22 August, 2014

To Gain A Clearer Perception of Humanity, Part II


In our last installment, I brought into question how one's method of study, namely the study of humanity's Being, requires an ability to gauge the attentive value paid to this subject by both the observer and the observed. I used cited examples of polarized opinions to give you a glimpse of how a materialistic ideology cannot alone provide for these immaterial components of our Nature. Being a child born in the 1980s, I used a subterfuge example of the Back to the Future trilogy and hypothesized that the free inquiry of science is fueled by the very breadth and depth of questioning which is the philosophic project. Finally, I asked how do we "gain a clearer perception of humanity?" in lieu of any time-travel or space travel, but to do so here, now.


High Storied War

I recently shared a poem for critique amongst the Grass Snakes, a writing group of which I am a member, based here in New York City. The poem can be heard read aloud and on your screen by the TeleGramMan himself here. "Kitchener's Attrition" was written after viewing Joe Sacco's "The Great War" monograph, an illustrated 24-foot Japanese album-style panorama, beginning with a calm General Haig the morning of July 1st, 1916, and continuing through the day's gruesome and great loss of life which exceeded 50,000 soldiers wounded or dead in a few hours. Being conscious of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War this year, I felt I needed to respond to the tragedy and madness of The Battle of the Sommes and attempt to render the helplessness we feel before all wars.

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Now that you have listened to the minute-long reading, you might have similar questions being asked and simultaneously answered by either a) your distant memory of a history class b) if you have seen it , the monograph itself or c) an entry into your convenient search field for "Kitchener" and/or "attrition." The only option available for the group at the time was 'a.' After comments, some explanation and discussion, I asked, "Is history worth remembering?" and I received an emphatic "Yes, of course!" I was not wholly convinced by the end of the meeting that it did for any of us present. Had I just written a poor poem or was there nothing in it that a post-modern man could appreciate? "It sounds nice" is a common enough compliment I receive each time I share, so perhaps not all is lost if we can be left alone with simple aesthetics. Simple appreciation was not my intention alone.

I suppose neither Sacco's drawing, nor your search, nor even my poem can grapple with the reality of those events. My attempt leaves the reader at the end of the poem with the pathos of a U.S. President not notable for this afflicted decision to send boys to war, but his racism. This wasn't a conscious decision when I composed the poem, but is an unexpected effect with real bearing on a reading. Wilson was a racist, Kitchener was a warmonger, and Haig a poor tactician looking over numbers incompetently behind the front - all predominant historical opinions of these figures that relieve of us of further questions about their persons or the contexts that contain them in the annals of the Great War.


The Arc of Law

Perhaps we need to take a more Tolstoi-esque view of the Great War, as he did with the Napoleonic Wars in his monumental War and Peace: causes cannot be identified in the figures of history and the actions they take - there are laws we cannot explain with however many isolated causes, because they have a law as well - the law of coincidence of causes. So many things happening at the same time which makes objective identification of a single cause impossible. What I chose to isolate in the poem was not a weak expression by a great man and the subsequent cause of American losses in the Great War, but a mark of humanity that any human might feel - terror, in this special case, held up by an expression of grief. Perhaps Wilson knew as Antoine de Saint-Exupery succinctly expressed with his insightful statement as a pilot of wartime: "In the end, fate still walks on two feet."

The historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has the most intelligent advice to give that one can read out of all assessments of Tolstoy's master work and on his philosophy of history. It also gives a reader some taste of what an objective opinion might be like. His long essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," makes use of Archilochus's saying that "the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing." He asserts that Tolstoy was "a fox who thought it right to be a hedgehog," i.e. a man divided unto himself, both willing and unwilling to: appreciate the facts, compose a novel in the interest of telling a good story, or disprove of the headstrong socio-historical theorists of the 19th century.

Proving to us Tolstoy's enduring mind, we see in this essay both a fatalism and a optimism - a struggle - perhaps the only true universal, empirically sound possession humanity shares between all of its many families. Wilson shared in this too - and so does the hypothetical veteran of the first stanza of my poem "pawing a mouse" over search answers, with his own experience of cause and effect in that Great War. I am not Tolstoy, nor could I ever be the talent he was in any similar scale of degree or measure. However, I share in his methods because he too creates characters out of shared experiences to represent a common feeling that has no exact record. Great lives are written down and may slowly fade, due to distorted representation, new facts brought to light, etc. The "inner empiricism," to borrow a term of Hume's, of men and women are not recorded - it is lived - and Berlin underplays this insight in War & Peace. Perhaps there remains something of it not in history, but in the common folklore and traditional storytelling, the shared myths that aren't objectively reliable but voice the lived experiences of past lives in symbolic forms?


Tall Tales

We haven't answered the question I posed to the Grass Snakes - "Is history worth remembering?" - or the larger one that can be traced through both parts of this article - how we might "study" - because they both lack answers that would satisfy one both intellectually and practically. What can be known in the very least (I'm appealing to a stretch of everyday thinking here) is that history as an accumulation that can be analyzed and then cited for conclusive statements is not the history that we should be concerned with or entertaining as "the truth." There is another history, a continuum that exists alongside or concomitant with our idea of history, that we speak of in a common tongue and always have and might continue to have contact with generation after generation. The figures in this history are the sorts that Tolstoy made of Kutuzov or Malory of Arthur: people historically verifiable to have lived, but who then are made to transcend their life and become the symbol of or myth for a representative "time" or "mind" or "emotion" shared by many in a certain period.

The preservation of the former idea of history has much in common with the idea of the preservation of Nature. Both are fairly modern movements that everyone can accede their support to with one side of their mouth, while they continue to benefit from its destruction by decisions made with the other side. Oddly enough, nature doesn't seem to need our aid in preserving itself - it simply needs us to keep from working against it, and it rolls along. History requires a method, records of facts, and stories (context) to pass it down from generation to generation. When this is housed by institutions and made canonical, it becomes frigid. No longer passing from our lips, it tastes nothing of the kiss of life. We pride ourselves in the "information age" on our accumulation of facts and the education based on this stockpile available for all. This information is separated so cleanly from ourselves that we no longer share in the process which gives any of our supposed "knowledge" bearing on the outer form of life. We live knowing but die forgoing the taste of that inner life that experiences our world so directly, and used to be so important that it always needed a storyteller.

Some symbolic language remains as evidence of these experiences. In America, we have our "tall tales" of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and so on, which are records of the proliferation of railroads, the logging of our continent's indigenous forests, and the ecological changes/perils of  westward expansion, and not some fireside yarns to poke fun at. These stories may contain the seed germ of much collected experience, but perhaps there are no longer any of us who know how to tease it out, read it, nurture it. They are also all tales of struggle. What symbolic figure will emerge to exemplify the thoughts and feelings of the struggle in modern man? We're too often arguing for the abolition of humanity from its own mind and feeling, speaking of the future achievement of A.I. or some other presence that will continue on in our stead. Little can we say or do against this hypothesized material immortality - it's far too popular as a "cool" idea in popular culture, which is the only culture with enough clout to parlay being extinguished - so no doubt more time, money and energy will go into its realization.

Can we not hold up some representative man, as Emerson would have it, who, whether fictional or not, expresses the inner life of our present? Test the quality of this question for yourselves, or post a tale in response.


End of Part II

11 July, 2014

To Gain A Clearer Perception of Humanity, Part I



"The intent here is to gain a clearer perception of humanity - where we've been, where we're going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question - Why?"

- Dr. Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the 1989 Robert Zemeckis film Back to the Future Part II

My brother and I continually watched the trilogy of films featuring Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine and Marty McFly's escapades as we grew up together. Why? Well, it was full of action, well written, had a very cool premise and when there was nothing else to watch on TV, the VHS tapes were at the ready. My brother's favorite film was Part II and for me, it was the concluding Part III. I didn't care for the way the future looked (which was 2015, in reality, next year) and the revisiting of the first film was a little confusing, and, I thought spoiled some of the original. I wanted a whole new adventure, and I got that in Part III.

However, after revisiting the series with a newly purchased Blu-ray set (courtesy of Mr. Matt Ross), the above line from the second film really stood out to me. I don't recall what I thought about it exactly, if anything, but reading it once more I see Doc Brown's aim and goal for his creation: and it is a philosophical, not a scientific endeavor alone. Lloyd always played him as severe, technically minded. But by the third film, Brown shows his romantic nature and by his actions expresses his true intent behind the brilliant invention. The time machine was built not to study space-time, but to try to understand the nature of our being.

How to study existence

Working backwards, from ourselves to the Universe at large, one could at very least attempt to approach such a huge topic as being or existence (the study of which is called ontology) via our local group, to this galaxy, solar system, planet - to a continent of the globe, in a certain nation, at a certain time; countless folk have sought to know as much about the history of a period as one could, devoting an entire scholarly life to say, "the aesthetics of the Victorian era." We do not have a DeLorean time machine at our disposal, so, how would one begin such a study? We must first be considerate about the method of study, so that its beginning leads us to question the practice of history: this practice would stem from a philosophy of history. But what is a philosophy, and what are its origins? We continue to trace backwards...

Essentially, a philosophy is a system of thought. Let's ask the seemingly self-evident - what are thoughts? Today, thoughts are regarded as having their origin in the brain. Neuroscience continually announces discoveries which show chemical reactions and cerebral activity while observing conscious and unconscious behavior. To surmount that all thought is brain-based brings all knowledge back to the material itself - all knowledge and all being.

Today, a philosophy of science is likely to disprove that valued and particular vehicle (materialism, not a DeLorean) which we ride toward Truth as a philosophy sufficient enough in and of itself. It is the charioteer at the reigns of modern day science. However, if thought is a product of the neurological processes alone, this is where the time machine of our Mind ends its journey. Better place some hope in matter then, and since we are only the product of genes and the planet is dying, get this material to another one. Will 'push off then!' be the rallying cry of the coming generations? It would lack all hope and spirit, however much our boundaries into space are pushed in the name of 'destiny'.

Materialism, the Ideology

Let's take a well-known outspoken voice about the above, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and director of the Hayden Planetarium here in New York, Neil deGrasse-Tyson. Tyson views philosophy as a product-less pursuit, suggesting it is an impediment to progress and not a academic study worthy of the young. His friend Massimo Pigliucci, a man of balance between the humanities and the sciences, has held recent conversation with Tyson about these statements. Follow the link to his article from the Huffington Post - it is a telling example of the sort of difficult public debate about the use of academic studies.

For Tyson, it's a matter of wasted "brain power," and for Pigliucci it's about exploring "conceptual space," the invisible, the unaccountable, and yet, the present and experienced phenomenon, i.e. of consciousness. Some scientists are engaged in exploring these borderlines that polarize the public opinions of both science and philosophy (see Rupert Sheldrake's banned TED talk). Others have chosen their sides and are defenders of the flag of Reason, because that is their territory and it needs expanding to support their convictions (and garner public and private funding).

Don't forget to read the comments section below either of these pages.

Why such conflict? Science has been incredibly successful as its discoveries have been rapidly applied to our lives in the form of technology, medicine, and the manipulation of Nature. Unfortunately, science as an honest inquiry into the nature of reality, cannot teach us how to use the tools it helps to create while it investigates. This requires a vaster range of human abilities than reason alone, and studies as impartial as the original science behind the capitalizing of technologies.

It is part of the struggle of historians to account for all the factors of personality and culture that make an age what it is - how do we account for our present situation, let alone Victorian aesthetics? If we do not reflect or even criticize with a formal philosophy to gauge the value of a predominant worldview, we render the immaterial virtues null (temperance, prudence, courage, justice, etc.) which have been taught to exist eternally, whatever period. Corporeally, we transform Nature and then that transformation changes us in our own, fixed image. We forget where we were and only look toward where we are going from now. Where is our neutral territory, our contemplation? Perhaps only with a philosophy that aids our reason and tempers our awareness, which gains help from "other" sources unknown to us. Dare I even say, from the metaphysical.

Essential being

In the end, Doc Brown and Marty McFly are left each to their own fate: one recognizes his weakness toward personal offense and chooses against drag racing toward a wreck with a Rolls Royce. The other embraces his feelings of love and the need to strengthen this most transcendent human emotion in the face of death by saving his beloved Clara. Science is the vehicle for discovering components of humanity's essential being and philosophy is the fuel.

To free ourselves of the materialistic hold on the sciences would be a much greater accomplishment in the early part of this century than even our latest discoveries in physics. If Heraclitus was correct in his wise statement that "opposites cooperate: The beautifulest harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other," than we have no object to quarrel over but belief in the impediments of our own beliefs. Destroy your time vehicle if it cannot do but divide you.


End of Part I

21 April, 2014

The Folly of St. Ann's

Between the walk from my apartment to my workplace lies a piece of architecture in front of an NYU dormitory building that strikes my sense of perspective every time I walk past it. I have taken multiple photographs of this remnant of what was once the 12th Street Baptist Church, the Congregation Emanu-el and for over a century, St. Ann's Church. The section that remains of the original 1847 construction without its 1870 French Gothic sanctuary, is a stark sight in front of the 26-story dorm. 



Apart from the odd vacancy of a cross above the nude steel spire, it is the strangeness that I experience when coming around the side of the folly (the architectural term for a freestanding facade) which sends me into a pensive mood. There is nothing really between the dorms and the Citi bike racks off the sidewalk. 



There is the bracing of brick crossing a few stained glass windows from the '20s, boarded up entryways to the inaccessible tower and the most peculiar thing of all, the backside of the front doors which cannot be approached through the black iron fence of the gateway. Behind me, a building attendant behind an NYU decal on the glass door to the dormitory building known as "Founders Hall."

Two other articles have a more thorough write up than I could produce of the history behind the place of worship that did exist here and the story of its demise at Bedford and Bowery & Daytonian in Manhattan. What I would like to highlight from them both though is an affinity with the underdog (The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, former churchgoers, forlorn art appreciators) and a distaste for the outcome at the hands of the multiple parties involved in St. Ann's fate (New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYU, the developer Alan Bell).



Many factors are cited: dwindling outreach and attendance; shifting demographics; debt incurred from multiple parish loans; the tide of progress lapping on the shores of all neighborhoods in Manhattan, especially the Village. Who can say which and in what measure or combination of the above created this particular result, the folly of St. Ann's? It is not so much eerie to me, the observer, or much melancholy or angering. 

My concern I believe is aesthetic, which is also in its own way, moral. My aesthetic experience as I pass this facade every time is as if the sanctuary continued to extend through the dormitory building, all the way back to 11th Street as it once did. This structural impression, the effect of the remnant on the observer creating a disproportionate sense of continuity in regards to the folly, must have escaped the consideration of the developers and their architect that NYU hired entirely - or it wasn't even given a thought, credence or weight.




Both links above include pictures of the church around 1914, when supremely crafted Gothic spire work topped the tower. The cross of symbolic power and its crown of ornament are no longer present. What is present is a memory of something else, of a different school, a religious school. Founders Hall may house current students or future scholars of religious study in an ethnographically or theoretically interested "focus." The place that was St. Ann's provided space for the religious experience to occur for, to, or with a person in the sanctuary. Study became practice, the worship an exercise in scale between immensity and the infinitesimal.

In Catholicism by the taking of communion, the transcendent God becomes accessible through the immanence of the human being. However this is also represented in the architecture of a church itself. The facade and its tower have a verticality that is counterposed by the horizontal stretch of the sanctuary. They meet together (as in the cross) and as this is also true from a point of view of looking down on the floor plan from above, it is just as true from a side view of the chapel. The idea is old: Heaven and earth meet in the house of the Lord. The development and raising up of these structural forms during the medieval period is thoroughly investigated by Otto von Simson in his Bollingen Series book The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, if it is of any interest to the reader.

No Easter confirmations were given after 2003 at St. Ann's Church. The neighborhood is not without its examples from the 19th and 20th centuries when it comes to churches continuing service and even offering organ recitals at midday, such as Grace Church still does only a block away.



The continual recurrence of the experience that the folly of St. Ann's gives me keeps me shooting pictures and contemplating over and again. Sometimes I have to walk/run to work and with my face forward, feet shooting out sidewalk behind them, my attention isn't taken by the folly because I couldn't care less - I'm going to work now, I'll be late, so what? But on the slower walk back home, when these same legs are tired, I cannot help but be a witness to the affront of the folly. Was this really a show of "compromise" in answer to the appeals of the neighborhood? Why leave the vertical without its horizontal, half-disassembling the place's dignity and history?

We see now that purpose is plainly writ in the brick and the steel of any building we encounter. It is a moral and an aesthetic choice - but under the rule of what William Morris called "anarchic plutocracy" the true divinity of the sky is the half-symbol stiffened, straight, lit up and beaming in its sheer and utter verticality. And my God, is it beautiful every time I walk uptown and see the Chrysler Building from afar! Forgoing the Earth for the sky. And so, craning my neck, forgoes I.


09 April, 2014

Nostalgia and Music

A post dedicated to Devin G., who prompted this inquiry into nostalgia & music.

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"Nostalgia is immediate, and tends to be localized. As often as not, it is triggered by an experiential short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past. A song on the radio, an old photograph discovered in the pages of a book. The past catches us by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person, that place, but more for the selves that we were then."

- Sven Birkerts, from his book The Gutenberg Elegies

In Morrissey's Autobiography, which I have not read and only opened up to a brief paragraph in a bookstore, he describes his experience hearing David Bowie's 1972 song "Starman" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His description includes a trace of criticism, in that he noticed the chorus ("There's a Starman waiting in the sky...") has a melody that almost exactly duplicates, if not completely lifts, the melody of the opening line to the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for Judy Garland to sing in 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The embedded links are provided to confirm for your own ears what a young Morrissey experienced right away, having in all likelihood acquainted himself with the film over and over again during his childhood in the company of his mother.

There was something that caught my attention about Morrissey's observation. I knew he was right immediately, and I began to think about the phenomenon of that sly chameleon Bowie and his own impact on me as a listener of popular music and after, understandably, about my own young adulthood. I received a double-disc copy of Best of Bowie (US) on my 18th birthday, along with a pink feather boa, paper crown and a plastic scepter filled with glitter suspended, but not obstructed from floating around, in water. It was a fun day of high school and my friends, who were all young women, thought it was a gas to play this image-flipping trick on the birthday boy that they found so nice, so harmless and closer to them than the burgeoning brutishness of the male sex at our campus. 

I was not and am not now an overly effeminate heterosexual or a closeted homosexual. However, I knew while listening to Bowie after school that day in my bright accoutrements that the lines of sexual orientation can be cleverly blurred and in doing so you confuse viewers, inflame curiosity and even beget a little fame from either the love of androgyny or the hate of its vagary. For Bowie, with "Starman" and a number of other hits, sexual preference and outward gender confusion was always codependent upon that strange sensation of remembering who you once were (the older Morrissey in his Autobiography), who that person thought they were then (a young Morrissey watching tele with mum) and who they related that self to (seeing Judy sing in the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz). As the teacher of dance G.I. Gurdjieff taught by his own words and in the records of his pupils, there are many little "i"s in us, but not one whole unity known as "I".

The word nostalgia itself was coined by Johannes Hofer, a medical writer in 1668 looking for a description of a disease, at times deadly, experienced by those displaced or in exile from their homeland. I thank Helmut Illbruck for bringing this interesting origin story of the term to my attention through his book Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Hofer created the neologism from the Greek 'nostos' ("return home") and 'algia' ("pain"). Illbruck notes as well the masterful work of Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which Burton seems to describe this state or one similar to it as "banishment" and deems it to be an almost adolescent feeling, one that has its root in the unhealthy attachment to a place and the denial that variety in itself has some principle of unity, i.e. the sun shines the same everywhere. However, by the time Hofer published his Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, Burton's book was falling out of print and wouldn't appear again until the 1800s. It would become a notable book once more, for example in the libraries of Walter Pater and the Aesthetic movement. Perhaps Burton's definition of "banishment" as nostalgia describes much about the interior scene of the dandies and decadents of the 19th century's fin de siecle - whose top literary celebrity Oscar Wilde was and is a primary influence upon Morrissey's lyricism and, let us say, his own particular panache

Today, we switch on the radio and find the popular hits fulfilling their function: hitting our ears with catchy but unoriginal phrases, inserted samples with co-opted melodies and our own memory proves not to be a solid vinyl record with an adamantine needle - but a fluid, dentritic and complicit partner of our experience of nostalgia. The aim and development of major advertising for consumable media in the latter half of the 20th century has been directed towards the young. But I hear not 30 years of time between, as with Garland and Bowie, to press "replay" with references and rehashing - now there's only a decade. There is a parallel to Hollywood genre films and the "rebooting" of whole franchises (ex. Spider-Man, Superman, Godzilla, Robocop, etc.) where the target is as always a younger generation, but in this case it's those who might have been playing with the action figures of the earlier ('80s or '90s) franchise attempts, who are now able to get into the new and improved version without parental consent. Nostalgia as a dependable source of suggestive advertising!

I think Birkerts has it right in the quotation I've included above, especially with the phrase "experiential short-circuit." Nostalgia happens in a flash, is an association without formal cause. We experienced something in the past and identified with it. "I" am not a unity, and so the song is heard and my awareness is without, unbound by my current place and time, and lost, homeless to the present...We can imagine a man or woman of the 17th century in a carriage or on foot, leaving behind home, no, a whole world that they won't ever see again, and then years later they meet a person who sings the same bardic tune that their wet nurse sang to them, herself remembering the far away village she would never step foot in again, then the man or woman completely struck with fatigue, longing and the rootless wasting away of their energy. In actuality, it is because there isn't that breastmilk, or that mother, or that feather boa around our necks anymore. We aren't that "i" and we aren't the "i" who writes this article or posts that comment. The real question becomes:


16 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 3

For Matt R. and Thomas D.

This final post on active (re)watchings of LOST has less to say and demonstrate than the previous posts, which were recently edited with minor changes and contain a few new links to short video clips. Reflecting on what has already been written, my treatment has been in the spirit of comparative literature and ancient religion. This isn't everyone's cup of tea.When my eye takes notice of a detail, phrase or word, I am often connecting or associating it with what has come before to me - either from my university coursework, independent studies, or lifelong empirical impressions. Is this tendency to reflect an inborn ability or learned? Does it alter what I perceive, changing one thing into another? Is it necessary to interpret what one sees to "understand" LOST?

There are no keys or rather, there are many a key to many a door. Entertainment is behind most doors and it is found to be cheap, high gloss, quick and easy to obtain. Pornography is the ultimate modern entertainment because it exemplifies all of these attributes to the highest degree. The Internet is its ultimate vehicle, and any book or article on the future of global connectivity rates increasing in the next few decades ought to point this fact out and devote a meager section to addressing it. Pornography however does not lend itself to multiple readings. Its function is to illicit a physical response of sexual stimulation for the viewer and no matter how well-crafted or "artistic" it is shot or produced, one is never brought beyond the boundary drawn by its closed narrative. See the failure of the vision of pornographer Jack Horner played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Vision is occluded by the visual (Locke/Man-in-Black appearing as Locke). 

The above isn't critical interpretation, so much as common sense. If a piece of literature, film or television show instead of invoking a pleasure principle tries to address issues about the nature of knowing, the activity of human will in the world and our capability to love one another, then reading these pieces of art will be - couldn't be - otherwise than multiple and varied. I repeat, not in defense of my writing, but in supplication to the creators of all forms of art, that a closed reading is possible only if and when a form of entertainment is directly addressing the physical appetite alone. If there seems to be more, if there are passages, scenes, moments that cause you to feel or think otherwise, you are not watching from the realm of your body by itself. Your heart and your mind are also recognized, and that recognition must be responded to by an action that comes from you. I can at least say this essential thing and perhaps not much more about the division of the fandom over LOST.

I may have fallen prey to the three cardinal mistakes one can make when offering "help" to someone: Helping when help's not needed; Helping when it's just for one's own ends; Helping when you want good for another. Even if I have been given to all three or one, here however, is the final part of my soapbox stylings. One of my feet is already on the ground.

XLII. LOST as an unwieldy creation but merited achievement in its medium for our time & space

From my computer screen there is an article about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In light of the writing of these posts, already more than a few remarks have been made to me about the circumstances of the disappearance of this plane and the initial setup for LOST . I put aside the resemblance because it's only a joke. My piece has been to say "Some folk just had to go back." With kinder hearts placed before our words we'd express concern for the 239 passengers whose lives have temporarily vanished off the radar screens of our world. But the words of the news are taken almost just as literally as the details of an invented story for us. Making it into the butt of our jokes is an ample way of avoiding real conversation about the event or to cover the fact that one hasn't anything thoughtful to say about it. "Those people are really lost" is all one can truly say.

On another tab, I have an article written by Damon Lindelof for The Hollywood Reporter about the ending of Breaking Bad written in October of last year. He does something sincere in admitting that while he was sitting down to talk about his reaction to the end of the show, the end of his own show remained with him. Lindelof talks about an "unhealthy obsession" with his finale. He indicates that he can't help but mention the feeling he had while involved in the writing process, says he felt "alive." Writing LOST was an experience for him as much as it was for the viewers. The necessary distance he wants to give between the show he wrote and Vince Gilligan's series is impossible because of an unavoidable association between them. The comments below his article are as long of a meandering shallow stream of praising, bickering and everything in-between as any other example of "dialogue."

Here, in an interview with Lindelof conducted a year later by John Lagomarsino for "On The Verge" on his co-writing  of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus, the focus shifts subtly. It becomes an honest and revealing conversation about his legacy of LOST, the finale, the fan reactions, all with references and examples given by Lindelof for the benefit of any viewers. Take a moment to view the 24-minute, 39-second clip if you haven't already.


The central point Lindelof makes is about impact. "Did you love The X-Files?" he asks John. John loved the show. "What did you think about the ending?" John cannot remember because "it was so long ago." Lindelof shows that he doesn't remember not because the ending was good or bad, but because it was not impactful. Lindelof reiterates a revealing statement he has made elsewhere about the arc of his show up until season 3. From that season's end forward, when there was a finite amount of episodes contractually agreed upon and the story lines were drawn out, all interviews and publications containing his and Cuse's answers to questions about the end of the show being solvency for the series mysteries would be, as predicted, sure to disappoint.

What is hard to say as a writer is that the most assured way of satisfying your audience is by touching them viscerally, in the body. Mind games have a short-lived appreciation once figured out and overly sympathetic or melodramatic performance is hard to bear. How you go about striking balance between the head, heart and hand is where interesting and compelling things are situated and where there lives some quality of a thing that all creators receive from since time immemorial. It makes them feel alive and it answers the ringing call of life by life's own voice. It's about the nature of being (ontology), and we aught to take up caution in our thoughts and actions to seriously consider what Geoffrey Hill's lament that "the greatest tragedy of the last 60 years has been the extinction of the ontological reader" means for us all, not just for poetry in English.

My lady and I watched the finale, and my last viewing of LOST has been completed.

Asked later what she thought, she said "I thought they'd take it in a different direction."





IV, VIII, XV, XVI, XXIII, XLII

09 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 2

Hello again. My last post took into consideration the circumstantial factors that went into bringing LOST to light. It also considered the personal experience of watching the show by this writer, who shared it with other viewers over the last 3 seasons. I continue my main proposal that by re-watching the series actively, one gains a new layer of interpretation and earns a critical re-appraisal of the show's structure, form and even fashions a skeleton key of sorts for all it's unanswered questions! Well, perhaps it won't go that far...

This post is dedicated to Alex K., who is looking for answers.

XVI. LOST as a novel-film that approaches/attempts to walk the seam between literature and the cinematic arts in the early 21st century

I began to compose notes once I started my second viewing of the series. I was motivated by the intensity of the reactions to the ending, because it was big. That was the question I needed to answer - why these equal extremes of disdainful hate and passionate praise? I was not so much left with a feeling of being cheated or having had been lead into a corner with Cuse and Lindelof's writing - indeed, as a student of literature I saw themes and familiar story lines that have graced pages under the nose of humanity for centuries. This was what was so perplexing: with decades of television at our fingertips and centuries of texts with recurrent relationships and forms of stories from numerous cultures available, what kept fans from seeing LOST in a disinterested way? It would certainly help lower one's blood pressure and give oneself an opportunity to develop some objectivity in hindsight.


This is when I made some lists. Being a fan of lists, I had no trouble utilizing one for the books. Every season there was a finite amount of books shown on the show. When a book appeared it was framed, the camera lingered, or a character even directly spoke about it and/or touched it. Our first example is Kate picking up a copy of Watership Down by Richard Adams on the beach among clothes. Sawyer emerges from his morning dip in the nude and proclaims "It's about bunnies!" I rather like his exclamation, because it's deceptive. Sawyer's still a hick, a character self-conscious of the appearance he has to the other survivors (as a way of keeping advantage & distance) but he's a reader too. This appearance of Book #1 is in the first episode we get of his flashbacks, episode 8, "Confidence Man," the title itself which can be taken as a literary reference to Herman Melville's novel of the same name. On the other hand, Sawyer's "commentary" on Watership Down could be a young man or woman's take on the entire book after it was assigned to read in school and they hadn't even opened the cover page by the time the book report was due. A different person, an attentive viewer, might ask about connections between the episode and the novel, that is, if one had indeed read the book or is in fact reading the book alongside the show. Very demanding, yes?

Books insinuate themselves throughout the series. Some books are only the titles of episodes, such as above, as with "Exodus","A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Little Prince." My list however was not comprised of those books, but of books handled by characters in frame. Some correspondences stood out: Dostoevsky is the only author on the list twice with The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground; Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is the only book to have appeared in an episode in which the book is also the episode's title; and Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle and Lancelot by Walker Percy are the only books to reappear together and with the original person who handled them: our reader, Sawyer.

There's something more to a facile list of books appearing on LOST. Each book has its own theme, narrative and many other structures which comprise its form. Each episode, each season and the whole series also has these very same things but to a higher degree of complexity and inter-relation. Plenty of shows don't even bother with displaying the reader and his relationship with books, but this is central to all literate human activity, and essential even to watching television. With television or screen narratives usurping a greater part of the attention that was once placed on the page, LOST's goal or moral modus operandi seems to be in hindsight to strike a visual balance between page/screen. One could argue further that the entire series is nothing more than an attempt at pushing viewers back upon themselves in some honest self-reflection. No wonder Sawyer's favorite television show is Little House on the Prairie.

LOST's writing was very successful in combining multiple genres to the delight and dismay of the public. It encompasses and pursues plot lines as a murder mystery, a science/fiction story, a tale of horror & suspense, an adventure, a psychological drama, even includes a buddy cop scenario, a hospital soap, a comedy, multiple romances and a few drug trips for good measure. All common forms of narrative over the past several hundred years of public reading since Gutenberg's printing press are covered. This range and multitude is staggering. The writers paced it out among characters for six seasons and that's quite an accomplishment with relatively few new inclusions. In doing so LOST becomes thinned out, strained and stretched too far on many occasions, and the ratings history reflect these changes. But I cannot find an example in television (perhaps only in Chris Carter's The X-Files or Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation) that approaches and attempts to walk this seam of literature and the cinematic arts in our present time as LOST does. To put it plainly, nothing on TV has tried to sum up our collective story making history as the web spun by LOST. In order to avoid any network or fandom disappointment, we might not see one again for awhile. The most successful television shows are formulaic, predictable, take few risks, make few changes in cast and character, depicting a continuity of setting, situation and style. Mutable forms are shunned or end up surrounded by "cult" followings, as this show has with those fans it hasn't lost and most likely will with new viewers in decades to come.



XXIII. LOST as a mythic-religious epic made of the eternally repeating archetypes that have been with humanity since before art, history or literature

I paused again after seeing the series a third time. I was caught up in taking notes and found myself needing to put them down to immerse myself in the feelings displayed by characters and my feelings of their inter-relationships. There was so much struggle, such stubbornness, a lot of humor, sadness beyond sadness, joys shot out of cannons like fireworks, injustice and cruelty - and those unanswered questions. To be sincere, my utmost unresolved mystery is the nature of the Horace/Jacob cabin. But when I just stayed with the show, really tried to put myself in the position of the characters, I had experiences that were transcendent of my own subjectivity. Great literature does this and the greatest stories have remained with us in the form of epic narratives. But to be one's own witness to this process with audial and visual stimuli is something one does not receive from pages, but from film and television. It is more likened to rituals and dances of older cultures. The imagination cannot paint the picture which words suggest, because that relationship is not present. On the screen before our eyes, it's all provided for. The imagination is thereby rendered inactive or non-participant in forming an impression. The responsibility of the creators becomes fundamentally important again.

Jerry Mander is correct in stating that the rigidity of television does not allow for it to be a democratic instrument in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The bandwidth is very narrow, and the Internet is really not much broader. Mander's concern is from a socially determined point of view. He believes that the content is a reduction and the constant slogans, advertising and programs have liquified any quality down to a nearly innutritious pulp. This then informs the way a person acts and behaves in the world. Can television provide something directly to and for a human being that does not make them more susceptible to such autocratic control? These concerns are still valid because the medium has not changed much at all (just picture quality, which is a factor of quantity, of pixels) and we're seemingly none the wiser despite Mad Men and any insight that show offers on the mechanics of advertising.

What could be valuable today is a television show which is self-referential about this potentially harmful influence. If it were to do this, the writers would need to cast a much wider net over their source material and likewise expose their viewers to a higher degree of philosophical and ethical problems which would also be present in the show. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Berkeley, Bentham - the names are there and the true owners of these signifiers were writers and thinkers orbiting the social transformation of the Enlightenment. It was one of the first things I picked up on when I began the show and if any freshman in a liberal arts college was also watching the first season, she would too.

So what do we do with this? It's a cud to chew on for the first few seasons and then we start getting this Jacob character, Richard Alpert, Hawking, Faraday, Lewis, Dogen. More names and more associations - now spiritual, now scientific. The names do two things for us: they give us a real world anchor in whatever region the show's narrative structure has moved into and paradoxically pushes us out of the show and into discussion when the show's episode has ended. This works on the viewer much like the literary references. Even before literature was written down and disseminated by symbols, the issues which are brought up because of the names and the ideas surrounding them were passed down in oral traditions which graced or continue to grace all cultures the world over as mythology. As a commentary on how our society continues to think about and act out the results of our current linear events, LOST succeeds in isolating the main arguments: fate, destiny, free will, determinism, sacrifice, forgiveness, remembrance of the dead, and self-awareness. The last is distinctly Eastern in its origins, and ever since we see a bagua with the word "DHARMA" inside of it at the Swan Station, the correlations and differences between our world's two dominant hemispheres of civilization are also brought together.

The stories are always the same: the lovers whose love is unrequited; the genius whose downfall is his own ingenuity; the outcast whose true place is in the center of all activity - these archetypes play out the philosophical and ethical quandaries which have plagued and continue to plague the whole of history. Reconciliation of the opposites and establishing growth instead of degradation are the oldest narratives these archetypes play/live within. Jacob and his brother's roles are that of the narrative maker (the tapestry) and the game player (the Senet board). All the initial problems are shown as clear as that island light in "Across the Sea." At the end of the series LOST makes room for the utmost expression: that of the principal of renewal (or grace) which responds to the causes (or gravity) of the creation of the universe. Renewal and return to the source lies in the seedbed of all religious and mythic teachings. Giving of one's Self without seeking reward is the surest path toward this renewal (Jack) and doing so until one's physical death means putting your Self in the shoes of the Other (Hurley). Transcendence is the only true end which justifies the means of one's experience - all else is folly, as Joseph Campbell and the early 20th century mythologists taught (who do not go unaccounted for as an influence upon the writers c.f. the special features of S6 on DVD or Blu-ray). Take particular notice how many times the word "experience" is uttered in Season 6 and by whom. The game only ends once, but it is played by and through many.

What a massive undertaking of a storyline crafted in a post-9/11, war-plagued and severely dialogue-deprived world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century! What happens when we take into our hearts and cogitate with our minds the implications of such a narrative with such a deep focus? The way we live our lives may even be impacted by such force and resonance with this strange substance LOST leaves behind. It might even be the kind of television that need not be eliminated. Wait - can such a story be eliminated? Rituals, dances and rites of initiation tell the story of origins and actually inscribe these on flesh or in the memory - as if one inhabits but for a moment, that real space where all live eternally.

End of Part II

04 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part I

To post a brief interlude from my current train of thought on education and the question of reading our Western tradition in light of the present, I give you Part 1 of an article bridging quite a unique gap between today and March of 2011. It was then that I wrote this article highlighting the differences and strange similarities between the forms in the narrative structure of Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue and the television show created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof (the latter who then continued to spearhead the show's direction with Carlton Cuse). This new post culminates after years of study and note-taking during re-watches of LOST that concerned friends & loved ones who sat down with me have witnessed. May their care for my mental well-being be either rightfully justified or pleasantly relieved by my writing below.

IV. The numbers

I'm finishing up my fourth time watching LOST in toto. The number four is a number of beginning. 4 lines create a square, 4 appendages of the human being, and 4 is the first numeral in the sequence synonymous with the series, which I've discovered is painted in white on a shutter off 2nd Avenue and 14th St last night in the East Village. It was strange, amusing and also telling, "pushing" me on in a way to write this article. Here is a photo of the sequence:




As viewers we come to know each candidate for Jacob's position was allotted a number. Four is John Locke's number. As the episodes of the final season become increasingly intense, full of steadily rising risks, attacks & counter-attacks, revealing plot advances made both on the island and in "the City of Angels," one simultaneously comes to the end and the beginning. As Jin states to Sawyer in Season 6, "that thing is not John Locke," and one character's end has dovetailed into another's (re)birth when Ajira Flight 316 doesn't make it to Guam. 

Locke is number 4. A square without one of its lines is a triangle, or 3. Flight 815 and Flight 316 are uniquely different. Eloise Hawking said to Jack in Season 5 that if the conditions weren't exactly reproduced for their return to the island, the outcome would be "unpredictable." We see that only one number of the sequence is represented in the flight designation - it is off or lopsided. 3 is not 4, and "the Man in Black" is not Locke. The above is an example of critical interpretation which shows through the writing Locke's replacement before the MiB's masquerade is revealed at the end of the season.

Not every answer which is given by the writers either outright, subtly with "easter eggs" or in the minute details of dialogue, can be divined this way. Much was discovered by the writers themselves as they wrote. This completely disagrees with what some might call a binding contract between the creators and the viewers to be omniscient in their roles, but there it is in the link from an interview with Cuse and Lindelof in 2008. A lot more has to be reasoned and turned over on one's own or with others in open discussion, as one would in a college course or in a voluntary book club. The record of the enjoyment fans took away with them while they spoke to each other as the show was airing remains on The Fuselage, on the special features of the DVDs & Blu-Ray copies, and on assorted pages of the Internet.

However, when our own experience shows that there is a lie in the statement that democratic conversation over the Internet is one of its inherent virtues, we cannot be fooled. As I mention in my post from 2011, the dividing line between fans as to the resolution of the series is a wide and deep gulf. My proposal below suggests a different avenue to understanding what happened (or happens) in the experience of watching this landmark television series. If you have left those discussion boards far behind, know that I don't intend on sending you back to them - they are almost totally inactive anyhow!

VIII. Active watching

I propose here that to appreciate the structure and form of LOST, one must at least make it through 4 active watchings. If it is of any merit to devote the 348 hours (or two solid weeks of one's life) by watching the series four times over, it can't be done passively, or, without one's attention upon the way the show is over the way the show could have been. This is not to say that it can always be watched actively. Viewing the series 4 times ensures that the character arcs and plots are known in detail, key dialogue exchanges are known word for word and the function of each season which displays the form of the series is known to the intellect itself, i.e. without having to refer to Lostpedia via Google, etc.

Some details can and will be forgotten - these details are where we take into consideration the lack of a finer energy or power of the story to impress itself upon us. These are places where we can make a critical statement about the quality of the writing. However, each watching can and would ideally give a person enough time and opportunity to enjoy the series, give the series its proper attention, work through their own subjective biases and allow for finer points of focus to come to light, so that what is valuable about the show can shine for itself. One watches and listens and changes one's own faculty of those senses - each time, a new paradigm in a sound that went unnoticed or a scene that finally made some sense in its relationship to the whole. 

The nature of the construction of the series, with its discontinuous narrative and abrupt sea changes, demands that one must pay attention. Otherwise, you're bemused, confused, frustrated and rationalizing your own feelings upon the construction. Why this and not this!?!? LOST wasn't farted out of one person - it was breathed into life from the mouths and minds of a writing staff that pulled from a myriad of sources and influences, both autobiographical (i.e. experiential) and via their own critical readings of other texts, shows, histories, etc. The strong fan base that grew and changed also spoke directly to the writers and influenced the very shape of the show. Even if you didn't participate in that collective voice, you can still benefit from creating your own inner commentary on LOST. An outline of each proposed viewing with a possible focus for your active watching could look like this:

XV. LOST as an ABC television series airing from 2004-2010 in a primetime slot

Taken into consideration, LOST came onto television during a tough time for its network and in a changing landscape for shows running on regular networks. The success of HBO, Showtime and other cable networks to raise unprecedented viewer ratings and collect many a statue at award ceremonies had ABC (the number 4 network at the time) pining for renewal. The unlikely story seems to be covered recently by another more succinct writer than myself, Alan Sepinwall, in his new book The Revolution Was Televised. An excerpt from his book on LOST's inception and first season can be read here. Damon Lindelof's mental and emotional instability as he took on the brunt of the responsibility for the show should be noted, as the title of the article suggests.

As for my own approach to the show, the first three seasons on DVD were brought before me by Matthew Thomas Ross of Portland, Oregon's Neighborhood Films in 2007. The fourth season was about to premiere and I had just entered a period of concentrated, intentional absence from university. I was reading books I wanted to read, writing poetry rather than papers, walking in the forest, enjoying every sip of tea, and letting what came to me attain my acceptance. And so, having not been involved in watching a television show regularly in quite some time, I was interested by Matt's description of the show and tentatively took up my first viewing. I have Matt to thank for every time I watch, feel, think or write about LOST. After the end of Season 1, I was completely engaged and wished to commit to the other two seasons before the first episode of Season 4. It was a marathon: 3 seasons in 2 weeks.

Thenceforward, having avoided the hoopla of time-slot changes by ABC (but not the Writer's Strike to come) I took a seat with Matt and other fellow Losties each night a new episode was aired. We all nursed theories over the "mysteries" of the show. I followed the details and thin threads as close as anyone could, and read much more into them than was probably there. What shined brightest though were the characterizations and the evolutions of the exercise (or withholding) of emotions, thoughts and will power on the island. Even unto this day where the last episode awaits my lady and I, who has yet to see "The End" either to her satisfaction or disappointment, it's the characters and their relationships that cause stirrings from my heart to well-up and out of me in the form of laughter, anger - or tears. Imagining, empathizing with, or responding to their situations of love, fear, betrayal, surprise, are all activities that require no critical acumen or learned insight to appreciate. This is the basis of all further appreciation, and I return to it comfortably after either championing the series or voicing my misgivings.

End of Part I

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For the Observatory's Grand Opening