It's Doc Jensen's ''I'm Going to Hell for This'' theory of ''Lost'': Blame Nietzsche -- and Kierkegaard's mixed up in it too. The good Doc explains...

By Jeff Jensen
Updated April 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT


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‘Lost’ (S3): ”I’m Going to Hell for This” theory


In which Doc Jensen attempts to offer some juicy insight about tonight’s episode, ”Catch-22,” without spoiling an hour of television that deserves an audience of untainted, questioning minds.

So what can I say? What should I say?

Well, it’s a Desmond episode, and a very good one at that. And while the story lacks the mythic wallop of last week’s crucial Juliet installment, by the end you will understand why it is an important story for Lost to tell. Keep your eyes peeled for the Easter egg in one of the final scenes — it’ll throw you for a loop. And yes, I just gave you a clue. (Don’t worry if you miss it — I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow morning in the TV Watch recap.)

I can tell you a little bit more. In ”Catch-22,” you’ll bear witness to some sweaty sex on the beach, a shocking act of bloody violence, and a rousing debate between Hurley and Charlie about which superhero is faster: Superman or the Flash. The latter element captures the genius of ”Catch-22,” as you can choose to interpret this fanboy throwdown in one of two ways: an amusing exercise in Tarantino-esque pop-culture riffing, or a densely loaded clue. And because this is Doc Jensen you’re reading, I choose… both options! Let me explain:


”Catch 22” was written by Jeff Pinkner (co-author of the recent ”Locke’s Daddy is on the Island!” outing, ”The Man From Tallahassee”) and Brian K. Vaughan. If you don’t know Brian K. Vaughan, then allow me to introduce you to a very nice young man and an artist who can lay claim to being the finest comic-book writer of his generation. He’s also a living, breathing Lost clue.

First, there’s Runaways, Vaughan’s acclaimed comic book about kids who learn that their parents belong to a secret cabal of brutal supervillains. It shares with Lost the whole question of ”Do we inherit the sins of our fathers?” Then there’s Ex Machina, about a former superhero who becomes the mayor of New York; the comic’s intricate, thematically driven flashback structure is very Lost. And then, there’s Y: The Last Man, a major work of comic-book fiction. It’s about a wannabe stage magician with a pet monkey who wakes up one day to discover that every man in the world has been killed by a mysterious plague — except for him. As the last man on a planet full of women, the dude finds himself in the not-as-cool-as-it-sounds position of being the linchpin in the repopulation of the world. Y: The Last Man is about politics, ethics, social responsibility, and self-discovery. Factor in the whole plague business that threatens the survival of humanity (think: the Others and their babymaking problem), and you have a saga that exists in an interesting relationship to Lost.

One more thing about Y: The Last Man. The comic allegedly takes its title from an 1826 novel by Mary Shelley (that’s Frankenstein to you) considered to be a foundational cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, The Last Man. But even more intriguing — and to bring it back around to the whole Superman vs. Flash debate — is this: ”The Last Man” is also a key concept in the controversial philosophy of Señor Übermench himself, Friedrich Nietzsche.


My friend, it’s almost terrifying how well Nietzsche can be applied to Lost. Tomorrow, in my recap of ”Catch-22,” I’ll show you how the show embodies Nietzsche’s concept of ”Eternal Recurrence.” And in the coming weeks, I’ll explain how the Dharma Initiative was most likely trying to cultivate and harness the Nietzschian notion of ”the Will to Power” to save the world from apathy, malaise, and the influence of corrupt ideologies — attributes that define Nietzsche’s concept of ”The Last Man.” Yes, I do think Dharma really was trying to create a race of Supermen — but the Nietzsche kind of Superman, not the comic book kind of Superman. (All this time, I’ve been looking for an X-Men explanation for Lost, when instead, I should have been searching for Y: The Last Man.)

Lest you think I’m stretching, consider this. In 1887, Nietzsche published an unusual book of philosophy called The Gay Science. Now, The Gay Science (which has nothing to with being gay in the sexual identity sense of the word) is divided up into a series of very short maxims and mini-essays about various Big Ideas. Each of them is numbered. And when you take the Numbers from Lost and apply them to the numbers in The Gay Science, you get a whole host of extraordinary resonances.

Example: In Lost, 108 is the sum of the Numbers. To date, most Lost scholars have doted on the fact that the number is significant to a host of world religions and mystical traditions. But in The Gay Science, 108 is tied to one of the most infamous anti-religious passages in the history of philosophy:

”108: New struggles — After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave — a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”

When I first read that passage this past week, my Lost-stuffed mind almost exploded. Could ”tremendous, gruesome shadow” = The Monster? Could ”cave” = The Hatch? And when I recalled two of Ben’s cryptic lines from last year — that The Hatch was ”a joke” (Nietzsche thought God was a joke, too) and that ”God can’t see us here” — it made me wonder:

1. What exactly was Dharma trying to do on the Island?

2. Was Dharma trying to harness the psychic powers of this mysterious place to abolish the archetypal idea of God from the mass mind of mankind?

3. If so, did Dharma create (either inadvertently or intentionally) an idea of God that became manifest — a brutal, judgmental, Smokey mass mind that we know as the Monster? (After all: if you want to kill a God that doesn’t exist, you first have to create a God that you can kill.)

4. Is it possible that from the very beginning, Lost has been telegraphing this idea? I refer specifically to the scene in the pilot, when John Locke put that fruit peel in his mouth and flashed a creepy smile at Kate. The moment is a sly reference to Marlon Brando’s death scene in… The Godfather. And what was Don Corleone doing when he keeled over? Why, chasing his grandson around the garden, pretending to be a monster. (Brando’s filmography reads like a Lost theory unto itself. See: Apocalypse Now, Superman, and On The Waterfront.)

5. Finally, is the Assassination of God theory of Lost proven by Patchy, aka Mikhail Bakunin? As you may know, the real Mikhail Bakunin was a Russian philosopher known for advocating total anarchy. He has a famous quote, one that responds to the famous line by Voltaire: ”If God didn’t exist, it would have been necessary for man to invent him.” Bakunin’s retort: ”I reverse the phrase of Voltaire, and say that if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

Now: Why would Dharma be so hellbent on abolishing the idea of God from our minds? Well, John Lennon — Charlie’s hero — has an answer. In his song ”Imagine,” which I believe had a strong influence on the Initiative, Lennon asked people to imagine a world without a Heaven or any kind of religion. He believed such a world would be a better place — ”nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man.” (See: Charlie’s song, ”You All Everybody.”) Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermench or Overman espouses a similar view. To be clear, the German philosopher wasn’t thinking about super-powered superheroes when he spoke of Supermen. For Nietzsche, the Übermench was someone who had overcome the influence of society, mythology, and religion (and surely bad parents, too) and lived life according to his own values and principles. The term is ”self-actualization.” Nietzsche likened the creation of this ”Overman” to a musician who boldly sings his own original song. (This is why artists love Nietzsche. Then again, so did Hitler.)

Seen from this point of view, the opening sequence of season two is littered with clues pointing toward the culitvation of an Übermench. The Hatch is an object lesson in the anxiety of influence: a quarantined environment, immunization drugs, and a film that begs people not to use the computer for communication. There’s also the song: ”Make your own kind of music / make your own special song / make your own kind of music / even if they won’t sing along.” And then, there’s the number 108. Coincidence? I think not.

The point: It was Nietzsche’s belief that a necessary precondition for the rise of the Superman…was the elimination of the idea of God from the global culture.

Boy, am I going to get some interesting looks at church this week. But maybe this will help make up for it:


Tonight on Lost, a character by the name of Brother Campbell (read: Joseph Campbell, famed mythologist?) is going to tell Desmond about one of the most troubling stories of faith recorded in the Bible. Found in Genesis 22, it is the story of how God asked Abraham to offer up his son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice. Yep: God wanted this loyal servant to actually kill his kid in order to test his fidelity. Now this was something of a bitter pill for old Abe, since he and his wife had struggled for many years to conceive. But Abraham was a true believer and was prepared to do it. He took Isaac up the mountains (”Where we going, Dad?” ”Uhhh… hunting, son.”), bound him to a stone table (”What are you doing, Dad?” ”Uhh… nothing? Hey, look over there — chipmunks!”), pulled out a knife (”Um…Dad?” ”Whatsamatter, son — don’t you trust your old man?”), and then God said, ”Okay! Okay! You proved yourself! Now untie your boy and kill this ram instead. (Sheesh. Can you believe this guy? Takes me so literally.)” Talk about a miraculous deus ex machina ending. (By the way: you just might see one of those tonight on Lost, too.)

Now, given the issues of faith, trust, interpretation, sacrifice, duty, and life-shaping, soul-scarring father-son dynamics that swirl through Lost, the ”Binding of Isaac” can certainly be used as a torch to illuminate the show’s shadowy labyrinth of subtext. Or not. Who freakin’ knows with this damn show?! But I do know this: the story of Abraham and Isaac is often cited by philosophers in the ongoing debate over the goodness and even existence of God. To wit: What kind of divine dude would ask his followers to kill their own children?! In fact, this story and the profound questions that it begs were the focus of a famous work by another famous egghead, someone that I’ve long suspected of hiding in the head-trippy jungles of Lost like a certain Crazy French Lady with the deadly traps and famous philosopher name. The book is called Fear and Trembling, and the man in question is founding father of spiritual existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard.

Now, better minds than mine have noted the ironic similarities between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, or ”SK,” as his commentators like to abbreviate his name. Both believed in personal experience as an avenue to truth. (Nietzsche called this ”Perspectivism.” SK called this ”Subjectivism.”) And both men believed that that the main problem with people was that they were shackled like slaves to some bad ideas. However, Nietzsche believed that these burdensome bad ideas — these ”Black Rocks,” if you will — were religion, mythology, and mysticism. SK was no fan of churches, either — but he loved God, and he was deeply alarmed by those who would take God out of any equation for explaining life. (FYI: he was referring to the eggheads of his day who were profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers name-checked on Lost — Locke, Hume and Rousseau.) SK’s book Fear and Trembling was written in response to this foolish trend.

As it turns out, SK’s life and work has much in common with Lost and its mythology. Consider:

* SK was Danish — just like Alvar Hanso, the financier of the Dharma Initiative.

* SK was profoundly marked by his father, a rather troubled soul — just like pretty much everyone currently on the Island, especially our resident Man of Faith, John Locke.

* SK was plagued by feelings of inadequacy and a yearning to be a ”great man” — issues that have marked the life of Desmond David Hume. (You’ll learn more about that tonight.)

* SK’s defining life experience was his decision to break off his engagement to a woman that he truly loved in favor of a life of isolation. It was a decision that would ironically inspire SK to a body of thought that ironically can be distilled into one idea: spiritual courage. Nonetheless, it was a choice that also brought him undeniable angst, heartbreak, and regret. Now please tell me that you agree that this sounds EXACTLY like a certain Penelope-dumping, Island-isolated, cowardice-haunted guy named Desmond that we know!

* SK’s signature writing style was his use of literary techniques and (even more curious) fake names to express his views. Think: James Ford/Sawyer; Ben Linus/Henry Gale; Marvin Candle/Mark Wickmund.

*SK’s Fear and Trembling — written under the fake name Johannes de Silentio — contrasts ”the knight of infinite resignation,” a guy stuck in the rut of his sad past, and ”the knight of faith,” a guy who bravely moves toward the infinite, bolstered by a ”strength in the absurd.” This pretty much sounds like the character arc of everyone on the Island, and especially John Locke.

* For example: Consider the episode ”Further Instructions,” in which John (Johannes) found himself silenced (de Silentio) and regained his voice, faith, and his ”strength in the absurd” — his spiritual connection to the Island — following a personal, subjective encounter with the divine inside the skeletal structure of Mr. Eko’s unfinished church.

* And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that SK shares the same initials as another writer with a strong influence on Lost, not to mention an author famous for using pseudonyms: Stephen King.

Moreover, I am fully convinced that many of SK’s other works (including Repetition, Either/Or, The Concept of Dread, For Self-Examination) and concepts and practices (including ”The Leap of Faith,” indirect communication, and journal-writing) can be meaningfully or ironically applied to many elements in Lost, from the Button (repetition), the Failsafe Key (leap of faith), the Pearl Station (journal-writing), the Room 23 film (”Think About Your Life!”), Mr. Eko and the Monster. (The Concept of Dread), and heck, even the Death of Nikki episode. (Did I mention that SK wrote a book called — get this — The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress?!)

And I’m not even touching on Kierkegaard’s sworn enemy, the German philosopher Hegel, famous for his notions of the Master/Slave dialectic (again, see: the Black Rock) and the idea of consciousness and identity that’s shaped by what philosophers call ”Otherness” (see: One of Us; One of Them; and ”The Hostiles.”)

So there you have it: the hidden eggheads of Lost. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard — the true yin/yang of the Island. On the surface, we have debates about Superman and the Flash, but in the Smokey bowels and buried Hatches of the Island, we have a steel cage match between ”the Überman” and ”the Knight of Faith.” Who will win? We shall be see. Or not. Because here’s the thing about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the twisted, subversive irony that they share: neither man believed in theories. They both rejected the whole idea that a single system of theory could explain the nature of life. That’s why SK wrote under pseudonyms — he believed that ultimately, it was up to the reader to engage in the text and figure stuff out for him/herself. Of course, SK also believed that such contemplation was very difficult, and perhaps even antithetical to human nature. Man must move forward into the future; looking toward the past goes against his instinct. Oh, well. Guess we’re doomed.

If only there was a place in the world — an Island in the South Pacific, perhaps — where time could stand still, where we could retreat to ponder the forces that have shaped our lives and remake ourselves into better, self-actualized individuals that exist in harmony with ourselves, our fellow man, and our environment. And then, after this long, self-improving time-out, we could rejoin the world as we left it, better equipped to live more loving, reasonable, and faithful lives.

Wow. Imagine that…

Theories? Reactions? Complaints? Send ’em to, or fill out the form below.

And then come back tomorrow, when I’ll try harder not to bore you to tears.


Doc Jensen

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