An Exhortation to Silence: Comparing Mulholland Drive to The Blind Owl

David lynch’s film Mulholland Drive and Sadegh Hedayat’s novel The Blind Owl are essentially the same story. It is the tale of a person whose suffering from the infidelities of their partner lead to near-madness and ultimately to murder. In both film and novel dream and reality are juxtaposed and confused. In both, mysterious shadow characters threaten to erase the invisible demarcation between dream and reality by slipping through it like insects through unseen perforations in a wall, producing disorientation at first and then revealing both as they are through the stark contrast of one against the other. In both film and novel art and artifice are secondary themes that echo and emphasize the primary theme. And both so effectively tell the story of a sickness so unbearable that the viewer/reader feels infected somehow and thereafter might be inclined to question their own relationship to the dream/reality dyad. Both are so beautifully and intricately constructed that they demand many readings and viewings. Indeed I think this is a book and a film that can change a person’s life in the sense that after careful consideration of the white-hot point of lucidity that each is constructed to take the reader/viewer, one is in a better position to observe extremes of mental life, to note psychic travels among levels of consciousness. Art, when it works, exercises powers of observation. Here is a book and a film that can help you observe your own mind.

There are of course many differences in terms of story between the two: in TBO the protagonist is a man; in MD it’s a woman. In TBO he is an unreliable narrator and madness is a distinct possibility. We are never certain of his wife’s infidelities. They could be a paranoid fantasy although there is no compelling reason to believe that they are. In MD all is revealed in the end. Betty/Diane’s fantasies are explained by the situation that emerges. The protagonist of TBO does not commit suicide, as the one in MD does, but his whole state of being at the end of the novel is the same as Betty/Diane’s: it is an utter collapse into sickness. There is no character like the cowboy in TBO. Indeed there are no puns or humor whatsoever in TBO, it is horrifying through and through. On the other hand, as far as I can tell there are no collage elements in MD, while several passages have been lifted straight out of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and pasted into TBO. The uncanny feeling that every man in TBO is the same man has no exact counterpart in MD, although in some sense Hollywood actresses are portrayed as interchangeable. One could go on listing differences. But they don’t alter the basic narrative structure common to both. The most significant difference might be that in TBO we never experience the “whore of a wife” apart from the protagonist’s point of view. But even if all of his thoughts about her are paranoid delusions, the pain he feels is just as real as Betty/Diane’s. It is the pain that both protagonists share that is most significant. His possible madness may not be an exact reflection of Betty/Diane’s torment, but then could we not say that Betty/Diane has become mad? In the end the circularity of TBO might be stronger than that of MD but one is equally enticed to revisit both works.

Although the secondary theme of art is developed more fully in Mulholland Drive, it is worth comparing the Club Silencio scene to the hearse passage in The Blind Owl. Both scenes take place within a dream or fantasy. They both involve shadow figures that escort the dreamer on a journey. They both involve art as a secondary theme that echoes the function of the dream. And both include a vision of death. In the film we have Rita waking up in Betty/Diane’s dream to announce silence. In the novel we have the narrator falling, in his dream, into a deathlike sleep. In the former, reality is threatening to intrude on the dream. In the latter the unbearable weight of reality must be addressed. Both figures demand silence. In Mulholland Drive reality (we learn later that Betty/Diane has hired an assassin to kill Rita/Camilla) must be distorted and exhorted to silence by the dream-fantasy of Club Silencio so that Betty/Diane can try and live with an assuaged conscience. Betty/Diane, who can’t stare death in the face, is trying to deal with her guilt by disguising death in performance (the singer who inexplicably drops dead and must be carried off). It is, of course, a losing battle. The dream-performance, we are told repeatedly, is all pre-recorded, it’s not real. In the end dreams lose their potency and the horror of reality rushes in. The narrative structure of The Blind Owl shows us early that a murder has taken place. The terrible weight of the murder exhorts the narrator, in his dream, to silence his free conscience—his very life—by making him stare into the eyes of death and lay himself in depressions meant for a coffin.

A note on acting in Mulholland Drive:
David Lynch’s art is an art of extremes: modes of perception are brought into shocking contrast against each other. We see such a contrast in Mulholland Drive in two modes of acting: one which might be described as wooden, clichéd or cartoonish and the other naturalistic. The former exists as a clue that there is something false about the world we are seeing and the latter brings us into contact with the real. I can’t think of greater demands placed on any actor than the ones asked of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive or Cheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me. Both are asked to be sensitive to the two realms of perception, at times to strike a balance between them or, in the case of Lee to be caught in the crossfire of the two (re the scene in which she laughs and cries simultaneously). It is the brilliance of Betty’s acting in the audition scene—its incredible naturalness—that blows everyone away. Some of the characters in this scene are naturalistic and others are like human props. The suggestion seems to be that in any social situation in life some people are in contact with reality while others are human masks, hiding from others if not from themselves. At the end of Mulholland Drive two of these props becomes objects of horror.

A note on the English translations of The Blind Owl:
At present there are two English translations widely available: the one by D. P. Costello in print since the 1950’s and published in the United States by Grove Press and one by Naveed Noori published in 2011 by l’Aleph. Simply as a reader I must report that both versions give me a potent sense of malaise—which clearly was the author’s intention. However, in the Preface to the l’Aleph version Noori makes a compelling case for the need of a new version, the principle argument being that Costello most likely did not use the most authoritative manuscript—handwritten by Hedayat—for his version. Noori also discusses two approaches to translation, domestication and foreignization. The former aims primarily for fluency. The text so conforms to the target language that it is said to be “domesticated”. He argues that Costello’s version domesticates The Blind Owl. Noori aimed for Foreignization, where

an effort is made to preserve the source language and culture by use of language or techniques that may be unfamiliar to the reader…. the reader travels to a foreign land to experience the work.

The argument sounds compelling. Who would want to support “domesticating” a foreign text? And yet how would something like “foreignization” be possible? I am suspicious of the creative license it seems to grant the translator who, it seems to me, should try to get their person out of the way of the text as much as possible. At times foreignization requires leaving a term untranslated and adding an explanatory note. This is indeed what Costello and Noori both did numerous times. Some of the examples of Noori’s own foreignization aren’t convincing. He cites Hedayat’s phrase, “hameye mardom be biroone shahr hojoom avorde boodand.” Costello domesticates it as: “Everyone had gone out to the country.” But Hedayat is being sarcastic, Noori tells us. “Hojoom avordan” has a military implication and in a foreignizing mode Noori translates the phrase as, “The entire populace had swooped down upon the countryside.” I find this choice puzzling. It seems to me “swooped down upon” has more of an ornithological than military ring to it. Why not say, “invaded”, “tore into” or “marched upon”? Besides, Noori doesn’t explain why or how a military suggestion is in keeping with sarcasm. But Costello’s version does at least suggest that everyone is doing something that he, the narrator, is not doing, and so the narrator sets himself apart. “Swooped down upon” sounds unusual, but does the unusual in itself constitute foreignization?

I have other questions about Noori’s decisions. Hedayat, in the handwritten text, had set the longest section of the novel within quotation marks. As the previous section indicates, the following long passage is written by the narrator. According to Noori, this “signif[ies] a narrative within the narrative” and Costello does not reflect that fact. In reading Costello’s version I had no trouble following the fact that the long section is written by the narrator. Besides, this is but one “narrative within a narrative”. The Blind Owl is nothing but stories within stories, all reflecting each other. A confusion of fantasy and reality is the core of the novel. Even so, Noori is right, the translation should set the section off in quotation marks. But Noori doesn’t do that either. He sets the whole section off in italics. That certainly draws attention to it but it also has the undesirable effect of placing the majority of the novel’s text in italics. Elsewhere Noori remained faithful to Hedayat’s unusual punctuation. Whether because Costello lacked access to Hedayat’s handwritten text or because he did it in the name of fluency, the odd punctuation (loads of dashes and commas) does not appear in his version. As a reader I don’t miss the weird punctuation, and I disagree with Noori, the punctuation does not add to the agitation of the text. But Noori is certainly justified in preserving it, even given the possibility that Hedayat himself might have modified it in a further draft.

In the end I can’t see any compelling reason to choose one of these translations over the other. Comparing them just reminds me all over again that translating a book is probably impossible.


Read my essay on Lynch’s Eraserhead


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7 Responses to An Exhortation to Silence: Comparing Mulholland Drive to The Blind Owl

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Looks like it’s time to watch Mulholland Drive again. Lynch is a master of the uncanny intermingling the ordinary and the strange. I enjoyed your analysis of the two translations very much. Reminds me of reading Antunes’ book The Return of the Caravels. Part of the issue with the translation of the Antunes, per Pye, went to an aspect of foreignization (new term to me, so I may be misapplying it): “An odd selection of ordinary Portuguese words goes untranslated — for lobster, clothespin, buffalo. And a selection of odd words goes unexplained. Does everyone else know that a vernier has to do with an astronomical instrument? That an aptha is a cold sore? There’s an impossible pun when congers (as in conger eels) pluck ”sardine flowers from balconies with their teeth,’ since ‘sardine flowers” could have to do with fishing for sardines; but English speakers might not guess that sardinheiras da varanda are less surreal than they seem. They can only be balcony geraniums.”

    • Half of that wordplay eludes me, but for some reason it makes me think of a question: Can’t we, as readers, desire certain characteristics of a translator? I don’t want a clever translator. As much as possible I don’t want to know anything about the personality of the translator. I want the translator to get the hell out of the way. I think “foreignization vs domestication”, as Noori describes it, is a false opposition. Obviously a good translator should know as much as possible about BOTH countries and languages she is working with.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Great questions, and I generally agree–and then I think of Anne Carson. I don’t know how, exactly, I would characterize her other than to say that often, when I read one of her translations, my sense is of Carson in dialogue with the text she is translating–she is very much present. An Oresteia, for example. (Antigonick I’d put in another category–perhaps a meditation on the art of translation rather than a translation itself.)

        • I was referring to regular translators, not superheroes. I see her translations almost like an extension of her poetry, and her poetic genius is such that, in my eyes, she can do no wrong. But I can’t think of any other translator I feel this way about (just becoming acquainted with Ashbery’s).

          • Susan Scheid says:

            Yes, that’s it: she’s in a category all her own. Ashbery does seem to be a wonderful translator, though I’ve read only the Rimbaud and a little Martory.

  2. angela says:

    Need to rewatch Mulholland as it leaves no distinct thought and I know that is a fault to not watching closely. The Blind Owl sounds intriguing, but what I find more fascinating is your rumination (and Susan’s) on translation. I recently attended a lecture series from a professor who spent years in India studying Sanskrit so he could eventually work on his own translations of the ancient Hindi text. My takeaway from him – unless you learn the language and the history, any translation will be bent with the bias of that person. Of course, this shall be more applicable with philosophical text, but I’ve seen enough comparisons in poetry to believe this true for most genres.

    • I think bias in any endeavor, not just translation, is impossible to avoid. It’s important to try and be aware of one’s biases as much as possible.

      I highly recommend ‘The Blind Owl’. Structurally, it’s one of the most perfect and beautiful novels I know–the way everything in it moves in circles within a giant circle–it keeps you coming back to reread. And it’s only about 100 pages long.

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