There’s Always Music in the Air:

Pure Experience and the Philosophical Appeal of Twin Peaks

The recent announcement –following some cryptic tweets– that Mark Frost and David Lynch will be resurrecting their cult TV hit Twin Peaks predictably caused a firestorm of speculation and excitement. The vocal enthusiasm about the show’s return makes sense: Twin Peaks was a rare example of an idiosyncratic and innovative show that managed to be both critically and commercially successful, and its popularity has only seemed to grow over the years it’s been off the air. A large part of the show’s success –then and now– is obviously due to its style and tone, which managed to capture Lynch’s uniquely American brand of surrealism in a commercially appealing “whodunit” mystery. But there’s more to the show than a simple murder mystery, and its style suggests some surprisingly intricate philosophical ideas.

Although Lynch’s previous work had mixed surrealism and the seemingly “ordinary,” for most of the viewing audience Twin Peaks must have seemed simply weird for the sake of being weird. (This misunderstanding of Lynch’s style probably led to the network pressuring the creators to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer earlier than planned.) Specifically, the way the show blurred the lines between dreams and “real” life gives it its uniquely unsettling feel: viewers are never quite sure what will happen next. Like his earlier films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Lynch uses the dream sequences in the show to mimic the experience of having a dream. These oneiric qualities extend beyond the characters’ dreams and become a part of the show’s style and narrative. The result is a blurring of dreams and reality certainly made many viewers scratch their head.

However, rather than simply being “weird” for its own sake, the aesthetic and thematic elements of Twin Peaks hint at something more subtle and complex. With its use of dream sequences and premonitions, Twin Peaks actually explores the philosophical concepts of experience and perception. Much like the show’s setting and aesthetic style, its presentation of these concepts also feels uniquely American, borrowing from –or at least paralleling– the work of the pragmatic philosopher William James, specifically his notion of “pure experience”. Although this connection is never explicitly stated or implied in the show, James’s work does show how Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper unorthodox investigation style isn’t as “weird” as it may appear.

Although best known for his foundational text The Principles of Psychology, William James also wrote extensively on the philosophical issues of perception and consciousness. Much of his philosophical work focuses on pre-reflective thought and experience, which he labels “pure” experience in order to underscore just fundamental irreducibility of these sorts of experiences. This type of pre-reflective thought is anterior to any other since, according James, consciousness is not a state of mind; it is an activity which is always reflective –always occurring after experience. What James hoped to articulate with his idea of “pure” experience is the pre-conscious experiences which take place before any form of reflection can occur. These moments, which pass by as part of what he calls the “stream of thinking,” and form the continuous experience of life. To differentiate these pre-reflective, “pure,” experiences from the traditional notions of consciousness, James uses the term sciousness. If James’ sciousness is indeed a pre-reflective experience, then it provides a more fundamental engagement than the post-reflective essence of consciousness.

One of the implications of James’s theory of sciousness is that it challenges the traditional philosophical notions of subject and object, knower and known. Our “pure” experiences are those which are prior to any sort of subject/object distinction. In our pre-reflective moments of awareness, it is as if there is a blurring of the distinctions between us and the world. The blurring of lines and distinctions can be applied to the supposed opposition of waking and dreaming life; if “pure” experience is continuous, then we are still engaged and experiencing even while dreaming. The uses and implications of dream sequences in Twin Peaks actually serve as examples of this type of “pure” experience. For instance, the dream that Dale Cooper has in the third episode may appear to the viewer as a random series of impressions, but Cooper interprets it a central part of his investigation.

The next morning, Cooper describes one such dream to Sheriff Harry S. Truman as such:

Suddenly it was twenty-five years later. I was old, sitting in a red room. There was a midget in a red suit and a beautiful woman. The little man told me that my favorite gum was coming back into style and didn’t his cousin look exactly like Laura Palmer, which she did… She’s filled with secrets, sometimes her arms bend back, where she’s from the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air. The midget did a dance, Laura kissed me and she whispered the name of the killer in my ear.

Of course, upon awaking, Cooper cannot remember the name that was whispered in his ear. However, the series of images that he experiences in his dream begin to show up in his waking life and provide a trail of clues about the murder. In order for these clues to come forth, Cooper has to avail himself to the flood of “pure” experience that normally passes by unnoticed. For him, the dream is a code, and he tells Truman bluntly: “My dream is a code waiting to be broken. Break the code, solve the crime.” It is certainly hard to imagine many detectives relying on a dream as evidence regarding a murder, but Cooper clearly believes in the power of dreams as “pure” experiences. He already knows who the killer is since Laura told him herself, solving the case is merely a matter of remembering what he learned while dreaming. Since, for Cooper as for James, there is never a strong distinction between the thinking experience of waking and dreaming life, there is no doubt as to the validity of the dream since the experience of the dreams is part of the continuous “stream of thinking.”

Although Cooper distinguishes what he sees in his dream from what he sees while awake, he does not assume that both of these experiences have different meanings; he understands them as both being equally valid sensations of “pure” experience. In order to solve the murder of Laura Palmer, Cooper must be open to “pure” experiences such as dreams and the mysterious goings-on in the town of Twin Peaks. As the series unfolds, moments from Cooper’s dream begin appearing; as if the dream was predicting where the investigation would lead. Instead of being skeptical about Cooper’s claim that they must crack the code of the dream in order to solve the case, the sheriff decides to follow the hunches that Cooper has, and follow them up as he would any other lead. Thus, the murder in the show is solved by means of “pure” experience: pre-conscious awareness and recognition of the continuous nature of our engagement in the world. While following up on clues and leads in the case, details of the dream –such as the red drapes which line the room where the dream takes place– lead the Truman and Cooper on a long and strange journey to find the killer. Cooper finally remembers the name of Laura’s murderer when he hears someone mutter the words from his dream: “That gum you like is going to come back in style.” This suggests that all of our experiences are important and are connected in a continuous stream of thinking. Even such innocuous sounding smalltalk is a signal for a mysterious and almost magical revelation.

The lines between Cooper’s dream and his so-called waking life become even more blurred after he is nearly killed in the line of duty at the end of the first season. After being wounded, he is lying on the floor and is visited by a giant who gives him even more clues regarding the case. Just like the earlier dream, the giant speaks in oddly cryptic and confusing messages that will only make sense later; further along down the stream of thinking. The giant even appears again to inform Cooper that the murderer has struck again. Are we to simply assume that these dreams and visions Cooper experiences are mere hallucinations? No, they are just as “real” and meaningful as any other experiences. In fact, Deputy Hawk even tells Cooper, “You are on the path. You don’t need to know where it leads. Just follow.” These words seem to echo the very idea of James’ sciousness; allowing one’s self to be open and engulfed in the stream of experience.

These dreams and visions that Cooper has also seem closely related to James’ descriptions of religious and mystical experiences. James claims that religious experiences have four characteristics: ineffability, which defies expression; a noetic quality, which implies a sense of intellectual value and authority; transiency, meaning they are fleeting; and passivity, which means they cannot be forced or occur without volition. Given this description, it seems reasonable to consider Cooper’s dream a form of mystical, religious experience; it is seemingly ineffable, yet contains a wealth of information and knowledge. Having such a mystical experience is one thing, but being open to its true meaning and willing to accept it is often hard to do. There is a prejudice against that which is not “real” or demonstrable as such, which often excludes dreams or premonitions. However, the continuous blurring of distinctions is beneficial to our understanding of the world. As James says, “It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”[1] Rather than simply being “weird of the sake of weird,” Twin Peaks is in some sense exploring of these “different” forms of consciousness.

Even as the television show progresses and features other-worldly forces and spiritual beings involved in the murder of Laura Palmer, there is always a sense that these events are real, not merely dreams or hallucinations. There is a sense of the tangible nature of evil and spirits that permeates the events of Twin Peaks, which seems related to the pre-reflective awareness, of which James urges to be mindful; there is no reason for us to draw hard and fast distinctions between the “real” world and the ineffable nature of experiences, so we must be willing to accept what experiences we do have. For example, when it is revealed [SPOILER ALERT FOR A 24 YEAR OLD TV SHOW] that Laura Palmer was killed by her father, Leland, an evil force known as BOB had apparently taken over control of Leland Palmer’s body in order to kill Laura. Sheriff Truman is obviously skeptical about whether or not BOB is “real.” Seeing that the sheriff is unable to accept the supernatural aspect of Laura’s death, Cooper asks him bluntly, “Is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?” The magical, spiritual, and the inexplicable are often more preferable answers to the darkness of the “real” world.

Whether there are intended connections between them or not, Twin Peaks and James’s work complement each other. The narrative and aesthetic elements of the show seem to mimic the sort of “pure” experience James writes about, and the collusion of dreams and waking life depicted in Twin Peaks is much more than the fodder for a television show; it is a demonstration of just the sort of “pure” experience that James’ work is attempting to grasp. It might sound like a bold claim, but Twin Peaks in some ways is a show about learning to see the world in different ways, which helps explain its enduring appeal. It’s is a place where the seemingly ordinary takes on new meaning, “and there’s always music in the air.”

[1] William James. “From The Variety of Religious Experience.” William James: The Essential Writings. Ed. Bruce Wilshire. (Albany, NY:SUNY Press, 1984). 246.

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Paul R Jaissle is a philosophy professor, collage artist, and musician who writes about film and comic book theory and blogs for He earned his MA in philosophy and art from Stony Brook University, and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow him at and @ohhipaulie on Twitter.

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Also by Paul Jaissle:

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