Written by Alexander Greco
October 14, 2020
This is the final article analyzing Eraserhead (for now…), and because of how long this analysis took, I think I’m not going to do the articles on witches and werewolves, though I may see if there’s any topics in the future I’d rather swap in witches or werewolves for.
If you haven’t read the previous articles on Eraserhead, I’d recommend reading those before this article. However, this article does summarize much of what I discussed in the previous analyses. If you don’t mind a bit of a lack of context or as much depth in explanation, feel free to read this without reading the others.
Layer 2: Synthesis and Generalization of Patterns and Themes
There’s a lot to go over here. A lot information to try and bring together. And I don’t want to spend too much time wrapping this up.
So, let’s start by trying to crystallize some key themes and patterns from across the film.
First, there is the man with the levers at the beginning of the film. Henry seems to be a disassociated observer, passively watching and allowing events to occur before him while Fate or God, or even Henry’s own unconscious mechanisms, are in control of reality. At the same time, Fate or God or Henry’s unconscious is portrayed as this grotesque sort of figure.
Perhaps the entity pulling the levers of Fate has aged into a monstrous being, or perhaps always ways.
Combine this with the setting and atmosphere of the film.
Modern and industrial cityscapes, devoid of most life other than humans walking around. The movie has a constant eeriness too it, and a constant tension. There are few, if any, moments throughout the film that don’t possess some tension or conflict, or else something unsettling, uncomfortable or disturbing.
Henry passively exists within and observes a reality which cold and disassociated from life and living, but which there is also no control over one’s fate. Henry passively watches himself act in this barren, dispassionate world without any effort of intervention.
And, it seems, so does everyone else. Everyone in this film, from Henry to Gathy, seem to behave caricaturistically and almost mechanically. They behave in absurd and strange ways, yet this seems to be the typical mode of being in this world.
Everything feels at least awkward or slightly uncomfortable. Even when Henry is alone, there are very few moments that don’t at least feel awkward. Our protagonist is a bit of a strange individual. He’s not very fit, he has a bit of a stoop, he walks awkwardly, his expressions are wonky, and he speaks rather awkwardly as well.
All of the people he interacts with likewise have many strange idiosyncrasies—no one seems normal, yet, at the same time, every somehow seems natural.
What I see here are a bunch of individuals with their own oddities and idiosyncrasies, attempting to co-exist in an incredibly strange and somewhat cold world. Everyone is sort of trying to cope with life and trying to survive, and they all become these strange characters attempting to exist with one another.
So, we have a theme of modernity and we have a theme of strange social interactions. The cold alienation of modernity, and the disassociation of modern socialization.
Everyone is just a listless, arbitrary entity acting out of their pre-ordained mechanical manner, and everyone passively exists in a cold, lifeless world.
How are they able to exist in this world emotionally or psychologically without going insane? Well, many of the characters do seem to act insane, but so do people in real life, and yet society manages to keep going?
They find a meaning to go on through comfort, intimacy and I suppose responsibility—all three of which form a sort of interwoven monolith around libido and sexuality.
Henry has a job to have an apartment and possessions, which acts as a place to invite women he’s attracted to—Mary then Gathy. Then, Mary has a child, and now Henry must take care of Mary and the child. Comfort through sex, as well as intimacy through sex and a romantic relationship, and then responsibility through their job (with its connections to other elements of life) and through raising a child.
There is something like a façade placed over the bleak world Henry lives in—his idealization of reality—so long as he can have some level(s) of comfort, intimacy and responsibility.
However, all these things become complicated. Mary lives with Henry, but their relationship seems less than romantic, and she seems to be refusing sexual intimacy with Henry. Henry is attracted to Gathy, which prompts an affair, but then Gathy refuses Henry because he is a father. Henry is a father, but being a father seems to be the locus of so much of his frustration.
So, his idealization of reality does not match reality itself. This is why I think there are two key projections Henry makes in the film.
He projects the warmth and comfort of his idealized reality (which we might say used to be sex with Mary without thought of consequence) onto the Radiator Girl. The girl herself is an imaginary person with a partially fake and mask-like face, and she is always presented in a positive manner. I think this projection of an idealized life or reality is made especially apparent in the Radiator Girl’s song about Heaven.
She is Henry’s desire to return to a simpler life—an innocent state of being.
The second projection is the child itself. Is the grotesqueness of the child reality itself? Is that how the child actually appears? Or is this just a projection onto the child?
Is the child truly that deformed? Is that simply how it appears in the eyes of its Boomer parents? (Just kidding, Boomers).
Let’s see how well we can paint this picture:
They live in a cold, alienating world devoid of life, and that seems to be commonplace for them. Sexuality is something strange, frightening, uncomfortable and omnipresent, as it is also a source of warmth, comfort and intimacy. Socialization with others seems to be difficult and bizarre. How does one create meaningful meaningfulness between themselves and others in a meaningless void? Every character seems so fragmented and disconnected from each other, they can’t seem to come to terms on a more personal level.
The only way to happily live in this world might be to idealize it and to live life for the few things that bring one warmth (such as sex, which might also be one of the only ways to be truly intimate with someone in this world as well).
However, the child created through that sex tears down the idealized simulation of reality that has been laid over the world’s ugliness (as children do), and frustrates their efforts at sanity, happiness and intimacy. If we can grant my theory that the child’s grotesque nature is being projected onto it, then we can see the child as a symbolic locus of frustration, fear and disgust for all those connected to it.
Mary’s father never even mentions the child, but Mary’s child also seems far more disassociated from reality and its consequences than the other characters—in the sense that he barely seems to be conscious in a meaningful way, and is just sort of a personality machine inside a human skin suit. Perhaps he either refuses to acknowledge it, or accepts the child in a flat, affectless manner (juxtaposed to the bombastic and smiling personality he mechanically possesses).
Mary’s mother seems to accept the child, but only if Henry agrees to marry Mary and help take care of the two of them. Considering the mother’s sexual actions and behavior, she may even welcome the child’s existence.
Henry seems in the beginning to accept the child and its grotesque appearance, but it might be a safe assumption that he does it for the intimacy he believes it will afford him with Mary, as well as the sense of responsibility and meaning it might provide him. However, he then loses this intimacy with Mary, as well as with Gathy, because of the child’s existence. Now, the child truly becomes a source of his frustration.
Henry, already living in a cold, barren, alienating world, becomes so disconnected and so frustrated that he does the unthinkable—he kills his child. He destroys life in order to maintain his idealized state of being. This may even be the state of modernity in general. Modernity may be choking out and destroying life in order to maintain its idealized state—which is the state he returns to in the end of the film.
Not only this, he defies fate, or the man pulling the levers, and annihilates or destroys the planetoid womb. He defies the natural order of things in order to return to an idealized life.
Now, there are two routes to go about examining this. The first, a more literal and more critical view of Henry and his actions, and the second, a more symbolically cathartic one.
The first route, Henry is not only abdicating his responsibility as a father—more than that, committing infanticide—he is perpetuating the barren reality he lives in and idealizes. Rather than live with the frustrating reality brought upon by his child, he is seeking to destroy that reality in order to return to a place of warmth, ignorance and bliss (the murky white fluid he and Gathy descend into may be a precursor to the place of blinding white light at the end).
Now, to flip this in one simple maneuver. What if what Henry kills in the end is not his child, but the projection he creates of his child? What if Henry’s problem was not that the child was a destructive force on the nature of his life, but that Henry’s idealized perception of life was never fully updated to include his child in it? Of course, Lynch being a Boomer, this may be a bit of a stretch, but, for me, it fits the movie itself.
And what of the eraserhead sequence? Perhaps Henry needed to erase his prior reality and his prior identity in order to find that higher, ideal state again.
He had to defy the natural order of things—in fact, he had to annihilate it. He had to annihilate his identity. He had to annihilate his reality. He had to annihilate the negative projection of his child. All this, and now he can recreate a more idealized reality that included a more positive projection of his child.
Of course, there’s still a catch to this.
It is both impossible and unhealthy to permanently try to exist in an idealized state, or a projection of an idealized state. However, it is also unhealthy (though much more possible) to exist in the non-idealized state of perpetual detachment and alienation that is the material reality.
We have models of reality projected onto actual reality, which are not reality themselves, but which need to be continually updated as we receive new information about reality.
The introduction of a child into Henry’s life was a major disruption to its previously idealized state. The ensuing psychosis is Henry’s mind attempting to cope with this disruption.
However, the disruption was so great, Henry was forced to annihilate his previous identity, his previous way of life, and his previous idealization of reality: eraserhead.
Layer 3: Broad Universals
So how can all of this be taken back to an examination of real life?
I don’t, how much more of an accurate representation of reality do you want than Eraserhead?
We live on a rock in space. We live in a social reality that is at all times fragmented and disassociated. We are all random people who come from random backgrounds attempting to associate with similarly random people who likewise come from random backgrounds.
No one’s really given the rules of engagement except in half-ass regurgitations of “passed-down wisdom” from our parents—we have to learn it on our own. We’re all just animals trying to figure out how to be humans on a rock in the middle of space.
And so, we all seem crazy or weird or arbitrary or downright insane to one another. If you examine someone close enough, the persona either you or they attempted to create will crumble, and beneath it, you will see that person for the strange, scared, dumb, blind, ignorant and absolutely insane person they really are—and that’s everyone, everyone is like this.
And so, half of Eraserhead is this. Half of Eraserhead is contending with this strange social mechanism we are all apart of that requires us to behave under certain terms of engagement, and yet we are all also individuals carved naturally and artificially by our own hands, the hands of others and by our circumstances.
The other half similarly follows this line of thought—idealization. Except, rather than the social idealizations and the idealization we have of the nature of reality, it’s a sort of internalized idealization.
It’s the moth drawn toward a bright light, or someone cold searching for warmth.
It’s the things we do to make ourselves feel okay with life, and the distances we’ll go to achieve this “okayness”. It’s the stories we tell ourselves—which aren’t necessarily explicit within Eraserhead, but I’d argue are certainly implicit to the narrative.
And, in the end, it’s what we do as a reaction to the inevitable discovery that life is not okay, life is not the idealized mask we put upon it, and that life is a bizarre, absurd, meaningless mess that we were left to fend against and contend with.
That’s the catharsis at the end of the movie:
How do we contend with the inevitability of reality?
How do we contend with the actuality of things and the actuality of their existence, consequences and effects?
How do we live with the experience of pulling back the veil and staring into sheer absurdity, sheer arbitrariness and sheer meaninglessness?
How do we put the pieces back together once our vision of reality has begun to crumble?
To conclude, I kind of want to give a meta-analysis of this analysis, since this was such big fucking analysis of a 90 minute film.
Perhaps I’m making much ado about nothing with Eraserhead. A lot of these conclusions may be a bit far-fetched from the information we’re given in the film.
However, what I’m trying to do is convert the images, symbols and characters in the film into something like a meaningful language, and then convert the events or causality, the emotions and the context of the movie into something like grammar, rhetoric and articulation; and then I want to see what comes out on the other side.
The process of this is to examine much of the film literally, for what is literally happening. This, in a sense, abstracts it (though this might not be how one normally things of “abstraction”). Here’s an abstraction:
Take an apple (apple as an object, not as the word). Red is an abstraction of an apple. Fruit is an abstraction of an apple. Food is an abstraction of an apple.
These are abstract categorizations or abstract descriptions of the apple.
So, you abstract from a film and it’s contents, then examine the abstractions.
We examine the film (you can examine anything like this, really) literally and abstract meaningful information from it, then analyze that meaningful information and look for patters. How do you know if that analysis works?
Well, you test it or compare it along multiple levels or dimensions of meaning.
You can test it against itself: I say Henry develops a growing resentment for his child, or that his child is a source of resentment.
Is this completely unfounded? Or does it have a basis in the reality of the movie?
Well, the child is arguably the reason why Mary doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, as well as more obviously the reason Gathy doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, and Henry kills his child in the end, shortly after he sees Gathy with another man.
Seems sound. Seems logical.
Is the appearance of the child a projection? Well, this one is more of a thought tool, more of an assumption that can help aid an argument, but it circumstantially fits with much of the rest of the film.
Is Henry’s final moment with the Radiator Girl a moment of catharsis with his psychological manifestation of an ideal reality? Well, this one gets more complicated as you have to explain many other things, particularly the Radiator Girl and her relationship to Henry. However, if we assume the Radiator Girl to be associated with warmth (radiator), sexual attraction (all other women in the movie being related in some way to sex or sexuality), an idealized mask (the girl possessing fake cheeks that might accentuate her looks), then it seems likely.
So, these are examples of testing your analysis against the thing you are analyzing, but the problem here is that the analysis becomes a closed system. X = Y if Y = Z; Z = Y if X = Z. It can become to self-referential to be completely accurate.
So, you need to examine your own examination. Whatever you are analyzing creates its own reality (a movie creates its own, self-contained universe), and you must make sure you are analyzing that with minimized bias. You must make sure that even your unbiased analysis is at least founded in logic, or at least founded in the logic of the self-contained reality.
Then, you must break out of the self-contained reality of the creation you are examining, and compare the analysis to reality. Why? Because, inevitably, the creation is either a science or engineering experiment in art (in which case, one is not analyzing the meaning of that film), or the creation is a reflection of reality, whether material, social or psychological.
So, one’s analysis must inevitably lead back to the actuality of reality.
Does this analysis do all of this? I don’t know, but I do think so.
There can be many interpretations of something, true, especially with a David Lynch film. However, given the information we do have in the film, given the recurrent themes or meaningful patterns, and given some of the assumed quasi-universal meaning underlying much of the images, characters, symbols, etc. in the film, I think this analysis fits.
I do think this is close to approximating a quasi-objectively correct analysis of the film (if you squint and cross your eyes).
Part of the problem with such an analysis though, especially with such a movie, is that the movie is already incredibly abstract, and an analysis like this, in part, abstracts it even further.
The movie itself constructs a reality, and, in the case of most David Lynch films, these realities are incredibly abstract. A David Lynch film reminds me in many ways of the “Layers of Irony” memes, where Meme-Man inevitably spirals into a pocket dimension of hyper-ironic complexity.
We have a film that is an abstraction of reality already, which is constructed of abstractions, which communicates meaning in abstractions. That’s a typical David Lynch film. Analyzing it is like trying to add another layer of abstraction across all abstractions, so the initial cubed abstraction (abstract x abstract x abstract = abstract^3) becomes a tesseracted abstraction (abstract^4).
And that’s what it’s like trying to analyze a Lynch film. And that’s why this analysis hit ~10,000 words and still feels incomplete.
And of course, this can never be fully objective, and any interpretation can vary quite a lot from person to person, even if they’re looking at similar themes.
Hopefully though, this provides a solid analysis for you to understand Eraserhead as I understand it, and hopefully this also provides a solid method of analysis for you to analyze other works of art, music, film and so forth.
Thank you for reading.