Roundtable Discussion # 4: "Lost" and Philosophy,

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Today we're going to talk about the various philosopical influences of the most popular Science Fiction show on TV today, "Lost." There have been a number of philosophical references in the run of the show, generally rather overt: Locke acts more or less according to the dictates of Locke the philosopher; Rousseau is a wild-woman in hommage to the noble-savage-derived philosophy of her namesake; Hume and others have made appearances, again at least recognizably riffing off of some aspect of their namesakes. What do you feel this all means? Are the producers of the show implying something about different world views? Are they setting up an ontological playground where rival philosophies can duke it out? Or are they just jerking around? Explain.

Republibot 2:
Can I answer this one with a resounding "Yes!"? It's Action Philosophers! In at least one case (I'm thinking of Charlotte Lewis), there's not much of C.S. Lewis there- she's more a "name check" than anything else at this point, I think. I think the producers may be playing with philosophers and their views kind of like kids play with action figures in a sandbox... fast and loose.

Charlie Starr:
I don't really see how Locke portrays Lockeian philosophy. I would think Jack should be Locke and Locke should be Kierkegaard. But then I'm no expert when it comes to philosophy. But if I recall correctly, Locke's epistemology had very little to do with the kinds of intuitions and faith pursuits of the character in Lost. I suppose Faraday's mom, Hawking has a connection to the physicist via black hole theory. There may be other loose connections as well. But I think they are very loose. Are the producers, then, just messing with us? See my answer to [Question] number 2.

Republibot 3.0:
Very well, here's Question number two: In addition to the obvious undergraduate philosophy references, there have been literally skillions of literary nods on the show, many of them quite obscure. Some of these are clearly intended to be funny or ironic ("Are You There, God? It's me, Margaret.") and some of 'em seem to roughly parallel or lightly foreshadow what's going on in the show (As when Sawyer is reading Watership Down in the first season, which is all about survival and the early stages of conflict with the
Others). Others seem frankly, rather stupid and obvious ("Alice in Wonderland", "The Wizard of Oz.") Again, does this *mean* anything, or
are the producers just jerking around?

How much foreshadowing IS there in a show that traipses around time rather capriciously? I think that there may be a feedback loop - life on the island reflects western culture which in turn is shaped by the island

Republibot 3.0:
You think? I think time travel makes the foreshadowing all the more important, like in that “What the hell is going on?” issue of Animal Man where a ghostly form of buddy is staring at his family, and then like a dozen issues later his family is murdered, and the ghostly form was him traveling back in time and trying to save them. (He failed)

What I notice about Sawyer is that he's much more like Huck Finn than his buddy Tom. I caught the "Lamp Post" reference a few weeks ago to the Dharma station in L.A.--the place (as in Narnia) that light's the way to a magical
land. My guess is that some of these literary allusions will be connective and some will not. In part I think what the producers are playing with is symbolism and meaning in and of themselves apart from specific correspondences to which they may be pointing. Consider what allusions are: they are references to some extra-textual (beyond the immediate text of the show) object which are not explained. If you see Sawyer reading Watership Down you may get the allusion (because you have read the book) or you may not (you may also pick up an allusion to Donnie Darko where that book figures prominently and in which multi-dimensional space figures prominently). But only those who have read the book or are at least aware of it are going to get any extended, explainable, wordable meanings out of that moment in the show. The allusion itself remains unexplained. And this, of course is how allusion works: it references an extra-textual text or moment without explaining it in additional propositional language. Only those familiar with the allusion will get its meaning and the meaning, then, will arise in one (or both) of two ways: most allusions are simple with few meanings; they are easily recognizable and enter our conscious understanding as immediate intuitions--we get the allusions immediately (if we have already been exposed to the texts/events to which they allude). Such meanings are imaginative, intuitive, semi-conscious (in that they rise up out of memory without the need for analytical thought), experiential, and immediate. The first mode of understanding meanings may then give way to a second mode where we see that the allusion being made is an intricate one that requires some time to analyze all the available meanings/connections being made in the allusion. O Brother Where Art Thou tells you up front that it's based on Homer's Odyssey. Upon a first viewing, anyone familiar with the Odyssey will pick up immediately on numerous allusions throughout the film. But only further viewings and some careful thought will bring out every possible connection between the book and the movie. Now it looks like I'm suggesting here that the second way of reading allusions is superior to the first. I am not. I am saying it is different. In fact, the first is more interesting to me because it teaches me something about the nature of meaning. Think about the symbols in the first Dharma station we ever
encounter--those symbols which appear on the number counters when no one
bothers to type in the numbers on the computer. We see them briefly and get
very little explanation from them. We might pause our VCR/DVR to try to get a close look at the symbols and then look them up on line, but we hardly have time to do so. There may be some viewers steeped in symbology or hieroglyphics who can identify the symbols for their overt, specific meanings, but most of us don't any such meanings and probably won't bother to look them up (just as most viewers won't spend hours reading the works of every historical figure/philosopher who shows up on as a character name on the show). BUT THE SYMBOLS MEAN SOMETHING TO US ANYWAY! They hint. They suggest. They put us in touch with transcendent possibilities. They force us into the world of mystery, a world we love not only because we want to solve
the mysteries but also because we love being in the presence of mystery. Every episode in Lost we are hit with dozens of symbols which have "twilight" meaning to us--meaning that is not definite or complete, meaning that resides in semi-conscious awareness in places of the imagination. But it is meaning nevertheless. We have come to falsely mistake the concept of meaning in our culture. We think "meaning" refers to easily understandable explanations in words. The first time my daughter watched the Empire Strikes Back with me she asked what Luke's journey into the cave meant. I explained that Luke wasn't fighting Darth Vader but himself, etc. She got the meaning. But that is everything that meaning is. Some meanings are going to be clear, conscious, explainable, and have one-for-one logical correspondences. But some meanings will not. And it seems to me that Lost is filled far more with these kinds of meanings than with the former. They are hints, they are possibilities, they are vague connections I can't quite get my conscious mind around. Lost is not an allegory with one-for-one correspondences in everything. It is an adventure to be lived (including by those of us watching), a revelation to meet, an experience to be endured. Doubtless there are many very specific meanings of which the producers and writers are very aware. But I think there are fewer than we think. To answer the question in short, then, they may not have carefully constructed meanings for all these philosophical allusions, but they are not merely yanking our chain.

Republibot 3.0:
“He who has ears, let him hear,“ sort of, huh? It’s a touchstone of meaning, but only for those who already understand the meaning of the thing within the touchstone. Ok, so if it *does* mean anything, what does it mean? For instance, in one episode Ben is shown reading Phili K. Dick's "Valis", a gnostic novel about the divine attempting to invade the mundane world. The events of that book do roughly track with the events of that arc of the show. So
why are they doing ths?

I hesitate to ascribe motives to the producers- I mean, who would've guessed that Gene Roddenberry just wanted to make money like the rest of us? That said, there is a parallel in the phenomenon of LOST that sort of reflects the mystery religions and cults. The characters tend to move in and through certain circles as they understand perspectives and are initiated into secret knowledge. It's only been 20 years since I read Valis, so I really can't speak to

Republibot 3.0:
There are some definite thematic similarities between the book and the show, no literal ones, but definitely some tonal overlap here and there, particularly with regards to the various Dharma stations as they parallel some outpost stations on an alien world in the book…

I like RB2's answer for [Question] #3. It resonates a great deal with my answer to #2. What I described re. meaning in number 2 can sometimes me labeled "mythic." Mythic meanings are not logical as much as they are analogical, not conscious so much as semi-conscious, and not singular so much as multiple--where numerous connections are occurring on several levels simultaneously. This does not mean that there are no logical, explainable, correspondences in myth. It means that, when we start drawing such correspondences out, we stop experiencing the text as myth and start
thinking of it as allegory. This is not a bad thing to do. It's just a different kind of thinking/experiencing process.

Republibot 3.0:
Religion isn't a huge aspect of the show in an overt fashion, but it is there. From the beginning we've had the conflict between the "Man of Science" and the "Man of Faith." There's ghosts and some force manipulating people through the course of their whole lives. There seems to be a barely-mentioned religious undercurrent to The Others, with their hermit-like existence, their secret comings and goings, their strange white-clad beach rituals, them all speaking latin, and so forth. ("Richard Alpert" btw, is the real name of the Baba Ram Das). Even Ben was rather surprisingly shown praying and lighting
candles for his lost "Daughter" recently. What's that all about? My own take on it is that the show is trying to set up a position intermediate *between* faith and science on the show. What do you think?

Well, that would be the easy answer, wouldn't it? And the show has not gone for very many easy answers. I honestly think that faith will win out, but it won't matter because the show is so rigidly deterministic. Oh wait, were you about to say that? Sorry to step on your toes...

I believe Emily Dickinson something like this:

Faith is a fine invention
For those who can see
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.

Perhaps in Lost we're getting a taste of what might happen if someone invented a macroscope (but then I think C.S. Lewis would shudder at the

Republibot 3.0:
As you say, this show has always been rigidly deterministic. Fate always wins.
Do you think this is the point of the show, or do you think it'll end up in a showdown between destiny and free will? If so, who'll win?

I think that faith will win. But faith in what? That's a question they seem to be saving for last.

I'm not convinced the show is rigidly deterministic. It is if Oedipus is. But it seems to me that the mystery of Oedipus is the fact that he makes choices that bring about the fate he was choosing to avoid. The mystery of fate and free will is not that one is greater than the other but that both can possibly exist at the same time and be of equal validity. God determined from the foundation of the world that he would not destroy the children of Israel when Moses intervened on their behalf. But He was equally determined that He would destroy them if Moses were not to intervene. That He knew Moses would intervene doesn't change the importance/actuality of Moses' choice to do so. Now lest this answer start a war between Calvinists and Pelagians (or any version thereof), let me just suggest that everyone with a very strong opinion re. this issue read Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and then Lewis's Great Divorce. My personal opinion: the paradox that God is utterly sovereign and human choices are genuine, while being a paradox, is nevertheless true. In regard to Lost, I am not convinced that the choices people make are without consequence. I guess I'm willing to go with "deterministic" but not "rigidly" so. This is best symbolized in the fact that people are able to foil Ben's plans when they are at their most manipulative and he thinks he is most in control. Admittedly it may suggest that Ben only thinks he's in control, but I want to take it as a sign that choices matter.

Republibot 3.0
That's a lot more insightful than I expected, but for me personally I've always taken Oedipus to be deterministic: Oedipus is told he'll come to a bad end, so he assumes it's the way he lives his life that causes it, he changes his life and in so doing runs headlong in to the fate prophesied for him, and has his bad end. If he hadn't changed his life, he would have died peacefully in his sleep, but since he trusted the gods, he walked away from his happy ending and fell elbows-over-teakettle into his mom's bed. Why is this deterministic? Because the gods were deliberately screwing with him: they *knew* what his reaction to the bad news would be, and then decided to give him bad news to screw with him. The only other alternative is that fate is fate and that *both* of the paths his life could have taken would have led him to becoming his mom's boyfriend.

Moving on: What *is* the island? (Obviously it's a hypersphere that's only
incidentally tied to the world at large, and that incidental link can clearly be broken. There have been references to this since early in the first season. The question is, however, *how* did this situation emerge? Did it start off as a normal island that somehow got 'pinched off' into a hypersphere of space and time? If so, how?)

I'm not convinced of your math on that one. I think the island is the back of a giant time-travelling turtle. Or the inside of a wardrobe.

The island is a place where ancient magic practiced far too often once
turned the island into a place of permanent magic. Some six hundred years
ago a witch named Sycorax lived on the island (which already had magical
properties). There she gave birth to an ugly beast child named Caliban. She
also imprisoned numerous spirits there to do her bidding, among them a
spirit named Ariel. But then a man of learning, both scientific and fantastical, came upon the island, ship wrecked and exiled there. His name was Prospero. For two decades he practiced his arcane arts on the island till not only every spirit inhabiting it was awakened out of every tree and rock and ancient temple, but till the island itself became aware. Shortly after this, Prospero left the island but left his magical books behind, scattered everywhere: a book on magnetism, one on optics, one on horticulture, and one he even threw into the sea as he sailed away, fulfilling the promise that he would drown his books--at least one of them. Prospero returned to his kingdom in Southern Europe where, at a very old age--well over a hundred years--he met an aspiring young English actor named Will and told him his story. What Will did not realize is that Prospero wove one last spell in the telling of that story so that its hearer would someday be compelled to write it down and then never write anything ever again. Will, whose full name at that time was William Throttlesword (a name he changed later in life for professional reasons), wrote the story down in the form of a play, shedding some of the magic that held him into the words of the play as he wrote it. Will never wrote another thing again. About four hundred years later, a young aspiring producer named J.J. Abrams picked up a copy of the play and read it. It was the 815th book Abrams had ever read. And then something magical happened: a voice in his head as clear as any he ever heard in life said, "Hello, my name is Ariel. But you can call me Jacob."

Republibot 3.0:
Survey says....[Buzzing noise]. The correct answer was 'Hawaii.' The show is filmed in Hawaii. Next question: what's up w/ the CS Lewis stuff? And the Lampost and all? Thoughts?)

I really think they dropped the ball with Charlotte Lewis. She seemed to be more of a name drop, when really she could've been SO much more. But it is curious that the Lamppost station is put together in such a way that it guides you to the 'door' to the island... kind of inverse of the lampost's function in Narnia...

Ditto. Maybe it was a subtle critique of the last Narnia movie which strayed too far from the original story. They strayed from Lewis with Charlotte just Andrew Adamson strayed from Lewis with Caspian...or not.

Republibot 3.0
Right. Well, we're out of time. I'd like to thank both of you for joining our roundtable discussion tonight. You've been far more insightful and precise than I had dared hope for, and thanks for that. And for you in our audience, please tune in next week when our topic will be either "Building a Home" or "The Wankel Rotary Engine."