"Lost" In Translation: Of Mice and Smoke Monsters

 I don’t think he’s gonna pull through…

When I was in 4th grade the rock group Three Dog Night had this huge hit with “Black and White,” which found a maddeningly tuneful way to reduce the world’s racial/social conflicts, the very headwaters all the non-tea tax-caused wars in world history, into a child’s singalong:

The ink is black/the page is white/together we learn to read and write…

Even as a 10-year-old I could sense that this was far too simplistic an analysis; that it offered limp platitudes rather than tough moral choices; that it might inspire Paul McCartney, ten years hence, to rewrite it and score an even bigger hit out of the arguably more dreadful, “Ebony and Ivory.

Only what I didn’t foresee was that 20 years after that, “Lost” would take up the same issue (albeit not in racial terms) and present a far more complex and entirely compelling version of the age old manichean struggle: White v black; community v independence; fate v self-determination; good v evil.

No matter where you look, it’s the same story: Stark distinctions; impossible choices; because you can never really tell what is good and what is bad, and why certain acts that seem like unalloyed evil might, in fact, be truly just and even merciful.

So when Sawyer, in seemingly idle talk with the NotLocke/Smoke Monster/Man in Black during a jungle stroll starts musing on John Steinbeck’s “Of MIce and Men, sit up and take notice. And realize that what what you’re about to see in the cave they’re heading for tells you as much about “Lost”‘s core themes as it does about the relevance of the notorious numbers and a glimmer of a hint about why the Losties were ever drawn to the island, and then all but forced to remain there.

All from the Man in Black/Smokey perspective. Which, as it turns out, makes some sense.

Central plot reveals: 

Jacob, who long since won the role of Island caretaker/boss/spiritual headwaters, chose/nurtured each Lostie in their pre-island lives, somehow pushing/compelling them to the point where they would all be on that Oceanic #815.

Each number was a signifier for an individual Lostie. If they signified something more profound (a top forty?) we don’t know yet.

Argument for greater significance: Jacob was cultivating each Lostie as a potential substitute/replacement for him when he either retired, went on vacation, or got stabbed to death and then shoved into a campfire.

Someone brought an Iggy Pop record to the Island.

The non-island/alternative “Losties,” left to their own devices in the good old US of A, seem far more successful, less angry and (to coin a phrase) fucked up than their Island-bound alter-egos. Hurley is a successful businessman; Locke, albeit wheelchair bound, is in a warm relationship with Helen and, by the end of this episode, finding new meaning as a substitute (!!!!!) teacher; Ben, also a teacher, satisfies his bossy nature by kvetching about other teachers’ unwillingness to start a new pot of coffee even when they finish the old one; etc. etc.

The deep end analysis, from God to mice, comes in the jump….

But what does all of this mean in a larger, philosophical sense, which we can’t even pretend to ignore given how perpetually the “Lost” creators come back to the whole question of philosophy, literature and etc.

Community vs. individuality; fate vs. self-determination, and the elusive nature of both. Consider how Jacob represents the essence of community – the “either we live together or we die alone” ideal. To him the only thing that truly matters is the island, a kind of headwaters of communal life, which must be protected and perpetuated at all costs. The individual lives of the Losties mean nothing in comparison (consider that Jacob’s touch all but guaranteed lives of darkness and dysfunction for the Losties, often to the point of psychotic-caliber chilliness; e.g., he distracted Sayid at the precise moment his beloved Nadia was headed into the path of the truck that killed her.) The irony here is that by attempting to take control of their fates (Locke on his walkabout; Jack taking control of his father’s body; Clare’s attempt to remove her child from her life) the Losties were actually surrendering to their Jacob-ascribed fate.

Oh, but that’s the larger purpose, you say. That’s fate and meaning and a universe whose seemingly random events are actually part of a real and meaningful pattern described by a supreme being in front of whom we can only kneel. See also: world religion and/or Grateful Dead fans.

But what if the God in question – and his entire sense of meaning – is totally wack? This is where NotLocke/MiB/etc slaps all of us pretty hard in the kisser, as he tells Sawyer near the end of the hour:

“You’ve got three choices. You can do nothing and see how all this plays out, and possibly your name will get crossed out. (e.g., you’ll be killed). Second option: you can accept the job, become the new Jacob, and protect the island.”

Sawyer: “From what?”

Not Locke/MiB: “From nothing. That’s the joke. There’s nothing to protect it from. It’s just a damn island. It will be perfectly fine without jacob or you or anyone else whose lives he wasted. The third choice is that we just go. Get the hell off this island and keep going, and not look back.”

In other words: Die together or live apart.

MiB/Smokey/NotLocke, in other words, is something of an existentialist. What matters is his own safety/comfort/imediate surroundings. Beyond that it’s all superstition and self-delusion. Consider NotLocke’s outrage at the mystery jungle boy (seemingly a vision of the yonger Jacob)’s assertion that he could NOT bring the rules: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Sound familiar? And wasn’t it interesting to see how peaceful the alterna-Locke back in the USA appeared when he finally did resign himself to what he couldn’t do?

So maybe there’s a certain amount to be said to taking what you’ve been handed and finding a way to make the best of it. To understand that there is power in acceptance. That it can be pointless to struggle. That when the lynch mob is headed your way (ala Steinbeck) the only righteous thing you can do is shoot your best friend in the back of the head and get the hell out of Dodge.

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