Archive for March, 2010

Self as Savior

Posted in Sacred Narratives and Lost, Theories with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2010 by SCS

Hello readers! Please check out my latest commentary, “Self as Savior: A Theory,” on DocArzt:

Self as Savior: A Theory

It’s not a response to this week’s episode, which I found rather bland after “Ab Aeterno,” but a loose prediction of how things will shake down as the series comes to a close. Please leave comments there (docarzt) or here. Thanks for reading.

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Put a Cork In It: Job, Dante, and the Ninth Circle of Hell

Posted in Sacred Narratives and Lost, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2010 by SCS

The only thing more interesting than a story set in hell is a story that might be set in hell. “Ab Aeterno” features not only a timeless narrative theme–the nature of evil–but also a classic literary device–ambiguity. Let’s face it: the writers of Lost intentionally leave things open to  interpretation and I doubt that even “The End” (the series finale) is going to change that.  However, I don’t think that Jacob and the Man in Black are supposed to be morally ambiguous figures; if there must be a devil, it’s pretty clear who plays the role of “El Diablo” here. But the most interesting part of this episode is the uncertainty that Richard raises about the nature of the island.

The island as cork (courtesy of abc/Disney)

The following passages will consider the nature of evil, and various notions of hell, in literary and mythological terms.

The Book of Job

The biblical book of Job chronicles the test of the human spirit, illustrated by one man, an exemplary figure in God’s eyes. The story is structured around a debate about human nature between God and Satan. Satan challenges God, claiming that Job is only a good man because he is wealthy, secure and surrounded by friends and family. If he were challenged by poverty or illness, Satan argues, Job would curse God and turn away from him. In essence, Satan believes humans to be selfish beyond all hope. There is no use redeeming man.

I’m not the first to acknowledge the similarities between this biblical text and the discussion between Jacob and the Man in Black. I have compared many Lost scenes to other religious stories, but this one seems to fit these two characters best. In this book, both Satan and God resemble the gods of ancient Greek and Roman mythology who are not necessarily all-powerful. Jacob and the Man in Black do have their own special powers, but they are both limited in what they can do. Jacob tells Richard that he can’t step in and make people do the right thing. They have to figure it out for themselves. In the same way, both God and Satan seem to agree that if people know they are going to be rewarded for worshiping God, their motive is a selfish one, making them unworthy of redemption.

According to Robert Sutherland, author of Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job, “The implicit restriction that Satan places on God is that God is prohibited from explicitly giving Job the reason for suffering. The concern is that any disclosure of a reason behind suffering might give Job a selfish motive to worship God and ultimately to manipulate him. If Job is truly the man God believes him to be, then Job will worship God regardless of what God might do for him. And so, Satan leaves the presence of God in heaven to create Hell on earth.” The idea that God’s people can’t know the reason for their suffering seems to resonate with the experience of being lost and the the experience of watching Lost. Viewers don’t understand their reasons for suffering much more than the characters do, but those who develop faith in themselves, and in the right leaders, seem to do okay. (Think Hurley).

Also notable in the book of Job is the man himself, in comparison to Richard Alpert. Like Job, Richard suffered the loss of his home and family (Isabella), an unjust punishment, and physical torture. At his darkest moment of despair, the Man in Black comes to him and unchains him. This recalls God’s command that Satan may do whatever he wants to Job except kill him or “lay a hand on his person.” Perhaps, Richard was on the brink of death when the Man in Black came to him. He wasn’t allowed to let Richard die and go to hell, but he could tempt him and lie to him as much as he wanted.  “It’s good to see you out of those chains” is code for “welcome to the playground of good versus evil. Game on!” It’s also interesting that Job lived for 140 years after the end of his trial and Richard, too, has lived for 140 more years.  This can’t be a coincidence. Looks like somebody’s been reading the bible…

Lucifer's fall to earth created an island

Lucifer’s Fall and the Making of an Island

According to Christian lore, Lucifer (Latin for “light-bearer” or “light bringer”) was a fallen angel, cast down from heaven. He has also been referred to as “the Morning Star” and it seems appropriate here to recall the creepy rendition of “Catch a Falling Star” from the post-massacre scene at the end of “Sundown.” In Dante’s Inferno, Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven and fall to earth displaced a large chunk of earth which was thrust up to the surface, forming an island called Purgatory. Despite the writers’ denial of the Lost island as Purgatory, it’s always interesting to consider it as a metaphorical Purgatory, where the tension between good and evil is revealed. With this image of displaced earth forming Dante’s “Purgatorio,” should we envision it as a place that keeps Satan and all of his evil suppressed, (or corked)? Does Purgatory maintain balance in the universe? Does it act as a threshold between earth and hell? More important, will everyone fall into hell if the evil is unleashed, as Hurley suggests?

Dante’s Inferno

“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost

Such begins Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, section I, Inferno, an allegorical journey exploring the nature of evil. Inferno describes a descent into the nine circles of hell where Virgil, the classical Roman poet, serves as tour guide. Similar to Dante,  Jack Shephard finds himself in the “woods,” “midway on life’s journey,” a life that seems to be humming along just fine (on a superficial level, at least) until the plane crash.

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here”

These words, familiar to even modern readers, are inscribed on the gates to hell in Dante’s Inferno. There is no escape from this city and those who enter might as well leave any shred of hope at the door. Richard conveys a similar message to the other characters in the opening scene of “Ab Aeterno,” as his faith quickly disintegrates upon the death of Jacob. So when he says “we are in hell” he is speaking the truth, in the sense that hell is a state of mind devoid of all hope.

The third circle of hell

Though it’s been acknowledged many times before, I feel the need to include the Cerberus bit once again for anyone who missed it. Cerberus, a monster originating in Greek mythology, is also a resident of Dante’s Inferno. It is described as a “three-headed dog-like beast who guards the gluttons.” Recall that in Lost the vents from which the Smoke Monster escapes are called “cerberus vents” and that the Smoke Monster has been referred to as a “security system” or guardian of the island.

Episode 9

In this depiction of the afterlife, Lucifer is a prisoner and forever fixed in the ground of the ninth circle of hell. This is the final and lowest level of hell, and stands in stark contrast to the next scene when Dante ascends to the surface of the earth saying, “To get back up to the shining world from there/ My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel…/Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.” Richard also ascends out of his hell, after his faith is restored by Hurley and Isabella. Note that we are in the “ninth circle” of Lost as well–that is, the ninth episode into the season. Will we ascend into the clear light of day…with more and more answered questions?

Lucifer held prisoner in the ninth circle of hell

Thanks for reading. There is so much more to say about this episode but it will have to wait for the book.

“Every Cop is a Criminal”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2010 by SCS

(“Recon” spoilers here.)

Just as every cop is a criminal/ and all the sinners, saints.

–Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

In “Recon” it becomes clear that Sawyer is on an inescapable path of vengeance, whether working for law enforcement or working for himself. The lines of good and evil aren’t drawn as neatly as the parameters of legitimacy. A similar line of reasoning can be applied to Jack –being a professional healer of the body does not necessarily make for a good, emotionally healthy person–and most of the other characters, in their own ways.

This is not the first time that recent episodes have recalled this particular Rolling Stones song, its central theme wrapped up in the following line: “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys?’ when, after all, it was you and me.” In other words, the devil is in each of us–we control evil, or choose not to control it. “The incarnation of evil,” if there is such a thing, feeds off of our words and deeds, just as the Smoke Monster was strengthened by Sayid’s decision to give in to temptation. As Sawyer said to the woman he met on Hydra Island, “God’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Well, neither does the devil. It’s all just up to “you and me.” In William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, a character named Simon, sums up this idea nicely as he addresses the idea of the so-called beast in the jungle: “Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.”

"Just call me Lucifer/ Cause I'm in need of some restraint"

This week I will be brief regarding the “books of the week.” They were mostly repeats, novels we’ve seen featured in previous seasons. The difference here is that Sawyer is not reading them; they are lying on his dresser as Charlotte rummages through the drawers: Watership Down by Richard Adams, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Lancelot by Walker Percy. Does this mean that Sawyer is less of a reader in this life? Like Locke lacks faith in his flash sideways existence, perhaps Sawyer is missing the nuances and metaphors of fictional worlds.

I also found this quote interesting: “(Life) is all about laughing and loving each other. Knowing that people aren’t really gone when they die.” This, from Pa to Laura on the TV show Little House on the Prairie, based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sawyer is watching  this program in a flash sideways scene, all by himself in his bachelor pad. Sad but funny.

Choosing and Being Chosen in “Dr. Linus”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by SCS

“The art of choosing men is not nearly so difficult as the art of enabling those one has chosen to attain their full worth.”     -Napoleon Bonaparte

In the first scene of the flash sideways sequence, Ben delivers a lecture on the first exile of Napoleon, explaining that the French revolutionary was able to maintain his title of emperor, but might as well have been dead, considering he was without followers and, therefore, devoid of power.  Napoleon was sent to the island of Elba before returning to France to wrest power away from the throne again. What can we deduce from this little history lesson? That Ben, a one-time leader with a bad inferiority complex, has been reduced to a powerless exile and that he will rise again if he can get off the island? And that, like Napoleon, he will be exiled to another island where he will die of cancer? Brilliant. We’ll leave it at that for now.

First, let’s turn to The Chosen, a coming of age novel first published in 1967 by Chaim Potok. Ben finds this book, among other reading material (a smutty magazine and a DVD  or CD titled Benjamin Disraeli: Justice is Truth in Action) , in one of the tents on the beach, presumably Sawyer’s old digs. The book is about a friendship between two boys that forms after an accident (involving a baseball) in which one of the boys was hospitalized. Though they have grown up in the same neighborhood and share a Jewish-American heritage, their lives are very different. Danny Saunders’ family follows a strict Hasidic tradition and Reuven Malter has grown up with a Modern Orthodox understanding of Judaism. The narrative is shaped by the boys’ parallel paths in life that sometimes intersect and cross over. The story also relies on the notion that human lives are interdependent and that ultimately we can only survive within a community. Both of these ideas correspond to themes in Lost (parallel lives, “live together or die alone”), but there is another, more obvious, motif I want to address.

The novel’s title, on its own merit, can be used to draw a comparison to Lost and, more important, to unearth the meaning of this particular episode. In the novel, being “chosen” refers to the condition of the Jews as God’s chosen people and the status of Danny Saunders as the eldest male, obligated to inherit his father’s position as leader of their Hasidic sect. It also illustrates the contrast between being chosen and choosing, being acted upon and being the actor. This, of course, recalls the ever-present theme of free will versus predetermination in Lost. In “Dr. Linus” we see the consequences of those who follow the path of the Chosen and their subsequent crisis of faith (in Jacob). Consider, for a moment, Ben, Richard and Ilana. They were chosen and then abandoned. Jacob’s touch imbued them each with a greater purpose, but now that he is dead, they are drifting aimlessly into chaos. This brings up a host of questions: Is it better to be chosen or to choose your own path? How can you trust the one who has chosen you?  Where does the authority to choose originate? When the one who does the choosing is gone, what will become of a society, a tradition, a faith?

Further, how has this culture of exclusivity dictated the group dynamics of island life? How have the leaders used this cult of the chosen to manipulate their followers?

This Napoleonic sneer makes you wonder: did Michael Emerson use this portrait as a model for Ben's bad-guy face?

Just to keep things interesting, let me pull another novel into the mix. In Lord of The Flies there is a boy named Jack who gains the support of the other castaways through fear and intimidation. Through “Jack of the Flies” and Ben Linus, the profile and tactics of a typical power-hungry leader emerges.  This is where we return to Napoleon . Jack in Lord of the Flies uses the illusion of exclusivity to gain power among the boys, slowly pulling their loyalty away from Ralph , the more democratic boy-leader, and toward himself. He makes the boys feel special because they are chosen by him, when, in reality, he just wants to control everyone.

In the same way, Ben Linus (in previous seasons) has shrouded his purpose in mystery and drawn in followers by convincing them that they are special. He is an expert at psychological manipulation, and his words are his most powerful tool.  John Locke is the best example of a character manipulated by Ben’s charade of exclusivity. But, as we can see now, John is not the only pawn here. Ben is just continuing the game that Jacob started.

All of this “being chosen” business reminds me of a Catholic hymn we used to sing in church when I was growing up. (“Anthem” by Tom Conry) Apparently the lyrics are somewhat controversial now, allegedly grooming a “culture of conceit” among parishioners. But they seem perfectly fitting for the position many characters  find themselves:

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another….

Let’s look again through the Jacob-as-Christ-figure lens. According to these lyrics, are the characters “Jacob for one another” now? If so, who will do the choosing? Will they be able to make the right decisions for themselves, as Ben did in his flash sideways life?

Measuring Evil: Sacred Scales and Final Judgments

Posted in Sacred Narratives and Lost with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by SCS

First, let’s examine the episode title. Sundown or “dusk” is a period between lightness and darkness, a possible reference to the fuzzy area between good and evil, a zone where Lost tends to dwell at times, at least where its characters are concerned. It is also notable that the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown and that the Christian messiah, Jesus, was taken down from the cross and buried before sunset, as it was required by law. With this in mind we might wonder, what will happen during the next three days on the island? If Jacob is the ultimate Christ figure of the island, will he be resurrected as an all-powerful deity and save the true believers? It’s clear that most fans would be sorely disappointed if Lost turned out to be a simple Narnia-like Christian allegory. I contend that this is certainly not the case, but that the religious images and narrative references are always significant. They are weaved together so that one mythological storyline never gains too much strength or holds more sway than another. Rather, they work together to create a textured mystery that always feels a bit sacred.

So, what other sacred narratives can we revisit to help us interpret “Sundown”? It has been mentioned by other fans that Jacob and Smocke reflect the ancient Egyptian story of Horus and Set (or Seth). Unlike many early polytheistic stories, this one clearly defines a “primal duality” which was later interpreted as a battle between good and evil. Like many monotheistic faiths, it promotes the notion of pure goodness being embodied by one deity and pure evil embodied by another. Horus, the falcon god and representative of goodness is frequently seen holding the shen ring which is, notably, a symbol of eternity. Shen means “to encircle.” This particular hieroglyphic symbol was written on the stone that Ilana pushed to open the Temple’s secret Scooby door.

The falcon god Horus with shen rings in his talons. Inside the Temple walls, Ilana finds the shen ring: this symbol can be seen on the stone that leads to an escape passage.

Set, god of sky and storms, was Horus’s evil counterpart. These two gods, of course, represent the theme of polarity that has been tirelessly accentuated in recent episodes through the relationship between the benevolent Jacob and the “evil incarnate” Smocke. But I think we should return to the episode title in order to temper this idea. Remember that sundown is a middle place between light and dark, good and evil, high and low.

St. Michael Weighing the Souls

Another significant motif we should examine here, as well as in a study of “The Substitute,” is the final judgment and the image of the scale. Recall Dogen’s words to Sayid: “For every man there is a scale. On one side is good and on the other, evil.” Apparently Sayid’s scale is off kilter in a bad way.  But before we determine which is “the wrong way” in Dogen’s eyes, let’s take a look at some cultural references to the old-fashioned balance scale.

Ancient Egyptian weighing of the heart--See Ammit on the right waiting to devour those souls who don't pass the test

In Medieval times, St. Michael was considered to be the guardian of souls. Many works of art depict him weighing souls on a balance scale. In the 15th century painting provided (see directly above the Egyptian work), you can see a devil, perhaps Satan, lying underneath the left pan, coaxing the souls toward him and acting as a magnet to weigh the scale in his favor. Another story involving scales is the ancient Egyptian judgment of souls in the underworld or Amenty (literally “the place where the sun sets each day”). Anubis weighs the heart of each soul against the weight of a feather and Ammit, a fierce goddess with a head like a crocodile’s (possibly with four toes?), eats the souls of those who don’t pass the test.

courtesy abc television

A very similar process takes place during the cycle of reincarnation, according to Tibetan Buddhism. Shortly after death, the soul is faced with a scale—on one side there are black pebbles, on the other white ones. If the scale tips too much in the “wrong direction,” the soul will be tortured and punished by the terrifying “Lord of Death.” But first, the newly-dead must look into a mirror that reflects the “naked soul” including all of its hidden faults and deepest desires. (Recall the magic mirror in the lighthouse where Jack’s deep-seated longing to find a true home is revealed to him.)

Cover of Deep River, published by New Directions, 1995

As for the featured book of the week, Chad Post at Three Percent, has been saying that Deep River would be used in “Sundown,” but, personally, I could not see Dogen’s book well enough to read the title. Good old Lostpedia confirms that he is, indeed, reading Deep River, a novel by Christian Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo published in English in 1995 by New Directions. “It is a novel about four Japanese tourists on a trip to India,” who each eventually discover an individual spiritual purpose for the trip.

And while I’m on the topic of featured books, I just want to thank “Doc” Jensen at EW for this bit of bookish cheerleading from his article on“The Lighthouse.” Go literary references Go!

This is why it’s actually important to read the literary references that Lost gives us, because a mere Wikipedia summary of Through The Looking-Glass doesn’t tell you about the kittens and their color coding. It also doesn’t tell you this: the title of the book’s first chapter is ”Looking-Glass House.” Which totally evokes the title of last week’s episode (”Lighthouse,” also awkward for its missing/implied ”The”), not to mention the Lighthouse itself, which was less notable for being a beacon for bringing ships to the Island than for the magic mirrors in its tower — for being a real ”Looking-Glass House.”