The basic idea behind Jungian dream theory is that dreams reveal more than they conceal. This attitude is invariably embraced in a David Lynch feature, especially one as entrenched in a dream as his 1977 breakout film, Eraserhead.
Dreams, according to the swiss psychologist Carl Jung, are “a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.” They speak in a distinctive language of symbols, images and metaphors that represent the unconscious mind’s natural means of expression. Jung’s theory generally posits that the unconscious aspect of any event is revealed to us in dreams, where it appears not as a rational thought but as a symbolic image.
At the material level, dreams portray the relation between the external world and the dreamer. At the subjective level, the inner world speaks to the personification of thoughts and feelings within the psyche. According to Jung, dreams render the “innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding” that we constantly decipher by using symbolic terms.
As far as Jung is concerned, dreams serve two functions. Firstly, dreams compensate for an imbalance in the dreamers psyche so as to bring forth unconscious contents that consciousness has either ignored, depreciated, or actively repressed. Consequently, dreams are to aid in accepting the unconscious contents in a bid to become more psychologically balanced. Secondly, Jung contends that dreams serve to bring prospective images to the forefront of a dreamer’s mind. Through the dream realm, Jung argues that a dreamer’s future developments are revealed. Rather, dreams offer a warning of sorts that is based on the dreamer’s current state of being.
Ultimately, dreams function to promote an important developmental process of human life: to unite the conscious and unconscious minds in a healthy, harmonious state of wholeness. This process of unity is termed individuation, in which the complete actualization of a human being occurs. This is a process that seems to be happening to the protagonist, Henry Spencer, in Eraserhead. A film where the narrative structure is open and remote at every seam, Eraserhead leaves the viewer with unparalleled room to dream.
Eraserhead traces the complex relationship between human will and the involuntary machinations of the subconscious, presenting it as a corrective to what is dark and troubling about the world we inhabit. Since the film works on such an intensely visceral level, any attempts to completely deconstruct it by finding one stream of subtext, seems totally counterproductive.
Eraserhead opens with the starry, nighttime sky superimposed over an image of Henry Spencer (John Nance) with his tower of unruly hair (not unlike David Lynch’s own signature quiff). A planet in the near distance draws closer, with Henry’s vacant expression unmoving. The camera passes over the surface of the planet into a duct where the “Man in the Planet” resides, his disfigured face reflected in a pane of broken glass. Henry’s fractured reflection is symbolic of his disturbed subconscious reflected in his dreams. A sperm-like creature emerges from Henry’s mouth and the “Man in the Planet”’ pulls some antiquated levers, causing the creature to fly into a puddle. The camera follows, and we enter into the industrial wasteland where the film is centered.
Over the sparse, linear narrative, we see Henry father a child with his girlfriend, Mary. Pressured into marriage, they move in together with their swaddled reptilian baby in tow. The baby’s persistent crying compels Mary to abandon both Henry and the child. Harry seemingly continues to care for and love the baby, but only until its escalating malady and relentless cries drive him to the point beyond endurance. In a momentary cataclysm, Henry cuts the bandages, which disturbingly, hold the infant’s organs together that subsequently releases an obscure white liquid. At this moment, the bleak world encompassing Henry disintegrates. He is finally received in heaven or a heaven-like paradise under the auspices of Lady in the Radiator, who is perhaps representative of the Grim Reaper. At once, the screen cuts to white.
The film exudes a heady aroma of bewilderment, brimming with polysemic symbolism. One of the film’s most emblematic and twisted images is the barren tree branch that decorates Henry’s bed and represents his discombobulated self. The film is framed to entirely emulate a contorted dream, suggesting that any and all characters in it are merely scraps meant to further illustrate the nature of Henry’s subconscious.
To me, the film toys with the sickeningly sentimental concept of gender roles and societal convention. Lynch comments on the label of the archetypal “baby” as an innocent blank slate, and instead portrays it as a repellent wormlike creature. Watching Henry care for this sperm-like thing is demonstrative of him nurturing the societal standard of masculinity. The creature’s incessant wails and repellent aura indicates how toxic societal representations of masculinity can be. As Henry frees himself from his mutilated masculinity by refusing to indulge the “baby” any longer, Lynch maps male and female interconnectedness and dissolves gender archetypes. Accordingly, Jung’s concept of “anima” and “animus” further elaborate this narrative choice, as “anima” refers to the feminine dimensions in the male and the masculine in the female.
Eraserhead takes place in an unyielding world of darkness and confusion. One in which the inner and outer worlds blend into a subjective consciousness. Lynch has deemed this film his “most spiritual” by drawing on Hindu philosophies shrouded in elusive metaphors and repackaging these concepts in a classic Lynchian fashion. Notoriously influenced by his aphasia, Lynch maintains a particular protectiveness of his narratives, and yet simultaneously prompts the audience to assign personal meaning to Lynch’s own abstractions.
Eraserhead depicts a man who is so deeply engulfed in his fears that he has no choice but to discover how to transcend them. Henry’s progression from his nightmarish reality to his heavenly transcendence ultimately allows him to find his way home and join the Lady in the Radiator. Perhaps Henry’s arrival to “home” suggests his loss of ego consciousness and mirrors his process of individuation. However absurd the Lady in the Radiator may appear, Henry’s union with her affords him the gift of his subconscious, providing him a means of contacting a sense of truth that is separate, yet potentially obscured by the threatening influences of society around him.