Is the Island a stage for a philosophical showdown with Postmodernism? The Doc grapples with some Big Questions about the battle royal between Locke, Hume, Bukunin, and Co., hoping to Enlighten us
‘Lost’ (S3): Doc’s enlightening new theory
Jacob the Not-So-Friendly Ghost! Richard Alpert the Forever Young Robin Hood of ”The Hostiles!” And Ben, poor, damaged, father-killing Ben! Last Wednesday’s episode of Lost certainly marked a major expansion of the show’s imagination, opening up possibilities and opportunities for more story than we thought. I know a few of you find this frustrating, as if the show is just making up new stuff to keep it going. But it’s my sense that most of you believe that ”The Man Behind The Curtain” continued the late-season creative surge of Lost, and was further proof that the producers do have a plan and a big-picture story to tell. Like poker players, the challenge for them has been knowing when and how to play the aces they have in hand. (The announcement of an end date for the show — May, 2010 — will certainly help them in that regard.)
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll do our level best to make sense of ”The Man Behind The Curtain.” Let’s start that project today with my theory of the Dharma Initiative, a theory that was originally going to be part of this week’s regularly scheduled Doc Jensen column, but due to its length, we decided to wait until today to spring on you. The theory is informed by my recent investigation into one of Lost‘s most curious devices: naming characters after philosophers. Indeed, ever since the introduction of Mikhail Bakunin (aka Patchy, the death-cheating one-eyed Russian Other) into the mythos, there’s been renewed interest in Lost‘s famous and semi-famous eggheads. They include: John Locke (blank slate; social contract), David Hume (cause and effect; skepticism), Rousseau (general will), Anthony Cooper (harmony of character), Edmund Burke (conservatism), and the Russian oddball of the bunch, Bakunin (anarchy).
Now, let me tell you what all of us have been missing.
To date, we’ve been taking these philosophers and exploring the relevancy of each to the character who bear their names. That’s fine and appropriate. But if you take a step back and see the forest through the trees, larger trends suddenly become visible and provocative possibilities emerge.
STEP 1: Let there be Enlightenment!
Here’s the Big Idea — the curious unifying link — that we’ve failed to recognize in our narrow application of these philosophers: with the exception of Bakunin, the philosophers of Lost all lived during the Age of Enlightenment, a movement that flowed out of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century. (See: René Descartes, ”I think, therefore I am.”) The Enlightenment belief was that the human mind alone could fathom the mysteries of the world and tame its unruly nature with logic and ideas. It was the Enlightenment that provided the ideological spark for a series of scientific, political, and economic revolutions that would reshape the world and bring forth the utopian-obsessed Modern age. The founding fathers of the United States, for example, were rooted in the ideas of what commentators refer to as ”The Enlightenment Project.” But perhaps more pertinent to Lost is this: The Enlightenment neutered God. To be clear, many Enlightenment thinkers actually believed in the Big Guy. Nonetheless, their exultation of reason and empiricism precipitated the gradual expunging of religion, mysticism, and magic from any foundational understanding of existence. Thanks to the Enlightenment, God was rendered hazy and driven underground — you know, kinda like a certain crankypants smoke monster that dwells in the bowels of the Island. Coincidence?
NEXT PAGE: So then, why isn’t Lost very Enlightened?
STEP 2: But if Lost is filled with Enlightenment…how come it isn’t very Enlightened?
Good question — and maybe EXACTLY the question Lost has been wanting us to ask. Truth is, the armchair analysis of Lost‘s philosophers hasn’t made enough of the fact that its connection between character and namesake is purely ironic. The John Locke of Lost is at best a bad twin of John Locke the philosopher. Lost Locke believes in a kind of fate and destiny that transcends the facts of his experience — a way of thinking that runs counter to Enlightenment Locke’s ”blank slate” empiricism. And certainly Lost Locke’s ”I’m on my own journey” selfishness seems very anti-”social contract,” Enlightenment Locke’s other intellectual claim to fame, and judging from recent events, Lost Locke is paying the price for his solipsistic life. (The latter half of the Lost mantra, ”Live together, die alone,” is really biting John in the butt right now.) But nobody spits in the face of his philosophical namesake like Desmond David Hume. Enlightenment Hume was a skeptic; he didn’t buy into miracles, didn’t believe in simple cause-and-effect. My guess is that, if he watched ”Catch-22,” and saw how Desmond clung so fiercely to the belief in his own miraculous powers and his one-event-follows-another logic, Enlightenment Hume would be left shaking his head in disbelief.
So how do we make sense of Lost‘s insistence on mocking the Age of Enlightenment, which ended, like, more than 100 years ago? Glad you asked!
STEP 3: Mikhail the Monkey Wrench
There is one Lost character who respectfully embodies his philosophical namesake: Mikhail ”Patchy” Bakunin. In real life, the radical Russian was all about anarchy — the destruction of all authoritarian agencies that regulate human free will. Lost Bakunin has expressed the simple subversive values of his namesake by defying the natural order of life and death — or at least, appearing to. Either way, his antics make a mockery of Enlightenment-minted reason and empiricism and formalizes the spirit of subversive irony within the philosophical matrix of Lost. (Looks like John Locke got some vengeance last episode when he humiliated Bakunin with a public beating.) And now, it becomes clear. For by adding Bakunin with Enlightenment, Lost has created a clever mathematical formula that adds up to our current philosophical milieu: Postmodernism, Enlightenment’s mirror twin, the shadow ”yin” to its sunshine ”yang.”
NEXT PAGE: Huh?
STEP 4: Huh?
Exactly! Head-scratching confusion is one byproduct of Postmodernism, an unruly, multifaceted term that defies easy PowerPoint explication. The distinguishing characteristic of Postmodernism is Deconstruction, and over the past century, its revisionist power has rolled across the humanities and sciences like a steamroller. Painting, literature, philosophy, sociology, politics, religion, pop culture — nothing has been spared, and perhaps rightfully so. Postmodernism was born out of the valid complaint that the Age of Enlightenment gave birth to a Modern world full of would-be utopias that went horribly wrong, from the soul-killing materialism of free market capitalism to the freedom-squelching tyranny of the Soviet Union to the ’nuff said monstrosity of Nazi Germany.
Lost embodies Postmodernism is so many ways — too many ways to fully explicate here. But briefly, the show shares Postmodernism’s keen interest in liberalism, moral relativity, experiential authenticity, and, most important, the problematic distinction of ”Otherness.” Lost is also a classic Postmodern text, marked by a shifting subjective perspective and a nonlinear presentation of time, and studded with irony, paradox, and self-conscious language. Finally, those of you who cynically believe that Lost is just ”making it up as it goes along” are actually affirming a major contention of Postmodern literary analysis: the absence of innate meaning, or what Postmodernists call ”presence.”
With the word in mind, consider again what we saw in the dim light of Jacob’s haunted house: a spiritual entity — a presence — very weak, flickering in and out of reality. And did you notice the painting of the dog inside the house, looking Cujo-scary? It reminds me of another seemingly supernatural force on the Island linked to a ferocious fantasy canine: Smokey, whom the Dharma Initiative called ”Cerberus,” the guard dog of Hades. Factor in the old joke that ”God” is ”dog” spelled backwards, and what we have here is more evidence that this seemingly idyllic tropical island is an allegorical snapshot of post-mythology, post-God, Postmodern life.
In other words, Lost isn’t meaningless — it’s ABOUT meaninglessness. And that brings us at last to what brought the Dharma Initiative to the Island.
NEXT PAGE: ”I think, therefore I’m depressed.”
STEP 5: ”I think, therefore I’m depressed.”
On the Map inside the Hatch, there was a phrase written in Latin that wittily sums up ”the Postmodern condition.” Translated into English, the phrase could either mean ”I think, therefore I suffer” or ”I think, therefore I am depressed.” Either way, it’s a sly subversion of the most famous idea to come out of the Enlightenment: Descartes’ manifesto-in-a-mantra, ”I think, therefore I am.” The Map’s warping of that sentiment forges a link between Enlightenment and Postmodernism, and more, suggests to me that curing ”the Postmodern condition” was Dharma’s primary goal.
What is ”the Postmodern condition”? Well, it encompasses some major criticisms of Postmodernism in general. The biggest one is somewhat ironic, considering how it pertains to the field’s rejection of a word that has become a crucial part of cult-pop entertainments like Lost: ”mythology.” See, Postmodernism stands opposed to the concept of ”meta-narratives” — one single, overarching story or ”monomyth” that explains all of history, all of mankind. Nothing is more “monomythic” than the Bible, and I think it’s telling that one of the few that we’ve seen on the Island was found abandoned inside a trunk, its pages bored out — a hallowed book, made hollow. Instead, Postmodernism prefers the micro over the macro — life as a mosaic of equally weighted perspectives and interpretations.
But according to critics of Postmodernism (and there are many), the problem with this thinking is that no one really thinks that way. Lost itself is a small proof of that. The anxiety of multiple interpretations is fun, but ultimately untenable; what we all want and crave is universal meaning. Or, to use the title of the upcoming Lost recap special that will air prior to the May 23 season finale, we all want ”The Answers.” Critics of Postmodernism believe that in deconstructing Enlightenment-spawned ideas and extrapolations, we have traded one set of problems for another. As Glenn Ward puts it in his book Postmodernism, the character of Enlightenment ”is often associated with faith in: progress; optimism; rationality; the search for absolute knowledge in science, technology, society, and politics; [and] the idea that gaining knowledge of the true self was the only foundation for all other knowledge.” However, ”in direct contrast to the features of the Modern age, Postmodern society is often negatively associated with: exhaustion; pessimism; irrationality; [and] disillusionment with the idea of absolute knowledge.” Translation to Lost language: Postmodernism is Enlightenment’s ”Bad Twin.”
Ergo: ”I think, therefore I’m depressed.” So if the ”Postmodern condition” is a problem, how did Dharma intend to fix it?
NEXT PAGE: The Answer?
STEP 6: I don’t know.
And this is where ”The Man Behind The Curtain” tripped me up. In my original theory, I stated that Dharma was trying to harness the psychic power of the Island to broadcast a message into the collective consciousness, a sort of subliminal command: ”Search anew for the true meaning of life.” My contention was that this message needed to take the form of a story, just like the myths of old, and so to that end, the Dharma Initiative was to stage an elaborate psychodrama that mimicked ”The Allegory of the Cave,” Socrates’ enduring model for the nature of human ignorance and sporadic quest for enlightenment. My theory posited that before Dharma could begin that endeavor, it first needed to study the Island and come to a full understanding of how it could be exploited. (I’m thinking now that Dharma was still in its research phase when Ben and ”the Hostiles” initiated ”the Purge.”) Finally, my theory was going to argue that Ben had come up with a way to fulfill the Dharma mission and redeem its legacy by staging an Enlightenment saga of his creation, one in which he plays the role of antagonist.
I don’t think ”The Man Behind The Curtain” completely invalidated this theory. For example: if Locke really did present a huge threat to Ben, and if Ben really is the tragic monster the episode painted him to be, why didn’t he make absolute sure that Locke was doornail dead when he shot him? Why not a bullet in his head for good measure? I’ve argued that Ben is far smarter than even we know — that, like Desmond, he may be in possession of knowledge of future events. This is all to say, I think it’s possible that Ben shot Locke not because he really wanted to kill Locke, but because he knew that a debilitating bullet in the gut was exactly what Locke needed at this moment in his journey, and the larger redemptive story unfolding on the Island. Nonetheless: I’m going to send the rest of this theory back to the lab for more work. But I do believe everything up to this point still stands. If you’re looking for a bottom line, it’s this: Lost — the defining ”mythology show” of our age — has taken as its core concern the lack of mythology in our Postmodern age.
Nothing like a little light reading to start your weekend, huh?
Reactions? Complaints? Write to me at JeffJensenEW@aol.com.
And join me back here on Wednesday for your letters, my responses, a theory or two, and some news about the last two Lost episodes of the season.