Choosing and Being Chosen in “Dr. Linus”

“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?

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2 Responses to “Choosing and Being Chosen in “Dr. Linus””

  1. Very nicely done! I’ve spent a lot of time myself (I’ve read quite a number of books featured on Lost) trying to make sense of Lost.

    One thing that struck me about the reference to Elba was how it might relate to Smokey. What do you think?

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