeed much of his career, spent battling studio executives and close-minded producers) it is the simple narrative of a small figure against a brutal backdrop, the human vs. the machine. The vast, grey droning of the factory where the protagonist works is beautifully offset by the theatrical, weirdly erotic inner world of his imagination/subconscious, represented by the Lady In The Radiator. It strikes me as being ultimately about the triumph of the organic over the industrial, the imagination over the machine, and the validity of desire.

This is arguably a thread through all of Lynch’s work. In all his films, darkness is ultimately vanquished by the mystical power of human love, and the healing powers of the universe itself- the wild evil of Frank Booth is banished by “the blinding light of love” of the robins; Leland Palmer’s guilty soul is guided into the afterlife with words from the Tibetan Book Of the Dead; Sailor sings “Love Me Tender” to Lula as the credits roll. As actor Robert Forster attests, Lynch “asks us to find the connection to the eternal in ourselves…we are not just isolated atoms and…if we understand that connection to the eternal we’re capable of making better choices.”

While what Lynch discovers underneath the icing is not always pleasant, it is always offset by the possibility of love in the world, and of its saving, redemptive power. In his films and in his creative process, Lynch guides us and his collaborators to think that darkness is conquered by love, and this is a love only possible through full communion between the conscious and the unconscious, through the rebellion against the brutalism of normality and through full engagement of the imaginative brain- David Lynch’s love is dreaming, imagining and it revels in the complexity of human beings. What continues to make Lynch’s films unsettling and compelling to this day is not the brutal darkness in them, but the idea that that darkness has the capacity for light, and vice-versa.

To quote Forster again, “He is leading his audience towards the good”.

I’m aware that large parts of this might look a little airy, and I’m not telling anyone to go and start practising TM or straining, Pollyanna-like, to see the good in awful people- God knows we’re living in a time when that kind of nuance isn’t always constructive- but now more than ever the imaginative brain is a vital asset. If we are to build a future and future communities, we need to collaboratively imagine what that future, those communities, will look like.

Just before the December election, I saw something on Twitter that claimed that, if you describe exactly how you vote (as in, “I will drop the kids off at school, send this email, and then go to the church at the corner to vote before I go to work” etc.), it will encourage more people to actually vote. We are a culture that needs narrative to progress, a convincing and solid story of how to do better, that we tell ourselves, that we tell our family and friends, that we show to our audiences and that we view as spectators.

The hallmark of wickedness is lack of imagination, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Lynch and Gaiman both tell us that goodness and strength lies in looking beneath the surface of what is comfortable, communicating fully and unflinchingly with what is difficult and that which is human, and “shifting the energy” as a collaborative body. It involves drowning out darkness with imagination.

To quote Lynch again- “Ultimately, each life is a mystery until we each solve the mystery, and that’s just where we are all headed whether we know it or not.” 

This was our first contribution from Pip Williams, a London-based writer, actor and director, and co-artistic director of ‘We Talk of Horses’ Theatre Company. He’s a graduate of the University of East Anglia, and can be found on Twitter at @otherpwilliams