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

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For the Observatory's Grand Opening