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Countdown to 'Lost': What do Richard Alpert and The Joker have in common? No, it isn't eyeliner...

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Richard-Alpert

Image Credit: Mario Perez/ABCTonight, Lost fans get an episode that’s been a looooong time coming. At last: Richard Alpert’s backstory. I have so many questions that I doubt a single episode can answer all of them. But a few? I’m hopeful. Will we learn what The Black Rock really means to him? Will we understand why Smokey said, “It’s good to see you out of those chains”? Will we get the moment when Jacob gave him his “gift” of agelessness? Will we learn why he functions as an advisor/consigliere to Other leaders but won’t/can’t assume the mantle of leadership himself? Did Jacob really keep Richard in the dark about this “candidate” business? Did Richard really witness the death of the time-traveling castaways back in Dharma times as he told Sun? I also wonder about this: How does Richard Alpert feel about Benjamin Linus these days? When you stop and think about it, they haven’t really had time to process their relationship since Ben returned to The Island. Before then, they last saw each other right before Ben turned the frozen donkey wheel and vanished from The Island. Their interaction at that time — the finale of season 4 — was downright frosty. You might recall Richard had wanted Ben ousted and replaced with Locke as leader of The Others. You might also recall Ben’s claim to Locke that whoever turned the donkey wheel had to leave The Island for good. Ever since then — and especially after last season’s intrigue surrounding previous Other leaders Charles Widmore and Eloise Hawking — I’ve wondered if ex-leaders of The Others are required to leave The Island… or else. If Richard is tasked with grooming new leaders, might he also be tasked with showing old ones the door? So I therefore wonder if Richard might have a problem with Ben being back. I also wonder if Richard might hold Ben personally responsible for unleashing The Man In Black, a being that clearly terrifies the ageless enigma. Perhaps tonight they’ll try to hug that s—t out. Perhaps they’ll duke it out. Or perhaps… I’m over-thinking all of this, as usual.

The episode is entitled “Ab Aeterno.” It’s Latin: “Since the beginning of time.” With a title like that, we might be tempted to think that Lost is going to turn back the pages and explain the entire backstory of The Island. In “Lighthouse,” Hurley wondered if the Adam and Eve skeletons in the caves belonged to castaways that had traveled back in time and died in the past. Maybe we’ll see eternal Richard witness the arrival of those quantum-leaping castaways in The Island’s past, thus planting the seeds of the present drama… which would mean that we’ve been watching the entire backstory of The Island for the past five seasons! Lost is a story of retroactive creation. It is “The Great Smokey Dragon” of John Archibald Wheeler! It is a snake eating its tail—the ouroboros broach of Ms. Hawking! It’s the bootstrap paradox of John Locke’s time-traveling compass! Lost: where present drama leads to a future event that gives birth to the past. A thousand Dharma dollars if you understand what I just said.

Richard Alpert’s name itself could be seen as a clue pointing toward a self-creation theory of Lost. The character shares a name with a former associate of Timothy Leary whose given name was Richard Alpert, but who rechristened himself Ram Dass (“servant of God”) after a transforming, life-changing spiritual journey through India. Richard-Ram wrote a book back in 1972 entitled Remember, Be Here Now that, according to Wikipedia, presents the view that “everyone is a manifestation of God and that every moment is of infinite significance.” The idea of a divine spark dwelling within all of us is encoded in the Hindi (and Dharma Initiative) salutation “Namaste.” The idea of an eternal/immortal spirit living within human beings is also expressed in the theological/philosophical/psychological concept of “immanent perception,” the idea that when we look at ourselves, figuratively and literally, we like to think that we actually see an inner “self” — a person; a soul; something real and immortal. “Immanent perception” is a pretty crucial idea for us to consider here in this season of mirrors, where all the characters in the Sideways world have been given conspicuous opportunities to look at themselves in a reflective surface and ruminate on what they see. And what do they see? Do they see themselves as they really are? Do they see good? Evil? Hero or villain? (As I’ve noted before: “Namaste” is also an anagram for “Me Satan.”) Of course, more rational minds consider “immanent perception” to be something like self-deception—a projection of significance upon our own person intended to shield us from a terrifying truth that has the potential to squash us; a lie that insulates us from a harsh reality that all of us must face. To paraphrase our mutual friend Desmond Hume: “No matter what we do… we’re all gonna die, my bruthuhs!” Yeeeee-ha! Welcome to this week’s feel-good edition of Countdown To Lost!

Richard Alpert — the Eyeliner Enigma, not Ram Dass — certainly touches upon some of the aforementioned themes. His supernatural longevity embodies a denial of death. More recently in Lost, Alpert has played the part of shaken faith. When we last left him, he had joined Ilana’s protective custody following a dark night of the soul inside The Black Rock. The death of Jacob — and the unleashing of The Man In Black — had profoundly rattled him. He told Jack that the only thing that gave his unending life meaning was the promise of a purpose, the promise of a meaning that had not yet been revealed to him. His plight reminded me of a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, one that perhaps more frustrated members of the Lost audience might find rather ironic:

What we once thought we had we didn’t

And what we have now will never be that way again

So we call upon the author to explain!

(For anyone bothered by the seemingly dull and insignificant Sideways stories, here’s another verse for you: “He said ‘Everything is messed up around here, everything is banal and jejune/There is a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me in this idiot constituency of the moon’/Well, he knew exactly who to blame/And we call upon the author to explain!”)

As it happens, there’s a book that made a conspicuous appearance earlier this year that pretty specifically speaks to Richard Alpert and the current direction of the season. In the season premiere of Lost, Hurley stumbled upon the remains of Smokey-slain Montand, one of the Frenchies that came to The Island with Rousseau and her ill-fated science friends. Examining the one-armed remains, the former Dharma master chef found a copy of Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Kierkegaard was a strange fellow who often expressed his philosophy through peculiar narratives written in the guise of fictional personas. Fear and Trembling, for example, is credited to Johannes de Silentio, or “John the Silent.” As the season began, the only “Silent John” on the show was dead John Locke on the beach. Locke’s death upset many fans, and his awful demise left so many of us wondering: Why? Why did Lost do that to him? Was his life entirely meaningless? Was he a big dupe of The Island? We might note that in the season premiere, Sawyer and the castaways were asking the same question of Juliet’s death; her heroic sacrifice seemed to be all for naught. We should also note that in “Dr. Linus,” Ilana and Richard found themselves asking similar questions.

Here’s where things get interesting with Mr. Kierkegaard in the hizzy.

The title Fear and Trembling is a Bible reference. It comes from Philippians 2:12-13. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The verse reminds me of John Locke’s stubborn belief that The Island was a redemptive, meaningful force in the lives of the castaways. (At least, “stubborn” until the moment Ben strangled him to death, leaving him clouded with misunderstanding. Remember that phrase; we’re coming back to it.)  The verse — which belongs to a larger passage that forms the basis of the Christian take on “immanent perception,” i.e. that God became incarnate in man (that would be Jesus) and sacrificed his life for the world — reads like an exhortation from a departed God (or more specific to the scripture, the departed teacher/leader, Paul) to the faithful he’s left behind. Very Jacob-lonely Richard and Ilana. Fear and Trembling is filled with passages that are loud and brassy with Lost resonance — and I’m not even going to talk about the introduction, in which the storyteller defensively announces that his difficult, demanding story is likely to go unappreciated by critics and masses who prefer easy-to-read entertainments. (Uh-oh.) Here are three passages that struck me as particularly Losty and Alpertesque:

FUN WITH HUMAN SACRIFICE!

Fear and Trembling begins with a fictional, nameless character struggling with the implications of one of The Bible’s most challenging stories. This would be “The Binding of Isaac,” in which God instructs Abraham to kill his son Isaac (the future father of Jacob) as a sacrifice or test of faith. Abraham is heartbroken by the request, but follows through, right up to the point where he’s about to drive a knife into Isaac’s heart. At that moment, God says “Whoa! Stop! You’ve proven yourself!” He then gives Abraham something else — a substitute — to sacrificially slaughter instead of his boy: a ram. Kierkegaard’s anonymous hero imagines four different ways in which “The Binding of Isaac” could have ended differently, though all of them share the same theme: either Abraham or Isaac walk away despairing, cynical, or faithless. In other words, the total opposite of what God wanted to accomplish with his extraordinary demand. The anonymous hero — who appears to be struggling with his faith — finds himself ashamed of his weakness in the face of lesser challenges. Curiously, he also seems to be ashamed that he even allowed himself to consider his four scenarios; indeed, a major theme of Kierkegaard’s book is modern man’s faithlessness about faith itself and push to “go further,” i.e. make it more “reasonable” and “logical.”

APPLICATION TO LOST: I’m suddenly recalling that phantom boy with the bloody hands in “The Substitute” and mulling dark, Abraham-Isaac possibilities. Looking toward Lost’s past, “The Binding of Isaac” was the thematic centerpiece of the season 3 Desmond episode “Catch-22.” This was the episode in which Desmond was tempted to let Charlie die in hopes that it would fulfill his vision of Penelope coming to The Island. Desmond couldn’t make the sacrifice — and instead, he brought The Freighter to The Island. Two episodes later, another character was asked to kill someone else to prove his faith: John Locke. In a reversal of “The Binding of Isaac,” Locke the Son was ordered to stab his bad father, Anthony Cooper, to prove himself worthy of leading The Others. Benjamin Linus forced the issue; he wanted Locke to fail. But the person who really wanted Locke to make the killing? Richard Alpert. The mysterious Other told Locke that he and many more had lost faith in Ben’s leadership and wanted him out. After Locke refused, it was Alpert who pointed the way to a loophole, supplying intel to Locke that Sawyer had a vendetta against Cooper and could do the killing for him.

IS RICHARD ALPERT REALLY A MERMAN?

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard/John The Silent offers a retelling of a Scandinavian folk ballad known as Agnete and the Merman. The original version of the story: An adventurous young maiden walks along the seashore and is tempted to follow a very handsome “merman” to his undersea kingdom. They marry, but she becomes trapped. One day, she hears church bells. She asks the merman to let her go to church. He agrees, and so she goes and always comes back… until one day, she doesn’t. The story is widely interpreted as an allegory for redemption. The maiden is The Innocent, tempted by worldly or mystical knowledge; The Innocent gets sucked into the depths; The Innocent finds freedom by re-embracing faith and virtue… and by a little bit of trickery. Kierkegaard’s version deliberately flips the story on its head. The Maiden/Innocent is seemingly seduced by the Merman — but in the end, it is she who seduces him, and more, redeems him and transforms him by remaining true to herself and her innocence. But Kierkegaard ends his story ambiguously. The Maiden/Innocent leaves the Merman, but when she does, the Merman begins to regress back to his old ways and anger. We are left to wonder if he will embrace the memory and change wrought by The Maiden/Mermaid, even though she is no longer with him. Very Philippians Chapter 2.

APPLICATION TO LOST: In his first major Lost storyline, Richard Alpert played the role of Merman, or at least, ambassador to the real merman, Ben. His maiden? Juliet. In the episodes “Not In Portland” and “One of Us,” Richard comes to Juliet and entices her come to The Island (a proverbial undersea kingdom; after all, you only get there by sub) by offering her the promise of adventure and knowledge. After Juliet finds herself bewildered by her own willingness to accept his offer, Richard says, “I think you’re fine because deep down a part of you knows that the place we’re taking you to is special. … I can’t tell you [where The Island is.] But what I can tell you is that you’ll see things there that you never imagined.” Juliet and Richard conform to the original telling of Agnete and the Merman (or at least just the set-up), but Juliet and Sawyer conform to the Kierkegaard version. Sawyer became the Merman, tempting Maiden Juliet to be with him in his underwater kingdom, The Dharma Past. She does, and her love redeemed him. But when she left him, Sawyer slid back to his angry, volatile ways — until, it seemed, last week, when it appeared he re-committed to working out his redemption by vowing to get Kate, Jin, and Sun off The Island.

THE BLACK ROCK OF MEANINGLESSNESS

Perhaps Fear and Trembling’s most famous and beautifully-written passage is the one that the book excerpts on its front cover. “If there were no eternal consciousness in man, if at the bottom of everything there was only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” But the passage gets even better — and most Lost-y — as it continues, filled with “You All Everybody,” “Live together, die alone” and Smokey subtext: “If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind… if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or a wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches — how empty and devoid of comfort life would be! But for that reason it is not so, and as God created man and woman, so too He has shaped the hero and the poet or speech-maker.”

APPLICATION TO LOST: I hear those words and I think of Jack’s past faithlessness in Island destiny. But more than anything, I think of Fake Locke in Jacob’s cave, raging against Jacob’s game-playing and insisting that The Island has no special significance. “It’s just a damn island!” I think Kierkegaard is saying a couple things here. First, he’s saying: “Life would suck if the material world lacked spirit, if bodies lacked soul.” And while it’s not the explicit focus of this passage, I think he’s also saying: “Even if there is spirit that gives meaning to everything, it’s not always easy to see it, and in fact, it’s pretty easy to doubt it.” Basically: it’s easy to feel… lost, even we are intrinsically “found.” I think he’s saying this is why we need heroes: to reveal and/or affirm truth and meaning. And I think he’s saying this is why we need storytellers: to correctly see, record, interpret, and evangelize truth and meaning. Put another way, using a term so often associated with Lost: Kierkegaard is saying that what we need is a profound sense of mythology.

Now, I want to be clear about something: I don’t think Lost is promoting a specific religion or philosophy. I could be wrong, and sometimes I think I am; for example, lately, I’ve been wondering if Lost is actually Gnosticism disguised as agnosticism. Still, I think what Lost is really exploring is the idea of false heroes/gods/messiahs. Lost seems to be saying that yes, we need to believe in something, and yes, there’s sufficient reason to believe that there is something like Meaning and Truth out there for us to believe in. But at a time when all of our traditional sources for meaning (religion, government, family structures, scientific theory) are either broken or in flux, in what or in whom do we trust? And because of this profound state of confusion, are we at risk of putting our faith in the wrong thing or wrong person when we find ourselves in crisis and desperately needing leadership and salvation? I think this is the meaning behind John Locke’s transformation into False Locke. Original Locke was the embodiment of desperate searching, of reckless yearning for meaning and significance. Fake Locke is all anger and self-righteousness, an entity that seems to be a product of sadness, damage, broken promises and outright betrayal, and he wants escape… and maybe even wreak vengeance. Once, I called John Locke the embodiment of what Kierkegaard called in another book “the knight of the faith.” Fake Locke is what I would call The Dark Knight of Faith—and as The Dark Knight taught us, there’s a pretty fine line between vigilante heroes and assorted Jokers and Two-Faces. And it makes me wonder: All season long, Fake Locke has been insisting he isn’t really John Locke. But what if the real long con of season 6 is that he really is John Locke–and man, is he pissed!

Regardless, consider this: What if The Island is the staging area for the creation and recreation of personal and global mythology; the place where souls are recycled and remade; where the “spirit of the age” is renewed and reinvented over and over again? The substance of the next generation’s world soul is manufactured out of the souls of the previous generation. That’s basically a florid way of rephrasing the question: “What kind of world are we leaving for our children?” The Island, then, is a myth-making machine, and it spins new cloth of meaning out of the spiritual material of castaway lives. I think, though, that there is either something wrong with the machine, or something is wrong with the spiritual material, or both. My new theory is this: After years of investigating and testing castaway lives, The Island chose John Locke, for better or worse, to become the embodiment of the new “world soul.” Unfortunately, John Locke has turned out for the worse — a three-headed demon dog of fire and brimstone, born out of The Black Thing of A Wrinkle In Time, a terrifying, hateful Lancelot, possibly a rabid, world-destroying General Woundwort of Watership Down. And if he should get off The Island and bond with the world, Lord have mercy on us all. Fear and trembling indeed.

I’ll have more to say about all of this on Friday in my Doc Jensen column… unless I have more to say about it tomorrow in my recap of Ab Aeterno, should any of these themes legitimately manifest in the episode. I promise you a more focused recap of the episode than last week’s flabby, sprawling, theory-filled thing, though hopefully with the same quality of entertaining crazy. Speaking of which: Please check out the new installment of “Totally Lost” with special guest Rebecca Mader. Not only will you get a discussion of  “Recon,” but you’ll also see yet another chapter in a story that I like to call What Happens When Dan Psuedo-Dates Lost Actresses. You’ll see what I mean…

Be seeing you!

Doc Jensen