Monday, May 24, 2010

Picking Up My Cosmic Garments at the LOST and Found: Back in the Bardo, or "The Twenty-Eight Or So People You Meet in Heaven"

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." -Benjamin Franklin

LOST, in part, was an exploration of the tensions between seemingly contradictory notions: reason and faith dominated the first two seasons, fate and free will the next few, good and evil in the last. These dualistic schemata, of course, have contributed to conflict in countless myths, legends, and works of literature in the Western canon, and Sunday night, LOST added to this in its weird, love-festy, after-party, fetishistic sort of way (I half-expected the last shot to fade to white with the word "FOUND" scrolling toward me). The sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes ambiguous symbolism of the show is one thing that kept me thinking about it and coming back to it week after week. The forced and unwarranted simplicity of the good versus evil storyline that characterized the final season, while it had come to the fore only recently, had been backgrounded since the pilot, when Locke sat down with Walt, holding one white and one black backgammon piece, and explained that "there are two players...one is light, one is dark." (What we thought was superficial racial harmony was in fact foreshadowing the great ideological struggle of the later seasons?) I had held out hope, as late as the next-to-last episode that the Jacob/Man in Black conflict was a ruse, a ploy designed to lull us into a false sense of complacency, after which it would be revealed that neither were truly good or evil, that they were each manipulating the survivors in their own way, a la Sirrus and Achenar at the end of Myst (Cuse and Lindelof have remarked how heavily this game influenced their story-telling). Not only was I wrong, but to add insult to injury, they essentially placed the mantra of reason in the mouth of the evilest character on the show: "There are very smart men among us," the Man in Black says, "who are very curious about how things work." What is the lesson here? That trying to reason through things is inferior to having faith? The Jack/Locke dynamic in the first two seasons was so excellent precisely because they interpreted the island oppositely, yet both were very easy to to identify with. Unfortunately, for me, this dynamic was completely ruined in the finale. On this level, the show succeeded for so long because the writers openly and honestly depicted the real-life tensions of nearly irreconcilable conceptions without consciously favoring one or the other or suggesting that one was more powerful or viable than the other. This changed with the finale, as faith alone triumphed, and one of the principal messages of the show seems to have been - to use the now trite and overused phrases of the show - that, by "let[ting] go" of reason, we can "move on" to faith. This is at best simple moralizing and at worst intellectual dishonesty. While I found the finale to be emotionally satisfying, I found it to be extremely unsatisfying on a cerebral level. Indeed, what we got was, in the words of one unforgiving critic, "a prom of the dead in a chapel of love where everybody is farting rainbows, where all the primary Oceanic 815 survivors are redeemed, where a loving 'Dad' opens a Spielbergian door of light to the greater beyond." As the old adage goes, "truth is stranger than fiction." Unfortunately, LOST gave us a comforting fiction. I'll take genuine truth, discovered through reason, any day.

"I cannot allow your ignorance, however great, to take precedence over my knowledge, however small." -William James

I fully expected, nay, predicted (the one I made that actually came true), that the series would not really answer the major questions that have so obsessed hardcore LOST fans for the last six years: What was the source of the island's power? What was the meaning behind the numbers? What was the smoke monster made of? What caused the castaways time traveling? And so on. These were questions that could only be answered intrinsically within the show's mythology, not extrinsically through some overwrought pseudo-scientific borrowing from quantum mechanics or string theory. Such an ending would be lost (no pun intended) on the average American television viewer. Despite my love of science fiction, I fully braced myself for the fact that this is not how questions would be answered. But, in one sense, the writers betrayed the entire mythology of the series by implying that these were the wrong questions to ask in the first place. In the end, the moral of the series is that the metaphysical is more important than the physical, the spiritual is more important than the material, and hoping for answers through faith is more important than achieving them through reason. This is unacceptable to me, not because I think faith is, of its own accord, unsatisfactory, but because it is an entirely subjective experience, that gives meaning only individually - thus, while it may "answer" personal questions about the nature of reality, it is not a suitable way of attaining the type of knowledge that, I feel, LOST claimed it was offering. It seems as though Jack's entire character arc consisted of relinquishing reason, being a "man of science," and becoming a "man of faith." It is certainly difficult to disagree with that interpretation if we remember of his conversation with Locke in the first season - in which Locke asks, "Why do you find it so hard to believe?" to which Jack replies, "Why do you find it so easy?!" - with Jack's conversation with the Man in Black in the last episode, in which he tells him that Locke was right about everything from the beginning and says he wishes he'd had a chance to tell him.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke

Along with faith and reason, fate and free will, good and evil, we might add fantasy and science fiction to the list of strange dualities. These, too, are overlapping genres and creating false distinctions between them may be ill-conceived, but there are some significant differences that created difficulties in attempting to view LOST as true science fiction. For quite a while, LOST did a wonderful job at skillfully melding traditional science fiction tropes, epitomized by the Dharma Initiative, the effects of electromagnetism, and time travel, with typical elements of fantasy. However, LOST always maintained an air of intrinsic plausibility, a world which had a set of specific explanatory rules that did not defy logic in any metaphysical sort of way. In a crude way, one major distinction between science fiction and fantasy is that, in science fiction,"things" are "explained." That is, elements central to the story are not usually taken as given in a particular fictional universe: Transporters are "explained" in Star Trek; magic, in The Lord of the Rings, is not. This is not a hard and fast rule - midicholorians aside, the Force is never really explained in Star Wars, for example, yet it exists within a universe in which things, more or less, are presumed to have a technological explanation. (Star Wars is often called "space fantasy" for this very reason.) In the words of literary critic Gwyneth Jones, science in science fiction
[has] nothing in particular to say about the subject matter, which may be just about anything so long as the formal conventions of future dress are observed. It means only, finally, that whatever phenomenon or speculation is treated in the fiction, there is the claim that it is going to be studied at some point scientifically - that is objectively, rigorously; in a controlled environment. The business of the writer is to set up the equipment in the laboratory of the mind such that the 'what if' in question is at once isolated and provided with the exact nutrients it needs. (Jones, Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality, 1999: 4)
Adam Roberts clarifies this by writing that the "truth" of the science in science fiction is unimportant, so long as "the scientific method, the logical working through of a particular premise" is maintained (Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, 2000: 10). For a time, LOST did exactly this. The Dharma initiative is nearly ludicrous in our reality, but within the fictional universe of LOST, it existed as a prime example of the inductive method at work, of cognition through objective reasoning. In the end, however, LOST seemed to eschew even the idea of cognitively plausible ending adhering to the self-contained rules of its universe, opting instead for a touchy-feely, huggy, "everybody-dies-and-goes-to-heaven" ending. To be sure, plenty of science fiction has attempted these quasi-religious resolutions. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its enigmatic and equivocal star child, or Tarkovsky's Solaris, with its highly figurative house on an island, stand as primary examples. But Kubrick used this in a symbolic way, to signify the mental evolution of mankind as we reached out into the cosmos. Not so, LOST. "Everything that's ever happened to you has been real," Christian tells Jack in the final scene. The finale was literal, one-dimensional, and attempted to depict an irrational world devoid of any of the deeper symbolism that might have redeemed this convoluted, lazily-constructed resolution.

Perhaps mirroring the increasing binarism of the show, the chatter on the Internet seemed to revolved around the false dichotomy of "plot versus characters." While one variety of fan extolled the virtues of the multi-layered, complex characters, the other lauded the impressive scope and depth of its mythologically-driven, part science fiction, part fantasy, story arc. To me, these have always been false choices. The characters worked and were interesting because of the context of the island-story, while it was worth going down the rabbit hole of that twisted plot to begin with because of their intricate relationships. The writers have noted on several occasions that they originally envisioned this whole epic as a character-driven drama, and while I agree that that was what made the story compelling, I feel like attempting to separate them from the plot is pointless. Each is what made the other work, and the almost disrespectful lack of denouement in the finale left me wondering why they'd even created such an elaborate and compelling narrative architecture in the first place.

"The external world and the inner world are...only two sides of the same fabric, in which the threads and all forces and all events, of all forms of consciousness and their objects, are woven into an inseparable net of endless, mutually connected relations." -Lama Anagarika Govinda

What about the actual finale itself? At risk of sounding absurdly obvious, the finale was filled with mytho-logical and religious symbolism, most, though not all of it, Christian. Jack represented a Christ-figure, complete with wounds (or at least dripping blood) on his hands and feet, stab in the side, who eventually is reunited with his (the?) father (named Christian Shepherd, no less) in a happy little church where all of the people who've ever meant anything to Jack are all there waiting for him so they can all be ushered into the light. (Does this make Jacob like Holy Spirit? I thought he was supposed to represent, you know, Jacob.) The power of the island, while never explained, seemed to represent some sort of forbidden knowledge, a forbidden fruit which, if eaten, er, turns you into a smoke monster. The last season even came with its own holy grail, drinking from which gave one the powers of Jacob. Despite this very Christian interpretation, the reunion in the church in the final scene existed somewhere in the borderland between schmaltzy multi-denominational inclusiveness (note the cross, crescent, Star of David, Dharma wheel, Om, and Taijitu on the stained-glass window) and subjective "it-doesn't-matter-what-you-believe-in-as-long-as-you-have-faith." Even more galling was that the writers had been promising the theorists since season one that the overall twist was not that survivors were in purgatory, and lo and behold, the flash-sideways universe turned out to be a sort of purgatory where the castaways were required to atone for their past misdeeds (by reliving them properly?) before remembering their actual lives and being ushered into the next world. (OK, technically the writers were telling the truth, since the theory floating around was that the island was purgatory, which in fact turned out to be little more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin). The purgatory theory actually works much better, not in the Abrahamic context, but the Dharmic one, in which the castaways are all part of the same jati of souls connected for eternity - and through multiple lives - and are returning to the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism, a liminal or transitional state between life and the next stage: luminosity of the true nature of the universe followed by karmic oneness with that nature. (This also provides another interesting LOST allusion, since the most famous English translation of the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was made by Ram Dass, nee Richard Alpert.) Of course, in the Buddhist tradition, since the castaways were all deeply flawed individuals, they would likely be reincarnated where they would all meet up again in seemingly coincidental ways made possible by some sort of cosmic synchronicity. But this is just one interpretation. The point is that the island reality, in the very words of Desmond Hume in the finale, "doesn't really matter." Unfortunately, it mattered to a lot of us...

"Is it not time that Christian mythology, instead of being wiped out, was understood symbolically for once?"
-Carl Jung

I'm having a hard time describing my feelings about why I so disliked the way things wrapped up without sounding anti-religious. I'm honestly not anti-religion, I simply cannot abide when people cannot explain something and they attribute it to God. This is more insulting to religion, as it relegates the concept of God to a mere epiphenomenal explanation of the increasing smaller details of existence. I think religion, in its symbolic and psychologically functional way, is extraordinarily important, but when literalism and dogmatism become the foundation for belief, it undermines everything that makes faith important in the first place. What made the ending of LOST so infuriating is that the writers had heretofore done such a great a job of demonstrating the tensions between faith and reason, while not really favoring one over the other. They simply acknowledged that these interpretations coexisted in an uneasy way, that the human condition necessitates reasonable men having to come to grips with the irrational, and men of faith having to deal with doubt. With the finale, the writers reneged on this approach, and said "faith trumps all." As one blogger wrote, "Do you want to believe in the supernatural or in science? That's the point they've always been trying to make. It doesn't matter if you believe in science or faith, or both, just believe in something. We can never know for sure why things are the way they are, we can only put them in the context of our own experiences and understand it the best we can." Maybe... Perhaps I'm being too hard on this show. I'm trying really hard not to let one episode ruin, what to me, was the second best show of the decade (behind Arrested Development). I really did like the bulk of the series, even if it did get clunky and unfulfilling in the final season. After some reflection, the flash-sideways, purgatory universe reminded me a bit more of the nexus from Star Trek: Generations, a place of great joy where we got free do-overs for those thing we'd done wrong in life. But as Kirk said of this purgatory, contradicting both Desmond and Christian, "None of this matters. Because it isn't real." Indeed. LOST promised us the cosmic importance of the power of myth; what it delivered was hackneyed bromides on the power of faith.

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