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Film Essays

Eraserhead, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Nausea

Harry Spencer is a pitiful man. He lives in the boiler room of an abandoned industrial complex. He has a psychotic girlfriend. He is paralyzed by the foul fantasies of his lust and isolation. His anxiety has rendered him practically mute. The infant version of the monster he fathered, covered in flies, whines and sucks incessantly on the trails of its own mucous.

And still I wonder if David Lynch pulled the visions of Eraserhead somewhere out of my own pyretic dreams.


I was sick. The diagnosis was a bad case of Helicobacter Pylori. Called ‘H Pylori’ for short, it’s a type of bacteria that thrives in the human stomach, nurtured-by and worsening the effects of hydrochloric acid on the upper gastro-intestinal system. Two-thirds of the world carries the bacteria, which experts believe is transmitted via fecal-oral communication. The bacteria only affects its carriers when the acidic contents of the stomach are elevated, thus allowing the bacteria to breed and thrive.

For centuries, people thought ulcers, reflux, indigestion, and other stomach or upper-GI issues were caused by some sort of environmental factor; stress, spicy foods, etc. These disorders were thus treated as primaries, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers discovered all of these things were symptomatic of a bacterial infection. Rather than address the symptoms, experts were finally able to target the source, which made treatments easier and more effective, though this still hasn’t made an H Pylori infection a soft cross to bear.

I was 21 and in the midst of my undergraduate degree. Suffering the stress of a double major, five different part-time jobs, and a gratuitous amount of extracurricular involvement, my health was suffering. This wasn’t aided by my diet of discarded bagels (copped from the midnight dumpster behind Dunkin Donuts), frozen pizza, Ramen, and orange juice. On a few late-night occasions, I found myself bent over the toilet in excruciating pain. Not even vomiting would solve my problems of indigestion. Soon, a persistent and constant feeling of nausea sat like a ten-pound weight at the center of my gut. There were days where I would eat nothing at all, simply because nausea with an empty stomach was only slightly more endurable than nausea with a bite of bread. There were nights where I would lie in bed, doubled over, waiting for some kind of relief.

With my body taking such an abject stance, I found my little reason to reflect optimistic positions in my studies. I let myself be fully absorbed by the academic worship of the postmodern, partly because my physical devolution so closely mirrored my existential suspicions. While my peers were getting involved with various humanitarian causes and other high-minded student groups, I found myself getting sucked into the self-reflective spiral of incipient, intellectual solipsism. I was obsessed with the navel-gaze, though in my case, the gaze was quite literal. If certain forms of education teach us to adopt certain metaphysical ideologies, my worsening health was grounding me solidly to this cold, miserable earth. I was in pain more often than not, but I couldn’t simply lay and wait for it to pass. I had to continue my life, though I saw the world through a glass tinted with sulfur and jaundice.

Our school had a close relationship with a nearby hospital, which had a large and accessible family practice clinic, largely staffed by residents and physicians-in-training. I visited the clinic seven or eight times, enduring meticulous questioning and testing involving pastes and liquids and stool samples and drawn blood. The greater part of these procedures were being administered by naïve, vigilant young doctors whose voices still quivered and whose pockets still showed the outlines of their dime-store medical dictionaries. Eventually, the doctors discovered the bacteria.

Paired with my course of study, these long months were one of the times in my life where I was fully conscious of the shift in my worldview. Nausea was the worst and most potent of my symptoms. Often it played like a broken machine hum in the center of my brain, moving slowly inwards to the center of my gut. It’s an isolating and overwhelming condition, not always painful, but always present. It cannot be shared. It was constant for me, and I often felt myself walking around as if I was dragging my feet through an invisible murk.

Treatment might have been easier if I was allowed to take a break from academics and wage-work, because I would have had more time to relax, eliminate stressors, regulate my diet, and regain my health. But the institution cannot flex. The institution has no swinging doors. I had no choice but to continue my studies and my wage jobs under this dark cloud. There were times, in my sleeplessness, where I imagined the whole world as a machine and its parts were made of insurance contracts, administrative titles, and bills of receipt.

Doctors were telling me that one of the reasons my stomach was in such bad shape was due to stress. Given my list of responsibilities, I asked the doctors what I could do to reduce this amount of stress. One doctor asked if I was having sex. My honest – and somewhat embarrassed answer – was no. It was a decision I had made being informed by post-Protestant guilt and a more immaterial form of social anxiety, because I knew that sex could never just be sex. It carried with it an entirely new set of responsibilities, which, if weighed against the pressure of my other obligations, I feared would satisfy for merely a moment, but last for a lifetime. Complimented by whatever post-religious guilt I had associated with bodily pleasure, I figured that sex – for the time being – would be a stone best left unturned. Still the insects crawled.

In other words, I was a fairly typical young adult. The light of my beliefs in artistic and creative freedom was being dimmed by the omnipresence of the Institution. I feared what this portended for adulthood, and as a result, I feared that I would fail or entirely miss my entry into maturity. I had a virginal fear and misunderstanding of sexual intimacy, and thus, of social intimacy. I had a sickness with no visible symptoms, though the pain and scope of my illness were being exacerbated by unavoidable stress, which itself was endemic to my standard social obligations. Meanwhile, I was studying Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and other types of metaphysics which I believe only served to support my growing suspicions about the world as I perceived it to be.

And then I saw Eraserhead.

Completed in 1977, after six years of on-and-off production, David Lynch’s first feature-length film was originally panned by critics as an obtuse, ridiculous, and nauseating exercise in contrivance. However, over forty years later, Eraserhead now stands at the top of many important critical and cult film lists. As a story, it is weak, but as a film, it is original, groundbreaking, sonically complex, and cinematographically pronounced. And more importantly, as a work of art, it is existentially profound, sexually unsettling, psychologically horrifying, and just plain disturbing. In other words, it’s the stuff cult films are made of, and – as many people argue – it is the definitive cult film. It is almost as if Eraserhead was made to be seen late at night, which is the time Lynch somehow managed to capitalize on fatigue and half-sleep and transmute them into optically-charged, hallucinogenic barbiturates.

I had always heard of this Eraserhead, but never had the will to see it. I had heard from many that it was “super fucked up and nauseating,” and as I was already in a persistent regurgitative state, I didn’t see how a film could make things worse. Fortunately, my library had a copy of the film, and I brought it home to watch on a solitary Thursday night. It was the dead of winter and the sentient temperature of my apartment was hovering around 58 degrees. My stomach was aching and sore, and I was functioning on an aggregate sleep count of 20-or-so hours over the prior seven days. Late in the evening, I put the final touches on the first draft of a new paper, and I rewarded myself with a cup of dated rice milk (one of the few things I could stomach). I went into the living room, turned out the lights, and popped in the film.

Eraserhead is essentially a non-narrative profile of Harry Spencer (Jack Nance). He has impregnated his girlfriend, who later gives birth to a horrid, disfigured, bestial creature, which torments Spencer with its moans, whines and slopping tongue. Spencer’s facial expression rarely changes, and seems to communicate something between anxiety, confusion, and powerlessness; much like how one observes and is subject to his own claustrophobic nightmares. And indeed, much of the film seems to be a portrayal or articulation of Spencer’s subconscious anxieties, disgusts, and subdued impulses. Everything is awash with the opaque tones of industrial waste, and Spencer wanders through the alleyways and innards of the unending machine like a ghost without a body. In the same way, we wander in and out of Spencer’s sexual nightmares and obtuse, phallic/yonic fantasies.

Though the dialogue in the film is sparse (totaling no more than five minutes), much of the remaining ‘dialogue’ in the film is filled with meticulously crafted industrial drone. As if a picture of a man walking to his ‘home’ in a boiler room wasn’t a suitable enough picture of alienation, the confluence of sound further serves to make us feel even more disconnected from this abject world. This is the stuff of true horror. No jump scenes or arbitrary dichotomies between good and evil. As Lynch does with all of his films, he does not attempt to outline moralistic tale or five-point narrative. This film is an 85-minute portrait not of the subconscious, but of subconsciousness.

My fatigue, my nausea, of the multitude of anxieties I was constantly being forced to directly confront; this is what I was witnessing on the screen. For this reason, I can’t rightly say I enjoy Eraserhead, but rather that I saw part of myself mirrored in it. Some say that you either ‘get’ David Lynch, or you don’t. If me sitting there on that couch, on that particular night, at that particular time in my life, was not ‘getting’ David Lynch, then I argue that David Lynch can’t be ‘gotten.’ Shouldn’t movies be pleasurable? Shouldn’t movies have characters with whom we can identify? Shouldn’t movies satisfy?

But what if there is pleasure in Eraserhead? It would be a type of pleasure that people are scared to admit, because at the deepest, darkest level of our subconscious, we want to fuck that woman across the hall; we want that baby on top of our dresser to be dead; we want that woman in the radiator to keep singing; we want there to be a heaven and we want everything to be fine. It isn’t our first impulse to admit these things about ourselves, because this would make us – what? – anxious? confused? powerless? Maybe so. What if we aren’t as calm, collected, and in-control as we think? Maybe the world is a terrifying place; a huge machine full of monsters and freaks. Maybe we all have this Nausea.

It was somewhere past 1:00 a.m. when the movie ended. I turned off the TV and sat in the dark, listening to the wind blow against the windows. For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to think about nothing. I didn’t think that everything was fine, and maybe it was okay to stop fighting and simply accept things as they are; sometimes lonely, sometimes cold, sometimes terrifying. I don’t know how long I sat in the dark like that.

It would be a few more months – and a bout of appendicitis – before my GI issues cleared up entirely. I finished school a few months after that and my anxiety slowly diminished. Now, a few years later, the jaundice is gone, but on the coldest nights, I can sometimes see a dim light coming from the heart of my radiator, and in a voice – ever so faint – I can hear the woman singing: in heaven, everything is fine / in heaven, everything is fine / in heaven, everything is fine / you’ve got your good thing, and I’ve got mine.

Eraserhead isn’t something you enjoy. It’s something you ingest.

Benjamin van Loon  1/18/12

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