Ecstatic Terror, Transgression and the Outside : An Exploration of The Lighthouse (2019)
“You know how you eat grass with no teeth? You rip it out and you swallow it”
“Something immense, exorbitant, is liberated in every sense with a noise of catastrophe; this surges from an unreal, infinite void, at the same time that it is lost there, in a shock with a blinding flash”
Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, page 77
The Lighthouse is a 2019 psychological horror film produced by A24, directed by Robert Eggers, and shot by Jarin Blaschke. The surface-level plot is quite simple, centering on two protagonists (played by actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) working as lighthouse keepers on a remote and deserted New England island in the 1890s. As the narrative progresses, the character dynamics between young (Pattinson, also known as Ephraim Winslow or Tommy) and old (Dafoe, also known as Wake or Thomas) entangle and mystify.
Wake continually gaslights Tommy by distorting his belief and perception. In common delirium found in the film, Wake tells Tommy that he is most likely a figment of his imagination, as well as the rock they find themselves on. He asks him to help recall the time they’ve been on the rock as well as the identity of the two. He induces a borderline schizophrenic delirium found in not only Tommy but also Wake, creating one large mess. This madness is an acceleration, to a point at which desire and thought operate parallelly and simultaneously in major careless contradiction.
At the beginning of the film, we see Wake making many demands for Tom. He demands that the young man take care of all the tasks on the island, that he wipe up the place cleaner than a “sperm whales pecker”, and that Tommy enjoy it himself. Most importantly, Wake demands that Tom do not contradict him. The old man places himself in authority in an Oedipal narrative and demands for no contradiction, a clear and structured suppressive psychoanalytic model. As the story unfolds, the two men’s original identities are revealed, as well as fold onto each other and intertwine. They are revealed to both be liars, making us wonder if they are even two separate men. The question of perspective and identity is extremely relevant as the plot progresses.
The moment of realization of such a possibility, an imaginary character, comes after Tom confesses to Wake of the series of events that led to him adopting the name “Ephraim Winslow”:
“And I had ‘im handy and helpless. Alone. Too far downstream. And I wanted to do ‘im in. I admit I did. Seein’ the back of his head. One swipe of the cant hook’d be all. It was… I didn’t… but I didn’t… I did not. The day was long as hell on that drive. I was lead-tired. I admit it. But I saw him slippin’, not me. And we saw the jam comin’. And I stood and he slipped. He shouted up. And I just stood. “Tom, you dog!” And I stood, is all. Just stood and watched ‘im git swallowed down by them logs. All I thought when he was done is, “I could use me a smoke.” That’s it. So, I packed up his kit and fixins, as if they was mine. And, well, Ephraim Winslow has a spiffy clean slate. Thomas Howard, he don’t. No prospects. How else am I gonna find respectable work?”
It is particularly weird to watch Wake repeatedly tell Tommy not to confess TO HIM, and even afterward only respond with the simple, distant, echoing, and haunting “why’d y’spill yer beans Tommy”. Wake physically is nowhere to be found during this scene, but rather his voice echoes in the hallways of the lighthouse. Soon after his confession, Tommy grabs who he thinks to be Wake, and instead finds himself, a doppelganger, pale, dead, wearing Wake’s coat. Thus it is also possible that Wake is an older version and representation of Tommy. We are soon met with the realization that Wake and Tommy both hold the same original name (Thomas) and both continually lie about their past sins. These past sins also hold a surprising resemblance, as it is suspected that Wake killed an old wickie that worked under him, or at least the body is found in the water by Tommy, who watched his companion get swallowed into the water to never be found again.
The Lighthouse could be a story of haunting representation fit in a horrific cyclic mess of time. Wake could be figured to be an unconscious projection of Tommy’s, as a figure of authority in his unconscious that demands him to work and restricts him of the light to be found at the summit of the lighthouse. Wake also takes different forms in the hallucinations presented as internal to Tommy. While beating him repeatedly, he sees Wake take the form of his old companion, of the desirable siren he dreams, and of a tentacle mutation. This mutation goes to show how Wake may not be an individual with a drive of his own but rather an embodiment in Tommy’s subconscious.
So if these two characters are caught in a psychic mess found in Tommy, who and what are they?
In a conversation the two characters have about their pasts, Wake declares that the light has been a better wife than “any alive blooded woman”. Not only is the light personified but also engendered as the object of his hetero and sexual desire. Sexuality, however, fluctuates erratically with highly homoerotic behavior displayed in the men as they drunkenly dance, fight, and nearly kiss.
Now it might be said that Wake attaches mystical values up onto the light, but this is shown to be false as he tells Tommy of the wickie that previously worked under him. Supposedly going mad, he began with quietude and soon began to rave of sirens. “In the end, no more sense left in him than a hen’s tooth. He believed there were some enchantment in the light.” Wake is shown to be a character edging on typical notions of sense, and Tommy is shown to maintain his sanity through his “god-fearing”. Obviously, said sanity does not last long, and the death of Tommy’s god is attached to his dynamic with Wake and the light. Tommy’s loss of “sense” as he begins to receive visions of sirens and the like signifies a turn towards what Georges Bataille calls “non-knowledge” in communication with the unthinkable.
Tommy’s story is one of an encounter with the “weird”. In his book The Weird and The Eerie, English writer Mark Fisher meditates on experiences and phenomena and how they can be described as “weird” or “eerie”. The weird implies an experience or encounter between a subject and an entity appearing as empirically monstrous or unthinkable. It is in fact by that nature not a matter of empirics in the slightest, but rather of the transcendental. It is an encounter with an “outside”. The light as well as the mermaid doll Tommy finds in his bed both capture the weird. The difference lies in Tommy’s subverting of the mermaid doll in taking it as his object, attaching and producing dream representation projected onto it as he masturbates with it in hand.
Tommy stands in the dark as rain pours in the roof and masturbates furiously. The carved mermaid doll is soon shown to not work for him, so he throws his head back and tries to imagine something or someone else. This doesn’t work either. He’s back to the mermaid doll and suddenly his thought is captured and he receives images of the mermaid he dreamt of earlier in the movie, this time he is fucking her. Her body a tentacle mess, her hands on his throat, a spinning, highly phallic image of the lighthouse tower itself, she drags him in the water, and Tommy (in the real) pictures his old companion drowning. He quickly finishes and falls to the ground and unleashes a horrific screech. His primal desire is quickly turned into shame, shame that can be attributed to the familial triangularization in his relation with Wake. This scene demonstrates the way in which such a psychoanalytic dynamic/model degrades and suppresses desire, encouraging self-loathing. This is also an encounter with the outside as Tommy is taken hold of by these dreams or delusions: he does not hold them as objects. This encounter with the outside coupled with the continual distortion and gaslighting he suffers by Wake results in a breakdown after orgasm, in a particularly Lovecraftian fashion.
The Lovecraftian motifs are made very clear with the film’s Gothic Aesthetics. The haunted, deserted, darkened spaces, shot in black and white, coupled with raging storms, a score to match this atmosphere, repression, nightmares, and hidden pasts found in our characters, create a profoundly gothic aesthetic. The prohibition of the light, as well as the sea birds, creates a highly Freudian and gothic sublimity in which the uncanny overpowers the ego. Freud, however, is left in the climax of the transgression of said prohibition, as the gothic subject is threatened with pure annihilation in the sublime, blurring the lines between human/inhuman as well as conscious/unconscious. This is not just simple “uncanniness” though, but rather that of abjection, in a meeting with the weird, the failure of recognition, and the holding of non-objects.
“Since they make the conscious/unconscious distinction irrelevant, borderline subjects and their speech constitute propitious ground for a sublimating discourse (“aesthetic” or “mystical” etc.) rather than a scientific or rationalist one.” (POH 7)
In her book Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva poses the question of where her notion of abjection leaves the subject in regards to “where am I?” and “who am I?”. Such a question is answered simply in the works of Georges Bataille: Nothing. No longer “a diviser of territories, languages, works” (POH 8), the “subject” knows nothing, the entire base of judgment and knowledge has been eradicated. Victims of this horror, however, are not willing and submissive ones, but rather fascinated ones.
Fascination also runs through the outside, akin to a form of Lacanian Jouissance. The weird can not be thought of as wrong, as its presence is fact, resulting in an expansion of the subject's perspective. “our conceptions are inadequate” (TWTE 15). The libidinal sublimation of morals is shown in Tommy’s dream encounter and fascination with the light as he can no longer classify either as positive or negative, now working simply in horrific fascination. It does in fact overwhelm Tommy, to the point of breakdown and eventually “psychosis” in his inner experience with the light, but it is also held as an object of fascination.
It is later revealed that Tommy saw the Mermaid doll as an object capturing the essence of the sea spell forbidding him from entering the light. He proclaims to Wake that he broke it in half and is now “free from yer’ designs!”. The question remains to be posed: Why did Tommy internalize an imaginary spell forbidding him from engaging in taboo. Why did he set up taboo for himself? A simple reformulation of said question into the study of ideology mirrors the one of Baruch Spinoza and Wilhem Reich presented by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?”(AO 38). It is an interesting phenomenon to watch mankind set up barriers for themselves. This behavior can be demonstrated in numerous ways and examples, but specific to The Lighthouse, Wake is the embodiment of a totalitarian figure of authority Tommy has projected, only for Tommy to transgress his taboo, declaring his freedom from the elder's designs.
“you ain’t the president, and you ain’t my father”
Tommy’s specific encounter with the light is a slightly different story. The light captures not only the essence of real externality but also of taboo, as Wake, the elder, forbids Tommy to enter. Tommy’s continual begging and anger enrages Wake, resulting in him casting a curse up onto him:
“to choke ye, engorging yer organs till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more… only when, he, crowned in cockle shells with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, takes up his fell, be-finnèd arm -– his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and runs you through the gullet, bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now — a nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea… for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea.”
This is clever foreshadowing of the inner experience that Tommy is bound to face as he transgresses the taboo of the light and enters. There is also more heavy foreshadowing as Tommy abandons Wakes elaborated repeated toast:
“Should pale death with treble dread make the ocean caves our bed, God who hear’st the surges roll, deign to save the suppliant soul.”
Tommy interrupts Wake’s toast late in the film and declares “to relief!” foreshadowing the utter overwhelm of relief he will face in transgression.
We learn early on that Wake has denied his Christian name of Thomas, demonstrating his forgetting of Christianity and religion and his turn towards the light. The nudity he displays can not be classified as obscene as it does not exist under Christian notion nor the dual relation between object and mind that produces it. The obscenity, the nudity, is to be found in the light of Tommy’s eyes, as it is a taboo, a limit imposed by Wake.
Man initiates the humanized world and distances himself from animality through taboo, through imposing limits on himself, through morality and the basis of judgment. Tommy, near the very end of the film, also de-creates Wake, who once stood as a figure of authority (distanced from animality, enforcing taboo/limit), into an animal. In one of the strangest and most out-of-place scenes of the movie, he demands Wake to bark and proceeds to lead him on a leash to his grave. It may seem like it, but it should not be said that Tommy is transformed here into a figure of authority, as he still remains in animality and a chasing of the limit. His killing of Wake was simply a part of his transgression, as Wake marked and enforced said “limits”.
But such a limit, such “respect” is what opens up the possibility of an eruption of transgression and violence within and at these very limits. Once a “limite license” is allowed, unlimited violence may break out. It founds a “human milieu”, something that animals know nothing of: “the transgression of the rule”(AS2 57). This human milieu is where an overflow of meaning emerges as the prohibition of the light only exacerbates the desire for transgression. Humans are born out of animality, they are born from the light. They soon limit themselves from this animality, they forbid themselves of the light as a privileged object of disgust. The shame that Tommy initially feels after masturbating is a shame of his transgression, or of his communication with the outside. “We are sorry we came from life, from meat, from a whole bloody mess”(AS2 63). As Tommy slays Wake in all his forms (figuratively and literally) and ascends to the top of the lighthouse, he witnesses the inside of the light in all its glory and lets out a wildly audibly distorted and visually disturbing scream.
This scream, this moment, is the climax of the movie. It is a festival, the cessation of work, of the industrial tasks he is forced to attend to and enjoy. A certain juxtaposition is also worth noting between these industrial tasks and the magical light of the top of the lighthouse that they produce for Wake to enjoy. It is a cessation of work as well as the expression and unrestrained consumption of excess, an excess that temporarily counteracts order in Tommy's scream. It is sacred, it does not hold “salvation” as the previous wickie hoped to believe, but rather a paradoxical combination of abhorrence and desire that closely conjoins and blurs life and death. Such a desire is made more meaningful through restriction and the overcoming of said restriction as the object (the light) was capable of inciting desire to the degree of transgression. This object did not solely present horror or danger. It was not an object that frightened Tommy away, but rather one that initiates anguish in major temptation. It is in fact an object characterized by excessive horror, but it also compels attraction, and this coupling is what provides inner experience at the limit of transgression. “Hypernaturalism — an expanded sense of what the material cosmos contains” (TWTE 18).
We are now returned to Wake's words foreshadowing Tommy’s turn (or return) to non-knowledge, or 0, as he is now no longer anything to any time, any god, any devil, or any man, swallowed up by the sacred dread of the infinite waters. This annihilationism provided by the light at the top of the rock they stay on is exemplary of inner experience and generally the philosophy of Georges Bataille.
The danger of the light (although not to be thought of as dissuading at all) places Tommy in front of a nauseating void:
“a void in the face of which our being is a plenum, threatened with losing its plenitude, both desiring and fearing to lose it” (AS2 101).
It alludes to a true desire for emptiness, not an ending, but rather the nothingness of death at the limit of limits, at the limit of life.
The lack of familiarity of the lighthouse, the “weirdness” or “outsideness” of the lighthouse, creates wildly, and more importantly, excessively unique joys rather than sad passions. Tommy’s gaze into the light demonstrates the role of horror in erotic activity. It is not worth attempting to classify it as noble or disgusting, but rather how “what we want is what uses up our strength and our resources and, if necessary, places our life in danger” (AS2 105). The justification of actions under classification is overturned by Tommy, making him a very Bataillean character. Tommy is sovereign, and his experience is horribly divine as he willingly faces loss and danger with no considerations. The object that Tommy once held is entirely lost as he faces the light. It is an orgy that turns to radically impersonal consciousless confusion.
“To face the impossible-exorbitant, indubitable- when nothing is possible any longer in my eyes to have an experience of the divine; it is analogous to torture” (IE 39)
Tommy completes the festivity of worthlessness, a dark abyss constellated with laughter. The god of despair runs through him as he feels the impossible to the point of horror. His self is annihilated (along with that of wake naturally), and all subject-object libidinal dynamics are dissolved in his scream of ecstatic terror and supplication.
“The extremity of the possible assumes laughter, ecstasy, terrified approach to death: assumes error, nausea, incessant agitation of the possible and of the impossible, and, in the end, however, shattered, by degrees, slowly wanted, the state of supplication, its absorption in despair” (IE 45).
Such “despair” is marked by the absence/removal of hope in Tommy, and thus of god, ground, and knowledge. These three, particularly and generally “knowledge” are marked and defined by their limits. The push, the limit experience, is the drive towards “non-knowledge”, or “non-sense”. Tommy’s desire for the lighthouse is not the same as the previous wickie, as he does not see or desire salvation in it, he does not desire happiness. The desire for happiness exists through suffering and a desire to escape said suffering, this escapement is thus a negation and exists artificially. Obedience to the taboo creates the denial of the contrary emotion, but its violation arouses it.
“The taboo is there to be violated” (ET 64).
Tommy dominates salvation as he engages in his very own tearing apart. Fear of extremity, or life in limits, places one in a dark cage. “Belief is […] but a prison” (FN 207). Non-knowledge is a communication of ecstasy as well as anguish. Such anguish is what leads to ecstasy, and such ecstasy is what leads to impersonality, or the loss of self: formless existence. Divinity must not be thought of as dignified, in limits, or in salvation, but rather in the utter void of the light. Tommy’s scream and lust is one of ecstasy, but not one of love. Love implies possession, possession that necessitates a subject-object dynamic, but in the “human milieu” that passes on inner experience, these notions are forgotten at the limit. “Distinctiveness” is no more, just as god is no more in this dynamic.
“The subject in experience is lost, loses itself in the object” (IE 66).
This ecstasy must arise from disequilibrium provided by the outside. Returning to one of Tommy’s early (in fact first) dreams, he witnesses mermaids and drowning, but it is made clear by his facial expression that he does not possess this dream. The representation found within it can not be personal and psychic as the expression on his face is of utter shock. The water of the ocean splits, and an eye is revealed, as Pattinson’s body is soon found to be moving closer and closer (in no voluntary direction). The eye is shown to be a body, and he wakes up after this encounter with the siren. The subject, Tommy, does not contain a will for ecstasy that he expresses by his own means (voluntarily). He experiences a sensation from the outside. It can not be one of metaphor as there is a drive dimension in the direction of a non-thing, of the unknowable, and thus it is an un-representational “hallucination of nothing”.
Time is unhinged, liberated from the permanence of forms or foreseen changes working through consideration, and god remains dead. Time only once signified the movement of objects in a human illusion of the real, and such a dynamic is liquified. This disequilibrium of ecstasy, this entropic force, this randomness, is also akin to the Freudian death drive, as death is the violent representation of the state in which the “non-subject” loses its “non-objects”.
TWTE: Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie, Repeater, 2017
AS2: Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty, Zone Books, 1993
IE: Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, State University of New York Press, 2014
ET: Georges Bataille, Eroticism, Penguin Classics, 2012
FN: Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, Urbanomic / Sequence Press, 2011
POH: Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1982
AO: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Volume 1, Penguin Classics, 2009